The meaning of Hatha in early Hathayoga.

Author:Birch, Jason


This essay was prompted by the question of how Hathayoga, literally 'the Yoga of force', acquired its name. Many Indian and Western scholars have understood the 'force' of Hathayoga to refer to the effort required to practice it. Inherent in this understanding is the assumption that Hathayoga techniques such as pr[]n[]y[]ma (breath control) are strenuous and may even cause pain. Others eschew the notion of force altogether and favor the so-called "esoteric" definition of Hathayoga (i.e., the union of the sun (ha) and moon (tha) in the body). This essay examines these interpretations in light of definitions of hathayoga and the adverbial uses of hatha (i.e., hath[]t, hathena) in Sanskrit Yoga texts that predate the fifteenth-century Hathaprad[]pik[].

Implicit in the question posed above is the historical question of when the term hathayoga arose. There is evidence that it was used in Buddhist tantras, while it remained conspicuously absent from Saiva tantras until late works such as the Rudray[]malottaratantra. This is surprising given that the Saiva tantras are replete with much of the terminology of the Hathayoga corpus. In the medieval Vedanta and Yoga literature (written after the eleventh century), hathayoga first appeared almost always in conjunction with r[]jayoga, which, as a system of Yoga, was based more on tantric Yoga rather than P[]tarijalayoga. The rivalry between R[]ja and Hathayoga, which was expressed most vehemently in the second chapter of a text known as the Amanaskayoga (eleventh to twelfth century), was based on the contention that R[]jayoga was the superior Yoga because its methods were effortless and most efficacious, whereas Hathayoga required exertion and was superfluous. However, the rivalry was reconciled by other medieval Yoga texts, such as the Datt[]treyayogat[]stra (twelfth to thirteenth century), into a hierarchy of four Yogas (i.e., Mantra, Laya, Hatha, and R[]jayoga), and a few centuries later Sv[]tm[]r[]ma dismantled this hierarchy, in his Hathapradipik[], by melding previous Hatha and R[]jayoga systems together and by asserting that Hatha and R[]jayoga are dependent upon one another. By doing so, he created a complete system of Yoga and called it Hathayoga.

The corpus of Hathayoga texts consulted for this essay is as follows: (1)

Early texts: Amrtasiddhi of Vir[]p[]ksa (11/12th century (2)), Amaraughaprabodha (14/15th century (3)), Datt[]treyayogas[]stra (12/13th century (4)), Khecar[]vidy[bar.a] (13/14th century (5)), the original Goraksasataka (14/15th century (6)), S[bar.a]rngadharapaddhati (1363 CE (7)), Vasisthsamhit[bar.a] (12/13th century (8)), Vivekam[]rtanda (13/14th century) (including the Goraksapaddhati, the Goraksasataka, Yogam[]rtanda, and one edition of the Goraksasamhit[] (9)), Yogay[]j[]avalkya (13/14th century (10)), Yogab[]ja (14/15th century (11)).

Hathaprad[]pik[] (15th century (12))

Late texts: (13) Gherandasamhitt[] (17 /18th century (14)), Hatharatn[]val[] (17th century (15)), Hathatattvakaumud[] (18th century (16)), Sivasamhit[] (15th century (17)), Yogacint[]mani (16/17th century (18)), Yogat[]r[]val[](15/16th century (19)).

Referring to a corpus of "early Hathayoga texts" is somewhat arbitrary because some of these texts (e.g., the Vivekam[]rtatida and Vasisthasamhit[]) do not refer to their Yoga as Hathayoga. However, the Yoga techniques in these texts came to characterize Hathayoga after they were incorporated into the Hathaprad[]pik[]. The early texts are distinguished by similar teachings on asana, (20) pr[]n[]y[]ma, (21) and one or more of what eventually became the ten mudr[]s of Hathayoga. (22) Other salient features of the corpus include instruction on dietary control (mit[]h[]ra), the four stages of Yoga, (23) the satkarma, (24) and sam[]dhi. The division of the corpus into earlier and later texts is based on the probable date of the Hathaprad[]pik[], which is largely an anthology, as shown by Bouy (1994: 81-86) and Mallinson (2008: 2-3), who have identified the earlier texts by tracing the verses borrowed by the Hathaprad[]pik[].


