Stop cultural appropriation of Yoga: Yoga is all about Hinduism, albeit without the ism

SandhuBhamra-Yoga-Sketch

A yogini in Padmasana (Lotus pose)

By: Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

Yoga is not teaching religion.

Or is it?

A California judge has ruled that Yoga in a public school’s fitness program does not amount to teaching children religion because it is rooted in American culture.

To me, the whole debate on whether Yoga teaches religion or not, is blatant cultural appropriation of Yoga. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that kids will be allowed to practice this blissful routine, but equally unhappy that this debate has robbed Yoga of its true origin, and meaning.

So is Yoga teaching religion or not?

To understand this, you first have to understand what is religion.

Religion from a western perspective is a set of practices and beliefs in a Higher Being, which is referred to as God. To reach God, a person needs a medium, which is outside of him or her – a separate entity. In the Indian context, to understand religion, we first need an equivalent word in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language in which the Yoga philosophy is composed.

But the challenge is: there is no equivalent word for “religion” in Sanskrit. The closet and the usual translation is, “dharm”, written as Dharma in English. But dharma can be translated to mean law, justice, belief, virtue, morality, and a righteous way of living, to name a few.

According to the Indian holy texts, it is dharma that sustains the world. The set of such dharmic philosophies is called Sanātana Dharma – loosely translated as the eternal law/way of life.

Now the challenge is how to define Sanātana Dharma in the framework of religion. It does contain sets of philosophies, but not one, many. It gives codes of conduct, but not a universal one – it differs from person to person, from life to life and from karmic debts to karmic debts. It is not one rigid philosophy.

This Sanātana Dharma is understood and translated as modern-day Hinduism. But it is tricky to equate Sanātana Dharma with the word Hinduism.

Why?

“Hindus” didn’t choose the term Hindu themselves

The word Hindu doesn’t exist in the most revered holy texts of the “Hindu” world. It is because “Hindus” didn’t choose the term themselves. It is more of a recent ethno-geographical term. Pre-modern India was situated across the river Indus (Sindhu) and the people beyond the Indus river were referred to as “Hindus”. According to scholars, the Persians first used the word.

Later, when Mughals invaded India in the sixteenth century, the non-Muslim population was referred to as Hindus, which included Buddhists and Jains. Then came the Colonial Masters – the British who didn’t really understand the concept of Sanātana Dharma and set the word “Hindu” in the framework of religion – forever.

To a Hindu, the word Hinduism is just an English equivalent; in essence, it still means Sanātana Dharma. But to a westerner or a non-Hindu, the concept is lost in the framework of “religion”.

Why? Because unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism doesn’t have just one Holy Book or scripture that is central to the “Hindu” vision, or just one sacred place. Hindus draw their code of conduct and living from numerous texts and scriptures – the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Purans, the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita and it has not one, but many holy and sacred geographical places – spread all over India.

The “Hindu” belief is: every being is divine within; this Absolute Supreme Divinity within is called “Brahm”. A person doesn’t need an outside agent to reach Brahm, as it rests within us all and we all rest within it – Aham Brahmāsmi.

Yoga and Hinduism:

And here comes the role of Yoga – it is through the practice of Yoga, one can reach Brahm, the Supreme, Absolute Divinity, attain moksha (loosely translated as liberation from the cycle of births and deaths) and rest in bliss forever, as there is no eternal hell or heaven in Sanātana Dharma. And by Yoga, I don’t mean just the breathing and the physical postures. The “Hindu” way of worship, belief, practice, way of living is all part of the Yogic philosophy.

So, though it can be said that Yoga is not teaching religion, Yoga is teaching Sanātana Dharma: the eternal way of life.

And Sanātana Dharma is today’s Hinduism.

So Yoga is indeed teaching about Hinduism.

No “ism” in Hinduism:

But don’t stifle Yoga in the framework of “ism”, which literally means a distinctive practice or philosophy. There is no “ism” in Hinduism, as it does not conform to one fixed set of laws. So the whole debate on whether Yoga is about religion or not, does not hold any water, because the framework is grossly incorrect.

By comparing Hinduism to a western religious philosophy is inappropriate because Hinduism in its true eternal form – the Sanātana Dharma is not only about a religious belief, it is about technology, life sciences, environment, mind, body, science – all rolled into one. If Sanātana Dharma has come to be known as Hinduism, take the word on face value, because no word in English can mean what Sanātana Dharma literally stands for. It is above any one definition, belief and philosophy. It is the eternal law.

But you still can’t strip Yoga off Hinduism, by doing so, you are robbing Yoga of its essence. The cultural appropriation will serve no purpose other than making Yoga a new form of a quiet exercise routine, which the West has unashamedly done to a great extent. But in the end, all the poses, breathing, still point inwards – to the Brahm, to the Absolute Divinity within, to Sanātana Dharma, to Hinduism, albeit without the ism.

(Disclaimer: This piece is just a small try from my side to explain what Yoga in the framework of Hinduism – Sanātana Dharma – literally means. In no way, it is exhaustive as Sanātana Dharma is a vast concept. Feel free to ask me any more questions on the topic, I will try and do my best to answer in the comments section or in a new post. Thank you!)

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142 replies

  1. Well, I never thought of or read about “Hindus” in this context.

    • Cultural appropriation makes you think about it.

    • Indeed, all of (real) Yoga is (H)indu Dharma (whenever the “H” was applied it does not change the meaning). This one Sanskrit/Hindu word “yoga” can describe the whole of Hindu(ism). It is the goal (Atma Darsana) and the way to the goal: Karma Yoga; Bhakti Yoga; Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Hatha Yoga is an integral part of Bhakti and Raja. The POINT is what are Hindus (and other concerned individuals) going to do about this theft of the Hindu/Yogic Dharma??

  2. Great job explaining these concepts, Anu. When you say that there is a general code of conduct, how do we know which texts reveal that code?

    Cheers,
    Tim

  3. Hi, Anupreet. This is by far the clearest and most concise explanation of the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism I’ve ever seen.

    Thank you.

    Bob W.

  4. how interesting an entire article about “religion” including the author’s definition of “religion” and not a single use of the word faith – even the original written Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams knew that faith was the defining factor in “religion” so if yoga is absent of faith then it is not teaching religion – morality rule of law and all of those other words no matter how defined are not relevant nor germane to the discussion – read the hitchhiker’s guide and understand if you have no other avenue –
    “…and then man went on to prove black = white and got run over at the next zebra crossing…”

  5. I think it’s really important to continue to expose the ongoing echo of colonialist/orientalist misprisions of Indian philosophy and life-practices — thank you for that.

    But I would be wary of doing so by creating the potential straw-man of “western religion” as a category of contrast. As a religious studies person, the first thing I learned from the professional academy was that no-one agrees on the meaning of the term. “Religion” was defined as having sociological, psychological, emotional, faith-dependent, non-faith-dependent derivatives and effects. Just glancing through James’ Variety of Religious Experiences gives a hint of the panorama of behaviours and sentiments called “religious”. It’s a messy messy thing, which makes sense insofar as the subject attempts to describe the deepest desires of people.

    It’s unfair to characterize the Abrahamic faiths as somehow narrow in their literature. Each of the three mirrors the Indian scriptural divide between sruti and smriti — by holding root/revealed texts at the centre of vibrant commentarial traditions, where “vibrant” often means rabidly conflictual.

    I also think it’s inaccurate to claim that Indian philosophy and life-practices don’t apply mediumistic tools, outside agents, and the threat of hell realms. The roots of Vedic ritual have clear shamanic purpose, and they are alive today: I have spent considerable time learning in these streams.

    The main problem with creating a straw-man of western religion to which one may oppose Sanātana Dharma is that it distracts from the more intimate issue of whether the practice in question is more religious or more philosophical in its affect. One test for this is the degree to which the practice admits hermeneutics, or insists upon exegesis. The religious bias generally uses exegesis to drive towards a theory of simple unity, whereas the philosophical bias generally uses hermeneutics to acknowledge complexity and irresolution.

    The way you’ve described Sanātana Dharma here has a religious tone to me: a set belief, a foregone conclusion, a closed book that the supplicant simply has to open to see the truth of. Your advocacy of the goal of reaching “Brahm, the Supreme, Absolute Divinity, and attaining moksha” as though it were the only goal of the eclectic yoga tradition, preordains the result in a way consistent with religion or theology, whether its western or South Asian.

    And this is where the issue of cultural appropriation gets murky, as far as I can tell. Because presenting such a narrow view of Sanātana Dharma seems to obscure the incredibly rancourous history of Indian philosophy and life-practices, and positions the Advaita Vedanta stream of thought as though it had conquered (and appropriated) the others — which included atheist materialists (the carvakans) and of course the Buddhists, who staked their philosophy on absolute ambivalence towards notions of “Absolute Divinity”. To reduce Indian philosophy and life-practices to a single stream of intent ignores the diversity of darsana through the millennia, and, therefore, paradoxically, seems to constitute its own strange form of appropriation and orientalism. Not to mention the fact that such reductions have been used to serve Hindutva politics for many years now, with very mixed results.

    All that said, you’re sustaining a vital discussion about what comes from where, and we all need to join in!

    • Thank you for you very interesting and informative response, Matthew. You really get us thinking, for sure.

      I’d like to ask both you and Sandhu, given all you’ve both written here, if you have a position on whether or not yoga should be allowed in the schools.

      Bob W. Editor
      Best of Yoga Philosophy

      • Bob:
        YES! YES! YES!
        And why only schools? Each and every individual needs to do Yoga. I am assuming you are referring to only the physical aspect. To me, that is the miniscule part of the complete Yoga philosophy. And if you are referring to the complete philosophy, to that my answer is: YES! YES! YES!
        Though in both cases, do it without culturally appropriating Yoga. Because that is the key part of living a Yogic life: stay truthful to the source :-)

        • To me the takeaway from Encinitas is that yoga can be viewed as religious by groups that therefore feel its inclusion in a public school setting is a violation of their religious freedoms. This has to be respected by any programme that wants to brave the waters, although we’ve seen that it’s difficult to position yoga as a completely secular endeavour. I am personally in favour of yoga in schools, but only taught by those who are aware of and sensitive to this problem, and willing to work with it transparently. The Jois foundation leaves much to be desired here, as Carol Horton has pointed out. These caveats may over time contribute to something I see as a very good thing, but I suspect Sandhu does not: the distancing of yogic techniques from any particular position of faith or belief — Sanātana Dharma included.

          • I don’t think you get the essence of my argument, but I appreciate you engaging in a dialogue with me. That is why we are here – to create a dialogue. I just asked you a question (below), will wait for your reply.

            • If the essence of your argument is that participation in Sanātana Dharma is a condition for “really” practicing yoga, then I do get your argument, and we do disagree. :)

                • Really? Aren’t you saying that the practice of yoga apart from participation in Sanātana Dharma is incomplete, and constitutes a form of cultural appropriation?

                  • Matthew – what I am saying and you are trying to pull in a different framework is: Yoga is Sanatan Dharm. There is no apart. Try and understand the concept of Sanatan Dharm. I think it is not about disagreeing with each other, it is about understanding the concept. I am totally getting what you are saying: you are categorizing Yoga as a concept of Hatha and Pranayam, I am talking about Yoga as Yog. I think I will leave it at this. Thank you so much for your questions and engaging comments. I welcome it.

                    • Thanks for engaging with me. I understand that that you are saying that Yoga = Sanātana Dharma = Hindu spirituality. But by claiming this you marginalize streams of yoga practitioners who do not and should not identify as Hindu: this stream stretches back a very long way.

                      I would never limit yoga to hatha postures/practices and breathwork, and I never said as much. It includes much more of course: the asta-anga for starters.

