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Alexander Smirkin "Krishnamacharya: Life and Legend, Facts and Fabrications"

Shortly before the Breath of the Gods premiere, a documentary about Krishnamacharya, we have interviewed Alexander Smirkin, who teaches Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Prana Ashtanga Yoga School (Moscow). He has been one of the Russian translation team of this film. Having studied the history of this method for a long time, he has concluded that many events described in Krishnamacharya’s official biographies could be questioned.

Admittedly, Krishnamacharya’s son, TKV Desikachar, and his grandson, Kaustub Desikachar, describe Krishnamacharya’s life in sufficient detail in his biographies (their books: Yoga & the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya, 1998, and The Yoga of the Yogi, 2005, respectively). In addition, there are such publications as Krishnamacharya’s autobiographical essays, and memories of him by his illustrious students—BKS Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois, Srivatsa Ramaswami, AG Mohan, and others. Are these sources enough to get a reliable picture of the great yogi’s life?

Unfortunately, if we compare all the data, there will be quite a confusing story with lots of inconsistencies. I am not the only one who have noticed it: AG Mohan has also written about it; and he was a longtime student of Krishnamacharya and is the author of another biographical book about him—Krishnamacharya: his Life and Teachings (2010).

To begin with, the biographies authored by the Desikachars are not exclusive, and they are even not the first ones. There are lesser known but no less important publications, for example, earlier Krishnamacharya's biographies by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. As this organization was founded during the life of Krishnamacharya to share his teachings, it was not the domain of the Desikachars at that time, and other students of Krishnamacharya participated in its activities.

One of these students, Mala Shrivatsan, is an author of the first monograph about Krishnamacharya, Śrī Krishnamacharya the Pūrnācārya (1997). This is a concise, beautifully illustrated book, which includes a unique interview with Krishnamacharya and his Ashtottara Shatanamavali, a traditional list of 108 names for worship. The book is a rarity for a long time, but I was lucky enough to come across this book at a secondhand bookshop and bought it over the internet for fifty pounds. An extrinsic value of this book is an autograph by Desikachar, which I discovered in there.

Illustration: Biography by Mala Shrivatsan

However, much earlier, in 1978, within the lifetime of Krishnamacharya, his other student, Srivatsa Ramaswami, wrote a biographical article for the Indian Review, About Sri Krishnamacharya: My Guru. It contains interesting facts that are seen nowhere else.

And how the biography of Krishnamacharya was written?

According to Desikachar, in 1976, when they needed an official biography of Krishnamacharya for the opening of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, he practically did not know anything about his father beside well-known facts: he learned from pundits of the Northern India, spent several years in Tibet and was a yoga teacher at the Maharajas’ court of Mysore. “Father, people come and ask me about you. I have nothing to say”—Desikachar asked his 88-year-old father to tell him a story of his life. Thus, it is almost all that we know at the most about early and little-known period of Krishnamacharya’s apprenticeship: half a century after these events, Krishnamacharya described them and his Boswells or he himself wrote these down.

Thus, biographers had an autobiographical story by Krishnamacharya retold by Desikachar; a quick list of dates and events from 1922 to 1951, in Krishnamacharya’s own handwriting on a piece of paper; an autobiographical booklet published in 1960 (AG Mohan mentions it); and an audio interview of Krishnamacharya to Kalaimagal, a Tamil magazine, dated 1984 (when he was 95). These four records are behind the original official version of the Krishnamacharya’s life prepared in Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and presented in early biographies. Later revisions of his biography have supplemented and corrected this version based on some research by and according to their authors.

What discrepancies have you found there in these biographies?

For purposes of the interview limitations, I will address only the official Krishnamacharya’s date of birth and those seven years that he spent with his guru in Tibet.

The irony is that in order to discover something surprising in Krishnamacharya's biography, one needs no new sources, but a closer look at former ones. The date of Krishnamacharya’s birth is deemed to be 18 November 1888. This date is even mentioned in one of mantras greeting Krishnamacharya: “I bow to the Yoga Acharya Krishnamacharya, who was born in the year of virodha, in the month of kartika, under the star of Satabisha” (these are the traditional Indian names of the month and the year, respectively, in a 60-year cycle of Samvatsara). I tried to build a timeline of Krishnamacharya's life, starting from that date, but some events just did not fit in. It seemed that the date of birth was moved 4-8 years back in time.

And here, I have read a memoir essay by BKS Iyengar included in the Kaustub Desikachar’s book. Iyengar was a brother-in-law of Krishnamacharya and wrote about him many interesting things, such as, “In June 1926, when he married my sister, I was 7.5, he was 33, and my sister was 12 years old”. By the rules of arithmetic, we have 1892 or 1893 as a result. After that, I came across a biography written by Srivatsa Ramaswami, who put the year of birth black and white—1892.

Illustration: An Indian Review biographical article by Srivatsa Ramaswami

How come, it was changed into 1888?

There has been a countdown from the date of the Krishnamacharya’s 100th anniversary celebration. This grand Jayanti Festival hosted in Chennai by Krishnamacharya’s relatives lasted for several days, from 14 to 18 November 1988. By the way, this is the reason why some biographies point out that the birthday is 14 November, instead of 18 November.

So do you mean this centennial was a little bit ahead of time?

