Enlightenment in a Dark Age:The Yogi as Spiritual Hero – Gary Hickey


A concept fundamental to Hindu cosmology that became popular in India around the turn of the first millennium CE was that of world ages. According to this belief, we are now living in a cycle of spiritual decline (kali-yuga) that began after the death of Lord Krishna in 3002 BCE. Because we are living in such a Dark Age, the type of spiritual leaders needed to maintain a high level of morality must exhibit both discriminative intelligence (buddhi) and moral stamina. Such enlightened beings embody an almost superhuman level of morality and as such are considered spiritual heroes.

A belief demonstrated by the lives of these spiritual ‘heroes’ is that the highest spiritual belief can be achieved in this bodily existence. Such a belief has informed the spiritual traditions of India wherein the human body is seen as the instrument for the realisation of the enlightened state.This essay explores manifestations of these states of being.


The Dark Age


A concept fundamental to Hindu cosmology that became popular in India around the turn of the first millennium CE is that of world ages. According to this belief, we are now living in a cycle of spiritual decline (kali-yuga) that began after the death of Lord Krishna in 3002 BCE. Uncannily consistent with modern-day immorality the kali-yuga is defined in the Vishnu Purāna, one of the ‘ancient chronicles’ of Hindu belief, as a period in which “Property confers rank, wealth is a virtue, passion binds husband and wife, falsehood is the source of success, sex the only enjoyment, and outer trappings are confused with inner religion” (in Worthington 1982, 85). Because we are living in such a Dark Age, which is said to last for 4.32 million years, the type of spiritual leaders needed to maintain a high level of morality must exhibit both discriminative intelligence (buddhi) and moral stamina. Towards this end Yoga philosophy as defined by Pataňjāli, the author of the first work to synthesise yoga’s teachings, the Yoga Sutras of c. 300 BCE, outlines universal ethical disciplines (yama) and rules of conduct that apply to the individual (niyama). [1]  Further, in order to counter the dark forces of the kali-yuga, Yogic philosophy states that spiritual leaders must embody the quality of nature (guna) known as rajas that express itself in dynamic action. The other two qualities are tamas, or darkness and ignorance, and sattva, the pure and illuminating qualities. These three qualities, which exist in unlimited combinations, define all aspects of nature, including human nature. A predisposition towards a particular guna is reflected in a person’s physical, mental and spiritual activities (sadhana). Hindu scriptures collectively known as the Tantras define three types of people according to their particular guna. These are pasu or ‘dull witted’, divya or ‘saintly’, and vira or ‘hero’.[2] In this age the courageous and active qualities of the hero who confronts both his own emotions and the broader world is seen as preferable to the saint who retires from both.

The four ages or yugas, the first being a golden age of enlightenment known as satya-yuga followed by the treta-yuga, dvapara-yuga and finally the kali-yuga, are part of a broader time frame in which life is seen to have descended deeply into the material world from a point of advanced spirituality. This experience is seen to have informed humanity such that in the future, drawing upon this understanding, the heights of advanced spirituality will again be attained. Because Yogic belief, which underlies the spiritual traditions of India, believes that the human body is an instrument for the realisation of the enlightened state the spiritual hero can achieve advanced spirituality in this bodily existence. This belief was not always part of Indian religious systems as for many centuries Indian saints and sages, emphasising the otherworldliness of ultimate reality, practised extreme austerities such as starvation and sexual continence. With the emergence in influence, in the sixth century CE, of a form of Yoga known as Tantrism this changed and bodily existence was seen as a manifestation of the delightful play (lila) of an all-pervading One Being.[3] In other words the conditional world (samsara) was seen as the unconditional reality (nirvana). Such a down-to-earth philosophy had a formative influence on the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions whose
enlightened beings stand as heroic figures in this Dark Age.


The Nature of a Hero

In the Yogic tradition, a hero is one who, poised on the cusp of a momentous decision that involves the risk of great loss, resolves to act. Such action implies an ethical choice between right and wrong. It is only one who, by plumbing the depths of their being, acts in a way that is in accord with a moral code, emerges as a hero. A heroic step is thus an action of profound importance and is for this reason most commonly visualised as a journey by a warrior-like figure in confrontation with malevolent forces. Their victory sees them as a powerful champion whose triumph benefits all. As Joseph Campbell states, ” A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”(Campbell 1968, 30).

