How new-age 'gurus' turned yoga into a business, distorted its Hindu roots
What they hawk as yoga violates every known precept, tenet, and guideline laid down by Vedic tradition.
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An unfortunate but widespread phenomenon today with regard to several fundamental aspects of Hinduism is that we now need to produce elaborate evidence for things accepted as evident truths, handed down by Bharata’s timeless tradition. These evident truths were accepted as such even 30 or 40 years ago both in the academic and public spaces.
However, with the onslaught of numerous distortions — both in India and from abroad — these truths now need to be restated, repackaged, and distortions about them, rebutted constantly. In other words, writing defences instead of doing original, constructive work.
Apart from being a waste of precious national time and energy, this state of affairs also regrettably shows the fact that Hindus have been less than vigilant, even lax about the unending barrage of attacks onthe fundamental aspects of their philosophy, culture, thought, traditions and institutions.
A prominent method of such attacks involves distorting and cutting away of certain traditions, ideas and practices from their Vedic roots. These attacks are understandable (but not justifiable) when they emanate from known and declared opponents of Hinduism.Yoga is being taught at the grossest level: the physical body.
However, more disturbingly, of late, numerous "Indology" scholars and self-declared "new-age" Hindu gurus — who don’t declare themselves as Hindus —too seem to have internalised these distortions and have begun speaking about Hindu traditions and practices in borrowed tongues.
The repeat-target of the aforementioned attacks and distortions is yoga, which has lamentably become a multi-billion-dollar health industry, whereas it should have remained what it originally is: a quiet and lifelong inner quest for individual spiritual elevation culminating in liberation.
Consider a prominent "new-age" guru who went so far as to declare that if "Yoga is Hindu, then gravity is Christian," and how he wants to remove "cultural frills" from the yogic system, whatever that means.
What that actually means is the fact that he, like numerous Chicago School-garden variety of "Indology" scholars, wants to chop off the inseparable Hindu roots of yoga.
About six years ago, I was surprised by some of the responses I received for my essay which I provocatively titled "the Yoga Disease".
A common refrain in these responses (and similar writing elsewhere in countless books and in the online space) was this: yoga today is almost universally equated to asana, pranayama, and meditation (dhyana) and never as a separate system of philosophy with well-defined tenets, guidelines, methods and practices and having a tradition harking back to timeless antiquity.
Based on these, I had concluded then, and I do even now, that the glittering empires of most of our contemporary five-star "guru cool" yoga gurus would implode if they acknowledged yoga’s Hindu roots because it would mean admitting that yoga forms one of the six darshanas (or schools or systems) of Hindu philosophical thought.
Yoga is rooted in the Vedas
Like everything in Hinduism, yoga has its roots in the Vedas. A cursory reading of the Vedic lore including the principal Upanishads shows the widespread usage of the term yoga therein. The term is used in different contexts, and conveys different meanings, and it is not used in the sense of a one-size-fits-all meaning as contemporary distortionists claim it is.
In no particular order, the word yoga appears in substantial instances throughout the Rig, Yajur and Atharva Vedas, and the Aitareya, Katha, Mundaka, Mandukya, Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, and the Mahanarayana Upanishads.
These apart, there are about 50 Yogopanishads — Upanishads dedicated to exploring and enunciating various aspects of yoga like the Amritananda, Amritabindu, Yogatattva, Yogasikha, Pasupatabrahma, Hamsa, and VarahaYogopanishads.
In the Vedas, the term yoga is used in the sense of tapas (literally, "to burn" but used in the sense of "intense penance").
The Mahanarayana Upanishad, which has a separate section dedicated to Tapah Prashamsa (In praise of penance) delineates Tapas variously as rta (the cosmic order), Satya (truth), Shama (serenity of the mind), and Dama (self-restraint), and upholds the importance and glory of Sanyasa Yoga or the yoga of renunciation.
Other prime Upanishads refer to yoga in terms of Shravana (concentrated listening), Manana (revision, reflection), and Nidhidhyasana (intense contemplation on that which is learnt), all essential qualities that an aspirant and practitioner of Vedanta should possess.
Equally, in the celebrated Katha Upanishad, it is only befitting that Yama, the Lord of Death expounds the nature and aim of Atman (Soul) in this elevating verse:
Buddhimtusaarathimviddhimanahpragrahameva cha ||
(The soul/Self is the charioteer, the body the chariot, the intellect the driver, the mind the reins, and the senses are the horses.)
Which emphasises the need to rein in the mind through sustained and rigorous practices which include but are not limited to yogasanas, pranayama and so on.
The Mandukya, a short and terse Upanishad of just 12 verses, elucidates the meaning and nature of the primordial sound, Om.
It describes the states of Jagrat (wakeful), Swapna(dream), Sushupti (deep sleep), and Turiya (the fourth state beyond deep sleep, the state of pure consciousness where only non-duality exists). The focus of this Upanishad on contemplating upon Om obliquely, forms some of the roots of Yoga Darshana.
Similarly, we find a reference to Nadis (variously: nerves, blood vessels, arteries, pulse) in the Chandogya Upanishad, which says:
A hundred and one are the arteries of the heart, one of them leads up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that, one becomes immortal.
The "crown of the head" mentioned here is the precursor to the more famous conception of the Sahasrara Chakra (Thousand-petalled chakra located at the crown of the head) in Kundalini Yoga.
The Brihadaranyaka (literally: Great Forest) Upanishad, as symbolised by its name, is indeed perhaps the greatest exposition of the Moksha Yoga or the yoga of liberation.
The Aitareya Brahmana too, mentions the Brahmarandhra (literally: gateway of bliss) located at the center of the skull, which again has a parallel in the Sahasrara Chakra found in Kundalini Yoga.
