Sunday, January 31, 2010

The meaning of "Yahweh"

Bible believers often claim that the god-name YHWH or Yahweh means "He Who Is". As someone has just argued it once more on a forum in which I participate, please allow me to state my view on the matter. The claim is a mistake.

As Julius Wellhausen first theorized, YHWH is from the Arabic root HYW, "to blow/storm". It is an ordinary Arabic root, attested in the Quran. The form Yahweh would amount to "He blows", a normal format for names and particularly god names in ancient Semitic. The root is not attested in the closely related Hebrew language, and this narrows the origin of the name down to an Arabic or at any rate non-Hebrew setting.

This tallies neatly with the Biblical account of Yahweh's first appearance. Indeed, the book of Exodus relates that Moses, who till then had always lived in the Nile valley with its stable ever-sunny climate, finds the new deity YHWH while staying with the Midianite Beduins, who live in the desert with its unpredictable sand storms. Remember that Moses had been found out after murdering an Egyptian, then fled and took refuge among the desert dwellers, whose priest was called Jethro. He stayed there for quite some time, even marrying Jethro's daughter. (That Midian resembles Medina, the name of Mohammed's headquarter city, and Jethro resembles that town's original name Yathrib, is considered by some to tally nicely with Kamal Salibi's theory that the Biblical scenes were not set in Palestine but in Arabia; but we'll put it down to a cute coincidence.) It is in the desert that Moses finds Yahweh, addressing him through the Burning Bush, a typical desert phenomenon of ethereal oil from a plant catching fire under the immense heat from the midday sun.

YHWH is thus a typical weather-god, comparable to Indra, god of the thunderstorms breaking the monsoon rain. That may well be why He is deemed to control atmospheric phenomena, including the natural causes of some of the Ten Plagues of Egypt as well as the Parting of the Sea.

When YHWH appears in the Burning Bush and replies to Moses: "I am what I am" (Ehyeh asher ehyeh, Exodus 3:14), it seems to be an affirmation of total sovereignty, meaning that he is under no obligation to inform Moses about Himself. This is confirmed by parallel sentences like: "I do what I do", clearly intending the speaker's absolute sovereignty and independence. The word asher is a relative pronoun, meaning "(he) who" or "(that) which)". But it has often been rendered wrongly as a subordinative conjunction, "that" as in "I can see that it's raining", so that the Biblical sentence comes to mean: "I am that I am", e.g. in the King James version. In contrast with the perfectly normal sentence, "I am what I am", you get a bizarre sentence that nobody ever utters, "I am that I am". Its intended meaning, thus explicitated by numerous interpreters from Antiquity till the present, is something like: "I am the One Who Is", "I am the One Whose Being or Existence is necessarily the case".

Given this theological reading, it comes in handy if the name YHWH itself could be analyzed in a similar or related sense. And so, the four-letter word has come to be explained (no doubt in good faith, for the Bible editors were not schooled in etymology) as an unusual and contrived form of the Hebrew verb HYY, "to be", viz. "He is". That would also make it into a proof of God from etymology: God must exist, for His sacred Name says so.

Seductive and imaginative as this explanation may be, it must nonetheless be dismissed as a typical example of folk etymology. There is nothing particularly shameful about this: before the birth of modern comparative-historical linguistics, the only etymology available (e.g. in Plato's Cratylus) was of this fanciful prescientific kind. But repeating such explanations today, when linguistics offers a more accurate though less heady explanation, would have to be considered as sophomoric cleverness.

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) abandoned his professorship in Theology when he realized that his uncompromisingly secularist reading of the Bible was incompatible with the job of preparing students for a career as Christian ministers. He shifted to Oriental Philology in order to have the freedom to go where his scholarly insights into scripture took him. His great legacy is a candid demythologizing approach to the Bible as a piece of human literature rather than the Word of God. Among other things, his contribution was decisive in establishing the distinction between four editorial traditions that together constitute the Biblical text.

Though he was opposed mostly by traditional Christians, later detractors have tried to overrule the German professor's findings with the imputation of anti-Jewish motives. I have not seen any evidence for that all too predictable allegation. It would in any case make no difference: the truth of a scholarly hypothesis is not dependent on the motives of its proponents. Sometimes people say the truth for the wrong reasons, just as untruths are sometimes believed and propagated by people with the nicest of motives. So, I salute Wellhausen as a pioneering Orientalist, an explorer and map-maker of religion as a human construct rather than a divine revelation.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

The origin of Japanese

Was Japanese "made in Japan"? Since Japan was not the cradle of mankind, the first speakers of proto-Japanese must have come from elsewhere at any rate. Do they still have recognizable relatives there, at least linguistically? There are reasons to think so.

