Yoga and Your Body: Did Patanjali Really Say That Your Body Is Disgusting?

Via on May 2, 2011

Our interpretation of yoga philosophy matters. It may even have severe historical consequences. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a case in point.

In a recent debate on Elephant Journal, prolific blogger Matthew Remski wrote: “that ‘yoga philosophy is always imperfect’ is proven by 2:40, which proposes that bodily disgust is a virtue. this is certainly a view that is subject to revision.”

Matthew Remski is here referring to Patanjali’s famed and sometimes controversial Yoga Sutra 91, Chapter 2, Verse 40 in which he states: Shauchat svanga jugupsa parairasansargahare

Georg Feuerstein, one of the most read and respected yoga scholars in the world today, translates this sutra thus:

“Through purity [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.”

In his commentary, Feuerstein emphasizes that what Patanjali means is this: to have a positive idea of the body, of being “on one’s guard” with respect to one’s body. In other words, take good care of it, so that it becomes a good vehicle for spiritual pursuits, for meditation.

However, not everyone has interpreted this sutra in such a body-positive way. Not according to Indian blogger Srinivan, who claims that Indian commentator’s misunderstood Patanjali and thereby brought not only yoga but the whole Indian civilization down with them.

He writes (typos included): “This one misunderstanding has created the worst sin for Indian consciousness. Jugupsa being translated as disgust is like a thorn inserted nto the Indian consciousness. This is responsible for the untouchability and and western civilizations used it as a weapon to destroy the civilization.”

So, according to Srinivan, “this one misunderstanding” of Patanjali’s words may have something to do with the creation of India’s caste system, sexual repression, religious dogma, etc. That’s a serious accusation! Could the dark sides of Indian civilization be caused by the terse words of a yoga philosopher? Perhaps. Philosophy does indeed matter.

That at least many Indians, perhaps including Patanjali, and just like puritan Westerners, have had a conflicted relationship with the body, can be exemplified by these two examples:

When living in India, I once practiced asanas with a group of male friends. While performing shoulder stand, I jokingly touched the head of a young Indian man with my toe. He suddenly got up and ran away. He was not seen in the ashram for several months.

Little did I know at that time, but in India it is considered a sin to touch someone’s head with one’s foot.

Once, while listening to NPR, I heard a well known Indian feminist writer say the following: “In India we have two views of women. They are either prostitutes or Goddesses.”  But we should not just point fingers at India. In the puritan West, the Madonna-Whore complex is deeply ingrained in men who marry “proper wives” while still having sex in secret with other, beautiful women.

Someone named Luke, a frequent contributor to debates on Elephant Journal, responded with these words to Remski’s remarks:

“2.40 does not say anything about virtue. It says that as a consequence of practicing cleanliness/purity, there is disgust for one’s own parts. A warning perhaps, but not a call to vomit. Cleanliness/purity is also said to result in sense-control, one-pointedness, and cheerfulness, among others.”

Not a call to vomit, perhaps, but still, does it not look as if  Patanjali had a strong bout of duality when writing this sutra? Did he not mean that the body is impure and that we need to distance ourselves from it in order to gain enlightenment from within?

I think he did, actually. But even if that is the case, what is the problem?

The important part, I think, is in how we interpret, how we translate this traditional wisdom, how we practice it. Do we, in our balancing of the body, mind and spirit suppress the body and its needs, or do we purify it, lust and all, with love and care?

Hence, the key word here, I think, is “sauca” or purity. Not a dualistic, puritan cleanliness, but rather a holistic purity. The kind of purity that Nischala Joy Devi uses in her translation of the same sutra:

“Through simplicity and continual refinement, the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the self within.”

When I lived in India, I witnessed firsthand the “misunderstanding” that Srinivan alludes to in his comments above, that the Indian ascetic disgust for the body has had many cruel consequences. Indeed, it often seemed something had been seriously and often violently lost in translation.

