David Gordon White
SIFTING THROUGH THE DATA
David and I spoke over Skype. I asked him how he was, and he asked me the same.
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: Good. It’s a nice day here in New York.
David Gordon White: It’s always nice here in SoCal. I’m from New York originally and I’m so happy I made it to SoCal. I took to heart Woody Allen’s adage that the only thing California was good for was a right turn on red, but it turns out that it’s good for a few other things too.
Nahem: Yeah, so let’s start with some personal history. I like to ask where people grew up. You grew up in New York?
White: Yeah, not in the city but in the suburbs, then when I was in high school we moved further north to Cornwall, New York, where actually I brushed shoulders with some famous people. In Tarrytown, New York, Bruce Jenner was on the same swim team as me, and in Cornwall David Petraeus and I were on the soccer team and in the same math class.
Nahem: There are some bizarre associations!
White: Yeah! So that’s where I grew up. I had a high school teacher in Cornwall who spoke with great passion about her trip to India and she showed us slides and that planted a seed, so when I realized I wasn’t cut out for the sciences I started taking classes in Asian religions at college in Madison, Wisconsin, and one thing led to another and I did what my teacher told me to do: I went to India, I went to grad school, I did all the degrees and languages you have to do. It’s been a very fulfilling career I must say, it’s worked out nicely.
Nahem: You studied with Wendy Doniger at one point, yes?
White: She was my advisor; Mircea Eliade was also one of my professors, although he was very ill at the time, I was his research assistant at Chicago for a couple years. So I had good teachers for sure. And I also lived in Paris for several years and some of the great Indologists were my teachers in Paris, so I got a really good education.
Nahem: And so as I understand it Paris is where you began your first, almost serendipitous, encounter with occult history when you were asked to translate an alchemical text from Sanskrit to French and then you’ve gone on an odyssey from there, your interests leading you from book to book.
White: Yes. As I say in my prefaces to my books that really has been the case. The questions that each book left open planted the seeds for the next book. So the three books on yoga basically followed that pattern. The fourth one, the new one, that was a commission, I hadn’t any intention of writing about The Yoga Sutra but I couldn’t refuse the offer. As it turns out I’m really happy I did it, it gave me closure, got me all the way up to the 21st century, whereas what I’d done up to that point ended with the British Raj.
Nahem: So through that alchemical text you became interested in yoga. You’ve said that you did practice yoga for some time?
White: When I was in India doing research on the alchemy book I wanted to have bodily experience of the traditions I was writing about, alchemy and hatha yoga, and so I asked a professor at Benaras Hindu University for a recommendation and he sent me to this young fellow named Sujit Pal who had won the Yoga Olympics previously, maybe the year before, a young Bengali. He was living in the family compound of a fellow by the name of Satya Charan Lahiri who was in a lineage going directly back to Lahiri Mahasaya, one of the gurus of Yogananda. I was in the courtyard waiting for my teacher to come down from wherever he was in the house and there was a life-size sculpture of Lahiri Mahasaya, taken from that photograph of him in Autobiography of a Yogi, and his disciple’s disciple was the guru in the house that my teacher Sujit Pal, lived in. In any case he was unbelievable, the things he could do. We just did postures, we didn’t do pranayama, I just wanted to learn the postures. If you look at my web page I can still do a raised Padmasana…. I mean, I’m still very flexible.
Nahem: Do you still practice?
White: I haven’t for a long time. I practiced with him and then when I lived in Charlottesville I had a good teacher for a number of years and then when I came out here I did do some yoga, but you know the sun shines all year round, I swim in outdoor pools and that gives me that same kind of endorphin rush, and it’s good for your body too.
Nahem: Sure. So you and several other historians have turned conventional ideas about yoga and yogis upside down. What have been the surprises for you in the course of your study in this field?
White: Certainly that yogis weren’t practicing yoga as we know it until relatively recently, that’s fresh in my mind, covered in my latest book of course. The original identification of Natha and Siddhas as mountain and geographical formations, as part of the sort of mystic landscape of South Asia, rather than as exceptional human beings ‒ that was an interesting realization. And of course that Tantric sex was much more about drinking fluids than about consciousness raising through the experience of orgasm. Those are the sort of mind-blowing things I discovered.
Nahem: I also thought that, as you elucidate in Sinister Yogis, the fact that yogis weren’t these meditative guys off in the forest, there were even gangs of them, like militias – that’s crazy stuff.
