David Gordon White. The Alchemical Body. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Hardcover, 640 pages.
Our body is more than a mere meat tube imprisoning the splendor of the Spirit. Rather it is a reservoir of all kinds of incredible capacities and a platform for realizing infinite Consciousness-Bliss. At least that is how the medieval Siddhas of India saw it. By advocating a body-positive orientation, they turned upside down India’s mainstream spirituality, which had long inclined toward severe asceticism. Instead of regarding the body as an obstacle to spiritual realization or as an undesirable adjunct of human experience, they valued embodiment and explored the body’s vast potential. Their grand vision of life inspired the creation of Hatha-Yoga around 1000 A.D. In fact, Goraksha, the founder of Hatha-Yoga, was one of the great Siddhas.
But who exactly are the Siddhas and what is their philosophy and practice? Many Western Yoga students first heard about them in the 1970s through Swami Muktananda, a champion of Siddha-Yoga. In his widely read autobiography Play of Consciousness (1978), he wrote, “I am a follower of the Siddha Path, and I am alive through the grace of a Siddha [i.e., Swami Nityananda]” (p. xxxv). A Siddha himself, Muktananda provided us with a most valuable insider’s point of view of the Siddhas’s way of life, which is the Tantric path. However, his books contain very little formal information about the philosophy, history, and literature of the medieval Siddhas.
There are in fact few books that focus on the subject. The great Tamil scholar Kamil V. Zvelebil furnished useful and readable introductions to the Siddhas of South India in his two books, The Poets of the Powers (1993) and The Siddha Quest for Immortality (1996). Two scholarly works containing some helpful information are Shashibhusan Dasgupta’sObscure Religious Cults (1946, 1976) and George Weston Briggs’s Gorakhnathand the Kanphata Yogis (1938, 1973), but all these titles are not readily available. More easy to find and accessible is Marshall Govindan’s Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition (1991), but this popular book focuses on the legendary Babaji, one of the immortal Siddhas, who was introduced to Western students by Paramahamsa Yogananda’sAutobiography of a Yogi (1946, 1987). From these various works, we learn that the medieval Siddhas were adepts of Kundalini-Yoga and experts in alchemy and medicine and that they were keen on creating a transubstantiated immortal body for themselves.
In his recent monograph The Alchemical Body, David Gordon White examines in great detail the little understood convergence of Tantra-Yoga and alchemy in the Siddha tradition. White, who is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has not merely exhumed the Siddha tradition’s scriptural remains but also has encountered some of its contemporary representatives in his travels in India. He calls Tantra “a wave of genius . . . that has yet to be stilled.”
Anyone who has dipped into the Tantric heritage (not merely modern Neotantrism) will know how complex it is. White proves a skillful guide in disentangling some of the historical and conceptual complexities that have thus far bedeviled the study of Tantra in general and the Siddha movement in particular.
As the title of his book suggests, White is especially interested in the transubstantiated, “alchemical” body, which is a central theme of both medieval Tantra and alchemy. The practitioners of these two esoteric disciplines share a common quest for personal immortality in a divinized somatic vehicle (called divya-deha, siddha-deha, vajra-deha, or svarna-deha). There is a great deal of conceptual overlap between these disciplines, and Tantra-Yoga (including Hatha-Yoga) becomes more intelligible by understanding it as a form of spiritual alchemy. For the Siddhas, the human body is a great laboratory in which lead (the ordinary psychophysical state) is transmuted into gold (the extraordinary condition of liberation while being embodied).
As the Rasa- Arnava, a eleventh-century scripture, declares: “As in the case of metal, so in the case of the body.” Thus at the core of Tantra-Yoga, as also at the heart of alchemy, is the process known as bhûta-shuddhi or “purification of the elements.” But whereas alchemy uses external means of accomplishing this, Tantra-Yoga understands bhûta-shuddhi as an inner, meditative process without which the mysterious serpent energy ( kundalinî-shakti) cannot be mobilized successfully. The awakening of the serpent power is certainly essential to the blissful liberation aspired to by the Tantric adepts.
The language of Tantra is rich in alchemical imagery and such prominent but obscure yogic concepts as amrita, rasa, bindu, and soma- kalâ are illuminated by understanding them in the context of alchemy. This is best illustrated by the concept of bindu, meaning “seed-point” or “semen.” Bindu corresponds to volatile mercury, which contains the seed ( bîja) of gold and can be potentized by curing it in sulfur and mica (considered feminine or shakti substances).
Thus the Tantric adept strives to preserve this precious liquid in the body so that it can work the miracle of transmutation, resulting in the “gold” of immortality. This process is connected with rendering semen into a subtle energy called ojas, which vitalizes the entire body. In particular, ojas feeds the higher psychospiritual centers ( cakra) in the head, preparing for the ascent of the serpent energy from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.
Once the kundalinî has risen to the crown center, where it merges with the cosmic energy (an event symbolized as the sexual union between God Shiva and Goddess Shakti), it triggers the flow of the nectar of immortality (amrita or soma). This is said to ooze from the lunar cakra, from there spreading throughout the body. This continuous irrigation of the body in the case of an accomplished yogin gradually leads to a complete transmutation of the physical body, with measurable changes in the body’s chemistry. Ultimately, the physical vehicle becomes a radiant field paralleling the Biblical “body of glory.”
Anyone seriously interested in finding out more about authentic Tantra, original Hatha-Yoga, embodied liberation, the subtle body, psychospiritual energy ( kundalinî), sacred sexuality, paranormal abilities ( siddhi), healing, and of course alchemy will find David White’s extraordinary book as fascinating as any Tom Clancy thriller. Although his massive tome is intended primarily for scholarly consumption, complete with 167 pages of notes, it is highly readable and includes traditional anecdotes and well-told stories of his encounters with capricious modern alchemists. This work, which is the fruit of twelve years of diligent labor, is destined to become a classic. And don’t wait for the paperback edition either!
Original © Copyright 2000 by Georg Feuerstein
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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