When I saw yogis holding their hands up high for 13 years straight, nails growing through their flesh; when I saw subdued, untouchable women making gravel by the road with hammers, one rock at-a-time; when I saw “impure” low caste villagers living as slaves—did I witness what Srinivan called a grave, historical “misunderstanding, a disgust for the body, for that which is impure, low, base, vile, disgusting?

With this sutra, are we witness to something lost in translation? Or are we simply witnessing an inbuilt disgust for the body within traditional India, the yoga community itself, and, as here, expressed by Patanjali, one of yoga’s greatest philosophers?

What seems clear is that philosophy matters. It matters a great deal, in fact. How we read and translate philosophy matters. My own Indian teacher used to say, for example, that India has suffered greatly because of Shankaracarya’s Vedantic idea that “the world is an illusion.”

He furthermore said this: millions of Indians are poor and downtrodden precisely because such ideas makes them believe that there is no use in changing this world for the better—it’s just an illusion. It will be better for me in my next incarnation.

My teacher’s answer: Why not make this incarnation better? Why not make this world better?

This philosophical concept of the world as illusion, or the body as something disgusting, is in stark contrast to the tantric idea that this world is sacred, that this world is real, that this world can be heaven on earth. A stark contrast to the idea of engaged spirituality, of sacred activism.

So, yes. Philosophy matters.

What we are also witnessing in this debate over this sutra is a cultural, historical, and spiritual duality in India as well as the greater yoga community: namely the differences between the vedic and the tantric worldviews, practices, and philosophies.

This duality between the vedantic idea that the world is an illusion and the tantric idea that the world is sacred; the duality between dogma and the free expression of ideas; the duality between tradition and new transmission of ideas, the duality between religious tradition and mystic introspection; the duality between tradition and experimentation –these dualities are indeed complex and in themselves reflections of the pulsating reality we live in.

Hence, I do not mean to sum this debate up by simply saying that Patanjali was wrong and that Vedanta is bad; that the yoga tradition is outmoded and that only the new, postmodern, democratic, innovative thinking of the West is good. No, not at all. Realty is much more complex and interesting than such philosophical and practical simplifications.

Poet Robert Bly summed this up nicely when he said that we need both vertical (traditional) and horizontal (innovative) thinking to lead balanced lives in a dynamic, ever-changing world. This means to energetically debate the old sayings, the old philosophers while also energetically developing new ideas, but without throwing all that is good in tradition out with the bath water.

In doing so, we will, I think, realize there is much from the old that has been tested and tried throughout time, much that is worthy of saving and nurturing. And much, that, with a few alterations by writers such as Nischala Joy Devi, can bring fresh new insight and wisdom.

Indeed, I venture to say that most yogic wisdom and practice is worthy of saving. Precisely because yoga is not a dogma but a living, changing tradition.

Indeed, it is also worth noting that in India itself, Patanjali is not very popular or well read. He is considered too dry, too dualistic. Why? Because there is this other wild side to India; the tantric side; the ecstatic side; the shamanic side; the bhakti side—that side of India in which caste, high and low, pure and impure melts in dance and devotion, in prayer and ritual, and reaches a place of heart and mind beyond the limits of philosophy. A place within where philosophy indeed does not matter at all.

In other words, we need Patanjali as much as we need Nischala Joy Devi. We need both tradition and innovation. But more than anything, we yogis need spiritual love, devotion, ecstasy, wild kirtan dancing.

Because, without the incredible contributions of Patanjali, and of the multiplicity and complexity of Mother India herself, we would not be having this discussion in the first place.

So, yes, Remski is right. Philosophy must always be up for close scrutiny. And, yes, new philosophers, new interpreters can sometimes improve upon the texts of old.

And Luke is also right, there is no need to vomit, even if a great philosopher hints at your body being even just a tad bit disgusting. Just alter the translation;  just alter the interpretation.

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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32 Responses to “Yoga and Your Body: Did Patanjali Really Say That Your Body Is Disgusting?”

  1. Linda-Sama says:

    I use Desikachar's Reflections on the Sutra-s: "When cleanliness is developed, it reveals what needs to be constantly maintained and what is eternally clean. What decays is the external. What does not is deep within us."

