How a secular yoga became problematic for religions

Subhash Kak
Subhash KakJun 15, 2015 | 14:42

How a secular yoga became problematic for religions

Last year, the United Nations (UN) declared June 21 as the International Yoga Day and later this month, it will be celebrated for the first time with fanfare around the world. Yoga is already part of the curriculum in schools in many countries, including the US, and Indian schools have also begun to encourage the practice of yoga. But it is good not just for children in order to increase concentration and general calmness; research has shown that it has benefits for patients of many chronic diseases, including arthritis and heart disease.


Yoga is ubiquitous but not everyone is happy. A couple of years ago, its opponents filed a lawsuit in California, in the US arguing it was religions indoctrination, but lost. Earlier this year a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that yoga is "devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings... (It) is secular... (and) does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and does not excessively entangle the school district in religion."

If yoga is secular, then why, in 1999, did Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who was to later become Pope Benedict XVI) warn Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, and transcendental meditation, and other "eastern" practices which could "degenerate into the cult of the body" and debase Christian prayer? More recently, Pope Francis declared yoga to be anti-Christian, pagan and incapable of leading one to God. Nevertheless, such declarations appear to be falling on deaf ears since even Catholic churches in the US offer yoga classes.

Everyone knows that yoga is one of the six schools (darshanas) of Hinduism. Indeed, in his discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes different forms of yoga for obtaining self-understanding and wisdom. The Bhagavad Gita, which presents the essence of the Vedas, is a quintessentially Hindu book.


This is perplexing. Yoga is indubitably Hindu, but many say it is not religious. This puzzle can only be solved if it is noted that the question "does yoga have a religion?" is inappropriate. The trouble is the term "religion", since Hinduism, unlike Christianity and Islam, is not a confessional community where a person has to assert a certain dogma.

Hinduism sees itself as a path of self-knowledge in which the individual’s religious practice (dharma) depends on station in life and understanding. Dharma is one of the most complex and all-encompassing terms: it can mean religion, law, duty, proper conduct, morality, and righteousness. The very name by which Hinduism knows itself, "Sanatana Dharma" or "Vedic Dharma" (sanatana = eternal, Veda = knowledge), indicates a focus on knowledge and right conduct.

Hinduism claims to be the science of spirituality that is open to all people. It is not against any religious community, and it does not wish to proselytise others. Hinduism believes that all sincere efforts of self-knowledge lead to the same goal.

From a practical point of view, Hinduism is yoga where, of course, we are not talking only of the asanas but "karma yoga" (yoga of works), "jnana yoga" (yoga of knowledge), and "bhakti yoga" (yoga of devotion). Hindus believe that the human being has free will that permits him or her to make intelligent choices, which bear on the karma.


The controversy in India on the religion of yoga is a holdover from Macaulayism. Owing to yoga's worldwide popularity, its critics are prepared to speak positively of the asanas but will not grant anything more. Overall, they consider it dangerous for they see it as the opening that will be used to push through more elements of the "retrogressive Hindu religion" on the general population.

The progressives are afraid that general acceptance of yoga would eventually legitimise other schools of the Indian tradition. I think they should rather welcome it for it may help the modern world to correct the imbalance resulting from an overwhelming emphasis on materialism.

Last updated: June 15, 2015 | 14:42
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