Intro to Yoga Philosophy: Goraksha

What do cows have to do with yoga philosophy?

The Sanskrit go (cow) shows up in a name that will forever be associated with hatha yoga, the semilegendary Goraksha, credited with being the first hatha teacher. Literally Protector (raksha) of Cows, this appellation has been the subject of a good deal of speculation. Goraksha, who is said to have lived sometime during the 9th or 10th century, founded an order of wandering ascetics called the Split-Ears (kanphata)—their initiation rites included splitting the cartilage of their ears to accommodate enormous earrings—and serves as the hero of many fantastic tales of wonder working.

What does his name suggest? One story links Goraksha with the divine source of all hatha yoga teaching, Shiva, who is called Lord of Cattle (pashupati) or, more generally, Lord of Animals (including humans). Another story, not entirely convincing, has it that his mother was a cow. The name goraksha is also an honorific appellation given to initiates who have reached a high level of yoga practice. It signifies a person who’s mastered one of the more unusual and difficult practices of traditional hatha yoga, in which the tongue—referred to symbolically as “cow meat” (gomamsa) in one old yoga text—is turned back in the throat and “swallowed.” Eating cow meat is, of course, a grievous sin for Hindus, but, paradoxically, doing its symbolic equivalent absolves an adept of the five great sins, which include drinking liquor and stealing.