Home Reflections Is Yoga Hindu?

Is Yoga Hindu?

by Chaitra M.S.

The article was first published in: https://pragyata.com/is-yoga-hindu/

The claim, “Yoga is Hindu”, creates more problems than it solves as it leads us into the blind alley of identity politics.

We write as sceptics of growing claims that Yoga is Hindu.

This is not to say that Indians did not play a role in developing it. For all we know, the deepest reflections on Yoga took place in India by Indians. Extant texts testify to their reflections. Contemporary gurus and writers speak of an ancient tradition variously, going back thousands of years.

The Yoga-is-Hindu movement

We also want to take seriously those who claim that Yoga is Hindu. At the very least they have some concerns to the effect that Yoga practitioners learn from masters of a Hindu or Indian lineage but at some point, abandon that lineage to claim originality and distort teachings. Rajiv Malhotra is a chief proponent of this argument. They may merely deny the heritage of the practice, divorcing it from its cultural roots, a complaint echoed in the Hindu American Foundation’s campaign to “Take Back Yoga” because, as HAF claims, it is Hindu and a core part of Hinduism.

There is also the challenge of regulating Yoga externally, other than the self-regulating mode the tradition developed. The attempt by British Wheel of Yoga to initiate such a regulatory framework envisages a top-down, state authored and secularised supervision, imposing a normative rule system upon something unanswerable to such a framework. Such moves are contested by Pandit Satish Sharma on grounds that this denies Yoga’s roots in Hinduism, including its Yamas and Niyamas which necessarily ground Yoga practice.

The very same group among Hindus responds with frustration when the academic scholars argue that Modern Yoga is not necessarily Hindu or Indian, but it has drawn heavily from various other practices from the west. This argument, at least, is responsible for triggering the ownership claim most often.

Another stream of thought loosely ties in with and reinforces the claims made by those who want to claim Yoga as Hindu. It is one that emphasises that Yoga derives from specific cultures by pointing out that its practice is tantamount to a form of appropriation. The argument goes that we need to be mindful that the cultures from which Yoga is taken have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy, something that is implied in how we express ourselves while practising Yoga. This argument came to the fore most prominently as a reason for the cancellation of Yoga classes at the University of Ottawa in 2015.

Even if we disagree that Yoga is Hindu or that claiming Yoga as part of Hinduism helps us in any way to address them, let us accept that there is something felt at the intuitive level and understandably causes proponents to have concerns about how they see Yoga being transmitted and practiced today. For instance, distortion of Yoga teachings does take place. It also appears as though after some learning of practices from Yoga masters, the line of transmission is suppressed in accordance with the ‘U-turn theory’ put forward by Rajiv Malhotra. Some would argue in a milder tone that people who practice Yoga must acknowledge that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism and today it is decontextualized and practiced merely as a set of Asanas. Some Hindus claim that Yoga is ours, but it is unclear what these claims really mean.

Let us start our enquiry with the claim, Yoga is Hindu. What does this claim involve? First, it demands that we recognise a human group clearly distinguishable uniquely as Hindu and second, such a group has the ownership of Yoga through inheritance. If and only if both these propositions are established can we treat the claim as legitimate, irrespective of whether one agrees with it or not.

Is there anything that is distinguishable and recognisable as Hindu? A clear answer is no. One can make a claim that all Indians are Hindus, but this would not help us as the existing story is that there are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Parsi, Jains, Buddhists and any number of groups that are Indian, so one cannot say all Indians are Hindus. One can go further and say all the groups described above are characterised by religions; therefore, that is not what Hindu is, but it is a set of Dharmic Civilizations of South Asia. Even this story does not work as it is unclear what these Dharmic traditions are. Are Indian Christians, Jews, Muslims etc. part of these Dharmic traditions? Many would say no. Then you would run into the problem of denying the inheritance of Yoga practice to all these religious traditions of India like Jews, Christians and Muslims who not only practice Yoga but also are part of these Yoga traditions over a long period of time.

