Is Yoga Hindu? The court verdict – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst“Christians who allege that Hindus mix up yoga with the worship of another supreme being than the jealous god Yahweh, have a point. And Hindus who think that yoga implies the worship of a Hindu god likewise have a point — the same point. But those are modern Hindus who talk a lot about yoga but are unlikely to practise it. Contemporary Hinduism is a lot more God-centred than the ancient originators of yoga, such as Patanjali, or even the late-medieval pioneers of Hatha Yoga. Ancient Yoga was certainly “Hindu” in any normal use of the term, but it was not theistic.” — Dr. Koenraad Elst

John S. MeyerA county judge in San Diego CA has ruled that yoga is not always religious (Washington Post, 2 July 2013). Parents in a San Diego school district had complained that yoga is intrinsically intertwined with the Hindu religion and that its practice in a public school setting violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The court ruling means that these parents had it wrong: it is possible to divorce yoga from Hinduism, and that is how the local school authorities have gone about their yoga classes.

While yoga may be religious in some contexts, and then notably Hindu, it can also be practised and taught purely for its benefits. Modern school authorities see these benefits mostly in the form of strength, suppleness and nervous relaxation, as well as combating aggressiveness and bullying. Therapists might add the benefit of restoring or at least improving normalcy in individuals afflicted with burn-out, nervous breakdown, certain complexes and other mental disorders. Serious practitioners would invoke calmness, renunciation, even Liberation (howsoever defined), as worthy goals for human beings who are perfectly healthy from the beginning. But all of them would do so without reference to Shiva or Ganesha or whichever God it is that Hindu yogis invoke.

Lord Shiva wearing yoga band.Yoga is intrinsically Hindu

This judgment is part of a broader struggle over the origins and nature of yoga. Some Christians, apparently including the litigating parents from San Diego, object that yoga is intrinsically Hindu and that it serves as a conduit for Hindu polytheistic God-worship and even for “evil Hindu social mores” such as caste discrimination, arranged marriage and widow-burning. It is of course also debated in how far these mores and this polytheism are bound up with Hinduism, but it is universally agreed that at least as a system of worship, Hinduism is different from Christianity. For the same reason, these circles had in the past opposed Transcendental Meditation, a simplified form of mantra meditation, for being obviously Hindu even though advertised as “scientific”. They had hired specialized lawyers (or “cult busters”) to show that the various Gurus who seduced Americans into yoga were salesmen of Hinduism-based cults.

These Christians find odd allies in the Hindus who insist that yoga is indeed naturally Hindu, and that the bead-counting and incense-waving and greeting gestures and indeed prayers that Hindu yogis practise all come with the yoga package and cannot be divorced from it. They criticize American yoga aficionados such as many showbiz stars and indeed the San Diego yoga schoolteachers for reducing yoga to a fitness system without its cultural roots.

Yoga is up for grabs

On the other side of the divide are those Hindus who say that yoga is scientific and universal, so that it is only normal for it to take on local cultural forms wherever it goes. The motorcar was invented in Germany, but few people driving a Japanese car still remember this. The aeroplane was invented in America, but this invention is now available to travelers all over the world. The Chinese don’t put a sign “invented in America” on their planes, nor do they pay intellectual property rights on them. Of course, Chinese textbooks have a line or two on the aeroplane’s invention by the Wright brothers, and that nod to American honour will suffice. As the late Bal Thackeray used to say: “You cannot take the ‘national produce’ (swadeshi) policy too far, for then Indians would have to do away with the light bulb.” So, Hindus should be happy that Americans are willing to practise their yoga, and apart from a historical detail of origins, India or Hinduism no longer come in the picture.

