Often times, yoga is stripped of its “religious” background because it is felt that “yoga should be for everyone”, no matter what religion or whether they are religious or not.
It is also felt that the stories in yoga are “woo-woo” and it sometimes “offends” the sensitivities of those belonging to other faiths. While this may appear to be fair statement to some, I personally do not ascribe to it.
I am Christian, and yoga philosophy embodied in its stories has helped to expand my faith and my mind. The stories are a crucial part for growth. When we grow, it usually requires a challenge to our minds or to our comfort zone. And challenges are not to be feared, as Kelly McHugh of the Digital Yoga Academy has often said to her students (including me!).
Secondly, the stories are not ‘religious’ in the sense some of us are used to. The gods and goddesses, demons and monsters, do not represent actual deities or beings or entities. What they represent are metaphors, ideas and capacities.
After all, C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” are famous allegories for the Christian Gospels. Metaphors, symbolism and allegories lurk in all the arts we experience, including modern art and literature, such us William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Are we fearful or offended of these?
Once we understand that the stories in yoga are symbols, metaphors, allegories or capacities, we can come to the third point – our yoga practice, both on and off the mat will be enriched and heightened with wisdom and insight from the stories..
As such, I have decided to explore stories in yoga every month. October is witness to Navaratri – Night Nights – which celebrates the goddess in her various incarnations. We can also choose to see this as a celebration of the feminine or the Divine Feminine.
To commemorate this occasion, let’s take a look at three forms of the goddess in yoga philosophy.
The goddess in yoga philosophy.
Sometimes, the goddess is viewed in her three forms of Kali, Saraswati and Lakshmi. Kali can be viewed as a metaphor for time. Like time, she is unseen, depicted by her black skin. And as time is a raw process of birth, life and death, Kali is adorned by blood and bones.
She is always present like (most) mothers, because she is time. Her demeanour is usually fierce, because she is viewed as a mother who fiercely protects what is hers.
She is mother because everything comes from time, nurtured and supported by time, and received back by time… We are always enveloped or embraced by Kali (time process) and we are never alone.Manoj Khaimal, co-principal and co-founder of Manasa Yoga School.
In yoga, we always bring ourselves back to the present moment. The present moment is part of the time process. Kali is the foundation of our yoga practice, and she is always present and we are always in her embrace.
From the foundation of Kali, we move on to the second manifestation of the goddess, Saraswati. At Manasa Yoga School, we view Saraswati as the light self-reflection has on our awareness – the light that is shone on ourselves as we reflect internally.
Saraswati in Indian tradition is a symbol for knowledge, but as we reflect on ourselves – whether on movement on the mat, or on our internal self in sitting meditation – that is when the light shines upon us and knowledge is received.
When we have that light of awareness (Saraswati) touching a moment in time (Kali), we derive wealth or Lakshmi. Wealth is derived when we have an open heart to receive and also to offer up in our hearts to the universe (whether in devotion to our personal god, or whether to others in community, or other forms of offerings).
Another way to look at the goddess.
These three goddesses are symbolic within their context of their male consorts. Saraswati is consort to Brahma, Lakshmi to Vishnu, and Kali – in the form of Parvati / Durga* – to Shiva.
Brahma is seen as the creator, while Saraswati is knowledge. Vishnu is the preserver, with Lakshmi as wealth. Shiva is the destroyer, with Durga as power. These “marriages” indicate the symbiotic relationship between what we have (the goddesses) and our potential / who we are (the gods). Devdutt Pattanaik states:
…. The goddesses are what we have, while the gods are who we can become. We can be Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva. We either seek or shun wealth, power and knowledge. The gods are what we do (creating, sustaining, destroying); the goddesses are what we seek (wealth, power, knowledge)…Devdutt Pattanaik, “Metaphor of Three Goddesses“
It’s really not a case of the feminine being seen as possessions (what we have) and the masculine being viewed as something greater than possessions. As pointed out by Mr. Pattanaik in his “Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management” book:
Shiva is often depicted as Ardhanareshwar, the half-woman god. The male half of Ardhanareshwar represents our potential and the female half represents resources. Without potential (Shiva), resources have no meaning. And without resources (Shakti), potential is useless.Pattanaik, Devdutt, “Business Sutra: A Very Indian Approach to Management”
One is required for the other. In some traditions, for example, Shiva (consciousness) opens his eyes because of Shakti, and in some traditions, it is the other way around.
The beautiful thing is – there is no “wrong” or “right”.
For us to reflect on.
The beauty of yoga stories and philosophy is that everything is a reflection of us. Of me. The wisdom I derive as I meditate on it is a reflection of me – not of you and not of any other. If I find beauty in it, it is reflecting my beauty. If I get offended by it, it is reflecting my offence. Any of my views or reactions or responses are reflections of me.
Everyone’s journey is their own. Family and friends are there to help guide the way. But there is no compulsion in yoga – just what can be skilful and less skilful, as my guru Manoj Khaimal likes to say.
So as you move on the mat, or as you move through your day, I hope you notice the moments of Kali / Saraswati / Lakshmi. Those moments may seem a lifetime as you suddenly have insight into yourself, but they could be small micro moments. Perhaps these moments may spurn you towards greater karuna / compassion (incidentally the capacity of which is represented by goddess, Tara, in some Buddhist traditions).
Please do leave a comment on your thoughts or how you view the goddesses or how they affect your yoga practice below!
*Kali is seen as time, but she has many incarnations, including Parvati, Gauri and Durga.