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.
No country has declared Hinduism as its official state religion – despite India being an influential Hindu political party
Hinduism is not an official or preferred religion in any country of the world, according to a Pew Research Center report.
53% of 199 nations considered in the study don’t have an official religion
80 countries are assigned either an “official religion” or “preferred religion”
Nevada, USA, October 16: Hinduism is the primeval and third largest religion of the world with about 1.1 billion followers of moksh (liberation) being its utmost desire of life. India is among the category of nations where the government do not have an official or preferred religion.
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank headquartered in Washington DC that aims to inform the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.
The report states that a country’s official religion is regarded as a legacy of its past and present privileges granted by the state. And a few other countries fall on the other side of the gamut, and propagate their religion as the ‘official religion’, making it a compulsion for all citizens.
It adds up on the context of allocation that more than eight-in-ten countries (86%) provide financial support or resources for religious education programs and religious schools that tend to benefit the official religion.
Commenting on Hinduism, the report states:
In 2015, Nepal came close to enshrining Hinduism, but got rejected of a constitutional amendment due to a conflict between pro-Hindu protesters and state police.
Although India has no official or preferred religion as mentioned in the Constitution,it was found by PEW that in India the intensity of government constraints and social antagonism involving religion was at a peak. “Nigeria, India, Russia, Pakistan and Egypt had the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion among the 25 most populous countries in 2015. All fell into the “very high” hostilities category,” the report added.
As per the 2011 census, it was found that 79.8% of the Indian population idealizes Hinduism and 14.2% practices to Islam, while the rest 6% pursuit other religions.
While Hinduism stands up with the majority, Article 25 of the Constitution of India contributes secularism allowing for religious freedom and allows every Indian to practice his/her religion, without any intervention by the community or the government.
Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, President of Universal Society of Hinduism, applauded the Hindu community for their benefaction to the society and advised Hindus to concentrate on inner purity, attract spirituality towards youth and children, stay far from the greed, and always keep God in the life.
According to Pew, these are “places where government officials seek to control worship practices, public expressions of religion and political activity by religious groups”.
Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic which describes the narrative of Ayodhya Prince lord Rama’s struggles. The struggles include- exile of 14 years, abduction of his wife Sita, reaching Lanka, destruction of the evil. It is strongly ingrained in the Indian culture, especially, the Hindu culture since a long time. Hindus celebrate Diwali based on the narratives of Ramayana.
The story of Ramayana gives out the beautiful message that humanity and service to the mankind is way more important than kingdom and wealth. Below are five paintings describing the scenes from Ramayana:
1. Agni Pariksha in Ramayana
When Lord Rama questions Sita’s chastity, she undergoes Agni Pariksha, wherein, she enters a burning pyre, declaring that if she has been faithful to her husband then the fire would harm her. She gets through the test without any injuries or pain. The fire God, Agni, was the proof of her purity. Lord Rama accepts Sita and they return to Ayodhya.
2. Scene From The Panchavati Forest
The picture describes a scene from the Panchavati forest. It is believed that Lord Rama built his forest by residing in the woods of Panchavati, near the sources of the river Godavari, a few miles from the modern city of Mumbai. He lived in peace with his wife and brother in the forest.
3. Hanuman Visits Sita
Hanuman reaches Lanka in search of Sita. At first, he was unable to find Sita. He later saw a woman sitting in Ashok Vatika, drowned in her sorrows, looked extremely pale. He recognized her. After seeing the evil king, Ravana making her regular visit to Sita, he hid somewhere in the Vatika. After Ravana left, Hanuman proved Sita that he is Rama’s messenger by showing her his ring. He assured her that Rama would soon come to rescue her. Before leaving Lanka, he heckled Ravana. Agitated by Hanuman’s actions, Ravana ordered to set Hanuman’s tail on fire. With the burning tail, Hanuman set the entire city on fire.
Foremost among the several gods and goddesses of Hinduism are the Trimurti; Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, the holy triad that signify supreme divinity in Hinduism – the creater, sustainer and destroyer of the world
New Delhi, October 9, 2017 : Devout Hindus have a god for every occasion and every day – over 33 million, according to popular beliefs. While people of other religions often interpret them as fictional characters, the multiple gods and goddesses of Hinduism are held with utmost devotion and sincerity by the believers.
Ours is a polytheistic religion – in other words, a myriad of gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Foremost among the several gods and goddesses of Hinduism are the Trimurti; Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, the holy triad that signify supreme divinity in Hinduism – the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world. These divine forces are known to appear in different avatars, embodied by different gods and goddesses.
In Hinduism, Lord Brahma is the creator of the Universe and the first member of the holy trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh). However, he is not worshiped as Vishnu or Shiva with only one temple dedicated to him, the Pushkar temple of Rajasthan.
Here are some of the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism.
Vishnu is the second member of the holy Hindu triad, who sustains the entire world – Vishnu is believed to return to the earth during distressed times to restore the balance between good and evil.
Believed to have incarnated nine times, Vishnu symbolizes the principles of order, righteousness, and truth. His associate is Lakshmi, the goddess of family life and prosperity.
Vishnu is always depicted with a blue-colored human body with four hands, each of which carries four different objects – a conch, chakra, lotus flower and mace. The god is shown to ride the Garuda, an eagle.
So far, Vishnu has appeared on earth in various incarnations. These include fish, turtle, boar, Narsimha (half lion, half man), Vamana (dwarf sage with the ability to grow), Parsuram, Ram, Krishna and Buddha. Devotees believe he will re-incarnate in a last avatar, popularly known as ‘Kalki’, close to the end of this world.
