The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India

alchemical bodyThis remarkable book illuminates the “body of light” of yogis, tantrikas, and alchemists. The author traveled throughout India and Nepal, interviewed living yogis and alchemists, and combed the yogic, tantric, and ayurvedic scriptures–Hindu, Nath, Taoist and Buddhist traditions–to reveal their alchemical secrets.

The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India
by David Gordon White
University of Chicago Press, 1996. Paperback

White warns readers upfront, in the fifth paragraph of his 600 page book, to expect “dizzying multitudinous levels of self-interpretation” from the yogi, tantrika, and alchemist traditions. The notions of the subtle “alchemical” body are complex; they are a morass of myths, beliefs, and rituals developed during three thousand years. Reader beware: “dizziness” is a side-effect of the interpretations of the yogis and siddhis themselves.

David Gordon White sees the Yogic-Siddhic alchemist as essentially concerned with the creation and intensification of a “body of light” while remaining yet in the phenomenal world. The beliefs and rituals of the yogin, tantrika, and siddha are meant to transform the gross material body into an immortal, divine portal: a sacrificial “oblation” that lifts the human being heavenward (samadhi) through control of breath, diet, and sex. The Alchemical Body is a study of the language of mystic experience and expression–the multitudinous symbols, rituals, and doctrines of the medieval siddhis, yogis, and alchemists.

“The worlds of the Siddhas and Vidyadharas were the closest homologue India has known to popular western notions of heaven as a place of sensual gratification and freedom from the human condition. Those capable of acceding to these atmospheric levels remained there, liberated from the fruits of their acts (karma) and forever exempted from the lower worlds of rebirth (samsara) but not divested of their individuality as is the case with the impersonal workings of release into the Absolute (moksha). p3 

The most important innovation of these medieval Siddha traditions (the Nath and Rasa Siddhas in particular) was the concrete and coherent method they proposed for the attainment of the Siddha world and Siddha status. This is what had been lacking in the earlier Siddha cults: the belief system was there, but the notions of how to reach that blessed abode were vague at best. p3

This was hatha yoga, the “method of violent exertion”, whose system of the six cakras (“wheels [or circles] of transformation”) became the centerpiece of the doctrine and practice of the Nath Siddhas–who claim their origins in the person and teachings of Matsyendranath. p4


Siddha Matsyendra, founder of the Yogini Kaula, shifted the emphasis of early tantrism away from the “terrible” practices and clan-based (Kula) system featured in the scriptures of the Vidya Pitha, and towards the erotico-mystical practices that became the bedrock of later Kaulism….The Trika reformers preserved, as a cult of their virtuosi, the erotic ritual of Matsyendra’s Yogini Kaula, described in the Kaulajnananirnaya. Whereas early (pre-A.D. 800) Trika and the Kaulajnananirnaya both emphasized the cult of yoginis (who were to be invoked with offerings and the communal consumption of blood, flesh, wine, and sexual fluids). p136-7

With the internalization of the sacrifice, the major conceptual and practical breakthrough of the Aranyakas and Upanishads, rasa [vital fluid] became identified with the “body as oblation” whose fluid essences were cooked and transformed over the well-tempered fires of ascetic ardor (tapas), fires that were fanned by winds of the vital breaths (prana). Once the bodily microcosm was transformed into the seat of the sacrifice (to the detriment of external sacrifice, which had been on the wane ever since the seventh century B.C. in India), interest in the internal workings of the body became greatly expanded. p184

The theory here is simple: stop this, that stops. But the practice is anything but simple as anyone who has attempted to maintain a yogic posture, sit still, or simply stop thinking for any length of time knows all too well. What a difficult, even heroic undertaking the immobilization of the body constitutes, yet what fantastic results it yields! For immobilization leads to reversal, reversal to transformation, and transformation is tantamount to bodily immortality and, precisely, to the supernatural ability to transform, reverse, or immobilize whatever one desires in the physical world (siddhi). p274 

Maintaining a yogic posture alone requires tremendous powers of concentration, and so we should not be surprised to find a quantitative measure of immobility combined with breath retention to be a yardstick for yogic integration. p294

In the Amanaska Yoga discussion of what it calls “salvific” or “stellar yoga”, the length of time one holds one’s breath (called the “time of absorption”: laya-kala) determines the degree of success (siddhi) one realizes, in a mounting progression. p316

The ideal Nath Siddha is a god-man who plays with the entire universe, with the lives of the great and small alike, as he pleases. Secure in the knowledge of the identity of microcosm and macrocosm, of the immanence of the Absolute in every creature and stone, he takes the universe to be his plaything, with its every element (nectar and ashes, cloaks and bodies, earrings and power of flight) interchangeable according to his whim. p349

david gordon white

David Gordon White is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), Kiss of the Yogini, Yoga in Practice, and Sinister Yogis.

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