Deepak ChopraAnd this still is a neutral rendering of the viewpoint of a sizable number of Hindus. We don’t even mention money-makers like Deepak Chopra who try to obscure yoga’s Hindu origins in order to claim certain yoga techniques as their own. Some yoga schools, whether manned by native Hindus or by Christian-born Westerners, have patented their own brand name and techniques so that nobody, and certainly not Hindu tradition, can claim these. This tendency is strengthened by the attempt of some Hindus to deny a Hindu identity even to the worldview they themselves are advertising, e.g. the Hare Krishnas worship Krishna, a Hindu god par excellence, yet tell Western audiences that they are not Hindu; or the Ramakrishna Mission, founded in the late 19th century under the motto “Say with pride, we are Hindus”, now say that their message is “universal” rather than “narrowly Hindu”.

Again these Hindus find odd allies in many Christians, both of the lukewarm and of the activist kind. Lukewarm Christians as well as New Age ex-Christians see yoga as a neutral and universal commodity. For them, it can be practised as a fitness system without having any serious implications on their worldwide or religion. Just as the European colonizers used the compass and gunpowder without bothering that these were Chinese inventions, American yogis have taken yoga for its tangible benefits without bothering about its Hindu origins. Even the Sanskrit names of the yoga exercises have been translated, so that you can become an accomplished yogi without even being reminded of its exotic origins.

Activist Christians, by contrast, admit that yoga is not religiously neutral. They want to adapt yoga because of its inherent attractiveness and transform it into “Christian yoga”. To them, yoga has indeed historically been linked with Hinduism, but can be delinked from it and tied to another religion. We have even reached the stage where some Christian centres and schools in India offer classes in “Christian yoga”.

Yoga has Hindu roots

So, the San Diego verdict was a victory for lukewarm Hindus and adaptable Christians, and a defeat for serious Hindus and doctrine-conscious Christians. But what do we ourselves make of the issue?

First off, it is a matter of course that yoga is Hindu. The word “Hindu” is a very general term encompassing every Indian form of Pagan religion no matter how old. It is therefore simply silly to say “Yoga is older than Hinduism”, as salesman Deepak Chopra does. The question then becomes: whether yoga can be divorced from Hinduism and given a neutral universal identity, as claimed by the San Diego yoga teachers, or even relinked to another religion, as is claimed by the adepts of “Christian Yoga”.

Yogi CameronA system of physical fitness, if it is only that, can certainly be integrated in modern Western or purportedly global culture. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad already says, and the later Hatha Yoga classics more colourfully assert, that the yoga practitioner develops a healthy and lustrous body. They even lure the readers into practice by intimating that one becomes irresistible to the opposite sex – the very reason why most modern Americans take up Yoga. Like the aeroplane or the light-bulb, a system of physical fitness can be exported and inculturated, divested of its original couleur locale.

However, it is worth emphasizing that yoga, and even particularly Hatha Yoga, does have Hindu roots, because this seemingly trivial knowledge is now being challenged. A few academics have claimed that Chinese “internal alchemy” (neidan) travelled overseas to coastal India and influenced Indian Siddha yoga and Siddha medicine. A few techniques of Hatha Yoga do seem similar to Daoist exercises from China. The influence has been posited but by no means proven. I am willing to consider it probable, but even then it was only an influence on a few exercises in a long-existing native tradition. It is nobody’s case that the Rg Vedic reference to “muni-s”, wandering ascetics with ashes over their naked bodies (still recognizable as the Naga sadhu-s), or the Upanishadic glorification of the breath as the key to consciousness and self-mastery, or Patañjali’s description of a whole yoga system, is due to foreign influence.

Yoga in US schools.Very recently, the American media have gone gaga over a theory claiming that hatha yoga is very recent and is essentially a gift of the British colonizers. This can of course not be said for the breathing exercises so typical of Hatha Yoga, but many of the postures are said to be standard exercises of British soldiers, or to be part of Western systems of gymnastics. Even in this limited form, the claim is ridiculous. The essence of hatha-yogic postures is relaxation and allowing a steadily held pose to take its effect over time. By contrast, Western gymnastics pride themselves on being “dynamic”, on emphasizing movement and muscle strength. Further, a very physical circumstance comes in the way: yogic exercises are mostly done on the floor. In cold England, the floor is avoided, witness the generalized use of chairs and of the “English” water closet. Any influence would have to be confined to the standing exercises. At any rate, if at all there was Western influence, it can never have been more than an influence touching the skin of an already old native tradition.

