In The New York Times last week (27 November 2010), Paul Vitello reported on a debate which has been sparked by a Hindu group’s campaign trying to reclaim yoga as belonging to “the Hindu religion”.

Apparently, yoga is practised by about 15 million people in the United States, “for reasons almost as numerous - from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it”.

Well, religion may have nothing to do with yoga, so far as Americans are concerned, but that is precisely what this Hindu group is complaining about: they would like the popularity of yoga to produce some mileage for “Hinduism”!

Predictably, reactions to the campaign ranged from sympathetic to oppositonal. For example, Deepak Chopra has, according to the report, dismissed the campaign as it is based on “a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism”.

I guess anyone’s response to the campaign will depend on what exactly one means by “yoga” (Indian tradition distinguishes between many different sorts of yoga).

Also on whether there is such a thing as “Hinduism” - or whether there are in fact “many Hinduisms”, as I tried to show as long ago as 1984 in my little booklet titled Indian Spirituality (available for free download – or, if that fails for any reason, directly from me).

Briefly, my position is that yoga did not originate in whatever one might call “Hinduism” today, but in those traditions that opposed what was Hinduism at that time - specifically, yoga originated in the traditions that eventually ended up creating Buddhism and Jainism (which are clearly Indian traditions, but whether they are “Hindu” or not is a point that can be, and has been, argued either way; originally yoga was “anti-Hindu”).

Actually, few people care about the zig-zag and contradictory history of the relationship between yoga and “Hinduisms”.

Since the debate in the USA is principally about Hatha Yoga (the physical aspects of yoga - which are not usually linked to philosophy, ritual, etc), I guess we should say that today yoga is simply another form of exercise.

That is the case not only in the West, but also in India!

Prabhu Guptara

South Asian Concern