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The Ethereal, Exotic and Erotic in the Yogic Art of India

The Ethereal, Exotic and Erotic in the Yogic Art of India

By Jenny Lenore Rosenbaum

Transcendence, awakening, enlightenment – grand, often intimidating terms that seek to express what is fundamentally ineffable: union with the Divine and the cosmos, which themselves are one. Among the most haunting works in the stunning exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (through May 25) is a painting of an indigo-hued Vishnu Vishvarupa (from around 1800). His body girded with a golden robe, his four arms hold the symbols of lotus, scepter, shell and cosmic circle.

The deity’s blazing face and erect body embody and encompasses all of existence. One eye embraces the sun, the other cradles the moon. Hellish snakes and fires are inscribed on his legs while images of heavenly bliss fill his chest. The deity contains within himself all that exists, and his being infuses all – epitomizing the mystical attainment of oneness.

In over 100 works that span more than two millennia – from the 2nd to the 20th centuries — the exhibit reveals how artists of India sought to embody this inexpressible state, the one attained by Gautama Buddha when, after reaching Enlightenment, he defeated the suffering embedded in human existence. At the core, it is extraordinary that artists would be so brazen – or impassioned – to attempt to express, through form itself, what is essentially formless and invisible. Equally amazing is that they accomplished this using such a cornucopia of styles and iconographic elements.

It is intriguing to contrast Islam’s shunning of any human representation of the Divine — forbidden because the Source, all-knowing Allah, transcends such visualization and, in fact, would be defiled by it — with the irrepressible urge, in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions, to visualize spiritual empowerment in human form.

And it was yoga, in collaboration with meditation, that became the interfused, empowering vehicles for reaching nirvana. They became the exit strategy through which seekers could plot their escape route from the cycles of bodily degradation, mental torment and emotional vulnerability to which humans are prey.

In an article entitled, Eons Before the Yoga Mat Became Trendy, art historian Holland Cotter describes yoga, in its most rarified form, as “a shattering personal revolution.” The exhibit uncovers the myriad ways – both lush and austere – that artists of India managed to embrace such a shattering: the cracking open of the heart to allow the Divine to flood in. It is, indeed, the process of making oneself irresistible to the Divine — the quest that consumed yogis (spiritual evolved beings) and yoginis (female yogis).

The exhibit’s sheer breadth, diversity and complexity are riveting. It traverses far-flung eras and dives into vast facets of Indian culture beyond the spiritual and mystical – including the political, aesthetic and sociological realms. All of this is interwoven with cross-pollinating traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sufism. Precisely targeting the birth of yoga is elusive even to scholars, but many believe its origins go back 4,000 years. But precision dating fades in importance when one beholds the exhibit’s lavishly illustrated catalogue, illuminating key aspects of yogic art and the tapestry of its cultural context.

The works were assembled from museums and private collections in India, the U.S. and Europe. Originally conceived at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (of the Smithsonian Institution), curators there approached their counterparts at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, an institution that holds a magnificent treasury of Asian art, considered one of the world’s premier collections of the arts of India, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and Java. The show, designed and materialized by Jeffrey Durham, Curator of Himalyan Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and Qamar Adamjee, Associate Curator of Himalyan Art, will complete its run at the Cleveland Museum of Art (through September 7).

On a global level, no other exhibit has ever assembled an aesthetic record of yoga’s genesis, evolution and philosophical underpinnings. Tackling this subject represents nothing less than penetrating the heart of artistic expression in India, the most concentrated spiritual locus on earth. When this realization settles in, it becomes amazing that such an exhibit was not created earlier and that its itinerary includes only three venues.

So passionate has been the diamond-sharp focus of India’s spiritual seekers that their struggle for transformation became seized upon by artists, perhaps yogis themselves? One can only wonder. The spiritual quest, translated through the sensibilities of artists working in diverse media, is manifested in a torrent of masterpieces: sculptures (of both historic and divine yogis), paintings, a 15-foot scroll depicting the chakras (the network of spiritual energy centers within the body), opaque watercolors, ancient manuscripts and Islamic divination texts.

