Who Owns Yoga? Cultural Ownership in an Age of Globalization

A recent New York Times article, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/nyregion/28yoga.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1), has ignited controversy not just in the United States, but also in India with a Times of India reprint.  Briefly, the Hindu American Foundation has nationally campaigned to acknowledge yoga’s origins as a way of highlighting Hinduism’s worldly contributions.  This initiative has elicited backlash from non-Hindu practitioners and New-Age savants like Deepak Chopra who assert that yoga belongs to humanity and cannot be located within a single religion.

Here in India, a healthy debate has ensued.  Many in Mumbai and Goa have complimented the New York Times for its relatively balanced position.  That said, two points in the article deserve fuller treatment before considering both perspectives.  In fairness, the Times reporter attributes these viewpoints to characters in the article rather than the historical record.

The article first records: “Like Dr. Chopra and some religious historians, Ms. Desmond believes that yoga originated in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium B.C., long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged.”  This sentence links two unsettled issues within the academic study of religion and in various Hindu communities.  Point one is the apparent disconnection between Vedic culture and contemporary Hinduism.  Scholars who believe in the recent invention of Hinduism often point to the clashes between Vaishnavas and Shaivites during medieval times as signs of disunity.  Others mention that Muslim (Mughal) and Christian (British) rulers classified those with indigenous, non-Semitic beliefs under the broad rubric of “Hindu.”  Some Hindu groups also reject the sanctity of the Vedas, written in Sanskrit, in favor of local traditions in regional languages.  On the contrary, many Hindus fervently believe that they practice some variant of Vedic Hinduism through the practice of Vedic chants and fire offerings.  Moreover, Sanskrit schools still impart Vedic education through memorization.  Finally, Hindu groups such as the Arya Samaj have propagated a return to Vedic rituals and beliefs.  Clearly, there is disagreement.

In the next sentence, the reporter writes: “Other historians trace the first written description of yoga to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture believed to have been written between the fifth and second centuries B.C.”  While many Hindus who believe in the Gita would agree, yoga is also traced to Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras who may have lived (not surprisingly, scholars disagree here also) between the second century BCE and fifth century CE.  The Yoga Sutras summarize the philosophical basis of yoga as a means of achieving liberation.  This point is important since Patanjali seemingly de-links yoga within a particular theological context – theological in the sense of treating a sectarian God – and instead offers general moral precepts for salvation.

Let us return to the storm around the Take Back Yoga campaign.  On one side, why shouldn’t the Hindu American Foundation promote the contributions of Hinduism to the world?  Whether it is unflattering media portrayals such as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (sadly from a filmmaker rather eager to draw deeply from his own Jewish heritage) or the proliferation of Hindu gods and goddesses on articles of clothing, Hindus have labored to defend their religion from attacks.  Case in point: the Independent, a British newspaper, published an article just this past month on cows and Hinduism (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/a-good-life-makes-for-happy-cows-at-hare-krishna-farm-2157827.html).  While this may be newsworthy for some, it nonetheless perpetuates an association of Hinduism with pre-modernity.  If Christians can count the Enlightenment and the abolition of slavery as signal accomplishments and Muslims can glorify advancements in medicine and astronomy during Europe’s Dark Ages, why can’t Hindus promote their successes?  Ironically, many old Hindu precepts such as yoga, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and mind-body harmony become reclassified as “New Age” or “Occult” in the United States despite centuries of tradition.

On the other side, why can’t adherents of yoga, especially those of a different faith tradition, simply practice their craft outside of the shadow of Hinduism?  Whenever we hear about America’s promotion abroad of republican democracy, we are not immediately heralded into a discussion about its provenance in Ancient Rome.  Whenever we hear the English poetry of Shakespeare, we are not reminded of his origins within a Christian England just as we’re not taught in schools that algebra possesses an Arabic etymology from its development in the Muslim Middle East.  Were we called to such a standard, any idea that leaves its original borders would require a footnote of its origins in due reference to the cultural group to whom we are now forever in debt, inviting a vicious brand of identity politics.  Certain achievements transcend creators as a testament to human ingenuity, whether it is the Seven Wonders of the World or accumulated scientific and artistic knowledge.