On a continent that has experienced great conflict it is not surprising that in India the heroic figure is visualised as a warrior in battle. The decision often faced by a warrior is whether to fight or acquiesce. In Indian society such a decision is critical for the nature of war is to kill, an act that is contra to the moral law of non-harm (ahimsā). In the Bhagavad Gītā, a sub-section of the Mahābhārata the epic Indian poem completed in about 200 CE, the heroic warrior and leader of the Pândava tribe, Prince Arjuna is embroiled in one of the greatest battles fought on Indian soil.[4] His feelings about this war are made acute by the fact that he is facing an enemy, the Kauravas, who include his friends and blood relatives. Thus Arjuna faces a moral struggle, the predicament of all those on the threshold of heroism. But, Krishna, the Lord of Yoga and earthly incarnation (avatar) of the god Vishnu, urges him to action. Krishna does so by instructing the warrior in Yoga – specifically in how to achieve liberation by fulfilling one’s duty in life by maintaining a moral order (dharma) whose loss is here symbolised by the egotism of his enemies. Krishna instils in Arjuna the qualities of a hero by urging him to realise that, “If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth. The Eternal [Self] in man cannot kill: the Eternal in man cannot die”.[5]

Here Self (Ātman) refers to the essence of one’s being, as opposed to the ego or that which sees one as separate from others. It is only by understanding that the Self is not of this body and is thus indestructible that Arjuna can fully comprehend the consequences of his actions (karma) and act heroically. Thus armed Krishna urges Arjuna to, “Kill therefore with the sword of wisdom the doubt born of ignorance that lies in thy heart. Be one in self-harmony, in Yoga, and arise great warrior arise”.[6]

Heroic Yogis

In the Bhagavad Gītā Krishna outlined how, through yoga, Arjuna can attain clarity of vision. The “fabulous forces” encountered by Arjuna are those that cloud understanding beneath the detritus of delusion, a concept in Indian philosophy referred to as maya. They are the delusions that engender ignorance, trepidation, and fear. Krishna teaches Arjuna that once he can overcome these “forces” he will be victorious and can then enter the “region of supernatural wonder” – one’s inner world, the world that, to the ordinary person, remains submerged by ignorance.

In Yoga fear (bhaya), one of the constraints of human existence, is seen as a defect (dosha) of the ego and the main obstacle on the spiritual path. In overcoming his fear and arming himself for battle Arjuna stands as the heroic figurehead for spiritual guidance. In achieving this self-realisation or enlightenment (bodha) he becomes fearless (abhaya). Based on an understanding of the qualities of nature (gunas) in Indian religious sculpture such fearlessness is expressed by adjusting the proportion, size (tala and angula), form or deflexion (bhańga), posture (asana) and gesture (mudrā) of the heroic spiritual figure.[7] These adjustments act as encoded messages that empower the viewer through a realisation of their hidden meaning. For example, in images of the Buddha, he is often shown standing upright with his right hand raised to about shoulder height with the elbow bent and the palm facing forward, the fingers joined and extended. This is the ‘gesture of fearlessness’ (abhaya mudrā). This was said to be the gesture used by the Buddha to calm the rage of a charging elephant. The gesture demonstrates empathy with, and compassion for, the suffering of others that prompts the Buddha to urge them to be brave as they set forth on the heroic path of self-realisation.

Two gigantic sculptures of the standing Buddha, one 136 feet high and the other 186 feet, carved into the cliffs of the Hindu Kush Mountains surrounding the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 would have been depicted in abhaya mudrā. Their imposing size emphasised their heroic nature whilst their symmetrical balanced stance that in yoga is referred to as tadasana or samasthiti (samabhanga) reflects their calm and meditative state of mind. Thus, the symbolism of asana indicates that they have achieved a transcendental state – the perfect balance of thought, rest of the senses, and tranquillity whilst the mudra indicates their compassionate imparting of this knowledge to others as they seek to liberate them from the constraints of fear. In making this gesture these deities are transmitting a language of empowerment, thus offering the yogic teaching that Arjuna sought from Krishna. Their remoteness and peacefulness prompts others to follow.

