Origin of Yogic Cleansings: The Shatkarmas

Dr. G. Yogeshwar, Kangra

It is not difficult to trace the origin of the other branches of hatha yoga like asanas, pranayama, dhyana etc. to Smritis, Puranas, Tantras and Yoga Upanishads etc., but the same is not discernible with regard to its purificatory processes. No doubt, the word 'shatkarmas' occurs in the tantric texts like Yogini Tantra, but there it is purely indicative of tantric practices such as santi, vasikarna, stambhana etc.*1 having no link at all with yogic kriyas. Great wonder, the sole authority on raja yoga, Patanjali, and even his prominent commentators, nowhere refer to shatkarmas. Though considering vyadhi *2 as the first and foremost of psycho-physiological disturbances (chitta viksepa), instead of suggesting any purificatory practice for its removal, Patanjali Yoga Darshana (PYD) recommends a purely spiritual-cum-psychological aid - the isvara pranidhana *3, for this purpose. So much so, the scrupulous cleanliness (sauca) *4, the strict yogic observance, has the least connection with shatkarmas, albeit later commentators on PYD like Narayana Tirtha *5 have willfully and intentionally endeavoured to prove so, which effort is farfetched and imposed indeed.

One wonders, why even the works attributed to the father of hatha yoga Goraksha Natha, miss these significant kriyas which, in fact, are part and parcel of hatha yoga. Similarly, an important treatise on Gita, which has greatly been influenced and coloured by hatha yogic thoughts, the Jnanesvari and for that matter even the main Yoga Upanishads, are silent about shatkriyas. Yet, it is true that these practices are quite old. For instance, the technique of ghrit neti, as exists these days, appears to be as old as the buddhistic era. A famous physician of that age, Jivika, employed some practice of the kind to cure the fatal nasal-cum-head disease of a renowned merchant's wife *6. At a place in Siva Samhita (SS), *7 there is a slight passing reference to dhauti prakshalana, though in a derogatory sense. In Siddha-Siddhanta-Paddhati (SSP), *8 we find mention of shankhaprakshalana but again in a reproaching style. In Yogiyajnavalkya (YY), *9 as well, a practice somewhat similar to trataka has been enlisted. Hatharatnavali and Hathasamhita, as quoted in Vacaspatyam *10, refer to a few shatkarmic processes but these works are quite recent. For the first time in hatha yoga history, it is only in the Gheranda Samhita (GS) *11 and Hatha Yoga Samhita (HYS) *12 that shatkarmas find their rightful place, i.e. as the first aid to yoga. Hatha Pradipika (HP) *13 though, recognises the value of shatkarmas but refrains from assigning them any independent position. Shatkarma-Sangraha *14, no doubt describes a good many purificatory exercises, but the work itself is not very old.

These practices appear in and not before HYP, GS and HYS. Maybe, these existed in the olden times too, but being directly transmittable only in the secret guru/ disciple tradition; or because they were not absolutely obligatory, remained unrecorded in the old texts. Nonetheless, in order to solve this historical riddle, we must not confine ourselves merely to the yogic studies, but should have a peep into the ayurvedic works as well. Impartially speaking, ayurveda (which is as old as Chakra and Susruta) has certainly influenced and consequently contributed a good deal to the hatha yoga school. For instance, in case of bodily imbalances and diseases, hatha yoga has fully accepted the ayurvedic theory of tridosha in principle and practice. To quote a single example, while enumerating the benefits of dhauti-karma *15, HYP guarantees that this practice cures twenty kapha diseases. But it does not name or elaborate on those diseases, therefore one has to look back to the ayurvedic texts *16. It is similar with other ailments described at random.

So far as the original source of shatkarmas is concerned, it would be genuine to admit that hatha yoga has picked them from the panchakarmas of ayurveda, since both the systems employ them for the cleansing and purification of internal organs, especially the alimentary canal. The ayurvedic panchakarmas namely vamana (vomiting), virecana (purgative), basti (enema) and nasyam (nasal therapy) *17 have good parallels in hatha yoga like vamana (dhauti), varisara *19, basti *20 and neti kriya *21. But this similarity cannot be carried further, for we should not forget that in the methods of their performance, both systems vary a great deal from each other. Further, while yogis use only pure water and air for such irrigations, the panchakarmas prescribe medicated solutions instead *22. Then the other difference, the yogis generally practise them daily for hygienic and preventive purposes, whereas ayurvedic panchakarmas are resorted to only as therapeutic measures when necessary *23.