This problem immediately pushes us to think about the claim of inheritance and ownership of Yoga. One can understand the claim of inheritance for members who belong to those traditions. What is incomprehensible is the claim of ownership. If someone makes an argument that Yoga is Hindu, if it is not a claim of ownership then, we are obliged to ask, what is it? As mentioned, one can even understand that members who are part of various Yoga traditions feel it not correct to distort the practices of the given tradition. However, looking at what the group who want to establish Yoga as Hindu say, it is clear that they are not merely bothered about the degeneration of some Yoga tradition or the other. They want to be the authentic custodians and regulators of the traditions. Therefore, there is something peculiar about this claim of ownership by inheritance by Hindus regarding Yoga.  

In pointing out these problems our aim is not to iterate the Biblical enjoinment that the physicians should heal themselves. It is merely to signal the depth of our predicament when speaking of such matters.

Yoga in the mirror of religion

It is no coincidence that the greatest effort in claiming Yoga is Hindu is coming from individuals established in the West, mainly Britain and the United States. These are lands where the discourse of identity politics is well advanced and where groups based on some identifying features such as race, religion and so on claim certain benefits, protections, and representation. This culture of identity politics has, of course, spread far and wide, notably to India where Hindu nationalists make similar claims based on identity.

When, in her letter to the Yoga Journal, Suhag A. Shukla, a co-founder of the HAF refers to “those of us who too are striving to live our lives according to the Hindu principles”, she speaks as though the religion of Hinduism is not only real but that it enables one to function in the world as a Christian does, living out a set of principles that one makes one’s own. In so doing, Shukla merely indexes the extent to which Indians have learnt, erroneously, that the way the West speaks about religion is the way that Indians can also speak about their traditions. The claim that Hinduism merits due acknowledgement for having developed Yoga is not the only way in which Hindu identity politics is being developed. As Prakash Shah has written elsewhere, the interplay of secularised Christian theological claims and contemporary Hindu activism is also played out in ineffectual postures against accusations of caste discrimination, leading to further blind alleys.

When International Yoga Day was celebrated with all the excitement, there were ChristiansMuslims and secular groups who raised a simple problem. Muslims and Christians cannot practice Yoga as it interferes in their religious belief. Instead of thinking deeply about these claims, many came up with the formula saying one need not chant Mantra but can remove Omkara from the practice so that the religious part of Yoga is eliminated. Someone suddenly asked this question, if you remove OM and the Mantra, why do Yoga? Let us do some good physical exercise as, today, we have well-developed sciences, especially sports medicine and physiotherapy. Why insist on the Yoga without Mantra and Dhyana? Even though many did not understand the question itself, there is definitely a cognitive value to this question, as well as the suggestion of a knowledge claim, to the effect that Yoga does something more than physical exercise. Even when such questions have an intuitive appeal and the efficacy of the practices can be demonstrated, it is unclear what the people referring to as distortion really mean and why it appears as a distortion of the traditional practice.

Now let us turn back to the previous question: how does Yoga become a problem for Muslims and Christians? It becomes a problem only under certain theological considerations. That is, if they practice anything which is part of false religion. In order to bring Yoga into such theological scrutiny, they have to transform Yoga into something that is a part of Hindu religion.

In some legal contexts, as prevails in the United States, the state cannot push religion because that amounts to impeding its free exercise and violates clauses forbidding the non-establishment of religion. A legal case brought by Christian parents objecting to the teaching of Yoga in state schools in California established that Yoga could be taught only on condition it is done as a secular practice. In such a legal context, the association of Yoga with Hinduism is accepted, but then demanded that it be suppressed so as not to fall foul of non-establishment clauses.

At one level, then, Christians may agree with the proponents of the Yoga-is-Hindu argument to the extent that both see it first and foremost as a Hindu religious practice. They differ in that one wants open acknowledgment and practice of Yoga as Hindu, while the other camp might accept Yoga, if at all, on condition its Hindu religious covering is dropped and it is made secular. At root in this dichotomy is the Protestant Christian teaching that seeks to divide the religious from the secular, and both camps knowingly or unknowingly speak as though they accept its presuppositions, if not its consequences.

To argue that Yoga is a part of the Hindu religion, involves first accepting that Hinduism is a religion. According to their own published views, the proponents of the former position also accept the latter claim. However, as S.N. Balagangadhara has shown, Hinduism is a conceptual and experiential entity in the Western experience of India. Indian culture knows neither of religion nor of Hinduism and, therefore, there cannot be a Hindu religion from which Yoga or whatever else derives. Yet the claims being made about Yoga are distinctly based on Hindu religious identity.

