Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Yogis who broke traditions: unusual yogis

The revival of interest in Siddha medicine, believed to be the oldest system of medicine in the world, is also unraveling the tradition of yoga of the Siddhas,   also referred to in Tamils as Cittars or Arivans, meaning the `ones who knew'.

Though there is currently a branch of yoga trademarked Siddha Yoga (devised by Swami Muktananda, disciple of the saint-yogi Swami Nityananda), the yoga of Siddhas I am referring to in this column is the generic term famous in the South, encompassing a vast lineage that includes intriguing yogi characters who link India with various continents(from Arabia, Sri Lanka to China) and whose science covered herbalism, metallurgy, toxicology, bhasma (use of metals as medicine), alchemy, anti-aging Kaya Kalpa treatments, Varmam (or Marmakalai which in turn had spawned the various therapies of acupressure, reflexology, zone therapy) and whose artistic influence spanned architecture, idol-making, exquisite  poetry.

As rebels who flouted the class confines of the day, the Siddhas emerged from various castes and professions: Pambatti-Siddhar's name, as per the meaning, indicates that he was a snake-charmer. Karuvaroor, the spiritual guru of one of India's most powerful kings, Raja Raja Chola, was  from the Thevar sect. There are references to gypsy Siddhas.  The famous Thanjavur temple's brilliant architecture is credited to him.  Tirumoolar was a cow-herd Machamuni, acknowledged to be the powerful Matysendranath yogi after whom the famous spinal twist is named, is referred to in the southern tradition as a fisherman.

They even gave themselves shocking names to indicate their rebelliousness against prevailing social prejudices: one called himself Punnakkicar (The cow-dung saint) and another called himself (Kaga-pucundar, or crow's excrement), records S. N. Kandaswamy in his book The Yoga of Siddha Avvai. They encouraged an agnostic philosophy that rebelled against casteism or any systemized prejudice  that sought to keep others from their birthright to mukti or liberation. They deliberately sought to shock people out of set notions, thus propelling them closer to god-realisation. The names of women Siddhas (Kudambai Cittar, Avvaiyar)   indicates that this egalitarianism embraced both genders. The list that Kandaswamy presents also includes Siddhas from various religious denominations: Sufi saints (Gunangudi Mastan), Viramamunivar (actually Constantine Joseph Beshchi of Italy), Yakkobu-cittar (originally Ramdadevar) who is said to have traveled to Arabia to influence and be influenced by mystic Muslims, Teraiyar (credited with a sort of neuro-surgery) is believed to be a Buddhist, while Bhoganathar is either a Chinese or a Tamil Siddha who traveled to China to assume the name of Bo-Yang. He is also said to have traveled to Rome, Jerusalem and Rome on his mystical mission.

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