Time in India has exposed me to a genuine desire of Indians for international recognition.  In the past three months, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia have visited India as it pitches for a seat at the UN Security Council.  Newspapers abound with reports projecting India’s economic strength and eventual superpower status given its burgeoning middle class and nuclear arsenal, respectively.  Indian cinema and television are now broadcast through North America, the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia with Bollywood stars frequently as famous as American celebrities.  These informational flows should serve no surprise – India has served as a major geopolitical exporter of culture ever since Sanskrit, Hinduism, and Buddhism traveled throughout Southeast and East Asia centuries ago.  This dynamic has a parallel with Indian-Americans who comprise one of the most professional and lucrative groups in the United States desiring greater political and cultural recognition on their own terms.  Indians, just like Indian-Americans, want to define themselves and write their own histories without reference to Euro-American power.  Let’s see how this evolves, but I hope that Indians, and Indian-(including Hindu-)Americans, can share their triumphs sensitively by enlisting and not estranging others in the process.

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8 thoughts on “Who Owns Yoga? Cultural Ownership in an Age of Globalization

  1. According to the Bhagavad-gita 6.29, Yoga culminates in loving Relationship with the Supreme Conscious Being(God)and that relationship is based on loving devotional service to God.Therefore,Yoga is the property of one who has mastered the art of serving and loving God.At the same time we need to honour Yoga’s origin-the Vedic sacred literatures.According to the same Sacred literatures,every person in the world has the right to benefit from practicing it.We can safely conclude that Yoga belongs both to the Vedas as well as to every sincere practitioner from any part of the world.There is no need for exclusivism.Yoga culminates in loving God,as well as everyone and everything,since everything is an energy of God.Dear Neil,thank you for bringing up this topic.Yours Gratitude,Vraja Krsna das

  2. Yoga is derived from yuj which talks of the unity between man and God. Hinduism is the only religion that has ever declared that man is united with God as we learn in the Vedas. Western people should show some generosity by acknowledging that Hinduism, as arguably the orldest religion in the world, has said much about religion that Middle Eastern religions know nothing about. They should acknowledge the origins of yoga in Hinduism and not give vent to their prejudices. Deepak Chopra speaks to protect his financial interests.

  3. I am rather sure by “Yoga”, th emphasis is on “Asanas”. Asana is just 1 part of “Yoga”. So the fact that Dhaya has independently been practiced in all part of the world by different traditions itself bears the meaning that it belongs to all humanity. Just as Gravity belongs to all despite being the “Christian” discovery, the Law affects non-christians too.

    Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a discovery and not an invention. There is also Bogar’s Yoga which is rather a different approach sans “Asanas”. Different Spiritual scientists have cataloged the experience in different ways. But here we are looking at “Asanas” and not Yoga as a whole.

    Patanjali can be called a Hindu at all though he lived in India at that time of his life. He was a Tantrika, or the lineage of Shiva, the foremost Siddha. Hinduism is rather Brahminism which is filled with rituals and ceremonies.In this sense Yoga does not belong to Hindus too. Well even so, why the ego identification of it? Does one realization through being proud of one’s religion,race,nationality,children excelling,etc…..it’s an ego boost!! For many lives we have been born elsewhere, life itself is a flux – so move ON!!!

  4. Corrected :

    I am sure by “Yoga”, the emphasis is on “Asanas”. Asana is just 1 part of “Yoga”. So the fact that Dhyana has independently been practiced in all part of the worlds by different traditions itself bear the meaning that it belongs to all humanity. Just as Gravity belongs to all despite being a “Christian” discovery, the Law affects non-christians too.

    Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a discovery and not an invention. There is also Bogar’s Yoga which is rather a different approach sans “Asanas”. Different Spiritual scientists have cataloged the experience in different ways. But here we are looking at “Asanas” and not Yoga as a whole.