Vardhamâna, the founder of the Jain religion and an older contemporary of Gautama the Buddha who lived in 6th century BCE, faced a similar epic venture to that of Arjuna and his decisive action and subsequent enlightenment followed a succession of twenty-three other empowered heroes whose spiritual conquest was acknowledged by their title as Jina, ‘victor’, or ‘conqueror’. In all there were twenty-four such ‘victors’.[8] Vardhamâna was born into a ruling class and married at a young age. He renounced his worldly life and at the age of thirty pursued a life of rigorous austerities (tapas). After twelve years of demanding spiritual practice he attained enlightenment and at once started to preach the truth, as he had perceived it. He was a charismatic figure and his detachment and single-minded dedication inspired many people. Vardhamâna discovered our delusions are a result of a mistaken identification of our self as the finite body-mind. Further, he found that our liberation from this delusion could only be achieved by adopting a very strict code of ethics, at the core of which was the principle of non-harm (ahimsâ). Like the Bamiyan Valley Buddhas, in order to demonstrate their moral power Vardhamâna and other Jinas were often depicted as gigantic sculpted figures, standing erect in the yogic pose of ‘mountain posture’ or tadasana, their size indicative of their moral strength. Their nakedness is symbolic of their having ‘cast off their body’ (kâyotsarga). So depicted they are perceived by the faithful as standing in a state of liberation (kevala), motionless at the summit of the universe, colossal humans whose victorious journey designates each of them as a Mahâvīra, or ‘Great Hero’.

Like Vardhamâna, Gautama Siddhârtha also renounced his worldly life. Through a series of life changing realisations in which he witnessed old age, sickness and death he understood that our attachment to this world is the cause of our suffering and that self-knowledge is the key to release from this suffering. According to Gautama the deluded mind is that which sees the phenomenal world as real and attaches to it through desire. Through fierce ascetic practices (tapas) Gautama eliminated this desire and in so doing became the ‘awakened one’, the Buddha. In eleventh century India it was popular to depict the Buddha as a universal monarch (chakravartin) with imposing crown and necklace and surrounded by a flaming aureole. Such flames are said to be symbolic of the ability to overcome passions and desire whilst the royal regalia is symbolic of his heroic rule over the religious life of his followers.

The Hero’s Universe

Having cognisance of the phenomenal world, symbolised by Vardhamâna and the Buddha’s realisations, the yogi appreciates that man and the universe are subject to the same law and that the microcosm of the body mirrors the macrocosm of the universe. From this understanding developed a visualisation of the sacred cosmos seen as a mandala, a stupa or a revered mountain whose axis mundi, the world center that acts as the connection between heaven and earth, contains the matrix of existence. Believers circumambulate around this sacred place chanting holy mantras as they invoke the power at its centre. To enter is to begin one’s sacred journey for the outer world is a spiritual wasteland in chaos, whilst the inner sacred space is clearly mapped by those yogis who, through their meditative practices, visualised its entrances and the paths to follow. At Borobudhar, the eighth century Buddhist stupa in central Java, and the largest Buddhist mandala, the heroic journey from the outer world to the Self is represented by layered terraces that consecutively describe the world of Desires (Kāmadhātu), the world of Form (Rūpadhātu) and the world without form (Arūpadhātu) or the world of Pure Perception. Thus, in ascending this stupa a believer moves from the Earth and desires, represented by square terraces, through the terraces wherein the teachings of the Buddha are elaborated to finally reach circular terraces where Buddhas sit within partially concealed stupas. At the summit sits the central stupa symbolic of one who has become one with the object of their meditation.

The yogic hero sees within his or her own body the universe reflected and like the layout of a mandala, stupa or sacred mountain visualises this internal mandala as a pathway to enlightenment. At the apex of this internal mandala is a thousand-petalled lotus (sahasrāra-cakra) in whose centre is a luminous triangle wherein resides the Self. This is the terminus of the central conduit for life energy (prāna) or sushumnā nādī situated within the spinal column through which, by yogic practices, the divine cosmic energy known as the ‘serpent power’ (kundalinī) moves upwards on its spiritual journey to the seat of ecstatic enlightenment (samādhi). Prāna circulates within the body through channels or nādi that in turn feed into three main channels, the previously mentioned sushumnā, as well as the pingala and the ida. Moving from the left and right nostril to the base of the spine the pingala and the ida intertwine, their intersections marking junction points that act like regulators of energy know as cakras. On its path kundalinī activates the energy of these cakras of which each marks a specific point in the path to enlightenment. In the trunk of the body are found five cakras that relate to the elements – the muladhara in the area of the anus relates to earth, next the svadhistana near the sexual organs relates to water, the manipuraka in the area of the adrenal glands to fire, the anaharta near the thymus to air and finally visuddha near the thyroid and parathyroids to space or ether. The final cakras are representative of the higher states – ajna situated between the eyes and sometimes called the Third Eye is mind and finally saharara, representative of the mystical centre, is situated at the top of the skull.

