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The Right Posture: The Paradox of the Yoga Debate

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is vice-chancellor of Ashoka University. He is one of India’s most influential columnists and public intellectuals
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As International Yoga Day approaches, there is a curious paradox in the contemporary discourse surrounding yoga in India. On the one hand, there is the almost matter- of-factness about the United Nations resolution on yoga. As many as 170 countries signed the resolution— as much of an international consensus as you can get. The objectives of yoga are prosaically stated: yoga will foster better ‘global health’; will promote lifestyles devoid of ‘excesses of all kinds’; and promotes a ‘holistic approach to health and well being’. It reflects the almost casual way in which the practice of yoga has been globally enshrined in more forms than can be imagined. On the other hand, there is an excessively misplaced undercurrent of anxiety that there might be something sinister about the promotion of yoga, especially by the state. The importance of yoga, its health benefits if properly done, its claims as a form of knowledge, and more ambitiously its ability to create a new ethic of the Self, are too obvious to need any restatement. It is difficult to take seriously arguments that oppose the greater dissemination of yoga. But the exaggerated anxieties about yoga reveal much about the politics of knowledge, and also illuminate our knowledge of politics.

Yoga’s Political Moorings

Yoga has, in recent times, been an object of ideological contention. The modern spread of yoga begins in the 19th century as part of a deep and profound reformulation of various Indian traditions as they jostled with a new context of knowledge. The importance of Swami Vivekananda in this endeavour cannot be exaggerated; and critiques by modern scholars of yoga are often—as we shall see—a way of getting back at him. His Raja Yoga acquired the status of a modern canonical text; he revived wide public interest in Patanjali, and squarely made a claim for yoga as a distinctive contribution to knowledge. There have been waves of dissemination and innovation since. A key and somewhat under-studied figure in this history is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the guru of the great BKS Iyengar, responsible for India’s biggest knowledge export. Krishnamacharya is widely credited with articulating and consolidating a modern canon of postural yoga. The rich history of yoga dissemination— and its mutation into different forms—has been well articulated in numerous books.

But the transformation of yoga has embroiled it in the politics of knowledge in many different ways. The first issue has to do with the identification of yoga with Hinduism. In the United States, the teaching of yoga in schools was legally challenged. The San Diego Superior Court Judge, John S Meyer, issued a ruling that in a sense reflects the modus vivendi that characterises contemporary representations of yoga. He ruled that yoga was a religious practice, but not in the way taught by Encinitas Union school district. Such a construct, that yoga can be taught in a way that cleanses it of all religious odour, is a workable institutional solution. This cleansing is reflected even in language: to make yoga instruction palatable in American schools, the padmasana was apparently renamed the ‘crisscross apple sauce position’. That is the spirit behind the UN declaration.

But, in many ways, it has only raised questions about the identity of modern yoga. What does yoga do for the identity of its adherents? In contemporary times, the identity functions of yoga have oscillated between two poles. Asana yoga and the protocols evolved for mass yoga education have been represented as a form of knowledge detachable from theological or metaphysical moorings. This has elicited charges of betrayal from two different constituencies. On the one hand, Hindu groups in America often talk as if dissociating yoga from Hinduism is akin to a form of theft; it allows for the easy appropriation of something that is central to the identity of Hindus, understood in a broad sense. Yoga is used to consolidate identities in India as well (which we will come to later). On the other hand, there is a scholarly charge that this construction of yoga is somehow inauthentic, driven more by considerations of consumerist modernity, allied with entrepreneurship and a patchwork of ideologies from modern gymnastics to theosophy. Much of the effort from otherwise erudite scholars like David Gordon White to Wendy Doniger has been to knock modern yoga down a perch or two. It is worth engaging with these arguments—because they are symptomatic of the politics of yoga in relation to its traditions.

