Yoga is not teaching religion.
Or is it?
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 closest 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.
“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!)