Is Yoga a holistic complete system or is it just about exercises? Is it an ancient way of life or a modern physical fitness program? The author tries to answer these questions
By B Davis
Over the years and periods such as the colonization of India, the common perception of yoga has altered significantly. Here I will discuss the origins of yoga, Vivekananda’s philosophy and how he has adjusted the tradition to fit the west. From this we will be able to understand how yoga, as we know it today, is in fact a modern rather than ancient tradition, due to the lack of original core beliefs.
Where did yoga originate?
Yoga, one of the six classic systems of Hindu philosophy, has a long and ancient history; the Brahmanas and the Vedic Samhitas contain evidence of the existence of ascetic practices. The term ‘yoga’ first appeared in the Katha Upanishad where it is described as the control of senses which leads to the supreme state; Yama, the king of the dead, reveals both supreme knowledge and yoga at the same time. The actual word yoga is derived from the word yuj which means ‘to link together’; this ‘link’ or ‘bond’, in yoga, stresses our need to unify our spirit, mind and body through self-discipline and concentration of the mind. For the traditional schools of yoga the unification precedes true union: the union of the human soul with God.
Philosophies behind yoga: detaching oneself
Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutra sometime between 100BCE and 500BCE, but admitted that he was just publishing the ideas of others; the ‘closed circles of the Indian ascetics and mystics, in fact, knew yoga practices long before.’ He repeated what is called the Samkhya philosophy which is considered the most ancient darsana (one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu Philosophy). Samkhya is to dissociate the spirit (purusha) from the matter (prakrti). Similarly in yoga deliverance cannot take place without detaching oneself, so although there are differences between the two, such as yoga being theistic and Samkhya being atheistic, there is still a resonating idea of detaching from the material.
The mental control imperative to what we would call classical yoga occurs through developing eight aspects of the yogic path. Some may be familiar to those who practice it today, but these are consecutive steps you must make before you can be ‘at one with the universe’. The first two are ethical disciplines then when you are in the right state you focus on the body and the breath. With the next five steps you withdraw attention from the external world and lose consciousness of the physical environment in the state on concentration (Samadhi), then achieving your goal in the final step. Another important belief present in the yoga sutra is the existence of chakras. These are wheels or centres in the body, and the system originates in the tantric goddess Kubjika around the eleventh century CE. The energy from the goddess Kundalini is to be raised through the chakras up to reach a union with Shiva.
Bringing the East to the West, and the importance of Vivekananda
Colonialism has had a big impact on the thought of modern Indian philosophers like Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world. This colonialism meant India was all of a sudden faced with an intense amount of imported ideas including ideas from Christianity and values of Enlightenment liberalism. This colonization is significant when discussing how the yoga we practice in the west is a modern, rather than an ancient system; during the British colonial period, influences were absorbed and even some traditional Bengali literature was transformed into modern Hindu intelligentsia. So the West had an impact on India a long time before the East came over with their philosophy, meaning that what we believe to be Eastern thinking is even more condensed. It is a gradual move further away from of ancient tradition, starting with the west imposing their ideas.
It is only in the last century that the yoga we are most likely to be familiar with today called modern yoga spread across both India and across to the West. But Michelis argues ancient yoga is so diluted that the original purpose, which was to be closer to God, has almost gone, and what is left is the modern yoga tradition representing a ‘limited range of (usually occultized) hathayogic practices’ (Michelis, p.95). We can assess this argument by looking at Vivekananda and what he has taken from classical yoga and how much of an impact ancient thought has had on his work and beliefs. He is after all seen as the spiritual ambassador of India to the West. According to him, the method you should use to attain religious truth or realization is through raja yoga.
Adjusting Hinduism to suit the West
Vivekananda was the first Indian to build a bridge between and bring together Eastern and Western esoteric teachings. His was not brought up in a particularly traditional Hindu household which has a big part in his later religious philosophy. He was also greatly influenced by Western philosophers such as Hume and Kant, which, asides from shaping his way of thought, also provided him with the vocabulary to communicate English speaking countries. Vivekananda came at an age of technological growth and increasing secularization, yet people still wanted spiritual techniques and practices to achieve rational and personal goals. These practices were therefore deemed to be in the religious sphere. This is how modern yoga, asides from the actual word having come from the Hindu tradition, has come to be thought of as religious and therefore making the mistake of thinking it an ancient Hindu practice.
