The yoga trap

Is yoga Hindu or Indian, secular or religious? Take your side and you can debate forever. For the origin and template for these words — Hindu, India, secular, religion — is Euro-American, not Indian, and certainly not universal. Indians are expected to force fit Indian thoughts, like a twisted yogic asana, into this template to explain ourselves. It's a trap best avoided.

Yoga is Hindu because Hindu religious texts continuously refer to the word. Krishna and Shiva are often called yogeshwara, the lord of yoga. The author of Yoga-sutra is Patanjali often identified with the serpent who coils himself around Shiva's neck. The Bhagavad Gita refers to gyana yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga, the behavioural, cognitive and affective aspect of Krishna's discourse to Arjuna.

Yoga is Indian as it originated in the Indian subcontinent and thrived in various forms because of various schools of thought, even those who distanced themselves from Hinduism, such as Jainism and Buddhism. In fact, the word 'zen' in Japanese Buddhism can be traced to the word 'dhyana'.

Yoga is religious in the sense that it does refer to the idea of God, and speaks of the union of the individual soul (jiva-atma) with cosmic soul (param-atma), at least in Vedanta, the most popular school of Hinduism in the 21st century thanks to the work of many Indian gurus.


Yoga is secular because in Yoga Sutra, the idea of 'ishwara' or divine is a very small component, and a tool at that, of the eight practices meant to 'uncrumple the mind: like social disengagement (yama), personal discipline (niyama), postures (asana), breath (pranayama), sensory isolation (pratyahara), awareness (dharana), attention (dhyana) and withdrawal (samadhi).

In the West, the physical aspect of yoga has become more important than its psychological aspects. In fact the psychological aspect, twisted in rather bizzare ways as spiritual and/or occult, often becomes 'New Age' and 'hippie'! Christian and Islamic fundamentalists challenge that yoga should not be taught as it has religious undertones, a result of Hindu NRIs demanding yoga's Hindu roots be acknowledged. Yoga fans go out of their way to show that yoga, as practiced in the West, is not religious, not spiritual, in fact, not even Hindu, or Indian.

Take the case of David Gordon White's Biography of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (Princeton University Press), the primary hypothesis is that Patanjali's set of aphorisms is not an ancient knowledge passed down through the ages by gurus, but a forgotten obscure ancient text re-discovered by European Orientalists and made famous by leaders of the Hindu Renaissance, such as Vivekananda, only in the last century.

These and other such works reveal the pompous insensitivity of many, not all, Western academicians who are unable to admit their own inability to grasp the nature of traditional Indian and Hindu scholarship, which is less textual or institutional, and more oral and ritual, very different from the familiar and hegemonic European or American scholarship. For these academicians, everything the average Hindu considers good about being Hindu/Indian is actually a British invention, middle-class Brahmin 'imaginary', or Right-wing patriarchal propaganda.

This outrages many, especially the NRI, who feel cornered by 'objective' scholars. They find themselves ill equipped to argue. So, they turn yoga teachers like Ramdev into 'sants' (saints), consider hate-spewing cult leaders like Rajiv Malhotra as 'intellectual kshatriyas', and find validation when academicians like Vamsee Juluri categorise this tendency as Hinduphobia. They yearn for a saviour, a central theme of Abrahamic mythology, since Western media systematically ignores their cry as 'unsecular nonsense'. Hence, the PM's call for International Yoga Day and reclaim the yoga heritage.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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  • porus13-Jul-2015

    When did Rajiv Malhotra become hate spewing? Rather than making ad hominem attacks on established authors like Rajiv, you should consider attacking his arguments. But of course this is expected of resident "mythologists" like Devdutt patnaik who calls indian itihasa as myth. I am betting your mentor Wendy Doniger would be proud. And, I am also betting that you would call Bible stories as history.

  • Ankush27-Jul-2015

    Just what is your contribution to the Nation or Hinduism? History will remember you as a queer who tried to portray that Hinduism's sacred history had a lot of same-sex love. But how come your work is not obnoxious but Rajiv's attempt to point out biases in Hinduism studies become 'hate'?

  • Kheteswar14-Jul-2015

    I understand your need to put this derogatory picture.does any of article complete without spewing venom on Rajiv Malhotra, In what context you rerfered him?No Context, but to get your pressure released which you can't bear inside self as Truth hearts.If Hindu is not india word but Yoga is Indian, then How Yoga become Hindu?

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