Recently I attended a lecture at my Alma Mater by Dr. Martine Robbeets updating her Ph.D. research on the linguistic roots of Japanese in a wider language family: Is Japanese Related to Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic? (Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2005). She gave a convincing account of her thesis that Japanese is indeed cognate to a string of continental languages. At the risk of gross simplification, I will attempt to summarize what I retained of it.

The first thing to do in this kind of comparative exercise is to establish a list of non-trivial isoglosses between these languages, i.e. any linguistic similarities: syntactic, morphological, lexical. Trivial ones have to be discarded, starting with correspondences based on near-universals of language. Thus, the fact that words for "mother" have a characteristic [m] sound, as in Chinese mu or Dravidian amma, doesn't prove that the languages have a common origin, nor that one language borrowed the word from another, only that babies at their mother's breast make the same sound everywhere.

The same caution is needed against loan-words, e.g. Japanese biiru, garasu and karan sound like Dutch bier (beer), glas (glass) and kraan (watertap) not because the languages share an ancient common origin but because Japanese borrowed the Dutch words during the colonial age. Finally, we should guard against similarities based on pure coincidence, e.g. in the case of Japanese namae and its English counterpart name, words which have a distinct history in Japanese c.q. Indo-European. If we exclude such similarities from our survey, we can eliminate some languages that have been proposed as cognate to Japanese on this rather flimsy ground, such as Tamil and Sumerian.

Since a few decades, the group of Korean, Tongusic, Mongolic and Turkic is considered the most likely candidate for kinship with Japanese. The latter three have been grouped together as the "Altaic" language family. Strictly, it is called the "Altaic hypothesis", for the kinship between the three has not been firmly established. Given their overlapping territories, the languages may have mixed so much that distinct origins may have gotten obscured by the overlay of mutual exchanges. Those who acept the Altaic hypothesis tend to include Korean in the group as well. However, the name "Altaic" is now outdated and replaced with Trans-Eurasiatic (i.e. now stretching through the Eurasian continent from Korea to the Balkans). The Altai mountains and the surrounding steppes and deserts are an inhospitable region, unlikely to be a demographic epicentre of emigrations. Archaeology and common sense confirm that the homeland of "Altaic" must be in a more inhabitable area, viz. South Manchuria.

It is from there that these languages were spread westward (Turkic, Mongolic), northward (Turkic, Tungusic) and eastward (Korean, Japanese). Influenes from that region remain discernible in the archaeological remains of the immigrant Neolithic Jômon culture that replaced the older Yayoi culture. Physical anthropology also confirms that the Jômon people had more in common with those of continental Northeast Asia, while the Yayoi people resembled those of Southeast Asia. More precisely, Dr. Robbeets suggested that Japanese originated in South Korea, while modern Korean was originally the language of North Korea.

She lists a number of lexical correspondences, e.g. words for "hard" in Turkic, Mongolic, Korean and Japanese can be deduced from a common origin *kata. But the critical evidence is the list of correspondence between morphological markers. These are unlikely to be exchanged between languages; English has a few from French and Latin (e.g. the suffix -nce in comeuppance, or -able in likeable, and even these are not part of the intimate layer of morphology, such as verb conjugation), but it has been exposed for many centuries to an intense impact of these languages. Japanese, by contrast, has not in living memory been in contact with Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic. So, when she finds the same suffix or infix present in all five language groups (or in one case four out of five), it is a strong pointer to deep kinship between the languages. This is all the more true when these suffixes are no longer recognizable as distinct entities, thus no longer available for borrowing, because they have been integrated into verbal stems as now operating in the language.

In trying to link Japanese to the four other groups, Dr. Robbeets off-hand demonstrates the kinship between the four others, and thus the Altaic hypothesis. If confirmed, this finding constitutes an important success for the historical-comparative method in language studies.

