October 17, 2010

Fat, Naked, and Enlightened: The Crazy Yogis of Love

There’s been numerous crazy yogis of love and radical spirituality throughout the history of yoga.

The Buddhist tradition is of course well known for its crazy wisdom teachers. Marpa, Milarepa and Drukpa are some of the more famous of the wild ones from the past, while Chögyam Trungpa was contemporary.

But the yoga tradition also has its own gang of crazy wisdom adepts. The Avadhutas, for example, are Tantric yogis known to roam around naked, eat and drink out of human skulls, meditate and sleep in cremation grounds and otherwise commit multiple acts of random wildness. All for the glory of Shiva, the so-called King of Yoga.

The Bhakti yogis were mad minstrels of the heart. Kabir, for example, the most famous Bhakti poet in India, was part unorthodox Sufi and part eccentric Hindu. He was a weaver known to fall off his stool into the lap of his Beloved when reciting his poems.

Robert Bly writes in his introduction to his book Kabir: Ecstatic Poems:

“Kabir in his joyful poems delivers harsh and unorthodox opinions. He enters controversies.”

Kabir, a radical iconoclast during the 15th century, broke the dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam by declaring that God was beyond both holy scriptures and religion.

Kabir wrote about our material attachments:

“If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?”

And here’s to those yogis thinking it’s all about the proper clothing, or the proper morals:

“The Yogi comes along in his famous orange. But if inside he is colorless, then what? Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines, but inside there is no music. Then what?”

And here’s to the spiritual bookworms among us:

“The sacred books of the East are nothing but words. I looked through their covers one day sideways…if you have not lived through something, it is not true.”

But while Kabir may have seemed crazy and untraditional, he was also squarely on the path of practice.

“Kabir mocks passivity toward holy texts,” writes Bly, “toward popular gurus, and the passive practice of Yoga, but we must understand that he himself is firmly in the guru tradition and that he followed an intricate path, with fierce meditative practices, guided by energetic visualizations of “sun” and “moon” energies.”

(In this insightful prose, Bly is referring to the Ida (moon) and Pingala (sun), the nadis that cross the kundalini channel along the spine—thus forming the six chakras, the sixth being the one between the eyebrows—until they end in each nostril.)

The Bhakti poets would also dance and sing themselves into ecstatic trances, especially women. Mirabai was the most celebrated of the many spiritual courtesans of the God-man Krishna. They swirled, they wept, they kicked all habits of convention. All for the glory of wildly embracing their inner Beloved.

Mirabai’s family tried to tame her wild Bhakti energies by keeping her trapped in a loveless marriage, but to no avail.

She sang:

“Friend, listen: this love doesn’t come or go. One sip from the cup of that sweetness, the world starts to spin. Now I’m drunk for life. Unsoberable. Tell them it’s useless to try.”

In other words, if your friends and family is giving you trouble because of your weird new habit of dancing with your invisible Beloved during kirtan, just tell them this kind of madness is incurable.

One of the most celebrated of all crazy wisdom yogis in India is the Tantric wildman Trailanga Swami. Fat, naked and seriously enlightened (just take a look at his severe face in the photo above), he was a legendary spiritual figure from Bengal.

I was first introduced to him by an Avadhuta a few months before leaving for India on what became a nearly three year immersion into Tantric yoga.

The Avadhuta told me that Trailanga was famous for his many occult powers. Since he was always naked, he was sometimes arrested by the stuck up British for indecency. One day in court, he defecated on the floor, then smeared his body with his own stools. “Take a look at my new clothes,” the silent yogi gestured. Utterly disgusted, the judge shouted: “Get him out. Get him out of my courtroom.”

Another time, he miraculously escaped prison. Standing on the prison roof, his imposing, fat body was a testament to the fierce stubbornness of Absolute Freedom.

Trailanga remained silent most of his life, and despite his corpulent form, he apparently hardly ate. After practicing meditation for 20 years, he met his guru Bhagiratnanada, and soon thereafter set out on a pilgrimage that eventually led him to Varanasi, where he lived most of his long, colorful life.

He died in that sacred city, which is considered the winter abode of Shiva, in 1887. Some biographical sources claim he was several hundred years old.

This colorful yogi—whose corpulent body, although naked, might not be a good fit for the pages of Yoga Journal—is a testament to the fact that the inner esprit of Indian yoga does not work well with commercialism.

In India, if you are a crazy wisdom sage, nakedness and wildness is rarely a problem. That kind of Puritanism was introduced by the British, but, after Independence, it’s no longer enforced.

While in India, I met another Avadhuta—not as corpulent as Trailanga, and certainly not as old, but he nevertheless had a healthy pot belly. He had spent most of his 20s doing meditation for up to 20 hours a day and eventually developed many occult powers. He could move objects, he could read people’s minds.

Finally one day, his guru called him to his room: “From today, your powers are in my hands,” the guru said. “You are not able to handle them properly.”

The Avadhuta told me that this was the best day of his life. Having realized his mistakes and thus unburdened by the ego’s spell of psychic powers, he could now focus on his original pursuit in life, the love of God.

“Bhakti Yoga, devotion for God,” is all we need, he told me.

So, what is the moral of these stories, these poems, these words? The moral is certainly not that crazy behavior equals enlightenment—but simply that enlightened behavior can merit seemingly abnormal behavior.

Enlightened teachers sometimes resort to spiritual shock therapy to jolt us out of our spiritual complacency and the false security of dogma and convention. This, I think is especially good for us who grew up under the inhibiting Puritanism of Christianity.

It’s as my friend Lindsay wrote during an email conversation we had about ecstatic kirtan dancing. Strongly feeling that kirtan is important for us Western yogis, she wrote: “We live in the aftershock of Protestantism.”

Lindsay does not mean, of course, that all Protestants are stuck up folks unable to fling their heart-doors open to the Divine. She means, I think, that we’ve been sitting on our hands in church for too many centuries, and it’s time to let those arms and legs loose for the praise of God.

But, that’s not all. Kabir, that wild poet, has a warning for all of us neo-hippies, yuppies and yogis who thinks that flamboyant body-yoga exhibitionism is a sign of spiritual achievement.

No matter how flawless our asana, not matter how wild our kirtan, it’s how we are moved under the skin that’s important.

Here’s how Kabir reminds us of that:

“Go over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead, wear your hear matted, long and ostentatious, but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?”

John Lennon was indeed right: All we truly need is Love.

Kabir’s love, of course, was not just made of Flower Power. His was also the kind of love totally unafraid of both living and dying. His was a radical, uncompromising kind of love, and always ready to share it:

“If anyone needs a head, the lover leaps up to offer his. Kabir’s poems touch on the secret of this bhakti.”


All translations of Kabir and Mirabai above from the books Kabir: Ecstatic Poems by Robert Bly and Mirabai: Ectstaic Poems by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield.

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