But let’s cut to the chase. Liberation from all that ravages the soul is far too much for most mortals. The knawing reality is that arriving at this state entails an unimaginable level of not simply effort but, more accurately, giftedness — or perhaps it’s “just” an irrepressible spiritual hunger. Those rare few who get there, arriving at the wondrous top of their game, have the ultimate payoff: the go-ahead to merge the drops of their singularity into a sea of sacredness that suffuses everything that is, was and will ever be. Or so the mystics whisper.

Greeting visitors upon entry is Three Aspects of the Absolute (opaque watercolors from an 1823 folio). It eloquently encapsulates what cannot actually be encapsulated: the stages of spiritual unfolding. The first panel, a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold, symbolizing the Absolute, gives way to the next — a Brahman yogi in a lotus position. In the final panel the yogi, in the same pose, has attained awakening amidst the cosmic sea.

As this exhibition abundantly reveals, getting to this apex can be expressed through sculptural figures that are chillingly serene, even austere – a deity standing in perfect equipoise, in imperturbable symmetry. Or, this fruition can be expressed through representations of yogis and yoginis encircled, in sometimes baroque renderings, by snakes, skulls, swords and shields. A demonic entourage seems to hover, suggesting the disquieting facets of the human condition, reminding us of the transient nature of life yet assuring us that death is but a portal to eternity.

Three larger than life size yoginis were reunited in this exhibition for the first time since they first adorned an open-air 10th-century temple. They exude a voluptuousness that, to a Western viewer, might be charged with eroticism. But to a Hindu of that era and later, the erotic dimension is eclipsed by their evocations of abundance, fertility, auspiciousness, and the sacred feminine, in all its aspects.

For the gurus, saints, sages, mystics, seers, deities, prophets and bodhissatvas (those who surrender their own eternal marination in non-duality to stay on earth, guiding suffering mankind), the process could mean diving, head first, immersing the chakras in self-mortifications and austerities – subjecting themselves to torturous heat and freezing, protracted fasting, striding upon nails, hanging from trees. The historic Buddha did it, then abandoned that path when an epiphany revealed the Middle Way – between the extreme of sensual indulgence and profound asceticism (part of the renunciation movement embraced by many yogis.)

Durham, a specialist in esoteric art history and visualization practice, speaks of being surprised to discover, in the course of co-curating the show, that the first visual depictions of asanas (Sanskrit for yogic postures) derived not from Buddhist or Sanskrit writings by Hindus, as scholars would expect, but rather from a text that emerged from the Sufi tradition (the most ancient and mystical strain of Islam). Called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”), this 16th-century folio gave rise to a delicately rendered series of 10 paintings in the exhibition – adorned with calligraphic Persian script — showing the range of asana postures used by devotees.

Scholars have noticed that the depicted yogi bears a resemblance to Christ, perhaps resulting from the contemporaneous influence of Jesuit missionaries. One might speculate that the artist was drawing an analogy between Indian mystics and mystical elements of Christianity.

Also striking, Durham notes, is the fact that these asanas were not depicted in the folio until a full millennium and a half after the Indian sage, Patanjali, compiled the yoga sutras in the 2nd century A.D. A seminal figure in the yogic tradition, it was his text that systematically set forth the principles and precise means of self-liberation. The sage, considered more of a pragmatist than a mystic, makes clear that practitioners could attain not only clear minds – the fertile soil from which transcendence can blossom – but superhuman capacities such as immortality, the ability to journey to the past, and the capacity to fly.

In the exhibit is a striking Mughal era painting of a yogi soaring through the sky, with a flying princess in close pursuit. But she drops a ring into a pond below to entice the earthly king, cavorting in the water, with whom she is enamored. She straddles two worlds, as did many yogis who were courted by the political elite for their extraordinary powers.