In my line of research, this is important because many in India deny the validity of this method, thinking it "guilty" of the Aryan Invasion Theory. Their reasoning is that a theory that leads to a wrong conclusion (viz. the Aryan Invasion hypothesis) thereby stands disproven. They, along with their pro-AIT opponents, are simply mistaken in thinking that the theory (based on the historical-comparative linguistics) of an Indo-European language family with a common origin necessarily implies that this common origin lay outside India. Positing a common origin and thus a common homeland implies in itself nothing about the location of that homeland. Likewise, in the case of the Altaic hypothesis its originators first vaguely associated it with the Altai region but have relocated the putative common homeland to South Manchuria, without therefore abandoning the hypothesis of a common origin and homeland, much less the linguistic method.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jyoti Basu and the unnecessary success of Indian Communism

Jyoti Basu's demise is not the end of an era. The heyday of Communism in India is over, that turn has already been taken some years ago, with the electoral defeat of the Communist Parties of 2009 a major step downwards. Neither is the end near, for in India Communism is far more alive and combative than in almost any other country, with a formidable presence on the ground (Northeast, Jharkhand-Telengana corridor), in the trade-unions, in academe and in the parliaments of several states. Communism's persistent grip on West Bengal in particular is very largely Jyoti Basu's own work.

While the CPI supported the Emergency and took a leadership role in its enforcement, Jyoti Basu's CPM opposed it, and he rode the wave of anti-Emergency resistance to power in 1977. After he led the state for 23 years, his successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya is still capitalizing on the party's power position that Mr. Basu built. His personal character shines rather brightly compared with the venality of hollowness of so many Congress, casteist and even BJP politicians. Like his Kerala counterpart, the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad, he showed that Marxism-Leninism requires from its votaries a lifestyle of discipline and dedication. The Communists, both inside and outside his own party, have reason to deplore the passing of a hero of their movement.

But what should the rest of us remember him for? He was born in a "bourgeois" family in Kolkata and had the privilege of studying in England. There he joined the freedom struggle and, through this involvement, came closer to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Only because the party instructed him to, he postponed full membership until after his return to India. In 1946 he was elected for the first time to the Bengal parliament, where the Communists supported the plans for the imminent Partition. Many leading Communists (and other leftists, like Amartya Sen) were from East Bengal and found to their dismay that like all other Hindus, they had to flee the new state of Pakistan to India, the country whose unity they had betrayed. Unperturbed, they continued the anti-Hindu line they had shared with the Muslim league during the struggle for Partition. Once in power, the Communists patronized the immigration and integatrion of millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At the end of his term, Mr. Basu even toyed with the idea of rebaptizing "West Bengal" as just "Bengal", to do away with the implication that next to "West" Bengal, "there is another part tucked away somewhere". That was a pretty crass instance of the Communists' tendency to rewrite history at their own convenience, for of course there does exist another part, the East Bengal that the Communists themselves helped to give away to the Jihadi forces.

We should take this opportunity to highlight one important phenomenon, which was concentrated mostly in pre-Independence Bengal, viz. the shift of a large majority of revolutionaries -- particularly from the Anushilan Samiti circuit -- from Nationalism to the Communist movement. An auxiliary reason for this development was British aid: revolutionary prisoners were given Marxist literature, because the British knew that the Communists opposed terrorist violence and aimed for a mass uprising in the long term, thus leaving British (and other oppressors') lives out of harm's way until the time of the Revolution, which moreover might never materialize. Hindu nationalists who easily resort to cheap blame-the-British scenarios ("Jinnah was brainwashed by the British into trading in nationalism for separatism"), tend to overplay the importance of this; the British could only reinforce a tendency already in operation. After the success of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917-20, it was but natural that activists of a revolutiony temperament worldwide would feel attracted to Marxism. At least, they did so wherever an alternative was lacking. In Italy, many joined the Fascist movement and grabbed power in 1923 on a very similar wave of revolutionary enthusiasm.

Did India have an alternative? The freedom movement was captured by M.K. Gandhi in 1920 and left no room for revolutionaries, whom Gandhi emphatically disowned and condemned. The fledgling RSS, founded by an Anushilan Samiti disappointee, Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, renounced politics and preferred work in the sphere of culture, social self-organization and "character building". Hedgewar rejected offers to integrate his volunteer corps with the Hindu Mahasabha in political work for national independence and for the safeguarding of Hindu interests. So, it is likely that many revolutionaires, initially motivated only by love of India and freedom, turned to Marxism not because of this ideology's intrinsic strengths, but for lack of a native ideological alternative. Revolution-minded people obviously could not reconcile with Gandhian nonsense, anymore than the moderate constitutionalists (including the young Jinnah) could. They wanted to act decisively against the British colonialists, and also against backward social forces hampering the devolution of the fruits of freedom to the masses. Naturally they had no patience with muddle-headed Gandhism and associated anachronisms.

