Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yoga is not religious


Yoga is Hindu, but it is not religious. When Hindus go deep into the issues raised by the San Diego court verdict ("yoga is not Hindu"), 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. Contemporay 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 fouder 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.

The 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.


Skanda said...

I actually refuted your argument on CRI article "Koenraad Elst and Yoga". Yoga Sastra has three aspects - (1) a darsana or a worldview (2) a practicing methodology (3) traditions of practice that evolve and improvise those practices. Only the first is "not religious", the next two are definitely, definitely religious.

On this I guess you are plain fact wrong to say yoga is not religious.

Judiciary is simply not equipped to make a judgment on this matter, when most scholars are themselves confused.

American said...

About a year ago, Pew Research Center published some data on religion, yoga and Indian American immigrants. The survey was quite broad and margin of error is expected to be less than +/- 2%. Here are some findings:

* In 2012, there were as many Hindus and Buddhists combined as Jewish people in United States (~2%, 6 million)
* Asian American Buddhists see yoga not just as exercise but as a spiritual practice (58%), while more Asian American Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice (73%). [Please note that Pew Center reports differentiate between the words theistic and spiritual.]
* Only 1 in 5 Indian American Hindus attend religious services in a Hindu temple, 1 in 4 meditates daily, 1 in 2 says a daily prayer, 3 in 4 celebrate Christmas, and 95% Indian American Hindus celebrate Diwali
* Indian American citizens in the US have the lowest rate of religious conversion from their childhood religion. Hindus predominantly remain Hindus, or become non-affiliated.
* 9 in 10 Asian-American Hindus, according to Pew Center, reject the notion that their religion is the one, true faith and say instead that many religions can lead to eternal life. Vast majority of Indian American Hindus (90%) say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. By contrast, Christians and Muslims are strongly inclined to believe their religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.
* etc

The above data does not answer the theoretical questions about yoga and its history; it is more empirical.

There are several ways to understand a religion: (1) what is the consensus preaching in its scriptures, (2) what do the people practicing the religion currently believe and do? The Pew report provides the latter perspective for Indian immigrants in America; that perspective is: most, but not all, believe yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice.

Rita Narayanan said...

being Hindu and Yoga:

most people (including all of us Hindus) don't realise what it means to be a Hindu.Thus, it becomes difficult for "others" who cannot understand how atheism and religion can co-exist.

Krishna is often seen in a sort Mirabai, Vaishnavite mirror image but the adult Krishna of the Gita would fit in quite well in any politicking session.

so too Yoga which has lost it's connection with reflection and real contemplation and is now another gym trip for many people.

Vraja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vraja said...

The Yoga-sutras are very theistic, I'm kind of surprised by any denial of that by you since you seem to be very knowledgeable on so many other areas of Hinduism.

What about verses 23-29? Ishvara (God) is described as the all knowing source of everything (tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajñabījam), the original guru unchanged by time (sa eṣaḥ pūrveṣām api guruḥ kālena anavacchedāt). The idea you put forth of Ishvara or Purusha (appellations for God) in Patanjali's Yoga-sutras as being without desire, is incorrect. It says:

kleśa karma vipāka āśayaiḥ
aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣaviśeṣaḥ Īśvaraḥ

Isvara (literally 'controller') is untouched (aparāmṛṣṭaḥ) by distress (kleśa) in consequence (vipāka) of actions (karma) and the mind (āśayaiḥ=mind).

If Isvara is the guru of gurus, than desire is manifest in playing the role of guru. The idea of desirelessness isn't meant literally, i.e. without any desire at all, that's a misinterpretation. The point is that Ishvara is different than everyone else---we are adversely affected by materialistic desires (we can't fulfill them or we fulfill them and are not satisfied). The point is to show our difference with Ishvara , i.e. Ishvara is self-satisfied and doesn't suffer from desires because Ishvara doesn't desire anything in the sense we do, e.g. needing something we don't have (Ishvara has and controls everything). And because of that Isvara is not adversely affected by reactions related to the mind, like unfulfilled desires which end in misery because Ishvara is always fully satisfied---due to being Ishvara.

The whole point of the Yoga-sutras is to attain unfettered pure awareness of the self (pure consciousness) and it's relationship with Ishvara, through meditation.

The idea of the dhyana (meditation) put forth is to try to separate yourself from your thoughts by seeing yourself as different from your thoughts. When that is achieved you are left with the realization of your true relationship with Ishvara---Ishvara is in control of and manifests your mind/thoughts/intellect. You don't. How? When you attain a high enough level of meditation Ishvara reveals that truth directly to you in your mind (and all around you), which is obscured through the illusion (maya) of your false sense of self-identification (ahankara) with and or control over the mind.

Once that is understood correctly you become eligible to enter into a state of samadhi, a state of oneness with Isvara, where you realize your utter dependence on Ishvara and are therefore able to perceive and commune with Ishvara internally (the mind is Ishvara, we are pure consciousness), and externally--through knowing that Ishvara is everything and everyone. Due to knowing that Ishvara is the substance and controller of everyone, and your own mind, that realization enables you to enter the jivanmukta state (liberated from mundane existence while still in your present body). After which you attain the higher realms of nitya-lila (eternal play).

That is the essence of the Yoga-sutras, the Gita and the Upanishads---and the goal of all yoga systems.

Koenraad Elst said...

It is the essence of the Gita, the Gospel of the Bhakti-Marga. By contrast, yoga is the stopping of the modifications of the mind and its goal is kaivalya, the isolation of Purusha (individual
consciousness, not "God") from Prakrti/nature. Since time fails me now to discuss the meaning of "Ishvara", let me just note that it does not figure in the nature and goal of yoga at all. At most, "devotion" to God is part of the *instruments* of yoga, figuring in the 2nd of 8 stages.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Elst, please research Turiya.