But even Hatha Yoga sees its physical and breathing exercises only as a means to a higher end: liberation. A fortiori, the ancient yoga synthesized by Patañjali was totally geared towards liberation, howsoever defined. The definition of the Buddha’s nirvana (“blowing out”, as of a burning candle) is to get off from the wheel of reincarnations by stopping its motor, viz. desire. Patañjali’s definition is less metaphysical: quieting the mind so that it consciously rests in itself and is not absorbed by its usual objects. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in reincarnation or an afterlife or nothing at all: it suffices to let the Self rest in itself, right now. Whatever liberation may be, it is definitely different from, and incompatible with Christian salvation.

But this is a goal not pursued in most American yoga studios. They aim to make singers better singers, caregivers better caregivers, workers better workers. This has been done before: after the Buddhists had familiarized the Chinese with meditation, some Confucians still rejected the Buddhist philosophy of renunciation and liberation but embraced the practice of meditation, just to “tune their instrument”, to function better in society. You can do this, but it is not the fullness of yoga. Also, all the Western therapeutic adaptations of yoga, as a treatment of physical or mental ailments, are designed to make a defective human being normal; while the original yoga was meant to make normal people liberated. So, by commodifying yoga, Americans are importing something from India, but not the whole package.

PatanjaliYoga is not religious

Yoga is Hindu, but it is not religious. When Hindus go deep into the issues raised by the court verdict, they are bound to encounter some problems with their own tradition.

In my opinion, Christians who allege that Hindus mix up yoga with the worship of another supreme being than the jealous god Yahweh, have a point. And Hindus who think that yoga implies the worship of a Hindu god likewise have a point — the same point. But those are modern Hindus who talk a lot about yoga but are unlikely to practise it. Contemporary Hinduism is a lot more God-centred than the ancient originators of yoga, such as Patanjali, or even the late-medieval pioneers of Hatha Yoga. Ancient Yoga was certainly “Hindu” in any normal use of the term, but it was not theistic.

On Rajiv Malhotra’s discussion list, where the verdict is debated, one Hindu recently quoted Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati with approval as asserting that yoga is “restraining all activities (vritti-s) of mind (chitta) from all evil and unrighteous affairs and fixing the same in God alone, for the bliss and beatitude is yoga and disobedience of God’s injunction and indulgence in evil thoughts and deeds is viyoga, i.e., remaining away from God”. I am not sure about the exactness of this “quote”, but it gives the gist of Dayanada’s thinking, and it certainly renders the thinking of this particular Hindu and many millions of contemporary Hindus.

In reality, yoga is not about evil at all. It restrains good motions of the mind (i.e. thoughts) as much as evil ones. Hinduism is quite conscious of good and evil, but unlike Christianity, it subordinates this concern (on which the Christian core doctrines of hereditary sin and salvation are based) to the concern for liberation. Patañjali defines yoga as “restraining the movements of the mind”, full stop. Dayananda’s additional considerations of good and evil, and especially his bringing in “God”, are typical of modern devotional Hinduism or bhakti. This very successful movement, which eclipsed the non-theistic trends in Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta, Sankhya, Mimansa, Buddhism), is the historical antagonist of Hatha Yoga. It teaches that liberation does not mean “isolation” (of consciousness from its objects, Patañjali’s goal), does not mean identity with the Absolute, but aspires no higher than watching God face to face, much like Sufi and Christian mysticism. It also rejects the emphasis yoga puts on techniques. If God’s grace is there to help you, what use are techniques? By contrast, yoga means reaching the goal, liberation, by means of techniques.

