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.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. ASax says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for writing!

  2. Diane says:

    This is written by a friend of mine who is a professor in Montreal. You might want to explore Carl Ernst’s work as well. He is currently looking at some Yogic texts that were lost in the original Sanskrit but found as far away as Syria in Arabic and attributed to Ibn ‘Arabi.
    Yoga and Sufism have a long history of interaction.

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