Yogic practices that revolve around posture and breath balance the energy that moves through the asymmetrical pingala and ida to awaken the sleeping serpent and have it move up through the central sushumnā. The tremendous forces unleashed can weaken the body. Thus, in order to strengthen their body for such a spiritual struggle, Tantric yogis developed various practices that mastered prāna. From this idea developed a sophisticated understanding of the body through ‘body cultivation’ known as kaya sadhana. Out of kaya sadhana developed the physical discipline of Hatha Yoga, whose practitioners are said to date back to the Hindu god Shiva. From Shiva’s body was formed the spiritual hero Goraksha who is acknowledged as the founder of Hatha Yoga. Goraksha’s followers included many great spiritual heroes and several kings who maintained and evolved this tradition.

The energy released by yogic practices can result in magic powers, known as siddhis, which Yogic literature warns against as they can divert one from their spiritual practice. These siddhis are said to enable the yogi to become atomic, levitate, transform one’s height, touch the moon, pass through solid objects, control matter, change the nature of material things and control the elements through the force of their will. The yogic hero is enjoined to not let these powers distract them from the spiritual path as these are merely side-effects of the spiritual process.

Thus, although the yogic hero seated in ‘lotus posture’ (padmasana) is pictured as still, within their body tremendous forces are being unleashed as the psycho-energetic centres (cakra) are activated. Within the fully enlightened being the thousand-petalled lotus is said to radiate with the awakened enlightenment of the great spiritual hero (mahavira).

The Path to Enlightenment

“Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.”[9]

The life of the great spiritual heroes, like Vardhamâna, Gautama the Buddha, and Goraksha sees their journey following three paths – “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”(Campbell 1968, 35)

Symbolic of this journey is the iconography of the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of Dance and the supreme yogi. As Nataraja he is depicted as heroically poised at the centre of creation, within a fiery mandala (fig. 2). His posture and gestures direct the aspirant’s heroic journey. The formative energy of his wild dance is symbolised by his long matted hair that moves like waves of water about his head. Shiva is performing his most terrible dance, the Tandava, the cosmic dance of destruction.[10] The cyclic nature of creation and existence that ties us to existence is about to be destroyed by the deity’s graceful movements. He begins his dance by raising one leg across his body whilst the other remains firmly planted on the back of the dwarf Apasmara, symbol of avidya or ignorance, who is crushed underneath.[11] Shiva wears a snake belt and an animal-skin loincloth symbolic of the untamed mind and egotism that are also about to be quashed.[12]  One of his four hands points to the raised foot, in the gajahasta mudra or ‘elephant-hand gesture’, instructing us to liberate ourselves from the ties that bind us to this worldly existence. The flames in his rear left hand assure destruction of this existence. Another hand, beating out the rhythm of the dance on a drum, reminds us that creation is set in motion by vibration. The third hand is raised to dispel fear (abhaya mudra) urging us to take action and free ourselves from illusion (maya).[13] The empowering step is taken when Shiva’s message is made real by the exchange of vision (darshan) between the viewer and Shiva’s third eye. Shiva created this third eye to save the world through its power to emit light and fire.[14] The eye is opened once consecrated and touched – thus through darshan Shiva’s ability to destroy illusion is made real.[15]

The heroic path that, through his dance, Shiva urges us to tread first requires destruction of the manifest universe – the ‘reality’ that we project upon the real world through our ignorance, untamed mind, and ego.[16] Having visualised the spiritual hero thus the yogi is able to comprehend his own being. With this comprehension comes understanding of the interrelatedness of the cycle of existence and that what binds us to this is ignorance (maya). Through their practice the yogi suspends time and exists outside the limitations of opposites. The yogi’s brave victory sees him materialise as a spiritual hero for, “Exalted in understanding, clear in action, he dominates and transcends nature and reaches, through yogic practices, the light of the soul.”[17]


Bhagavad Gita 1979. (II.19), translation from Sanskrit, J. Mascaró, The Bhagavad Gita, Melbourne: Penguin Books.

Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Iyengar, B.K.S. 1993. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Ottawa, Ontario: Educa Books.

