Can Yoga Be Exclusive To Hinduism?
Talking of global Indian heritage, Yoga is perhaps the most recognised one, having travelled all over the world for everyone’s well-being. Yoga like many things cultural, is a legacy of an ancient and continuous 5000 years old Indian civilisation and yet quite modern with the backing of science. The genesis of the globalisation of Yoga first came in contact with the west during the times of Plato and Aristotle who paid acknowledgments to Indian values and practices in their arts. These contacts were furthered by Alexander’s arrival in India in the 3rd century BCE.
Modern Yoga gained momentum in the west in the late 1800s after the famous disciples of Swami Vivekananda and other great gurus like Osho, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Vishnudevananda, Swami Satyananda and others travelled to west and introduced the science and practice of Yoga. And today Yoga’s reach is so widespread that search the word ‘Yoga’ on amazon.com and you get links to some 50,000 Yoga-related products under 27 departments. That’s how prolific the Yoga has grown. The Wal-Mart website has some 1,000 yoga products. Yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry in the USA, with some 30 million American practitioners, $27 billion/year revenues (from centres, audios, videos, books, conferences, retreats), over 10,000 studios/teachers, and more than 700,000 subscribers to Yoga Journal magazine.
Over 98 per cent of Yoga teachers, instructors and students in the USA are non-Indians. Wonder why we Indians are not interested in teaching Yoga—especially when the 2 million strong Indian community in the United States is one of the most educated and wealthiest groups? What does that tell us?
It is also estimated that there are about 1 million people in the United Kingdom practicing Yoga. This increasing influence of Yoga in the West has made Christian evangelists so paranoid that they are demanding a ban on Yoga. But still Yoga is sweeping the world.
In India, Baba Ramdev is particularly well-known for his efforts in popularising Yoga to the masses using mainstream media, claiming to have over 85 million people following his Yoga camps via TV channels, and video. This is in addition to some incredible work done by dedicated Yoga centres like the Bihar School of Yoga, Shivananda Yoga Vedanta centre and others. Despite this explosion of Yoga, especially after the Baba Ramdev revolution, do we really know much about Yoga and its history? Can Yoga be seen through narrow religious prisms? Is it fair when Christian extremists in the US and Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere demand its propagation and practice be banned among non-Hindus?
Many orthodox Christian leaders have said that practicing Yoga is incompatible with teachings of Jesus. They have branded Yoga a “false religion”. Muslim clerics have banned Muslims from practicing Yoga in Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, citing similar concerns. What is Yoga and what’s the source or history of Yoga?
In order to answer these and other related questions and to restore Yoga to its rightful place, the main theme of Uday India in this special Deepavali issue is Yoga—which is an essential part of “Sanatan Dharma” and has been a part of India’s culture and daily religious practice for over 5,000 years.
FACTORS BEHIND UNIVERSAL APPEAL OF YOGA
Yoga is a comprehensive and precisely fine-tuned process of uniting the individual consciousness with the omnipresent cosmic consciousness. Understanding the spiritual nature and philosophy of yoga is certainly more important than its gross applications pertaining to the physical exercises, postures and breathing patterns. With their perfection in yoga, the yogis control the agile activities of the body and the mind by relaxing the body completely and engrossing the mind in a soothing state of peace. It eliminates all physical and mental fatigue and helps focusing the consciousness-force in the deeper cores of the inner self. This eventually leads to a state of trance that enables spiritual elevation and transformation of life as a whole. The attainment of ultimate knowledge (brahm vidya) becomes possible only through spiritual enlightenment and sublime thoughts emanating from the awakened self. As described in the Upanishads, the principles of yoga deal with this awakening of the inner realms of soul.
The word Yoga means union, and comes from yuj which means “to join,” to bring together into union the various aspects of yourself that were never divided in the first place. From that comes the direct experience of yourself that is beyond the false identities stemming from the seemingly countless colourings of attraction and aversion. Another modern adaptation of this principle is the word holistic, meaning to become whole, or to realise your underlying wholeness.