One alternative that might be cited is represented by the lone figure of Swami Shraddhananda. He stood for national freedom as well for an uncompromising stand against inequality and social injustice. But the party he co-founded, the Hindu Mahasabha, was soon embroiled in compromise with Hindus who supported the freedom struggle but practised the politics of the dead weight against social reform. Also, it did not involve itself in revolutionary struggle, not in terrorism of course, but not even in theoretical exercises planning for a revolutionary overthrow of colonialism in the long term.

Lenin, while renouncing "childhood diseases of Communism" such as stray terror, did teach a long-term strategy for taking power and imposing an unalloyed new order. Nobody in India seemed to understand the challenge and the need for a convincing native alternative. Sri Aurobindo lamented that the mind of the Hindus had become dysfunctional, but he too failed to formulate an alternative, let alone to work for it. After his personal experience with the failure of the armed struggle, he soon retired from politics and, while giving lucid comments on political evolutions, never came out again to provide practical leadership. All this while, Gandhi worked on people's emotions, but the Marxists worked on their minds, and their penetration was more enduring.

Thus we see a long list of freedom fighters taking up Marxism and Socialism of various varieties. Not all these men and women were Marxists in the true sense, they only wanted to serve the national cause but not in the Gandhian way. Thus, the problem was a lack of native Indian/Hindu vision and an ensuing line of action.

We should not paint each and every Communist as a villain, but highlight the fact that a true native ideological narrative needs to be developed from scratch and articulated. This would address a historical lacuna in India. Indian Marxism will die a natural death only when such a vision emerges.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Makar Sankranti and the Kumbha Mela

The Kumbha Mela is the world's biggest act of worship. It is currently taking place, and where else but in India? Well into February 2010 you can still go and take part. In that case, it may help to know what it's about.

On 14 January 2010, Makar Sankranti day, Hindu religious leaders ceremonially opened the Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, where the Ganga river moves from its mountainous sources into the plain of North India. A news item about it in an Indian on-line paper caught the eye of Koen Fillet, a talk-show host on Flemish state radio VRT Radio 1. He phoned me for some background data, and I gladly obliged. As usual, after the interview I thought of all the things I should have said. Not that there would ever have been enough time available for all the things worth saying about this venerable tradition, but a few that have my particular interest are these.

Why this name? A melâ is simply a festival where large crowds congregate, in principle of a religious nature though the term is also applied more loosely. A kumbha is a pot or jar or pitcher, i.c. the one in which the gods had collected the immortality elixir or amrta. When they were fighting over it, they spilled four drops which fell down on earth at the four places where the Kumbha Mela is now held. But Kumbha is also the name of the Zodiac sign of Aquarius, which happens to have the same amrta symbolism of life-giving liquid poured down from heaven on all of us.

Why is the festival taking place this year? As a rule the Mela in Haridwar (Uttaranchal) takes place every twelve years, but at intervals of three years, a similar gathering takes place in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), Nasik (Maharashtra) and Prayag/Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh). The timing is determined by the entry of Jupiter, who takes twelve years to complete a cycle, into the "fixed" constellations of the sidereal Zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius. Astrologers consider these signs the most powerful, places of power in the starry sky, just as the sacred river is a place of power on earth. The Haridwar Kumbha Mela takes place with Jupiter in Aquarius, as in 1998 and now 2010, the one in Prayag when Jupiter is in Taurus, as in 1989, 2001 and 2013.

The Prayag Kumbha Mela is the biggest; its 2001 edition drew 60 million pilgrims in a month's time, the biggest congregation of people in world history. It takes place at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. The site is called the Mukti Triveni, "Liberation tri-confluence", because a third river is also deemed to be present: the Saraswati river, cradle of Vedic civilization, which must once have been an ocean-going river but now ends in the desert of Rajasthan. It is as if the Saraswati carries the Vedic charisma underground to reappear in Prayag. Bathing at this auspicious confluence, esp. at the auspicious time of the Kumbha Mela, is deemed to confer great spiritual merit and to purify or "liberate" the pilgrim from a fair amount of accumulated "bad karma".

