The Islamic Reception of Yoga
Dr Arpita Mitra

The history of the Muslim world’s engagement with Yoga spans at least about a millennium. The purpose of this essay is to briefly recount some high points in this history, which will help put in perspective the historical interactions between Islam and Hinduism, especially its branch called Yoga.

Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, better known as simply Alberuni, was Mahmud of Ghazni’s spoil of war1 from Khwarazm in the Transoxania region of Central Asia, and undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the Islamic world. Mahmud posted him in the Punjab region of modern-day Pakistan, where Alberuni spent 12 years, learning Sanskrit, observing Indian life and society, and studying the Indian knowledge systems (astronomy, philosophy, and so on). He has left behind a meticulous record of his knowledge and observations on Indian history and society in his Tahqiq-i-Hind, that is, India (11th century). In this book, he frequently refers to Patanjali’s Yoga sutra. He also mentions a particular commentary to the Yoga sutra which he himself translated into the Arabic language. This translation by Alberuni was discovered in 1922 in an archive in Istanbul, in the form of scribbling in the margins of the manuscript of another unrelated work.2 Alberuni’s version of the text contains a dialogue between Patanjali and “an ascetic roaming in the deserts and the forests”. Scholars have noted that Alberuni’s version diverges on many counts from the Sanskrit-language commentaries of the Yoga sutra extant during that time, and that many sutras from Patanjali’s text are missing in his version.3 The title of Alberuni’s text is “Book of the Indian Patanjali on Liberation from the Afflictions”; scholars refer to it as the Kitab Patanjal. The original Sanskrit commentary cannot be identified; it is seemingly lost. Alberuni can be said to be the earliest documented translator of the Yoga sutra. His text is an important testimony of the process of cultural translation and knowledge transmission, as Alberuni struggled to render several Hindu words and concepts into Arabic, and in that process what emerged was a rich encounter of two cultures. The details of this encounter are beyond the scope of the present essay.

Alberuni’s undertaking of the work was undoubtedly motivated by the desire to familiarize the Muslim world with Indian ideas, which had already reached there via translations of various Indian scientific works. For instance, Brahmagupta’s two astronomical treatises, Brahma-Sphuta-siddhanta and Khanda-khadyaka were translated into Arabic as early as the 8th century. The medical treatises of Caraka, Susruta and Vagbhata were also translated into Arabic, followed by several other texts. These texts belong to the category of early Arabic and Persian translations of works of practical arts and sciences. Brahmagupta’s work in fact left a deep impact on the astronomical thinking of the Arabs. And of course, one need not reiterate here that the Arab numerals are in fact Indian numerals that reached the Arab world from India and from there a further transmission took place into Europe. Said al-Andalusi, an astronomer and historian of science, in his eleventh-century-work, Kitab Tabakat al-Umam (The Categories of Nations), accords the highest place to India among the contemporary nations which had developed the study of sciences. In this backdrop, Alberuni’s is one of the pioneering attempts at comparative religious study. In fact, many often claim Alberuni to be the first Indologist. 4

Philipp Maas and Noémie Verdon, however, note that: “The success of al-Bīrūnī’s programme to promote knowledge of South Asian religion and philosophy in the Muslim world appears to have been rather limited. The survival of a single textual witness of the Kitāb Pātanğal as well as an almost complete lack of references to al-Bīrūnī’s work in later Arabic or Persian literature indicates that it was received with reservation.”5 In fact, Abu’l Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari which was evidently influenced by Alberuni’s India never acknowledged this debt.6 But, like Alberuni, 500 years later, Abu’l Fazl too discussed Patanjali’s Yoga sutra in his book. David Gordon White notes that much of the fourth book of Ain-i-Akbari “is devoted to the six Hindu philosophical systems, concluding with a short disquisition on Patanjali’s school, which comprises an erudite synopsis of the Yoga Sutra as both a metaphysical treatise and a blueprint for a type of psychological training.” 7 The kind of transformations that took place in the course of cultural translation in the case of Alberuni also occurred in the case of Abu’l Fazl. Hence, both these works are not mere translations, but a window into understanding the initial Islamic reception of Yoga.

Another high point in the history of Islamic reception of Yoga was the Sufi encounter with Hatha Yoga. The Sanskrit/Hindi text Amritakunda (Pool of Nectar), which is believed to be no longer extant, survives in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu translations in multiple recensions. Carl Ernst notes that this highly complex textual history indicates that the text was subject to “a process of Islamisation, involving scriptural Islamic themes, philosophical vocabulary, and the terminology and concepts of Sufism.” 8 The Amritakunda was translated into Arabic in the 9th/15th century as Mirat al-maani, probably one of the earliest Islamic literary works from Bengal. The Hawz al-hayat is the earliest available Persian translation of the text; its date is uncertain but it was in circulation in the Indian Sufi circles by 1500.9 Subsequently, the Sufi master Muhammad Gawt Gwaliyari composed another Persian translation, Bahr al-hayat in Gujarat in the 10th/16th century.10 This text is believed to be a much revised and expanded version of the original Amritakunda material (which Gawt could not access)—an expansion which might be the result of consultation with contemporary yogic teachers. Bahr al-hayat was later translated into Dakhani Urdu.