              • You can choose to disagree, matthew, but that does not change the facts: Real Yoga is Hinduism. One can choose to be dishonest and continue to divorce Yoga from Hinduism.

        • It seems to me that the judge ruled just as you would have ruled,right?

          In his ruling, the judge acknowledged yoga’s spriritual and religious roots in in India, but still allowed it to be taught in this case, because this particular version of yoga being taught had been stripped of its spriritual/religious content (as required by American law).

          How would you have ruled differently, and in a way you would not consider cultural appropriation but would conform to American law? Thanks.

          Bob W. Editor
          Best of Yoga Philosophy

          • Dear Bob, I can’t comment on a judge’s understanding or my own “judgement” – I gave my opinion above. The world first needs to understand the concept of Sanatan Dharma, Yoga – it has been smudged to an extent that we are now debating the next level without setting the foundation straight.

            • I see the same has happened with Christianity, Anu. Smudged is right. The way some people talk about Jesus and what it means to belong to him – the essence of the faith – it is unrecognizable.

              Christianity is not a belief system nor even a way of life. It is a matter of belonging to the God who created the universe. You sure couldn’t tell though from the way some people try to appropriate it to their own ideas and uses.

              Thanks for the dialog here, Anu, and the constructive way you are leading it along.

              Cheers,
              Tim

    • Dear Matthew, thank you for your comments. As I said in the little disclaimer note: in no way this is an exhaustive piece. For me to explain it the way you have described would take an academic paper to say the least. Books, volumes are insufficient to “explain” and put Yoga in the right “category”. As a blog piece, it is just a simple answer to so many questions around the key question: if Yoga teaches religion? Because one could read all four Vedas, Up-Vedas, Puranas but still may not get what Yoga really means, because all that theory holds no ground if there is no practice and “belief”. The main reason of writing this blog was to respond to the whole debate if Yoga constitutes religion. I wrote this for masses – people who have the time, the resources, the energy, the inclination and the interest will go to the source of the truth themselves :-)
      In no way, I have presented a narrow vision of Sanatan Dharma… when I do acknowledge that everything in the universe is governed by the eternal law, how can I put it in a narrow channel? You practice it yourself, I am sure you get what I am saying.
      But cultural appropriation is a serious issue and that’s all I have started to tackle here – in a limited space – it is just initiating a dialogue. Thank you so much for being engaged. I look forward to reading your pieces.

      • Thanks for replying, Sandhu. The problem I’m trying to raise is that you have placed yoga in a particular category that attempts to devour all other categories — Sanātana Dharma — but which excludes through appropriation many many people and paths that practice yoga and explicitly reject the “oneness” principle of Brahman/atman. The Buddhists are but one example of a group practicing yoga that does not fit the scheme. Calling it universal law when it’s not excludes those who don’t accept it and who argue against it. That’s what I mean by “narrow”.

        The real damage of this idea can be that it groups minority viewpoints and practices under an umbrella that they don’t accept. That’s why I said that strangely, this conception of Sanātana Dharma can have its own appropriative and orientalist tone.

        • Damage?
          Ok, tell me something, rather explain it to me: what is Yoga to you?

          • Yes, damage. Your presentation of yoga as being inseparable from your descriptions of Sanātana Dharma denies the experiences of Jains, atheists, Buddhists, Sufis, and now Christians who practice it. What is it to me? Any path of embodied introspection that reshapes neurotically-patterned behaviours and perceptions, towards a greater sense of empathy and interdependence. It can be religiously oriented, or not.

            • Matthew – we are talking about two different things here. If I were so prejudiced (the way you are categorizing me) why would I open my blog to comments? And why would I bother to engage in a dialogue? I would publish my opinion as set in stone and that’s it. But I am not doing that.

              I appreciate your comments – I seriously do, but first don’t cast my opinions in stone. I am interested to know your view point and that is why I asked; I didn’t infer, I really did ask. I read on you – since you understand Sanskrit terms, specifically talking to me about this aspect, let’s not substitute dharma with religion. Talk to me in manner of what is dharma and what is religion and then your argument will be clear. I’ll wait. But remember we are talking about cultural appropriation of Yoga, let’s not go off on a tangent, at least on this post :-)

              • I didn’t use the word “prejudiced”, and you clearly are nurturing a good conversation!

                So to be clear, are you not saying that yoga is inseparable from Sanātana Dharma? Isn’t that your central thesis? And that those who do separate it from Sanātana Dharma are appropriating a culture without honouring it or understanding it?

                I’m simply pointing out that it seems more complex to me than that. Perhaps you could say where this view leaves those yoga practitioners (Indian, and of ancient times) such as the Jains, atheists, and Buddhists, who did not accept the tenets of Sanātana Dharma?

                I’m asking because your argument, as you frame it, would be accusing all non-Hindu practitioners through the ages of cultural appropriation. I hope that makes sense!

            • Matthew, I must say that I feel a little embarrassed for you. I’m not sure how you fail to see that it’s you that has the air of an orientalist.

              You know, there’s something unsettling about taking an authoritative stance on a tradition you are not a part of.

              This all-knowing attitude is sadly all too common and part of a larger historical problem of undermining another person’s understanding of their own beliefs and practices.

              You mentioned that you were a student of religious studies which means you largely learned about religions and life philosophies through books? And I see you practice/write about yoga as well.

              I imagine for Sandhu yoga philosophy is a deeply rooted tradition part of a rich spiritual legacy inherited from the wisdom of her own ancestors. Even the land that gave birth to yoga is reflected in her very name. But one day a man named Matthew, who—from a distance—developed an exotic fascination with some else’s spiritual philosophy, challenged Sandhu in a professorial tone and asserted her views cause “damage.”

              And in a serious manner, without a hint of irony, reduced the definition of an ancient practice to something lacking in both depth and thoughtfulness.

              Sandhu, as your spiritual sister I apologize for bringing a harsh and negative tone to your beautiful blog. I sometimes feel as if I should articulate the sentiments that of many of us feel, but often never say.

              • Dear Sen – thank you so much for the encouraging words and the support. Don’t feel embarrassed for Matthew. We all understand life from our own perspectives – yes, we do have to be respectful of the opinion of others, even though we may disagree.

                Yes, Yoga has been passed to me in cultural heritage. Not to make this discussion mundane, but even a simple task like cleaning one’s tongue is rooted in Yoga for an Indian. The way Indians scrape it is actually part of the Yoga kriyas. Yes, it is!

                Years of invasions, and colonization still couldn’t uproot the basic essence of Yoga from India – that is why anyone who teaches Yoga visits India at least once. Even though I grew up in a post-colonial western enclave in India, I was immersed in philosophies of Dharma and Karma. Even the popular culture is full of it. Pick any simple Bollywood movie and it will have a reference to the Yogic philosophy even though the movie could be on an entirely diff topic. Thanks for connecting, I appreciate your voice.

              • I’m certainly not an authority, but a student with questions! I happen to have a broader definition of yoga practice than Sandhu does, for good or ill, because I’m aware that yoga has been practiced by non-Hindus such as myself for millennia. She’s suggesting yoga is intrinsic to Sanātana Dharma, and I’m disagreeing with her. I think it’s a serious issue, and I apologize if I offend you by engaging with it.

                My learning is much like everyone else’s: a combination of institution, personal research, mentorship, and I’ve been blessed with some gurukula as well. My fascination with India may have been somewhat exotic twenty years ago, and certainly informed by my disillusionment with my native spirituality, but India really grabbed my heart in earnest over time, and I spend most of my life trying to absorb her lessons in a way that make sense to my personal and cultural heritage.

                I would be appropriating if I wasn’t transparent about the differences between how you understand yoga, given your cultural matrix, and how I understand it. And I would hope that we can accept our differences here.

                As for my definition: this would be only one version of yoga translated into secular and somewhat materialist terms. It might seem flat to you, but it carries intense and positive meaning for those who do not identify as Hindu, and it helps them improve their lives. Thanks for calling me out!

                • Matthew – here you have answered everything: “I happen to have a broader definition of yoga practice than Sandhu does, for good or ill, because I’m aware that yoga has been practiced by non-Hindus such as myself for millennia.”
                  When you already know more than me, for good or ill, my viewpoint doesn’t matter in your perspective. So what is the point of drawing me in a conversation? :-) I salute your Yoga understandings, by which you clearly think your knowledge is superior to others. In my humble opinion, Yoga teaches you the exact opposite – that is the real meaning of Yoga, but again, we all have to arrive at the conclusion from our own experience and our known discovery of the Self. Good luck to you on this journey.

                  • Why twist my words? I didn’t claim to know more than you. I’m sure you know your tradition very well. I’m just pointing out that you’re ignoring — apparently willfully now — that yoga has been practiced by non-Hindus — a fact you have yet to engage.

                    We’re entitled to our own opinions and interpretations, but not to our own facts. Buddhists have and still do practice yoga. Their metaphysics does not align with those of Sanātana Dharma. Are they not practicing yoga, in your view?

                    Your viewpoint matters a lot to me, because you are accusing practitioners of yoga, such as myself, who do not accept the central tenets Hinduism, of cultural appropriation. That’s a serious charge, and I’m asking you to respond to the contradictions it raises. Thanks!

                    • Why are you so caught up with Buddhist Yoga Mathew? The Buddhists are not complaining. What form of Yoga do you practice? Just curious.

                    • I don’t know how to get this comment below yours, HinduLinks. Buddhist yoga is just an example, put forward to show that yoga isn’t exclusively Hindu, as you’ve claimed. Do you disagree?

                      As for my practice: I practice and have practiced many forms — whatever I’ve had the fortune to encounter, and whatever has helped my process of self-inquiry, and whatever concretely helps me to relate to others with more empathy.

                    • “I don’t know how to get this comment below yours, HinduLinks. Buddhist yoga is just an example, put forward to show that yoga isn’t exclusively Hindu, as you’ve claimed. Do you disagree?”

                      I’m aware of Buddhist Yoga. Jot down some other forms of Yoga for me because I’m not aware of them.

                  • Let’s stick with this example. If you’re aware of Buddhist yoga, does this not dent your claim that “Yoga is Hinduism”? Help me to understand why.

                    • Because Yoga is Hinduism. It was developed by the ancient Vedic Seers. This article will help you understand better – http://www.vedanet.com/2012/06/yoga-and-buddhism-similarities-and-differences/

                    • I’m familiar with Dr. Frawley’s article. I have not and would not claim that Buddhist yoga did not develop in dialectic with Vedic culture and practice: it did. That it has grown distinct from the tenets of Sanātana Dharma is my whole point. To say that “Yoga is Hinduism” is to imply that Buddhists have appropriated yoga as well, or that they are practicing a lesser form. Dr. Frawley in this article seems to subtly diminish the differences between Buddhist and Vedantic metaphysics, for example, in order to support the general sentiment of Vedic primacy.

                  • “To say that “Yoga is Hinduism” is to imply that Buddhists have appropriated yoga as well, or that they are practicing a lesser form.”

                    This is your interpretation. Hindus aren’t bothered about Buddhist Yoga as much because Buddhism has it’s own set of well developed metaphysical beliefs. I’m not aware of the history of this strain of Yoga and I’m unable to find much material online but I have no issues with it. Besides, Hinduism and Buddhism share a common history, developed together and borrowed heavily from each other. They’re using their own set of metaphysics so the question of appropriation does not arise as much.

                    You claimed that there are many different forms of Yoga which are not Hindu. Kindly mention those now.

                    • I claimed that there currently are many yoga practitioners who do not identify as Hindu, and they fit within the historical streams of other Indian non-Hindu-identified yoga practitioners throughout the ages. Jains might be another good example.

