It may seem odd that the peaceful practice of yoga includes a posture known as “The Warrior” or “Virabhadrasana” (veer-ah-bah-DRAHS-anna). This is a yoga pose with which most yoga students are familiar. However, perhaps you are not familiar with the tragic love story behind this posture. The story is one of love, hate, rage, violence, sadness, wrath, compassion and forgiveness which begins with the marriage between Lord Shiva and his bride Sati.
According to ancient texts, Sati’s father, the powerful King Daksha did not approve of their union. Shiva was described as an unorthodox god with dreadlocks who was prone to meditating in graveyards whilst smeared with the ashes of the dead. Shiva was also reclusive and would spend a lot of time meditating on mountain tops rather than engaging in society.
In addition to consuming toxins and singing and dancing at will, it is also said that Shiva carried around with him a skull (legend has it that the skull was actually stuck to his hand following a curse placed on him by Lord Brahma after Shiva cut off one his five heads). Accordingly, Shiva was very much the antithesis of King Daksha who thrived on rules and regulations and was a preserver of traditional society.
After they were married, Sati left to live with Lord Shiva in the PleasureCity, Bhoga, on MountKailash. Enraged by their union, King Daksha decided to hold a huge event known as a Yagna (a ritual sacrifice) to which he invited all heavenly creations, deities and dignitaries… with the exception of Lord Shiva and his own daughter, Sati.
Sati was enraged at the snub and decided that she would go to the Yagna alone and confront her father. Shiva, however, refused to go choosing instead to remain alone and meditate. Unfortunately, when Sati arrived at the gathering her father refused to speak to her and when he eventually did it was only to ridicule Sati and Shiva which humiliated his daughter.
The Yagna guests looked on and laughed at Sati as her father sniggered and mocked her new husband saying that he was a despicable character and asked if Shiva was also known as “the Lord of the Beasts”. Sati was so angry at her father that she decided that she would sever all ties with him which also included the earthly body which he had given his daughter.
“Since you have given me this body I no longer wish to be associated with it.”
The story goes that Sati then sat down on the floor, went into a meditative trance and, by way of yogic exercises, began to increase her inner fire until such a point that she burst into flames and died.
The Wrath of Shiva
Shiva soon heard the news of his wife’s violent death. At first he was deeply saddened but then became so enraged at his loss that he tore off his clothes and ripped out his jatars (his dreadlocks). Legend has it that Shiva then picked up one of his jatars from the floor and threw it down to the earth to create “Virabhadra” (Vira meaning hero and Bhadra meaning friend).
Shiva then directed his warrior demon, Virabhadra, to go to the Yagna and kill everyone, behead King Daksha and drink his blood. It is here that we really see the links between this ancient tragic love story and the warrior poses that we see commonly in modern yoga classes known as Virabhadrasana I, II and III.
According to the ancient texts, Virabhadra entered the Yagna by thrusting his way up from deep underground with his sword held over his head in both hands – a feat re-enacted in the posture Virabhadrasana I.
Next, Virabhadra made his presence known to the Yagna guests by standing with his sword poised and ready to strike. Essentially, the posture Virabhadrasana II represents Virabhadra having his victim in his cross hairs (consider the drishti point of the middle finger as the cross hairs and the back arm is the sword ready to strike forward).
Finally, Virabhadra lifted his sword into the air and, as instructed by Shiva, quickly and precisely he severed the head of King Daksha. This macabre scene is represented by Virabhadrasana III.
What happened next…
Shiva arrived at the Yagna and absorbed Virabhadra back into his own form. Seeing the death and destruction before him, Shiva was no longer enraged but was instead filled with sorrow. Shiva then showed compassion to his father in law by finding the headless body of the King and giving him a new head (the head of a goat) before bringing him back to life. This prompted Daksha to bow to Shiva and call him “the kind and benevolent one”.
Shiva then picked up the remains of his wife’s dead body and left the Yagna to return to a life of solitude.
The Moral of the Story
This story is symbolic and can be viewed as Shiva (and his incarnation, Virabhadrasana) as representing the higher self doing battle with the arrogant ego (Daksha) in the name of love and the heart (Sati).
Accordingly, the yoga pose “Virabhadrasana” is not at odds at all with the peaceful “ahisma” of yoga practice (ahimsa is one of the yamas and means “non-harmful”). For in this pose we are not celebrating a warrior who caused a scene of destruction and carnage. Instead, in this posture, we acknowledge our own spiritual warriors who every day do battle with our own egos and avidya (self-ignorance) which is the ultimate source of all our suffering.
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