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

By Navtej Johar | 9 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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10 thoughts on “How the Transformative Practice of Yoga has Gradually Been Drawn Into the Chauvinism of Identity Politics”

“The vociferous claiming of yoga by the Hindu right”- Mr Johar wrote a whole article in order to be able to write this single line- as evidenced by Mr Hartosh Singh Bal’s tweet regarding the same.
The only thing to be considered is that any party will try to appropriate whatever space is ceded by others. The secular-Leftist parties ignored Yoga- so there you have it now!

““The vociferous claiming of yoga by the Hindu right”- Mr Johar wrote a whole article in order to be able to write this single line” Yeah, this is exactly what I thought when I read last lines of the article. There exist no Hindu right – and if even if he thinks it exists – a lot of Hindus who practice yoga are agnostic or atheists. He seems to be a typical Congress sycophant.

In my ‘dealings’ with the Hindu right, I’m quickly informed that God is not a word they want to associate with. It is claimed again and again that God for Advaita Vedantists is nothing akin to the Western notion of God. Theism is God, and they claim none of that. What they do claim is that it’s their way or the no-way. No yoga is possible in the traditional sense (and what other sense could there be…) to those who are not initiated as adherents to the mind set.

Navtej Johar does not understand Vaishnavism. Vishnu (or Krishna) is the ishta-deva of Vaishnavas. Therefore they will naturally interpret “ishwar” as Vishnu. They do not however force this view on others. If others want to interpret ishwar as Durga, Shiva, their own self, or whoever, that would be their choice, their ishta-deva. But in Vaishnava literature it will be Vishnu (or Krishna).

For a Yoga Scholar’, Navtej Johar’s understanding of Vedanta is extremely superficial. Sri Ramana Maharshi, noted proponent of Advaita spoke about Surya Namaskar and its efficacy in helping Meditation. Also there is no such thing as Neo Hinduism or Neo Vedanta, the author would not dare use neo Christianity to describe today’s Christianity . So his use of Neo Vedanta is sinister especially since he did not specify the difference between ‘original and neo’ Vedanta. Vedanta is Just ‘Tatvamasi’, stated in Upanishads of yore and now by Jivanmukta’s like Ramana Maharshi, Vivekananda, Nisagadutta Maharaj etc.

Again why is it that Caste problem is specifically Hindu but Yoga is not?

Several problems with this article, it clearly shows how ignorant author is, 1stly Yoga is not necessarily from Kapila it is very much present in the Vedas. Also the author has clearly not read any commentary on the Yoga Sutras. Since Bhoja Vritti never says that Ishwara Pranidhana is merely optional , ishwara pranidhana va does not necessarily mean or it means also, or you may also use Ishwara Pranidhana. Also one must not forget that Patanjali’s own Yoga is Seshwara Sankhya
Clearly the author has not even bothered to read the Shankara Bhashya on the Brahma Sutras where Sankara makes it clear that the Kapila presented in the Upanishads and the Bhagavat Gita are not the same. The author also ignores the Sampradaya which starts with Hiranyagarbha, that is the reason Patanjali says “Atha Yoganushasanam”. The author again introduces Neo Hinduism which he himself cannot define. Then makes up his own dichotomy on the fight about Yoga and identity politics. On the whole the author also presents very mischievously the notion that Hinduism is not an integrated whole. On the whole the authors understanding of Yoga is very shallow.

In his compulsive urge to extricate Yoga from Hinduism, the author seems to have forgotten that Samkhya and Yoga are two of the six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy. So, I’m willing to accept your premise of appropriation, or gradual ‘theologification’ – if you will – of Yoga. That is something that is wont to happen in any faith, in fact the Hindus fall way behind in this respect. But I don’t see how you claim to have successfully delinked Yoga from Hinduism, when Samkhya-Yoga remain integral branches (Orthodox, no less, we’re not even talking of the heterodox/nāstika schools like Ajivika or Carvaka) of Hinduism.
For God’s sake man, give up this witch hunt against the Hindu faith. Rather, don’t. How about you up your game instead? Don’t let your hatred for Hinduism blind you so. In order to vanquish us you first need to know your opponent. Quit being the kid who keeps setting the strawman in his backyard alight and then runs straight to Mommy, gloating no end. (The Mommy part is NOT a reference to Sonia Gandhi, folks! I’m less juvenile than that).

Yoga is not Hindu but Yoga does ascribe to the existence of a god, the ‘ishvarapranidhanadva’ reference you have used here as your proof is taken completely out of context, if you read the sutras preceding and following it, you will see that patanjali is saying that prayer to God is one of the ways of attaining ‘Chita Prasadanam’ or clairvoyance, and he says that the ways of attaining it are by meditation on sorrow free light, or by focusing on the object of desire or several other ways and one of the ways is by praying to the almighty

patanjali never names a god but he talks extensively of ishvara which can be found in samadhi pada of the Yoga sutras

The va does mean ‘or’ but it is likely referring to how one of the ways of attaining the clairvoyance is by praying to God

When the word ishvara is used to describe God by patanjali, he is referring to the ishvara which is mentioned in the theory of evolution according to Yoga Philosophy. Ishvara is said to be above all and is said to be the force that governs all evolution and is above the purusha and prakriti that is explained in samkhya philosophy. This ishvara is not to be confused with Shiva of Hinduism but is a different entity altogether

Also, samkhya and Yoga are both shad darshana which are one of the six classical Indian philosophies, they are said to be sister philosophies just like vedanta and mimansa or nyaya and vaisesika; but they are not one and the same, samkhya does not ascribe to the presence of ishvara but Yoga does.

It is wrong to link Hinduism and Yoga but Yoga does believe in an existence of God

Stupidity abounds in this article – look at the way he is trying to paint the current government as a Hindu right government – plus he is trying to portray all Hindus as theist. The fact is that not all Hindus or yog practitioners are theist – a lot of them especially new generation are atheist or agnostic Hindus.

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