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Cheating Death: Immortality Practices and the Rise of Hatha Yoga in Medieval India
The disciplines of Haṭha Yoga, which flourished in India from the 13th century, link spiritual perfection with corporeal mastery and even bodily immortality. Haṭha Yogic practices have roots in India's early medieval tantric or esoteric traditions, which advance a variety of techniques for prognosticating and evading death, as well as for rejuvenation of the body. This presentation will examine the early history of Hindu tantric longevity practices and their links with later Haṭha Yogic disciplines, focusing on little-known practices for attaining immortality taught in esoteric texts of the Kaula tradition, circa 9th–11th centuries. These techniques for attaining "victory over death" (mṛtyuńjaya) or "cheating death" (kālavańcana) primarily involve meditative visualization, and thus stand apart from earlier, more "magical" practices, as well as the more corporeal practices of Haṭha Yoga. It will be argued, however, that the yoga of bodily culture is prefigured by shifts in attitudes toward the body evident in Kaula longevity practices. The presentation will contextualize these practices historically, exploring links across various Indian and Tibetan traditions, taking into consideration such diverse materials as the Buddhist cult of the goddess White Tārā and Bengali texts of Sufi yoga.