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Should Hindus worry about the “theft” of yoga?

By: Parthiv N. Parekh Email By: Parthiv N. Parekh
October 2010
Should Hindus worry about the “theft” of yoga?

By blogosphere standards, an April post may seem ancient. But this one, titled, “The theft of yoga,” by Aseem R. Shukla, M.D., co-founder of an influential advocacy group called the Hindu American Foundation, raised some enduring questions. More so because the original post, appearing in the On Faith section of Washingtonpost.com was soon countered by best-selling author and an icon of New Age spirituality, Deepak Chopra. The resulting debate between Shukla and Chopra sparked off a worldwide fervor amongst online commentators.

In the original essay, Shukla laments that despite the wide popularity of yoga in America, its Hindu origins are overtly omitted and even outright denied. He quotes the American Yoga Association, which states on its website, “The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries...”

In his rebuttal to Shukla, Chopra too asserts the same—that “the rise of Hinduism as a religion came centuries after the foundation of yoga in consciousness and consciousness alone.” Chopra also traces yoga back to the era of Sanatana Dharma (“eternal religion”), which, according to him, not only predates Hinduism but is distinct from it. Shukla, on the other hand, asserts that Hinduism is just a subsequent moniker for the same body of work called Sanatana Dharma.

Chopra’s is clearly a minority opinion; most Hindus unequivocally see Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma as the same. That itself wouldn’t make Chopra wrong. However, his assertion raises a question: To what, if not Sanatana Dharma, did the coinage “Hinduism” refer to? There is simply no other body of knowledge known to mankind that the word Hinduism might be attributed to.

If Chopra believes yoga was founded in “consciousness alone,” it is precisely that consciousness that the world now calls Hinduism. Sure, Hinduism also refers to many other mundane aspects of organized religion that Chopra, in his mind, separates from the other. But doing so goes against the historical fact of a continuous lineage of the same entity that gave birth to yoga, Veda, Vedanta, Bhagwad Gita and much more.

Shukla is therefore right about his lament that Hinduism doesn’t get due credit for yoga.

But here’s a case where being right and doing right may not be the same. What is the ultimate purpose of all Hindus? All religions? Is it a selfish need for the glorification of one’s faith, or an authentic desire for the wellbeing of all mankind? If it is the latter, then it is important to relinquish the Hindu ownership of yoga. Only then can it serve humanity better.

Sure, as Hindus, we may feel a sense of loss at yoga’s universalization. I am also cognizant of Shukla’s well placed concern about the ignorance and misconceptions about Hinduism in America. But correcting misconceptions of Hinduism and raising its profile is separated by a very fine line from parochialism and chauvinism that would have us hogging its bounties.

Holding ourselves out as the barons of yoga, we would alienate it from the rest of the world—after all, who wants to practice the traditions of another’s religion? Shukla writes that Hinduism being “avowedly pluralistic,” requires no allegiance to it to benefit from its sacred wisdom. But most non-Hindus are not aware of that; and so projecting yoga as a Hindu offering makes it off limits to many. 

Already, there are Christian fundamentalists who are scaring their flocks from the life-positive practices of yoga and meditation by caricaturing them as “Hindoo” voodoo. Why not diffuse such maligned streaks by asserting the secular nature of yoga?

It is indeed true that while yoga may have come from the fount of Hinduism, in its essence it is a secular practice. One does not need to subscribe to any dogma, or believe in any deity, to practice yoga. Yes, there are sacred Sanskrit invocations intertwined with yoga practices; but those too are reflective of the time and place that yoga derives from, rather than of any requirement of adherence to any belief system. As long as there is a component of Bhakti (devotion) to any form (or to the formless even), true yoga is happening.

While I found Chopra (and to some extent, Shukla) combative and judgmental in their tones, I agree with Chopra’s particular bit of wisdom on the essential point of this debate: “The true success of Hinduism is measured by how many members transcend it, not by how many are keen to monopolize it or brand it.”

It also surprises me how much we are willing to bat for the credit of a phenomenon while ignoring the substance of it: when the word yoga itself means “union,” where is the question of one or another to steal from?

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