Patanjali describes this in the Yoga Sutras, where he defines Yoga as the mastery (nirodha) of the mind (Sutra 1.2), allowing the true Self to then come shining through (Sutra 1.3). Patanjali also explains that the purpose of Yoga is discrimination (viveka) among the inner processes (Sutras 2.26-2.29). The process of mastering and integrating the mind may be a part of religions, but that does not mean that regulating your mind in this way is, itself, a religion.
Yoga does not prescribe the worship of any specific “deity or deities”. The word divine is defined (in dictionaries) as coming from, or connected with God or Gods. Yoga does not give specific instructions for the “existence, nature, [or] worship”. Yet, Yoga acknowledges that bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion is a valid aspect of Yoga. Yoga does not tell you where to direct that devotion, or the specific methods by which you should do it. That is left to personal religious preference. (See also the note below on the fallacy of composition, in that some will argue that Yoga is a religion because some may suggest or allude to a particular name of God or deity.)
Mankind has made few attempts to explain the history of India. Invading foreigners created for their own understanding explanations and descriptions (mostly wrong) of a people and a world, which were alien and incomprehensible to them. Adopted carelessly in the course of time by the native people, these words gave the latter a new identity that was the very opposite to the one their own tradition had given them. It changed their perception of themselves and also of others.
There were many waves of invaders and all these constitute successive chapters of mediaeval and modern Indian history. In modern times, the assumptions have been: (i) There is something called Hinduism, (ii) Hinduism is the national form of Indian religion, (iii) Indian civilisation is Hindu civilisation, and (iv) in all its movements Hinduism is primarily religion, its chief direction being otherworldly and radically world-denying. These have been the assumptions behind practically all Western thinking on India. Each one is a huge misconception; but what is astonishing is that they should have also become the assumptions behind much of modern Indian thinking. Together they have succeeded in concealing the main waves that arose in Indian life and which reflected the major issues of human life everywhere.
The true identity of Indian civilisation has been dharmic and not Hindu. The word ‘Hindu’ itself is not to be found in any of the ancient or even mediaeval Indian texts. That word was coined by the invaders—probably for the first time by the Arabs, circa 8th century AD—and then it was clearly a geographical description for those who lived beyond the river Sindhu or Indus, and carried with it no religious connotation.
The irony of it is that those who are called Hindus, are not Hindus. The concept is the product of what were, from the very beginning, misleading words which in turn, gave rise to a false consciousness. There never was such a thing as Hinduism (much less a national form of it), conditioned by the concepts of a religion. The truth is that the invaders of ancient India were addressing themselves, not the Indians. Starting on the wrong premise, that Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India, the invaders worked out political implications which were accepted by some and rejected by others. In search of a unified system of religious beliefs amongst the people they called Hindus, the Catholic missionaries of the 16th century used the word ‘Hinduism’ (which they would now endeavour to replace with ‘Catholicism’). It created a wrong understanding of Indian culture, for not only was Hinduism a false name, but the concept of religion was grafted onto it, creating a doubly false track.
So Hinduism is a meaningless name imposed on Sanathana culture. Of course, divine avatars such as Krishna took birth in India. But godliness will manifest as avatars anywhere in the world, when needed. Christ, Mohammed, Zoroaster, etc fall in that category, which is other than Indian. However, Sanathana Dharma does not want to exclude them as alien. The great messiahs of Sanathana culture like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Ramathirtha, Yogananda Paramahansa, who represent the present form of total godliness, agreed with this statement, rather they even emphasised it. Shirdi Sai Baba was a proof of that even, in his life. Shri Ramakrishna also realised Christianity and Mohammedanism by his austerity in spite of his brahminhood and avatarhood.
