Mapping the esoteric body in the Islamic Yoga of Bengal
By Shaman Hatley
Tantric practices became prevalent across an extraordinary spectrum of sectarian boundaries in South Asia and beyond, ﬂourishing with Saivism, Buddhism, and Vaisnavism and ﬁnding a place in both Jainism and the Brahmanical smarta traditions as well. If one leaves aside monolithic Orientalist characterizations, it would seem evident that in South Asia, Islam constituted no less likely a ground for the assimilation of Tantric yoga. In important ways, a suitable foundation was already in place: Suﬁ traditions, after all, embraced elaborate spiritual disciplines that, like those of Tantric yoga, required esoteric initiation and presupposed a mystical physiology as the locus for meditations involving syllabic formulas,visualization, and controlled respiration. Islamic adaptations of indigenous yogic disciplines are indeed by no means unique to Bengal: Suﬁ silsilahs and Ismaºilis in South Asia attest multiple examples of experi-mentation, and as Carl Ernst shows, Arabic and Persian translations of the lost Sanskrit Amrtakunda circulated in Suﬁ circles as far aﬁeld as Istanbul. In the presence of the enormous variety of dhikr techniques available inlate medieval Islam, it was apparently not uncommon for Suﬁs to “obtain multiple initiations into the practices of several Suﬁ orders, though the primary orientation would remain in a single order.”The variable and extendable nature of the elements of Suﬁ meditational praxis, the potential for the individual Shaykh to innovate, and the probable Islamization of yogi communities in Bengal, discussed subsequently, suggest historical circumstances in which the development of Islamic forms of Tantric yoga should be of little surprise.