With this work newly translated into English, the people at YogaVidya have completed the publication of three of the most historically important but seldom published works of yoga. The other two are Akers, Brian Dana, trans., Hatha Yoga Pradipika; and Mallinson, James, trans., The Gheranda Samhita. Mallinson, who also did the translation here, is to be commended for the clear, contemporary feel of the book and for a worthy introduction that points to the many problems facing the translator of this frankly strange and certainly corrupt work from the 14th or 15th century of the current era.
Some years ago I read a text with the standard translation by Chandra Vasu from 1914, but put it aside as something strangely jumbled and confused. The problem with the Shiva Samhita (and to a lesser extent with the Gheranda Samhita) is a bastardization of two of the traditional yogas, raja/hatha yoga and tantric yoga. (The other three traditional yogas are bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, and karma yoga.) Tantric yoga is the yoga of the left-handed path in which the practitioner attempts to find liberation from the pair of opposites and enter into samadhi by embracing desire or pleasure. This method is in most respects diametrically opposed to the "yoga of discipline" which is the raja/hatha yoga path associated with the sutras from Patanjali from two thousand years ago and mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.
As he explains in the introduction, Mallinson addressed numerous "variant readings" in an attempt to make as coherent as possible the incongruities of the Shiva Samhita. He writes, "Now it may simply be that we are hearing separate instructions for the two traditional types of Tantric aspirant, namely bubhukshus, those desirous of siddhis, and mumukshus, those desirous of liberation, but the unqualified juxtaposition is jarring, particularly in light of the last verses of the text, wherein the householder is said to be able to obtain siddhis and become liberated by means of the techniques of Yoga--and still have fun!" (p. xiii)
"Siddhas," by the way, are psychic powers, such as levitation and being invisible, etc., which brings us to what may be a problem in Mallinson's translation for the general reader. One of the recurring problems for those who would translate yoga texts from the Sanskrit into modern English is that of deciding which terms to find English (more or less) equivalents for and which to leave untranslated. If you read some of the earliest translations of yogic works into English from say a hundred years ago or so, even the very word "yoga" was rendered by some as "discipline." With such words as "nadis," which are subtle channels in the human body, similar to neurons, but clearly not really neurological in a scientific sense, there is no attempt to find English synonyms because frankly there are none. "Prana" is another word that can be troublesome. It can be translated as "breath" and sometimes this is entirely correct. Most often it is best to just use the term "prana." It appears that Mallinson sometimes translates prana as "wind" as winds in the body. I find this unusual and, not being able to read Sanskrit, am at a loss as to how felicitous his usage might be. (Incidentally, as in the other books published by YogaVidya, the Sanskrit verse appears on the same page along with the English translation.)
On the other hand, Mallinson leaves many Sanskrit words untranslated, and this may also present a problem to the general reader. What do words like "linga," "bhoga," "Maya," "samsara," "nada," etc., mean? In some cases, even though I am relatively familiar with yogic terms, I had to consult a dictionary to get the meaning, and in some cases found none.
The real problem confronting most readers are the contradictions and the exaggerations (!). It is claimed again and again that this practice or that practice cures all disease and even better leads the aspirant to eternal life and power over all and sundry and--in the most ludicrous hyperbole--allows the practitioner to be alive even at the dissolution of the cosmos! Also annoying are the incessant "commercials" for the guru system. Again and again we are told that we have to worship the guru, tend to his lotus feet and treat him as a god on earth (and whatever you do, do NOT sleep with the guru's wife!--that is, unless you have also performed the correct mudra or asana or entered into a sufficient meditation, in which case you are absolved of your sins, all of them).
I think it can be seen by the discerning reader that the Shiva Samhita, for all its historical and literary value, is something close to a parody of the scope and intent of yoga. The gurus for whom it was written clearly were, for the most part, not the spiritually advanced men we would hope for, but profane aspirants themselves, looking for ways to further their individual enterprise as gurus and to establish a kind of shaman-like persona. I might add that some of the practices are dangerous (there is a warning to this effect on the copyright page) and some are well nigh impossible, such as drawing up a woman's reproductive fluids with your linga!
Nonetheless I recommend this fine translation and introduction by Mallinson. The book is splendidly presented and carefully edited and proofread. There is an index and some photos of a graceful and lissome woman named Shipra demonstrating some of the asanas and mudras. What is sorely needed is a glossary.