Beyond religion: Ultimate goal of Yoga is the “Abidance in Atman”



By Nithin Sridhar

In what is being seen as a landmark judgment by some quarters of population world-wide, an appeals court in California, USA has upheld a decision by the San Diego Superior Court that the yoga program in the Encinitas School District is ”devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings.” The appeals court has ruled that the said Yoga program is secular and it did not had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. This judgment has once again raised the question “Is Yoga Secular or Religious?”

Understanding Yoga

Yoga literally means “Union”. Patanjali Yoga Sutra (1.2-3) defines Yoga as a state wherein the patterns (vrittis) of the mind has been removed, so that the “seer” (i.e. Atman) abides in his real nature”. Hence, yoga is a state of Samadhi, wherein the Self or Atman has been isolated from the limitations of Non-Self entities like body and mind so that the Atman alone shines. This state is achieved by stilling the mind by causing all the various thought-modifications of the mind to cease. Just as various thoughts and dreams are products of modifications of “manas/mind”. Similarly, from purely subjective perspective the objective universe one perceives is also due to the modifications of one’s mind. The Atman is the witness and the body and the mind are the objects. Hence, when the mind is stilled and the modifications of mind are brought into a stop, the objects merge into the subject and the Atman which is the subject alone remains. This state of Samadhi is called as “Yoga” or “Union” because there is a Union of duality of object and subject giving rise to the non-dual abidance in Atman.

What is the goal of Yoga?

The whole system of Yoga is designed to attain this state of Self-abidance. Patanjali describes an eight limbed process to attain the ultimate Union. These eight limbs are- yama (external discipline), niyama (internal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (one pointed concentration), dhyana (meditative absorption) and samadhi (Ultimate Union). It is to be noted that Asana or practice of various postures and pranayama or the practice of breath regulation are not considered as foundational limbs. Instead they occur as third and fourth limb respectively. The foundation limbs are yama and niyama which constitutes various external and internal disciplines. Yama includes ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (freedom from avarice). Niyama includes shaucha (cleanliness), santosha, tapah(austerity/control of mind and senses), svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvarapranidhanani (devotion to God).Without a constant practice of these yama and niyama, no amount of Asana can lead to higher limbs of Yoga. The Yama and Niyama aims to purify the mind and impart detachment and dispassion to the practitioner. The aim of Asana is to keep the body healthy and make it a proper instrument for higher practice. The Pranayama aims to regulate the breath which is very much necessary for stilling the mind. It is only by a proper synchronization of all the four limbs that a person is able to withdraw his senses (pratyahara) and attain one-pointed concentration (dharana). If, a person was to practice postures alone then all one will be able to attain is a healthy body. But, developing a healthy body is not the ultimate goal of Yoga. In fact it is not the ultimate goal of human life itself. According to Hindu philosophy, the ultimate goal of human life is Moksha and all other activities and goals be it Kama, Artha or Dharma are to be aligned to make way for an individual to ultimately reach the goal of Moksha. Hence, be it Yoga or Bharatanatyam or Indian Classical music, every aspect of Indian life was conceived as a medium to attain an eternal abidance in Atman i.e. Moksha.

Hence, having a healthy body or a healthy life-style cannot be ultimate goal of Yoga. Instead it can only be a secondary and interim goal that is aimed at turning the body and the corresponding lifestyle into conductive instruments that are then able to attain the ultimate goal of Samadhi.

Yoga is the “Abidance in Atman

“Secularism” refers to the separation of religion from political, social and economic systems and institutions. The creation of this separation is rooted in European history where the concept was used for the separation of the state from the hegemony of the church. But, no such separation ever existed in the Indian concept of life. The foundation of Indian life is Sanatana Dharma and this Dharma dictates every aspect of Indian life. There is no artificial division of sacred and secular in the Dharmic view of life because there was never a conflict between secular subjects and faith-based subjects, between science and religion. Dharma guides both secular and sacred aspects of life. In fact, it harmoniously unites both and helps an individual to work towards the highest goal of Moksha (enlightenment). The Hindu concept of life aims at using even the most secular activities into attempts at reaching the higher goal. The music, dance, martial arts, physical exercises or medicine everything is helpful in equipping an Individual to attain the Moksha.

