Are Yogis Hindus? And how old is Hinduism, anyway?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on May 11, 2010
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Hinduism as a term is not very old, not more than about 1000 years old.

The term first appeared during the time Muslims invaded India (about 1200-1000 CE) and called the people living on the other side of the “Sindhu River” Hindhus; like so many foreign invaders before them, they simply could not pronounce the local language correctly.

Later, when the British with its money- and power-hungry East India Company came to India in the 1600s, to loot and pillage, like all great empires and imperialists do, simply to turn a profit, they gradually gave that term nationalistic shape and recognition.

So, Hinduism is not very old at all…. the Vedas are old, Yoga is old, Tantra is old, Shaivism is old, etc., etc., but not Hinduism.

So, Hinduism is a foreign construct. Before Hinduism, India was, and still is, a conglomerate of religions and spiritual paths—a colorful universe of belief systems and mystical practices.

The two greatest and most influential, the Vedic and the Tantric/Yogic are what forms the backbone, flesh, heart and soul of India’s culture and heritage, not Hinduism.

Indeed, Hinduism was a term invented by invaders and later adopted by the Indians themselves, under pressure to conform to nationalistic and cultural currents from the outside.

Just ask Patanjali, who gave us the Yoga Sutras, just ask Krishna who gave us the Bhagavad Gita, just ask Kapila who gave us Samkhya philosophy, just ask Yudishtira who first taught pranayama on a large scale, just ask Asthavakra who wrote a Vedantic masterpiece, all great yogis, but no, none of them called themselves Hindus. Not a single one.

Hinduism is largely a modern construct. Go to India and ask an old sadhu yourself what he calls himself. You’ll likely hear him say he belongs to such and such lineage and sect, a follower of Shiva, or Rama… He most likely won’t say anything about Hinduism.

Or ask me. I will tell you quite firmly that I am not a Hindu. I am a Tantric yogi. Or just ask your yoga teacher down the road…. or yourself.richgautamapy3

For a more in depth look at the history of Indian spirituality, and Tantra and Yoga in particular, please read:


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


26 Responses to “Are Yogis Hindus? And how old is Hinduism, anyway?”

  1. vakibs says:

    Correct. There is no such thing as a monolithic Hinduism. The term "Hindu" is almost exclusively used to contrast Indian religions with Abrahamic faiths, either by Islamic / Christian missionaries or by Hindu fundamentalists. Otherwise, there is no such thing called Hindu religion. Anybody in India can choose and pick the bits and pieces of what he likes from the thousands of faiths in India, including from Islam and Christianity. There is absolute freedom in how one can proceed in one's spiritual path.

    This is how things work at a practical level in India.

  2. Thanks, Vakibs, for your homegrown perspective! Having spent nearly three years living in India and Nepal, I quickly learned of the rich multiplicity of paths available, and despite certain deep-rooted dogmas, India has been known not to crucify its saints, no matter how outrageous their claims, no matter if they wear clothes or sandals, or not.

  3. Would that Western Buddhists (and some separatist/elitist Tibetan sects) take a lesson from our sisters and brothers in India. A Buddhist Dharma without syncretism is not alive… not relevant… not engaged.

    But then, if we grew up and allowed for such fluidity, the Twitter wars would die down, and the drama queens might have to… well… just SIT THERE!

    EH MA HO!

  4. Ramesh says:

    Yes, great dialogue between Chopra and Shukla Beef. I basically agree with Chopra here, except his usual claim that yoga is Vedic, which is not the case at all. All yogic practices comes from another stream of Indian wisdom, namely Tantra. I know, I know, here I go again, but there is nothing in the Vedas to even hint at the sophisticated practices we know today as yoga or tantra. The four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Atharva, and Yajur Veda) teach us a lot about prayer, but not much about yoga, except fro some tantric influence in Atharva Veda. Unless you mean, as many do, the teachings of the Upanishads and of Vedanta, which came much later and which some call the fifth Veda. Maybe that is what Chopra means, but like most pundits, he glosses over the great contribution of Tantra…

  5. I'm really happy you're bringing this historical perspective about Tantra to Elephant Journal readers. Keep it up. It's important.


    Bob Weisenberg

  6. awshuckss says:

    Thanks Ramesh,Rama+Esh !!!!!!!!!!!!! Ur doing a fabulous job !!!!!!!!!!

  7. awshuckss says:

    Deepak Chopra is a McDonalds/KFC for food !!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Hi, awshuckss. I don't agree about Chopra. Here's a comment from the YogaDork debate:

    I'm not very interested in the the Hindu exclusive claim to Yoga, because I think it is spurious. Deepak Chopra is right on in his defense, and he is supported by almost every Yoga scholar I've ever read.