To record more contrast, shatkarmas help in the thorough and perfect washing of the internal organs, and impart massage and exercise to the organs, thereby increasing their tenacity and activity. Furthermore, once learned from an expert, they can be independently used without fear.

Nevertheless, shatkarmas, in line with other hatha yogic branches have the spiritual end in view *24. For example, neti destroys kapha-doshas, and is said to bestow clairvoyance *25 (divya drishti) and to facilitate khechari, which on perfection would lead to unmani- a higher end equated with raja yoga, advaita or sahajavastha. Karna-dhauti *26, a physical practice for cleansing the ears, enables the practitioner to hear the mystical internal sounds (nadas) which are produced in sushumna after nadi shuddhi and ultimately culminates in manolaya, leading to emancipation. Trataka *27, the eliminator of all eye diseases, induces divya drishti and helps towards sambhavi mudra, which on perfection makes the sadhaka one with Brahma. Varisara *28 is said to transform the body into the divine form, whereas basti *29 not only cleanses the rectum but invigorates the sense organs thereby bringing serenity of mind. The same is true of other yogic practices. Ayurvedic panchakarmas, on the other hand, do not help in spiritual elevation. Even then, we have to conclude that hatha yogic shatkarmas have their origins in the ayurvedic panchakarmas and not vice-versa, as some scholars think. This conclusion becomes more authentic when we observe the yogic purificatory practices from a historical angle.


