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.
Narendra Modi does not represent classical Hinduism. But few Hindus are open to realizing this. Here is an inventory of points, to expand on my premise. Indeed, if Hindus are to emulate the policies of the Hindu Right Wing, we will move closer to
the Abrahamic ideology.
Modi is ethnocentric (meaning Indocentric), a vegetarian extremist promoting teetotalism, anti-LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgender), can’t distinguish between traditional western culture and neoliberal westernization, has colluded in the mass murder of innocent Gujarati Muslims (not Islamic terrorists, mind you) and openly courts the bourgeoisie, while promoting complete privatization. To complete the picture, Modi, the RSS and the rest of the Hindu right wing, covertly encourage casteism and linguistic jingoism.
But in conjunction with denouncing Modi, the half-informed Marxists and the pseudo-
liberal bogey, also decry Hinduism. As if Modi’s views, are Hinduism’s faults! This is why a re-assessment of historical Hinduism is the need of the hour, so that the image of Hinduism – South Asia’s classical identity – may be rescued.
1) For the past 2000 years, Hindus have accommodated: Armenians, Zoroastrians,
Greeks, Jews, Black Africans called Siddis, Chinese and Tibetans on their soil, not
once asking any of these communities to renege on their religions. Persecuting any
of India’s religious minorities, goes against the grain of Hindu religious thought. Sure,
there have been frictions between Hinduism and the Indic religion of Buddhism at
intermittent periods of India’s bygone history, but this friction cannot be possibly
compared to the scale and ferocity of monotheism’s religious crusades.
Hinduism allows its adherents to remain atheistic. It has evolved the ‘Charvaka’ and
‘Sankhya’ schools of philosophy, which reject divinity and concentrate on atheistic materialism.
Even though Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the best-known proselytizing faiths;
Buddhism is not innocent of proselytization, either. Few Hindus want to admit, that in
endowing East Asia with Buddhism, which carried over Hindu ideas and cultural
nuances to that part of the world; Buddhism quietly subordinated and decimated the
indigenous, ethnic religions of East Asia, such as: Muism, Bonism, Tengrism,
Shenism and Satsana Phi. Only Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous, polytheistic identity,
could hold on stubbornly.
Hinduism’s all-encompassing outlook at other faiths, stands in opposition to the
dogmatic and insular approach of the Hindu Right towards India’s religious
minorities, which include Muslims and Christians.
2) Never has Hinduism – or for that matter any other polytheistic, indigenous religion
– discriminated against the LGBT. India’s anti-LGBT laws were promulgated in mid-
19th century, Christian England and were imported into India, via the British. It is
disturbing, how Hindus like Modi and his clique, have embraced the monotheistic
prejudice against the LGBT, while at the same time, projecting themselves as the
defenders of Hinduism.
The Indian epic Mahabharat, contains two characters named Shikhandi, and Aravan.
Both Shikhandi and Aravan, are transgenders. There is a temple dedicated to
Aravan named the Koothandavar Temple. It is located inside the Indian state of
Tamil Nadu. Every year, an 18-day festival to commemorate the transgender status
of Aravan, is organized there. Pagan philosophy of which Hinduism is a branch, has
had a long tradition of recognizing alternative sexuality in the form of the LGBT.
When the Hindu Right beginning with the RSS, denounces intimacy between
members of the LGBT community as being unnatural and offensive, we become a
mirror image of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
which condemn the LGBT community as being sinful.
3)Hindu Right goons have accosted couples on Valentine’s Day and beaten them up
claiming the festival was a degenerate adoption from the West. They are ignorant of
the fact, that Valentine’s Day has its roots, in the ancient, pagan Roman celebration
of ‘Lupercalia’, which was a commemoration of love and fertility, that was held
between the 13th and the 15th of February. Christianity, merely plagiarized the
festivals of the pre-Christian people.
While original Abrahamic philosophy (and not its modern, watered down version)
looks askance at the intermingling of unmarried boys and girls, Classical Paganism
takes the opposing view. In the Polytheistic Greco-Roman observance, three days,
the 13, the 14 th , and the 15 th of February, were set aside for celebrating love, fertility,
and the socializing of the sexes, which involved paying obeisance to the Roman
wolf-goddess Lupa, who was said to have suckled Remus and Romulus, the twin
brothers who had founded Rome.
The Indian treatise Kamasutra deals with sexuality and so does the temple art of
Khajuraho. Thus, by shunning Hinduism’s long tradition of recognizing and feting
human sexuality, and by victimizing couples on Valentine’s Day, the Hindu Right has
amply displayed its slide towards Abrahamic segregation of the sexes.
4)Indocentrism is as faulty as Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism. Indocentric Hindus
are in effect, reacting to European racism, with counter-racism. 19th century
European ethnologists had forwarded ideas which proposed that non-European
people are inferior to Europeans. In the 20th century, such racist ideas were
overturned with the discovery of ancient civilizations all over the world, which pointed
at sophisticated ways of thinking, outside of the European orbit. India’s ‘Indus Valley
Civilization’ and the Native Americans’ ‘Tenochtitlan’, were just two of the ancient
non-European seats of civilization, that were unearthed. Since then, history has been
revised several times, with non-European cultures and their achievements hogging
most of the spotlight. However, the memory of European colonialism, has also had a
neurotic, and narcissistic effect on the majority of Hindus. Such Hindus have
elbowed aside all the fine classical achievements of Europe and other non-Hindu,
Polytheistic, Classical civilizations and have projected Hinduism as the creative
source of all other forms of Polytheism. It would have been hilarious, if it wasn’t so
demeaning and offensive. Does it ever occur to Indocentric Hindus, how disrespectful this is, to our polytheistic sisters and brothers in other parts of the world? European, Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African and West Asian polytheism, are being revived at present. How do the Indocentric Hindus reckon, our pagan fellow travellers will treat our affront to their dignity?
