In this two-part series, Haimanti Banerjee and Kanchan Banerjee explore the roots of Yoga and the way this ancient knowledge should be passed on to future generations.
Recently in the course of a debate on the Washington Post web-site about the origin of Yoga, Dr Deepak Chopra almost denied the roots of Yoga to Hinduism. “Yoga is universal,” he claimed, adding that it is not necessarily a property of any particular group of people or religion – an agreeable proposition in our politically correct times. The question to be asked however is: would attributing the origins of this ancient science to the religion of its earliest proponents qualify as fundamentalism?
Hinduism is as universal as one can imagine! Like Yoga, which is an integral part of it, its origins are placed in consciousness and in the cosmic mind, not in human revelation. That is why Hinduism has no historical beginning or founder and is called Sanatana Dharma or the eternal laws of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. It is a futile attempt to give universality to Yoga and not to Hinduism or to deny the vast Hindu roots and connections of Yoga. Some aspects of Yoga can be found in all Hindu rituals, music, dance, prayer, devotion and philosophy. Even during performance of the ritual of Pooja, 4 parts of the Asthanga Yoga – pranayam, pratyahar, dharana and dhyana are practiced. Meditation and even many asanas are done with mantras which are but part of the greater Hindu tradition. Yoga is not some outside thing added to Hinduism but part of its very fabric.
In support of the first point we give a quote from Sri Aurobindo, the authority on Yoga and a seer in recent times: “Yoga is not modern invention of the human mind, but our ancient and prehistoric possession.”
Dr Chopra, like a number of modern thinkers, appears to reduce Hinduism to its outer ritual dimension and prefer to give its inner practices of Yoga, Veda and Vedanta another name. However, that greater tradition continues to be known and recognized by its modern adherents as a religion as Hinduism. If one prefers Vedic wisdom or Sanatana Dharma for it, he should recognize that millions of people do use the term Hinduism in this broader sense.
One must agree that no particular country or population or religion has ‘copyright’ on Yoga. The ancient Rishis never wanted to ‘patent’ anything in any case; this is their greatness, because they wanted knowledge to be free, and weakness to those who are in the business of selling knowledge. Should this be the reason one has to shy away from the social or religious identity of the tradition?
Though laws of gravity and theory of relativity were in existence before and after Newton and Einstein was born, they were given due credit by recognizing their contributions as ‘discoverers’. Similarly, even though most Hindu/Vedic/Vedantic Rishis did not even leave their names on their ‘darshanas’ or discoveries, a token ‘thank you’ to the Rishis and Gurus would go a long way (in true spirit of Yoga Guru-krupa-hi-kebalam).
The word Hindu has two sides, very similar to Jewish people and Judaism. The population which today is called the Hindus, about a billion in number; the cultural and religious heritage which is called Hinduism today is rooted in Sanatana Dharma, the Vedic Dharma, the Vedantic Dharma. One may chose to use one of the above names, but in reality, without getting into hair-splitting debates, they are all same.
After all, the people of India were called Hindus by others and 85 per cent of its population today is officially called Hindu, who in their own way, preserves and passes on the knowledge of the same spiritual discipline from generation to generation! Hinduism is a foreign term, perhaps early Indian leaders (such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and even Vivekananda) during their encounters with the West had no choice but to use it with their communications with the foreigners, because that is the word they could relate to! On the other hand, Hindus themselves called their faith Dharma (not religion) and their path was Sanatana (or eternal) and their tradition ‘Hindu’ about which Dr. Chopra notes: ‘Religious rites and the worship of gods has always been seen as being in service to a higher cause, knowing the self.’ One should be reminded that these ‘people’ experimented with many different methods and came to the conclusion: ‘Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti’ or ‘Truth is one, paths and expressions are many’!No ancient Rishi ever claimed to be The One, a descendant of God, the ultimate source of truth or revelation.
If one calls himself ‘Advaita Vedantin’ or ‘Vedantin’ or even ‘Vedi’ (as in ‘Chaturvedi’) it is a great thing. However it is part of history that the first person who came and taught ‘Yoga’ to the Americans was Swami Vivekananda (1893). He wrote his famous book Raj Yoga in New York! Guess what, America and the world knew him as the ‘Hindoo Monk’! Swami Vivekananda too identified himself to be a Vedantin, but he had no problem calling himself a Hindu as well, though he faced ridicule of the highest order! The Vedantins and the Hindus are same.
But we have a bigger issue than identity…
The freedom of knowledge
It is clear that the practice of popular Yoga which is basically Raja or Hatha Yoga having roots in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and also Hatha Yoga Pradipika. But one must not forget that the popular Yoga is only asana (and may be some breathing) which is the subject of only two of the 200 Sutras of the Yoga Sutras and ¼ of the verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which emphasize meditation. Yoga Sutras is one of the six schools of Hindu or Vedic philosophy, which accept the authority of the Vedas. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Shaivite text whose original guru is Lord Shiva.
Sri Aurobindo, says again: “The Veda is our oldest extant human document and the Veda, from one point of view, is a great compilation of practical hints about Yoga. All religion is a flower of which Yoga is the root; all philosophy, poetry and the works of genius use it, consciously or unconsciously, as an instrument. We believe that God created the world by Yoga and by Yoga He will draw it into Himself again… These are (Patanajali’s asthanga Yoga) merely details of particular systems. The systems are not the thing itself, any more than the water of an irrigation canal is the river Ganges.”
The Vedas and the Upanishads and finally the essence of all the Hindu Scriptures, the Bhagwad Geeta, where you can find aspects of Yoga, are not even covered by Patanjali; he was talking about one aspect of the many-faceted term Yoga!! Remember all the different Yogas discussed in the Geeta including Karma, Jnana, Bhati and Mokhsa?
Which Yoga are we talking about here? For the ‘Ganga’ of the Yoga, we have to go back to t h e source, the Vedas and the Upanishads, and that is firmly preserved by the so-called ‘Hindus’ till today!
A worrisome trend
The severance of Yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises, not just the Hindus but the humanity altogether from its origin and roots. The moment you severe the origin from the offspring, it creates environment to breed dogmas, cults, sects and promotes sectarianism and sometimes fundamentalism as we see among many so-called Yoga Gurus and their branding and patenting ‘xxx’ techniques!