Krishna teaching the yogas to ArjunaThe trouble already started with the Bhagavad Gita. I have it on good Hindu authority, but I have also seen it for myself, that the Gita is a work of “synthesis”. Then already, Hindus were enamoured of synthesis. Thus, this is where we first find the notion of an equality between three disciplines: karma yoga, “the discipline of action” (then meaning Vedic sacrifice, now moralistically interpreted as good works), jñana yoga, “the discipline of knowledge” (meaning Upanishadic knowledge of the Self, i.e. yoga proper), and bhakti yoga, “the discipline of devotion”. In fact, when Yajñavalkya introduces the notion of the Self, he pits its knowledge against the Vedic rituals. The ancient Vedas and esp. the Brahmanas (the technical manuals of ritual) are centred on karmakanda, “the (ritual) action half”, while the Upanishads are centred on jñanakanda, “the knowledge half”. While yogis would simply choose the latter, the Gita proposes a synthesis, viz. the third pole, bhakti.

The book discusses a number of then-popular Hindu philosophies, but interjects in every chapter one sentence that does not follow from these philosophies at all, namely that all this shall be given to you if you are but devoted to Me, Krishna. You can read Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, but you will not find Krishna there. You can read the Buddha’s teachings on meditation, but Krishna is not there. Yoga can perfectly exist without Krishna.

Modern bhakti Hindus project their own bhakti beliefs on the whole of Hindu history. They deny the reality of change (both progress and degeneration) in Hindu history. In fact, it is they who realize the Westerners’ fond image of Hinduism as frozen in time, unchangeable. So, they rewrite the theory of yoga as dealing with God. In fact, the more God, the less yoga, and the more yoga, the less God. – Koenraad Elst Blog, 10 June 2013

Hatha Yoga Asanas


8 Responses

  1. Orientalist Dr Koenraad Elst has no feeling for religion. This can be ascertained from his book Psychology of Prophetism. He thinks all religion is psychological aberration including Indian Paganism i.e. Hinduism.

    Elst’s reference to Arya Samaj Dayananda is irrelevant. Dayananda holds no weight today in anything concerning Hinduism. Though he critiqued the Bible, he himself became a monotheist just like the OT prophets.

    IS is right in telling the theistic Tantras are the best Yoga texts.

    Shiva is the Supreme Yogi. There are many Shaivite Upanishads. Referring Advaitic Upanishads in the context of Yoga when Shaivite Upanishads are there is just ridiculous.

    I have lot of respect for Dr. Elst’s work for Hindus and Bharat. But he should keep away from religion as he has no empathy / sympathy for the ‘irrational’ subject at all.

  2. As usual, Koenrad Elst uses his selective examples on non theistic sects or rather ideas to mock modern day hindus and at one point even compares hindus with sufis which is nonsense apart from some cases which never became mainstream.

    As IS said it is imperative to know that the very idea of consciousness, meditation and self restraint are developed in such matured form only because of a general hindu environment not because of some secular guru.

    The court verdict is one of the nails in coffin of our civilization and very soon other things will also be claimed by the abrahmics.

    As for globe trotting gurus, they have harmed our religion more than any ghazanavi. All age old developed ideas, notions of decency and Paramparas have been set aside in favour of universalism shit and among those gurus, Jaggi Vasudevan is one who also believes Aryan Invasion to be true.

    Lastly, Patanjali in his mahabhashya calls Vasudeva (krishna) as not mere kshatriya but highest god so divorcing him from what Elst calls popular hinduism is plain ridiculous.

