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.
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.