Ekam sat vipra; bahudha vadanti
“Truth is one: wise people speak of it in various ways.”
When I was a young graduate student of Religious Studies, I learned a dirty word: reductionism.
If I were ever to claim an all-encompassing reason to explain religious phenomena—like, for example, we all descended from aliens who the ancients called “gods”—my professor would throw chalk at me. “Reductionist!” he’d yell out with the same fervor as Spanish inquisitors centuries before would scream, “Witch!” I learned very fast how not to make simplistic conclusions lest my cheeks got burned with shame at the stake of those wiser than me.
I wish The New York Times and William Broad would have learned the same lesson. Now as a grown-up religious historian, I can with great authority reduce his article, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” to the slush pile of reductionism. I’m sorry Mr. Broad, but yoga did not originate from a “sex-cult.” Alone, that is.
That’s not to say, yoga didn’t not originate from a medieval sex-cult. But my broader and perhaps overly-educated views on the history of yoga suggest that medieval Hatha Yoga of the Nath lineages was only one of the many streams of influence that have culminated in the great oceanic traditions of yoga that we’ve only recently adopted in the West. (And in my many readings of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other texts contemporary to it, I don’t recall coming across passages that advocated the worship of the sacred vulva through repeated sex with it, as Mr. Broad seems to have discovered— an inaccuracy The New York Times fact-checker appears to have missed.)
Yet Mr. Broad’s article does serve an important wake-up call, pointing to an essential need among yogis: We all require a primer of Indian spiritual history. It’s as important as knowing where to place the knife-edge of your pinky toe in warrior pose. Otherwise we’ll all be made to look like fools in the company of our non-yogi friends by the big mouths of public opinion like The New York Times.
We’ll lack the substance to sustain the rightful respect yoga deserves as a recent immigrant to the American spiritual/religious scene. And the great tradition that by some grace of karma we’ve inherited will be soon relegated to the realm of “dangerous fringe cult,” which has become synonymous with “tantra.” Or worse. It will go the way of jazzercise and your kids will dress up as yoga instructors for Halloween—in Lululemon outfits that they’ll dig through your closet to find and that you’d hoped were buried for good along with your Laura Ashley dresses.
But first, an essential prerequisite is in order. We have to eradicate our collective assumption that informs the way we view any religious tradition in the West: There is only one creation myth. There is only one distinct historical origin. There is only one defining text that serves as the highest religious authority. And finally, there is only one version of “God.”
Even if you personally believe in one God, one scripture, and one Church, if you ever hope to really understand Indian spirituality—and not reduce it to something abhorrent because you’re either too lazy to look into all the complexities or too fixed on your own assertions of truth— you have to accept the idea of the one-within-the-many. If that makes you uncomfortable then let me make a helpful suggestion: Accepting another idea of reality isn’t to diminish your own. It’s just a polite way to live on this planet. It helps to eliminate things like wars, prejudice, and injustice.
So my first corrective to Mr. Broad and any of us in the West looking for such a unilateral definitive about the Divine as we encounter in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is to stop looking for it in Indian traditions, especially in yoga. There is no one yoga. There is no one defining text that lays down the parameters of the elusive one tradition. Not even Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is the ultimate authority on what yoga is.
But if I were held hostage against my will and forced to surrender my views on yoga’s origins for a ransom, I would seek for it in the Vedas, which considerably pre-date Mr. Broad’s medieval point of conception.
Historians date the Vedic period from the 5th century BCE culminating in the classical period at about the 5th century CE. What was in vogue then among elite religious circles was a unique act of fire sacrifice known as yajna.
The performance of offering sacred substances into a ritual fire had its origins in the creation narratives such as found in Rig Veda X.90, The Sacrifice of Purusha, which I’ll paraphrase for you here:
Once there was only one man, a great cosmic man known as Purusha, who contained within himself the entire universe. In order for the worlds to be born, the man had to break himself into many parts. He enlisted the gods, the forces of the universe (also within himself), to construct a great fire (arising from within himself) to immolate himself upon. As he presented his body to the flames, everything that makes up the created world—from the seasons to the animals to the blades of grass—arose from out of his sacrificed limbs. This beautiful universe of glorious living beings emerged from a single body broken into thousands of parts, distributed everywhere, and connected only through the fire that burns through everything.
To this day, we are all part of that living flame.
Yet as time goes on, we lose connection to our own innate and living fire. It happens. Everything wears out eventually, including our original state of unity. So the ancient priest-scientists in the Vedic times divined a way to restore the pristine moment of creation by reenacting the original sacrifice of Purusha. In doing so, the priests re-enlivened the life-bestowing fire at the basis of our collective Being.
As light and heat attracts everything toward it, the Vedic sacrificial fire attracted more of everything that was offered to its flames. More food. More wealth. More abundance in every realm. More happiness. More peace.
In the later part of the Vedic period toward the classical period, yajna developed into an internal bodily sacrifice wherein, as stated in the Garbha Upanishad:
“[T]he body is the sacrificial place, the skull of the head is the fire-pit, the hairs are the holy kusha grass, and the mouth is the antarvedi (the raised platform in sacrifice.)”
The fire of the external Vedic yajna transformed into the fire of conscious restraint or tapas. The same highly attractive flame of the sacrifice burned now from within the human body according to the texts and traditions of the classical period. Supernatural powers or siddhis became the attainment of the accomplished fire-tender in the same way the sacrificial fire attracted abundance to society. And the cultivation of the internal fire as tapas became the supreme yogic technology to achieve unification with the Source (Purusha) as the Vedic priests had intended with yajna.
So yes, Mr. Broad, while some of the practices of modern yoga may stem from the Hatha Yoga traditions of medieval India, tapas, arising from the much earlier Vedic practice of yajna and involving, as B.K.S. Iyengar aptly observed, “purification, self-discipline, and austerity” is a more essential defining feature of yoga than “sex-cult practices.”
Is it the only feature of yoga? No, but it’s a place to start.
Does it account for the philandering yoga rogues out there seducing young women? Perhaps it does. Fire burns. It requires supreme self-discipline and control to keep it from harming yourself and others. That’s why in the Sadhana Pada (chapter dedicated to proper practice) of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali presents the yogic “retraints”—the yamas and niyamas—after his discussion of tapas to prevent you from getting burned.
And finally, have all the popular yoga teachers truly “devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness?” If I had a piece of chalk, Mr. Broad, I’d throw it at you. Reductionist!
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.