Hindus who worship Vishnu are primarily known as Vaishnava and regard him as the greatest god.
One of the members of the holy Hindu trinity, Lord Shiva is as the god of destruction, so that the world may be recreated by Brahma. Thus, his destructive powers are perceived as regenerative: necessary to make renewal possible.
Known by different names like Mahadeva, Nataraja , Pashupati, Vishwanath and Bhole Nath, Shiva is known to have untamed enthusiasm, which drives him to extremes in conduct. It is his relationship with wife Parvati which established the balance. While other gods and goddesses are represented in glorious avatars, Shiva is dressed in plan animal skin and usually sits in a yogic aasana.
Shiva is often addressed as the Lord of Dance, with the rhythm of the dance believed to be symbolic of the balance in the universe, masterfully held by Shiva. His most significant dance form is the Tandav.
Hindus who worship Shiva as their primary god are known as Shaivites.
One of the most popular goddesses of Hindu mythology, Lakshmi gets hers name from the Sanskrit word ‘lakshya’, meaning ambition or purpose. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, prosperity and purity and is the associate of Vishnu.
Lakshmi is believed to reside in places of hard work, and sincerity, However, the goddess leaves whenever an individual is overcome with greed or malice or when these qualities are not evident anymore. Hindus believe Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi. Hence, they worship the goddess of prosperity primarily during Diwali, which commemorated the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Lakshmi is widely represented as an enchanting woman with four arms, settled or standing on a lotus flower.
Devout Hindus worship Lakshmi at temples and inside homes alike, and believe worshipping her with utmost sincerity blesses an individual with success and fortune.
The pot bellied, elephant-headed god Ganesha, also known as Ganpati, Vinayak and Binayak, is the son of Shiva and Parvati. one of the most popular gods and goddesses of Hinduism, Ganesha is revered as the remover of all obstacles, which is why his presence is first acknowledged before beginning any new work.
The lord of success and wealth, Ganesha is also the patron of knowledge and learning; devotees believe he wrote down parts of the Hindu epic Mahabharata with his broken tusk.
Ganesha is typically depicted as a pot-bellied, elephant-headed red colored god, with four arms and a broken tusk. This head is believed to characterize the atma or the soul and the body represents the maya or mankind’s earthly existence. The rats, which can gnaw their way through every hardship, are believed to symbolize Ganesha’s ability to destroy all obstacles.
Lord Ganesha is shown riding mouse, which can gnaw their way through every hardship, are believed to symbolize Ganesha’s ability to destroy all obstacles.
Believed to be the most popular and the most powerful avatar of Vishnu, Krishna is revered as the Supreme Being or the Purana Purushottam out of a list of several hundred gods and goddesses of Hinduism, by several devout Hindus. One of the most loved and mischievous gods, Krishna means ‘black’ and can be believed to denote mysteriousness.
In Hinduism, Krishna takes several different roles- that of a hero, leader, protector, philosopher, teacher and a friend and is believed to have lived on earth between 3200 – 3100 BC. His birth is widely celebrated on the midnight of Ashtami during the month of Shravan, and is called Janmashthami.
Stories of Krishna’s birth, childhood and youth and widely read and circulated, with every mother wanting to have a child like him. His raas with Radha is also remembered widely.
Krishna is held with utmost reverence for his role as the charioteer of Arjuna, as explained in the Mahabharata. It was in the middle of this war that Krishna delivered his famous advice about ‘Nishkam Karma’ which propagated action without attachment, which formed the basis of the Bhagwat Gita.
Krishna is extremely fond of white butter and there are several stories about how he stole butter from gopis throughout his childhood. He is depicted as a dark and extremely handsome, usually depicted with a flute which he used for its seductive powers.
Maryada Purushottam Ram is the ideal avatar of Vishnu. An epitome of chivalry, virtues and ethical demeanor, Ram is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu who is believed to have taken birth to eradicate all evils from the world.
Unlike all other gods and goddesses of Hinduism, Ram is believed to be a historical character, instead of an imaginary figure. The Hindu epic Ramayana is a retelling and celebration of Ram’s life – a tale of his fourteen years in exile with his wife and brother.
Ram’s birthday is celebrated as Ramnavmi, wherein devotees invoke him with religious chants to attain his blessings shield. The festival of lights, Diwali, which is one of the major festivals in Hinduism, is also observed to celebrate the return of Ram, Laksham and Sita back to Ayodhya after an exile of fourteen years.
Ram bears a dark complexion to show his resemblance to Vishnu and his other avatar Krishna, and is almost always depicted with a bow and arrow in his hands and a quiver on his back. Ram also wears a tilak on his forehead. Accompanying the statues of Ram are idols of his wife Sita, brother Lakshman and the celebrated monkey-god Hanuman, who together combine the Ram Darbar.
Daughter of Shiva and Durga, and the consort of Brahma, Saraswati is revered as the goddess of wisdom, learning, speech and music. She is the goddess of knowledge and arts. Devotees often worship the deity before commencing any educational work- books and stationary items are often revered as Saraswati is believed to reside in them.
Saraswati Vandana, religious chants dedicated to the goddess of music often begin and end all Vedic lessons. The goddess also plays songs of wisdom, affection and life on the veena, a string instrument.
Saraswati is visually represented in pure white attire and rides a peacock, with a lotus in one hand and sacred scriptures in the other. She also has four hands that signify the four aspects of learning- mind, intellect, alertness, and ego.
Out of all the 33 million gods and goddesses of Hinduism, devout Hindus believe only Saraswati can grant them moksha- the ultimate emancipation of the soul.