                      But the current situation is what is most important, and cuts to the heart of Sandhu’s presentation: are people who do not identify as followers of Sanātana Dharma practicing yoga in earnest, and have they appropriated something? I believe that they are practicing yoga, and that many are drawing inspiration from multiple sources, including the tenets of Sanātana Dharma. They would do well to be conscious of what their sources are, the better to understand the interconnectedness they are trying to foster within themselves and their communities.

                      That’s about as clear as I can make it. I appreciate your courtesy and wish you peace.

                    • The discussion moved on to Yoga’s Hindu heritage which you’re finding so hard to digest. But then truth is a bitter pill to swallow.

        • Matthew seems to be under the influence of the extremist universalist view. Basically, “yoga” is whatever you what it to be EXCEPT Hindu Dharma. See the oxymoron? (Real) Yoga is Hinduism just as Mass is Catholic. Guru Patanjali said: “Sabdajnananupati vastu sunyo vikalpah.” “Word meanings devoid of facts equals delusion.” The least bit of research will uncover the facts that real Yoga is all about the Hindu Dharma. Hindus generally respect the validity of other religions and so they are not fundamentalists? The other extreme of fundamentalism is to swing to the universalist side which is as delusional. Think about making “Baptism” and “Communion” just about purifying in water and wine tasting and then apply this to any religion or no religion–see the delusion? However, there is a third rail, one’s religion is A way, not The way and not No way. It is a learning curve upon which we are all on.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful, clear explanation.

    Namaste

  7. Loved reading this blog! Finally some deep conversation about the philosophy of yoga and how it touches all of us in different ways. As my friend, the Buddha says, “There are many paths to the mountain top.” What I love about yoga and Buddhism is that simple fact: take the path that works for you.

  8. Hi Sandhu – Thanks so much for such a thoughtful, reflective post.

    What I’m wondering about is how you understand the relationship between yoga, Sanatan Dharma, and practitioners who have lived their entire lives outside of India, have no Indian roots, and were raised in other faith and/or cultural traditions, which naturally color their experience of yoga.

    So, for example, if a Christian who’s lived all her life in Alabama and knows nothing whatsoever about yoga, India, Hinduism, Sanatan Dharma, etc., other than what she’s learned in her local asana class taps into something very meaningful to her in her practice and believesthat yoga connects her more deeply to divine love – which she thinks of in terms of Jesus – is she practicing cultural appropriation? or connecting to Sanatan Dharma? or neither? or both?

    There are all sorts of variations you could make on this little scenario that I just made up. But, the essential question is whether Sanatan Dharma is understood to be big and inclusive enough to contain other ways of understanding the big questions of life, or whether it’s confined to the sets of ideas and practices that have historically been put under the umbrella of “Hinduism.”

    If it’s the former, don’t issues of cultural appropriation get quite complex and murky? Because, after all, couldn’t a professed Hindu be practicing yoga in ways that are superficial, and a professed Buddhist – or atheist, or Muslim, or whatever – be practicing in ways that authentically generate love, wisdom, discernment, and compassion? If so, who’s to say whose practice is the most meaningful?

    Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for your time!

    • Sandhu, just in case you don’t know Carol already, she has writting extensively about this topic herself at her blog Think Body Electric http://www.thinkbodyelectric.com/2013/07/yoga-wins-in-encinitas-pyrrhic-victory.html

      Bob

    • Dear Carol, thank you so much for your comments. Your concern is valid and the situation is you give is not made-up, but true for many who face it and live it everyday. There is no black and white answer for it. But I’ll try and explain from my own perspective:

      You say it rightly: Sanatan Dharma is everything, it holds all that is. Now the question is what is “all that is”, how we define it? This world as we see is nothing but an illusion, so is it, or is it not? But the reality of this world – eating, paying bills, misery, all that is real to you and me, so how it is an illusion? These are the questions that Yoga answers, so the understanding of “all that is” isn’t what we understand existence to be.

      That was for Yoga, and now to cultural appropriation: someone could argue that when the world is an illusion (maya) a manifestation of the un-manifested, how does it matter if someone culturally appropriates Yoga or not. But the thing is, the physical as we see it, you, me have a purpose – our physical bodies, though not our real Selves is a vehicle to transcend the maya, so what we do here is a part of our karmic cycles and how we live it virtuously (dharma) determines how soon we transcend this physical realm. (Again, I’ve dared to explain a vast, layered concept in a single line, it is not exhaustive)

      Cultural appropriation is when you take away Yoga, basically asanas, which is a specific element of the complete Yoga philosophy and appropriate it to make it un-Yogic. The argument at the core (in the context I wrote the article) is whether Yoga is religious or not. The point of my whole argument is that Yoga doesn’t fit in the religious framework – so when you say that a Christian in Alabama takes a local Yoga class, and she doesn’t realize that it is “Hindu”, so does that mean she is culturally appropriating it or becoming a Hindu in the process?

      I say to this: it is an incorrect comparison. Yoga doesn’t tell you what you are in this physical realm – but it tells you who you REALLY are. What we need to learn is that doing asanas is very beneficial but it doesn’t come in the way of “religion” as Sanatan Dharma is above all these definitions. And anyone who is doing Yoga or wants to know more about it, should learn about Sanatan Dharma – I can’t say it is a category, I can’t say it is a concept, it is all that is.

      It might not clear up the doubt you had in mind, but I will try and address it in a new post, as Yoga is not mere asanas, and anyone who is taking a Yoga class and benefiting from it, should learn about the next level, with an open mind and understand Yoga in its correct framework – the framework of Sanatan Dharma, Hinduism, albeit without the “ism” :-)

    • Hello Carol. Certainly Sanatan Dharma is inclusive and doesn’t reject philosophies and belief systems/ideas outside the set of philosophies it is defined by. But that doesn’t mean it endorses them either. Certainly the Christian world view ( original sin/redemption/hell/heaven etc ) isn’t compatible with Sanatan Dharma. Does that mean a Christian cannot practice Yoga? Nope.

      You’ve raised a very good question with regard to a Christian connecting to divine love via Jesus and what implications that has with regards to the practice. When you do Yoga you don’t necessarily have to connect with a Hindu God or Goddess. That would be ridiculous and would posture Yoga as a proselytizing tool for Hindus and we have never insisted on conversion. Yoga in my opinion can be practiced in two ways. One way which includes all it’s metaphysical aspects which would make it purely spiritual in nature. You want to connect with Jesus or Allah? No issues even though both Islam and Christianity are dual traditions. I guess the connection is metaphoric rather than literal which is the case in Hinduism. Second way practiced by most Americans which is limited to breadth and Asana which I believe is called Hatha Yoga. Connection with a divine is of no real importance here. So someone who isn’t interested in metaphysical spirituality can easily go for the No.2 option.

      So, what is offensive to the Hindus?
      To claim that Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. It is just not true. Yoga isn’t a part of Hinduism. It is Hinduism. But since the benefits of Yoga are manifold and since we don’t believe in conversions we’re okay with people connecting to their respective Gods via this practice. What is most offensive is some Christians dumping Hindu metaphysical concepts onto Jesus, opening up Christian Yoga studios where Yoga is taught as a Christian practice. This is just unacceptable and causes a lot of anger within the Hindu community.

      • Don’t mean to interject but I wanted to leave this comment before I’m unavailable for several hours. First of all I’d like to acknowledge that this is the most constructive conversation I’ve been a part of regarding yoga between Hindus and non-Hindus. Usually it’s a lot more cantankerous!

        Two points:

        1. I have been around American and European yoga practitioners for over a decade and I’ve never heard anyone claim that “Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism”. Everyone acknowledges the roots of yoga in Indian philosophy and life-practice. Everyone knows that its spiritual signs, language, and metaphysics are Indian in origin, though they might compare them to other sources.

        2. Indian Jains, atheists, and Buddhists would take great exception to the statement “Yoga is Hinduism.” They all practiced and practice yoga, and they were/are not Hindus. The non-Hindu experience of yoga begins in India, not simply since colonialism.

        • Matthew – it is not interjection, it is participation and I welcome it. Even I didn’t say Yoga is Hinduism, not even in my headline :D HinduLinks above has beautifully expressed what it means by cultural appropriation to a “Hindu”. Read the above comment – it is a brilliant explanation.

        • Rebuttal to the two points raised by you:

          1. ‘Indian’ in origin is not the same as ‘Hindu’ in origin. Hindu practices like ‘Yoga’, ‘Advaita’, ‘Ayurveda’ etc are stripped off their Hindu religious roots and marketed as secular practices to make them more palatable for consumption by the average Westerner. This is precisely why the ‘Take Back Yoga’ campaign was started in the year 2010. The impression given to the consumer is that these practices have their origin in ancient India but have nothing to do with religion (Hinduism). You may wish to check out this article which takes on charlatan Eckhart Tolle – ‘Why does Hinduism get the short end of the Stick?’ http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?com_mode=flat&com_order=0&itemid=1252

          2. One doesn’t have to be Hindu to practice Hindu Yoga. Buddhists usually practice (Buddhist) Tibetan Yoga which aligns itself with Buddhist philosophy. I’ve never come across a Jain or a Sikh take exception. Yoga is 5000+ years old while Sikhism is only 500 years old. On what basis can a Sikh claim that Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism? Besides, it’s not the Buddhists/Sikhs/Jains that the Hindus are upset with. It’s the West ( both Christian and non-Christian ) that go out of the way to market a religious practice as a non-religious one.

          • Thanks for the reply, HinduLinks. I am familiar with the “Take Back Yoga” campaign: as a Canadian practitioner of many years, being accused of cultural appropriation gets my attention!

            I think your rebuttal is problematic in three ways. Firstly, yoga, advaita, and ayurveda are not entirely stripped of their religious/spiritual import by those who present them to the global marketplace. A quick look at the work of one of the most popular cultural translators of this material, David Frawley (who was given the name Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) will show a clear dedication to forging links between these practices and Hindu heritage. Secondly, many non-Indian practitioners who develop more than a passing interest in yoga/advaita/ayurveda are indeed interested in their religious/spiritual roots and implications, and wouldn’t pursue their interests if these implications were hidden. Thirdly — and we might say in homage to true Indian form — global practitioners are syncretic in approach, often taking as much from traditionally Hindu sources as they do from Buddhist or Christian sources, while throwing in early American Transcendentalism, Deism, Gnosticism, and Jungian psychology. For many of them, it would feel both inaccurate and appropriative to label their understanding and practice “Hindu”, because it is also so many other things as well.

            So there is range of ways in which yoga’s connection to Hinduism is expressed: from Frawley’s explicit devotion, to Eckhart Tolle’s meagre references to Ramana Maharshi and the Bhagavad Gita, to the murthis displayed with varying degrees of tastefulness in yoga studios from New York to Hong Kong. But, mingled amongst these expressions are expressions of other religious/spiritual and secular allegiances. It’s a tangled web, and its tangles reach back to the beginning of the sea-trade!

            Your argument as I understand it is that “yoga is Hinduism”, and that full attribution must be given to Hindu heritage for its gifts. It’s a proprietary argument, but what exactly would you claim could be “owned”? I would offer again that from its beginning, yoga has been practiced by people who did not identify with what has come to be known as “Hinduism” — the Buddhists, atheist/materialists (Charvakans) and Jains are good examples — and that currently its global manifestation continues that syncretic trend, such that Hinduism is but one of the cultural influences that guide what has come to be known as yoga.

            I think the responsible tack to take is similar to what Carol has laid out: global practitioners should be as sensitive as they are able to ALL of the cultural/religious/spiritual roots of what they do, not so that they can ally themselves with commitments that are not their heritage, but so that they can see how practices evolve and change as they themselves evolve and change through practice.

            Thank you for your time.