A cognitively challenging and fascinating idea here would be to ask what happens to these theological claims if we can show that Yoga is a tradition which was practiced by people who had no religion. That is, India had traditions and did not have religion at all. Therefore, there is no question of religion of any kind, be it false or true in India. Then, one cannot make the claim that Yoga is a practice of false religion. In fact, such challenges have not been addressed seriously in the theological debates. (Imagine a situation of interfaith dialogue where theology has to confront people who have no religion, or an interfaith dialogue where one party has no faith, or a situation where a Christian wants to give the message of the gospel to people without religion. At least theologically such possibilities have hardly ever been conceptualised. In fact, religions were always compelled to treat Pagans as people with false religion without even examining whether or not they have a religion.)

Yoga as knowledge

Actually, in the West, given the huge commercialisation of the Hatha Yoga tradition (the Yoga tradition being immensely vaster), there is a trend to asserting intellectual property rights over its different aspects. Bikram Choudhary famously moved to copyright his method of Yoga and subsequently pursued studios for violations, attracting criticism from Indian gurus.

The Times of India reported in 2007 that the US Patent and Trademark office had by then issued 150 Yoga-related copyrights, 134 trademarks on Yoga accessories and 2,315 Yoga trademarks. In his book The Science of Yoga(2012), William J Broad noted that US Yoga entrepreneurs had registered “thousands of patents, trademarks and copyrights”. Echoing the language of intellectual property, Aseem Shukla, HAF’s co-founder has responded to this phenomenon, saying “Hinduism has lost control of the brand”.

However, forms of traditional knowledge (TK) are only thinly protected by national and international intellectual property regimes. A sampling of legal writing on intellectual property demonstrates how TK is treated very much as an afterthought. The very idea of TK is weakly conceptualised, and raises questions whether a phenomenon like Yoga is susceptible to protection from claims of intellectual property. Nevertheless, the Government of India began documenting Yoga postures, among other forms of TK, in a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library as a way of preventing piracy.

Part of the problem lies in the uncertainty about the type of knowledge that Yoga is. Responding to the issue of whether Yoga is specifically Hindu, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has replied:

“Yoga is Hindu just the way gravity is Christian. Just because the law of gravity was propounded by Isaac Newton, who lived in a Christian culture, does it make gravity Christian? Yoga is a technology. Anybody who is willing to make use of it can make use of it. It is ridiculous to even think that there could be a religious tinge to Yoga.”

If technology is a way of using science, then behind Yoga is a form of knowledge, but we are currently quite uncertain just what form of knowledge it might be. Efforts such as Broad’s in The Science of Yoga don’t clarify the issue, as its starting point is to examine what scientific research has to say about Yoga. It does not treat Yoga itself as a domain of science or scientific research, but rather works on the implied principle that the two belong in distinct sets.

In fact, for close to two centuries, a large number of western scholars have made an attempt to study and understand Yoga. They have even got initiated into the practice of one tradition or the other. They believed that there is some knowledge in these traditions that might be useful for human beings. In the process of studying these traditions, because of their cultural experience (western), they have built a story that is not really productive to understand these traditions. They thought that there is a Classical and Modern Yoga, they thought Yoga is spiritual, it is some kind of Esoteric knowledge, they thought it is mysticism, cult and so on. They studied the Vedantic view of Yoga and whatnot. Even today, they have been putting a lot of effort into understanding Indian religions and Yoga.

What did Indians do at this point? People who practised Yoga continued to practice and benefited from that knowledge. Others kept on parroting what the Westerners have said. Today the standard story on Yoga is the Christian understanding of Yoga. To illustrate this fact, take the case of today’s Yoga teachers in India. If you ask them to talk about Yoga, they talk about Yama, Niyama and many other things as principles of Yogic Sciences. Once, one of the European doctoral students visited a Yoga centre in Bangalore to conduct interviews with Yoga practitioners. He asked them questions about Yama, Niyama and most of them had no clue on what these concepts are. These are supposed to be the best Yoga practitioners in the best sense of the term. Some of them even responded by saying Yama is the god of death and he has nothing to do with Yoga; Niyama are set of rules that we follow on how to meditate and how to properly do Aasanas. The teacher who taught them Yoga for years, did not find it important to teach them these so-called principles, and rightly so. She herself had very little clue on what these things were. This striking story should tell us something about how Indians and westerners look at these traditions today.