The forms the primary argument takes are simple. The first is an emphasis on the historicity of yoga, where the claim of historicity is also combined with a charge of inauthenticity. Contemporary yoga, in this view, is largely a 19th century creation and bears little relationship to now canonised classics like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which were themselves a ‘rediscovery’ of the 19th century, largely on the instigation of British Orientalism. This claim is articulated, for instance, in White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography. At one level, the idea that yoga might have a history that has evolved and served different functions at different times is hardly news. Many traditional texts on yoga, including the incomparable Yogadrishtisamuccya (if you read one book on yoga, this is the one) by the Jain monk Haribhadra, have a deep awareness of a variety of yogas and the different motivations behind them. If you read the tradition, the question of what yoga is, understood as a search for some authentic core, seems rather misplaced. Indeed, the tradition is deeply self conscious about the different ways in which different yogas serve the needs of different constituencies. In this sense, a watered down postural routine, while not satisfactory to higher adepts, can hardly be called a betrayal.

The second move is to flood yoga under sectarian controversies. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a variety of interpretations of yoga; and different schools, from Jainism to Advaita, have sought to represent yoga through the metaphysical categories of their adherents. Why would this be a surprise to anyone? The real question is the relationship between metaphysics and yoga practice (which, again, we will come to later). Much modern yoga is seen to be an outgrowth of a neo-Vedanta ideology, whose most visible manifestation has been Vivekananda’s espousal. But the charge often is that this ideology was itself not so much a continuation and reformulation of an indigenous tradition as it was a product of 19th century European cross currents. Modern detractors of yoga want to play on a seeming double paradox. What Westerners think is authentic Eastern practice and wisdom is really 19th century European concerns on everything from evolution to gymnastics making a re-appearance in Eastern robes. And what Indians think of as their unique contribution to knowledge is really a different kind of Westernisation of India: the same way in which the RSS is Indian nationalism in Western shorts. The most recent target in this respect is Vivekananda. Here is an example from White’s book, which engages a deliberate misreading of Vivekananda to show that his reading was motivated by 19th century anxieties rather than the eternal verities of knowledge.

Yoga, in its highest forms, aims at consciousness taking full hold of oneself. This represents a form of perfection. But what kind of perfection? In order to show that what Vivekananda was doing was 19th century ideology, not authentic yoga, White makes the charge that Vivekananda assimilates yoga as an instrumentality of evolution, understood in the 19th century sense. As he puts it, ‘Contrary to Vivekananda’s reading, [Patanjali’s] Sutras were not concerned with the collective species but rather with individual persons who stand an equal chance of rising or falling along the great chain of being when they are reborn. Vivekananda chose to view them as evocations of a straight line evolution of the human race toward an innate preselected perfection’ (page 136). In short, what Vivekananda was doing was making yoga an instrumentality of collective evolution.

The first thing to recognise is just how much of a misreading this is. The passage White quotes has Vivekananda saying, “That the true secret of evolution is the manifestation of perfection, which is already in every being.” In short, the perfection that Vivekananda is talking of is not the evolution of the collective species, it is the perfection of every individual understood; it is the release of a latent potentiality in them. The collective species evolution White attributes to Vivekananda is an exaggeration. The only significant modern thinker who flirts with the idea of yoga as heralding a collective evolution was Sri Aurobindo, whose work, for all its luminous brilliance, was far more confusedly historicist than Vivekananda’s. But even he was ambivalent about the idea.

