Photograph of Anil Chawla

Is Yoga Hindu?

Author - Anil Chawla

As yoga has become popular across the world, the question, "Is Yoga Hindu?" has been bothering many Muslims and Christians. The question is largely irrelevant for Hindus themselves. Hindus have a very dynamic world-view. Hindus do not ask whether such-and-such activity is Hindu. For example, in the debate about abortion in India, there are strong arguments about how abortion is necessary, about health effects of abortion for the woman concerned and so on - but never whether abortion is Hindu. I do some yogic exercises every morning. My family keeps telling me that I need to do more to keep myself healthy. The issue is never whether I have been doing a Hindu act or not.

It seems that for some people the world is divided into four separate boxes - Christian, Muslim, Hindu and secular. I (or Hindus) do not agree with this division into water-tight boxes. Nevertheless, given the fact that much of intellectual discourse in present world is dominated by people who think in terms of these boxes, Hindus have no option but to engage in the debate about Hindu nature of yoga.

Before we proceed further, let us understand the essential nature of Hinduism versus Abrahamic or Judaic or one-book religions. The concept of brahm is central to Hindu thought paradigm. Brahm or cosmos is supposed to be one entity. Each one of us is a part of the cosmos and is influenced by it. Understanding the way the cosmos acts and influences human life is essential to Hinduism. Aligning one’s life to the laws of the cosmos is the essence of the practice of Hinduism. Every sacred text is supposed to be a guide to help one understand the ways of the cosmos; but there is no denying that any sacred text may have mistakes and hence one may need to move beyond the text when the need arises. Cosmos has always been and shall always be. The infinite nature of cosmos in physicality and time is indisputable. For as long as human beings have walked on the earth, they have tried to understand cosmos and have tried to adapt their lives to the cosmos. In other words, human beings have always tried to be brahmic or Hindu.

Abrahamic religions stand in sharp contrast to brahm or cosmos based Hinduism. Abrahamic religions deny the existence of a never-beginning and never-ending cosmos. While in Hinduism, aligning one’s life to cosmos is the goal, Abrahamic religions strictly prohibit one from opening any channels of communication with cosmic being. For example, a Christian is only permitted to receive messages from God through the "proper channels" of Jesus, Bible and the Church. While as a Hindu, I can declare myself to be a part of the brahm; a Christian or Muslim or Jew declaring the same way will be accused of the worst form of blasphemy. The concept of God in Abrahamic religions is based on duality of creator and the creation with God being the creator. Hindu thought rejects the concept of a creator removed from the cosmos. In Hindu tradition, the cosmos manifests himself through each one of us and to that extent I am allowed to one hand say that I am God and on the other hand to declare the God as my father, mother, friend and beloved. A Jew or Muslim or Christian is forbidden to claim any level of equality with God, the creator. In any Abrahamic religion, the God communicates with his own creation (human beings) once in a few centuries through the medium of a son (Jesus) or prophet or messenger. The concept of anyone and everyone putting one's ears to the cosmic beat and listening in is blasphemy punishable by death in Islam as well as Christianity (used to be before Church lost its grip, how they wish to get back that power!).

In all Abrahamic religions, God has communicated through his chosen person some words or texts. If some topic is included in the said texts, the words contained therein are final on the topic and any further inquiry can only be to better understand the meaning of the words. Topics that are not covered in the holy texts may be studied by all and sundry using any methods. Such subjects are called secular subjects - beyond religion.

Hinduism does not believe in a God-prophet relationship. Each one of us is free to observe, understand and follow the cosmic being. Some of us are, surely, better endowed at it than many others. Beyond a person's inclinations, aptitude and capabilities, there are no barriers stopping anyone to observe or link up whatever aspect of cosmos that one chooses. So, there are no Hindu subjects and there are no secular subjects.

Yoga Asanas

Having understood the philosophical foundation blocks of Hinduism and Abrahamic religions, it is time to understand the essential nature of yoga. "The meaning of yoga is union, to yoke, to join. Yoga is a process of fission, separation of matter and energy followed by a process of fusion, a union, a yoking together of individual and cosmic consciousness" (Swami Satyananda quoted in Hatha Yoga Book 1 - An Overview, Conversations on the Science of Yoga; pub. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India; 2012; p. 57).

To put it in simple words, yoga is one's joining with the cosmic being. There are many ways to join up with the cosmic being - karm yog, bhakti yog, etc. The yoga that is popular across the world is Hatha yoga. Asanas (exercises or postures) are a first step in the long journey of hatha yoga. I shall not go here into the various stages or steps of the journey.

