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.

In the nineteenth century, the two star sanyasis who played a major role in Hindu reform, vehemently rejected the esotericism of latter-day yoga. Dayanand Saraswati was utterly dismayed when he found no chakras inside a corpse he dissected to see if the yogic physiognomy was actually real, and in reaction threw his yogic texts, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, into the river; while Vivekananda ceremoniously declared in 1896, that “anything that is secret and mysterious in these systems of [hatha] yoga should be at once rejected,” on the grounds that “mystery-mongering weakens the human brain.” A major architect of neo Vedanta—which morphs the multiplicity of Indian philosophical perspectives into one generic theistic form—Vivekananda compiled Raja Yoga, a practical text of self-transformation that privileges the Yoga Sutras over the physical exercises of hatha.

And there begins the story of modern yoga, which censors the esoteric, secret, and even sexualised practices of hatha and tantra yoga, as well as the “criminalised” pursuits of the Nath Yogis. It pushes into the foreground the Yoga Sutras, plays up the idea of yoga as “union with God,” and glosses over Patanjali’s proposition of God being optional. In short, it mandates a yoga with a standardised belief in God that can accommodate neither the autonomy of Samkhya nor the sacred/profane paradox of tantra. It is only within this orchestrated and historically and philosophically unsound mandate that the claim of yoga being Hindu and theistic has any ground. But all the same it is an orchestrated ground.

It can be said that, in a larger sense, yoga is Hindu because it comes from this land of Hindustan, which spawned multiple and divergent philosophical perspectives. However, yoga is both too free-spirited and paradoxical to fit within the present-day theistic mode. Today, the autonomy of yoga is up against a) the overarching and relentless ambition of Vedanta to render yoga theistic; b) standardised and domesticated hatha practices purged of paradox and couched in neo-religiosity; c) resurrection of the power-brokering variety of yogis; and d) yoga becoming a multi-billion dollar, international industry. The vociferous claiming of yoga by the Hindu right today is yet one more attempt to erase alternative and unbiased perspectives in its motivated pursuit of a standardised theism. And therein lies the root of the epidemic of ‘true believing’ that is sweeping across India today, where the place for autonomous and inspired critical thought and inquiry is being savaged by the theistic ambitions of the State. And yoga, this beautiful and life-transforming practice, is being drawn inexorably into the chauvinism of identity politics.

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.

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