Spiritual art: Main exhibit hall features an 13th century bronze of Yoga Narasimha with (at back) “Chakras of the Subtle Body” from Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, 1824; (inset) Gaur Malhara Ragini as a yogi.
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Sackler Gallery’s superlative exhibition showcases the manifestations of yoga through the course of India’s long history



“B UT ISN’T YOGA AN ENGLISH WORD?” This was the plaintive response one American had when she was told that yoga’s original birthplace was India. Indeed, this ancient practice from India has traveled so far and been so cut off from its moorings that many current-day practitioners in the West seem to think it was always a part of American life.

Yoga has become a multibillion-dollar industry with everything from yoga studios to yoga gear to yoga tourism. There’s even doga for dogs and, yes, there’s chair yoga for older individuals and even baby yoga. For many in this commercialized, quick-fix world, yoga has been severed from its ancient roots.

Now comes a comprehensive art exhibition in America, the first of its kind, which through the language of visuals—paintings, sculptures and photographs—traces yoga’s roots back to India, back to Gods and Goddesses, back to spiritual and philosophical aspirations.

After all, what can be more telling than seeing Narasimha, the mighty God Vishnu in his half man-half lion avatar, sitting in a relaxed asana, with a yogapatta (known as a yoga strap to today’s yogis) around his crossed legs! Yoga Narasimha is a bronze Chola masterpiece from Tamil Nadu that dates back to 1250 ce. The sacred text Bhagavata Purana relates that Vishnu came down to earth to protect his young devotee Prahlada and taught him bhakti yoga to make him invincible against his demon-father. Yoga Narasimha is as far away as one can get from modern-day, strip-mall yoga, but now’s a chance to get a darshan of this mighty yogi.

Finally, the dots are being connected between past and present: “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, brings over 133 rarely seen pieces of sculpture, paintings and photographs gathered from 25 museums on three continents to trace out a visual history of yoga. The exhibition’s organizer is Dr. Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Sandstone “whistling” yogini, 11th century, from Kannauj.
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After closing in DC in January, the exhibition moved to San Francisco Asian Art Museum in SF from February 21–May 25 and to Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland from June 22–September 7. The 332-page accompanying catalogue ( []) contains essays by noted scholars on several aspects of yoga and offers many insights into the individual works of art.

The earliest literary references to yoga, writes David Gordon White in one such essay, are found in the circa 15th century bce Rig Veda, in which yoga meant neither meditation nor the seated posture but a war chariot yoked to a team of horses. (The Sanskrit word yoga is linguistically linked to the English yoke.) The association of yoga with meditation is described in the Hindu Kathaka Upanishad (third century bce): “We read that the disciplined practitioner who has ‘yoked’ the ‘horses’ and ‘chariot’ of the body and senses with the ‘reins’ of his mind rises up to the world of the Supreme God Vishnu.”

“Deeply meaningful to Indians who cherish it as their legacy and to practitioners around the world who recognize its transformative potential, it also lies at the center of heated debates over authenticity and ownership,” notes Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries of Art. “Shining a light on yoga’s manifold visual expressions, the exhibition does not define a singular yoga or determine authenticity. Rather, it aspires to enrich dialogue and inspire further learning about yoga’s profound traditions and enduring relevance.”

“Krishna Visvawrup”—Krishna’s universal form.
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I traveled from New York to Washington DC to catch this exhibition firsthand and got the opportunity to see it in three different ways—first a walkthrough with Dr. Diamond, then on my own and finally as part of a docent-led tour. During the latter, I was able to talk to strangers who had come together to delve into 2,000 years of yoga.

Such has been the buzz in the media that thousands have visited the galleries. On this closing weekend the space was inundated with crowds, mostly Westerners. When the docent asked how many practiced yoga, nearly all hands shot up. Yoga has become a part of American life and seems to have been proudly appropriated by all people. Some recalled learning yoga back in the fourth grade!

Bringing together these works of art under one roof was no easy task, taking over five years. It was a labor of love for Diamond, who is herself a yoga practitioner. She says it was a huge scholarly enterprise which brought together experts from history, art, anthropology, religion and Sanskrit to examine the rich archives of many museums. Diplomacy, advance planning and ample funds were required to borrow these great treasures. Even to move a single sculpture requires expensive insurance and a courier to travel with it. While the Smithsonian provided some funding, the majority had to be raised from corporations, foundations and individuals. Diamond also used the new method of crowdfunding, where small online donations of even $25 from ordinary people really added up, in this instance to $175,000.

