It is hard to imagine the history of Indian art without envisioning a meditating yogi or sage deep in contemplation, seated in lotus pose or standing in the absolute stillness that is achieved only upon final emancipation from worldly bonds. Among the most enduring of India’s visual tropes, the image of the yogic master signifies far more than it shows. In the past, yoga was not a publicly available practice that could be studied either casually or with varying degrees of seriousness. Rather, it was a highly exclusive ritual activity that could lead either toward liberation or to the acquisition of powerful magical abilities, otherwise known as siddhis. While the path to obtaining siddhis was potent enough to turn a sage into a sorcerer, the path to liberation often constituted a dramatic ontological shift at the level of the soul. Because knowledge of yoga gave the practitioner the potential to transcend the realm of human existence and enter a state akin to becoming divine, it was restricted to highly accomplished gurus and their most dedicated pupils.
The transformative potency of yoga was not limited to human practice. By the early centuries of the first millennium, Hindu gods too came to be represented as masters of the discipline. Deities were understood to be living presences who made and remade the world through the power of yoga. Like their human counterparts, they drew strength from yoga, in the form of a fiery heat (or tapas) that enabled them to act efficaciously in the world. Shiva was seen as the quintessential sage who, seated on the lotus at the center of the cosmos, created the world through his practice. Vishnu took on the form of Nara, an ideal sage, whose ascetic practice was represented visually as producing Narayana,By the turn of the first millennium, prominent gurus and yogis had become canonized as divine incarnations and remained alive and present in their images long after their lifetimes on Earth