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The Gheranda Samhita (circa 1700 CE) is a manual on hatha yoga influenced by the tantric tradition. Most of it is derivative, especially from Svatmarama's Hatha Yoga Pradipika, yet it can be considered an archetypical work in two places, in the purification techniques in the first chapter and in the last chapter on samadhi. However some of the rather bizarre purification techniques such as drawing water up into the colon are not to be recommended to the modern practitioner, at least not in the way Gheranda presents them. Nonetheless the Gheranda Samhita is considered, along with the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Shiva Samhita, one of the three classic texts on hatha yoga.
Some years ago I read a translation of this work published by the Kaivalyadhama Institute (Lonavla, India) in 1978 which included critical commentary by the editors, Swami Digambarji and M. L. Gharote, and upon which Mallinson has some acknowledged reliance. What we have here is the text in Sanskrit followed by Mallinson's English translation. The often cryptic text is augmented by photos of a buff and supple woman demonstrating the asanas and mudras. Mallinson also provides an introduction setting the work historically and noting influences, such as the Vedantic. He eschews commentary, he writes, because "commentary and elucidation are for the practitioner's guru." (p. xvi) Indeed the Gheranda Samhita is written in such a terse manner that a guru's elucidation would be required for all but the most experienced practitioners.
Mallinson also notes that the Gheranda Samhita is a work of ghatastha yoga not hatha yoga. "Ghatastha" refers to the body; and while hatha yoga is also concerned with the body there are important distinctions, most significantly the absence of the ethical considerations, the niyamas and the yamas as presented in Patanjali's eight-limbed yoga and as required by most modern teachers, including the illustrious B.K.S. Iyengar. However the practice and the goal of both hatha yoga and the yoga presented in the Gheranda Samhita are the same: the union of the individual soul (atman) with the ineffable (brahman)--i.e., samadhi, or transcendence. Instead of the niyamas and the yamas Gheranda begins with the purification techniques. One gets the sense in reading these that the practitioners of India were plagued by parasites (as indeed they were). Consequently it was a first order of business to get rid of them or at least reduce their numbers so that the yogi could practice without distraction or discomfort.
But what is this concentration on the body all about? To really appreciate hatha yoga (as opposed to karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, and tantra yoga--the other classical yogic ways to liberation) it is necessary to understand that the body is at once the mantra, the mandala and the palace to the hatha yogin, a fit vehicle for contemplation and study, although not quite right for worship. It is at once the manifestation of the food sheath--the level on which we live, where we are both the eater and the eaten--and the holder of the soul, the atman which is to the ineffable brahman as a drop of water is to the ocean.
But more than this the body must be in shape, free of disease and discomfort so that the aspirant might achieve meditation and samadhi and enter into the union with brahman. Or perhaps it is enough to say that hatha yoga or ghatastha yoga leads to meditation. Where one goes from there is usually understood as being beyond words (as in Zen Buddhism, for example). Mircea Eliade writes in his Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (1958) that this concentration on the body (which is part of the tantric tradition and is the core of the Gheranda Samhita) is paradoxically "the most reliable and effective instrument at man's disposal for 'conquering death.' And since liberation can be gained even in this life, the body must be preserved as long as possible, and in perfect condition, precisely as an aid to meditation." (opus cited, p. 227)
Mallinson comments that Gheranda seems at times a follower of Shiva and at other times a devotee of Vishnu. One sees in this the somewhat garbled and patchwork nature of this nonetheless important work. It is my belief that the text we have to work with is a rather imperfect copy of a larger work that may or may not have existed in manuscript.
Mallinson and the people at YogaVidya are to be commended for bringing this text to the attention of the modern yoga practitioner since all other translations that I know of are out of print and hard to come by. I have one small complaint. While it is traditional to use the word "secret" in such phrases as "The great Vatasara..." or this great dhauti" or (some other) practice "is to be kept secret," it would be more nearly correct to write that the practice in question is "private." The practices are not secrets, per se, but things that should be done in private. This is in tune with the idea that the hyperbole used by Gheranda or Svatmarama such as "destroys all diseases" or "allows the yogi to escape death" could more realistically be qualified with the phrase "while the practice is maintained."
One other quibble: in the 22nd verse Mallinson has, "Standing in water up to the navel, draw out the shakti nadi...," wash it and "put it back in the stomach." Actually, I believe what is supposed to be drawn out and washed is the intestine. "Shakti nadi" is a euphemism and so is "stomach." On the other hand, I suspect that even the most accomplished practitioner of old never actually achieved the practice (or long survived it!), so perhaps Mallinson's expression is as correct as is necessary for this largely symbolic practice.