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The Ocean of Life

Detail: Sthamba (Persian, thambasana)


Folios from the Bahr al-hayat (Ocean of Life)

India, Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad
Opaque watercolor on paper
The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Because gurus traditionally taught yoga orally and directly to their disciples, Hindu treatises only tersely describe asanas. The earliest extant manuscript with illustrated asanas, the Ocean of Life (Bahr al-hayat), dates from the turn of the seventeenth century.

None of its asanas are taught in any earlier Sanskrit text, and their descriptions are more detailed than those in other Sanskrit treatises written over the next century. The illustrated treatise was produced in the context of an Indo-Islamic court. It is one of three yoga-related manuscripts commissioned by Prince Salim (the future Mughal Emperor Jahangir) in Allahabad between 1600 and 1604. Its twenty-one asana images can be viewed here.

The Persian text of Ocean of Life was composed in Gujarat around 1550 by Muhammad Ghwath Gwaliori, a prominent Sufi spiritual master. Ghwath’s goal was to teach his disciples hatha practices compatible with Sufi goals of spiritual transformation. Based on both earlier Sanskrit treatises and conversations with living yogis, the text demonstrates how yoga was made familiar to Sufi ascetics.

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