This exhibition provides a visual map for the story of yoga. In her catalog essay, Diamond explains: “Treatises and commentaries written between the third century bce and the present day offer a coherent overview of yoga’s philosophical depth and developments. In contrast, objects and images emphasize how yoga, despite the inherently individual experience at its core, has always been embedded in culture. Made by professional artists working for sectarian groups, royal and lay patrons, or within commercial networks, these artworks are situated at the interface of yogic knowledge and received visual traditions and the interests of diverse communities.”

Yoga definitely began in India, with influences ranging from Hindu to Buddhist to Sufi, and in varied text and languages. As Diamond notes, “Created over some two millennia in diverse religious and secular contexts, these works open windows onto yoga’s centrality within Indian culture and religion, its philosophical depth, its multiple political and historical expressions and its trans-sectarian and transnational adaptations.” She adds, “While most objects emerged out of Hindu contexts or depict Hindu practitioners, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh and Sufi images illuminate patterns of trans-sectarian sharing.”

Lampooning the missionaries: “How to Make Converts,” 1816, by Thomas Rowlandson.

(left balloon) “Infidels. Barbarians! we are come to convert you to the european faith. By order of the great Authority whose Image I bear on this Shield the benignant beams of whose countenance enliven the ignorant inhabitants of this country. Therefore destroy your Gods, burn your books, be converts and be saved.”

(right balloon): “Master. You very fine gentleman got very fine Topy [hat]—but not speak too much good sense. Master I’m poor people all black fellow poor Man all Master slave—What for burra sahib [big man] behauden [obliged-Scottish] send Master for black man not become christian busineƒ [business] got one God already. What can I say more?”
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Taking the Tour

It is appropriate that in the very first gallery the exhibition pays homage to the ancient divine and human teachers of yoga, emphasizing their role in spreading the tradition. A marble sculpture of a sublime Jina from Rajasthan, 1160, highlights the power of meditation. Three life-size sculptures of fierce tantric yoginis from a South Indian temple were reunited just for this exhibit.

The path of yoga is shown through manifestations of Siva, Nath Siddhas, Jain and Buddhist yogis. Many artworks are devoted to that great yogi Lord Siva. As the gallery on the path of yoga shows, “The Hindu traditions known as Saiva are based on the teachings of the Deity Siva; their texts are known as Tantras and Agamas. Bhairava and Sadasiva are two of the manifestations of Siva. Three sculptures show Siva as Bhairava. Yet another shows the Five-Faced Siva and Siva as Sadasiva. Explains Diamond: “In the large corpus of texts known as the Bhairava Tantras, He reveals the teachings of yoga and prescribes initiation rituals in which adepts become immortals with unlimited powers.”

Sadasiva, one of Siva’s most transcendent forms, figures in several yoga traditions. Within the Agamic texts of orthodox Saivism (Saiva Siddhanta), He is the Supreme Deity, a higher level of the cosmos in which there are no distinctions among person, body and world.

The artworks I found most compelling were four paintings gathered under the title of the Cosmic Body, depicting the ultimate reality which is the goal of yoga—the equivalent of the Self and the Absolute.

A painting from Bilaspur, ca. 1740, reveals the magnificence of Krishna Vishwarupa, who is known as Yogeshwara or the Lord of Yoga. Indeed, the Bhagavad Gita presents a spectrum of yogic practices and doctrines within a framework of personal devotion to Krishna. In this watercolor, the Lord reveals himself to Arjuna, the warrior prince, in his awe-aspiring cosmic form with sixty multicolored heads and forty-four arms. The accompanying text helps us to understand the depth of the painting: “Within the golden dhoti that wraps around His waist, a miniaturized mountain landscape conveys—through the juxtaposition of scale—both Krishna’s vastness and his supremacy over all other Hindu Gods and sages.”

The gallery “Yoga in the Indian Imagination (1570-1830)” showcases paintings and manuscripts created in Hindu and Islamic courts. The earliest known treatise to illustrate yoga poses is the Bahr-al-Hayat (Ocean of Life, 1600-1604), of which ten folios are included in the exhibit. Yoga and yogis were very much a part of life in ancient and medieval India, and the richness of that depiction can be seen from many Hindu, Jain and Buddhist, as well as Sufi and Mughal, texts, folios and albums. There is a 12-foot-long elaborate illustrated chakra chart or scroll from Kashmir (18th century) which lays out 12 chakras and seven underworlds, and other yoga treatises showing the role of rulers in creating a visual archive of yoga.

