History of Yoga – Part 3

Whatever you set your mind upon you will ultimately become.Matsyendranath



Kushal Magar was settling a metal pot of water onto the fire when it occurred to me there were two names he had not yet explained.

Jhankri-dajoo, didn’t you say that Hatha Yoga has something to do with Matty-somebody and Gorey-someone else?”

“Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath,” he replied with a smile.  “Both keepers of the Tradition, one the teacher of the other.  It was they who formulated the practises of Hatha Yoga into the system we still employ.  The older, Matsyendranath, lived a thousand years ago and wrote some of the earliest words in the Bengali language – songs that describe the experience of an expansion of consciousness.”

Matsyendranath?  I was certain I had heard the name before.

“He is remembered for accepting students from all religions and so-called ‘castes’ for initiation into the Tradition, just as we still do today.  He is therefore honoured both by Buddhists as one of their saints, an embodiment of Compassion, and by Hindus as the principal tantric guardian of Nepal.”

This was all entirely new to me.

“He is also said to have been the first to bring rice plants to the mountain kingdom of my ancestors – a grain that symbolises for us tip-top health, prosperity and life’s essential creative force.  As you have already seen, rice and the Tradition are both so valued here that we use the former in every puja to honour the latter and thereby the memory of the great shaiva tantrika Matsyendranath.”

I had certainly noted this extensive use of rice in both common domestic rituals and Kushal’s jhankri rites.  Until now, I had unthinkingly accepted this as nothing more than ‘offerings’ of food.

“Of course, with our love of telling stories, Matsyendranath is also associated with all manner of legends,” Kushal continued, selecting cardamom pods and cinnamon bark to add to his pot.  “He’s said to have changed water into gold and crystal, for example.  To have fed 25,000 hungry mouths from a single grain of rice – and even to have raised the dead.  All tales full of meaningful symbols, of course, once you look beneath the fantasy.”

“I was raised on remarkably similar myths,” I replied, thinking back to the years of Bible miracles retold in Sunday School Fuzzy Felts.

“But have you ever heard of a man being swallowed by a giant fish?” he said.  “And then surviving to tell the tale?”

I smiled – but did not like to spoil his manifest delight.

“Well, here we tell how Matsyendranath was once eaten whole by such a creature – hence his name, meaning Lord of the Fish.  From within its belly he then overheard Shiva teaching the Tradition to his beloved, Parvati, on the seashore of Chandradvipa, the Island of the Moon, in the Bay of Bengal – symbol of that heightened state of awareness we call ‘going by daylight’.”



Kashal paused to cut slices from the knobble of ginger root he kept buried in a pocket.

“Of course, this all seems like madness until you know that the fish is our symbol of the prosperity and happiness found by living honestly, wisely and with self-discipline.  The fish is also our symbol of the restless, sensual world – material reality, the essential force of Nature – with which keepers of the Tradition are ever mindful to engage.”

I finally understood why the Indian God of Love, Kama, is traditionally described as bearing a banner emblazoned with a fish.

“The fish is also our symbol for shurko shakti, the Energy of the Hero, the Valiant, the Brave.  By this, we mean those who have gained the wisdom to defeat their inner ‘demons’ of anger, fear, jealousy, apathy, self-doubt, the desire for revenge, and so forth.  It is shurko shakti that we mindfully nurture through yogic practices you too will learn one day.”

I looked up in eager anticipation.

“As for Matsyendranath, the story goes that he was eventually delivered from the discomforts of his fish – but only after twelve long years.  This is a metaphor, of course, for his being ‘reborn’ through the knowledge acquired during the usual twelve years of progressive initiations into the Tradition.  He then wandered up to Assam, where he lived on a mountain and shared the teachings he had learnt.  He thereby spread the wisdom of the Tradition not only through our hills, but across Bengal, Nepal and Kashmir.”

Kushal paused again to let me catch up with my note-taking.

“He is also credited as the author of the Kaula Jñana Nirnaya, the Narration of Tantric Knowledge, which was written down on palm leaves and is now revered both by shaiva tantrikas in India and Nepal, and bauddhakaula Buddhists in Tibet.  There is even a posture of Hatha Yoga named after him, Matsyendrasana, which we employ with certain other practises to affect dormancy – ‘unconsciousness’, if you like – in the body-mind.”


The preliminary form of Matsyendrasana

“Of course,” I exclaimed, “that’s where I’ve heard his name before!”

“And yet,” Kushal Magar added, “whilst an asana has been named in his honour, it was Matsyendranath who also impressed that the more ascetic practices of Hatha Yoga – the demanding postures that benefit little more than the ego, and even the mudras and bandhas – should all ultimately be released in preference for Sahaja – literally our natural state, our true, undistorted disposition – the path of self-respecting ease and mindful pleasure …”

[Part Four follows soon]

You’ll find much more of Kushal Magar and his understanding of ‘going by daylight’ and ‘mindful pleasure’ in Limitless Sky.

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