White: Yes, definitely.
Nahem: How do you see your work as a historian? What is the value of this work, and to whom is it valuable?
White: We all live with these meta-narratives about how things work. We Americans think George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River but of course they didn’t have silver dollars at the time. It’s our mythology that we just take as given about the great men, about the founders of our traditions, and the same for these Indian traditions. There’s the lore and people live by that and oppress others in the name of that, and then there’s the work of the historians who try to sift through data to see how that corresponds or not to what might have happened. I’ve written with an intended audience of people with open minds, including Indians with open minds, because I really do feel that it’s often in the name of these invented traditions the Hindu fundamentalists are wreaking havoc on their own people. It’s important to question authority.
Nahem: In terms of your involvement here I wanted to ask about your own beliefs. I got the impression from the introduction to Sinister Yogis, in particular, that you might have a belief in supernatural powers, or siddhis, such as shapeshifting and body possession.
White: No, I don’t believe in the supernatural. Perhaps that comes across in that preface. My intention of writing that into the preface was to show that, then as now, yogis are some kind of mixture between con artist and conjuror and so forth.
Nahem: Indeed you didn’t pay him the money he asked for!
White: That’s right. Perhaps it would be useful to know that I was raised as a Christian Scientist, which has “mind over matter” as one of its central tenets, and I rebelled against it. I continue to rebel against it. My parents are still alive and whenever I see them we fight over the power of mind over matter and such things. One of the reasons I got into Hinduism was that I wanted to get as far away from Christian Science and that woowoo spiritualism as I could, but as it turns out Mary Baker Eddy was strongly influenced by the Hindus, and the Transcendentalists were all into that stuff ‒ but I didn’t know it at the time.
So that’s kind of a hidden agenda, I distrust any invocation that uses the supernatural to explain phenomena of various sorts. Something we learned in divinity school in Chicago and elsewhere is that we as scholars of religion don’t seek to test to the truth value of claims made by religious people; what we are interested in are the claims in and of themselves, and then the people who make the claims. That’s why I put so much emphasis on human agency: who are the people who were generating these ideas, who were living for them, by them, against them and so forth? I don’t entertain with any seriousness that these people could fly or anything like that.
Nahem: Coming to your book, first just a quick question… You’ve entitled it The Yoga Sutra, singular. Often it’s presented plural, Sutras. Since “sutra” can be translated as “thread,” are you regarding the work as a kind of meta-thread?
White: No need to overthink this! I went back and forth with my editor. We have the Kama Sutra, not the Kama Sutras and there’s many texts we keep in the singular even though they’re composed of many sutras. To my mind, Sutras in the plural is a pointy-headed academic title and this was a book that was meant to be a trade book and it’s for that reason I decided to keep it in the singular. But it’s not for some sort of over-arching philosophical reason.
Nahem: So there’s a lot of mystery regarding the author of these sutras, opinions ranging from Patanjali being a god, to simply an editor.
White: Yes, there’s a range. When in doubt I opt for the notion that there were many people, or beings, that had the same name and that there is no reason to assume that they were one and the same person. I did this with Nagarjuna and other figures like Gorakhnath in the alchemy book. Having said that, while scholars don’t exactly allow that Patanjali may have been a god who descended to earth, some scholars feel there may have been just two Patanjalis, or perhaps only one, who would have been the author, editor, commentator of works on yoga, medicine, and grammar. If he was all three, he would have had to have lived around the second century BCE. This doesn’t work for most scholars, except for that French scholar Michel Angot whose claim is that Patanjali was probably a Buddhist who lived between 200 BCE and 0, and that Vyasa was a 7th Century Hindu who totally subverted Patanjali’s Buddhistic teachings and made them into something Brahmanical. This is not the majority opinion, although it is the one that works the best, in a way. The majority scholarly opinion is that there were at least two if not three Patanjalis and that the one who wrote The Yoga Sutra lived around 325 CE and he may well have been the same person as Vyasa, writing an auto-commentary rather than a commentary, which then allows scholars to bring in all that terminology that’s in Vyasa but not in Patanjali, that is, which is in the commentary but not in the Sutra itself, words such as , buddhi, purusha, and prakrti, words that we’ve all used to talk about the philosophy of yoga which are more or less absent from the Sutras themselves.