Ernst claims that at least 45 copies of the Arabic text (which he calls Hawd al-hayat) is to be found in libraries in European and Arab countries, the majority being in Istanbul, and that it is frequently but wrongly attributed to the Sufi master Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi as the author. Ernst also notes: “The vocabulary of the text is mostly formed on the Arabic technical terminology of Hellenistic philosophy, with some Islamic overtones derived from the Qur’an and Sufism. The translator worked strenuously to render the yogic practices in a way that was understandable to a philosophically oriented reader of Arabic.” 11 At least two other less commonly known Persian translations of the Arabic text have been identified. One of them was circulated in Fars in Iran, from where the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle got a copy in the 17th century. The text was also twice translated into Ottoman Turkish.

It is important to note that while Alberuni had focused on philosophical questions, the Hawd al-hayat focused on hatha yogic practices rather than doctrines. Certain Sufis in India were undoubtedly aware of yogic practices and had taken note of the similarities between the yogic techniques of breath control etc. and their own meditative practices. “The earliest sources, from the fourteenth century, depict Sufis with a range of reactions to the teaching and practices of the yogis, ranging from skeptical criticism to frank admiration.”12 Nonetheless, they commented with interest on yogic techniques. A few examples are in order. Delhi’s own Sufi master Nizam al-Din Auliya found one yogi’s concept of bodily control impressive. His disciple, Nasir al-Din Chirag-i Dihli, the last important Sufi of the Chishti Order from Delhi, noted the importance of breath control in meditation for a Sufi practitioner, and in that context, acknowledged that yogis or siddhas were adept at breath control techniques. His disciple, Muhammad al-Husayni Gisu Daraz noted in early 15th century: “Following the habit of stopping the breath, as is done among the yogis, is necessary for the disciple, but not everyone can do it to the extent that those people can.” However, Gisu Daraz also noted: “Except for breath control, which is the specialty and support of the yogis, it is necessary for the disciple to avoid all their other kinds of practices.”13 Ernst notes that the later Chishti master Abd al-Quddus Gangohi was probably more familiar with the hatha yoga of the Naths more than anyone else in the Chishti Order. It is also in his connection that we find the earliest external reference to the Arabic translation of the Amritakunda, which he is said to have taught to a disciple in the late 15th century. He also composed a treatise, Rushd nama, which has considerable content on Yoga. Later Chishti masters “continued to include descriptions of yogic mantras in Hindi alongside Arabic dhikr formulas, together with explicit accounts of yogic postures (although the latter account tends to be much abbreviated).”14

These are just a few examples. While it is difficult to gauge the actual extent of influence, it is no doubt clear that there was not mere familiarity but an active engagement with the practices of hatha yogis. Here too, we see a fecund process of cultural translation at work. The examples of the Islamic reception of the text Amritakunda is an illustration of how Yoga was integrated into the gamut of existing Sufi practices.

Even a glimpse of this history would tell any reader about the active and transformative engagement of Islamic scholars and masters with regard to Yoga. Thus, way before the adoption of the International Day of Yoga by the UN, Yoga had already known a cosmopolitan reception in the pre-modern and early modern world. And this was, leaving aside its history of further transmission under the aegis of Orientalist scholarship during colonial rule.

  1. Whether it was Alberuni’s decision to accept Mahmud as his new patron or he was forced to do so remains a matter of speculation.
  2. David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 154.
  3. See Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum, ‘Al-Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patanjali’s Yogasutra: A Translation of His Second Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40(3), 1977.
  4. The title of Mario Kozah’s book is a pointer in this direction: Mario Kozah, The Birth of Indology as an Islamic Science: Al-Bīrūnī’s Treatise on Yoga Psychology, Boston: Brill, 2015.
  5. Philipp A. Maas and Noémie Verdon, ‘On al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Pātanğal and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra’, in K Baier, P. Maas, and K Preisendanz, eds., Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2018, pp. 290-291.
  6. This is the opinion of Vincent A. Smith, cited in Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, p. 152.
  7. Ibid., p. 149
  8. Carl Ernst, ‘The Islamization of Yoga in the “Amrtakunda” Translations’, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, 13(2), 2003, pp. 202-203.
  11. Carl Ernst, Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga, Sage/Yoda Press, 2016.
  12. Carl Ernst, ‘Situating Sufism and Yoga’, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, 15(1), 2005, p. 27.
  13. Cited in ibid., p. 28
  14. Ibid., p. 29.

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