Ramkrishna himself suffered pains and sufferings like Christ as a message of sacrifice to the world. He had the same childlike heart of Christ. The case is the same with Swami Sivananda. He also gave the same message of love and sacrifice of Christ and taught the world to attain divinity by annihilating ego on the sacrificial cross of Christ not only on Christmas day, but at every moment.
Gradually, people are coming to realise that they are part of a higher evolution of man and not only a body born to live and die. When the supply of electricity in our homes is constant and the wiring is made of strong material, there is continued illumination. In the same way we must learn to render the mind steady and develop an inner harmony, first through the practices of meditation and then continually at all times in the face of problems and conflicts in social and personal life.
Yoga is an ageless science. Although at times various methods of teaching yoga to the people have arisen, basically it has remained essentially the same.
The practice of yoga is of utmost importance because it will become the basis of the future world cultures. It will become the spiritual light, which philosophies and cultures of the past have failed to give us. Up to now the socio-political creeds have only spoken of spiritual life in terms of Hinduism, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, or Christianity. But we have to learn to unite all these branches and that is why man is going to take shelter within yoga.
Now is the right time for you to accept yoga as part of your daily activities. Don’t say that you have no time or that, when you sit for meditation your mind escapes you. No. These are only false excuses. Who are you deceiving? Who are you betraying? What happens to a man when he goes to hospital for fifteen days? Where does he get the time from? When you pass sleepless nights worrying about the problems of your family, your business, your love and hatred, where do you get the time from? In order to practise yoga, all you need is from five to twenty minutes daily. If you don’t have it, then borrow it. Even if you have to pay high interest, the benefits you will receive in return will amply pay it back.
All of the scriptures in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism say the same thing—that egoism is not a product of knowledge or enlightenment; in religious terms, one can say that it is the product of Satan. Where there is enlightenment there is humility; the more enlightened you are, the smaller you feel. This is true not only in the life of a saint or a swami, but also for an artist, poet, politician, scientist or musician. The more enlightenment comes, the less you think about yourself, and when you feel that you are little, how can there be egoism?
Newton said about his discoveries that he was only collecting the pebbles on the shore while the ocean still remained untouched before him. A great man, a true man, an enlightened personality is always open to every form of knowledge. Whether he learns from saints or sinners makes no difference, because these are only social distinctions, categories and castes. For a mother, it makes no difference whether her child is a boy or a girl, healthy or unhealthy, a swami or a drunkard.
Saints never criticise and are never afflicted by prejudice or attachment. They interact on spiritual levels. Of course, to talk about saints is not an easy matter. They are like icebergs—you can only see a small part of them above the water; the rest is hidden. Therefore, it is definitely not possible for me to make an accurate assessment of the personality of Swami Sivananda, with whom I lived for only a short period of time, but who was responsible for changing the whole current and concept of my life.
Yoga is one of the six systems of philosophy. Yoga is a universal science that has risen above religion. It is a universal technique. No particular dogma is laid down, and no particular god is pointed out for your worship. Yoga does not say that you must repeat any particular name of God. Yoga only says that repetition of one of the Divine name is one of the ways of concentrating the mind. It does not specify the name or whom to worship.
By Dr Pranav Pandya
The writer is Chancellor of Dev Sanskriti Viswavidyalaya, Shantikunj, Haridwar, and Head of All World Gayatri Pariwar, Shantikunj, Haridwar
“Yoga leads a man to his highest perfection”—Dr HR Nagendra
“Yoga is related to body, mind and soul of an individual. Union of individual soul with Supreme or Absolute Soul is the ultimate aim of a seeker of truth. Yoga is one of the effective teachings for the attainment of this highest goal. Calming the mind, relaxing the body and slowing the breath are the key dimensions of Yoga for achieving this supreme destination”, said Dr HR Nagendra, a former space scientist at NASA, returned to his native India, changing, as he says, from Mechanical engineering to human engineering “in search of truth”. Vice Chancellor, S-VYASA University, Bengaluru, he says, the search for ultimate truth through external means (science) did not take him far enough and that is why he chose to dive deep into his own consciousness in search of Reality through Yoga. He then proceeded to deal with this subject in a scientific manner he has become accustomed to. In an interview to Sonia Chawla he spoke about various aspects of Yoga. Excerpts:
Is Yoga exclusive to Hinduism?
