In contrast to our modern belief, since time immemorial spirituality and mysticism have coexisted with, and have been an intimate part of, the arts of war.
Mithraism, the cult of the Roman centurion (adopted and adapted from the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism) appears to have had both strong militaristic and Gnostic elements. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita was taught by Krishna on the battlefield. The Norse had the Berserkers, a special class of fanatical warriors dedicated to the god Odin. And the Samurai practiced Zen Buddhism.
While, today, mysticism and martial arts have been largely divided, with the latter often considered a “sport,” there are a few schools that keep the ancient tradition alive.
Of the better-known martial arts, Kung fu schools, in particular, still often teach martial arts, meditation, Chi Gong (breathing exercises for cultivating subtle energy or Chi) and certain ethical or spiritual principles together. But there are a few others that have garnered less attention in the West.
Kalaripayattu: The Mother of Asian Martial Arts?
Millennia old, Kalaripayattu was originally practiced by the bodyguards of India’s regional kings. Although it was outlawed by the British when they colonized and ruled India, some Kalaripayattu schools continued to exist and remain operating today.
Using circular motions — as opposed to the more linear strikes of, for example, Shotokan Karate — with lots of spinning motion, the style resembles Shaolin Kung-fu (which, incidentally, legend says was brought to the Shaolin temple by an Indian monk named Bodidhama).
Like some other ancient martial arts, Kalaripayattu is intimately linked to the religion of the region in which it emerged, in this case Hinduism. (Kung fu is often linked to Buddhism or Taoism.)
The walls of the Kalaripayattu training center are traditionally lined with burning candles and statues of deities. And initiation into the martial art — a prerequisite to being taught its techniques and philosophy — involves praying to Hindu deities for protection and mental focus, and being dressed in a long cloth, worn as a kind of short pants.
Iranian Martial Arts: The War of Light Against Dark:
Rooted in pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian Persia, the Iranian martial arts club, the zurkhaneh (“House of Strength”), is based on the religious notion of the power of Light combating and defeating the power of Darkness — a prominent theme in Zoroastrianism. Later, as Shi’a Islam came to be the religion of Persia, the zurkhaneh adapted to it. Notably, today, a picture of Ali — the cousin and son in law of Muhammad, whom Shi’ites revere as the first Imam, and the rightful descendent of Islam’s Prophet — is displayed in Iranian martial arts clubs.
Mysticism and martial arts are fused together in the demonstrations and rituals of the zurkhaneh. “Mystic literature and athletic group musical performances enjoy special status in these rituals because they diffuse chivalry with cheerfulness… among the individuals [taking part],” one Iranian documentary says.
Accompanying the martial rituals are music (with heavy drumming), and recitations of poetry and literature intended to infuse the participants and audience with “higher values.” “the war weapons [of ancient Persia] have been symbolized and used for cheerfulness, physical and mental health and fostering collective spirit.” The Sang (shield) represents protection against “evil temper,” for example, and the Mii (“Indian club”) represents the club held by guardians at temples.
The elevating of weapons to become symbols of the transcendent is reminiscent of the Zoroastrian religion itself, the priest of which carries a ceremonial mace, “as a symbol of the moral fight which he is taking up against evil.” But the spectacle of the zurkhaneh is also highly reminiscent of the main Shi’ite religious festival, Ashura, during which men take to the streets to flagellate themselves with swords and, for the more experienced and stronger devotees, spiked chains.
Though practitioners wear modern combat pants and T-shirts, Systema (Systema Russkovo Boevogo Iskustvo: the System of Russian Martial Arts) is believed to have descended from the ancient Cossacks, once Russia’s most feared and fanatical warriors. Let Every Breath, a book on Systema, describes it as “the discipline of Russia’s ancient holy warriors.”
After the Communists came to power through the October Revolution in 1917, though taught to Spetsnaz (the Soviet Special Forces) and K.G.B. bodyguards, the practice of the martial art was otherwise prohibited. During the Communist era, the techniques of Systema were further developed to meet military and self-defense requirements.
Nevertheless, Systema is viewed by its leaders as spiritually and philosophically rooted in the Russian Orthodox faith. And notably, one Systema exercise involves the practitioner holding his breath for as long as possible, fending off the panic and suffering by reciting a Christian prayer.
The Russian martial art also emphasizes breathing — perhaps as much or even more than hard and soft Chinese martial arts — both for use in combat and in healing and strengthening the body.
Another aspect that may hint at its ancient origins is that the system also tries to cultivate fluidity of motion, for example, in defense, to help absorb and deflect the incoming blows. This approach is generally associated with Tai Chi or the “soft” martial arts, and contrasts the harder, more popular style of MMA. Nevertheless, (although some women may practice it as well,) Systema is undisguisedly a very masculine system.