    His interpretation: "Our excessive concern about and attachment to outward things, which are both transient and superficial, is reduced."

  2. Anne Falkowski Anne Falkowski says:

    Loved this article. My recent understanding of Patanjali is that he was vedantic and during his time the yogi's aim was to transcend the body and this lifetime since the worldview at the time was influenced by the average lifespan being about 30 or so. Reality was hard and getting out of this world was the goal. The yogi wanted to get free from this world.

    When the tantric view came to be, my understanding is that life got a bit easier and the average lifespan grew. No longer would a man possibly bury multiple children and wives. Now the goal became to get free in this lifetime. Not transcending this world or our bodies but getting free in our bodies and minds in this lifetime.

    With that being said, if Patanjali was coming from the world view that this life and this body was meant to be transcended, it would make sense to me that he would see the body as disgusting.

    I really appreciate this article because it points out how important it is for us to understand the world view at the time that certain yoga philosophies stem from and to also consider the ever evolving and changing tradition that yoga is.

  3. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Anne, thanks so much for writing and reading. if we think of Patanjali in terms of the 6 Indian Schools of Philosophy, he was really not a Vedantin, but rather in a school by himself, namely representing Yoga. The five other schools were: Samkhya (many also calls Patanjali's system Samkhya Yoga, as it reflected the more yogic and practical aspects of Samkhya), Vedanta, Vaisheshika, Nyaya, and Uttar Mimamsa.

    But you are right that the tantric world view reflected a more holistic and body-positive attitude.
    While I think it is nearly impossible to know exactly what Patanjali intended with every word, i think you also are right in saying it is important to reflect upon the worldview he might have represented, but perhaps even more important to reflect on what these words mean to us today.

  4. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    #
    from Facebook.
    #
    Dario Jovović
    No, he never said that, it's just a wrong understanding by non-practicioners of the words in question

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Patanjali may not have intended this understanding, but by choosing the word jugupsa, which translates as disgusting, dissemblance, and hiding, one is hard pressed not to think so.

  5. matthew says:

    Ramesh – great piece!

    One of the things that strikes me about most translations of 2:40 is the bend-over-backwards apologetic posture that must be taken to squeeze out a positive reading. I think this happens because there’s a lot at stake for proponents of the book at hand. It’s very hard to invest both emotions and time in translating something that contains such an ugly verse without trying to put a lot of lipstick on it. Modern translators know that they are responsible for the proliferation of the ideas they publish – and it’s in their interest to portray them in the brightest light possible.

    Of course, Devi’s version is not a translation, but a brave update. I think this is more germane to the modern practitioner in the case of a hopelessly outdated worldview: to make clear and transparent decisions about what is useful and what is not useful, and inject just as much content into the gap as you’re taking from it.

    This is why Scott and I translate “sauca” as “ecology”, allowing the verse to read: “Ecology allows you to honour your body, and the bodies of others.” This is a conscious attempt to strip the verse of its asceticism and misanthropy, leaving something that is useful and progressive.

    I think Srinivan is overstating his case. Firstly, he seems to believe that the caste system follows Patanjali historically. Secondly he seems to confuse the critique of a single verse with the results of imperial capitalism. It’s not so simple. The officials of the East India Company were not consulting the scholars on Patanjali when plotting the rape of India.

    While there can be little doubt about the dissociative dualism of 2:40, it is very true that Patanjali’s text is neither the final word nor even a majority opinion in the vast yoga tradition. I’m very glad you’ve pointed this out. The problem with criticism is that it has to use a target, and it’s often hard for both the critic and reader to remember how small that target is.

