A county judge in San Diego CA has ruled that yoga is not always religious (Washington Post, 2 July 2013). Parents in a San Diego school district had complained that yoga is intrinsically intertwined with the Hindu religion and that its practice in a public school setting violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The court ruling means that these parents had it wrong: it is possible to divorce yoga from Hinduism, and that is how the local school authorities have gone about their yoga classes.
While yoga may be religious in some contexts, and then notably Hindu, it can also be practised and taught purely for its benefits. Modern school authorities see these benefits mostly in the form of strength, suppleness and nervous relaxation, as well as combating aggressiveness and bullying. Therapists might add the benefit of restoring or at least improving normalcy in individuals afflicted with burn-out, nervous breakdown, certain complexes and other mental disorders. Serious practitioners would invoke calmness, renunciation, even Liberation (howsoever defined), as worthy goals for human beings who are perfectly healthy from the beginning. But all of them would do so without reference to Shiva or Ganesha or whichever God it is that Hindu yogis invoke.
Yoga is intrinsically Hindu
This judgment is part of a broader struggle over the origins and nature of yoga. Some Christians, apparently including the litigating parents from San Diego, object that Yoga is intrinsically Hindu and that it serves as a conduit for Hindu polytheistic God-worship and even for “evil Hindu social mores” such as caste discrimination, arranged marriage and widow-burning. It is of course also debated in how far these mores and this polytheism are bound up with Hinduism, but it is universally agreed that at least as a system of worship, Hinduism is different from Christianity. For the same reason, these circles had in the past opposed Transcendental Meditation, a simplified form of mantra meditation, for being obviously Hindu eventhough advertised as “scientific”. They had hired specialized lawyers (or “cult busters”) to show that the various Gurus who seduced Americans into yoga were salesmen of Hinduism-based cults.
These Christians find odd allies in the Hindus who insist that yoga is indeed naturally Hindu, and that the bead-counting and incense-waving and greeting gestures and indeed prayers that Hindu yogis practise all come with the Yoga package and cannot be divorced from it. They criticize American yoga aficionados such as many showbiz stars and indeed the San Diego yoga schoolteachers for reducing yoga to a fitness system without its cultural roots.
Yoga is up for grabs
On the other side of the divide are those Hindus who say that yoga is scientific and universal, so that it is only normal for it to take on local cultural forms wherever it goes. The motorcar was invented in Germany, but few people driving a Japanese car still remember this. The aeroplane was invented in America, but this invention is now available to travelers all over the world. The Chinese don’t put a sign “invented in America” on their planes, nor do they pay intellectual property rights on them. Of course, Chinese textbooks have a line or two on the aeroplane’s invention by the Wright brothers, and that nod to American honour will suffice. As the late Bal Thackeray used to say: “You cannot take the ‘national produce’ (swadeshi) policy too far, for then Indians would have to do away with the light bulb.” So, Hindus should be happy that Americans are willing to practise their yoga, and apart from a historical detail of origins, India or Hinduism no longer come in the picture.
And this still is a neutral rendering of the viewpoint of a sizable number of Hindus. We don’t even mention money-makers like Deepak Chopra who try to obscure yoga’s Hindu origins in order to claim certain yoga techniques as their own. Some yoga schools, whether manned by native Hindus or by Christian-born Westerners, have patented their own brand name and techniques so that nobody, and certainly not Hindu tradition, can claim these. This tendency is strengthened by the attempt of some Hindus to deny a Hindu identity even to the worldview they themselves are advertising, e.g. the Hare Krishnas worship Krishna, a Hindu god par excellence, yet tell Western audiences that they are not Hindu; or the Ramakrishna Mission, founded in the late 19th century under the motto “Say with pride, we are Hindus”, now say that their message is “universal” rather than “narrowly Hindu”.
Again these Hindus find odd allies in many Christians, both of the lukewarm and of the activist kind. Lukewarm Christians as well as New Age ex-Christians see yoga as a neutral and universal commodity. For them, it can be practised as a fitness system without having any serious implications on their worldview or religion. Just as the European colonizers used the compass and gunpowder without bothering that these were Chinese inventions, American yogis have taken yoga for its tangible benefits without bothering about its Hindu origins. Even the Sanskrit names of the yoga exercises have been translated, so that you can become an accomplished yogi without even being reminded of its exotic origins.
