How the Transformative Practice of Yoga has Gradually Been Drawn Into the Chauvinism of Identity Politics

09 June 2015

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (compiled between the first century BCE and the fourth century CE) is the first text exclusively devoted to the philosophy of yoga. It is squarely based upon Samkhya, which can be considered one of India’s nodal philosophies. Attributed to the rishi Kapila (in approximately the eigth century BCE), Samkhya is a “materialist” philosophy that considers the potency of matter as pradhana, or the chief cause of material Nature and does not mention the idea of God. It maintains that “spirit” or “essence” is a contiguous extension of matter and thus can be materially achieved through the fine calibration and distillation of matter, which is made of the five elements, earth, water, fire, air and ether. The Srimad Bhagwad Gita (compiled between the fifth and second century BCE), which lauds sage Kapila, dexterously integrates the fundamentals of his “non-theistic” philosophy but gives it a Vedantic twist by installing God and morality into it; the definition of yoga as “union with God” also emerges within this theistic configuration of Samkhya. Thereby a non-theistic, classical philosophy is ambiguously harnessed to religion! Patanjali, a few centuries later authored the Yoga Sutras, in which he, in line with Kapila, attempts to reassert the neutral position of Samkhya by making God optional. In sutra 1.20, isvarapranidhana va—the suffix va meaning “or”—he categorically states that the idealised state of yoga can be achieved with or without surrender to God or Isvara.

To understand the popular notions about yoga that abound today, it is important to follow the history of this conflict around the question of God. Whereas Patanjali is steadfast in keeping the space of “God as optional” open, the aim of Vedanta is to assert the supremacy of God. Therein lies the seed of conflict that makes the relationship between Vedanta and Yoga contentious for all time to come. The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, called the ‘Sadhana Pada,’ proposes the model of kriya yoga for those who wish to choose the theistic option. Vedanta, a doctrine based on the Bhagwad Gita amongst other texts, understandably highlights this model based upon isvarapranidhana, or surrender to God. However, in its entirety, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras remain unacceptable to these advocates of God because he also offers an equally cogent parallel practice, sublimely spiritual but categorically non-theistic, for non-believers. No matter how much Vedanta flirts with the Yoga Sutras, it can never reconcile with their unbiased position. In the final analysis, the Vedanta Sutras categorically refute both Samkhya and yoga on the ground that these two smritis assume “in opposition to Scripture, a pradhana as the independent cause of the world.”

Curiously enough, most of the surviving commentaries on the Yoga Sutras are by Vedantists: Sankara, Vijnanabhikshu, Bhoja, and Vacaspati, who tend to deflect the “God as optional” position of Patanjali by instead floating a counter-speculation on the nature of Patanjali’s isvara. The neutral and abstract isvara of the Sutras gradually becomes more and more concretely theistic: first he is imagined as none other than Lord Vishnu (!), and by the fourteenth century, Madhavacharya goes a step further to equate it with Krishna. Even Patanjali, for whom God is not mandatory, and who does not even remotely divulge any creed (except that of unbiased Samkhya) gets drawn into the Vaisnav fold; the Vishnudharmottara Purana proclaims him to the incarnation of ananta, the serpent on which Vishnu reclines; and in the eleventh century, King Bhoja pens an evocation, the “Patanjali prayer” that is recited at the beginning of many asana classes today across the world, in which he is decorated with Vaisnav accoutrements of sankha and chakra (conch and disk). All these “religio-sentimental” projections of Patanjali’s isvara, being the Lord Vishnu Himself, succeed in eclipsing if not hijacking the neutral position that the Sutras propose.

Navtej Johar is a dancer and a yoga practitioner in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya and Sri TKV Desikachar. He is the founder and director of Studio Abhyas, New Delhi, and has taught and lectured on yoga extensively both in India and abroad.