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.

By the end of the first millennium, a second phase of yoga emerges, this time out of tantra. Based on the erotically charged, Siva–Sakti model, tantra makes a very self-fulfilling presupposition that all beings are innately divine and offers a practice in self-deification. There it strikes a very generous, intimate and, most importantly, a highly personalised, even poetic and erotic, interface between the two entities of Siva and Sakti, both housed within the body. The practice is open to either symbolically, or in extreme cases, even bodily engaging with substances and acts of impurity: sex, death, bodily fluids. The sacred/profane religiosity of the tantras (which are often in the form of an endearing dialogue between Siva and his consort) is distinct if not in deliberate contrast to the mainstream supplicant-religiosity of the Vedanta variety; in fact it has more in common with Buddhist thought. It is out of this that the ascetic school of hatha yoga (the practice of stubborn-exertion) emerges, in which the aim of the practice at a primal level aims to transform the sexual energy into the “spiritual,” or more precisely transmute semen into nectar. The practical tools of yoga that we commonly use today, that is, the variety of asanas, pranayama techniques, mudras, bandhas, bijamantras, nyasa etcetera, including the esoteric physiognomy of chakras, padmas, the kundalini etcetera, are derived from hatha and tantra.

There is yet another sect, that of the Nath Yogis whom we cannot ignore because of the scope of both their spiritual and temporal ambition. As alchemists they aimed to attain immortality and supernatural powers, and for this were sought after by ruling entities, including the Mughals, to make supernatural political interventions. It is here that the yogi emerges as a powerbroker; and it is a breed of such militarised yogis who cause the Sannyasi and Fakir Rebellion in Bengal, towards the end of the eighteenth century.

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.