Friday, December 6, 2013

How Ants Ate Krishnamacharya's Homework

When Indra Devi came though the majestic gilded doors of the palace at Mysore, she was entering one of the most whirling, swirling, stirring crucibles of 20th Century culture. Mysore was a melange, a stew, a gumbo — it was an incomparable mulligatawny. The Maharaja of Mysore was acclaimed, often even by the very British administrators who had been instructed to keep an eye on him, as perhaps the greatest governor they had ever heard of or read about — not merely in colonial India, or  in all the colonies, but anywhere — and they were typically transformed by the experience. He was a patron of the arts and a creator of them — he played half a dozen instruments with true mastery, and half a dozen more with mere competence. He was a true disspeller of darkness: he created hydro-electric dams and the power lines that would bring electricity to all his people, even the lowest, and he founded schools of learning and language that preserved the old while encouraging the new. He was determined to restore the ancient arts of India even while flinging his kingdom's windows open to the new light of the West. He was likely the only great philosopher-king of the Twentieth Century. And he encouraged Krishnamacharya to establish his school of Yoga within the gloriously-decorated walls of the palace.

All contemporary Yoga stems from the palace at Mysore. Yet, curiously, Yoga's much-declared "lineage" may be — at least according to Western standards — composed less of history and heritage and tradition than fabrication, fraud, and wishful thinking. It involves secret scrolls, mysterious Tibetan caves . . . and the voracious ants who apparently thrive in those chilly Tibetan caves, thoughtfully chewing up the secret scrolls just in time to foil those who might care to have a quick look at them. Meanwhile, the Yoga school of Krishnamacharya more closely resembled a 1920s YMCA gym full of boisterous Brahmin boys than it did what we'd think of Yoga classes, and one of his biggest Yogic influences (if we discount the ant colonies of the mystic caves of Tibet, where he seems never to have gone anyway, if we're going to let facts factor in) were a set of British music hall tumblers who came to entertain the Maharaja.

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