Saturday, April 25, 2015

Secularization or Destruction of Yoga?

Nithin Sridhar

(An edited version of the article has been published NewsGram on April 20, 2015)

In what is being seen as a landmark judgment by some quarters of population world-wide, an appeals court in California, USA has upheld a decision by the San Diego Superior Court that the yoga program in the Encinitas School District is ''devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings.'' The appeals court has ruled that the said yoga program is secular and it did not had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. It has been reported that in 2013, a lower court in California had ruled that “yoga has become a distinctly American cultural phenomenon”. This judgment has once again raised the question “Is Yoga Secular or Religious?” But, it also raises a more important but often ignored question, “Whether the ‘secular Yoga’ is really Yoga?” The article tries to explore answers to both these questions.

What is Yoga?

Yoga literally means “Union” or “Conjunction”. Patanjali Yoga Sutra (1.2-3) defines Yoga as a state wherein the patterns (vrittis) of the mind has been removed or stilled, so that the “seer” (i.e. Atman, the Witness) abides in his real nature”. Hence, yoga is a state of Samadhi, wherein the Self or Atman has been isolated from the limitations of Non-Self entities like body and mind so that the Atman alone shines. This state is achieved by stilling the mind by causing all the various thought-modifications of the mind to cease. Just as various thoughts and dreams are products of modifications of “manas/mind”. Similarly, from purely subjective perspective the objective universe one perceives is also due to the modifications of one’s mind. The Atman is the witness and the body and the mind are the objects. Hence, when the mind is stilled and the modifications of mind are brought into a stop, the objects merge into the subject and the Atman which is the subject alone remains. This state of Samadhi is called as “Yoga” or “Union” because there is a Union of duality of object and subject giving rise to the non-dual abidance in Atman.

What is the goal of Yoga?

The whole system of Yoga is designed to attain this state of Self-abidance. Patanjali describes an eight limbed process to attain the ultimate Union. These eight limbs are- yama (external discipline), niyama (internal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (one pointed concentration), dhyana (meditative absorption) and samadhi (Ultimate Union). It is to be noted that Asana or practice of various postures and pranayama or the practice of breath regulation are not considered as foundational limbs. Instead they occur as third and fourth limb respectively. The foundation limbs are yama and niyama which constitutes various external and internal disciplines. Yama includes ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (freedom from avarice). Niyama includes shaucha (cleanliness), santosha, tapah (austerity/control of mind and senses), svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhanani (devotion to God).Without a constant practice of these yama and niyama, no amount of Asana can lead to higher limbs of Yoga. The Yama and Niyama aims to purify the mind and impart detachment and dispassion to the practitioner. The aim of Asana is to keep the body healthy and make it a proper instrument for higher practice. The Pranayama aims to regulate the breath which is very much necessary for stilling the mind. It is only by a proper synchronization of all the four limbs that a person is able to withdraw his senses (pratyahara) and attain one-pointed concentration (dharana). If, a person was to practice postures alone then all one will be able to attain is a healthy body. But, developing a healthy body is not the ultimate goal of Yoga. In fact it is not the ultimate goal of human life itself. According to Hindu philosophy, the ultimate goal of human life is Moksha and all other activities and goals be it Kama, Artha or Dharma are to be aligned to make way for an individual to ultimately reach the goal of Moksha. Hence, be it Yoga or Bharatanatyam or Indian Classical music, every aspect of Indian life was conceived as a medium to attain an eternal abidance in Atman i.e. Moksha.

Hence, having a healthy body or a healthy life-style cannot be ultimate goal of Yoga. Instead it can only be a secondary and interim goal that is aimed at turning the body and the corresponding lifestyle into conductive instruments that are then able to attain the ultimate goal of Samadhi.

Is Yoga Secular or Religious?

“Secularism” refers to the separation of religion from political, social and economic systems and institutions. The creation of this separation is rooted in European history where the concept was used for the separation of the state from the hegemony of the church. But, no such separation ever existed in the Indian concept of life. The foundation of Indian life is Sanatana Dharma and this Dharma dictates every aspect of Indian life. There is no artificial division of sacred and secular in the Dharmic view of life because there was never a conflict between secular subjects and faith-based subjects, between science and religion. Dharma guides both secular and sacred aspects of life. In fact, Dharma harmoniously unites both and helps an individual to work towards the highest goal of Moksha. The Hindu concept of life aims at using even the most secular activities into attempts at reaching the higher goal. The music, dance, martial arts, physical exercises or medicine everything is helpful in equipping an Individual to attain the Moksha.