            • “Global practitioners are syncretic in approach, often taking as much from traditionally Hindu sources as they do from Buddhist or Christian sources”

              What Christian/Gnostic sources are you referring to here? Please share some links/information with me. I’m very keen to check them out. The tangled web syndrome is your excuse to deny the superiority of India’s spiritual traditions over the Judeo-Christian tradition prevalent in the West. You and many others are aware that marketing Yoga/Ayurveda/Vedanta as Hindu spiritual practices will sound the death kneel for Christianity and it’s sister traditions.

              Most of what you’re written is without substance and hence does not deserve a response. I’m sharing a very important video with you here – U -Turn Theory How the West appropriates Indian Culture – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RSu4ymCgp4

              • Thank you for introducing me to Rajiv Malhotra. It looks like he has many interesting things to say about the stages of cultural encounter.

                To me the real gift of the sampradaya that India has nourished is that it preserves in vibrant form so many mystical and naturopathic streams of thought and practice that in western and middle-eastern cultures have slid into obscurity since the Enlightenment era. The best example here is that the humoural theory of the ancient Greeks, which enjoyed cultural cross-pollination with India’s vaidyas, has disappeared, while Ayurveda remains a living healing system.

                Another example: as a young Catholic, I was attracted to the mysticism of the early church, and I went to monasteries to see if I could find anyone who could teach me about Tomas A Kempis or Hildegaard of Bingen. I found no one. But as soon as I ran into Tibetan Buddhists, and then Indian Hindus, I realized that mystical practice was not dead and gone.

                For other non-Hindu resources that have found their way into the global yoga movement, you can look up the work of Elaine Pagels, Matthew Fox, and Thomas Keating. Goenka and his vippasana students have taught ideas that are now standard within the yoga vocabulary. Amongst asana practitioners, the Iyengar family and students have made great inroads in connecting Hatha practices with contemporary physiotherapy.

                If you only knew how many global yoga practitioners love Indian heritage, visit India at great expense, struggle to study Sanskrit and Hindi, you might change your tune about whether they are involved in some conspiracy to prop up Christianity at the expense of Hinduism. Nobody’s interested in that. They just want to practice yoga, and they have an eclectic approach.

                • “Global practitioners are syncretic in approach, often taking as much from traditionally Hindu sources as they do from Buddhist or Christian sources”

                  Christian sources please. Rest of what you’ve written is bunkum. It looks like you didn’t even bother to watch the entire video I shared with you. Charlatans like Father Thomas Keating are exposed there.

                  • I’m assuming that like myself you’re engaging here amidst the other work of daily life: service, family, etc. Of course I didn’t watch the entire 2 hour video you’re demanding I watch. But I’ll be happy to get to it.

                    Above, I wrote:

                    “Thirdly — and we might say in homage to true Indian form — global practitioners are syncretic in approach, often taking as much from traditionally Hindu sources as they do from Buddhist or Christian sources, while throwing in early American Transcendentalism, Deism, Gnosticism, and Jungian psychology.”

                    This is a general statement of fact coming from my decade + experience of yoga within my culture. There would be too many links to send. Besides, I don’t have time to do your research for you, what with all the video you’d have me watch!

                    • Don’t run away from my question. Answer it. I’m interested in the Christian sources that global practitioners use as much as the Hindu/Buddhist sources.

                    • Sources: Elaine Pagel, Marvin Meyer, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Matthew Fox. Evelyn Underhill.. Thomas Keating, Bede Griffiths, Emerson, Thoreau, Teilhard de Chardin, Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Hildegaard of Bingen.

                    • Never mind. I was looking for something other than Hindu/Buddhist wisdom which is far more sophisticated and in much greater detail than any of the sources you’ve provided me with. Thanks for the conversation though.

                  • I didn’t provide the sources for content evaluation, but as evidence of what global syncretic practitioners draw into their experience of practice.

                    • I asked you the sources for content evaluation. Actually I was interested in the scriptures but you took the easy way out and pasted some random names instead.

                    • Well we misunderstood each other. I was giving sources (names of authors, lecturers, practitioners from the breadth of Christianity) that I know non-Hindu yoga practitioners draw on to enhance their understanding of what they do. I wasn’t referring to Christian yoga “scriptures” per se, as there would be few identified as such. Although — the Gnostic gospels have been read by many as instrumental to non-dual meditation. How this would compare to Advaita techniques, for example, would be a matter for qualified scholars. Best of luck with your research.

                    • “I was giving sources (names of authors, lecturers, practitioners from the breadth of Christianity) that I know non-Hindu yoga practitioners draw on to enhance their understanding of what they do. ”

                      One needs Christian scriptures to enhance their understanding of Yoga? Please list a few such scriptures which can help me in my journey :D

                      ” I wasn’t referring to Christian yoga “scriptures” per se, as there would be few identified as such.”

                      There are none :D

                      “Although — the Gnostic gospels have been read by many as instrumental to non-dual meditation. How this would compare to Advaita techniques, for example, would be a matter for qualified scholars. ”

                      You make the Gnostic Gospel sound really sexy. In reality, they quite aren’t except for the Gospel of Thomas which again is very fundamental non duality most of which is interpreted keeping (Advaita) in mind. You’ve also listed the likes of Emerson and Thoreau who were transcendentalists. Transcendentalism is a product of the Vedas.

                      The only reason why Christians (both religious and non religious) deny Yoga’s Hindu heritage is because they know that giving too much credit to eastern wisdom traditions (Hinduism/Buddhism/Zen/Taoism) will more or less make their beloved Christianity completely irrelevant which I believe already is. So we find charlatans claiming they draw their wisdom from many other sources and going overboard with claims that there are many other forms of Yoga which are not Hindu which of course they cannot name when asked! I rest my case. Namaste.

                  • Perhaps reread Matthew’s words when your breath is quieter. So angry, so angry. Bunkum?

                • Also, I recommend looking into the word mysticism. It is a very Orient approach to Yoga.

                  • It’s true, “mysticism” is a contentious word. I could use “esoteric”, or “occult”, or, after Aurobindo, the “supramundane”. We may never solve our translation problems!

                    • Not to start a whole other thread here, but I would strenuously object to your substitute words for mysticism, all of which make it sound inherently irrational, if not weird. There is nothing inherently irrational about many varieties of mysticism. Einstein, the ultimate scientist, was a mystic, as are many other scientists who have the awe gene. That’s all mysticism is to many mystics. Nothing the slightest bit irrational about wonder and awe. But let’s leave that for another place and time. Just making a note of it here (just because I can’t not).

                      Bob W.

                    • Ah, but perhaps that’s why you chose the other words, to clarify your meaning here, so as not to confuse with the rational varieties of mysticism? Did I misunderstand your intent?

                      Bob

                    • I’m speaking to a longer and more complex discussion within comparative religions that has many of the same themes that Sandhu brings up with regard to the applicability of western terms to South Asian spiritual experiences. There are many who object, for example, to the application of “mysticism” to the experience of “samadhi”, feeling that it compromises the reality of the attainment. I’m just respecting that disagreement.

  9. Here is how I’m thinking about it, boiled down to the simplest terms possible.

    It is reasonable and helpful to insist that serious yoga practitioners who know nothing about the relationship between yoga and Hinduism take the take to learn a reasonable amount about it. Obviously, most people don’t have the time to become serious scholars of the subject. But out of respect for the tradition and the culture that it’s a part of, they should learn something meaningful. This will enrich their lives as well, so it’s a win-win for Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

    It is unreasonable and unhelpful to insist that non-Hindus adopt Hindu terminologies, gods, concepts etc. as the primary means of explaining their own experience with yoga – *unless* that language genuinely resonates with them and they can adopt it with their own sort of authenticity. Otherwise it is mimicking something that is not truly organic and meaningful to them, which is problematic on multiple levels.

    It is also unreasonable and unhelpful to insist that everyone come to agreement on the *precise* relationship between yoga and Hinduism, which is a complex issue. But learning something about the basics should be standard in Western yoga; once the foundation is laid people can continue to build on that over a lifetime.

    Unfortunately, it seems like it’s much more difficult to do this than it should be. From my perspective, there is still a lot of unexamined anti-Hindu bias in mainstream American culture. At the the time, there are really aggressive Hindu nationalist types out there who scare people off from discussing the subject publicly.

    It is not as bad as trying to discuss Black/White race issues in the US, but has some of those same problems when it comes to being a hard subject because it’s so frequently volatile. The average person just wants to avoid conflict and stays away. And, no new learning takes place as a result. Surely, we can find ways to do better.

    • I don’t know if this is a counter-argument to prejudice or just fanning the flames! You decide. But I so know Phil Goldberg’s expansive book “American Veda” is highly relevant to the discussion:

      True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

      and

      How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

      Bob W. Editor
      Best of Yoga Philosophy

      • Bob – I can’t access those links today as I’ve used up my EJ allotment for the day. But, I do have “American Veda.” And it seems to me that Phil himself acknowledges that he avoids using the term “Hindu” because of Western misunderstandings and prejudices. Here is a quote:

        “Due to centuries of distortions – some intentionally perpetuated by colonialists and missionaries, some the result of ignorant innocence – Hinduism is widely misunderstood. It is often described as polytheistic . . . the popular mind associates Hinduism with its colorful rituals and iconography . . . the components of India’s spiritual tradition that most affected Western culture have been the philosophy of Vedanta and the practice of Yoga. Therefore I favor those two terms and use the compound “Vedanta-Yoga” to indicate that combination of imported ideas and practices . . . Should Hindu American advocacy groups achieve their laudable goal of correcting the image of their religion, future books will use the term Hinduism freely, without fear of misleading the public.”

        Basically, he is saying that he doesn’t want to use the term “Hindu” because he feels that his audience has certain uninformed prejudices about it that are too hard to break through. So, he only devotes 3 out of 347 pages of a book on “how Indian spirituality changed the West” to Hinduism – and those are explaining why he’s not going to deal with the subject!

        I can totally understand why Hindus would find this sort of erasure insulting. This is not meant to be a criticism of Phil, as I know that he’s trying to do the best he can with this issue and has deep respect for Indian tradition. BUT, surely it is indicative of a problem that is not going to get better by not addressing it.

        I wrote a post on a related issue awhile ago, and while I’ve learned more since then, it still conveys some of my feelings on this matter. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts (feel free to comment on that post as well if it seems appropriate). http://www.thinkbodyelectric.com/2010/12/yoga-hinduism-and-contemporary-american.html

        • Thanks, Carol. Very helpful.