Hence, to the question whether Yoga is Secular? The answer is definitely a “No”. Whether Yoga is religious in the sense that it is faith-based alone? The answer again is a “No”. When any activity is upheld as being secular, it often means that the activity is completely nonreligious in nature without any element of religion or spirituality. Similarly, when any activity is considered as “religious” it is understood that the activity is only faith based without any scientific or verifiable element in them. But, Yoga does not fit into either of the definitions. It is not secular because it is not a physical exercise regimen that is devoid of any religious value. Instead the ultimate goal of Yoga is the “Abidance in Atman” which is among the most basic tenet of Hinduism. Similarly, it is not entirely religious in the faith sense, because it is a well-designed complete system which rests on individually verifiable results and not on blind faith. Yoga is a dharmic life-style system that has both, faith and non-faith elements, both verifiable and ethical elements that aim at imparting the highest goal of “abidance in Atman” to the practitioner. Hence, when a person or an organization attempts to secularize Yoga, it results in serious consequences.

Secularization or Destruction?

In the present incident, it is reported that the Yoga program was secularized by removing all the religious elements including the removal of the usage of Sanskrit words like Namaste and Sanskrit names of the postures. The Padmaasana for example was promoted as “criss cross apple sauce” posture. Now the question is, what is the basis of considering the terms like “Namaste” and “Padmaasana” as religious and hence needed to be removed? Padma-asana simply means “lotus-posture”. It is one of the basic postures that help a person to enter a deep meditation. The term “Padma” or lotus is used not only because the asana resembles a blooming lotus but also because, a person retains the grip on his body even after entering deep meditation. Just as a lotus floats in water, staying above water yet in constant touch with it, a practitioner will remain in deep meditation without casting off his body. But, any such symbolism and understanding is lost when it is translated as “criss cross apple sauce”. That exactly seems to be the goal. The present example clearly denotes that in the name of secularization, a ripping away of Yoga from its Indian and Dharmic roots is being carried out. The words like Padmaasana are being discarded because they are words of Sanskrit and hence indicate that Yoga is a product of Indian Civilization and Sanatana Dharma. This is a clear case of dilution and digestion of Yoga.

What is the way forward?

The genuine teachers of Yoga in India and the west must take initiative to counter any attempts at dilution or digestion of Yoga-

  • The Yoga teachers must first become strongly grounded in the traditional practice of Yoga. They must not only be thorough in various aspects of philosophy and practice of Yoga but they must also be aware of basic Hindu philosophy.
  • The Yoga teachings must be imparted only to those students who are competent to have it and it must not be sold like a commercial products.
  • The Yoga must be taught as a wholesome dharmic system whose aim is both material and spiritual welfare and not as an exercise regimen.
  • The Yoga teachings should not be diluted for the sake of promoting oneself or gaining more students. The traditional teachings, its terminologies, its meaning and significance etc. should not be distorted.
  • The Yoga teachers must uphold the tradition and promote the tradition instead of promoting their own self.
  • Any specific part or limb of Yoga should not be promoted as a distinct practice on their own. Instead a wholesome teaching of Yoga must be imparted but specific instructions can be based on Individual capacities.

The Hindu parents should become aware about Hindu religion and philosophy. They must become aware about significance of Yoga in material as well as spiritual welfare. They must learn Yoga in its entirety and practice them as a medium to attain the ultimate goal and not just as a health regimen. They must teach the same to their children as well. These simple measures go a long way in preserving the authentic tradition of Yoga and protecting it against secularization and digestion.

(The writer is a Civil Engineer from Mysore, Karnataka who has deep interest in Politics, History, Religion and Philosophy especially in context of Sanatana Dharma.  He could be reached at [email protected])