Nahem: I thought it was fascinating that the language of the Sutra is considered Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, which mixes in even more mystery. Fantastic! So the text has gone through vastly different periods in terms of popularity. Sometimes the regard was very scant. Now it’s a big deal! You speak about the fetishization of the Sutra by the yoga subculture. Do you think in general the interpretations have gone pretty far afield these days?
White: Yes. According to people who have a better understanding of it than I do, The Yoga Sutra is a philosophical treatise on accurate perception and techniques of accurate perception as a means to freeing spirit from matter, or from its identification with the permutations of matter. It’s not a guide for good living or happiness. Of course you’re going to be happy if your spirit is free from matter, but then you’re not living anymore! You’re something else. So apart from Chris Chappell and Ian Whicher, no academic has argued that the teachings are there in order to live a better life in the world, the teachings are there to guide you in breaking out of material life in the world, which basically means the extinction of your bodily life. So it’s entirely at odds with the way it’s generally touted by the many, many teachers and gurus who have been quoting chapter and verse to make their own points.
Nahem: It seemed to me reading the primary text that far from being body celebratory it was representing the idea that the body is vile and you’re trying to get free of it so you won’t suffer. More than one has reported that the Samkhya philosophy is tough to grasp. How difficult was it to get your head around the Samkhya philosophy that permeates the Sutra?
White: It’s still hard to get my head around it because it’s fairly incoherent. It was an early philosophy and it had some rough edges and it’s counter-intuitive. And so it was for Indians because after all it became completely Vedanticized by the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. All of India, and I’m not saying just intellectuals, view all their philosophical traditions through the lens of Vedanta, as they have done for hundreds of years. They interpret the teachings of The Yoga Sutra through that lens, as you read in my book. I was at this Jaipur Festival of Books, a major literary festival organized by William Dalrymple, that wonderful historian and commentator on all things Indian, and after I gave my spiel at this conference some guy stood up and said well of course Vedanta is the perennial philosophy of India and we all live by the teachings and so of course The Yoga Sutra is a Vedanta teaching as well, and I had to find ways to nicely say you’re full of shit.
Nahem: I saw that on YouTube! [Ed. Note: beginning 37:20 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuzjM5-lmfg –terrible sound, but comprehensible.]
One of the insights I most enjoyed in your biography of the book is that the controversies regarding basic concepts have shifted so enormously over time. At one point, as you put it, “debate revolved around the question of whether the first letter of Ishvara was an uppercase or lowercase i”. I don’t recall that when I trained to become a yoga teacher this was any kind of paramount concern. We seem to cherry-pick the issues we take from the text according to the era.
White: I totally agree. And yeah, the issue about Ishvara lower or upper case, the more of a non-dualist you are the more it has to be uppercase. That particularly comes out in the writings of Vijnanabhikshu, the 16th century commentator who said, No, Ishvara is God, and yoga is union with God. And that’s been the standard interpretation of modern yoga gurus.
Nahem: Yes, because it’s familiar and easy. You seem to have a great reverence for the commentary on the work, and your piece is a history not just of the (not so voluminous) primary text itself but on what was said and written about it. One story that really interested me was your description of the translation by Rajendralal Mitra, which is now out of print. I wonder if your book will elicit enough interest to have it re-published.
White: I would hope it will come back into print. He’s a highly regarded Indologist, scholar of Indian religion. Among modern day scholars he’s considered to be a great pioneer, but this happens to be one of the things he did that no one paid attention to for a long time. He’s also the father of another great Indian pioneer, more from the Buddhist side, a scholar named -Benoytosh Bhattacharya. So he and his son are exemplars of Indians taking on the mantle of the Orientalists, the British who began the process of reading Indian scripture the way Western classicists read ancient Greek and Latin texts. And he was so good at it, it’s such a brilliant piece of writing. So much that’s been done since by scholars has been reinventing the wheel because he did it all in 1883. It’s so well done. So much of the detective work that people thought they were doing, well he’d done it already. Obviously I found reference to him in some other scholar’s writing and that’s what piqued my curiosity, and thank goodness it did, it made me try to find it. It was actually a microfiche that one of the libraries sent me. I photographed the microfiche from a reader using my iPhone and the pages of the book I used were those iPhone photos, all gray and foggy, which I later transferred to my computer.
Nahem: Is it a long text altogether? You quote verbatim the 17 points of The Yoga Sutra as Mitra envisions them.