As S. N. Balagangadhara’s work has shown, Indian traditions are primarily ‘performative’ traditions. In these traditions, the primary learning process involves learning by doing and the theoretical learning is subordinated to practical learning. Once one starts understanding these traditions this way, one will realise, Yama, Niyama or any other conception that is being described in the textual traditions is the experience that one would gain by learning through these practices. They are not doctrines, philosophies or principles of any kind. In fact, the claim of these traditions would be that if one undergoes this kind of learning, and becomes a Yogi, one should get all these experiences.

But, when Europeans studied these traditions, they were trying to understand these traditions through their cultural experiences. Therefore, they endlessly searched for Principles, Doctrines, Mysticism and whatnot. But these stories eventually became the authentic source for describing Indian traditions and, as a consequence, today everybody wants to search for what has already been dug out by their European predecessors. In other words, at work is a massive exercise in petitio principii that Balagangadhara describes as inherent to colonial consciousness wherein one begins with the European story as the premise and ends up proving the conclusion that they have already derived about India.

After this rather general sketch, it looks like Hindus are engaging in acts of absurdity. Rather than going down the cul-de-sac of identity politics exemplified in the Yoga-is-Hindu movement they should better spend their time thinking through what exactly they are talking about when they discuss Yoga, what type of knowledge the tradition is offering the world, and indeed what makes it a form of knowledge. If Hindus take the fact that Yoga is human knowledge, then their challenge is to show what kind of knowledge it is and then develop scientific theories about it in the 21st-century language. This would enable them to reinvigorate these traditions, realise their tremendous potential to help human beings, and also help people to nurture these practicing traditions.

However, it appears that the Yoga-is-Hindu school do not take Yoga as knowledge. To illustrate this fact, consider the case of natural sciences as knowledge. If someone wants to talk about Physics and Biology seriously, one would expect them to possess domain expertise. Our high school textbook understanding would not be sufficient for us to really make claims about quantum physics or oncology. Most people who claim that they are defending Yoga do not seem to possess that domain expertise. When we talk of science and technology we seem to recognise that we need to have some qualifications to talk about them, whereas in the case of Yoga it appears that, anybody seems to possess domain expertise. However, from the kind of claims they make, it is evident that they do not seem to believe that Yoga is some kind of knowledge. One can be sympathetic to the concerns of the inheritors of the traditions that they are unhappy with the way scholars talk about Yoga or distort it. But even these people have become prey to the European stories about their own traditions and they respond to the serious challenges posed to these traditions without investing much effort intellectually by claiming that they have the Adhikara or they are insiders without showing what kind of knowledge that these traditions possess.

This is not the only problem they have. They seem to have gone further and taken the European story of Hinduism as a religion seriously and in India coupled it with this deadly poison called nationalism, whereas in the West they have started to play with the sister notion of identity politics. As a consequence, they are not only parroting the European stories in an absurd fashion but are also are ensuring that Indians are going to be deprived of access to their experiential world with the massive growth and grip of what Balagangadhara calls colonial consciousness. What these Hindu groups must do if they really want to make their forefathers (Pitru) happy is to stop quoting shlokas to prove some principle or the other of Hinduism and try to do some serious thinking and scientific research in order to make the vast wealth of knowledge available in Indian traditions accessible to the entire humanity.


  • Chaitra M.S.

    Chaitra M.S. started his professional life as a Biologist. After his master’s in Zoology from the University of Mysore, he worked with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, Center for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bengaluru. For the past eight years, his research focus has shifted from biological sciences to the study of India and her traditions. He has been working under the guidance of Prof. S N Balagangadhara and has been involved in building a group of scholars who are involved in doing collaborative research in an emerging discipline called “Comparative Science of Cultures”. At present, he is Associate Professor at Chanakya University.

  • Dr. Prakash Shah

    Dr Prakash Shah specializes in cultural diversity and law, religion and law, caste and law, immigration, refugee and nationality law, and comparative law. He has published widely and lectured internationally in these fields. Dr Shah joined Queen Mary, University of London in 2002, where he is now a Reader of Culture and Law.

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