          Bob

        • Well, I’ve been contemplating how best to weigh in on this blog, but now that me and my book have been invoked I have to jump in. First, I think Sandhu did a terrific job of summarizing an important thread of what someone else accurately called “a tangled web.” Why is it tangled, and why do reasonable people – yoga practitioners for whom the teachings are central to their lives – find themselves in disagreement over yoga’s links to Hinduism, whether it can be called religious, whether it is being appropriated in an act of cultural imperialism, etc.? Because everyone is, to some extent, right. And everyone’s argument leaves out one aspect of the highly complicated situation or another.
          Much of it comes down to how one defines “yoga,” and how one defines “Hinduism,” and how one defines “religion,” and which view of Indian history you subscribe to. These are not simple matters, as evidenced by the fact that Sandhu feels it necessary to add “without the ism” to her use of “Hinduism,” thereby making the complex even more complex.
          Before I go any further, let me say, in upper case, THIS IS A GREAT PROBLEM TO HAVE. The debate can only take place because yoga has become so mainstream, and because the voices of people of Hindu descent are finally being heard, and because Americans are open-minded enough to adopt, and adapt, and take into their hearts a foreign set of ideas and practices. It is also a result of one of the great strengths of both Sanatana Dharma and Yoga: they are so universal as to be many things to many people. They can be embraced by the spiritual and secular alike, as history has clearly shown. They can be accepted in part or in whole, and either way be made useful and practical. Given all that, is it any wonder that yoga is a heartfelt spiritual practice to some and physical fitness to someone else and therapy to yet someone else? Is it any wonder that it can accurately be seen as integral to the religion we call Hinduism, and at the same time parts of it can be extracted and seen as totally secular forms of self-improvement? This flexibility is one of yoga’s great glories, and if it makes for unanswerable questions and unsolvable arguments, so be it.
          I have spoken to a great many people in the American Hindu community. I just got back from Dallas, for example, where I spoke to a few hundred people of Indian descent. They do not all agree with each other. Some would agree with every word Sandhu wrote, and some would differ on particulars. Some don’t like using the term “Hindu,” preferring Sanatana Dharma, and some happily embrace it. Some think of themselves as religious; some do not. I say this to caution against any conclusion that there is uniformity among Hindus.
          The very terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are, as Carol and others point out, fraught with misconceptions, prejudices, disagreement, and ignorance. She quotes a paragraph from the Introduction to “American Veda,” and I appreciate that. But it’s only one paragraph of a longer explanation of why I chose to use those terms sparingly in the book. It was to avoid the misconceptions that surround the term — part of which is based on hundreds of years of intentional and unintentional distortion, and on the tendency to conflate Hindu dharma with aspects of Indian history and culture (what some call the “caste, cow and curry syndrome”). Even well-meaning scholars of religion have commonly misrepresented Hinduism. The occasion that brought me to Dallas, by the way, was a fund raiser to create a College of Hindu Dharma Studies at Claremont Lincoln University, and one major reason for that initiative is to study Hinduism (and the other Eastern traditions) ON THEIR OWN TERMS. Because one huge part of this complex story is that the West defines religion in certain ways, and analyzes the various traditions according to the criteria, categories and paradigms it established. And they fit the Abrahamic traditions, but they do not fit the dharmic traditions all that well — hence the misconceptions even by well-meaning people.
          I’ve been asked why, for instance, why the book isn’t called “American Hinduism” or somesuch. It’s because if that were the title, the public would think it’s about the religion of Indian Americans, as practiced mainly in the temples that have gone up in the past few decades. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s about the penetration of ideas and practices rooted in what we call Hinduism, but were called — BY THE VERY TEACHERS WHO BROUGHT THEM TO US — by other terms, mainly Vedanta and Yoga. As I’ve said elsewhere many times, Vivekananda did not start the Hinduism Society, he started the Vedanta Society; Yogananda did not create the Hindu Fellowship but the Self-Realization Fellowship, and his great memoir is not “Autobiography of a Hindu.” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi didn’t teach “Hindu Meditation,” he called it “Transcendental Meditation.” They chose terms that would not label their teachings “religious” only. They knew they would appeal to people of all faiths, and to no faith, and that religious terminology would limit their reach.
          This was not a sell-out, it was upaya, or skillful means – a way to reach more people who would benefit from their teachings, and history proves them correct.
          Appropriation is real. Westerners should pay attention to Sandhu and others who explain it. The history of cultural imperialism is as real as military and political imperialism. We need to be mindful of that. Not just because India and Hindus deserve better, more appropriate treatment, but also because appropriation tends to dilute, distort and corrupt what is being appropriated. As I say in my book, using the sitar in jazz and rock is harmless; putting Indian spices on your pizza is harmless. But appropriating yogic practices and Hindu concepts without proper discernment and wisdom and humility – especially where personal gain is a motive – is dangerous.
          That said, there is often a very fine line between “appropriation” and “adaptation.” Cultures adopt and adapt from one another. That’s the history of the world. Bollywood adapted Hollywood technology and techniques. Everyone adopts and adapts foods, arts, fashions, philosophies, medical practices, and on an on. The same is true in the history of religion. So what is a reasonable form of adaptation? What is an inappropriate, unfair, or destructive form of appropriation? I submit that it is not always easy to tell, especially with something as subtle as a spiritual teaching or as widely applicable as a yogic practice.
          One final word: this is so complicated, and so highly charged, that “American Veda” has been celebrated by Hindus as a tribute to their tradition, and also denounced by others as appropriation. It’s maddening, because one of my motives in writing the book was to give credit where it’s due, and to show how much of what we think is American has roots in Vedic India. So it goes.

          • Hi Phil – thanks for joining in. First: when you define spiritual practice and physical exercise as two approaches to Yoga, in my opinion, it is misleading. Because that is what Yog teaches you – the physical, the mind and the beyond – is all connected. A simple example: when you try and attempt a Yog asana (pose) you do use your mind to concentrate and to get it right. One can never separate the mind from the physical self. And all the Great minds you mention didn’t use the word Hindu, because as I say in my post, Hindus didn’t choose the term. It was West’s interpretation of the culture that thrived beyond the Indus, and that is the point I make in my post: Yes, Hindus didn’t choose the word Hinduism, but today, to them, Hinduism is just an English equivalent. To a Western mind, it may be situated in the framework of “ism”, to a Hindu mind, it isn’t.
            So when we all are okay to use the term Vedic, we should also be okay to use the term Hindu – as I say in the post, use Hindu term as Hindus understand it. I will check out your book.

  10. so regarding the absence of the word Faith in the original article – that is my point as well, anything designed to enlighten or edify the person which is void of faith (faith being described as knowing you are allowed by grace or your non deservedness to be in the presence of the master as by being so then receiving blessings from that which is your master) any program devoid of that “faith” is simply a program leading toward better humanness and has nothing to do with the metaphysics of the divine

    – the library works like that – in “faith” with grace tossed in as a bonus — even though i have not returned the books i took out two weeks ago i present my self again knowing they will give me more books with out question – and often i will have fines outstanding for books previously borrowed and the fines are waived or deliberately over-looked so the library may give me more of that which i do not deserve – access to books- to add more i know i have burnt one of the books already loaned to me and the dog ate the other – they will never be returned – it is by faith that i re enter the library and ask for more books with all that on my heart, they give me more books —

    for my self i describe faith in that way and am sure of one thing – That jesus christ is the chief librarian –

    That stuff written before by Matthew Remski “One test for this is the degree to which the practice admits hermeneutics, or insists upon exegesis.”
    i actually understood that – :) i wish i had said that …lol as well as you did …

  11. This was brilliant – in it’s clarity and simplicity. This summed it up for me:

    “Yoga is teaching Sanātana Dharma: the eternal way of life.”

    That’s it – Yoga = Life.

    Ok, so I’ve reduced it even further… yet it amazes me that simply breathing with awareness and moving my body – or rather allowing it to be moved – brings me into a space of union. This practice, grounded as it is in the physical, seems to bring me out of my head and in touch with consciousness through the medium of my body. Out of this, all kinds of insights and understandings about my psyche and about reality arise. From this arising, comes release and letting go. And out of this space comes what might be called right living. I feel like I’ve touched into something eternal and connected. Everything is known… and how much I don’t know it known :-)

    Feels like I’m right off topic as such… but it comes back to frameworks or assumptions. Those frameworks or assumptions are concepts which drop away and essentially become meaningless. The question of yoga in schools is nonsensical. It’s like asking – do we teach a way to fully engage with the deeper reality of life or not? Do we give our children a tool to know themselves? To know life? That’s the real question. And if not… what are we so afraid of…?

    All talk of religion and Hinduism is just distraction.

    • As far as the yoga in schools controversy goes, I think we must remember that the parents who are outraged and took it to court are of the anti-science fundamentalist ilk, so your questions “do we teach a way to fully engage with the deeper reality of life or not? Do we give our children a tool to know themselves? To know life? ” to them would likely be answered with a big NO!

    • “This practice, grounded as it is in the physical, seems to bring me out of my head and in touch with consciousness through the medium of my body. Out of this, all kinds of insights and understandings about my psyche and about reality arise. From this arising, comes release and letting go. And out of this space comes what might be called right living. I feel like I’ve touched into something eternal and connected.” YES!!!!!!

      I have had many amazing, deep experiences during non-spiritual yoga classes: visions and sudden understandings of reality that led to huge changes in my life. Those surrounding me in the yoga studio at the time were often less than amused, as I was not usually following along with the class in the asanas when this happened, but meditating as my intuition drew me. They considered it rude. I believe their behaviour is an example of cultural appropriation, being offended by someone having an experience that is the whole point of yoga while they are trying to rigidly keep up with the asanas the teacher is dictating.

  12. Hinduism in its essense could include all religions in itself, what other religions do not accept of course. that is a contradiction. the term religion was brought to india from europe, hindu do not subdivide their life into different parts like religion or culture, that is why the quesion about religious nature of yoga is about intercultural misunderstanding,

  13. I was all set to reply to certain threads, but my browswer refreshed and I lost my place, so I’ll just make my comment general. It will be rambling, touching on many aspects of this wonderful conversation we are having.

    First, as to the issue of Christians accepting yoga and learing about its roots with an open mind: A possible way to calm nervous Christians when talking about yoga philosophy is one that I have used to some success. Instead of just saying God or the Divine, we can say “The God of your understanding”. However, there are still many, many misinformed/closed minded Christians out there who can’t even get that far because they view anything not of their own brand of religion as connected with their Devil. I gave up trying to convince my Baptist aunt, who was interested in Hatha yoga asana practice, that being in the same room as someone chanting Om would not bring the presence of evil into the room and put her in danger of losing her soul. I’m serious. It sounds crazy, but I actually had this conversation with an otherwise reasonable adult. Perhaps it’s also good to remember that for many of these people, any practice that brings one into their body is actually considered sinful to them, as they see the body as inherently sinful, rather than a temple, a glorious creation, and one with the universe. For them, it is necessary to see yoga as purely a kind of exercise, nothing more, which is a form of cultural appropriation in that it strips all the meaning and history out of the asana practice. The question here is do we make yoga exclusive, keeping out those who cannot accept the spiritual side of it, or let them practice and hope it will help to open their minds and make them better people?

    There is a group here in Ecuador called the School of Auto Realization, founded by a Catholic priest. I have had some contact with them, but not enough to speak with authority. This priest, Father Davila, wrote a book about how the central idea of yoga is compatible with Catholicism (and I think religion in general) as it all has the same aim, just perhaps different ways of going about it. Followers of this organization hold meditation sessions that incorporate parts of the Catholic mass tradition (I think it’s mass, but i’m not Catholic so I’m not sure). They also attend classes on Yoga philosophy, studying from the ancient texts, and host visiting Swamis who give talks. The last one I attended was on Tantra, and an explanation of the difference between true Tantra and what the Swami called the American version that is focused on sex. They train yoga asana teachers and hold regular classes. I don’t know where I stand on the issue of cultural appropriation on this group, but I can say I felt very uncomfortable and actually disturbed when I attended their meditation group and they started singing the CAtholic parts. It was creepy.

    Since Mathew has brought comparative religion into the discussion, I will add this, which I also tell visitors and members to my sangha. When one studies the mystics of all the major religions, you find that there is a common thread, common experiences, separated by centuries and cultures and ignorant of each other: during deep meditation/devotion, followers of Catholicism, Sufism, Kabbalah, Buddhism, and Yogis see and describe a blue light as the presence of God/the divine. To me this is proof that we are all one, and every religion, although they may scream otherwise, are worshipping the same God. Now I am not a scholar of comparative religion, nor can I cite sources, so please don’t ask, Matthew!