Worthington, V. 1982. A History of Yoga, London, Boston, Melbourne & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


[1] The yamas are non-violence (āhimsa), truth (satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacharya) and non-coveting (aparigraha) whilst the niyamas are purity (śaucha), contentment (santoşa), ardour or austerity (tapas), study of the Self (Svādhyāya), and dedication to the Lord (Iśvara praņidhāna). Yogic thought has informed and been informed by the major religions of India: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. For example non-violence, or ahimsa is one of the major tenets of all three religions. Jain religious vows of non-injury, truth and honesty in business affairs, refraining from wrong sexual conduct, not stealing, and renunciation of attachment to material wealth are closely aligned to Pataňjāli ethical and moral codes. Similarly, the Buddhist Eightfold Path of right understanding of the four noble truths, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration finds resonance with yoga’s yamas and niyamas.

[2] Vira is related to the English word virile.

[3] Tantric belief sees yoga (discipline) and bhoga (enjoyment) as the same and the hero is one who can assimilate both for in doing so the belief is that enlightenment or samadhi can be achieved in this lifetime. Known as sahaja samadhi this does not require withdrawal from the world but enlightenment whilst still actively involved in worldly matters.

[4] The Bhagavad Gītā contains the essence of the Upanishads, the philosophical portion of the Vedas, the oldest examples of religious writings in existence. The Upanishads, meaning ‘sitting near’ or ‘close by’, refers to the spiritual guidance given by guru to his follower, such as that given by Krishna to Arjuna, the traditional means for transmitting spiritual knowledge that existed for centuries prior to the systemisation of these teachings.

[5] Bhagavad Gita (II.19), translation from Sanskrit, J. Mascaró, The Bhagavad Gita, Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1978, p. 50.

[6] Bhagavad Gita (IV.42), Mascaró, The Bhagavad Gita, (1978), p. 50.

[7] For a discussion of the aesthetic theory known as rasa, that is the basis for these adjustments see, A. Shearer, The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless, London: Thames & Hudson, 1993, p.15.

[8] Known as tīthankaras (“ford makers” or “those who have crossed to the other side [of existence]”) or jinas (‘victors’ or ‘conquerors’), because they overcame the self.

[9] yogah cittavrtti nirodah, B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga
Sūtras of Pataňjāli
, London: The Aquarian Press, (1993), p. 46.

[10] Because Hindu philosophy proposes a cyclical rather than linear model of creation and existence, Shiva is regarded as the Lord of both Destruction and Creation.

[11] The yogi symbolises the destruction of avidya by bringing his foot to his head in the yogic posture, known as Natarajasana.

[12] It is believed that Shiva first performed the dance of bliss in order to redeem a group of sages who were practising an unorthodox form of Hinduism. In an attempt to resist Shiva, the sages challenged him with a tiger, a snake and a dwarf-demon. Shiva subdued all three.

[13] These are the five essential acts of creation, or pancakritya.

[14] His earthly eyes represent the Sun and Moon respectively.

[15] According to Indian mythology the model hero is the deity Shiva, especially in the guise of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. Being the first to propound the subject of Yoga he is also considered the Lord of Yoga. It is whilst performing the dance Tandav Nritya that he first transmitted the teachings of Yoga to the deity Vishnu and thus created the lineage of this ancient teaching. Legend states that whilst seated on another deity, his couch the Lord Adisesa, Vishnu watched Shiva perform his dance. Engrossed in the dance Vishnu’s body became heavy crushing Adisesa. On completion of Shiva’s dance Vishnu’s body miraculously lightened. Amazed by this transformation Adisesa asked Vishnu what caused this sudden change. Vishnu stated that it the vibrations in his own body whilst transfixed by the beauty of Shiva’s dance that caused the change. Professing a desire to be similarly transformed Adisesa took the form of Patajali, the propounder of Yoga philosophy and the author of the first work to synthesise yoga’s teachings, the Yoga Sutras. It is thus within the form of Nataraja we can find the essence of Yoga’s teachings and the key to the heroic transformation of India’s spiritual heroes.

[16] The discovery of the insubstantiality of matter that is now understood as movement or energy gives credence to maya.

[17] Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Pataňjāli, (1993), pp. 222–3. Iyengar is commenting on the following section of Patanjali’s sutras,tārakam sarvavisayam sarvathāvisayam akramam ca iti vivekajam jnānam III.55. The essential characteristic of the yogi’s exalted knowledge is that he grasps instantly, clearly and wholly, the aims of all objects without going into the sequence of time or change.

Author Biography:

Gary Hickey is a lecturer Art History in the School of Culture and Communication where he specialises in Japanese art.

Email :: ghickey@unimelb.edu.au