In the well-known Bhagavad Gita section of India’s Mahabharata epic, Krishna elaborates a view of duty and action intended to convince Arjuna that, as a member of the warrior caste (ksatriya), he must overcome all his doubts and take up arms, even against his relatives. As anyone familiar with either the Mahabharata or India’s second great epic, the Ramayana, knows, martial techniques have existed on the South Asian subcontinent since antiquity. Both epics are filled with scenes describing how the princely heroes obtain and use their humanly or divinely acquired skills and powers to defeat their enemies: by training in martial techniques under the tutelage of great gurus like the brahmin master Drona, by practicing austerities and meditation techniques which give the martial master access to subtle powers to be used in combat, and/or by receiving a gift or a boon of divine, magical powers from a god. On the one hand, there is Bhima who depends on his brute strength to crush his foes, while on the other, we find the “unsurpassable” Arjuna making use of his more subtle accomplishments in single point focus or his powers acquired through meditation.
Among practitioners and teachers of kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala, southwestern coastal India, some. . . model their practice on Bhima, emphasizing kalarippay attu’s practical empty hand techniques of attack, defense, locks, and throws. Others. . . follow Arjuna and emphasize kalarippayattu as an active, energetic means of disciplining and “harnessing” (yuj, the root of yoga) both one’s body and one’s mind, that is, as a form of moving meditation. As comparative religions scholar Mircea Eliade has explained, “One always finds a form of yoga whenever there is a question of experiencing the sacred or arriving at complete mastery of oneself . . .” (Eliade, 1975:196).
From the early Tamil Sangam “heroic” (puram) poetry, we learn that from the fourth century B.C. to 600 A.D., a warlike, martial spirit predominated across southern India. . .
Each warrior received “regular military training” (Subramanian, 1966:143144) in target practice, and horse riding, and specialized in the use of one or more of the important weapons of the period, including lance or spear (vel), sword (val) and shield (kedaham), bow (vii) and arrow. The importance of the martial hero in the Sangam Age is evident in the deification of fallen heroes through the planting of hero-stones (virakkal; or natukal, “planted stones”) which were inscribed with the name of the hero and his valorous deeds (Kailaspathy, 1968:235) and worshipped by the common people of the locality (Subramanian, 1966:130).
The heroes of the period were “the noble ones,” whose principal pursuit was fighting and whose greatest honor was to die a battlefield death (Kailasapathy, 1968; Hart, 1975, 1979). The heroic warriors of the period were animated by the assumption that power (ananku) was not transcendent, but immanent, capricious, and potentially malevolent (Hart, 1975:26, 81). War was considered a sacrifice of honor, and memorial stones were erected to fallen heroic kings and/or warriors whose manifest power could be permanently worshipped by one’s community and ancestors (Hart, 1975, 137; Kailasapathy, 1968, 235).
Like their epic and purist counterparts, for traditional kalarippayattu practitioners attaining power in practice is still a composite, multi-dimensioned set of practices. There is the power to be attained through repetition of mantra, each of which must be individually accomplished; the power inherent in discovery and control of the internal energy/breath (prana-vayu); the strength of mental power (manasakti) manifest in one-point focus and complete doubtlessness; the elemental discovery and raising of the power per se (kundalini sakti); and the powers of the divine gained through worship and rituals (puja), meditation, devotion, and/or magic.
However, to gain access to the majority of these types of power, one must begin with the body and its training in actualizing particular powers. A Muslim master once told me, “He who wants to become a master must possess complete knowledge of the body.” As assumed in traditional yoga practice, knowledge of the body begins with the physical or gross body (sthula-sarira), discovered through exercises and massage. Together they are considered body preparation” (meyyorukkam). The exercises include a vast array of poses, steps, jumps, kicks, and leg movements performed in increasingly complex combinations back and forth across the kalari floor. Collectively, they are considered a “body art” (meiabhyasam). Individual body-exercise sequences (meippayattu) are taught one by one, and every student masters simple forms before moving on to more complex and difficult sequences. Most important is mastery of basic poses (vadivu), named after animals and comparable to basic postures (asana) of yoga, and mastery of steps (cuvadu) by which one moves into and out of poses. Repetitious practice of these outer forms eventually renders the external body flexible (meivalakkam) and, as one master said, “flowing (olukku) like a river.”