  3. I don’t agree with Dr. Elst on certain points. He says that Yoga and Advaita have nothing to do with theism, but he is wrong when he makes this claim. Yoga is not just Hatha-yoga (or Raj-yoga, as described in the Bhagavad Gita) but also Jnana-yoga, Karma-yoga and Bhakti-yoga. “Yoga” means “union”, and the ultimate aim of Yoga (any type) is “union with the Absolute Truth (Paramatma)”. While Lord Shiva is the Supreme Yogi, Lord Krishna is Yogeshwar. And Bhagavad Gita’s philosophy is same as Upanishadic philosophy, as Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya in his commentary of Bhagavad Gita has said that “all the Upanishads are like cows, Lord Krishna is the cowherd who milks the cows, Arjuna is a calf and the milk extracted by Krishna from the cows (Upanishads) is fed to the calf (Arjuna), and that milk or “dugdhamrita” is the Bhagavad Gita.” Then, Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest Hindu philosophers, said that the Bhagavad Gita is a summary or commentary of the Vedas (which includes the Upanishads) and that “no better commentary on the Vedas has ever been written or can be written.” But Dr. Elst insists that the philosophy of the Upanishads is not theistic. I hope he does not consider himself to be a greater knower of Hinduism than Swami Vivekananda or Adi Shankara. Patanjali in his sutras may not have specifically mentioned any Hindu deity, but it does mention the terms “Brahman” and “Paramatma” used to denote the Absolute Truth who is referred to as Vishnu or Krishna by Vaishnavas and Shiva by Shaivas. Adi Shankara may have been a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, but some of the greatest and most beautiful hymns to the various Hindu deities have been composed by him. It was he who popularized the “Panchadevata” worship (“Shanmatha” worship if Murugan is included). It was he who recovered many of the lost Hindu shrines that were taken over by Buddhism, such as Puri Jagannath Temple. And moreover, in Bhaja Govindam he tells the people “O fools, sing the praises of Govinda, sing the praises of Govinda, sing the praises of Govinda. At the time of death, your knowledge of the vast scriptures will NOT be able to save you from the hand of Yama.”

    Yogic meditation and tapasya was the predominant way of attaining “moksha” or salvation in the Satyayuga, offering oblations in the sacrificial fire was the way in Tretayuga, worshipping the deity in a temple was the way in Dwaparayuga, and in this Kaliyuga the only sure way of attaining liberation from material world and union with God is to CHANT THE N3AME OF THE LORD AND SING HIS PRAISES (kalau sankirtanam vishno). Other practices like Hathayoga are also valid, but they are difficult in this age of Kali. In order to be qualified for the Yogic asanas and pranayam, one first needs to pass through the phase of yama, niyama, etc. (self-regulation) and they involve strict vegetarianism, prohibition of tobacco and alcohol, moderation in eating and sleeping, celibacy, truthfulness, and a complete “sattvik” lifestyle. But are the Americans going to leave McDonald’s and KFC, or will they survive without frequent sex and live-in relationships ? It is ironical that the most materialistic “rajasik” and “tamasik” people on earth are attempting Yoga. Yoga, sex and fast foods cannot coexist at all. Therefore, the Westerners are not getting the complete benefit out of Yoga, and while focussing only on physical fitness, they are missing out on the ultimate aim of Yoga – SELF-REALIZATION , LIBERATION AND UNION WITH THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH. Thankfully, Dr. Elst has got this point right.

  4. Our Gurus are doing a great blunder by taking Yoga to the West. In fact they spend most of their time outside India teaching all these precious techniques to outsiders. If they spend at least part of such efforts to teach such techniques to our Kshatriyas (our Jawans) it would have been useful to our country. They do not know that such precious techniques are being put to extensive research by westerners and eventually being taught to their own military personnel. As a result they even copyright our own techniques and make enormous money out of it. Our Gurus never recognize it and are only interested in expanding their ashrams. They are completely trapped into the Universal Brotherhood/Globalization bullshit. The West will speak of globalization as long as they are benefited out of it. The moment they feel the heat of it, they’ll revert to localization. It’s so sad that our Gurus don’t understand this. At least going forward they should stop spreading their ideas to the West and focus inward. Lately it has become fashionable for our Gurus to set up ashrams all over the world and attract world audiences. Having foreign students is a sense of pride. Do these Gurus really understand what they are doing? In our tradition Yoga was never meant for all. It was reserved for the enlightened who has the capability to handle it effectively. But today we’ve simply ruined it by globalizing it.

