Join scholar of yoga and esotericism, Dr. Keith Edward Cantú, on a journey that engages deep and sometimes complicated questions about the effect esotericism has had on yogic movements across languages, societies, and religions within and beyond South Asia.
In this course we will examine exchanges between South Asia and the rest of the world that had a significant effect on yoga’s history and contemporary life. After setting the stage for how to view such exchanges in as holistic a way as possible, we will show the multiplicity of voices among esoteric authors and artists who wrote books, drew diagrams, and composed songs to try and apply structure to yogic engagement with what they perceived to be an infinite universe both externally and within the body.
Engaging these voices will bring us to examine texts and traditions from the eighteenth century to the present that reflect disparate yet sometimes strangely similar currents. These include currents and practices as varied as Islamic esotericism, theosophical meditation, and learned ritual magic(k), yet often united in a very yogic preoccupation with sustained individual control over the posture, breath, and mind.
Throughout the course we will also highlight esotericism’s central place as an avenue of cultural exchange up to the present day. Whether or not you now or will after the course view such exchanges between yoga and esoteric worlds as hopelessly syncretic, inauthentic, or even problematic, the cultural and historical questions raised may very well be of profound interest.
Examples include: “How was yogic cosmology interpreted esoterically in Islamic and other seemingly distant religious terminology?” “What made yoga so interesting to weird-but-often-classy nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European, American, and Australian magicians, travelers, novelists, and poets?” “Are there examples of Indian authors on yoga who learned and engaged in esoteric practices?” “Was yoga ever seen as a kind of astral projection?” “How did esoteric authors and poets from any land justify removing or altering practices from specific religious and cultural contexts — isn’t that supposed to be wrong?”
Join us as we explore these and more topics of concern to yoga and esotericism in a culturally sensitive and nuanced way that reflects many recent developments in contemporary academic scholarship.
In this module we will tackle some of the larger pertinent questions that will set the stage for the entire course, including the development of the academic field of esotericism, questions of how to define “West” and “East,” and how such questions are important to consider in any discussion of modern yoga, authenticity, and orientalism(s). We will then analyze the usefulness of esotericism as a category to describe some of the more obscure yet nevertheless important and recurrent finer features of yogic practice. This will require some discussion on how the term “esotericism” itself can potentially help us more holistically consider how yoga came to be entangled not only with institutionalized currents that have been variously described with adjectives like “occult,” “magical,” “spiritualist,” “tantric,” “new age,” and so on, but also even earlier with Islamic esoteric movements.
In the second part of the module we will highlight some examples as to how esoteric authorial and poetic engagement with yoga led to a wealth of new terminology that may seem utterly alien to yoga’s Sanskritic foundation yet nevertheless attracted earnest practitioners who continued to work within and develop new systems. We will discuss how this potentially leads to, on the one hand, a traditionalist critique like the Bharatian “pizza effect” that would possibly accept the authenticity of a practice like yoga as related to the authenticity of, say, cultural cuisines: the original is better. On the other hand, we will also introduce some esoteric artists and authors on yoga not only from abroad but also within South Asia itself, each of whom we will cover in detail in future modules, who appear to greatly complicate such rigid lines between authenticity and inauthenticity.
In this module we will look at how Sufi esoteric teachings on yoga in South Asia, with special attention on the Bengali context in India and Bangladesh, both predate and were circulating in South Asia concurrently with the colonial-era esotericism of more well-known movements like Theosophy. To do this we will focus on how key developments in the academic categorization of what is “esoteric” or “exoteric” in Islam are directly relevant to the songs of Lalon Fakir, one of the most famous non-sectarian Baul poets who simultaneously engaged and attempted to humanize prior Sufi Islamic esoteric teachings on the body, Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad and other four Holy People.
We will then engage the phenomenon of how Buddhist and Vaiṣṇava tantric teachings on the body were gradually “esotericized” in Lalon’s songs and harmonized with an Islamic vocabulary that includes teachings on prophets and angels. We will also discuss what this rural syncretism or innovation implies for our subsequent discussion of yoga as esoteric in urban Indian colonial contexts. Finally we will show how these teachings, combined with other strands of local humanistic currents, went on to inform the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the independence movement in Bangladesh, and even the Beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
In this module we will look at the lives and contributions of several theosophical authors, including Sris Chandra Basu, Rama Prasad, and Tallapragada Subba Rao, who were responsible for a wealth of nineteenth-century publications and teachings on yoga, even after the theosophical “founders” H.P. Blavatsky’s and Henry Olcott’s fall-out with the Arya Samaj and Damodar Saraswati. These Indian theosophical authors on account of their publication efforts have had a sustained impact on contemporary yoga in North America and Europe, although the complexities of their own positions on yoga are often mostly ignored or overlooked, including the way they used adjectives like “esoteric” in their writings and translations.
