Debate on Yoga in Washington Post

When I first met Vishva ji in Rishikesh, I asked him whether he identified more as a yogi or as a Hindu.  I was not trying to polarize the two, but for many reasons was interested in any discussion that night evolve from the question.  I had no idea that 12 years later this very questions would become a widely and hotly debated topic on the pages of the Washington Post blog nonetheless.

If you haven’t seen it, I have put a link here because it should be read first hand.  It has already been scooped by the NY Times and opinions I’m sure are beginning to form based on second hand descriptions.

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2010/04/shukla_and_chopra_the_great_yoga_debate.html

Now that you’ve read the debate between Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla, I’d like to suggest that part of the difficulty in this debate is that the terms need to be defined; otherwise we’re arguing at cross purposes.  The way that the two debaters use the words Hinduism and Yoga are quite different, as is the interest they invest in the terms.  Deepak Chopra argues that Hinduism evolved from Yoga.  Aseem Shukla argues that Yoga evolved from Hinduism.  In some senses both are right.  It depends on how you define the terms.

Chopra’s arguments show that he defines Yoga in the broadest possible sense as Sanatana Dharma – the seed truths and energy explored by the rishis beginning about 10,000 years ago.  Hinduism, I infer, for him is the socio-cultural religious system that evolved from the Brahmanical interpretation of the scriptures of the Sanatana Dharma and the Vedas.  The kernel of the religion is the same, but Hinduism is a codified form with structured beliefs and not always egalitarian.  As such, before even the word Hinduism was ascribed to this tradition, Buddhists and Jains separated from the tradition for the socio-political layering that had come about in the Brahmanical period.  This is a common trajectory which is likely recognized in all religions – the tension between revelation and institutionalization.  Of course patriarchal inequities also cropped up later in Buddhist institutions – something less commonly understood.  For more on that, please read A Cave in the Snow by Vickie MacKenzie.  In any case, this is why Chopra compared Hinduism to Christian sects.  In this analogy Yoga would then be compared to Christian mysticism, or to the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.  What I interpret Chopra as suggesting here is that while Christ exhibited and promoted a direct connection with God, the Church(es) for the most part promote the intermediary of priests as necessary.  In the same way, Yoga is a gnostic process like the rishis explored, of going beyond socialization, doctrine and belief, and releasing oneself from divisive codes and systems in order to find the authentic self/Self.  These definitions are in line with my own understanding.

Shukla uses the term in the exact opposite way.  He equates Hinduism with Sanatana Dharma and the wisdom of the Vedas (its widest possible interpretation), and defines Yoga as the Classical Yoga of Patanjali (2-300 AD).  By this definition he would be right that the Yoga Sutras were written after the Vedas.  But, as above, this does not mean that Yoga, by its widest definition, evolved from Hinduism.

I think this debate, which in various forms has been going on for quite some time now, would be served much by the developing of some common language.  As is mentioned in the blog, the word Hinduism came from the Persians describing the tradition of peoples inhabiting the region to the east of the Indus river.  This happened in the early middle ages around the time of the Mogul invasion of India, I believe.  Just as city names have been modifies post British Colonial Regime, perhaps the name Hinduism has outlived its colonial utility.  It is by nature a label given by the Other.  The use of the word Sanatana Dharma, however, implies going back to the source wisdom of the tradition.  Many Vedic revival sects attempt to do just that – to get back to the basics and strip away what is dogma or the result of power brokering etc.   That said, the debate is further clouded by the fact that there is so much pluralism in both Indian philosophy and in modern day Hinduism.  There are Hindu sects that worship a plethora of anthropomorphic deities in which the full power of the deity inhabits the material statue, and there are Hindu sects that reject the use of anthropomorphic images even as symbols.  To discuss either Hinduism or Yoga as a unitary tradition, the absolute code of beliefs of which can be debated and agreed upon is perhaps the primary issue here.

I find this debate very interesting from a historical point of view.  But in reflecting on the intensity of it on the WP blog, I wonder if it would not be more helpful if we could ascertain what we aim to understand from such a debate.  If our aim is to reduce discrimination and gross misunderstandings about Indian traditions, and false references in schools, then certainly I think there are processes which could and are to some extent being taken.  Name calling and mud slinging by respected adults is not the way forward for teaching tolerance and understanding to our children.

If we wish to increase esteem for India’s heritage which was assaulted badly during the Colonial era (both the Mogul and the European colonies) then it seems to me that cultural revival, such as is occurring with yoga (asana, kirtan, meditation, ayurveda and religious studies) is a wonderful start.   I certainly think that yoga teacher training programs should add include a philosophy and history component, and that more discussion about yoga and its processes and long history should be explored in yoga classes, or in workshops, universities, public lectures etc.  This would be more appropriate and effective than making demands that yoga teachers use the word Hinduism to describe Yoga’s origin.  But also, perhaps initiating formal sharing meetings between cultural groups at both international, national and community levels would be helpful.  Perhaps we need to highlight in political and cultural institutions the pejorative light cast on India during and since the Colonial Era and outlining steps forward as Indian citizens and the Indian diaspora continue to excavate aspects of their cultural heritage and pride.   I think in the past we have neglected how much of this may be necessary for all post colonial nations.

Finally, what is needed both in yoga communities and in general is more accessible information about, and a higher level of general knowledge about Indian history, the richness of its diverse spiritual philosophies and the diversity of modern-day living traditions.

P.S.

I would also like to see more balanced and realistic reports about India’s economic and social issues.  It seems we are either fed the glory of the world’s most spiritual land, the crown jewel of economic booms, or the despair of corruption and disenfranchised poverty.  Can we as a global society take one of the precepts of yoga – vidya, or clear seeing – and begin to authentically see Indian (as well as other societies) society for its merits and demerits, and begin pointing to and supporting systemic change for the increased welfare of all of India’s citizens.