Activist Christians, by contrast, admit that yoga is not religiously neutral. They want to adapt yoga because of its inherent attractiveness and transform it into “Christian yoga”. To them, yoga has indeed historically been linked with Hinduism, but can be delinked from it and tied to another religion. We have even reached the stage where some Christian centres and schools in India offer classes in “Christian yoga”.
Yoga has Hindu roots
So, the San Diego verdict was a victory for lukewarm Hindus and adaptable Christians, and a defeat for serious Hindus and doctrine-conscious Christians. But what do we ourselves make of the issue?
First off, it is a matter of course that Yoga is Hindu. The word “Hindu” is a very general term encompassing every Indian form of Pagan religion no matter how old. It is therefore simply silly to say “Yoga is older than Hinduism”, as salesman Deepak Chopra does. The question then becomes: whether Yoga can be divorced from Hinduism and given a neutral universal identity, as claimed by the San Diego yoga teachers, or even relinked to another religion, as is claimed by the adepts of “Christian Yoga”.
A system of physical fitness, if it is only that, can certainly be integrated in modern Western or purportedly global culture. The Shetashvatara Upanishad already says, and the later Hatha Yoga classics more colourfully assert, that the Yoga practitioner develops a healthy and lustrous body. They even lure the readers into practice by intimating that one becomes irresistible to the opposite sex – the very reason why most modern Americans take up Yoga. Like the aeroplane or the light-bulb, a system of physical fitness can be exported and inculturated, divested of its original couleur locale.
However, it is worth emphasizing that yoga, and even particularly hatha yoga, does have Hindu roots, because this seemingly trivial knowledge is now being challenged. A few academics have claimed that Chinese “internal alchemy” (neidan) travelled overseas to coastal India and influenced Indian Siddha yoga and Siddha medicine. A few techniques of hatha yoga do seem similar to Daoist exercises from China. The influence has been posited but by no means proven. I am willing to consider it probable, but even then it was only an influence on a few exercises in a long-existing native tradition. It is nobody’s case that the Rg-Vedic reference to “muni-s”, wandering ascetics with ashes over their naked bodies (still recognizable as the Naga Sadhu-s), or the Upanishadic glorification of the breath as the key to consciousness and self-mastery, or Patañjali’s description of a whole yoga system, is due to foreign influence.
Very recently, the American media have gone gaga over a theory claiming that hatha yoga is very recent and is essentially a gift of the British colonizers. This can of course not be said for the breathing exercises so typical of hatha yoga, but many of the postures are said to be standard exercises of British soldiers, or to be part of Western systems of gymnastics. Even in this limited form, the claim is ridiculous. The essence of hatha-yogic postures is relaxation and allowing a steadily-held pose to take its effect over time. By contrast, Western gymnastics pride themselves on being “dynamic”, on emphasizing movement and muscle strength. Further, a very physical circumstance comes in the way: yogic exercises are mostly done on the floor. In cold England, the floor is avoided, witness the generalized use of chairs and of the “English” water closet. Any influence would have to be confined to the standing exercises. At any rate, if at all there was Western influence, it can never have been more than an influence touching the skin of an already old native tradition.
But even hatha yoga sees its physical and breathing exercises only as a means to a higher end: liberation. A fortiori, the ancient yoga synthesized by Patañjali was totally geared towards liberation, howsoever defined. The definition of the Buddha’s nirvana (“blowing out”, as of a burning candle) is to get off from the wheel of reincarnations by stopping its motor, viz. desire. Patañjali’s definition is less metaphysical: quieting the mind so that it consciously rests in itself and is not absorbed by its usual objects. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in reincarnation or an afterlife or nothing at all: it suffices to let the Self rest in itself, right now. Whatever liberation may be, it is definitely different from, and incompatible with Christian salvation.
But this is a goal not pursued in most American yoga studios. They aim to make singers better singers, caregivers better caregivers, workers better workers. This has been done before: after the Buddhists had familiarized the Chinese with meditation, some Confucians still rejected the Buddhist philosophy of renunciation and liberation but embraced the practice of meditation, just to "tune their instrument", to function better in society. You can do this, but it is not the fullness of yoga. Also, all the Western therapeutic adaptations of yoga, as a treatment of physical or mental ailments, are designed to make a defective human being normal; while the original yoga was meant to make normal people liberated. So, by commodifying yoga, Americans are importing something from India, but not the whole package.