Folios from the Kedara Kalpa show yogis in pilgrimage and worship. “Five Sages in Barren Icy Heights” is an intriguing folio, ca 1815, which etches five ascetics in the snowy abode of Siva, examining and touching a large crescent moon, the emblem of Siva, among other scenes (above right).

The Ragamala paintings feature the renunciation of yogis as a foil to the allure of the materialistic life. In Bhairava Raga, from the Chunar Ragamala (ca. 1591), you have Siva the yogi with ashes smeared on His body and a yogapatta around His legs, strumming a veena. Around Him are all the seductions of the material world. Writes Molly Emma Aitken about this painting, “At the heart of the painting, Siva and His music tease mortals with a seemingly impossible collaboration between material desire and its transcendence that wells up again and again in India’s raga and ragini paintings.”

Yet another gallery, “Yoga in the Transnational Imagination (1850-1940),” provides the viewer quite a different perception of the yogi: With the coming of the British, yogis were vilified as exotic beings in the colonial photography and company paintings. There are stereotypical images of sadhus and magic, of Hindu fakirs lying on a bed of nails. Constantly replaying in the gallery is Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir, the first movie ever made of an Indian subject. This derogatory and Westernized image of yoga was perpetuated by mass photographs and postcards. At the same time, however, English artists such as Thomas Rowlandson (above left) skewered missionary efforts with their cartoons.

The final gallery revolves around the yoga renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century with yoga being regarded as a nonsectarian practice for health and spiritual well-being. Here you find the books and images of Swami Vivekananda who brought Hinduism and a philosophically focused yoga to America. Visitors can also catch the earliest film of Krishnamacharya and his student B.K.S. Iyengar showing yoga postures, many of which are now used in yoga classes.


India and yoga through many eyes: (left to right) 1604 Persian art of a yogi in kandasana; “Group of Yogis, Chennai, circa 1880; “Five Sages in Barren Icy Heights,” 1815, from the Kedara Kalpa, an account of pilgrimage to Mount Kailash
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Going into the exhibition, I had wondered whether Hinduism would get the short end of the stick and not be recognized as the wellspring of yoga. It was an issue brought to the attention of the organizers in advance by the Hindu American Foundation as part of their “Take Back Yoga” campaign, and some suggestions seem to have been incorporated.

While the galleries do speak of yoga as an Indian phenomenon rather than solely a Hindu one, the works themselves are a powerful case of show over tell. From the very first gallery you have Hindu Gods and Goddesses, mahayogis and yoginis as well as great Hindu texts powerfully and visually showing yoga’s origins. Further, Hinduism is complex, with many varied monikers—Saivism, Vaishnava, Vedic, and Tantric—attached to it; and so the single word Hindu is not always used.

What becomes apparent as one browses the galleries is the truth that culture and religion are deeply entwined and exchanged in India. Not only Hindu but also Jain, Buddhist and Sufi artworks highlight the prevalence of yoga in their traditions. There are sacred texts in tongues ranging from Sanskrit to Marathi to Persian, all a part of the 5,000-year-old juggernaut of Indian culture.

According to Diamond, this exhibition is only the beginning: four courses in universities across the US will be offering undergraduate and graduate courses in the visual culture of yoga: “It’s a new field, and we happily anticipate many new discoveries about yoga’s rich meanings and histories,” she says.

Indeed, the show is a veritable feast of yoga knowledge on many levels and a gathering of masterpieces which will probably not be seen together again after this show. I saw many viewers examining the small paintings with magnifying glasses provided by the museum, for there are exquisite micro-details hidden in these works of art. The exhibit offers an abundance of riches, but in the end each person will take away only what they need or can comprehend.

“One of India’s greatest philosophers, Abhinavagupta, wrote in the 10th century that sensitive viewers—those who can literally taste the essence (rasa) of art—experience an aesthetic pleasure akin to the bliss of expanded consciousness,” writes Diamond. “Thus transcending the limitations of ego-bound perception, the sensitive viewer has a foretaste of enlightened detachment, which takes the form of ‘melting, expansion and radiance.’ ”

The strength of this first-ever exhibition of the visual aspects of yoga is that if you keep very still and immerse yourself in the magic world of these masterpieces, you lose all sense of time, place and self. You feel the melting, expansion and radiance, and carry this affirming glow with you as you return to the train station of the mundane world.

LAVINA MELWANI is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications (blog: [], Twitter: @lassiwithlavina [@lassiwithlavina], Google+: []).