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.