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Is yoga a 'Hindu' practice?

June 19, 2015 09:12 IST

Just as there is no separate Christian science and Hindu science and Muslim science, there is just science, there is just yoga. The enlightened masters themselves did not bind their teachings in identities. Nor did they require any conversion.

But in an age of patents and intellectual property rights, it would be improper to deny that yoga comes from the Hindu tradition, says Sankrant Sanu.

Ancient Hindu texts, including the Srimad Bhagvatam, talk about the debts that are owed by a human being. We are born, there is a debt to the ancestors; we acquire knowledge and wisdom, there is a debt to the rishis and gurus who brought this to us; and we are sustained by the earth and the elements, so owe a debt to the Devas. Some texts also add a separate debt to nature and humanity at large. The debt to the ancestors is fulfilled by honouring them and continuing their line, to the Devas by ritual worship, to humanity by service and to nature by its sustenance.  What is the debt to the gurus and rishis and what are the obligations on a yogi?

In the Hindu tradition, Shiva is considered the first yogi or Adiyogi, and from him the lineage of rishis has continued this chain of knowledge. Historically scholars have traced yoga back to at least the Indus Valley Civilisation (now also called the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation). Every student and teacher, in the West or East, has learned yoga brought to him or her through living transmission via a lineage of yoga teachers.  So how then do we repay our debt to these masters?

Honouring the lineage of masters by proper learning and transmission of the knowledge fulfills the rishi’s debt. If we simply learn it without honour, or distort it, it becomes a form of stealing. We are then stealing the fruit of the tree without nurturing its roots. If everyone were to do that, the tree would die.  Stealing violates the yama of asteya as enunciated by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. The yamas and niyamas (two limbs of the eight-limbed path to yoga or ashtanga yoga) are an essential part of yogic practice. Thus, stealing not only kills the tree, it also is an obstacle on the path of a yogi to progress.

There has been some debate on the question of whether yoga is “Hindu” and whether it is religious. Courts in California, hearing a lawsuit by Christians, to Muslims clerics in Indonesia, have engaged themselves with this question. The answer simply is this. Yoga is Hindu in origin, but it is not a religion. It is a science of being. As in science, it can be practised by anyone, the experiments replicated and the results verified.

Yoga has Hindu roots and has been sustained by Hindu (meaning here “Indian”, including Buddhist, Jain, and later on Sikh) gurus down the ages.  Yoga was developed and elaborated by Hindu sages from the ancient Rishi Patanjali to Sri Krishna elaborating on the yogas as paths to union in the seminal Hindu text the Bhagvad Gita.

In modern times, too, Hindu teachers brought this science to the West and revitalised it in India. The names of T Krishnamacharya, an Iyengar Brahmin from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is prominent in the modern revival of Hatha Yoga. His illustrious disciples, most notably BKS Iyengar, T K V Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois, helped spread it in the West.  The other notable lineage comes from Swami Sivananda Saraswati and his many disciples, including Swami Vishnudevananda who established yoga ashrams worldwide in his guru’s honour, Swami Satyananda Saraswati who founded the seminal Bihar School of Yoga, and Swami Satchidananda who became famous as the “Woodstock guru”.

Teachers with an emphasis on the dharana, dhyana and samadhi (the last three steps in ashtanga yoga) the meditative aspects of yoga, with a significant impact on the West, included Swami Vivekananda who addressed the World Parliament of Religions, and Parmahansa Yogananda, who wrote the evergreen bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi,  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who popularised Transcendental Meditation and influenced a generation of Americans. Made famous by the Beatles, his prominent disciples include Dr Deepak Chopra and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. All these teachers came from India. They were all Hindus. With an Indian history going back several thousand years, it needs no debate where the tree of yoga has been grown and nurtured.

While yoga is indisputably Hindu in its roots, it does not mean that one needs to convert to being a Hindu to authentically practise it. This is not how Indian wisdom traditions have worked. The aim of yoga is ultimately to transcend all such identities, and thus it is not uncommon for gurus from India to say, “Yoga is not Hindu, anyone can practise it.”

This is true, just as it is true for Science. There is no separate Christian science and Hindu science and Muslim science. There is just physics. In that sense there is just yoga. The enlightened masters themselves did not bind their teachings in identities. Nor did they require any conversion. Yoga is not a belief system or a religion. It is the science of transformation that can be practised by all. But in an age of patents and intellectual property rights, it would be improper to deny that yoga comes from the Hindu tradition.

Yet, we see a trend in the West of taking the fruits of yoga, the asanas, the kriyas, the meditation practices while at the same time attempting to erase or even denigrate its Hindu roots. An example of this is ‘Christian yoga’, that tries to appropriate yoga into Christianity while removing the chanting of Om or other sacred syllables. While copying Hindu practices, Christian missionaries dub Hinduism as “Satanic”. This is an example of stealing the fruit of the tree while trying to chop its roots down.

Similarly millions of Americans practise yoga and participate in other Hindu practices, leading Newsweek to famously proclaim ‘We are all Hindus now’.  At the same time, the academic study of Hinduism in the US shows considerable prejudice, another example of cutting the roots. This form of stealing will remain an obstacle for American yogis.

Thus the proper way of practice would be to acknowledge and honour the Hindu roots of yoga and the Indian sages who brought this knowledge to humanity and by their efforts have constantly renewed and propagated it for the benefit of all. 

Authentic learning and transmission of the knowledge is the way to pay the debt to the rishis. Let us not dilute or distort it (for instance, by removing “Om”) to fit it into some religious or secular concept. Rather, with our practice let us honour, in our hearts, the lineage of masters of which we are the growing tip and honour the cultural ecosystem of India where this knowledge developed and flourished.

This is how we become part of this tree of life, this tree of knowledge, and by our authentic practice and transmission we pay our debt to the great masters, the rishi rin.

Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, author and yoga student and teacher based in Seattle and Gurgaon. He blogs at sankrant.org. Follow on Twitter @sankrant.

Sankrant Sanu