Paradoxes abound in the quest to transcend body and mind: losing oneself in order to find oneself, becoming empty to be full, enduring mortification of the flesh as one avenue to ecstasy. The god Shiva is at once terrifying and soothing-ethereal. A curvaceous yogini offers a gentle smile but she has fangs and delicately holds a skull.

In the Mughal period of the 16th to 18th centuries, emperors, sultans and maharajas – who themselves had spiritual aspirations – held yogis in high esteem as gifted personages who could help them politically, militarily and engender prestige for their courts. This mutual respect and face-to-face contact between the politically powerful and the spiritually evolved was a rare instance of symbiosis between seemingly antithetical sectors. It evokes the role of the samurai in medieval Japan: their powerful ties to the imperial court, the influence of Buddhist philosophy and tea ceremony on samurai culture

During the British colonial period that followed the Mughal emperors, yogis were frequently perceived as barbaric creatures, freaks to be ridiculed. They also satisfied the British appetite for exoticism, an ardor for “the other” living on the far fringes of society. In the 19th-century, meticulously staged sepia studio photographs depicted them in self-mortifying poses, their visages forlorn. These images, suggesting, in more than subtle ways, intentions to humiliate, are a far cry from the august yogic presences that must have enraptured populations in eras past.

The final gallery brings yoga full circle, to its role in contemporary culture –.a potent tool, practiced by an estimated 16 million Americans and an untold number globally. Holistic spirit-mind-body benefits abound. Yoga came to have relevance and applications to everything under the sun — from heightened professional productivity to the unleashing of creative energies, enhanced interpersonal dynamics, sustained emotional balance, rejuvenated sexuality, and capacities to transcend grief, illness and death.

Indeed, in every facet of life, yoga has been promoted as a kind of antidote, par excellence, to the ravages of postmodern culture. Final images of the show are videos of some of yoga’s most revered contemporary practitioners, whose extreme asanas bear a resemblance to Cirque du Soleil contortionists, if somewhat less dionysian.

Having attained an undeniable charisma, yoga today rests solidly in the toolbox of self-help gurus. It has become a revered complement to traditional Western medicine as well as integrative (mind-body-spirit) medicine and modalities linked with the healing arts. Like practitioners from earlier centuries, teachers and students today still seek to unleash the powers of the subtle energetic body that underlies the anatomical body and engenders self-healing capacities. Durham elucidates a key relationship: “Yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body.”

In the ways it has infiltrated popular culture, one can feel a degradation of yoga from eras past — when Shiva, Vishnu and the yoginis led practitioners on thrilling spiritual odysseys. But yoga remains a transformative art. It is at once diluted yet undiluted. While superficial — in its poignant reincarnations at elite spas and upscale health clubs — its sacred aura persists. If some strands of it are devolving, others are constantly enriched by the race memory of ancient lineages and the mastery of modern practitioners. Yoga’s nectar still seeps into the chakras, rejuvenating celebrants from Bali to Brazil.

Click here to download images from the Yoga exhibition. Also included is the Yoga image caption sheet.


The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, in its inimitable way, offered an elaborate series of events to accompany the exhibition and strengthen its impact: lectures and demonstrations by master yoga teachers, panels by medical researchers and physicians influenced by yoga in their work on integrative medicine, performances by dancers and musicians whose creativity is infused with yogic practices and philosophy. At these events, abundant opportunities exist for the public and school children to interact with all the presenters.

On a daily basis, the Museum’s docents gave illuminating tours of the exhibition, based on three years studying Indian art, in its cultural and spiritual contexts. The rigors of their study included mentoring by Museum curators.

Few museums go to such lengths to transform historic art exhibits into extraordinary opportunities for personal transformation. The benefits are destined to reverberate through the intensely multi-cultural life of San Francisco, the Bay Area and beyond, richly marinating the chakras of bodily and geographic terrain for years to come.

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