I was at the Prayag site in the days before the start of the 1989 Kumbha Mela. The first thing to impress the visitor was the mighty deployment of provisions for the millions of pilgrims: endless rows of tents, sanitary facilities and, here and there, electricity. In those days, India was associated with chaos, but here the Indian authorities and the organizers did and consistently do a fine job. Like in the Hajj in Mecca, an occasional stampede with lethal victims is almost inevitable at an event of this magnitude, but the toll of this hazard is normally limited and a few times it has been as low as zero.

All the traditional Hindu guru lineages and monastic orders of Sant-s and Sâdhu-s (saints, ascetics) have their presence here, and an allotted place and time for their ritual bathing, determined by negotiation or hierarchical order. Sometimes, quarrels and even fist fights erupt over the privilege of going in first. The stars of these festivals are the martial monks or Nâga Sâdhu-s, expert wrestlers and often carrying tridents. The idea of fighting monks may seem odd, but China also has its Shaolin monastery where the monks developed wushu (kungfu). In history, these martial orders sometimes served as auxiliary troops in actual wars, not even "holy" wars but perfectly secular wars for power and pelf in the service of Maharajas and even Sultans.

Except for unkempt flowing beards, matted hair and face paint, the Naga Sadhu-s walk naked. The Sanskrit word nâga means "snake", and is indeed cognate with that English word (with an onomatopoeic hissing sound prefixed), but also with the word "naked". The snake is the naked animal, because it is hairless and because it has no limbs with which to keep the environment at a distance. A snake is completely exposed to its environment, and consequently has to be strong, resistant and threatening.

Already mentioned in the Rg-Veda, long before the genesis of the monastic religions of Jainism and Buddhism, the Naga Sadhu-s exemplify the origin of the monastic orders in ancient bands of roaming warriors. Male adolescents, then as now, tend to band together on the outskirts of society and practise a macho culture of being harsh and tough on oneself and on one another. They extol freedom and keep the world of women and family at a distance. Some members lapse and leave the band to marry and settle down, others stay on to grow old in this culture of hardness and freedom: the first monks. Strikingly different from the soft-spoken and media-savvy Gurus to whom Western audiences may be acquainted, the Naga Sadhu-s belong to a very primitive stratum of Hinduism.

So does the tradition of pilgrimage to Mâ Gangâ (Mother Ganges). It is recorded in the Mahâbhârata that the aging Pândava brothers, disillusioned after their crowning victory in a fratricidal war has turned sour with the death of all their children (only one newborn grandson survives to continue the dynasty), make a pilgrimage to the Ganga in its mountainous upper reaches. By present standards, the distance they covered wasn't very long: to Haridwar from Indraprastha (Delhi), the city they founded, now takes only an afternoon by bus. But the ascetic effort of taking the walk from home to the sacred site, though important, isn't the main thing about a pilgrimage. Being there and immersing yourself in the presence of the site's divinity is what counts most.

Any body of flowing water will do for a bath. "The watertap will do just as well", is what a follower of the 15th-century skeptical poet Kabir said to a reporter at the latest Kumbha Mela, where he nonetheless played along in the game of getting Liberation through immersion in the river. Vis-à-vis Liberation, one sample of river water may be worth the other, but in more mundane respects, the Ganga offers something extra beyond washing away your impurities. It is rich in minerals from the mountains and is thus felt to have healing powers. That would logically be less the case for the Shipra river in Ujjain or the Godavari river in Nasik, which don't spring from the Himalaya, but still more for them than for the watertap. Most likely, these healing properties are the original reason for the pilgrimage. A place where you could go to get well, was thereby divine. Its healing properties got personified into a deity, so that a pilgrimage was a journey to go and spend time with that particular god.

Why does the Kumbha Mela start on 14 January? This, I am sorry to say to my Hindu friends, is based on a cosmic mistake. Circa 300 CE (when India had freshly adopted Hellenistic astrology with its 12-part Zodiac, replacing or supplementing the native Zodiac of 27 lunar asterisms), the tropical Zodiac, a geometrical division of the circle into 12 sectors of 30° tied to the cycle of the seasons, coincided with the sidereal Zodiac, i.e. the belt of visible constellations. The entry point of the sun into the sidereal constellation of Capricorn (Sanskrit: Makara) coincided with the winter solstice point, i.e. 0° of the tropical Capricorn. But the two Zodiacs have since been drifting apart at the rate of 1° in ca. 71 years. So now they differ by ca. 24°, and the festival originally meant to mark the winter solstice or Yuletide has drifted to 14 January and, given time, is bound to drift on all around the Zodiac. Yet, numerous Hindus say in all seriousness that at Makar Sankranti, on 14 January, "the sun starts on its northward course", which in fact it has done on 21 December.