In the case of Sris Chandra Basu, we will look at how he framed his influential yet problematic translation of the Śivasaṃhitā as esoteric and examine the context for his complex relationship with Haṭhayoga, which at that time in the theosophical imagination was often stigmatized. In the case of Rama Prasad, we will look at how his popular work Nature’s Finer Forces repackaged a medieval Śaiva text called the Śivasvarodaya as the “occult science of breath” and how his commentaries on nasal prognostication appear to have inspired later American authors like Yogi Ramacharaka and other authors who went on to inform contemporary movements. Finally, in the case of Subba Rao, we will show how his friendly disagreement with H.P. Blavatsky over the structure of the tattvas set the stage for an alternate and oft-overlooked stream of “esoteric” yogic teachings both within and outside of Theosophy.
Shifting to the exchange between South India and Europe and North America, in this module we will look at the Tamil yogi Sri Sabhapati Swami and show how his esoteric teachings on Śivarājayoga, or the “Royal Yoga for Śiva,” were gradually adopted by European occultists, theosophists, and even a New Thought guru. First, we will examine the Tamil Vīraśaiva and Siddha historical contexts of Sri Sabhapati’s teachings on “divine pilgrimage,” and then some brief engagement with other religions and points of departure from Theosophy.
We will then shift into a discussion as to the specific ways in which aspects of Sabhapati’s yogic teachings came to be interpreted and appropriated among Anglophone and German authors of modern magic such as Aleister Crowley, Franz Hartmann, and a range of their students and followers both male and female. This intriguing byway of yoga will enable us to better contextualize the pervasiveness of such popular topics as “astral projection,” “subtle bodies,” and “chakras” (cakras) in literature that on the surface would appear to be completely unrelated to yoga yet often blend yogic (or “yogesque”) techniques with other religious, magical, or scientific terminologies not found in Sanskrit or Indic vernacular texts until at least the modern period. In one startling example of the prominence of this particular pizza effect, we will also consider how some yoga societies like the Latent Light Culture then “re-appropriated” some of these blended yogic methods and even praised their efficacy.
Keith Edward Cantú is an Assistant Professor (postdoctoral research associate) at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where his current research focuses on the political patronage of yogic “meditation halls” (maṭālayams) and “tumuli” (jīva-camātis) in Tamil Nadu. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the focus of which was the Tamil, pan-Indian, and international reception of the early modern yogi Sabhapati Swami’s system of Śivarājayoga.
In addition to his dissertation, which is soon set to be published with an academic press, Keith was the co-editor with Saymon Zakaria of City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan Sā̃i (Oxford University Press, South Asia Research series, 2017), a volume of nineteenth-century Bengali Bāul Fakiri songs translated by Carol Salomon. He also has published several articles and chapters relating to topics as varied as yoga and cultural authenticity, theosophical orientalism and yoga, the ethnography of Tantra, and Islamic esotericism, and has translated a Sanskrit chapter of the Rasāyanakhaṇḍa on the alchemical wonders of Śrīśailam (forthcoming via the Ayuryog project). When not researching he is also working with the Bengali community at a non-profit clinic as a health education and outreach specialist.
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"Dr. Keith Cantū offers something unique and rare in his ability to pull together various streams of Yoga Esotericism, bringing to life Baul Bengali traditions. He is a marvelous singer and musician, and his lectures are beautifully crafted due in part to his field research. I'm looking forward to his next Yogic Studies offering. "
"Dr. Cantú is an extraordinary educator! Yoga and Esotericism is an amazingly insightful class that you'll be hard-pressed to find in any worldwide University. The variety of esoteric lineages, influencers and their interrelationships discussed was detailed, well-researched, and frankly - exceptional. Dr. Cantú's preparation, content delivery and in-depth & thoughtful responses to students' questions was effective, professional and always enlightening. Moreover, Dr. Cantú sharing his talents as a musician/singer was a wonderful treat, refreshing and inspiring. In my option, this is a must-take class for any serious Yogi."
"In a well researched presentation, oozing with depth and wisdom, Dr. Kieth Cantu takes you on a journey into the world of yoga and esotericism. You will not leave the course without having done some soul searching."