With the advent of our Srividyalaya teaching initiative (www.srividyalaya.com) I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last year reading and learning, contemplating and even talking about the histories of yoga. There’s no history of thethingsthatreallyhappened but there is something like evidence, stories. People aren’t factual truths so much as what they can create as their narrative: people are the stories they tell about themselves and about others. Human beings don’t get outside their own narratives much less to ultimate truths about
maythegodsforbid Ultimacy. Yoga’s practitioners tell their story. Scholars tell us these narrative truths reveal matters to be treated as facts. [Insert irony] Truth is, it’s all more round ‘bout than this. The facts are narratives that reveal more narratives. I’m not telling you that there aren’t facts, only that there’s never a fact without a story, another narrative and another one about it.
I spend a lot of time with difficult primary sources in Tamil and Sanskrit as well as modern scholarship, much of it serious, learned, and, as we might also expect, heartless. I don’t mean that scholarship is without passion but I am pretty convinced it tries to be heartless. Even when rigor appears to use principle as an antidote to feeling anything at all it is more often in the service of professional honesty than it is a tool meant to diminish the experiences of advocates. Those experiences of the advocates, say in our case, the yogins of the past, you, me, the data base etc. are, after all, the subject. But scholarship in order to be genuine needs to be indifferent to the feelings of those it might offend, even in the arena of subjects like yoga where personal experiences are irrefragable by definition. No one can tell people what they feel or experience much less deny it. Taking people to heart isn’t the same as sharing their beliefs, agreeing or disagreeing. It’s listening. Explaining is harder than recording the evidence because, well, we never get ourselves out of the story.
When I began the study of Tantra both personally and professionally, I knew there was no pleasing everyone. Sometimes I think there’s no pleasing anyone but I’m okay with that too. Being displeased is conducive to productive scholarship and, as I see it, it’s an even better way to become a more interesting and empowered yogin. Nothing strikes me as more stultifying, more frightening, or more boring than certainty or those who believe they’ve attained it. Yogas that talk about achieving certainty, final, lasting, unchanging Truth are about making assertions of experience. I couldn’t know if what was said was True because I can’t fathom that Truth is a fact. Truth is a plural narrative, a listening job that involves other story-tellers. I can’t tell the Truth Ultimacy Oh Yeah We Know Spiritual Experiencer Sorts that they are wrong but the only thing I am sure is right is that they tell me so.
When I began my involvement in Yoga Tantra with my Appa I was also on the path to professional scholarship. To stand as “outside” as I needed to portray myself as a scholar I could never have found out what was “inside.” In Tantric traditions practitioners will reveal only to other initiates, insiders only need apply. Sir John Woodroffe, who never claimed to be a professional scholar (he was a British judge in Bengal in the early 20th century), opened up worlds of Tantra. It’s fair to say too that he not only mixed but also mixed up the worlds of scholar and practitioner. Fair enough, I suppose. Scholars today ignore him, criticize his non-scholarly authority, treat his work as a quaint well-meaning colonial amateur: but the point is that he isn’t taken seriously. There is serious work, non-serious (this means not approved) work
like this blog, and data (this means books, history, people, evidence) to be studied b ut only what’s deemed serious enough. That about covers the scholarly categories. Non-serious need not apply. So there’s a clear line between worlds, supposedly different narrative voices. But Woodroffe had something right: he knew, perhaps instinctively, that there was no outside, no inside, only a narrative. He had the temerity to live his life in multiple worlds and to tell his story. That was big stuff in his era. Nowdays not so much. But that photo offset of Sir John standing in a dhoti before the Sun temple at Konarak inspired me as an eighteen year old to enter the Tantric’s narrative for myself.
In the 1970s I knew had to enter the world of shamans in order to study them. I leapt only after I met my teacher because in him I found a person I could respect and trust. With him, I could participate in a narrative that I knew would change my life in every way for the better. But unlike Carlos Castaneda who found it impossible to ford the worlds of practice and scholarship--- leaving us with books that read more like fantasies than the diaries they purport to be --- my own Don Juan understood in himself the same dilemma I faced as a public scholar and private practitioner. My Appa was Professor of Sanskrit at Madurai-Kamaraj University in south India and his own solution was to confine his scholarly writings to subjects that didn’t involve himself or the traditions of Shrividya, Auspicious Wisdom. When he agreed to study living Shrividya in any public way we knew we had crossed the line.