    I love Robert Bly, and hope to be as lucky as you to meet him one day. When I think of vertical authority, I think of intuition-states, for I honestly don’t know where intuition comes from, except from being present to the whole. Lateral authority seems to come from a different presence: of intimate sharing.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Matthew,
      thanks for this detailed sharing of insights and interpretations, which i resonate with. I also think Srinivan overstates his case. I wanted to leave certain things in the article ambiguous to perhaps stimulate discussion. In many ways, Patanjali's sutras' influence on Indian culture is not that important,t and in terms of the caste system, the laws of Manu and the ancient Vedic tradition had direct influence, as caste is built into this tradition and became institutionalized and dehumanized over time. Ditto about British imperialism, whose conquer and divide tactics certainly utilized caste and religious dogma to their advantage. In other words, the caste system made it much easier to conquer India.
      Patanjali was most definitely a dualist, even though many disagree, but this, I think, is perhaps the most important insight about Patanjali, which contrasts the puritan nondualism of Vedanta, another extreme–while both are beautifully balanced by Tantra. That is my overly generalized take on this.

      I feel indeed blessed to have known Robert over the years, and if you want to meet him, you better hurry; he is getting up there in years (84) and despite being a fully engaged and active writer, is doing fewer performances each year.
      I like the concept of vertical authority and intuition-states, which i think goes to the heart of translating/understanding the texts, on the one hand, and translating/interpreting intuitional or spiritual insights in the first place. Would the same intuition insight/experience be interpreted the same in different cultures, in different centuries? Hardly. So language and culture themselves are the philosophical filters and lenses we use to explain the inexplicable. Not an easy task. But a very important task, and hence our need to adjust our language, our translations and interpretations.

      • Esther Liberman Esther says:

        Ramesh, thank you so much for this lucid and in many ways challenging article. I very much enjoyed your gloss on the various schools of yoga and their presumed take on the torrential contents of the sutra you selected to unpack. Mostly, though, I interject here to applaud your reminder that "philosophy matters" and the way in which you advocate for both the "vertical" structure of our critical apparatuses and the "horizontal" progress of the contents of that philosophy so it can inform our present-day thoughts and actions appropriately. It's so easy to become lost in skilled translations of ancient text, such that we forget they were written in other languages and during different times, and that to find exact equivalents in our current idiom is both impractical and likely impossible. When we do forget, we run the risk of being literal; we lose the literariness; we are caught up in dogma, no matter how well read we are. Again, thanks, and looking forward to your next one.

  6. Ramesh, this is one of your finest essays, among many fine essays.

    I enjoy the entire history of Yoga, but for my own spiritual sustenance I still find the pre Yoga Sutra Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita most meaningful and powerful.

    Many things that came later start to seem to me to be a lot like the ritual and priestly excesses the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita were explicitly rebelling against. And I view the modern interpretations of Yoga I enjoy the most to be an explicit return to the simplicity and directness of these texts.

    But of course, to make sense of the Upanishads and the Gita today, one must do exactly what you and Matthew both advocate–interpret them in my own personal way. Luckily, that's what the texts themselves urge us to do, too. So, no problem there.

    Loved this essay.

    Bob

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Thank you, Bob. Well, maybe I should start spending less time on my essays, then, as this one was written in a very short time, less than two hours.
      I have often argued that what we see in the Gita and the Upanishads represent the spiritual union of the vedas and the tantric tradition; it is the best of both worlds, so to speak. because the priestly excesses were there all along in the vedic tradition, but perhaps degenerated even more in the period of the Buddha and Mahavir, and after the great Upanishadic period, who both revolted against it.

      i think, Bob, that the Indian tradition itself is a good example of what we also do–debate and interpret. Intellectual debate was part of the tradition and that so many schools existed in peace side-by-side in India reflects that tradition beautifully. So, yes, we are continuing that tradition, in a way.

      • Hear, hear, Ramesh. That is my impression also and a very great insight–that disagreement and debate and diversity were an integral part of Yoga from the beginning, reflected clearly in the ancient texts themselves. It's no more a modern phenomenon than philosophy itself.

        If anyone doubts this I highly recommend Georg Feuerstein's richly detailed and highly persuasive The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice.

        Thanks again for a great article.