    And finally, on my own experiences of cultural appropriation. I have over the years come to the conclusion that my immunity to the fundamentalist insanity of my family, the fact that I always saw them as if from a distance, as ignorant and absurd and feeling wiser than them even as a very young child, my seemingly inherent knowledge of certain thingsand always feeling older and wiser than many of those around me, certain people’s reactions to me- fear and loathing from some and a kind of understanding or acknowledgment that I am different from others, my being drawn to Indian clothing and culture despite never having any contact with it until I was in my later 20’s, among other things, as proof that I am an old soul with lifetimes of experience. One person close to me has said on many occasions, for no apparent reason except maybe that I was wearing a kurti, or in my yoga clothes, “You’re not Indian!!! You are British and Canadian!!!”. The implication, although not what that person was actually thinking, was that I am appropriating a culture that is not mine. This person becomes more vocal about it when discussing my (almost) vegetarian diet and love of curry. A coworker, many years ago, took to calling me a reverse coconut after knowing me for a very short time, and that was before the yoga got into my life, saying that I am more Indian than white. That came from his intuition rather than anything external. I also read another post on this topic recently, I believe connected to Decolonizing Yoga, in which the author stated that anyone who was not born as a South Asian is a colonist if they practice yoga. So because I am not South Asian in this lifetime, I have never been South Asian in another lifetime and I am not allowed to practice yoga? We never reincarnate into different racial groups? And becasue I was born British and Canadian in this lifetime, I am not allowed to embrace the things that come to me intuitively, that feel naturally part of my soul, because they are outside of the confines of my current incarnation’s culture? Am I appropriating a cullture by “behaving as an Indian” while living in a white skin, even if I do so because I feel that this is the identity of my soul? My soul also has a Celtic identity. Am I just schizophrenic and in need of meds so I will conform to the North American consumer culture? I am asking all this seriously. And no, I have never had a past life regression, nor do I believe I was Cleopatra in a past life, so this is not a new-agey thing for me.

    Ok everyone: GO!!! I look foward to the responses.

    • PS: Thanks for the worm hole, Bob! :)

    • Sirena – thanks for such honest comments. What an incredible life you have! Sirena, cultural appropriation is not what you are doing – in very simple words: it is when you take away a part of the culture just because it is “cool” and not because you inherently or by acquired learning understand the significance or nuances of that part. By wearing a kurti, you are not appropriating it, but if you wear an OM symbol on a chain around your neck, just because it looks cool, but you have no idea of the meaning, the significance, it is appropriating it. Similarly for Yoga, by saying it has Christian roots and the way you described the “creepy” episode, is appropriating it.

      • Sandhu, thank you for responding. I don’t know how you’re keeping up with this flood! One thing that this discussion, and your original post, has done for me is given me a clearer understanding of why I am literally unable to answer when people ask what religion I am. My answer, when not tongue-tied by the difficulty of explaining, is that I practice Yoga, which is not a religion, but MAY be seen as a spiritual way of life, with philosophies that touch every ascpect of lifestyle from diet to behaviour as well as health. The almost inevitable response? “Yes, but which religion are you?” This is the point where I look for a wall to bang my head against.

        As you say, I’m not appropriating a culture because I don’t act out of a desire to be fashionable (in fact it’s very unfashionable to many) but rather I am being true to myself. But how do we counteract those who scream racism and accuse anyone with “white” skin of appropriation for living the way I do? I think the answer lies in not identifying people by their skin colour, as you mention in another post here about multiculturalsim in Canada, but I’m interested in your thoughts in relation to this thread. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the Decolonizing Yoga site, but there is a lot of discussion about this there and I have drifted away from them because I find them quite frankly full of hate and anger, with the underlying theme that being a white heterosexual makes me completely invalid, illegitimate and ‘bad’. They have never responded to a single comment of mine, which I suspect is because of my white hetero identity, but also because I usually make comments about the hate and remind that this is not compatible with yoga. This conversation here is very resfreshing and welcome, given the usual atmosphere surrounding the themes.

        I am guilty of judgement and anger, something I am slowly working on, because a topic I often bring up in my sangha is the way North American/Western yoga has stripped yoga of all meaning and just practice it as exercise, or even worse, take a few bits and pieces of the spirituality and turn them into cool fashion statements. This is a particularly sore point for me since I came to yoga for healing, both physically and spiritually, as a fat person with serious physical injuries, and was overwhelmed by the snide rejection of the majority of those in the lululemon drenched yoga world of Canada. So,do we quietly let those asana practioners keep going and hope the truth of yoga will seep through the cracks, try to educate them, or just cut them off?

        • Well Sirena, sometimes it is hard for me to not get amused at people you are describing. Once I went to buy a thick Yoga mat for my hubby who I was teaching to get into Sirshasana. I walked into the store and asked for a mat, I was asked back, rather authoritatively as to what kind of Yoga I did. I asked, what do you mean? She said what kind? Hatha, hot, power and so on.
          I suppressed my smile and I looked at her calmly and said, just point to the mats, I’ll pick one myself.
          Hatha? Power? Hot? These are just conditions and levels of Yoga. Everything is Hatha – actually Hath Vidya, and if someone is just starting out – you could call it gentle, once you can do the inversions, you could say it is power, but these are not categories. Period.

          I haven’t checked the decolonizing Yoga site but have recently started to look into this. Another gentleman (even HinduLinks on this page quotes) is Mr. Rajiv Malhotra and he has done substantial work in this field. I haven’t read all of his work, but have just started to. Here’s a link to his FB page: https://www.facebook.com/RajivMalhotra.Official?ref=br_tf

    • The “You’re not Indian” remark is hysterical. On my first visit to India, the 3rd day I was there, I was invited to a party. I was told it would be somewhat fancy. So I bought an elegant kurta for the occasion. I got to the party and saw that I was the only man in the room wearing a kurta. Most of the women were wearing saris, but all the Indian men were in suits and sports jackets. Who was appropriating what from whom? And it gets even more interesting: there are many many people, yogis especially, who adopt Indian cultural forms – clothing, food, music, decor – because they associate anything Indian with spirituality. If it’s Indian, it must be Vedic, or Yogic, and therefore superior spiritually to the Western equivalent. What is that? Inflated respect? The opposite of appropriation?

      • Phil – I see your point, but you forgot a very important aspect here – 200 years of British colonization. Everything in India has also to be viewed within a post-colonial framework and not the opposite of appropriation.

      • I saw a great response to something on Decolonizing Yoga, in which it had been said that no white person should ever be wearing any Indian clothing. The commenter asked “so you never wear jeans or t-shirts, right?”. I honestly think, without downplaying the horrors of colonialism, we all just need to move forward and accept that the state of the world today through technology and travel makes for a global melting pot. Of course using sacred symbols as fashion is still not good, just as wearing a Che t-shirt while really knowing nothing about him or the history behind the image is vulgar, but we live in a multi-cultural world now, and even more so as yogis, we should be accepting that we are One.

  14. Interesting and engaging conversation. Sorry but i”m a little late to this but here’s my two cents in relation to my own heritage. Born a Sikh and living in Singapore (culturally diverse city) & practicing asanas, I have been grappling with issues relating to yoga and sanatama dharma. Sikhism, which is obviously a much later offspring of the sanatana dharma principle seemed to serve a function mostly due to racial strife (hindu/muslim) in Punjab region via Guru Nanak. In the same way Buddhism & Buddha (a Hindu avatar) served a function in bringing clarity to truth via nihilistic thought. My point here being that a lot of these other strains such as Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism have derived from Sanatama Dharma or The Vedas ideas and structures in order to construct a way of life (religion). Along the way some of these ideas and concepts have deviated from Sanatama Dharma namely due to “human’’ influence. Likewise a lot of the shamanic or atheistic practices have been, for lack of a better word “tainted’’ by human beings. According to Sanatana Dharma, Vedic principles have been transmitted originally via Rishis directly. Hence that only leaves one with 2 options. 1) To try and follow that Sanatana Dharma via the Vedas which the original Rishis scripted or 2) To keep following whoever’s new interpretation of it (and this applies to 21st century yoga too)

  15. I’ve read this entire article and must disagree vehemently.
    I will not say yoga, in it’s ORIGINAL form, has everything to do with the hedonism of the caste based Brahmin.

    However, to attempt to state the west has turned it into a quiet exercise is an absolute fallacy.

    What the west has done is a repackaging of what the Roman Catholic Church did with the bible to the serfs.

    “Tithes to the church to save your immortal soul!!”

    They have done the same with yoga.

    In my opinion, the west would best be served TO remove their completely misunderstood faux spirituality from the asana practice.

    They have demonstrated they are incapable of removing their Id from the equation.

  16. “Unfortunately, many people are not able to differentiate between Yoga and Hinduism.
    This is the biggest blunder I have seen in many institutions.”
    From an interview with TKV Desikachar
    (I am sure that you are very much aware of who he is but for others reading the blog he is the son of Krishnamacharya whose students include many of yoga’s most renowned teachers: as mentioned his son T.K.V. Desikachar (b. 1938), Indra Devi (1900-2002), his brother-in-law B.K.S. Iyengar (b. 1918), K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), and A. G. Mohan (b. 1945)).
    How do you feel his comments relate to your article?
    I apolgize that I don’t have the link to the interview, I happened to see this on a web site but I have read ‘The Heart of Yoga – developing a personal practise’ in which he includes Patanjali’s sutras but equally I am sure that he says Westerners should not become Hindu and yoga is for all as a guide for mental and physical health.
    Sorry that I do not have the book to hand to quote, I am paraphrasing.

    • “..I am sure that he says Westerners should not become Hindu and yoga is for all as a guide for mental and physical health.”

      T.K.V Desikachar is right. Similarly, charlatans who delink Yoga from Hinduism only to market it as a practice compatible with their own religious traditions ought to be exposed.

    • The quote is from an interview in the April 2008 issue of Fit Yoga, the direct link to the pdf http://www.yogastudies.org/wp-content/uploads/April2008FitYogaDesikachar.pdf from http://www.yogastudies.org/cys-journal/about-paul/ (not me in case there’s any confusion). The quote continues, “This is why we need to clarify that yoga is not a religion, it is a secular practice. It’s not that Patanjali is rejecting religion, it’s not that Patanjali is insisting religion. It’s our choice. It is an individual choice. The whole definition of yoga is, Whatever quiets the mind, do it. Yogas citta vritti nirodhaha. Anything that quiets the mind must be done. If you believe in God, OK. If you chant Buddha, fine, if it quiets the mind. If you don’t have faith in God, I have other solutions. This is what is so special about the Yoga Sutras.” He says later in the interview, “We should not impose on what we do not accept.”

      I think his view, which is accepting of other’s borders even as it rejects borders generally, is a sane approach inclined to peace, and for me a welcome change from the charged claims of ownership and propriety; may we include ‘fencelessness’ in our understanding of aprigraha.

  17. All quite true. The only problem is that American culture is and always has been one of cultural assimilation and appropriation. We are a nation of immigrants, including Hindus from India. We have taken in every sort of person and religion and cultural tradition, and made it a part of our own. We did not go to India and steal yoga from the Hindus. Hindu teachers came here, and taught Americans Yoga and much of the Sanatana Dharma. THey were very eager to do that, and found a receptive audience. They invited Americans to come to India also, to learn Sanatana Dharma. All of that has been in the process of being assimilated and appropriated within American culture, and of course not always in the traditional manner, because after all we are Americans. So clarifying this is fine, but complaining about it is another thing entirely. What comes of this assimilation and appropriation is anyone’s guess, but I think most of it is good, even when yoga asanas are merely treated as healthy forms of exercise, and not viewed as “religious” practices.

  18. Wow, what a discussion! It’s taking up a lot of my time, but I can’t tear myself away :)

    A question for HinduLinks and Matthew:

    It seems to me that from HinduLinks perspective, people who in fact fit Matthew’s description of “not identifying as followers of Sanātana Dharma, but are practicing yoga in earnest (and) drawing inspiration from multiple sources” ARE in fact following Sanātana Dharma, whether they think so or not. After all, Sanhu’s original post already defined Sanātana Dharma as “sets of philosophies, but not one, many. It gives codes of conduct, but not a universal one – it differs from person to person, from life to life and from karmic debts to karmic debts. It is not one rigid philosophy.” So, why couldn’t it hold all the various syncretisms that Matthew is pointing to, provided that they help guide practitioners toward authentic practice?