Advertisements

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. matthew remski
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 16:11:10

    lovely thoughts, chetana. I appreciate your intention: to do an end-run around the messy vocabulary of this ownership debate by invoking what is shared rather than what separates. that said, I think there’s a larger group-psycho-linguistic …point to be made. both ‘yoga’ and ‘hinduism’ are transcendental signifiers: terms so vast in application that they actually mean very little concretely. when certain stakeholders encounter these volatile terms they seem to be compelled to control the uncontrollable. this is what the transcendental signifier does: casts the illusion of ultimate meaning where no stable meaning exists, and then that illusory ultimate meaning becomes a gasoline for the fire of pre-existing socio-political imbalances. “god” and “truth” are other good examples of words that mean so much that they mean nothing, and therefore cause more conflict than coherence. I think your answer, unfortunately, is to appeal to the unifying potential of yet another such term, in the hope that everyone can agree upon the meaning of ‘sanatana dharma’. I doubt this will happen, because the stakeholders in the debate are not interested in coherence. they are wrestling over the ownership of these terms to express cross-cultural critique and to redress sociopolitical grievances. the dispute would be less sub-conscious and more productive if it rolled out at the UN, instead of in this repressed “who’s-your-daddy?” discourse. in the meantime, the world is seething with trauma, and most of us simply need tools of inquiry and empathy. at this point, both yoga and hinduism are open-source. nobody can own either, and, more importantly – whatever would they do if they could?

    Reply

  2. akhandayoga
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 17:27:32

    Namaste Matthew!

    Great comments. I did, in this post, focus on the terms, as that was a big part of the message, it seems to me: That Shukla wanted Chopra and others to use the word Hinduism as opposed to words like Indian tradition, Vedantin, Vedic etc. I found his insistence on the word Hindu very interesting, as the terms he accuses Chopra of using seem more specific and clear to me. His insistence on the term Hindu belayed other issues to me. I suggested issues of the feeling of other-ness (ironic given the origin of the word), poor educational materials on Indian tradition in schools, and the larger issue of post-colonialism.

    I wanted also to show that I link Yoga with Sanatana Dharma (not only Classical Yoga) – and to explore why the term Hinduism has been problematised. Though delicately. Perhaps some of this tension is also arising from the internal schisms – early on with Buddhism and Jainism; in the last 150 years with the Vedic revival sects, and more recently with the plethora of yoga organizations that do not align themselves with mainstream Hinduism. Soooo much going on in the debate between the lines.

    Hope some of these other aspects to my post also came through.

    I love how you have eloquently described the difficulty in naming such broad traditions. I also agree. From the post:

    “That said, the debate is further clouded by the fact that there is so much pluralism in both Indian philosophy and in modern day Hinduism… To discuss either Hinduism or Yoga as a unitary tradition, the absolute code of beliefs of which can be debated and agreed upon is perhaps the primary issue here.”

    I agree with what you said about dialogue at the UN – I also intended this in my post when I said:

    “But also, perhaps initiating formal sharing meetings between cultural groups at both international, national and community levels would be helpful. Perhaps we need to highlight in political and cultural institutions the pejorative light cast on India during and since the Colonial Era and outlining steps forward as Indian citizens and the Indian diaspora continue to excavate aspects of their cultural heritage and pride. I think in the past we have neglected how much of this may be necessary for all post colonial nations.”

    Reply

  3. Tanya Di Valentino
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 19:39:45

    What a great entry, Chetana!
    Your clarification of the issue of “undefined terms” as the basis for the circular arguing settled my mind as I thought the debate was going to go on and on forever. It almost felt as though Shukla had Chopra …in an arm-bar trying to get him to cry out “Uncle” or “Hindu” like kids fighting on the playground 🙂 I felt both sides made very relevant points and I could feel the emotion from both sides, however I felt that your blog offered me satisfying closure. Perhaps this is the new world that is being born before our eyes…words and names matter less…and the experience of what one is trying to describe matters more…perhaps Shakespere said it best “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Thank-you Chetana :))

    Reply

  4. Mariellen Ward
    Dec 06, 2010 @ 09:18:24

    Thanks so much for writing this Chetana. I have been following this issue closely and reading all the blogs, articles and comments about it … and I can honestly say that yours is the most knowledgeable, compassionate, non-attached and ego-transcendent of the lot. You are actually walking the talk and writing from a non-dualistic perspective, which almost no one else is doing. Bravo!

    I also want to thank you for articulating something I have been feeling for several years, and trying to capture in my writings about Indian culture and wisdom. There IS a lot of anti-Indian and anti-Hindu bias in the west; and even in India itself, there is still a lingering post-colonial hangover. Indians were made to feel inferior by their British overlords for 250 years. It’s going to take some time for everyone to get past this.

    I was surprised and delighted to discover the beauty of India’s culture and the depth of her wisdom when I first started traveling there five years ago — in fact, I landed five years ago today. Since then, I have devoted a lot of my energy and a lot of my writing to showcasing the treasures I found in India, and India’s power to transform and heal. That’s the spirit, and the entire point, of Breathedreamgo.com

    Thanks again for writing this. Your intelligence, sensitivity, knowledge and spirit shine through your words. Keep writing.

    Mariellen
    Bretahedreamgo.com

    Reply

  5. Idas
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 21:29:17

    Chetana,
    amazing post. Most appreciated.
    Om

    Reply

  6. Quinn
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 00:24:30

    Hi there! I just came across your blog through breathedreamgo. Thanks for sharing this as I hadn’t seen it before. You wrote up a great analysis too. A common language truly seems to be the thing missing here, just as you pointed out. Looking forward to reading more from you!

    ~Quinn

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

%d bloggers like this: