Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sinister Yogis

Sinister Yogis
by David Gordon White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 1, 2009. Hardcover. 374 p. $42.00.

More than any South Asian commentator or Western scholar, the thinker who cast the longest shadow on modern appreciations (both popular and scholarly) of yoga was Swami Vivekananda who, while indisputably a giant of neo-Vedānta reform, was a dilettante on the subject of yoga. This did not prevent him, however, from writing an extensive commentary on the Y[oga] S[ūtras], the “essence” of which he identified—following none other than the theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—as the “classical yoga” of India, called rāja yoga.

David Gordon White’s book, Sinister Yogis, examines the qualities that defined the yogi in Indian literature. Much of modern ideas about yoga stem from theosophical interpretations and classifications he concludes (an idea already advanced by Elizabeth de Michelis in her 2005 book, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism), and his book looks at tales of the real talents of yogis, not as passive meditators but as wonder workers capable of transferring or merging their conscious with another person’s. His style is often digressive (like Blavatsky’s but here with academic sanction), drawing the reader’s attention to how a word is used, then its derivation and possible meaning, followed by a narrative of its use, yet always worth reading as it questions our readily held assumptions.

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