    In other words, from this perspective, couldn’t it be true that whoever is practicing yoga on a deep, transformative level is connecting with Sanātana Dharma, regardless of whether they understand it in their own minds as Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or contemporary and eclectic? Because if there is one such natural law and yoga connects us to it, everyone who is practicing it effectively is ultimately tapping into the same thing.

    If this is the case, the issue of what that common experience is called still matters culturally and interpersonally – but, perhaps it’s possible to frame why differently. For example, Hindulinks may object to refusing to identify what may in fact be parallel sets of experiences as “Sanātana Dharma” because he believes this connotes a disrespect of the yoga tradition and cultural appropriation. Matthew may alternatively object to insisting that everything be described using that term because he feels that this erases the experience and understanding of people who come from different cultural backgrounds, hold different beliefs and so on. So, it becomes a question of how language does or does not confer recognition, legitimacy, and respect on different individuals and cultural groups. This is important, but not nearly as big an issue as believing that there is in fact no common experience that connects serious practitioners holding different sets of beliefs.

    If there is NOT one natural law or common experience among serious, committed, experienced yoga practitioners, then perhaps beliefs, language, metaphysics, etc. matter not only interpersonally and culturally, but also much more fundamentally. Perhaps through yoga, people are not connecting to only one profound experience, but many different ones. And perhaps beliefs and language help shape that in critical ways, and are therefore very important on a level that includes but goes beyond the cultural and interpersonal. In this case, we are divided not only on who gets recognition and respect and why, but on what sorts of profound experiences are valuable for humans to cultivate, and what it takes to achieve them.

    Hope that’s clear and not too abstract.

    • Well, I had signed out, but this draws me back. And no it’s not too abstract. You’re alluding to a key tension of the universalist framing of “Sanātana Dharma”, which is that in an understandable attempt to reclaim cultural heritage from the echoes of colonialism, it seems to have been used within recent Indian political discourse to minimize the religious and cultural differences that chafe against the vision of unity. That it seems to have the same purpose within discourse around yoga is a function of this larger political agenda, which not only claims that the myriad faiths of India are expressions of a single proprietary root, but also that the revelations of contemporary science flow from the Veda as well. Meera Nanda (public enemy #1 according to many, including Malhotra I believe) has a very provocative article about the politics of religious reductionism, especially as it applies to the appropriation of contemporary science by nation-building sentiments: http://www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=flonnet&rdurl=fl2026/stories/20040102000607800.htm

      (I’m not endorsing the views of this article, because I’m not qualified enough to understand all of the larger issues involved. I’m bringing it in simply to show the vigour of the debate around these issues.)

      Are yogis all doing the same thing in resonance with a coherent natural law, or are we having diverse profound experiences that can’t be categorized under a single rubric? I don’t see how this could possibly be answered. What I’m pretty sure about is that the oneness point of view can be a very effective tool for sanctimonious bullying and the silencing of difference (Kramer and Alstad provide the best review of this mechanism in the Guru Papers), when we all know that the arc of history bends towards the acknowledgement of difference, and the creation of empathetic ways to negotiate it. On the other hand, excessive deconstruction can definitely make people feel as though they’ve been pillaged.

      As you’ve suggested above, I think there’s a very respectful way around the inflammation: that non-Hindu practitioners learn about and express gratitude for those aspects of practice that have Vedic roots, and that they understand their syncretizing process as they import and integrate their many other sources. This understanding in itself might become a way of learning the existential richness of our interdependent condition. Similarly, Hindu practitioners might take pleasure in how attractive their metaphysics and practices have been to non-Hindus, while realizing that these attractions are only part of what may inspire non-Hindus to practice yoga. Perhaps from there, a sense of curiosity may prevail over distrust, as in — “What’s that masala you’re grinding over there? It looks interesting!”

  19. The whole issue of assimilation and appropriation seems very parochial. I have a lifelong interest in spirituality, and have to admit that even though I don’t like aggressive claims by this or that religion of being the best or superior to the others, I do happen to think that sanatana dharma is the best overall religious viewpoint on reality. But that’s just the thing, it’s a viewpoint on reality, and reality is universal. The teachings of the sanatana dharma that are universally true, don’t belong to India or Hinduism or any sect or religion, any more than F=MA belongs to western science. It’s a universal truth, and if Indians study physics in their universities, it’s not cultural colonialism or appropriation. Newton may have discovered and formulate that truth, but because it is universal, anyone can use it and apply it to whatever problems they have.

    There certainly are many aspects of sanatana dharma that are indeed limited to Indian culture, and frankly, not too many westerners even care about those. Is wearing a sari or a sarong really cultural colonialism? Hardly. It gets more serious when it comes to various religious and spiritual philosophies and practices, but when these represent universal truths, and practices that actually exploit our universal spiritual nature, how can they actually be considered the possession of any particular people, even those who first discovered or developed them? Is western mathematics off-limits to eastern peoples? Was Srinivasa Ramanujan appropriating western truths that should be out of bounds because they weren’t developed within his own culture? Or was it quite appropriate for Indians to develop their own scientific traditions and methods, working off the western model?

    Let’s also remember that what is called sanathana dharma or Hinduism is not, itself, a single religion. It is the result of centuries of appropriation and syncretic assimilation of many, many traditions from the India subcontinent. Is Shaivism properly a part of sanathana dharma? THe vedas, after all, barely mention Shiva. By all historical accounts, it appears to have been a pre-existing spiritual tradition in India and elsewhere, that got appropriated by and assimilated into Hinduism. The same could be said for tantra, or even advaita, which developed by appropriating and assimilating and reacting to large aspects of Buddhist and Jain teachings and practices.

    Hinduism would not be what it is today if it had not appropriated and assimilated all the various religious and spiritual traditions of the subcontinent, including some from outside. One simple example would be Vedic astrology, which appropriated the names and Gods of Greek and Sumerian astrology brought to their attention by Alexander’s invasion, and other cultural exchanges with the west. Should vedic astrologers stop using Jupiter and Saturn and the methods of divination they appropriated from the west? Or should we just relax and recognize that there is much good that comes from cross-cultural pollination and exchange?

  20. In my reading today I found this from Patanjali’s sutras:

    I, 2 Yoga is the science of controlling the activities of the mind.

    No mention of religion or even spirituality.

    I, 20 Others attain success in Yoga only through faith, persistent effort, recollection, and the application of a keen intellect.

    Commentary on this sutra by Yogi William Zorn, Yoga for the Mind, 1968:

    “Faith- both in the goal and the methods applied – is needed in order to attain the highest.”

    This speaks to the earlier comments about faith from the commenter that said her faith in Christ is essential to her practice, and religious faith is essential to any practice. This commentary by Yogi Zorn shows us the non-religious context of faith. One must have faith in one’s practice, but not necessarily in a religion or holy person in order to practice yoga. Faith is not solely the property of the religious. I have faith that my husband will do the right thing for our family, but that has nothing to do with religion or spirituality, for example.

  21. This has been a most interesting thread, thanks Sandhu for providing such a nice and clear post, which has developed into a feast for the mind.

    I would like to add a comment, perhaps it has already been expressed somehow but let me try to say this in a different form.
    Please also note that I am not a scholar of the history of spirituality and the forms it takes.
    I think perhaps one of the reasons this whole discussion is tickling us Westerners so much, is that we are simply not used to the idea that it is perfectly possible to be spiritual without proselytising.
    We are so deeply rooted in our Abrahamic ancestry that even when we claim to have rejected it we still cling to it.
    So what we call Dharmic religions become culturally really difficult to digest for us and the only way we seem to understand them is likening to our understanding of secular ethics.
    But Ethics is indeed what Dharma is, if I understand both Dharma and Ethics correctly.

    I think Yoga is proving so compelling for the Western world (I am not just talking about the asana-pranayam part although most of us started there) because through it we start to see the fallacy of rejecting spirituality. It is opening a door which we thought we had shut close.
    We are scarred by the horrors perpetrated by many representatives of a large number of Abrahamic religions and we end rejecting spirituality altogether.
    We really want to be ‘Hindus’ because we see that this worldview is very complete and flexible and indeed advanced, but we are scared that we will be considered weird.
    If it is becoming acceptable to reject religion and become an atheist, conversion to a different spiritual philosophy is a very big taboo.
    So our strategy is fooling ourselves that what makes us feel good is not religious at all, just some somatic psychophysical practice.

    • Chiara – what a wonderful explanation. I deeply respect your acceptance of what it is. It speaks volumes about how advanced you are on the Yoga path – having shed your ego to accept what exactly the resistance is all about. Thank you so much for contributing to the dialogue. I just checked your site and your FB page. Will be in touch.

      • “We are so deeply rooted in our Abrahamic ancestry that even when we claim to have rejected it we still cling to it.”

        You nailed it. Christianity is the wife and Buddhism/Hinduism is the mistress. Use the mistress as much as you can but eventually dump her and return to your wife. This is precisely what is happening in the West.

        “We are scarred by the horrors perpetrated by many representatives of a large number of Abrahamic religions and we end rejecting spirituality altogether.”

        Abrahamic religions especially Christianity are devoid of any useful/real spirituality and this is what upsets so many Christians like Matthew.

        “We really want to be ‘Hindus’ because we see that this worldview is very complete and flexible and indeed advanced, but we are scared that we will be considered weird.”

        This is because Hindus are not obnoxious and loud mouthed like the Christians who go around degenerating other religions. I firmly believe that the Hindus should expose Christianity for what it truly is – a proselytizing tribal brain damaging cult.

        “So our strategy is fooling ourselves that what makes us feel good is not religious at all, just some somatic psychophysical practice.”

        Agree. Most of the SBNR folks are charlatans who absorb the wisdom from the eastern traditions and then go on to claim that all religions teach the same thing thus putting cults like Christianity on an equal footing with wisdom traditions like Hinduism. This is what Matthew tried to do too but he has now disappeared when I exposed his favorite Gnostic Gospels for what they truly are :D

        • “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

          Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

          Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

          When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

          And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

        • One of the many benefits of not commenting anonymously on serious matters is that anyone can look up your name, URL, and general profile to learn a few basic things about you.

          If HinduLinks or anyone else looks into my background, they will find that I have written consistently against religious hegemony, bigotry, bullying, and authoritarianism of all stripes. I’ve criticized Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and New-Age leaders openly when they damage the general project of self-inquiry and the fostering of empathy, which is what I understand yoga to be.

          My record is clear: I affiliate with no group, but I am aware of my life-influences, because they have been precious to me in so many ways — Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist — in that order generally, but also blended together.

          • “My record is clear: I affiliate with no group, but I am aware of my life-influences, because they have been precious to me in so many ways — Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist — in that order generally, but also blended together.”

            Catholic comes first? Yoga and Ayurveda must be catholic then. Three Cheers for Jeeeeesuuuuuuuus!

        • One of the many benefits of not commenting anonymously on serious matters is that anyone can look up your name, URL, and general profile to learn a few basic things about you: Matthew Remski, http://matthewremski.com.

          If HinduLinks or anyone else looks into my background, they will find that I have written consistently against religious hegemony, bigotry, bullying, and authoritarianism of all stripes. I’ve criticized Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and New-Age leaders openly when they damage the general project of self-inquiry and the fostering of empathy, which is what I understand yoga to be.

