Yes, we should celebrate yoga – but not for the reason Modi and his admirers want us to

Yoga didn’t emerge from a homogenous Hindu culture, nor did it ever have fixed metaphysical goals.

In September 2014, fresh after his win in the Indian general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood before the UN General Assembly and made an impassioned call for a day to celebrate yoga globally. The request was answered, with broad support. In December, June 21 was declared International Day of Yoga, and since, several elaborate yoga day events have been held in close to 200 countries.

Many saw the UN declaration as a move by a Hindu nationalist leader to deploy yoga on the world stage as part of a strategy to promote a cultural mono-narrative favouring a Hindu supremacist agenda. In India, the critics believed, participation would be seen as a yardstick of patriotism, and any opposition deemed anti-national.

Subsequent pronouncements by Modi’s allies or appointees have seemed to confirm the suspicions. Yogi Adityanath, now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said that those who refuse to perform the sun salutations known as Surya Namaskar are traitors who ought to drown themselves in the ocean or leave the country. Baba Ramdev, a popular yoga teacher and businessman with a following in the tens of millions, repeated his claim that yoga can be used to cure homosexuality. And what is one to make of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s statement in April that regular yoga practice could prevent debt-ridden Indian farmers from committing suicide?

Both Ramdev and Ravi Shankar are featured on an Indian website dedicated to the International Day of Yoga as paragons of yogic virtue. The site also informs us that Patanjali, the “father of yoga”, defines it “as Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha – yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations. Hence, yoga can be defined as a state of complete stillness of mind. To achieve this goal, Patanjali prescribes the eight limbs or stages every practitioner must master”.

This is the popular view propagated of yoga. Contrary to it, Patanjali has not been the gold standard or the definitive guide for yogis down the ages.

Sankara’s Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣadbhāṣya (a commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad by Adi Shankaracharya) says, “Pātañjala yoga is not a means to liberation: And so should suppression of the fluctuations of the mind be practiced?… No, because it is not considered a means to liberation.”

In the 18th century text Haṃsavilāsa, Haṃsamiṭṭhu tells his wife and Yogini Haṃsi: “Dear lady, Patañjali’s teaching is nonsense, because there is nothing agreeable in anything achieved by force.” The text continues: “The glorious rājayoga is attained by the vital principle spontaneously, without forceful methods. There is no point in these extreme exertions…. As a result the teachings of Patañjali are not included among true teachings.”

Yoga scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton have translated a number of rare texts tracing yoga back to its roots in hoary antiquity. Their findings, recently published in the Roots of Yoga, upend many commonly held views on the origins and philosophy of yoga. It confirms that the glorious Indian tradition of argumentation and dissent was alive and well, most notably in matters of religion. No doctrine was too sacred and no master beyond critique. There were many who thought Hatha Yoga was a waste of time or simply avoidable.

Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.
Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.

Case in point is the Mahākālasaṃhitā Guhyakālīkhaṇḍa, a medieval text which was explicit about its disenchantment with conventional yogic wisdom. It said: “Many Brahman sages of old died through haṭhayoga, so nowadays one should never practise haṭhayoga. Many diseases arise through the retention and inhalation of air, my dear. People die suddenly from them, so one should shun haṭhayoga.”

The 12th century Amanaska treatise tells us not to waste our time with elaborate mantras, complicated breathing techniques, visualising chakras or bodily contortions since they are all constructs of the mind which must be discarded to arrive at “no-mind”. “Some are intent upon mantrayoga, some deluded by meditation, [and] some torment themselves with [the practice of] haṭha… All the various locks and seals of [haṭha] practice produce only the yoga of ignorance. Meditation on the bodily centres, the channels and the six supports (ādhāra) is delusion of the mind. Therefore you must abandon all that, which is created by the mind, and embrace the no-mind [state] (amanaska).”

There is a conspicuous absence of women practitioners from premodern yoga texts, which were all authored by men. Medieval hatha texts commonly insist that male yogis should avoid the company of women, offering the rationale that close contact with the opposite sex could result in the loss of bindu or semen, a precious fluid that needs to be preserved at all costs for its vital role in attaining elevated states of consciousness. However, women were to be sought out for their menstrual fluid used in certain rites.

The misogynistic pronouncements made in these texts are echoed by Yogi Adityanath, who thinks the primary role of a woman is to be a wife or a mother, and is firmly against “western feminism” because it will “hamper the creation and stability of the home and the family. These regressive sentiments are not likely to find favour with contemporary transnational yoga culture, dominated as it is by independent women, staunchly opposed to oppressive patriarchal systems.

A few years prior to the UN declaration, the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the US, launched their Take Back Yoga campaign, a phrase that might seem self-explanatory to some and puzzling to others.

The HAF laments that the yoga taught at modern studios had been disconnected “from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity”, the lifelong practice of which, in HAF’s view, led one to moksha, or union with Brahman. Its co-founder, Aseem Shukla, told The New York Times, “Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.”

Andrea Jain is a scholar of South Asian religious traditions, who has explored the phenomenon of transnational yoga in her book Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. In an email exchange, she disputed the HAF’s definition of yoga: “The HAF offers just one more inaccurate, homogenising vision of yoga and Hinduism based on revisionist historical accounts. Representatives of the HAF argue that authentic yoga is raja yoga as found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with its eight limbs, of which posture is only one…

“Yet, as noted in Selling Yoga and many other recent historical studies, for at least two thousand years in South Asia, people from various ideological and practical religious cultures invented and reinvented yoga in their own images. Furthermore, the interreligious and intercultural exchanges – primarily among Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions – throughout the history of yoga in South Asia problematise the identification of yoga as Hindu.”

International Day of Yoga is certainly a boost for the popularity of this ancient and effective practice, which is of tremendous benefit to millions of practitioners the world over. But it is necessary to acknowledge that it has not emerged from a homogenous culture with fixed metaphysical goals, and does not have an overarching narrative common to all its practitioners down the ages. Yoga evolves and adapts to the socio-political and cultural context in which it finds itself. It has always been, and remains, a personal and individualistic practice, the meaning and benefits of which can only be determined by the practitioner as she progresses along the path.

Which is surely more than enough reason to celebrate it.

Vikram Zutshi is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker. His Twitter handle is @getafix2012.

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Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

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Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

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Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

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Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

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Interesting finds

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Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.