Yogic Pranayama from Patanjali via Al-Biruni to Abraham Abulafia: A Case of Medieval Cross-Cultural Transmission?
Abraham Abulafia (1240–1290) is considered to be one of the most significant Jewish mystics and is one of the few who taught a comprehensive system of meditative practices designed to induce ecstatic religious experiences. At the heart of Abulafia’s meditation techniques lies the coordination of breath and body while pronouncing the Hebrew letters of the Name of God. Specifically, Abulafia instructs the practitioner to empty and stop the breath, paralleling a technical breathing practice in Yogic Pranayama called “Kumbhaka”. The Islamic polymath Al-Biruni’s (973–1048) Arabic translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is proposed as one possible transmission vector for this Yoga technique across radically different cultures and geographies into Abulafia’s method, which then profoundly influenced major Jewish personalities down to our day.
Prelude: The Three Hares Symbol
There is a symbol. It shows three hares with intertwined ears in a circle. No one really knows what it means anymore. But it shows up in a Church in England, a Synagogue in Germany, a Mosque in Iran, a Monastery in Tibet, a Hindu temple in India and a Buddhist Cave in China. Only the Silk Road seems to be the connecting thread between all its parallel appearances for understanding how the symbol was transmitted and spread.
Abraham Abulafia: A Jewish Yogi
Abraham Abulafia (1240–1290) is a special case even among the select club of Jewish mystics. Despite a severe rabbinical ban on Abulafia, his teachings spread and were influential on elite audiencies throughout the ages and many of his meditative techniques were practiced and printed by major Jewish mystics like Moses Cordovero and Chaim Vital. Not only does Abulafia provide explicit instructions for meditation but many of them syncretize methods from other traditions like Sufism. Prof. Moshe Idel has already suggested that Abulafia adapted and hybridized Yogic techniques too. I would like to reinforce this claim by bringing in additional circumstantial evidence.
Let’s look at a specific quote from Abulafia’s 7 Paths of Torah:
This describes nothing less than the breathing practice called Kumbhaka (and it’s analog Shunayaka) in Yoga. In the Yoga Sutras, the stoppage of breath is defined as follows:
Migration of a Meditation Technique
IMHO we have a distinct parallel, but how exactly did this breathing technique travel from India to Spain, where it was imbibed by Abulafia? Of course, there are no ironclad certainities in these matters, but I would like to suggest some plausible paths of transmission.
Al-Biruni: A Muslim Polymath in India
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were translated into Arabic in the 9th century (1037) by Al-Biruni, the Muslim scientific polymath who documented the aftermath of the Mughal conquest of India. While very few manuscript copies of Al-Biruni’s Yoga translations are extant, it is significant that one of them is extant at the library in Istanbul. Baruch Togarmi, Abulafia’s teacher in Kabbalah hailed from Turkey.
Here is the parallel text from Al-Biruni:
The Yogic parallels to Abulafia’s description are undeniable, while not even taking into account the phenomenological resonances between Abulafia’s vowel mysticism and the PGM, Ibn Arabi, Palamas, Abhinavagupta and Marsanes, just to name a few.
Yemen: Another Transmission Vector
This Judeo-Arabic Amrtakunda fragment from the 10th century shows another another possible vector westwards via the Jews of Yemen.
Prof. Tzvi Langermann found this fragment amongst the papers of the Jewish Yemenite scholar Yosef Kapah.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with the Commentary of Vyasa and the Gloss of Vachaspati Misra Translated by Rama Prasada, Allahabad: Indian Press, 1912
Abraham Aboulafia L’Epitre des Sept Voies Paris: Editions de l’Eclat, 2008
Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum Al-Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patanjali’s Yogasutra: A Translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and a Comparison with Related Texts Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 52, no. 2 (1989), 265–305, vol. 46, no. 2 (1983), 258–304, vol. 40, no. 3 (1977), 522–549, vol. 29, no. 2 (1966), 302–325.
Moshe Idel Abraham Abulafia: An Ecstatic Kabbalist Labyrinthos, 2002
Orit Sengupta Abraham Abulafia: Jewish Yogi Jerusalem: 2016
Tzvi Langermann Indian Thought among the Jews of Yemen: Mir’at al-Ma’Ani Alei Sefer: Studies in Bibliography and in the History of the Printed and the Digital Hebrew Book 22 (2011), 19–27.
Marva Shalev Marom ‘All that is Formed — All that is Spoken’: The Possible Connection between the Hebrew Sefer Yeṣira (Book of Formation) and Ancient Indian Phonetics Tel Aviv University, 2016
Carl W. Ernst Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga Sage Press, 2016