Yoga is a way of life. Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life too. In that sense, Yoga has been exclusively practiced in India for centuries. And what is that yoga way of life—it is not mere practice of a simple asana or Pranayama, or a mudra or a bandha or a kriya. It is a way of life in which man develops a sense to elevate himself from animal level to become normal human being, great human being, and ultimately super divine human being. Therefore it is a way of life rather than a religion. Religion has its own faith but Hinduism and Yoga dimension are much broader than religion in the sense every religion has a particular faith, which it follows. That cannot be questioned. But Yoga is a science with a holistic living, which can be questioned, tested, experimented and researched. Hence it is not a religion and therefore it is universal.
Hinduism is not a single religion with a blind faith but it’s a conglomeration of many religions based on total dimension of knowledge of human beings. Therefore Yoga is a part and parcel of Hinduism, not in the limited sense of a religion but as a way of life.
Several branches of Yoga are available today. But many people restrict Yoga only to asanas or physical practices. However, four main streams of Yoga have been postulated by Swami Vivekananda : Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga which deal with different dimensions of human personality. For example, Bhakti Yoga harnesses the emotions, and raises man from his animal level to highest level. Similarly the path of intellect is called Jnana Yoga which removes the ignorance; the path of will power is Raja Yoga and Karma Yoga is the path of action. All these paths lead to the same goal of absolute Freedom. So Yoga is broad science which can give direction to modern science and not a religion with a religious faith which cannot be tested.
How do you define Yoga?
Yoga is defined by Patanjali as a conscious process to gain mastery over the mind. Jnana Yoga uses intellect to transcend the intellect to its roots – Reality. Union of individual soul with Supreme or Absolute Soul is the ultimate aim of a yoga seeker. Yoga is one of the effective teachings for the attainment of this highest goal.
What are the factors behind universal appeal of Yoga?
Yoga is a science of holistic living. It is universal in its approach and applicable to all human beings irrespective of sex, age, caste, creed or religion. Anyone who wants to raise himself from the lowest level to the highest level of human achievement can take to Yoga, but not in a limited sense that Yoga is only aasanas. It contains many practices for holistic living. Yoga should not be looked as a physical exercise. There have been great Yoga masters who not only did not do physical aspects but achieved the greatest height of Yoga like Ramana Maharishi, Ramkrishna Paramhansa and many great persons. The methods prescribed by Maharshi Patanjali for attaining the the highest goal of human life, are eight-fold. They are 1. Yama (forbearance or restraint of five motor organs), 2. Niyama (religious observance or restraint of five sense organs and their by-products), 3. Asana (posture), 4. Pranayama (suppression or control of the breath), 5. Pratyahara (restraint), 6. Dharana (attention), 7. Dhyana (contemplation), and 8. Samadhi (meditation). Further to Samadhi, there are 8 further types of Samadhi. All these methods practiced systematically lead a man to his highest perfection in all his activities, attainments and attitudes.
Do you think that Hindus should have some patent rights on Yoga?
Yes, as it has become the order of the day to get patents. There is a lot of controversy on patenting of several Ayurvedic drugs but the government did a wonderful job of setting a web site of all Ayurveda herbs mentioned in the Shastras. Similarly, all general dimensions of Yoga is being put together in a TKDL scheme of Govt and is being made public so that nobody can claim the exclusive rights on it. However, Yoga for various applications as cancer treatment, diabetes, different life style disorders, etc can be patented but not the Yoga in general.
Where is the origin of Yoga, as there is a controversy going on over it?
