Reading Notes from The Poets of the Powers by Kamil V. Zvelebil
I’ve been diving deep into yoga history by reading. One book I recently read, The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal by Kamil V. Zvelebel, has translations of Tamil Siddha poetry. It’s a thin volume, only 144 pages with footnotes included, so it was a good introduction to this group of yoga practitioners I had only heard of in passing before.
Tamil is one of the languages in South India and refers also to the culture of the people who speak the language. The Tamil Siddha school of thought is a branch of tantric yoga, with a distinct character of social radicalism and an emphasis on magical powers. A distinction of tantric yoga is the belief that liberation is possible in your human body and not just at death, which lead to technique of yoga to ensure a healthy body. The body is the seat of the experience of liberation. If your body was weak, in pain, or unbalanced, how could you experience bliss or become liberated?
What is the sign of absolute and true liberation?
The physical body aglow with the Fire of Immortality.
(Uroma risi nanam 12) p. 58
Even though Zvelebel says that the first Tamil Siddha poet was active between the seventh and eleventh centuries, it would be a mistake to think Tamil Siddhas were only active in medieval India. Zvelebel claims that the Siddha doctrines are still a vital undercurrent in modern-day South India albeit hidden from public view.
Written in an intentionally enigmatic language, where words embody multiple meanings, the Tamil Siddha poems can be mystical or vulgar and direct. For example, Civavakkiyar who was writing immediately before the tenth century wrote (p. 87):
Why, you fool,
do you utter mantras,
murmuring them, whispering,
going around the fixed stone
as if it were God,
putting garlands of flowers around it?
Will the fixed stone speak–
as if the Lord were within?
Will the cooking vessel,
or the wooden ladle,
know the taste of curry?
The misogynist language in some of the Siddha poems really bothered me. All of the poets translated in the book were men, and women, specifically the bodies of women, were temptations for them.
WARNING WARNING: Easily offended sensibilities, please stop reading now.
Pattinattar wrote (pp. 99-100):
Their mouth smells of flesh.
Their hairy mess is smelly.
The pus in the blackened eyes smells
and their limbs stink of their discharge.
The chasm of the vulva stinks.
Should my mind be attached
to these women
who smell of their
In the Appendix Zvelebil shares health tips from his Siddha informant in Madras in 1968 (pp. 126-127):
Hints regarding the physical and mental health
1. Eat only if hungry.
2. Never eat when tired; never eat when emotionally upset.
3. Chew your food thoroughly, well mixed with saliva.
4. Between meals, eat only fresh fruit, or fresh fruit juices.
5. Add to your daily diet great quantities of mor, i.e. yoghurt or buttermilk.
6. Always eat fresh fruits and raw vegetables, if possible.
7. Try to sleep at least eight hours daily. The best sleep is before midnight. Sleep with your window open, naked, head toward the North, the feet slightly raise.
8. Take frequent sun-baths; however, do not get too much sun at one stretch.
9. Breath deeply, rhythmically, slowly, regularly and relaxedly. Be conscious of the speed and rhythm of your breath.
10. Walk at least two hours daily.
11. Regular and frequent sexual intercourse is beneficial. However, be master, not slave of your sex-life. Oral-genital sex is not harmful; on the contrary, it is often desirable. Visualize yourself as the creative Siva, and your partner as your (i.e. Siva’s) sakti, energy. Let her lie on you, and drink your sperm; let you suck her discharge of pleasure (curatanir).
12. Never give up. Never be idle. Try to maintain always a cheerful and positive attitude. There is no harm in satisfying a desire, when the satisfaction destroys it. Do not suppress forcibly any desire. Liberation is always here and now with you. If you cannot believe in god, it does not matter. Believe in yourself, in your own existence. Find out the source from which you came.
Conclusion : The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal is a strange little book that serves as a good introduction to the Tamil Siddhas. It’s definitely not Yoga Journal. Pick it up and connect to the roots of one subset of yoga before it became what it is today.
If you have read The Poets of the Powers, what do you think of it? Or what do my reading notes make you think? Let me know in the comment section below.
Photo credits, from top to bottom: swamysk, Natesh Ramasamy, wallyg