Scholarship has long submitted to its own versions of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy it believes spares readers from the tyrannies of personal advocacy by sacrificing at the altar of Joe Friday, the Detective Deity, the One who Sticks to Just the Facts, Ma’am. Historians of the yoga traditions as humanities scholars mean to make themselves invisible to the work, to uncover the case without judgments of value or worth, not to feel or experience what is being advocated but to restate what’s been said, where and when, as if they were forensic archeologists of language, observers uncovering history’s bones, and making models of flesh. The problem, as I see it, is that too often these flesh-like models are all too plastic, reconstructions that claim too much resemblance to the real thing without living among the living. When the usual levels of disclaimer are set in motion about how little we know and how much more there is, we have arrived at the obligatory, scholarship’s nitya-karma --- I have never read a scholarly article that claims it is comprehensive enough, long enough, boring enough (were you still reading?), or that whatever the subject is won’t take forever to be even ever so slightly better imperfectly understood as in never yo. These CYAisms take on the familiar odor of the prana-free environment of a “conference” or published lucubration. Yawn. Yes, we are inadequate; yes, we are happy to diminish one another in the name of honest disagreements about this and that. Nothing personal. Never. It’s about the truth. Sure. Careers rise and fall, cresting on these waves of professional approval or criticism. Few are the least bit affected but those inside insular professional worlds and that means that scholarship in my field largely changes nothing about lives outside the academy.
It didn’t feel good to write that sentence but it’s the story. Nothing personal, mind you. If you are lucky enough to have academic tenure it means you can write about it like this.
Prol’lem is there’s nothing not personal about studying yoga or even studying about yoga history or texts: if you bring yourself outside enough, to the scholarly island of objective sanctity there is the peril that, well, you can only report the facts and they have little to do with people. Far more interesting to watch a few seasons of Lost. But really: how did the human beings, the yogins compiling their ritual liturgies practice a given ritual? A trip to any church on Sunday will tell you that the liturgy even within traditions of The
Any Book (be it Bible or, say, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) isn’t really what people do, much less do such texts offer understandings or interpretations that are somehow self-evident. What people say, what they say they do, and what they do is never quite the same, much less the story. There’s a new law in New Jersey about this. Eye-witness testimony and the like. More revelations from The Promised Land.
For a great deal of yoga there’s also no way to get inside enough, at least not at this point in history. Much of “Kashmir Shaivism” and its legacy, for example, are no longer living with more than written sources and when if then yeah sure okay you know some living traditionalists what they can represent is their experience and their interpretations. These reports are, of course, True but there’s no getting back to Then much less to The. When people say this or that is what Abhinavagupta meant or what he did, they are talking about themselves, they are representing words. I’m not claiming such a thing is the least bit disingenuous, be it from the voice of the scholar or the practitioner. What I’m saying instead is that the heart of the matter is that you can’t learn all that much without the hearts involved. Scholars can’t re-create what they can’t experience and what they study are experiences conveyed as stories. Modern yogins, the other side of the experience coin, can claim experience tells them so but that’s all they got. Who’s credible? Now that’s a word about having heart. Credo, credential, shraddha in Sanskrit, all cognate words, words about the heart, like courage of course. What counts as creds? We always need to ask.
Indian tradition has been so deeply committed to aurality, to listening and learning in personal transmission, and to the creativity of learning through memory, voice, and explications of experience that books are the least reliable sources for our understanding what yogins have thought, felt, or done. Our culture makes us believe that if it isn’t written it isn’t real but ancient India took the other view. Writing something down grants the least amount of credibility, be it Veda or Tantra. Hindus call their “scriptures” shruti, which means hearing or revealed by listening and smrti, which means remembered. None of the other important terms like agama, yamala, and tantra, as well as bhashya and other words for commentaries mean to prioritize the power of writing, none are etymologized involving the Sanskrit verb “to write.” Sure, there was plenty of composition; works that could only have been written and studied as books but the book is not the source. Never. As the Heart of the Yogini Tantra puts it, matters are learned “from ear to ear,” which suggests that it is what we hear and remember that is truth shared and transmitted. The very concept of “orthodoxy” in the literal sense of “correct words” means that: something that has been assimilated into an experience from an experience through words but never as words, at least not written ones. I’m notnotnot saying that truth is beyond words or that there is a/some/any/whatever Truth beyond words. But rather that truth is experiences conveyed, sometimes in words and with words and as for written ones, meh.
So “orthodoxy” when we study Yoga-Tantra is a practice--- some one’s practice--- not the book even when words were written. It’s fair I think to assume that all written accounts are by definition partial records of experiences and that there’s something about experiences that remain inaccessible except to the person having them. What counts more than the orthodoxy, the correct words is the heart, these collections of human memories, hearts experiencing with each other.
Every generation of yogins has reinvented truth as experiences even when it asserts the sameness of some or another realization. We no more have each other’s experiences than books can convey them. Historical scholarship conceals its heart from itself not to be disingenuous to its task but to maintain its professional edifice, even its substance. Practitioners can add their voices, their words, even their books to the creativity of tradition but no one of them can be more right than another, much less wrong save in the ways they talk to each other contesting indisputable personal experiences. If we try to be scholars or practitioners or both, tradition reveals we too will be no different. We are not only the story we tell, we become stories because we tell them.
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