But there is an interesting question that lurks behind discussions of yoga and collective evolution. What is the relationship between aiming at individual perfection in different forms and collective good? What is the relationship between the yogic body, as it were, and the collective political body? But this question derives more from the democratisation of modern society than anything else. It concerns the creation of yoga forms and performance that can include large numbers rather than only specialised adepts. The innovation in this was the creation of the yoga shivir (camp), the kind we associate with Baba Ramdev and other contemporary votaries. In some ways, the spectacle we shall see at Rajpath in New Delhi on 21 June will be the culmination of this form: yoga as collective public spectacle, yoga as mass exercise. The second aspect of this democratisation is a form of standardisation, evidenced in the creation of new manuals. Again, purists, those who link yoga—whether postural or meditative—with the specific qualities of the adepts, worry about this standardisation: Does it run the risk of doing harm? This is an open empirical question, depending on what is being taught and how. One of the legitimate critiques of mass yoga as a form of public health intervention is that it does not adapt exercises enough to individual bodies; nor are there mechanisms for monitoring the correctness of exercises in a way to ensure that no long-term harm is done. Both the mass quality and standardisation are also tailor-made for modern consumer culture. The third aspect of this democratisation is the changing nature of authority forms. Traditionally, yoga was reproduced and transmitted within relatively small communities, with the guru as a kind of authority figure. Today’s guru will be an entrepreneur, whose objective is to reach mass audiences—even if it means selling cookies to do so.

What of the relationship between yogic authority and political power? Historically, this relationship has varied considerably. Yogic authority has come in a bewildering variety of forms. And one of the things that modern scholars including White are correct about is that yoga, in some forms, is an instrument of disruption as much as it was an instrument of self possession and control. In fact, the two things projected in the international dissemination of yoga, its dissociation with political power and its emphasis on holism, are more contingent. The yogi could also be, in his own way, a figure of excess, rooted in exercising power. If yoga was reining in excess in one dimension, it would too often apply the powers that accrued in another direction. Yogis have always played a prominent role in politics, particularly in North India, through the centuries. Yoga and its allied disciplines were, in a sense, used as much for projecting power as grasping truth. The alliance between Nath Yogis and various kingdoms was legendary, finding its culmination in the figure of someone like Raja Man Singh of Jodhpur, a great yoga scholar but one who also projected his kingly authority through yoga. The king as yogi, projecting both power and self discipline, is an old trope in Indian history. The context is different. But when Narendra Modi does yoga with Baba Ramdev, it will be a reprisal of an old trope: the king projecting power through his yogic mastery, blessed by yoga masters.

But there are two aspects of the conjunction of the ideology of yoga and political regeneration that are new. Contrary to myth, yoga’s great virtue has been to think of the body as the temple of the mind. The contrast between a meditation-based yoga and physical posture based yoga, though real, can be exaggerated. In the context of colonialism, the general mental enfeeblement of India was also directly connected to its bodily enfeeblement. Cultivating a strong body in a sense became a vehicle for a strong nation: a trope behind the RSS’s fascination with yoga. Second, India’s main political discourse is still rooted in the idea of personal virtue rather than institutions. The solution to broader corruption in Indian society is not primarily institutional reform but a cultivation of virtue, a reining in of excess. In some ways, this is not unique to India. There are parallels with recent Chinese recourse to Confucian values, in the face of widespread corruption, to restore a sense of identity. In some ways, Ramdev’s idea that yoga is an instrument for the regeneration of Indian democracy is also a familiar trope. But what he means by ‘democracy’ is not entirely clear.

So the idea of yoga as a potentially disruptive power that might need to be tamed is what drove 19th century votaries like Vivekananda to change the balance of its ideological moorings. It is no secret that he was a critic of many forms of Hatha Yoga, because these were associated with the acquisition of certain forms of power without the spiritual discipline to encase it. In this sense, the distance between Ramdev and Vivekananda is far greater than the distance between Vivekananda and Patanjali. One of the attractions of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as a foundational text was that it once again emphasised the links between yoga and other spiritual values. In fact, the apprehension that a phenomenon like Ramdev evokes is just this; his achievement in creating a yoga movement in a mass democratic context is undeniable. It is perhaps even forgivable that it might be enmeshed in a variety of material interests. But what is less forgivable is that India’s biggest exemplar of yoga is neither an exemplar of the liberality associated with ahimsa (witness his homophobia), nor an exemplar of moral courage (remember his midnight escape in disguise?). The point is not to pick on Ramdev, but to suggest that the putative connection between yoga, as currently disseminated, and national regeneration, between ‘reining in excess’ and moral courage, is indeed a tenuous one.