Only that knowledge is complete where there is no difference between The Knower, The Known and The Knowledge. In our 3 states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, the knowledge is incomplete. This accords with your idea of the goal of Yoga (actually Jnana Yoga).

When the Object of knowledge is Consciousness, and successful union with this is obtained, the goal in its highest sense is reached.

Jnana Yoga uses the instrument called the discriminating mind - that which sifts The True from The False - with great accuracy.

But for people with a different bent of mind, there are other methods. Bhakti yoga is for emotional and love-oriented people. Hatha Yoga for strong-willed,brave and pain-enduring ones. There is also Raja Yoga, which deals only with Citta Vritti Nirodha.

If Sufism and Christianity resemble it, that is not sufficient to call into question the authenticity and "oldness" of Bhakthi Yoga.

You are way off-base when you doubt the authenticity of Krishna's Gita teachings, and put up artificial distinctions between that and the Upanishads or the vedic Darshana called Yoga. This is because of your Dualistic mind. Something to think about.

Vraja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vraja said...

Koenraad, I believe you are conflating an aspect of yoga sadhana (yoga practices) with the goal, specifically in relation to dhyana (meditation). You wrote:

"By contrast, yoga is the stopping of the modifications of the mind and its goal is kaivalya, the isolation of Purusha (individual
consciousness, not "God") from Prakrti/nature."

That is a purpose of dhyana, not of yoga. What purpose is there is to isolate the consciousness from prakriti? It's to enable us to distinguish ourselves from the controller of prakriti (Isvara), and by that we enter into samadhi, Yoga Sutra 2.45 samādhisiddhiḥ īśvarapraṇidhānāt, i.e. the "trance" state, where we see and experience everything, including within ourselves, as one with Isvara, YS 2.44 svādhyāyāt iṣṭadevatā saṁprayogaḥ. When that is perfected Isvara reveals the truth of maya to you, and then you achieve mukti (liberation from temporal existence).

Your idea that Isvara means anything but the traditional understanding would need to explain why Isvara is described as all-knowing source/omniscient, and as the original teacher unaffected by time:

tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajñabījam

sa eṣaḥ pūrveṣām api guruḥ kālena anavacchedāt

And you would need to explain away iṣṭadevatā in 2.44 of YS:

svādhyāyāt iṣṭadevatā saṁprayogaḥ

Patanjali makes it clear in the sutras what he means by Isvara in the above sutras, any other interpretation is not what he had in mind.

Skanda said...

"By contrast, yoga is the stopping of the modifications of the mind and its goal is kaivalya, the isolation of Purusha"

Even this I answered in the rejoinder.

When you talk of "yoga" you are talking of ONE method called laya yoga which is about *dissolving mind*.

Bhakti is about *melting the mind*.

There is the difference in upAdhi and Alambana but no difference in goal or mechanism.

American said...

About 1000 AD, centuries before its Mughal era, India saw a student of Indian literature. He came from Arabic lands. His name: al Biruni.

Al Biruni gives the earliest and detailed Muslim account of Indian religion, writing in detail about concepts of divinity, ritual practices, and yoga. He approached these topics comparatively, drawing parallels with Greek philosophy and Christian sects, as he understood those two to be in his times.

Those interested in yoga, may want to read al Biruni, perhaps with a critical eye, because like most translators from different cultures, he tends to mix in some of his own religious (early Islam) and cultural (then evolving and civil warn torn Arabic) beliefs. His translation betrays syncretic islamization of certain ideas (see Pines and Gelblum, for example,

If you critically read al-Biruni, or translation of his arabic translations, KE's thesis above is more harmonious with the understanding of yoga by al-Biruni in 1000 AD. A study of al-Biruni also helps you filter out, as well as identify, the evolutions and revisionism to yoga between about 1000 AD and today.

Al Biruni is interesting not only for yoga, but for his translations and interpretation of Indian texts on arithmetic, astronomy, and others that existed in India before broader waves of violent Islamic destruction arrived in 12th century.

Karthikrajan said...

Yoga’s original goal , that of restraining the movements of the mind is worth analysing. Silencing the mind is the best way to listen to and understand the ‘cosmic hiss’ which resides in everyone. But where did this guy get this idea? Perhaps by observing a pond ? The bed of a pond is not visible as long as the water surface is wavy, but once it becomes standstill every thing inside becomes crystal clear. These vedhic seers were quite an observant lot !

Yes , Krishna doesn’t accompany yoga in patanjali or budhdha’s discourse because these two gentlemen were not addressing the concerns of any particular person except their own. Krishna on the other hand was directly handling a confused warrior who wanted to take sanyaasa, and he tries to convert him into a karma-yogi. So he had to convince arjuna by repeatedly projecting himself as an example of a human turned karma-yogi. Here too he does throw considerable hint that Krishna is not all that important. Anyone trying to become one, is capable of doing so by using his/her own head, else by taking the help of other karma-yogis, Elst by falling at the feet of their gods (ishtadevatha) when the first two methods fail.

The tug of war between these two yoga groups reminds me of advaitha vs dvaitha debate. The jeevaathma and paramaathma are one and the same , so a jeevaathma is capable of looking into a mirror to discover its own identity. The bhakthi group firmly beliefs that everything is given by the paramaathma and hence jeevaathma is incapable of discovering itself. The paramaathma has to descend into the jeevaathma and chuck a mirror if front its face whereby the jeevaathma can have a good look at itself and perhaps even realise that the paramaathma also looks like a twin (vishishtaadvaitha ?)
Yoga is getting associated with religion and gods probably to make it acceptable to the general public who cannot keep the gods away from their daily life.

xxx said...

Another fantastic article by Dr Elst


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