Yoga has its origin in India for sure because we have got all the Upanishads, which are thousands of years old. The Upanishads form the foundation of the total Yoga dimensions. India is the place where all these things developed but many people had taken this abroad and developed for others. Such developments are most welcome, as it is an open ground where Yoga could be used for other purposes. Now we are conducting lot of in-depth research to use Yoga dimensions for asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, migraine, cancer, HIV and several other disorders.
Which is older—Hinduism or Yoga?
Hinduism came much later and Yoga has been here right from the beginning, from the Upanishads time. Yoga has been the word that’s used much before the term Hinduism came as a conglomeration of different religions. Every religion has a particular faith and Yoga is the science.
Many westerners are claiming that Yoga was originated there. So how can we prove that Yoga is ours?
We have got documented evidence right from times immemorial and all come from the Upanishads. Max Mueller himself has commented on the scriptures of the east. These things are already available all over the world substantiating India’s claim on Yoga.
What is the need of spiritualism in modern days?
It is very important. Now science is turning towards spirituality moving from physical aspects, towards the prana, manas, emotions, intellect and ultimately the total consciousness. While all dimensions of creation undergo changes governed by the tri-fold law of creation, sustenance and destruction, there is something that does not change. That is pure Reality, which is the one that exists and the other things only come and go. This has to be brought out to be known by the world. Moving towards this ultimate Reality is the real pilgrimage and the goal of all our lives.
YOGA HAS NO RELIGIOUS BIAS
Yoga literally means “union”,—to be united with one’s source. It means to be united with God. When one is detached from his source of being, he needs Yoga to be reunited with that source in order to bring normalcy in his human behaviour and conduct.
There are varieties of Yoga, which work as the means and methods of union. They are Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action), Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion and Self-surrender), Jnana Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge). These are different means and methods of reaching at original source and be united with it. The fourth one is Raja Yoga which deals with means and methods of being united with our fundamental source of our being. Raja Yoga has been defined by Swami Vivekananda as “a method of realisation of divinity through the control of mind”. The Raja Yoga is named after Patanjali, the Rishi and the author of internationally-known treatise Yoga Sutra.
Like all other Yogas, Raja Yoga aims at self-development of man by self-help without depending on a set of views, without reference to any community or its practice. In other words, this is a method of self-discovery of any man for realisation of his perfection, the ultimate goal of life. Yoga is no appendage to any one’s religion in particular. It is religion independent. Any person irrespective of his religious belief can practice Raja Yoga. Just like medicine and grammar , Yoga is faith independent. Like medicine and grammar, Yoga has been regarded in scriptures as “sarbopa karak” (universally healthy).
Yoga is an independent system in Indian philosophy with no religion bias. Yoga is a matter of practice, not mere belief. It aims at promoting self-control and ensures healthy body and healthy mind of the practitioner. The reason of popularity of Yoga in the world today is that Yoga is not captivated inside the pages of any particular religious book, nor is its practice ever restricted. It is a method by self-effort through self-purification to restore the balance of human body and mind.
Even a non-believer (atheist) can also get best out of Yoga to purify his body and mind. Hence it would be a mistake to link up Yoga with any particular religion or no religion.
At any time, anybody feels the need of concurring his lower nature to restore peace, tranquility and deep concentration, he is advised to take up Raja Yoga as the method of achieving the goals.
Raja Yoga or Patanjal Yoga, prescribes the eight-fold path for a complete Yogic practice. They are: first “Yama”, second “Niyama”—both of these stages aim at self-culture for external and internal purification. The third one is “Asana”, which aims at making different types of body postures for discipline of body and mind, rather the body-mind complex. This “asana” is now overwhelmingly popular everywhere as “Yoga”. But it is to be clearly understood that “asana” is one of the steps in practice of complete Yoga. Hence “asana” cannot be accepted nor be confused as complete Yoga in the true sense of the term. The forth one of Yogic practice is called “Pranayama” or control of breath with specific technique. This is to be learnt and practiced under expert guidance. The fifth step is “Pratyahara” by which the sense organs of the body are controlled and trained to avoid natural instincts to become diverted for external objects. These five steps are called “Bahirang Sadhana” or external aid of complete Yogic practice, which also includes “asana”.