        Bob W.
        Yoga Editor

        • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

          Exactly, Bob. That is one of the great contributions of India, despite its many flaws, nobody was burned at the stakes for claiming enlightenment or for disagreeing with Patanjali or Krsna or Bob!
          Yes, Feuerstein's book is great for that and many other reasons.

  7. William Price says:

    I couldn't agree more, Bob. You can be figuratively covered in shit, but if your heart is pure, your aspiration, your intention, that, is a yogi, a sadhu, a vipram. Purity is not superficial form. The same self scorn the western monks perform is done in the east as you note Ramesh, The hatred of the body, of sex, of food, of Life, all this patriarchal dogman and idolatry, is really disguised hatred of the Goddess and misunderstanding of her glory. . I could care less how pretty you can pose or how many baths you take. What a crock! Patanjali is not even a real person, but a conglomeration of panditry.

    Too much time is wasted on these Sutras, grasshopper. More confusing than anything to strain the truth from. Worse than Aquinas.Yoga is the purposeful life of the self-conscious human being, no more, no less.If these exercises and meditative practices help you to get here, more power to you, Stick to your Gita, Yoga Vashishta, Upanishad, and get your feelings, your actions, and your thought directed toward Truth, Consciousness, and Beauty.Your only real goal, should be knowledge. Intellectual speculation is for birdbrains and that's just what they sound like..I can see Siva laughing his ass off. Thank you, Ramesh.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Shiva laughing his ass off, yes indeed, William! And with that said, no intellectual debate can be as, if not more, limiting, as too much of it. Speculation is for sure just that, speculation. But as you just used your intellect to write the above, it has its useful aspects which should be celebrated as much as the body, as much as the emotions. I celebrate the whole shebang myself, and i think Shiva would agree!

    • Friide says:

      Rishi Patanjali was a living person from Patun village in Burdwan,West Bengal. He was born around 2,000 years ago.While Kapil's Samkhya did not acknowledge the existence of Supreme,Patanjali on the hand did accept the existence of Iishvara and his most famous work being the Yoga Sutras.

  8. Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Also to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  9. matthew says:

    Hi William. Entertainment is a high priority of ours. And deconstruction is only one of our modes. You can read through the rest of the 2.0 lab pages for many different tunes.

  10. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Thanks so much for your diligence and support, Bob!

  11. luke says:

    Given that therapeutic vomiting (vamana), is a common ayurvedic practice, saucha could be a call to vomit! The body is disgusting. This seems obvious, and does not mean it can’t be seen as astounding and beautiful, nor does it imply one needs to have image issues- vairagya still applies. Vyasa says that eventually one figures out that no amount of enemas will ever really clean the body. Egoism, greed, and the oppressive nature of righteousness are factors I think are much more powerful and pervasive socially than discovering that the body is disgusting, and dynamics I see as being more negatively bodily obsessed, as they are based on clinging to an image, not Self discovery.

    In the discussion mentioned in this article, it was mentioned that jugupsa could be interpreted to mean “desirous to protect”, making it “one becomes protective of one’s own parts.” (as in, “seeks to safeguard them”) I did a bit of looking to see how off base such a thing would be, and found that newer texts definitely take it as disgust (the manusmriti (2.31) says shudras should have a jugupsa-ish first name). Kale translates it as nauseating in Bhratrihari’s Nitishataka 9:
    When munching with zest for sweetness unparallelled a human bone stinking, nauseating and fleshless, covered with a whole family of worms and clammed with saliva, a cur has no misgivings to behold even Indra standing near; a mean wretch does not mind to be worthlessness of his belongings.

    Older texts gave the meaning suggested, as found in the Upanishads: Chandogya’s 5.10.8 tasmAj jugupseta ,“A man should seek to protect himself from that” (trans. Olivelle), and Brhadaranyaka (kanva) 4.4.15 (also Katha 4.5,12, Isa 6): na tato vijagupsate ,“He will not seek to hide from him” (trans. Olivelle). I wasn’t able to find any agamas to check. gup (the root from which jugupsa is derived) is itself a bit strange, for though it is found in the vedas, it is said to be from a noun gopaa, ‘shepherd’ (‘cow’ (noun, go) + ‘protect’ (verbal root, paa), also = gopi). Perhaps the meaning changed from protect-> keep secret (gupti)-> keep away from -> disgust (desire to keep away from). All of which is to say that ‘becoming protective of one’s own parts’ isn’t an entirely far-fetched interpretation, and might be more in line with tapas purifying the body. Of course, if the body can be purified, no problem!