In the nineteenth century some influential Indologists defined Hathayoga according to their understanding of the root hath as referring to force or violence, (25) which is in keeping with both P[]nini's Dh[]tup[]tha (26) and the Amarakosa (27) The force or violence of Hathayoga was seen as the "self-violence" of extreme asceticism, and so, in the St. Petersburg Miner-buck, Hathayoga was defined as "a form of Yoga which includes great self-torturing." (28) In the same vein Monier-Williams (1899: 1287) gave a more elaborate explanation:

[It is] a kind of forced Yoga ... treated of in the Hatha- prad[]pik[] by Sv[]tm[]r[]ma and performed with much self-torture, such as standing on one leg, holding up the arms, inhaling smoke with the head inverted &c. Monier-Williams confounded Hathayoga with various extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the pur[]nas, (29) but not at all in the corpus of Hatha texts used for this study. Their omission from these texts is significant because, if such practices had been part of Hathayoga, one would expect to see descriptions or at least some mention of them, since these texts provide extensive instruction on practice. Nor can it be said that the Hatha texts describe Hathayoga as a practice that causes pain or affliction to the practitioner. Monier-Williams' definition of Hathayoga appears to have been influenced by recent traditions of S[]dhus and Sanny[]sins who have combined certain Hathayogic practices with extreme forms of tapas and consider the two synonymous. (30)

This view of Hathayoga as self-violence continued into the twentieth century and can be seen in various Indological works. (31) For example, in the Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts at the British Library, Windisch and Eggeling (1887-1935: 600) define the Hathayoga of the Hothaprad[]pik[] as "the subduing of worldly desires by violent means." However, most Western scholars known for their work on Yoga have not defined Hathayoga as self-torture, but have tended to understand its "force" or "violence" in terms of the effort required to practice it. Weston Briggs (1938: 274) believed that hatha signified hard, extreme, or strenuous discipline, and Mircea Eliade (1958: 228) rendered Hathayoga as "violent effort." Similar interpretations have persisted in modern scholarship where translations such as "exertion-yoga" (Larson 2009: 492), a "very strenuous" method (Gupta 1979: 180), and "a method of violent exertion" (White 1996: 5) have appeared in recent years, as well as the more ambiguous "yoga of forceful suppression" (Lorenzen, 1987: 214).

Modern scholarship on Hathayoga has also been influenced by a common prejudice that Jean Filliozat (1991: 375) described as follows:

The Indian yogin or fakir is still looked upon with suspicion: half-ascetic, half-conjurer, he lives on the credulity of the masses who are mesmerised by his awe-inspiring self-mortification, irrespctive of whether it is genuine of affected, and by his extraordinary tricks. This prejudice fostered the view of Hathayoga as a degenerate descendant, as it were, of Patanjali's "proper" school of Yoga, which was regarded as the pinnacle of Yoga's development; its pure, lofty philosophical achievement far overshadowing what Hathayoga became a thousand years later. Thus, Dasgupta (1962: 67) wrote,

Though all sorts of occultism and necromancy prevailed and still now prevail within the school of Hathayoga, and though with a large number of Indian Yogins, Hathayoga has become a science of physical feats, serenity prevails within the school of Yoga proper. As a philosophical system Yoga represents a purely idealistic view ... Though some modern scholars may have conflated the practice of Hathayoga with extreme forms of tapas and thereby defined it as self-torture or a method of forceful exertion, (32) the view that Hathayoga was strenuous to practice and even painful did not originate from modern scholarship on Yoga, but has a long history within India itself. For example, the Laghuyogav[]sistha describes Hathayoga as causing suffering (duhkhada), and the Amanaskayoga labels the practice of pr[]n[]y[]ma and mudras as based upon pain (klesam[]la) and difficult to master (durjaya). In fact, the Rajayoga of the Amanaskayoga asserted its superiority over Hathayogic techniques by claiming that its own way to liberation was 'effortless' (nir[]y[]sa), (33) and it is not surprising that those Indian soteriologies that espoused methods of liberation based on gnosis or initiation alone would have viewed the asanas, pr[]n[]y[]mas and mudr[]s of Hathayoga as unnecessary physical exertion. (34)


The question "why was Hathayoga called forceful yoga?" is well worth asking when one considers that the word hatha is never used in Hatha texts to refer to violent means or forceful effort. (35) If the name Hathayoga were based on the notion of forceful effort, one would expect to find injunctions to forcibly (i.e., hath[]t or hathena) perform its techniques. (36) Instead, a more neutral word for effort (i.e., yatnena or prayatnena) is used; in many instances this may be interpreted as 'carefully' or `diligently', (37) sometimes as 'vigorously' or 'energetically' in cases such as Bhastrik[]pr[]n[]y[]ma. (38) Attempts are seen in the Hatha corpus to qualify the sort of effort a Yogin should apply. In fact, the qualification sanaih...

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