White: It’s a hundred page preface and then there’s about a hundred pages of translation.
Nahem: So in terms of the Sutra what were the big surprises for you?
White: I was totally at sea, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d taken the advance from my editor at Princeton and so I had to do something with it! Then I had this idea that maybe I should quantify the importance of this text by counting manuscripts. And that was a light bulb moment. I spent much of that summer ordering manuscript catalogues from everywhere, and tabulating the number of manuscripts on the different philosophical schools. It was by doing that that I came to clearly see that at the time that Colebrooke wrote his 1823 essay there were virtually no Yoga Sutra manuscripts around. There were oodles of manuscripts from the five other “standard” Hindu schools, with the exception of Samkhya. Yoga and Samkhya were the two neglected orphans of Indian philosophy. So once I realized that it wasn’t an important part of the Indian philosophical landscape at the turn of the nineteenth century, I had kind of a pivot to work off of. I have never started a book with the intention of debunking what everyone else had written before me, but it seems like that’s what I always end up doing.
Nahem: Just can’t help yourself!
White: I don’t think I have a contrarian personality, except when it comes to my Christian Science upbringing. But when I found this idea I hadn’t encountered anywhere else, that there were so few Yoga Sutra manuscripts around at the turn of the nineteenth century--that helped make it interesting to me. Then I had to discover why. But it was an arduous task altogether. I earned the advance for sure.
Nahem: It’s very obvious the amount of scholarship that has gone into this work. In terms of the story of the text, I thought it curious there wasn’t more about B.K.S. Iyengar. I had thought he was rather key in the resurrection of the Sutra and its introduction into the modern yoga class. You speak a lot about Krishnamacharya but not so much about Iyengar.
White: Well two things. Iyengar was Krishnamacharya’s pupil, so he got some of it, much of it, from him, but I’m more inclined to think he wanted to plant his own flag on The Yoga Sutra because he was competing with Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois for the turf his teacher had left open. But the other reason is really more anodyne, which is that I had a page limit, I had to cut a lot. About 30% of the book is on the cutting room floor. The book belongs to a series of cute boutique volumes that are attractive, but the page limit was about 300 pages, and I was up against that, so some of what I had about Iyengar ended up on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, once I set up the narrative that modern day gurus are Vedanticizing what was Samkhya tradition, there’s not a lot that’s original in Iyengar apart from his expanded use of the mythology of Patanjali’s birth.
Nahem: So what are you working on now and where does the odyssey lead next?
White: I’m not ever going to write about yoga or Tantra ever again! [Laughter.]
Nahem: You just say that, David!
White: Well I’ve been saying it for the longest time, but I really think this time I’ve played it out. The last things I’ve been writing and working on go back to my PhD dissertation, which was also my first book, which was called Myths of the Dog Man, and was about the mythology of monstrous races that traveled up and down the Silk Road between Europe, China and India, and while I don’t master all the languages of those exchanges, I can use other people’s translations for what I don’t know. So what I’ve been writing and researching ‒ and I’ve got two articles out and others in the pipeline - is demonology on the Silk Road. Demons travel very light, they’re not like gods, you don’t need a lot of theology, they’re just demons, they’re nuisances, and they’re pretty easy to deal with portable devices such as amulets, charms, spells and so forth. You find Indian demons in Manichean texts and Roman harpies in India, there are all sorts of fascinating appearances of these figures, and how you deal with them, all along that trail. A lot occurred in Persia so I’m trying to decide if I have it in me to learn another ancient/medieval language, so I can do it all myself, but really there are some very good Iranists out there. So that’s the next thing.
There’s also this god Bhairava, a horrific form of Shiva, a quintessential Tantric deity, he’s been in nearly everything I’ve written: he rides a dog, he’s a god of alchemy, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive monograph written on him.
So those are the two projects I’m working on.
Nahem: Anything else you’d like to add?
White: I hope that readers from the yoga culture, or subculture, won’t take my work as disrespectful. With the Krishnamacharya material it may sound like I’ve stepped over a line here and there, but I don’t say anything which is disrespectful to him, rather it’s his biographers, particularly Desikachar and his son, who cooked the books a bit to make him out to be a yoga scholar in a way that I don’t believe he was. In any case I know there’s a tension between pointy-headed scholars and practitioners in this country and I don’t want to alienate practitioners.