The key point is recognizing the nature of yoga - joining up with the cosmic being. There can be no joining up with the cosmic being or cosmos if one denies the existence of cosmos or cosmic being. The bigger worry of Abrahamic religions is that if one takes the first step on the path of joining up with cosmic being, there is fair chance that one will accept the man-part-of-cosmos model and reject the creator-created-messenger model. Clearly, yoga hurts at the root of a-brahm (non-cosmic) world view.

Yoga or hatha yoga involves a long journey. The first stage of the journey is to achieve a healthy body. Asanas help one to achieve a unity between mind and body; a natural state of the various flows in the body. Asanas are based on the belief that if one achieves a unity of the body and the mind, a healing process starts within both, body and mind. Asanas are based on the belief that human body is capable of healing itself if one guides it properly. This belief stems from a holistic view of human life and cosmos; and also that every human being is a manifestation of the cosmic being.

Yoga stripped of all the above beliefs degenerates very soon and ceases to be effective. Most good teachers of even simple asanas help their students get a glimpse of the journey that lies ahead. In this respect, they expose the student to essential foundation of Hindu thought even though they make no attempt to convert anyone to Hinduism.

That brings us to two essential questions, before we ask the primary question about yoga being Hindu. Can there be a Muslim yoga? Can there be Christian yoga? The answer to the first question is an emphatic NO. Anything Islamic must be based on either the holy Koran or on some incident from the life of the prophet. Until an Islamic scholar discovers that the prophet used to do yoga, there is no way that yoga can be declared Islamic. A Muslim friend once explained to me that the physical movements during namaj (Muslim prayer) are perfect yogic movements and a devout Muslim need not do any other yogic exercises. I do not know how many would agree with that. But, we can be fairly sure that there is practically no chance of yoga being declared Islamic.

As regards, yoga being Christian, one does not know. Christianity has accepted many pagan icons and practices as its own. Santa Claus is a prime example. There is no mention of Santa Claus in any Christian religious text. Yet, Santa Claus has come to be accepted as the symbol of Christmas. Of course, there are some who believe Christmas is an adaptation of a pagan festival. Worship of Virgin Mary and acceptance of the doctrine of trinity are also said to be rooted in the pagan past. Given this background, one should not be surprised if some churches start adopting yoga or some version of yoga as a Christian practice. As of today, most churches oppose yoga. But that may well change if yoga becomes more popular and if the Churches fear losing their followers by rejecting yoga.

At the outset, we had talked of four boxes - Christian, Muslim, Hindu and secular. It is clear that yoga does not fall into the first two boxes. The only options are Hindu and secular. For a Hindu, there is no difference between the two boxes. However, viewed from the perspective of any Abrahamic religion, philosophical foundations of yoga are diametrically opposed to the fundamentals of their paradigm. By declaring yoga as secular, they are forced to open a window of acceptance for yoga just as it exists for science and engineering. No, that cannot be allowed. So, all Abrahamic religions are united in declaring yoga as non-secular and Hindu.

Hindus, the practical people that they are, look at the whole debate from a very practical perspective. In the USA and Europe, declaring yoga as secular allows its spread without hindrance. So most yoga teachers and Hindu organizations bend backwards to declare that yoga has nothing to do with religion and is purely secular. Sadly, this short-termed approach is doing immense damage to the cause of Hinduism.

There is no doubt that yoga is based on the paradigm of Hindu cosmic view and can hence be labeled as Hindu. However, when we look closer at Hindu thought we discover something very interesting. Buddhism, Jainism and in recent times Sikhism have emerged out of the Hindu cosmic-view platform. The three religions despite being based on Hindu cosmic view have to varying degrees moved away from Hinduism.

Meditation in front of Sun

Yoga with its emphasis on meditation seems to have more in common with Buddhism than much of Hinduism. The Vedanta school of Hinduism is said to be a version of Buddhism which has penetrated Hinduism. Not surprisingly, Vedanta gives greater acceptance and respectability to yoga than other schools of Hinduism. It may not be out of place to mention that there is no mention of yoga in Valmikiy Ramayan.

To sum up, we can say that while yoga is based on the cosmic paradigm of Hinduism, it is more Buddhist than Hindu. Of course, if someone does not understand these subtleties and puts a gun to my head and asks, "Is yoga Hindu?" I shall simply reply - yes, yoga is Hindu.

12 April 2015

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer and a lawyer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a legal and management consultant by profession.

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