The last three steps of a complete Yogic practice are “Dharana”, “Dhyana” and “Samadhi”. These are called “Antarang Sdhana” or internal aid of complete Yogic practice culminating in ineffable Ecstasy. The Yogic system, as Dr CD Sharma observes “should not be confused as magic and tantra and self-hypnotisation”.
Thus, Yoga is an independent means and method of uniting human beings to their source through “Samadhi”. It promotes physical, mental and spiritual well- being of the practitioner when duly practised. The modern man, remaining under heavy stress of life, is crying for relief. He is divided in many directions, facing push and pull from opposite directions resulting in a hollow man, a broken man and a frustrated man. Yoga as a science of reunion can work and is working, fostering the well being of a complete man. So simply it is a human science devoted to serve humanity beyond fait, belief and way of worship.
(As told to Debasis Tripathy)
By Prof Hrudananda Ray
THE OTHER VIEW
The Subtle Body
SHOULD CHRISTIANS PRACTICE YOGA?
When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral.
Some questions we ask today would simply baffle our ancestors. When Christians ask whether believers should practice Yoga, they are asking a question that betrays the strangeness of our current cultural moment a time in which Yoga seems almost mainstream in America.
It was not always so. No one tells the story of Yoga in America better than Stefanie Syman, whose recent book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, is a masterpiece of cultural history. Syman, an engaging author who is also a fifteen-year devotee of Yoga, tells this story well.
Her book actually opens with a scene from this year’s annual White House Easter Egg Roll. President Barack Obama made a few comments and then introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who said: “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got Yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.”
Syman describes the Yoga on the White House lawn as “sanitized, sanctioned, and family-friendly,” and she noted the rather amazing fact that a practice once seen as so exotic and even dangerous was now included as an activity sufficiently safe and mainstream for children.
In her words:
There certainly was no better proof that Americans had assimilated this spiritual discipline. We had turned a technique for God realization that had, at various points in time, enjoined its adherents to reduce their diet to rice, milk, and a few vegetables, fix their minds on a set of, to us, incomprehensible syllables, and self-administer daily enemas (without the benefit of equipment), to name just a few of its prerequisites, into an activity suitable for children. Though Yoga has no coherent tradition in India, being preserved instead by thousands of gurus and hundreds of lineages, each of which makes a unique claim to authenticity, we had managed to turn it into a singular thing: a way to stay healthy and relaxed.
In her book, Syman tells the fascinating story of how Yoga was transformed in the American mind from a foreign and “even heathen” practice into a cultural reality that is widely admired and practiced.
In telling this story, Syman documents the ties between Yoga and groups or movements such as the Transcendentalists and New Thought movements that sought to provide a spirituality that would be a clear alternative to biblical Christianity. She traces the influence of leading figures such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Prabhavananda, along with Pierre Bernard and the now lesser-known Margaret Woodrow Wilson. Each of these figures played a role in the growing acceptance of Yoga in America, but most were controversial at the time some extremely so.
Syman describes Yoga as a varied practice, but she makes clear that Yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. She is also straightforward in explaining the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of Yoga and of ritualized sex in some Yoga traditions. She also explains that Yoga “is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country”.
Reading The Subtle Body is an eye-opening and truly interesting experience. To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of Yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.
Nevertheless, a significant number of American Christians either experiment with Yoga or become adherents of some Yoga discipline. Most seem unaware that Yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in Yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of Yoga are meant to connect with the divine.
Douglas R Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and a respected specialist on the New Age Movement, warns Christians that Yoga is not merely about physical exercise or health. “All forms of Yoga involve occult assumptions,” he warns, “even hatha Yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline.” While most adherents of Yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex that are associated with tantric Yoga, virtually all forms of Yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.
