Is Yoga Hindu? Yes, No, Maybe.

Via on Feb 4, 2011

Seeking Balance in the Big Debate

As I run around giving public talks about American Veda, I’m frequently asked, “Is Yoga a form of Hinduism?” or “Where do you stand on the Yoga-Hinduism debate?” People expect a quick, pithy answer, and I wish I had one. But the truth is, the issue is way too complicated for sound bites.

I’ve read compelling analyses from scholars who end up reaching drastically different conclusions.  I’ve read impassioned essays by people with skin in the game, who sound equally convincing even though their positions contradict one another.  In the end, it seems to depend on how you interpret history and how you define both Hinduism and Yoga.  And that is not as simple as it sounds.

If you think of Hinduism as the modern term for the diverse body of spiritual teachings that originated in the ancient Vedic period and later evolved into various forms, then you will be inclined in one direction. If your definition centers on the religious forms practiced by the majority of Indians today, or on the descriptions of Western scholars of religion, you might end up in a different place. Your position will also vary depending on whether you think of Yoga as the science of realization expounded by the ancient sages in texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, or whether you limit the definition to the postural Yoga that dominates the modern scene.

Much of the brouhaha boils down to semantics.  The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), whose Take Back Yoga campaign ignited the controversy, is comparable to the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations established by religious minorities and new immigrant groups to combat stereotypes, misconceptions and bigotries. HAF’s representatives, almost all of whom are American-born, have their work cut out for them, since what British imperialists labeled Hinduism (“Hindu” originally referred to the inhabitants of the Indus River area) has been grossly mischaracterized for centuries, for reasons stemming from both understandable ignorance and inexcusable mendacity. Just getting Americans to realize that their religion is not polytheistic, or that the caste system is as much a cultural-historical phenomenon as a religious one, is a monumental task, and HAF and its allies are making heroic strides. They see their effort to link the roots of Yoga to their spiritual heritage–a venture that is far more modest than the phrase “Take Back Yoga suggests–as part of their overall mission. Even if you disagree with their historical analysis or their choice of terminology, it should be easy for any American to sympathize with their motivation.

At the same time, the reluctance of Yoga teachers and journalists to make that link is also understandable, and many Hindu Americans I’ve spoken to acknowledge that. The problem, of course, is that Hinduism is a religious term, and in a society where “spiritual but not religious” is the fastest-growing category in religion surveys, this is a major issue. The language dilemma gets especially dicey when you’re dealing with principles and practices that are so universal they can be expressed in secular as well as spiritual terms, and most students probably do see Yoga as a system of mental and physical self-improvement.  Add to that the fact that many who are born into Hindu families prefer the original term, sanatana dharma (roughly, the eternal path), because  the category Hinduism was invented by the West to fit its system of religious classification.  And, significantly, all the great gurus, swamis and Yoga masters who transformed Western spirituality made a point of saying they are not propagating Hinduism but are offering a science of consciousness. Swami Vivekananda, for instance, created the Vedanta Society, not the Hinduism Society; Paramahansa Yogananda started the Self-Realization Fellowship, not the Hindu Fellowship, and his famous memoir was not called Autobiography of a Hindu. These teachers knew that pragmatic Americans would respond better to non-religious language.

Which is why leaders in the Yoga community have been reluctant to use the term Hinduism, even if they sympathize with HAF’s underlying rationale. They are more than willing to acknowledge Yoga’s deep and ancient spiritual foundation, but they prefer to use Vedic, Yogic or Indian rather than a religious term that carries all the erroneous baggage that, ironically, organizations like HAF are laboring to correct.

The language issue will work itself out in time, through the individual decisions of teachers, writers and advocacy groups. But there’s one thing everyone ought to be able to agree on: whatever vocabulary we use, we need to make every effort to preserve, protect and propagate the spiritual foundations of Yoga. If we fail to do that we will have trivialized something profound, rendered shallow something deep and corrupted something precious and sacred.

About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “The Intuitive Edge," “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path,” and his latest work, "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He also blogs regularly on the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.

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12 Responses to “Is Yoga Hindu? Yes, No, Maybe.”

  1. Welcome to Elephant Journal, Philip.

    It's wonderful to have you here.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. elephantjournal says:

    welcome :) and yes, yes, yes to the final lines: ''If we fail to do that we will have trivialized something profound, rendered shallow something deep and corrupted something precious and sacred.'' As a new comer to the learning of yoga but coming in as a student of religion and not one familiar with physical fitness or exercise of body i am often saddened and left feeling empty by the pop culture yoga promoters and cover-girl work out gurus bowing heads and uttering ''namasté with seemingly little cognitive nor spiritual connection. the tradition, the art and practice of yoga is a multifacets diamond of great value and should not be trivialized or turned into a shallow shell .ed

  3. NotSoSure says:

    To further complicate the discussion, which yoga are we arguing about. There is more than one. Is is Raja? Bhakti? Karma? Hatha? What about influences other than Hinduism such as Jainism or Buddhism?

    Whoa,this is getting complicated.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Yoga Tailor and Bob Weisenberg, Yoga Tailor. Yoga Tailor said: it's universal: what is hindu anyways? RT @FifthandSixth: Is Yoga Hindu? Yes, No, Maybe. http://bit.ly/fOnmZA [...]

  5. shiva says:

    Greate analysis Philip.

  6. Zarathustra says:

    As an amateur linguist, I absolutely adored this. Fascinating analysis! Few things are more complicated than the little nuances of language. Bravissimo!

  7. Jenya- Jane Bullard says:

    Many thanks, Philip. It does appear that the Hindu-born community is trying to legitimize itself using a western (or Middle Eastern) model of divisive religious classification, meanwhile the current trend of educated people is to be against identifying with those divisions. If you recall one Hinduism section at the most recent AAR conference, even the panelists were reluctant to discuss the definition of Hinduism; the weary consensus seemed to be that the term's only benefit is that it "gets you invited to interfaith meetings."

    My question is: to what extent do attempts to centralize diverse communities such as "yogis" or "Hindus" provide unity, and to what extent do they create unnecessary politics?

  8. Ramesh says:

    Dear Philip, I like your article very much and welcome you to Elephant Journal. The complexity of this issue is exemplified by the fact that Vivekananda, who, as you write, started "the Vedanta Society and not the Hinduism Society' gave a talk at the 1893 World Parliamanet of Religions titled the Paper on Hindusim in which he basically outlines Sanatan Dharma and Vedanta, the inner, yogic essence of Hinduism.
    In other words, Vivekananda delivered in Huxley's term the prenneial philosophy or wisdom of Hinduism. A less universally minded person could as easily have delivered a lecture justifying the caste system of Hinduism. The same contradictions are found in all the major religions.

  9. Hilary Lindsay Hilary Lindsay says:

    Phil,
    Wonderful unemotional discussion of a hot topic. I appreciate the various points of view expressed here. I share your sensitivity to the Indians offering their children a tradition that is part of their culture. And finally I still feel like the interesting thing is less what Hinduism is but how we Americans react to what we think it means for us.

  10. Paul Harvey says:

    “Unfortunately, many people are not able to differentiate between Yoga and Hinduism. This is the biggest blunder I have seen in many institutions.”
    Excerpt from an interview with TKV Desikachar by Fit Yoga Magazine April 2008 http://www.yogastudies.org/wp-content/uploads/Apr

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