    Patanjali can’t be called a Hindu at all though he lived in India at that time of his life. He was a Tantrika, or the lineage of Shiva, the foremost Siddha. Hinduism is rather Brahminism which is filled with rituals and ceremonies.In this sense Yoga does not belong to Hindus too. Well even so, why the ego identification of it? Does one realization through being proud of one’s religion,race,nationality,children excelling inneducation,etc…..it’s an ego boost!! For many lives we have been born elsewhere, life itself is a flux – so move ON!!!

  5. It is quite natural that when one principle or idea or even an individual grow to the universal level,the selfish motive in the human mind always try to capture it and proclaim it to be his/her/their own and captilise out of it.Yoga was practised in India for so many centuries and it is still being practised by millions as part of their daily routine. It is true that Indians did not care to take a patent for it. Indian culture always takes care and share everything that is beneficial to humanity without a commercial mind.

    Earlier Europeans even discarded the belief system,practices and traditions of Indians as mere superstitions.Now that scientific studies and researches have come up with support to many of these beliefs and practices, the ‘divide and rule’ policy along with ,occupy and destroy policy of the colonialist mind is once again raising its hood and hissing at the Indian cultural ethos.There is a hidden agenda behind the false propaganda of questioning the Indian origin of Yoga.The champions of these propaganda know that sooner or later modern science have to converge to the same view points of the ancient saints and sages of India.More over the spirit of India’s message is Unity in Diversity which is a universal principle.The message of the yoga is to be in union(unity) with the Universe,in spite of the external diversity.

    Those who focus on diversity wants to divide and division results in the weakening and weakening destroys the whole.Everybody knows that the love preached by Jesus Christ and the values of Truth and justice preached Prophet Muhammed are universal.They have become universal as these values are practised by millions all over the world.These millions have inherited these values from these great personalities.Inheritance always presupposes a place and a time.From nothingness, something cannot be inherited.Be it belief system, practice or tradition,everything has an origin in terms of time and place .Only unbiased and truth seeking minds will be able to pursue the uniting links of Truth.

  6. Great goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you are just too magnificent. I really like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you’re saying and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still care for to keep it sensible. I cant wait to read much more from you. This is actually a terrific web site.

  7. Yoga originates from Krishna.It is transcendental.Its beyond this material creation in other words in is neither Indian science nor Western Vogue.

    ‘aham sarvasa prabhavo…’Bhagavad Gita 10.8
    “Everything emanates from Me(Krsishna)…”

    In the ancient Vedic Sacred texts, Krishna is known as Yogeshvara,the master of all yogic systems of which the cheif is bhakti yoga-the science of loving devotional service to Krishna.

    Those who are interested to conquer anything in this world are in actuallity slaves of their senses.

    The real conquest is to conquer Krishna’s hear by our loving devotional service.
    In this age we can do that by the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha mantra…
    Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

    At the same time we have all respects for other names of God, such as Allah,Jehovah,Yahwe etc.

    The proof of the pudding is in the taste =)

    with Love,
    your servant
    Vraja Krsna das

    1. Krishna is no the discoverer of YOGA. Krishna speaks of a different plane of Yoga. Yes the path of Krishna is of utmost devotion but the idea of “Serving” Him in order to attain Samadhi is rather a fiction created by a certain people.

      For Krishna, it is either NOW or NEVER. He was a very demanding man. Krishna’s religion is yet to arrive as Humanity is not yet ready to conceive His teachings. What we know of Hare Krishna now is not Krishna’s Teachings, it’s easy, no self transformation is needed. Krishna is a Yoga and Tantric Master par excellence. If Shiva is likened to the Past and Present, Krishna is yet to arrive. Krishna’s religion is more ripe than ZEN which is currently the most advanced Spiritual science available on the planet.

      Krishna’s religion will be the dawn of the New Man. Hare Krishna has nothing to do with it, not even an iota will be similar!!!

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