Is Yoga a Form of Hinduism? Is Hinduism a Form of Yoga?
Debates about these questions have been making headlines lately
By Wendy Doniger|December 30, 2010
Debates about these questions have been making headlines lately. Some American Hindus have argued that American yoga is not Hindu enough, that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga” (the label of a campaign by the Hindu American Foundation). Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga—but because yoga is too Hindu: R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls, for “yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible.” The problem should not have been breaking news; a spoof in 2003, “Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addicts,” depicted a Christian minister who was asked, “Should Christians practice Yoga?” He replied, “Are we going to have to bring this whole thing up about Yoga again? I thought our Sunday school curriculum included lessons about the evils of everything Oriental, including Yoga!”
But the issues involved are not trivial. Is yoga, in fact, “a spiritual practice”? More particularly, is it a Hindu spiritual practice? The word “yoga” originally meant “yoking” horses to chariots or draft animals to plows or wagons (the Sanskrit and English words are cognate). Though many yoga practitioners, particularly but not only Hindus, insist that their practice can be traced back to the Upanishads (c. 600 BCE) and Patanjali (c. 200 CE), the word “yoga” in these texts designates a spiritual praxis of meditation conjoined with breath-control, “yoking” the senses in order to control the spirit, and then “yoking” the mind in order to obtain immortality.
Buddhist sources in this same period also speak of techniques of disciplining the mind and the body, and the word “yoga,” owing as much to Buddhism as to Hinduism, soon came to mean any mental and physical praxis of this sort. (Similar disciplines arose in ancient Greece and, later, in Christianity, a subject on which Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault had a great deal to say). This is the general sense in which the word “yoga” is used in the Bhagavad Gita, a few centuries later, to denote each of three different religious paths (the yoga of action, the yoga of meditation, and the yoga of devotion). But these texts say nothing about the physical “positions” or “postures” that distinguish contemporary yoga. The postures developed much later, some from medieval Hatha Yoga and Tantra, but more from nineteenth-century European traditions such as Swedish gymnastics, British body-building, Christian Science, and the YMCA, and still others devised by twentieth-century Hindus such as T. Krishnamacharya and B. K. S. Iyengar, reacting against those non-Indian influences.
So there is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in today’s yoga classes. Contemporary yoga traditions are a far cry both from the Upanishads and from Hatha Yoga. Most twenty-first century American yoga practitioners have more in common with a jogger than with a meditating sage; they want to relax after a hard day at the office, tighten up their abs, and reduce their cholesterol and their blood pressure; their yoga of relaxation and stretching may also involve regular enemas, a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, a vegetarian diet with a lot of yogurt (which is not etymologically related to “yoga”)--oh yes, and a route to God.
Is yoga, then, for the mind or for the body? Is it like going to church or like going to the gym? Is it a spiritual praxis or an exercise routine? To all these questions, the answer is: yes. For some people (both in India and in America) it has been one, for others, the other, and for many, both.
In his online column and elsewhere, the Reverend Mohler has objected to the frequent citation by yoga teachers of "the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine," which he says is “just not Christianity.” But yoga is “not just Hinduism”; as we have seen, it has rich European (and Christian!) elements. Despite this historical evidence, however, many Hindus, such as those in the Hindu American Foundation, insist that meditational yoga—rather than temple rituals, the worship of images of the gods, or other, more passionate and communal forms of religion—has always been, and remains, the essence of Hinduism, their religion. Christians for whom a yoga class is simply physical exercise may offend such Hindus but should pose no problem for Mohler; and Christians who take the philosophical doctrines of yoga seriously should be no problem for a more ecumenical, not to say multi-cultural, pastor.
Landover Baptist Church, “Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addicts,” March 2003.
Dylan Lovan, “Southern Baptist Leader on Yoga: Not Christianity,” Associated Press, October 7, 2010.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Yahoo, Yoga, and Yours Truly,” AlbertMohler.com, October 7, 2010.
Paul Vitrello, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” New York Times, November 27, 2010.
Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and has published translations of the Rig Veda, the Laws of Manu, and the Kamasutra. Her latest book is The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin, 2009).