Vivekananda did not have a problem adjusting Hindu teachings to fit the Western need for these spiritual practices, and he was aware that the West might not be so keen if he were to talk about sacred text, caste, or women. But his self-realization philosophy seemed to take well to this culture. It is Raja Yoga that allows him to take the final step from Neo-Vedantic esotericism to Neo-Vedantic occultism. Instead of the orthodox Neo-Vedanic concept of realization, the Raja Yoga as defined by Vivekananda emphasizes realization as personal an experimental.
Do we misunderstand the true meaning of yoga?
To the ancients, Yoga is a complete system of which the postures (Asanas) are a small but useful part, but Modern yoga mainly uses these in practice rarely focusing on the first two ethical disciplines of the eight aspects. It is called Hatha Yoga and is the physical branch of Raja Yoga. The position of posture has been elevated, so as to lead people to believe that the word yoga refers to physical postures or Asanas, and that the goal therefore is physical fitness. Michelis agrees saying this ‘modern postural yoga’ has come to be worlds apart from all forms of classical yoga.
Typical practice sessions include three stages: the introductory quietening time, practice of posture and breathing and the final relaxation where pupils get into a corpse pose called savasana.Savasana concludes the session and represents the phase of the healing ritual. After this practitioners are ready to return to the normal world. The use of Hindu terms here does not help the misinterpretation of the act as traditional, the meaning. As well as this, the meaning of savasana means that the person should surrender his all ‘his breath, life and soul – to his creator’ (Michelis p.251). So the core meaning of this practice has altered to adapt to the people practicing it. This does not mean it is a bad thing, modern yoga practice or Hatha Yoga has found a place in our society and has evidently become a practice to help people gain spiritual solace whilst benefiting them physically.
In his article Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati is angered by this misunderstanding calling referring to it as the ‘Big Lie’ that yoga is an exercise or fitness programme. He also says that ‘the mere fact that one might do a few stretches with the physical body does not in itself mean that one is headed towards that high union referred to as Yoga.’ Instead, it should be about a union with God. Practices now tend to be for health reasons rather than having anything to do with a deity. As Michelis states, correspondingly with the opinion of Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, modern postural yoga has become a healing ritual of secular religion.
This is a problem for Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati as he believes that without an understanding of Vedanta, it is difficult to understand great teachers or their words to us. The main Hatha Yoga teachers follow the Vedantic teaching using the language and its emphasis on the Self for a higher aspect of yoga. But he believes there that these teaching have no meaning to the majority of people practicing; he argues that you would not walk into a restaurant and order a Christian communion, yet you can walk into a spa and ‘order up a ‘yoga’’ completely disregarding the meaning. Although some may debate, as Michelis who at the same time acknowledges that it is not an ancient practice does, that it is still an important beneficial practice but it has had to adapt.
When is yoga no longer yoga? The question we need to ask when discussing if it is an ancient or modern technique is after how much adaption to a culture does it cease to be the original system? If after the highest goals of a practice have been removed to suit the culture practicing it, surely that mean it is not ancient system at all but a modern practice that has just been influenced by it.
List of references:
Block, E. & Keppens, M. & Hedge, Ra (eds), 2010, Rethinking Religion in India: The colonial construction of Hinduism, Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Coney, J., 1999, Sahaja Yoga, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Eliade, M., 1975, Paranjali and Yoga, New York: Schocken Books.
Flood, G., 1992, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Funk & Wagnalls, 2006, Yoga Defined, New Encyclopaedia, last accessed: 28/10/12, available at: www.swamij.com/yoga-define-waec.htm.
King, R., 1999, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Michelis, E., 2004, A History of Modern Yoga, London: Continuum.
Holy Father, if you are serious about respecting other religions, the claim of exclusiveness must be scrapped and Hindus who have given to the world a deep philosophy and a great culture, must be respected
This was in December of 2013. Prominent spiritual activist Maria Wirth- who has made India her home- wrote this open letter to Pope. Maria says that on her recent visit to South India, she came across an increasing number of Churches and decided to bring this to the attention of Pope and appeal to him to stop conversion as Hindus do not need it.
Here is the letter.