With the spread of modern science, there is simply no excuse to maintain this mistake underlying the entire Hindu calendar. Correcting it would have drastic consequences, e.g. moving the New Year's festival from 14 April (sidereal Aries) back to 21 March (spring equinox,= tropical Aries). Jupiter would reach Aquarius, Taurus etc., once these are conceived tropically rather than sidereally, nearly a year earlier than under the present system, so the year of the next Kumbha Melas would have to be changed. But the weight of tradition is such that this correction may not be made so soon.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

The power of focusing on God

It is often claimed that people are happier and more ethical if they believe in God, or some such Supreme Being. He makes you happy, healthy, holy! Is this true? And to the extent that it may prove true, how come?

Prayer works. Or so we are assured by people who (or whose dear ones) have been saved from some disease or disaster after having prayed. Wait, correction: people who escaped some disaster, and describe it as if some external agent saved them. And wait again: we won't go into trying to explain who or just what it is that causally worked the good outcome, at least not yet, and merely focus on the correlation between praying and a good outcome.

Those who survived the Titanic, later gave witness of how fervently they had prayed. Yes, God had heeded their imploration and saved them. But what about those Titanic passengers and crew who drowned? Chances are they were praying even more fervently as their forces were slipping away in the icy water, with their last breath carrying the most fervent prayer of all upwards. Neither did God deign to save them nor did their faith move mountains and empower their muscles to keep swimming.

Too many prayers go unanswered. A friend of my mother's remained a spinster all her long life, but as a girl, she had been deeply smitten with a particular young man, who alas didn't reciprocate her feelings. She went on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, prayed with all the fervour of a love-stricken woman, yet the Holy Virgin did not open his heart to her.

Even worse, prayer and the reliance on divine intervention has sometimes left people worse off than the predicament from which prayer was expected to extricate them. Thus, a man was saved from a seemingly terminal disease after the whole family had prayed to the Virgin Mary. Then on the way to Scherpenheuvel to thank her, he was overrun by a car and killed.

Indians will know of the case of politician Bal Thackeray's wife, who forgot to take her standard life-saving medicine with her when going to attend a festival for Lord Ganesha. In mid-celebration she suffered a crisis and died. He removed all idols of Ganesha from their house, taking it as empirically proven that the god was either impotent or uninterested in the welfare of his devotees. Todd Rundgren used to sing: "Someone is watching over you. Someone knows how you fee-eel." Really?

So, let us not exaggerate the power of prayer and of reliance on the intervention of Somebody Up There. But we may indulge the less ambitious claim that faith in a connection with the Heavenly Powers straightens our backs in at least the ethical challenges and psychological crises of life.

Ballerinas and Taijiquan practitioners are told to imagine that their heads are hanging from a thread in the sky. In order to straighten their backs into a dignified yet relaxed posture, they are to use their minds rather than their muscles. The results are time-tested: those who do imagine their heads being pulled up by a thread, do get a visibly better posture. So, the effect is real. And yet, the thread is not. Likewise, if people imagine that something higher is observing or controlling their lives, they may develop a better "posture", a better attitude and conduct. However, this doesn't prove that there really is a Something Higher up there.

In Patañjali's Yoga Sûtra, one of the ten rules to be observed as a support to yoga practice is Îshvara-pranidhâna, "dedication to Îshvara". For now we forego discussion of the arguable position that in this context, the word îshvara, more or less "the lord", refers to the yoga teacher (gurû), and settle for the more usual reading that it is an epitheton of Shiva, more or less "God". Theistic Hindus jump on this isolated phrase as proof that yoga requires belief in God. It does not. Patañjali merely acknowledges the psychological benefit of dedication and refrains from speaking out on the value or reality of the entity to whom this dedication is directed. Otherwise, God or Whoever has no place at all in his system. Contrary to a common belief, he does not conceive of yoga as "union with God". On the contrary, yoga is supreme self-reliance, not reliance on God.

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