Stefanie Syman documents how Yoga was transformed in American culture from an exotic and heathen practice into a central component of our national cult of health. Of course, her story would end differently if Americans still had cultural access to the notion of “heathen.”
The nation of India is almost manically syncretistic, blending worldviews over and over again. But, in more recent times, America has developed its own obsession with syncretism, mixing elements of worldviews with little or no attention to what each mix means. Americans have turned Yoga into an exercise ritual, a means of focusing attention, and an avenue to longer life and greater health. Many Americans attempt to deny or minimize the spiritual aspects of Yoga to the great consternation of many in India.
When Christians practice Yoga, they must either deny the reality of what Yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of Yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that Yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.
There is nothing wrong with physical exercise, and Yoga positions in themselves are not the main issue. But these positions are teaching postures with a spiritual purpose. Consider this if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.
The embrace of Yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church. Stefanie Syman is telling us something important when she writes that Yoga “has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country”. Christians who practice Yoga are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a spiritual practice that threatens to transform their own spiritual lives into a “post-Christian, spiritually polyglot” reality. Should any Christian willingly risk that?
By Dr R Albert Mohler, Jr
(The author has asked Christians to stop practicing Yoga)
THE THEFT OF YOGA
Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste—the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of Yoga in today’s western world.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that their industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that Yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.
Yet the reality is very different. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous-twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second-century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.
Why is Yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realisation—they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins. It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism—the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of Yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.
Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt-intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands—a protection not available to the originator of their brand—Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.
The Los Angeles Times last week chronicled this steady disembodying of Yoga from Hinduism. “Christ is my guru. Yoga is a spiritual discipline much like prayer, meditation and fasting [and] no one religion can claim ownership,” says a vocal proponent of Christian-themed Yoga practices. Some Jews practice Torah Yoga, Kabbalah Yoga and aleph bet Yoga, and even some Muslims are joining the act. They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millenia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of Yoga’s spiritual roots.
Not surprisingly, the most popular Yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once Yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell. These journals abundantly refer to Yoga as “ancient Indian,” “Eastern” or “Sanskritic,” but seem to assiduously avoid the term “Hindu” out of fear, we can only assume, that ascribing honestly the origins of their passion would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, on its website, completes this delinking of Yoga from Hinduism thusly: “The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries…The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions.”
So Hinduism, the religion that has no known origins or beginnings is now younger than Yoga? What a ludicrous contention, when the Yoga Sutras weren’t even composed until the 2nd Century BCE. These deniers seem to posit that Hinduism appropriated Yoga so other religions may as well too! Hindus can only sadly shake their heads, as by this measure, soon we will read as to how karma, dharma and reincarnation—the very foundations of Hindu philosophy—are only ancient precepts that early Hindus of some era made their own.
The Hindu American Foundation (Disclosure: I sit on the Foundation’s Board) released a Position paper on this issue earlier this year. The brief condemns Yoga’s appropriation, but also argues that Yoga today is wholly misunderstood. Yoga is identified today only with Hatha Yoga, the aspect of Yoga focused on postures and breathing techniques. But this is only one part of the practice of Raja Yoga that is actually an eightfold path designed to lead the practitioner to Moksha, or salvation. Indeed, yogis believe that to focus on the physicality of Yoga without the spirituality is utterly rudimentary and deficient. Sure, practicing postures alone with a focus on breathing techniques will quiet the mind, tone the body, increase flexibility—even help children with Attention Deficit Disorder—but will miss the mark on holistic healing and wellness.
All of this is not to contend, of course, that Yoga is only for Hindus. Yoga is Hinduism’s gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one can ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or to convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga asks only that one follows the path of Yoga for it will necessarily lead one to become a better Hindu, Christian, Jew or Muslim. Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.
But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of Yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realisation—that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths—that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate—since Yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.
Hindus must take back Yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage—not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the Yoga studio down the street.
Courtesy: Washington Post
By Aseem Shukla