Hence, to the question whether Yoga is Secular? The answer is definitely not. Whether Yoga is religious in the sense that it is faith-based alone? The answer again is a “No”. When any activity is upheld as being secular, it often means that the activity completely is unreligious in nature without any element of religion or spirituality. Similarly, when any activity is considered as “religious” it means that the activity is only faith based without any scientific or verifiable element in them. But, Yoga does not fit into either of the definitions. It is not secular because it is not a physical exercise regimen that is devoid of any religious value. Instead the ultimate goal of Yoga is the “Abidance in Atman” which is among the most basic tenet of Hinduism. Similarly, it is not entirely religious in the faith sense, because it is a well designed complete system which rests on individually verifiable results and not on blind faith. Yoga is a dharmic life-style system that has both, faith and non-faith elements, both verifiable and ethical elements that aim at imparting the highest goal of “abidance in Atman” to the practitioner. Hence, when a person or an organization attempts to secularize Yoga, it results in serious consequences.

Secularization or Destruction?

In the present case of Yoga programs that were held in Encinitas School District, it is reported that the Yoga program was secularized by removing all the religious elements including the removal of the usage of Sanskrit words like Namaste and Sanskrit names of the postures. The Padmaasana for example was promoted as “criss cross apple sauce” posture. Now the question is, what is the basis of considering the terms like “Namaste” and “Padmaasana” as religious and hence needed to be removed? Padma-asana simply means “lotus-posture”. It is one of the basic postures that help a person to enter a deep meditation. The term “Padma” or lotus is used not only because the asana resembles a blooming lotus but also because, a person retains the grip on his body even after entering deep meditation. Just as a lotus floats in water, staying above water yet being in constant touch with it, a practitioner will remain in deep meditation without casting off his body. But, any such symbolism and understanding is lost when it is translated as “criss cross apple sauce”. That exactly seems to be the goal. The present example clearly denotes that in the name of secularization, a ripping away of Yoga from its Indian and Dharmic roots is being carried out. There is nothing religious about the usage of terms like Namaste or Padmasana that they should be discarded. They are discarded because they are words of Sanskrit and hence indicate that Yoga is a product of Indian Civilization and Sanatana Dharma. This is a clear case of dilution and digestion of Yoga.

Rajiv Malhotra in his Indra’s Net describes a two stage process of this digestion of Yoga. In the first stage, Yoga is reformulated either as a health programme or as ‘spiritual but not religious’ programmes so that the practice of Yoga is diluted and is put into a neutral ground where it can be easily digested into western culture. In the next stage, this digested version is reformulated into Christian Yoga on one hand and into various systems of knowledge like Western cognitive science, neuroscience etc on the other hand. Hence, in two easy steps, Yoga which is rooted in Sanatana Dharma and whose aim is abiding in the Atman is turned into a Christian religious practice. Therefore, a direct result of this secularization of Yoga is its dilution, digestion and eventual destruction of its dharmic teachings. And such a digested Yoga which is devoid of its dharmic teachings is no Yoga at all. Just as a person is considered dead when his soul lives the body, similarly when Dharma is uprooted from Yoga, it will no longer remain as Yoga. It would remain only an outer shell, whose essence has been sucked out.

If it be said that, there is nothing wrong with such digestion of Yoga as it has paved way for Yoga to reach larger number of audience helping them practice a healthy lifestyle. The answer is that, if a diluted version of Yoga can be of such immense help to people, then one can only imagine the various ways in which a genuine Yoga can help in transforming one’s life. Don’t the people have the right for both materialistic and spiritual welfare? Why should any person be devoid of wholesome benefits of Yoga? Further, if a person is only interested in body-building or health benefits, there are other practices like gymnastics, aerobics etc. that they can involve themselves with. And if any person is genuinely interested in Spiritual progress as well, then he or she should have no problem in adopting the Dharmic outlook and philosophy that forms the core of Yoga. Hence, no argument can be used to justify this digestion and destruction of Yoga.

What is the way forward?

The genuine teachers of Yoga in India and the west must take initiative to counter any attempts at dilution or digestion of Yoga. This can be done by-

1. The Yoga teachers must first become strongly grounded in the traditional practice of Yoga. They must be not only thorough in various aspects of philosophy and practice of Yoga but they must be also aware of basic Hindu philosophy.

2. The Yoga teachings must be imparted only to those students who are competent to have it and it must not be sold like a commercial products.

3.  The Yoga must be taught as a wholesome dharmic system whose aim is both material and spiritual welfare and not as an exercise regimen.

4.  The Yoga teachings should not be diluted for the sake of promoting oneself or gaining more students. The traditional teachings, its terminologies, its meaning and significance etc. should not be distorted.

5.  The Yoga teachers must uphold the tradition and promote the tradition instead of promoting their own self.

6.  Each student must be assessed for his capability and only those teachings that are suitable to him must be imparted. But, this should be done by keeping wholeness of Yoga in mind.

7.  Any specific part or limb of Yoga should not be promoted as a distinct practice on their own. Instead a wholesome teaching of Yoga must be imparted but specific instructions can be based on Individual capacities.

The Hindu parents should become aware about Hindu religion and Philosophy. They must become aware about significance of Yoga in material as well as spiritual welfare. They must learn Yoga in its entirety and practice them as a medium to attain ultimate goal and not just as health regimen. They must teach the same to their children as well. These simple measures go a long way in preserving the authentic tradition of Yoga and protecting it against secularization and digestion.

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