I think it is typical for India. I should mention that Krishnamacharya himself was not much of this partygoer: “who am I, to be honored in such a way.’ The thing is that there was a tragic accident a few years before this celebration. Krishnamacharya broke his hip: his room rearrangement had been made for him, and he tried to sit in a chair in the darkness, and the chair was not there in its usual place. Probably, it sapped his health. He was a person of active habits, so he might be suppressed by this forced immobility: “Now I’ve lost my independence.” Perhaps it prevented him from doing yoga, “the practice that saves lives”, as it is told in the film. Then, the death of his wife followed. He took it very heavily. If not for this, Krishnamacharya could have lived much longer, but at that, he became much weaker. Doctors predicted his quick death, but Krishnamacharya hoped this was nonsense, as he did not feel death in his breath. However, the relatives decided to arrange a centennial celebration. I highly recommend you to watch a wonderful French film, a chronicle of this event—Cent ans de beatitude.

Their motives are clear. Desikachar wrote, “My father always said that man is destined to live 100 years.” In addition, according to the laws of Manu [4.158][1]: “A man, even lacking auspicious marks, has faith and is free from envy, lives a hundred years.” Four months after the anniversary, Krishnamacharya died.

[1] The translator’s note: “A man, who follows the conduct of the virtuous, has faith and is free from envy, lives a hundred years.” (Source: https://ru.scribd.com/doc/7189037/Manu-Smriti-Sanskrit-Text-With-English-Translation, page 84)

What impact does this shift forward of his date of birth have on the chronology?

It was difficult to throw away four years of the Krishnamacharya’s intense biography. Without going into details, I would say the only way was to reduce a number of years spent by him in Tibet. To tell the truth, even with the former date of birth, this period does not particularly fit for the chronology. Consider: Ganganath Jha, professor of the Queens College of Varanasi, a mentor and a friend of Krishnamacharya, who told him about the Tibetan teacher, started teaching in Varanasi in 1918. Moreover, we know that in 1922, Krishnamacharya returned, and in 1923, he already studied in Calcutta. Thus, there were only four years for him: to study at the college, to have adventure associated with obtaining permits for a journey from the Viceroy, to take this journey, and to study with his guru.

So, there are two years left?

I think he spent one or two summers in the mountains in 1920-1921. Moreover, the location was different: not surroundings of Mount Kailas and the lake Manasarovar.

How’s that! And where was it?

Norman Sjoman in his famous book The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace (1996) includes an introduction to the Krishnamacharya’s book Yoga Makaranda, which was not published. In it, Krishnamacharya wrote that his teacher Rama Mohan Brahmachari had been a head of the Mukti Narayana Ksetra. This is Muktinath, one of the 108 Divya Desam, sacred places of the Vaishnava tradition, located in the north of Nepal, on the border with the Tibetan area of Mustang. By the way, this place is more suited for long stays and yoga, and is much closer to Varanasi than the Mount Kailas, where Krishnamacharya studied. Curiously, according to legend the Yoga Korunta, or Yoga Kurantam, book was in Nepali, which can be regarded as an indirect confirmation of the above version.

One can assume that Krishnamacharya met his teacher during his pilgrimage to Muktinath during the summer vacation. Maybe, once or twice he came back to him. In 2012, we made a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of Krishnamacharya” from Varanasi to Nepal, a five-day track along the riverbed of Kali-Gandaki and the ascent of Muktinath.

Illustration: “In the footsteps of Krishnamacharya” yatra in Muktinath, 2012.

Have you found something interesting?

First of all, we have discovered this magical place and washed off our sins in kundas (ponds) and 108 water springs. In addition, I found out that priests in the local temple of Narayana are appointed from the nearby villages of Nepal, so we can assume that yoga, which Krishnamacharya learned from Ram Mohan Brahmacharya, was not of the Tibetan origin, but of the North Indian or Nepalese one. Given that in the south of Muktinath Gorakhpur and traditional areas related to the Hatha Yoga and Natha Yoga development are located.

Was it worth to delve through the guru’s biography?

You know, there is a great Indian proverb that Ramaswami mentions: “Do not seek the riverbed, do not investigate of what descent your guru is.” I think it all depends on what your motive is. Mine was very practical: I had begun to study the method’s history looking for techniques that might help me in solving problems arising in my practice. After all, only a few years ago, there were no translations into English of Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu, the books by Krishnamacharya, and we had to look for Tamil edition just to look at the pictures.

For example, in the book by Mala Shrivatsan, as an ashtangi, I was glad to see a vinyasa krama for Ardha-Baddha-Padma-Paschimottanasana, which is fully consistent with the one we are doing in Ashtanga Yoga, but lacking one vinyasa between the sides; but as early students of Pattabhi Joyce recollect, he used to do it in the beginning. Or watching the movie Cent ans de beatitude, I was happy to see vinyasas performed in the Ashtanga Yoga style during the class of young Desikachar. It implies that the Mysore legacy lived in Madras.

As for all biographical discrepancies that I have found, I can say that they are all side effects of the process. It is normal that a real person named Krishnamacharya became a paradigmatic model for his devotees. Within a few generations, the facts of a real biography of a famous person disappear from the collective memory, and this person becomes an archetype, i. e. symbolizes the virtues of his “profession”, illustrated by relevant paradigmatic events. In India, this process begins while a person is alive and it is much faster, since it relates to their status.

Personally, I am not interested in the hagiography of saints; I am interested in biographies of real people who were able to overcome both external circumstances and internal contradictions. Then, behind an icon, I start seeing the real person, so remarkable and extraordinary, whom one can adore for real. Krishnamacharya did not have a PhD degree in all philosophical systems as Desikachar claimed, but he learned from these scientists, even a conversation with whom makes the philosopher. He did not arrive in Mysore as a knight in shining armor, as his hagiographers pointed out, but as an unknown poor Brahmin who would become a major royal Yoga-Acharya. However, it should be discussed in other articles.

October 22, 2016

Author: Alexander Smirkin
Translation by Elena Sanotskaya.

Article in Russian is available at http://ashtangaprana.blogspot.ru/2016/10/blog-post_22.html