    As a result today Yoga has reached a point where it’s not even worth calling it so. It has been completely hijacked by the West and corrupted to the core. I personally feel there is nothing to feel happy even if Hindus get acknowledged for Yoga. The original form of Yoga is simply fading out and it’s being equated to alternate form of English exercises. Jaggi Vasudev keep saying this, but for some unknown reason he continues to do the same mistakes that other Gurus are doing. We must understand that this is only an intermediary stage. Who knows, a few years down the line, the West may come up with a completely new form of Yoga and call it the American Yoga or something fancy and will completely de-hinduize it or even worse- copyright it and sell it back to us.

    • I agree that the gurus should have focused their efforts on India which would have helped thwart the vicious anti-Hindu secularism of various state and central governments. But they were also harassed and obstructed in staying. For example Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was driven out of India by Indira Gandhi who wanted to be paid off in gold and real estate. She confiscated his Rishikesh ashram and, it has been reported, turned it into an intelligence gathering station. This single instance of governmental persecution is unfortunate as the Maharishi was willing to introduce yoga into every Indian class room to benefit every Indian child.

      Jaggi Vasudevan is no better than the other godmen who sell Hindu cultural products abroad for money and seek to acquire personal fame in the world. Because he has dined at the White House doesn’t make him a great man.

  5. If Advaita Vedanta is against Bhakti why would Adi Shankara himself compose hymns to deities? Advaita may be non-theistic in theory, but it is not so in practice.

  6. Every Hindu knows that Shiva is the Lord of Yoga.

    But the Hindu gurus who went to the US with their watered down Neo-Vedanta and Yoga teaching, starting with Vivekananda, made a point of telling the Americans that Hindu philosophy was universal and Hindu practices were non-sectarian. Many of these gurus happily denied their own Hindu identity outright.

    Now a California judge has agreed with them and ruled that Yoga, specifically Hatha Yoga, is not essentially a Hindu religious practice. He is himself a practitioner of Yoga.

    He did not use the term ‘secular’ as this term is not used in American discourse.

    If Hindus are not happy with this judgement, they have only their globe-trotting universalist godmen and gurus to blame.

    Some Yogas are indeed non-theistic but they are not secular either. They are systems of ‘self-development’ which may be defined as spiritual culture rather than religious practice.

    Dr. Elst’s examples of the non-theistic advaitic Upanishads (there are also theistic Upanishads) and Yoga Sutras to support the argument for a secular Yoga, appears selective. He could have also included the Tantras which are the leading authority on some Yoga systems and are completely theistic.

    Yoga cannot be divorced from Lord Shiva however hard the scholars and courts may try because He is the creator of Yoga and its supreme practitioner. They can of course ignore Him which is what they are doing in the US, but still the theistic connection remains.

    Have Chinese and Japanese martial arts systems, which originated with and are strongly associated with certain religious sects, been completely secularised in the US too?

    What Hindus want is recognition for their huge contribution to world civilization, be it in philosophy, science, music, art (especially in hard stone carving in which they excel), various technologies (like weaving), architecture, language, mathematics, astronomy, politics, medicine, yoga, religion, etc (you name it, Hindus have done it). Most often this recognition is denied or downplayed or attributed to another civilization (like Hindu numbers becoming Arabic numbers in Europe).

    Yoga has been denied its Hindu roots and identity in the US but this is changing. Yoga is now recognised as being of Hindu origin and part of Hindu spiritual culture–if not of Hindu religion. This has become necessary because the Pranava mantra and Sanskrit slokas repeated in most Yoga sessions are Hindu and nothing else.

    Christian attempts to inculturate Yoga have failed because they have exchanged the Sanskrit slokas for sectarian prayers. Invoking a jealous god and his suffering son does not create a benign yogic atmosphere and is contrary to the very ideal of Yoga. Late Benedictine missionary Bede Griffiths’ mantra Om Namo Christaya does not even begin to compete with the original Om Namo Shivaya.

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