          My record is clear: I affiliate with no group, but I am aware of my life-influences, because they have been precious to me in so many ways — Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist — in that order generally, but also blended together. I study, practice, and teach yoga and ayurveda from a syncretic and interdisciplinary perspective.

          • Dear Matthew and dear HinduLinks, I really appreciate the dialogue – the case of cultural appropriation is serious one at a lot of levels, like I point out in my recent piece, “Is Karma stupid?” My intent to highlight this aspect was: to point the dangers of cultural appropriation. Do make time to read my latest piece. Also, one of the commentators above has summed up this “reaction” very beautifully. Check out the comment by “chiara” above.

            My position on the topic is very clear: The West has appropriated Yoga and I am not saying this out of some personal vendetta, but a lived cultural and spiritual experience and academic research – in fact, the topic of my further research. Will keep you all posted as and when that progresses.

            At the same time, we don’t really have to get personal here. Matthew, I didn’t know of you before you came as a commentator on my blog. I will definitely read some of your work and try and participate in the discussions on your blog. I’ve interacted with HinduLinks on Twitter and I admire “his/her” introduction, the core philosophy: “Brahman (Pure Consciousness) is all that exists and everything in the universe including the universe is a manifestation of Brahman.”

            While as people of the same world, we need to communicate, we also need to focus that the discussion stays on the topic. I don’t want either of you to take away bitter memories from this dialogue. I hope we all stay connected with the common thread that binds us all – Yog sadhna that teaches us to reach within – to the Pure Consciousness. I don’t mean that we abandon our karma and not write/comment on such topics, but while doing our karma, we shouldn’t forget the dharma – keep that as a top priority over our personal Selves. I look forward to interacting with both of you on my future posts. I’ve learned a lot from you both. Also, please do share some relevant posts that can add to the discussion here.

            Much thanks. Om!

  22. Hi all, I wanted to make one addition to the thread, although the discussion moved away from the Encinitas case.
    I think that it is important to refer to the actual Court ruling when discussing the putcome, rather than just using newspaper articles or the Yoga Aliance website, which obviously tend to highlights their own agenda. Here it is http://www.volokh.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/sedlock.pdf
    The Judge rules that Yoga IS religious, but the way will be taught will just focus on health and welfare so the children will not be led away from their chosen religions. And by the way, I think that even i n the Yoga Sutra wsomewhere we find that we shoudl perform Ishvara Pranidhana on our chosen deity.

    Secondly, in case someone wants to comment, this is what ai had written on the Yoga Alliance facebook page ca two months ago. No replies from the YA folks, perhaps not surprising, although not all other commenters agreed with me:
    “Chiara Ghiron I have thought long and hard about this, changed my mind over the matter a few times but I think I have now come to my own view of the matter, and I see a few problems.

    First – Yoga IS a spiritual discipline. It is NOT a religion, sure, but we can split hairs over the difference (spiritual = personal, religious = organised for example) and to deny this is disingenuous.

    Now why parents would be against a discipline which enhances insight into a higher plane of existence is a mystery to me, but there you go. In my limited knowledge of religious practices I seem to understand that ALL religions have a meditative side, and even Abrahamic religions, at least initially, envisioned a God DWELLING in ourselves. Not very different from Purusha, is it?
    My personal view is that if there is a God, it must be one and the same for every single human being. The rest is just culture and different ways to recognise this entity.
    The problem stays for true Atheists, of course.

    Second – Money is involved. When you receive money, you are bound to have to make some sort of compromises. So we have a community of parents essentially refusing to have to bend their ideas in exchange for money, and the Yoga community pushing its agenda.

    Pretending that Yoga is just calisthenics, worse still believing it, totally misses the point.

    I think we should not be afraid to publicly acknowledge that Yoga is a spiritual practice, yet we should not force students to adopt specifically religious paraphernalia.

    I think it would have been much better to be honest and say – yes, Yoga is a spiritual practice, a discipline that teaches practictioners to find peace and happiness through the interconnection of body, mind and spirit. Its ethical principles are in line with universal ethical principles.
    Is this bad? Do you find this dangerous for your children?
    We will not promote Hindu practices in our classes, but will promote awareness that we must respect each other because we are connected.

    Maybe parents would have looked at the proposal with different eyes”

    More recently, afte the ruling, I commented again in a YA victorious post and this is what I got back

    Chiara Ghiron sort of happy but… are you sure that the reasons for winning are true to Yoga?
    3 July at 23:05 via mobile · Like

    Yoga Alliance Hi Chiara Ghiron- From our perspective, we disagree with the view that yoga is inherently religious and that teaching yoga in school promotes religion, regardless of context. From our work with the yoga community over the past 13 years, we have interacted with people of many faiths, along with agnostics and atheists, as they engage in the practice and teaching of yoga. We believe that yoga can be taught in a completely secular manner and that children and adults alike can benefit from this transformative practice. You can learn more about this perspective from the court documents that we submitted to support this position on behalf of the case: http://www.yogaalliance.org/ya/Articles/Sedlock_05_16_13.aspx

  23. Wow that was a lot of comments to scroll through haha. Interesting read! I do enjoy Yoga, but purely as physical excercise to strengthen, stretch and tone. I identify myself as a born again Christian and so obviously, not Hindu. If that means I’m not doing ‘proper’ Yoga than that’s fine with me :)

    • Dear Carolyn – thanks for stopping by. Yes, a lot of comments on this post! But if you read my post carefully, not to say you haven’t – that is precisely the point I am trying to make. Religion and dharma are two concepts you cannot examine in the same framework and dharma is not an “ism”, so it is unfair to even call it a religion. And this is in context of the debate in the US.

  24. When Hindus take the word “religion” out of the equation, they play right into the hands of the phony Yogis. They, too, simply say “Yoga is not a religion.” Since real Yoga is all about the Hindu religion, it has no place in the public schools other than has a comparative religious studies.

  25. The facts are that real Yoga is Hindu Dharma; taught by Hindus and not for a fee. The point is, what are Hindus (and other concerned individuals) going to do about this theft of the Hindu/Yogic Dharma??

  26. Thank you for writing this article. It has shed some light on a question I have been asking myself for some time: “Am I culturally appropriating by identifying as Hindu/Shaktist?”

    While I am careful not to appropriate the cultural items related to Hinduism that do not and could never belong to my identity, the fact is, I believe in the tenets and principles of Shaktism wholeheartedly (although I may not always understand them as in-depth as I would like to, whereas someone raised in it would have a deeper understanding). And I practice yoga to those principles, as I practice living in general.

    What you explained about it being the wrong kind of framework to think about yoga in terms of a religious practice, or even to think of Hinduism in that way, has clarified my own position and shown me where I fit in relation to the question of religion/culture/philosophy. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and knowledge!

  27. Thank you SO much for posting this. It frustrated me so much to see how many spiritual and religious elements from the East are appropriated. Every time I try to explain to people how/why yoga is appropriation, they look at me like I am crazy. To me, this is the prime example of how those who appropriate tell others what is appropriation and what is not. I have reblogged this so that those who frequent my blog, including new agers and pagans, who often do a lot of spiritual appropriating, can see and understand why what they do is a problem.

  28. hi, I’ve been reading up on the cultural appropriation of yoga and have been asking people who are south asian about the topic. i’ve heard thus far that first and foremost i should at least make sure i know yoga’s roots and actually appreciate it, rather than try to claim it, if i wish to practice it. also, that i, as non-south asian, need invitation/permission to practice yoga, which i gladly respect. so with further research and knowledge on how to not bastardize it into western “yoga,” would I have permssion from you?

    • The facts are that all of real Yoga is Hinduism and therefore taught by Hindus and (true to all religions) not for a fee. Anyone is free to study Hinduism/Yoga, but, in order to teach, one must be a qualified Hindu. It is sad how much as been stolen from the Hindus and how much the Hindus have let go. Time to stop this, yet another, violation of a people and their religion.

      Swami Param
      Classical Yoga Hindu Academy

      • Swami Param, your comment above about anyone being free to study yoga, but not for a fee, brought an immediate response to my mind. I am appalled by the state of Yoga in the West, and feel I am in constant battle against those who think it is cool and fashionable, and a way to have a great body, but are ignorant of its true spiritual nature.

        I am about to pay over $3000 to accept an invitation to study at an Ashram in India, where the Guru and Master are both Indian and Hindu. Part of the program includes an international (American) certification, which obviously would cost money since it is commercialized, but the main part of the program is spiritual in which we will follow a strict regimine of religious life and study the ancient texts. The master who invited me to his program is a wonderful teacher, with whom I felt an instant connection when I attended his (paid) workshop last year. The experience was extremely emotional for me, as I felt that he is the teacher I have been waiting and hoping for for many years as soon as he began to talk and left the fashion yoga crowd staring and blinking in confusion at his words of true Yoga.I have also paid a lot of money to attend conferences and workshops with visiting Swamis from India, all very respectable spiritual teachers.

        Perhaps it is time to look at the issue from both sides? If Hindus do not wish to have their culture appropriated, then maybe they should not be selling it at exhorbitant prices? Where are the Hindus speaking out against Bikram, who is a glaring expample of this, not to mention that his ego driven empire is the antithesis of true Yoga? It would seem that there are many Hindus violating their own culture and religion, according to your standards. I would also suggest that a very large part of the equation is left out of your reasoning. Like it or not, we live in a world where people must accept energy exchange for their work, spiritual or otherwise, so that they may survive. I admit to having my own struggles accepting this and coming to terms with the monetary system, but until we have a different system in its place, I, like all other teachers, need to accept money in exchange for my spiritual work so that I can not only survive but also continue studying and offering help to others.

        • I’m not Hindu and have never taken a “yoga” class, so it may seem odd that I’m commenting here. I am however, very concerned about cultural appropriation – albeit mostly in terms of another cultural system being appropriated by non-members like me. …I didn’t know that there could be a dispute about Yoga. Even I know that Yoga is Hindu. It has been shared with others but that doesn’t make it not-Hindu.

          My words are going to be somewhat imprecise. I love English, it’s my native tongue, however I recognize that it doesn’t represent thought processes from other languages very well. (See what I mean?) ;)
          From my perspective, it is very kind indeed that Hindus so willingly share their tradition with others, however, treating guests well is not the same thing as being forced to turn over the keys to the house. OR having your guests throw their money around so that the neighbours begin to shrug and sell up because – a million reasons because, I suppose. …But certainly, if a tradition (knowledge) is communal, then one person going off and selling it is a violation since that one person cannot act for the whole community. That would be like one person selling all the rights to his/her community’s air. This usually does not compute with our individualism in the West – I don’t know how it relates to Hindu perspectives.

          On the subject of money, well, I go traditional on this one, because money really changes the nature of an exchange. There’s a sad idea in the West that the more you pay the more valuable the experience must be. We need to resist and say no to that vicious circle and refuse to participate. That is how a few people died in the U.S. desert attending what was supposedly a ‘Sweatlodge’ put on by an arrogant non-Native, who charged $9000.00 for the (i think) four days! Sometimes seekers mean no harm but they do harm anyway – either to themselves or others – when they suppose that a tradition is for the taking, rather than something that requires giving back to/maintaining/lovingly selflessly serving. That is the blindspot of the Western seeker, in my opinion. The relationship is lopsided and thus reveals the inequality in the exchange. The Western seeker needs to ask not what another ‘Way’ (sorry, language!) can do for us, but what we can do (and not do) for it, to keep it alive and keep it real. Surely at the very least we should realize that just because someone has given us an inch doesn’t mean we should take a mile?

Trackbacks

  1. Best of Yoga Philosophy for the Week. | Bob Weisenberg
  2. Is Karma stupid? « Sandhu Bhamra on Finding Self
  3. Cultural Appropriation and the Pagan Community: AKA White Privilege « The Hoodoo Witch
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