The ‘Indian Origin Of The Aryans’, is the pet theory of Indocentric Hindus. They put
their faith in the idea, that the Aryans originated out of India. There are serious
problems with this theory. The region which produces a race, will exhibit the
maximum diversity present in that race. If India was indeed the birthplace of the
Caucasian race, then all varieties of Caucasians would have been represented in the
population of India. But is that the case? Certainly not! Scholars have already
located the birthplace of the Caucasian race. It is the steppes of the Ukraine-Russian
flatlands. About two decades back, the Indian media had reported the finds of a
submerged metropolis off the coast of Gujarat, that was touted as being ‘Dwarka’,
the city associated with Lord Krishna. There is a thesis doing the rounds, which
supposes, that the Indus Valley Civilization, was in reality the ‘Saraswati Civilization’
of the Vedas. But both these theories have a serious flaw. Adherents of these two
theories, hold, that the North Indian Caucasians and the Dravidians of Southern
India, are essentially of the same genetic stock. Such purloining of genetic and
anthropological data, at the hands of Hindus, of all people, is unbecoming. It has
been well established through mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) testing, that North
Indians share 3/4ths of their genes with Afghans, West Asians, and Europeans,
especially the people of the Mediterranean. North Indians also bear Greek and
German blood, as in the days of yore, many pagan Greeks, following Alexander’s
invasion of India; and a good number of pagan Huns, had formed colonies in north
India, married north Indian women and settled down to build families. mtDNA
analysis has similarly established, that South Indians (and Sri Lankans), share their
genes with Australian Aborigines. Australian Aborigines, the Dravidians and the
Sinhalese, are offshoots of East Africans; in other words, the Somalis and the
Ethiopians, who branched off to constitute the fourth race, known as the Australoid
Race. How then, can North Indians and South Indians, be a part of the same race?
Indocentric Indians are so hard pressed to prove to the world that Hinduism is over
and above all the other polytheistic faiths, that if the Mongoloid people in India’s
north-east had been Hindus by majority, Indocentric Hindus would have made the
ludicrous claim, that the north-east Hindus also share the same race as that of other
A scholarly article establishes the genetic distinctiveness of the Indo-Aryan Indians
of the North and the Dravidian Indians of the South, from each-other, by stating :“We
analyze 25 diverse groups to provide strong evidence for two ancient populations,
genetically divergent, that are ancestral to most Indians today. One, the “Ancestral
North Indians” (ANI), is genetically close to Middle Easterners, Central Asians, and
Europeans, while the other, the “Ancestral South Indians” (ASI), is as distinct from
ANI and East Asians as they are from each other. By introducing methods that can
estimate ancestry without accurate ancestral populations, we show that ANI ancestry
ranges from 39-71% in India, and is higher in traditionally upper caste and Indo-
European speakers. Groups with only ASI ancestry may no longer exist in mainland
India. However, the Andamanese are an ASI-related group without ANI ancestry,
showing that the peopling of the islands must have occurred before ANI-ASI gene
flow on the mainland. Allele frequency differences between groups in India are larger than in Europe, reflecting strong founder effects whose signatures have been
maintained for thousands of years due to endogamy.”
Conclusion: The Aryan people did not originate in India and spill out to other parts of
the globe. Q.E.D. It is proven.
5) Narendra Modi is bourgeoisie friendly, whereas Hinduism repeatedly warns
against the perils of hoarding wealth. The Brahmin priestly class, was meant to live
off the alms of the other castes, in an attempt to prevent any consolidation of power
by them. The Hindutva wadis are in cahoots with the business class and the
industrialists who virtually run this country and its media. Big industries routinely flout
environmental procedures and jeopardize the safety of our water resources. They
exploit our natural wealth, immiserate our workers, fell our forests, in the process
depriving our fauna of their natural habitats and inch our country and the earth,
closer to a man-made cataclysm.
The Niyamgiri mountains of the state of Odisha, is home to the Dongria Kondh tribal
community. Over decades of mining, the Indian mining conglomerate Vedanta, has
reduced the resident tribals to homelessness as the latter would depend on the
mountain for survival. The slopes of the mountain hosted a waterfall, which is today
all but lost, thanks to mining.
Treating Mother Nature casually, is peculiar to the three Abrahamic faiths. They
propound, that Nature is secondary to their Almighty God, since he has created her.
For, how can the creation be higher than its creator? By ignoring environmental
concerns as a result of courting big businesses who exploit our natural wealth, Modi
and the Hindu Right have rendered Mother Nature a second class citizen, much as
the three Monotheistic religions do.
6) It is amazing, that so many Hindus are not even aware, that the oldest Hindu
spiritual text, the ‘Rig Ved’ doesn’t make any mention of a birth based caste system.
Instead it clearly speaks about professional segregation as defining caste. It speaks
of inter-caste marriage and projects the caste system as being an open order, in
which one could travel up and down the caste hierarchy. A passage in the Rig Ved
goes as “I am a trader, my father is a priest and my mother is a reaper of corn”.
Traders are Vaishya; priests are Brahmins and reapers of corn, are Shudra, by
caste. Scholars know, that in Early Vedic Hinduism, the caste system was egalitarian
and easy on the adherents. It was only during the Later Vedic Age, that the caste
system became rigid, closed and birth oriented. This could not have been achieved,