Respected Holy Father,
Great hope for a positive change in the Catholic Church is pinned on your Pontificate and recent statements indicate that this hope may not be misplaced. The future, your Holiness said in November 2013, is in the “respectful coexistence of diversity and in the fundamental right to religious freedom in all its dimensions, and not in muting the different voices of religion”.
This statement makes eminent sense and would need to be implemented by all who presently do not subscribe to a respectful coexistence of diversity in regard to religions. However, I sense (wrongly maybe) that it is a plea for other religions to respect Christianity, rather than a commitment by the Church to respect other religions. To be precise, since Christians are occasionally persecuted in Islamic countries, it seems to be an appeal to ‘live and let live’ between the two biggest religions on earth.
Your Holiness is aware that both, Christianity and Islam, claim to be the only true religion and their God, respectively Allah alone is true. Both religions further hold that all people on earth have to accept this claim and join their particular religion to be saved and reach heaven or paradise. Both give a serious warning to those who don’t join: they will land up eternally in hell. These claims of exclusiveness are made without any evidence whatsoever, apart from the fact that the claims contradict each other, as both cannot be true. They require blind belief, and as blind, unreasonable belief is not natural for human beings, for many centuries it was enforced with state power and indoctrinated right from childhood with the fear of hell as the boogeyman.
May I ask Your Holiness to ponder how the respectful coexistence of diversity and the fundamental right to religious freedom is possible as long as these claims of exclusiveness are in place? Were these claims originally made to gain political power or were they made in the interest of the spiritual welfare of humanity? And may I also ask whether Your Holiness personally believes in these claims?
I trust that privately, Your Holiness does not believe in them, as media reported your statement that good atheists also will be redeemed. In other words, they won’t go automatically to hell. However, the Vatican took pains to clarify that Your Holiness did not mean it. Even my mother, 95 and a staunch Catholic all her life, expressed dismay that a perfectly sensible statement by the Pope was watered down.
Your Holiness may feel compelled for worldly reasons to stick to the claim of exclusiveness as dropping it would entail wrapping up all conversion attempts and in the process lose power, wealth and influence. Further there may be fear that other Christian denominations will not go along and will gain an advantage over the Catholic Church. Still another worry may be that Islam will not drop the claim of exclusiveness and will push aggressively for conversion.
However, the Catholic Church was the first institution to put up this baseless claim, which has brought unspeakable disaster upon humankind. From this claim the Church derived not only the ‘right’, but the ‘duty’ to storm across the globe and impose forcefully her ‘belief system’ – in Europe, in the Americas and in Africa and now in Asia. It was no doubt an ingenious ploy to claim that God wants everyone to become Christian. . Mark Twain famously said, “Religion was born when the first con-man met the first fool”. I would change it, “Dogmatic religion was born when ….”.
Some centuries later, Islam followed suit, claiming that Allah wants everyone to accept Islam, and we all know the violent conflicts resulting from those unsubstantiated claims. Since the Catholic Church started this disastrous trend, she needs to reverse it. The welfare of humanity as a whole has to be the concern and not the welfare of a religious institution. Hopefully Your Holiness has the courage to make a real, clear change for the better and will not fall for hairsplitting theological arguments, like ‘redemption is possible but not salvation’, etc.
Most Christians especially in Europe don’t believe anymore in unreasonable claims. The sad thing is that together with the dogmas, many reject belief in God altogether. They have not learnt to listen to their conscience and to enquire into truth, as the Church has played the role of the conscience- and truth-keeper for too long. The consequences for our societies are there for everyone to see.
However, many Christians do start pondering and believe in a ‘great power’, but not in the Christian God. For example, when I asked some fifty Christians in Germany whether they believe that Hindus who heard about Jesus Christ, but do not convert, will go to hell, nobody said yes. Even a priest said no. And not a single German I met was in favour of missionary activity in India. Yet Pope John Paul II declared in India the intention of the Church to plant the cross in Asia in the new millennium and considered India as a field for a rich harvest, which goes completely against ‘respectful coexistence’.
I live in India since 33 years and can assert with full confidence that India has no need of Christian missionaries, and yet huge sums of money are being pumped in to lure converts with material benefits and to build churches. I am aware that Your Holiness is responsible only for Catholics and not for the myriad of other Christian denominations that prey on poor Hindus, but if the Catholic Church made a start of truly respecting Hindus, it would have a big impact.