There are political aspects to the ideology of yoga. The first is the extent to which it should be made compulsory, especially over the objections of a tiny number of Muslim groups. There is certainly a long tradition of Muslim engagement with yoga, too diverse to be documented in limited space. Muslims across the world have practised yoga. Abul Fazl offers some of the richest accounts of the Mughal fascination with yoga in all its forms. But there is no doubt that in an ideologically charged context, there is a temptation to use yoga as a lightning rod for community identity. A small number of right-wing groups among Hindus want to use yoga the way they use practically everything: as a kind of loyalty test for Muslims. This is the use of yoga as an assertion of power in its most reprehensible form. They damage the cause of yoga more than they aid it; and cast doubt over the motivations behind this enterprise. There are also some Muslim theologians who see this as a flashpoint to resist what they regard as majoritarian—a surreptitious Hindu influence in disguise. Both articulations can feed off each other. How significant these points of conflict will be will depend upon the larger trajectory of Hindu- Muslim relations.

Fortunately, the yoga protocols, in their watered down and standardised versions, should allow for enough flexibility for students to opt out from parts they find objectionable; though how much this withdrawal will be seen as marking them out for adverse social pressure remains to be seen. But there is another paradox in the way the question of the relationship between Islam or Christianity and yoga is posed. After all, outside India, Christian Churches have warned against non-Christian meditative practice; and even postural yoga can be a form of meditation. But the paradox is that when the question is posed, we think that there is some objective fact of the matter. If someone does think Surya namaskar or Om is incompatible with whatever it is they believe, it is hard to see how this issue can be resolved objectively. Because the attempt to determine whether this is objectively the case draws you back squarely into debates that presume that there are authoritative interpretations that can settle the matter. In an age where religion is ostensibly privatised and a question of subjective identification, we pretend there are authoritative answers to these questions. The best strategy is to leave it to the power of example to persuade. For even on yoga’s own premises, participation must be freely chosen, self compelled and free of violence; otherwise imposition will be an act of power.

Yoga’s Knowledge Moorings

Modern scholars have often needlessly politicised yoga and made the subject more trivial than it is. It is true that presentations of yoga have been refracted through different metaphysical categories. It is also true that there is a great variety of Indic traditions. Faced with an imperious homogenisation that votaries of Hindutva sometimes project, scholars understandably want to emphasise diversity, breaks and ruptures. So, on this view, modern postural yoga bears little relationship to classical yoga— a break that is often exaggerated. It is true that different texts have different emphases, and different forms of yoga have been placed in different hierarchies of valuation in relation to each other. But it is rather odd to conclude from the relative lack of space postural yoga occupies in Patanjali’s Sutra that the practice is of recent invention. This kind of claim misunderstands the relation between text and tradition, philosophy and practice. Modern votaries like Vivekananda and Aurobindo for example have no doubt feared Hatha Yoga, as much as they have granted legitimacy to its powers. But that is because yoga has always been, in its own self conception, conscious of its relation to the capabilities of its likely followers and the ethical contexts in which they operate.

Hindutva will probably not intellectually colonise India fully. But the fear of Hindutva has colonised scholars, and their defensive responses are to reduce Indic traditions to an aesthetic pastiche. The one difference between yoga scholarship in Indian languages or Western academic scholarship in the first half of the 20th century is this. That scholarship, while attuned to the different metaphysical representations of yoga, was in some respects open to the possibility that there might be some internal coherence to the problematic of yoga. Differences drawn from different traditions did not come in the way of mutual engagement. There is no more profound an example of this that the astonishing exchange between Gopinath Kaviraj and Acharya Narendra Dev. The latter’s monumental work on Buddhist thought, still unsurpassed in subtlety, had an equally subtle monograph-length introduction by Kaviraj, whose own philosophical and sectarian leanings were different. Although not directly connected with yoga (though it has piercingly illuminating insights on the subject), this was an example where standing your ground in terms of your own tradition did not preclude a dialogic engagement. In modern scholarship, there is more concern with the identity of a tradition than its cognitive content, more concern with authenticity than with truth claims. This is in part because faced with claims to homogenisation, the emphasis has shifted to an emphasis on diversity rather than knowledge claims. In part, this is understandable. But it also carries the risk, as in the work of Wendy Doniger or David Gordon White, of hollowing out the cognitive claims of a knowledge tradition such as yoga.