    I enjoy different revisions, though the anything goes celebrate your narcissism that virtual living offers is starting to disgust me (oh, clinging!). Nischala Joy Devi’s The Secret Power of Yoga is a wonderful, very readable revision that tweaks more than rewrites. It’s subtitled and marketed as a woman’s guide to the ys but it is a guide for anyone, regardless of social dynamism. It has many practical, simple, effective exercises and advice on establishing a “beyond the mat” practice. The book is focused on revealing our inherent bliss, and gives 2.41 as, “Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms.”

    Lahiri Mahasaya gives (via niketan.net):
    With purity (with the understanding of impurity) in one’s own body, one becomes disinterested in worldly attachments and becomes detached from others.-40-
    From purity comes sattvic immaculateness, dignified calmness, onepointedness, and victory over the senses, and one becomes fit to witness the Self.-41-

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Luke, you bring up a lot of interesting and complex issues here. My sources tell me that the Manusmriti was contemporary with Patanjali, but since it represents the vedic social structure more than yoga, it is this text more than anything which has informed Hindu society and its caste system. Nietzche spoke highly of it and preferred it to the Bible, and with his ubermensch mentality that says a bunch. In other words, I do not think the laws of Manu came after the Yoga Sutras.

      Our relationship with our bodies are complex–from the fetish worship of modern western yoga to the extreme ascetics of India, from developing physical and holistic health to seeing it deteriorate and experience pain as we age and become sick.
      But the sticking point I think is how we view the body in terms of spiritual practice; as something disgusting to suppress and leave behind or a vehicle for sacredness and health to move beyond. These are imporatnt distinctions that make a big difference in how we act and feel, both personally and socially. When we are sick and in pain, having a disciplined, strong and meditative mind comes in handy. I have personally been severely sick several times, near death once, and know intimately the stages of fear, disgust, detachment, surrender, love that we may go through. What I found is that love and surrender (not disgust ) are the best fuels for insight and relief in such circumstances. Ultimately, I think the sutra speaks to the power of the mind over the body–that no matter what happens to the body, what is important is what happens to the mind; are we attached to the pain and suffering or the strength and beauty of the body, or are we just witnessing their play? For many, pain is a great teacher, the falling apart of the body gives rise to a deeply spiritual mind. For others, it signifies the falling apart of both. None of that is disgusting–it just is what it is.

      Thanks for sharing the various interpretations, of which there are nearly as many as there are yogic philosophers, which shows how uniquely personal the spiritual journey is.

  12. Ramesh R says:

    Superb piece!!! THANK YOU!

  13. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  19. The body is sacred AND it merits disgust. It is made of divine stuff yet it is a path to the hell of samsara / the kleshas. Imagine cleaning it and your thoughts, words, deeds, and environment so fully, yet the body constantly teases you with attachment to the senses. Despite its deepest purity, its purity is fleeting and the body (despite its sacredness as a path to the divine and as an embodiment of divinity itself) is an ever-breaking vessel that keeps bringing you back to its daily needs and the distractions of the senses instead of allowing you to reside in the divinity the body is made of (and this divinity is especially clearly perceived when the body, as well as thoughts, words, and deeds, are pure). This is not to say that impurities are less divine – impurities are divine too, but we just don't tend to be able to perceive divinity when our lenses are clouded with what we consider impurities. In all, just as a practitioner is disgusted by the whole cycle of samsara and seeks a way out of that wheel of recurring pain, the practitioner is disgusted by the body, despite the fact that the body is both the embodiment of the divine and vehicle to it.

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