Yoga in the general Hindu lore
Another definitive source that helps us trace the Vedic foundations of yoga is the mammoth Yoga Vasishta (The yogic treatise of sage Vasishta) attributed to Sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana. The Yoga Vasishta, which predates the Ramayana, is a conversation between Rama and Sage Vasishta and forms one of the main pillars of Hindu philosophical thought.
Needles, we don’t need a text other than the Bhagavad Gita to look for ample references to yoga. Celebrated verses about yoga therein include these:
• YogastahkurukarmanisangamtyaktvaDhananjaya… Perform your duty/actions being steadfast in yoga without getting attached to your actions, Arjuna
• Yogahkarmasukaushalam…Yoga is the adeptness in doing one’s own Karma
• Samatwam yoga uchyate…Being balanced in both success and failure is yoga
These apart, the chapter on Dhyana Yoga (yoga of meditation) is a veritable guide on the aims, method, and goals of yoga. As numerous traditional and modern scholars aver, the entire Bhagavad Gita is a treatise on yoga in itself.
Tracing the roots
This cataloguing exercise undertaken so far was necessary to underscore a crucial truth: that this vast gamut and corpus of literature that include meditations and treatises on yoga in thousands of verses spread over several centuries occurred before Patanjali systematised yoga as an independent school of Hindu philosophy.
A distinctive mark of anything that can be called Hindu is its origins in the Vedas. This fact also has a proof in the negative in the form of all sorts of textual and other exercisesin distortion aimed at creating a false dichotomy between Vedic and non-Vedic where the premise is this: Vedic = Brahminical, and non-Vedic includes anything ranging from "folk", "rustic", "anti-Brahminical", "Buddhist" and so on.
In any case, the discussion so far proves beyond doubt that yoga does possess this distinctive Vedic mark. More importantly, Patanjali Yoga doesn’t contain what modern-day yoga and new-age gurus say it does: Patanjali’s yoga sutras do not contain instructions on performing various Asanas and Pranayamas as we shall see.
There’s even more direct evidence as to the undeniable and inextricable Vedic roots of yoga. Sage Patanjali is worshipped as an avatar of Adishesha, the thousand-headed serpent upon whom Lord Vishnu reclines. Representations of Patanjali in pictures, sculptures, etc show his lower body coiled like a snake. See an example in the picture below.
Given how things have proceeded over the years, it’s not inconceivable that there might emerge a "school" of Indology that might argue that even Adishesha is not connected with Hinduism. After all, there’s no dearth of scholarship that equates Jesus and Krishna, and/or claims that Jesus was an avatar of Vishnu.
Later day scholars, philosophers and saints of Hinduism interpreted yoga sutras in the light of Vedanta. Bhoja, Vignanabhikshu, Adi Shankara, Sadashiva Brahmendra and Ramana Maharshi are prominent examples.
Yoga entrepreneurs, not gurus
A significant chunk of the pervasive, global clutch of countless yoga "studios", free radicals (independent teachers of Asanas, Pranayama, etc), and more worryingly, "new-age" gurus, to put it bluntly, are yoga entrepreneurs, not gurus by any stretch of imagination. This section teaches yoga at the grossest level: the physical body.
A friend alluded to this unfortunate state of affairs observing thus:
The whole Yoga business as is being carried out is a big fraud. Just a small example. A typical westerner will go to Yoga studio do his/her 30 mins of asanas, and then go to a steakhouse and chomp on a big steak for his/her meal. Our Yoga gurus (so-called) have failed to convey that Pratyaaahara is one of the eight components of Yoga sadhana. Why do not [these Gurus] teach the full discipline of Yoga as it should be taught. Instead of cherry picking.
There’s no other way to say this: today’s yoga entrepreneurs, instead of being grateful to the religion, tradition, culture and land that enabled them to build their sprawling empires actually propagate the dissociation of yoga from its inextricable Vedic roots.
Indeed, a genuine teacher or guru of yoga would first emphasise on and facilitate the imparting and practice of these basic requirements imposed upon a student and practitioner of yoga: Yama and Niyama.
Several yoga teachers that I’ve interacted with routinely pull out stock terms like "vibrations", "cosmic energy", "quantum", and "super consciousness". All sounding esoteric but really contributing nothing to actually realising spirituality in practical life.
Yoga as a philosophical system is far deeper and learning it properly takes an entirely different spirit. In a way, one doesn’t really "learn" yoga. One realises it.
Like most other disciplines in Sanatana Dharma, if one sets out on the path to this realisation, one has to essentially fall back on tradition, which is kept alive by generations of gurus. In this case, under a guru who is himself a yogi in every sense of the word.
There are strict injunctions in all Hindu philosophical traditions including Yoga regarding the qualifications a person requires to be called a guru.
One of the basic qualities such a guru possesses is Aparigraha (non-possession), one of the five Yamas (abstinences) identified by Patanjali.
Additionally, every guru always recites and recalls the name of god, his parents, the ancient rishis (Seers/Sages) and his own guru at all times as a way of showing reverence and gratitude to the tradition and all the people that enabled him to become a yogi. In a way, it is his way of repaying a debt or rna.
This, in short, is a typical outline of how yoga (in the fullest sense of the word) or other Sanatana systems are taught and learnt traditionally.
In this light, we need to take a count of the number of yoga entrepreneurs who practice Aparigraha. Even worse, several of these yoga entrepreneurs have applied for patenting their "own school" of yoga. To put it candidly, their guru-hood, and what they hawk as yoga violates every known precept, tenet, and guideline laid down by the Sanatana (Hindu, Eternal) tradition. This ancient Sanskrit proverb encapsulates such acts of violation:
There is no atonement for the ungrateful.