The 19th century purveyors of yoga like Vivekananda had their sectarian leanings and their own biases. They were also articulating yoga in a new idiom for new audiences. But it is an astonishing exaggeration to say, as White does of Vivekananda’s relationship to Patanjali: ‘Vivekananda, who did not wish to remind his readers of the links between Yoga Sutra and India’s Yogis, and who, following the neo-Vedanta strategy of employing his own powers of reason over and against the commentarial convention, placed his own authority over his august predecessors and misappropriated these verses into a nineteenth century sermon on evolutionary theory.’ There are more howlers in this passage than one can list: White’s charge of collective specieism is baseless. But it also assumes that ‘commentarial convention’ has to be followed blindly; in fact, all commentary involves examining predecessors in the light of one’s own reason. But most importantly, the ground that Vivekananda wished to occupy in Raja Yoga was the ground of experience, not reason or authority. In fact, yoga’s attraction is precisely the primacy of experience, not of belief or precept. Experience has to be the common ground on which argument takes place. Yoga’s great appeal has been its appeal to experience, independently of metaphysics, dogma or doctrine. Its authority, if it has any, derives from experience.

The primacy of experience over text or commentarial authority is in the final analysis a better way to engage with Indic traditions. There is a diversity of arguments. But we often forget that an argument actually presupposes a common ground: it presupposes a common field of inquiry, and it presupposes some common account of what would count as evidence in favour of one argument or the other. Why do we miss this elementary point? What relevance does this larger point have for yoga? Although the analogy is not perfect, think of it this way. The philosophies that invoke yoga have been parasitic upon the practice of yoga, just as the philosophy of science is parasitic upon the practice of science. In fact, a metaphysical gloss on science, or the categories used to represent it, depend upon a vast array of institutions of science, and practices. Debates in philosophy of science, among other things, are debates over the metaphysical representation of these practices: you can divide them into schools based on various differences. But what they have in common to some degree is the practice they are arguing about. That practice is something they recognise despite their differences and transcends different metaphysical commitments. In the absence of that practice, it is hard to see what the debate is about, or what even the stakes are. By marginalising experience in yoga, academic and sectarian debates over yoga become governed more by the will to difference than the object of knowledge at hand. All we hear is the cacophony of argument, with no sense of the common point of departure in experience

This rather arcane point is important because it might help understand the three different functions of yoga ideologies in the modern world. First, there is the material and well-being function of yoga, the kind celebrated on International Yoga Day, a watered down health and well-being intervention. The second is yoga as a totem of identity: a prop in giving modern Hinduism an identity, a trope around which modern forms of political power can be mobilised. But the third is the connection of yoga with fundamental epistemological and soteriological questions that challenge ideas of the Self that govern us. In a way, Indic traditions have been obsessed with two questions: the nature of consciousness and the sense in which the mind can take hold of itself; and the nature of liberation as it were. Yoga was in some ways intimately tied with those concerns. The so-called 19th century purveyors of yoga, including Vivekananda, were trying to occupy the third terrain. Through yoga, they wanted to return not just to the realm of material power only better, or search for an exclusive identity, they wanted to see if a new plane of experience could become the common property of mankind. But for that, the adherents of yoga will have to ensure that it remains free from raw assertions of power. The lurking fear is that this is harder to achieve than proponents of yoga recognise.