Maybe Your Holiness is under the impression that Hinduism is a depraved religion and Hindus would do well to accept the Christian God instead of their multiple gods. Such an impression would be completely wrong. There is no other religion that is –unjustly – denigrated as badly as Hinduism. Sorry to say that Christian (including Catholic) missionaries are in the forefront of this vilification campaign. Few people in the west know how profound India’s ancient tradition is. A solid philosophical basis for our existence and helpful tenets for a fulfilling, meaningful life had been known in India long before ‘religions’, as we know them today, came into being. The only addition Christianity brought in anew, are unverifiable dogmas that cannot possibly have a bearing on the absolute Truth. Can an event in history impact the absolute Truth? Will Truth make a distinction between people who are baptized and those who are not? “There is no salvation outside the Church” is, and I may be excused for using strong language, ridiculous.
The Indian rishis had discovered ages ago that an all-pervading Presence is at the core of this universe, indescribable, but best described as absolute consciousness. Further, the Hindu law of karma preceded the Christian dictum “as you sow so you reap’. A Council stopped Christians from believing in rebirth which would explain many riddles that trouble them, for example why there is great injustice already at birth? The advantage of having a perfect person as a friend and guide on the spiritual path was known in India, but till some 2000 years ago nobody claimed that ‘only’ Krishna or ‘only’ Ram or ‘only’ Buddha can lead to salvation and that whoever does not believe it, goes to hell. “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names”, the Indian rishis declared and listed different names of gods. That was at a time, when Christianity was nowhere in sight. Surely they would have included ‘God’ as another name and Jesus as an avatar, not expecting to be backstabbed by followers of “God” declaring: “Truth is one and must be called only by one name and is fully revealed only in one book.”
The multiple gods in Hinduism are personified powers that help to access the formless, nameless Presence that is in all of us. Christians in India are told that Hindu gods are devils. At the same time, Christianity tries to revive (possibly inspired by Hinduism) belief in angels, as devotion for the Invisible is easier by focusing on images.
Hinduism is not a belief system. It is a knowledge system. It is a genuine enquiry into what is true about us and the world. Hindus are not required to believe anything that does not make sense and can never be verified. There is complete freedom. Yes, most believe in rebirth, which makes sense. Most believe in an all pervading Brahman (many other names are in use) that is also in humans. Most believe that this divine essence can be experienced in oneself, if the person purifies herself by certain disciplines coupled with devotion. This belief is verifiable. It is not blind. There were many Rishis who realized their oneness with Brahman. In Christianity, too, there were mystics who experienced oneness with the Divine like Meister Eckhart did. Sadly, he was excommunicated by the Church. Why is the Church resisting scientific insight that there is some mystery essence in everything? And why is it difficult to accept that in the long, long history of humanity, there were several, not only one, outstanding personalities who showed the way to the truth?
Holy Father, I request you in all sincerity to be such an outstanding personality who guides his followers on a path of expansion, and does not straight-jacket them into an unbelievable belief system, which among others demands converting Hindus to Christianity. Your Holiness is venerated as the representative of the Highest Power in this universe by over a billion of Catholics. Many of your predecessors were not worthy of this veneration. Utmost truthfulness and integrity are required. Calculations about worldly power must not come in the way. The Catholic Church surely would benefit, not lose out, if it honors Truth and gives up its claim that there is no salvation outside the Church. Truth cannot be cheated; neither can it be contained in a book. Truth is what we basically are. Hindus, whose religion is universal and all-encompassing, respect diverse traditions. They are one of the most cultured, gentle and peace-loving people on earth who live and let live, unless greatly provoked.
Holy Father, if you are serious about respecting other religions, the claim of exclusiveness must be scrapped and Hindus who have given to the world a deep philosophy and a great culture, must be respected. Many of us look forward to hearing truly good news from the Catholic Church under your stewardship. The main issue that plagues the Church is not whether women should be priests or whether divorcees can take Holy Communion .The main issue is the unfounded claim of exclusiveness regarding ‘salvation’. It divides humanity into us who are right and saved, versus them who are wrong and damned. Kindly drop this harmful claim and make your Pontificate truly memorable and beneficial for all humanity.
Posted as registered letter to Pope Francis on 10th December 2013 from Puducherry, India.