It is wrong to deny Yoga’s Hindu origins
A 2002 survey of Americans showed that more than half the population expressed an interest in practicing yoga, and a 2004 news report claimed that there were nearly 15.5 million yoga practitioners in the country. Nearly 77% of the practitioners of yoga are women, and half of the yoga enthusiasts have a college degree.
In the small college where I teach in rural Virginia, at which participation in at least one form of physical education is required, yoga classes are the first to fill up – not aerobic dance, not fitness walking, and certainly not weightlifting. Yoga Journal, the most popular magazine for yoga enthusiasts, now has a paid circulation of 350,000 and a readership of more than 1,000,000. Yoga has indeed been embraced by Americans.
But as yoga became more popular, and as the industry grew to be worth nearly $6bn, and as a variety of savvy marketers begin branding their "special" yoga techniques, it was hard not to notice that few yoga teachers and journals mentioned the origins of the practice and its connection to Hinduism. Yoga was "secularised" to rid it of any taint of a "pagan" tradition. The practice, the savvy marketers claimed, was "a spiritual path, but not a religious one", to calm the committed Christian who wanted to hang on to Jesus while doing the "surya namaskara" (obeisance to the sun).
Hindus are an accepting lot, and they believe that each should be able to follow whatever spiritual path they chose, according to one's "ishta" (desire) and "adhikara" (qualifications). And as one scholar elegantly put it, Hinduism itself was "a rolling conference of conceptual spaces, all of them facing all, and all of them requiring all", enabling it to accommodate everyone in this grand cosmic munificence, label or no label.
Alas, we love to categorise, and lay claim to God, goodness and "truth", and when those making monopolistic claims to these began to dominate the world and spread the idea of "religion" – branding, marketing and enlarging market share of souls harvested and converted – we found the people of India (the new name for the old Bharatavarsha) began to be labelled "Hindus" (an umbrella term to identify all those who adhered to Indian spiritual/religious traditions, not including Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism) and their vast "rolling conference of conceptual spaces" got neatly pigeon-holed as a religion – a religion, very soon marked and demonised as "heathen", "pagan", "kafr" and so on.
Thus, when a neophyte yoga student, hanging on to Jesus, anxiously queried: "Is yoga part of Hinduism?", the savvy marketer claimed that the origins of yoga were lost in myth and mystery and that there "was no indication that it was ever part of an organised religion", accomplishing two things simultaneously – reifying Hinduism as a "religion" in the sense of "Abrahamic religions", and denying it as the fount and foundation of yoga.
Joining these local marketers were the Indian-origin marketers, with the lead being taken by the savvy Deepak Chopra – the glib, red-sneakers-and-red-designer-glasses-wearing Hollywood guru who would make PT Barnum proud. Thus, when Aseem Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation wrote an essay in the Washington Post in April this year arguing that there had been a deliberate attempt to represent yoga as separate from its origins in Hinduism, Chopra came pouncing. Ironically, he was joining hands with those demonising Hinduism and disembowelling it of its grand traditions. And when the New York Times, in a front-page article, recently commended the Hindu American Foundation for its intelligent activism, the nay-sayers screamed: "Hindu fundamentalists!"
But what do Hindus, not the deracinated variety, actually want? It is simply to urge the world to acknowledge that yoga has its roots in the millennia-old Indian traditions now known as Hinduism. There is no demand that those who do yoga profess any attachment to Hinduism, let alone become Hindus! There is no tithe to be paid, no conversion sought, no allegiance to a land and its people demanded. Hindus will gladly acknowledge that some modern versions of yoga that focus mostly on shaping and controlling the body do have some western innovators, though few religion and yoga scholars will deny the fact that yoga spread in the west because of the work of great teachers like T Krishnamacharya, K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar – all doing their morning and evening prayers to their chosen Hindu deities and proudly wearing their Hindu identity on their foreheads.
What should also be acknowledged is that most of the yoga that is taught and practiced in the west is "hatha yoga", and that the focus on the body was only a very minor aspect of yoga delineated by the great compiler of the yoga aphorisms, Patanjali. In fact, of the 196 sutras in Patanjali's Yogasutras, only three focus on the body. The primary aim of yoga, Patanjali stressed in the second sutra, is to still the mind for a transformation of consciousness.
Yoga is a complete psychological system, with clear and definite answers to explain the human condition and relieve us of our psychological burdens. Alas, in the modern, westernised, noise-making world, the argument presented by Hindus is under attack from the professional anti-Hindu brigades, homegrown and foreign, whose aim is to proclaim yoga as "anaatha" – an orphan.
First published in The Guardian, online, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/02/yoga-hindu-rebranded-wrongly?INTCMP=SRCH