Shivapuri Baba – First Yogi to the West
Basket of Tolerance “Great Tradition” Series
Shivapuri Baba – First Yogi to the West
The Lost Teachings of Yoga – Being of Light
by Georg Feuerstein
The Essence of Yoga is about more than just building fit bodies. Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein traces the spiritual roots of yoga in the West and looks at how we might benefit from its future evolution.
The “lost” teachings that spread during Yoga’s ascendancy in the West are not really lost. But, we may be losing sight of the profound wisdom of traditional yogic teachings to the point where they are now virtually lost. If we want to benefit from the true power of yoga in our daily lives, then we need to go back to traditional teachings.
The spiritual heritage of India reached our Western shores intact. The masters who broke the long-standing brahmanical taboo of crossing the ocean showed the utmost integrity in transmitting the yogic teachings faithfully to Westerners.
In the spirit of authentic yoga, they emphasized the moral disciplines (yama) of nonharming, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity, and greedlessness. They also taught meditation and inner stillness as the royal road to enlightenment. And, naturally, they praised the ideal of enlightenment, or liberation, itself.
Why do we hear so little about morality, meditation, and enlightenment in yogic circles today? What happened between then and now? Why have the teachings of these and other late 19th and early 20th-century masters been eclipsed by the recent secular yoga boom? More on that later.
Shivapuri Baba (1826-1963) appears to have been the first modern yoga master to transplant the wisdom of India to the West. He had no fewer than 18 audiences with Queen Victoria, who considered this great sage a friend. He was blessed with a very long life, which, after his awakening at the age of 50, he dedicated entirely to the spiritual welfare of others.
Shivapuri Baba (alias Swami Govindananda Bharati) taught that as humans we have three principle duties: first, physical duty, consists mainly in maintaining body and mind through proper livelihood, including the obligation to help one’s dependents to accomplish the same.
Second, moral duty, consisting in remaining sensitive to the obligation to seek the truth 24 hours a day. Third, spiritual duty, by which he meant the worship of the Divine. He felt certain that if we attend carefully to the first two duties for a decade, we will naturally become able to fulfill the third duty. Physical discipline, he noted, brings pleasure. Moral discipline gives us serenity. Spiritual discipline yields deep peace and ultimate happiness.
Shivapuri Baba was dismissive of conventional yogic paths, because he saw in them potential distractions that might keep a person from performing the three duties. On closer inspection, his own sensible prescriptions are in fact a form of yoga. Only rare individuals can devote themselves directly to the pursuit of enlightenment.
“All of Yoga, in a way, is preparation for our final hour on earth. It matters how we exit from life, because death is only a doorway to another state of existence.”
Most people, who live householder lives, need to take care of the first two duties, which are in preparation of the third sacred obligation. His emphasis on the moral disciplines strikes a positive chord, because all authentic yoga regards morality as the foundation of the spiritual path. We can also readily agree with Shivapuri Baba’s insistence on becoming a fully functional member of society. All too often the spiritual quest is engaged as a neurotic escape from conventional life, which cannot possibly lead to inner freedom.
Because of Queen Victoria’s interest in him, Shivapuri Baba was well received in certain circles in Europe, but the time for a greater impact had not yet come. This was to be the destiny of Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of the venerated 19th-century saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886).