Happy International Day of Yoga

Baḥr al-ḥayāt (Hamd-i mawfūr wa thanā-yi nā-maḥsur haḍrat-i  ṣamadī-ra.) India: 11 Rabi I, 1130 (12 February 1718). PK3791 .A46 1718
Baḥr al-ḥayāt (Hamd-i mawfūr wa thanā-yi nā-maḥsur haḍrat-i
ṣamadī-ra.) India: 11 Rabi I, 1130 (12 February 1718). PK3791 .A46 1718

Today, in honor of the First International Day of Yoga, we look at the dynamic history of the practice of yoga and how it has transformed through time and cultures. A book with some of the earliest illustrated yoga poses—the Baḥr al-ḥayāt—resides in the Rare Book Collection and offers an example of how treatises on yoga spread to the Islamic world through translations written between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

Untitled (Persian, sunasana), from the Baḥr al-ḥayāt
Untitled, from the Baḥr al-ḥayāt (1718).

The history of the Baḥr al-ḥayāt shows how yogic teachings moved from east to west as the practice, traditionally passed down orally, was written down and translated. The RBC’s copy of the Baḥr al-ḥayāt comes from a 1563 Persian translation of an Arabic version of the Amritakunda (“The Pool of Nectar”), which was a treatise on hatha yoga written in either Sanskrit or Hindi in the twelfth century. The Baḥr al-ḥayāt in UNC’s Rare Book Collection was written and illuminated in 1718, its illustrations likely copied from earlier Persian translations like this early seventeenth-century version from the Chester Beatty Library.

Through its many loose translations into Persian, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu, the text of the Baḥr al-ḥayāt morphed in different ways, as one might suspect. Early Arabic translators of the Amritakunda drew parallels between Indic and Arabic spiritual practices in order to make yoga more accessible to Muslims. In fact, in Persian and Arabic translations, the asanas (yoga postures) were referred to as mantra chants or ascetic practices instead of physical poses. Translators also added quotations from the Koran and hadiths to the text. To Muslims studying the translations, the teachings of the Baḥr al-ḥayāt probably would have seemed to mesh well with their own faith.

Uttanakurmasana (Persian, vajra)
Uttanakurmasana, from the Baḥr al-ḥayāt (1718).

Like the text, the illustrations of the RBC’s Baḥr al-ḥayāt were also likely copied from older versions and reflect changes over time. The varying appearance of successive copies was likely due to differences in regional artistic style. The illustration above, from the RBC’s Baḥr al-ḥayāt, is much simpler than the one here, from the earlier Baḥr al-ḥayāt in the Chester Beatty Library.

the Baḥr al-ḥayāt (1718).
A yogi with his pet in the Baḥr al-ḥayāt (1718). Not much has changed!

We wish you an enjoyable June 21st, whether celebrating the fathers in your family, the summer solstice, or now, thanks to a United Nations General Assembly resolution, yoga!

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