*1. Yogini Tantra, Edt. Kanhaiya Lal Misra, Pub. Laxmi Venkatesvara Press, Bombay, Samuat 2016 - 'Santivasyastambhnani vidvesoccatane tatha. Mararam paramesani satkarmedam prakirtitam. (1.4.3.)
*2. Patanjala Yogadarshana (PYD) 1.30.
*3. Ibid 1.23-29.
*4. Cf. PYD 2.32; Yogiyajnavalkya (YY), Edt. & Pub. Ramachandra Sarma, Sanatana Dharma Press, Muradabada, 1st Ed. Samvat 1994, 1.68; Trisikhibrahmanopanisad 2.33; Darsanopanisad 1.6, 20-22; Varahopanishad 5.13; Sandilyopanisad 1.14; (in 'Yoga Upanishads, Edt. Pandit A. Mahadev Sastri, Pub. The Adyar Library, Madras, 1920); The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), Edt. & Trans. Pancham Singh, Pub. Bhuvanesvari Asrama, Bahadurganj, Allahabad, 2nd Ed. 1932, 1.17.
*5. Cf. Yoga Siddhanta Candrika (on PYD 2.28), Pub. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Book Depot, Benares, 1911 - 'Athava yoganganam dhautivastityadi satkarma-nam ... anusthanad drdhabhyasajjnana dipti.'
*6. The Mahavavagga, Edt. Bhikkhu J. Kashyap, Pub. Pali Publication Board, Bihar Govt., Nalanda, 1956- '......atha kho jivako komarabhacco tarn pastam saghim janabhesajjehi nippcitva setthibhariyam mancake uttanam nipjjapetva natthuto adasi. Atha kho tam sappim natthuto dinnam mukhto ugganchi. (8.2 Lines 12-14)
*7. Siva Samhita (SS), Edt. Rai Bahdur Srisa Chandra Vidyarnava, Pub. The Panini Office, Bahadurganj, Allahabad, 1923; 5.5.
*8. Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati and other works (SSP), Edt. Kalyani Mallik, Pub. Poona Oriental Book House, Poona, 1954; 6.9.
*9. YY. 6.65
*10. Vacaspatyam (V.), Vol. VI, Edt. Taranatha Tarkavacaspati, Pub. The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, 1962; PP. 5401-2.
*11. Gheranda Samhita (GS), Edt. & Trans. Srisa Chandra Vasu, Pub. Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1933; 1.9-10; also Gheranda Samhita (GS,K), Edt. Swami Digambarji and Dr. M.L. Gharote, Pub. Kaivalyadham, Lona-vala, 1978, 1.9-10.
*12. Hatha Yoga Samhita, Edt. Vivekananda, Pub. Shri Bharti Dharma Maha Mandal Office, Banaras, (Kashi), 1921; P.3, V.l.
*13. Hatha Pradipika (HP) of Svatmarama, Edt. & Trans. Swami Digambarji & Pub. Raghunatha Shastri Kokaje, Pub. Kaivalyadhama, Lonavala, 1970; 2.21, 38.
*14. Satkarmasangrahah (SKS), Edt. R.G. Harshe Pub. Kaivalyadhama, 1970; V. 15-23.
*15. HP 2.25 - 'Kasasvasaplihakustam kapharogasca vimsatih, dhautikarmaprabhavena prayantyeva na samsayah.
*16. The Charaka Samhita of Agnivesa, Edt. Dr. Ganga Sahaya Pandeya, (Part I), Pub. The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, 1961; 1.20.17- 'Slesmavikaramsca vimsatimata urdhvam vyakh-yasyamah, tadyathatrptisca, tandra ca, nidra-dhikyam ca, staimityam ca, gurugatrata ca, alasyamca, mukhamadhuryam ca, mukhasravasca......svetamutrane travarcastvam ca iti vimsatih slesma vikarah. Also Cp. Sarangadhara Samhita, Pub. Pandit Pustakalaya, Kashi, 1950; 1.7.119-122.
*17. Cp. Sarangadhara Samhita 3.8.64 - 'Vamanam recanam nasyam niruhamanuvasnam, etani pancakarmani kathitani munisvaraih.' Also Cp. Bhava Prakasa, Edt. Saligrama Vaisya. Sri Venkatesvara Steam Press, Bombay, Samvat 1918 - 'Prathamam vamanam pascadvirekascanuvasa-nam, etani pancakarmani niruhao navanam tatha. (P. 428) Also for virecana, see Chakra Samhita 1.15f, Susruta Samhita, Edt. Narayana Rama Acarya Kavyatirtha, Publ. Nirnaya Sagar Press, Bombay, 1945; 4.33f; Astangasamgrahah, Edt. Ganesh Shastri Tarte, Bombay, 1888; 1.27; for vamana: Charaka Samhita 1.15f; 7.1.5, 12, 14, 15; Susmta S. 2.34f; Yoga Ratnakar P. 150; Astanga Hrdayam 1.18; for basti- Charaka Samhita 8.1.27f, 8.3.8f; Susruta 2.35-37, 4.35-38; Astanga Hrdayam 1.19; Astanga Samgrahah 1.28, 5.4-6; for nasyam- Charaka Samhita 1.5.56-63; Susruta 2.40.20f, 4.40; Astanga Hrdayam 1.20; Yoga Ratnakar P. 154; Astanga Samgrahah 1.29.
*18. GS. 1.39; HYS P. 10, V. 29; HP. 2.26; SKS. V. 92-94.
*19. GS. 1.17-19; HYS. P. 5, V. 6-7; SKS. V. 87-91, 96.
*20. GS. 1.45-49; HYS. P. 11-12, V. 35-39; SKS. V. 132-147.
*21. HP. 2.30; GS. 1.50-51; also Cp. Vyutkrama and sitkrama GS. 1.58-59; HYS. P. 12-13, V. 40-41 & PP. 14-15, V. 48-49; SKS. V. 42-48, 55, 67-69.
*22. Cp. (YH) Yoga Hygiene Simplified by Shri Yogendra, Pub. The Yoga Institute, Santa Cruz, Bombay, 1980.
*23. Ibid,
*24. Cp. GS(K), Intr. P. xi; Yoga Mimamsa (YM), Kaivalyadham, Vol. IX.2.PP.6-7.
*25. GS. 1.51; HYS. P. 13, V. 41; for unmani, raja yoga etc. Cp. PIP. 4.3, 4, 47.
*26. GS. 1.33; HYS. P. 9, V. 23; for nada also HP. 4.68.
*27. GS. 1.54; HYS. P. 13, V. 44; for sambhavi also GS. 3.67.
*28. GS. 1.18; HYS. P. 5, V. 7.
*29. H.P. 2.29.