    That said, browsing through my forty plus Yoga books, almost all of them acknowledge a relationship to Hinduism, but also assert that Yoga throughout its history has had an independent life as well. In other words, Yoga has alway been attached to Hinduism but has had a separate, you might say fiercely independent, life of its own at the same time.

    This is the true resolution to this "conflict". The problem is not insisting that Yoga has been related to Hinduism, only that it has ONLY been related to Hinduism. The widely varied Yoga books on my shelf say exactly that.

    Now, as for Deepak Chopra, you need to read him. Try "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind". There may be a better more recent book. Were any of you aware that Chopra wrote an entire book on a modern approach to reincarnation? Would you be surprised to learn that highly respected Tantra Yoga teacher Rod Stryker requires Chopra's book on Ayurveda for his 500 level Teacher Training courses.

    Whatever you think of his glitzy marketing, Chopra's the real deal when it comes to Yoga philosophy. Even his Tweets sound like they come right out of the Upanishads. One problem is that many modern Yoga people are so exclusively Yoga Sutra and focused that they are not familiar enough with the Upanishads to know this. Most of Chopra's work is literally dripping with the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He is bringing the most original and authentic Yoga thinking to a mass audience.

    Here's what I wrote in a recent blog comment to someone who was panning Chopra for his Hollywood persona and for getting the order of the eight limbs wrong in his recent iPhone app. with Tara Stiles:

    One has to look at the whole picture in evaluating Chopra. He may get a few Sutra facts a little wrong, but he is, as I called him in one blog, "A Modern Sage of the Upanishads".

    That's it. Chopra's much more of a blinding-flash-of-insight Upanishads type guy than a step-by-step methodical Sutra type guy. And they're both equally anciently valid. Ain't Yoga grand?

    Here are my three short blogs on Chopra:

    "New Chopra/Stiles iPhone 'Authentic Yoga'"

    "Deepak Chopra–Modern Yoga Sage or New Age Hype?"

    "Pure Yoga By Another Name–Chopra, Tolle, and Easwaran"


    In spite of my own strong opinion on this, I'm certainly interested in hearing other points of view. But I honestly think most objective traditional Yoga lovers would come to the same conclusion about Chopra if they took the time to look beyond the glitzy surface and the Chopra avoidance it apparently elicits.

    Bob Weisenberg

  9. And this comment from Linda-Sama's Facebook discussion>/i>

    Linda just mentioned that she was familiar with Chopra's "The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success." That led me to reply as follows:


    That reminds me of a good example of the problem with Chopra's image. He co-authored another book called "The 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga". Because of the title I was expecting something superficial.

    What I got instead was an excellent uncompromising comprehensive guide to all aspects of Yoga practice, from philosophy to meditation to asana to pranayama, with all the Sanskrit names of everything, in-depth treatment of the Royal path, the subtle layers of consciousness, and a bibliography which included Aurobindo, Frawley, Iyengar, Maharaj, Osho, Saraswati, Venkantesananda, and Viveka-Chudamani (I don't even know who those last two are.) In fact, at the time, which was early in my Yoga experience, it was too technical and heavy for me.

    The title and the marketing were grafted onto an excellent Yoga manual of highly traditional multi-faceted Yoga practice. But someone just looking at the bookshelf would have thought "Oh that's going to be a thin grafting of the 7 Spiritual Laws onto Yoga."

    See why I have a little different view of Chopra? But I would agree he brings on a lot of the confusion with his marketing.

    Bob Weisenberg

  10. Ramesh says:

    This just for you, Bob: Did you know that Chopra loves Wilber?! 🙂

  11. Ramesh says:

    I want to add that it is understandable that scholars as well as Indians refer to themselves as Hindus. This is an identity that is real and important for many. It is, for example, common to distinguish between Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra. I do that myself, if necessary, to explain scholarly or practical differences between the paths. The main purpose of my piece above, however, was to point out other dimensions to Indian spirituality, the vast universe of paths available, as well as the short lifespan of Hinduism as a religion and its origin, only a few hundred years. We wear many hats and names, we humans. So does our cultures and civilizations.

  12. Thanks, Ramesh. That would be influential to me. I told you I would be open minded about Wilber after you pointed out that I know nothing about him. You are right! ("I say what I mean and mean what I say, An elephant's faithful one hundred percent.")

    On the negative side, there's this:

    Plese tell me this isn't your hero!

  13. Ramesh says:

    This from Facebook:
    "I presume you're not talking about our Hindu fundamentalist sisters and
    brothers in India?"
    No, I am not. The Hindutva movement in India, for example, has many of the same traits as Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists all over the world–a stubborn reaction against modernity, rationality, science, common sense, and humanity and support for nationalism and dark dogmas against women and people of lower castes.

    It is therefore rather ironic to learn that popular and otherwise insightful writers on yoga, such as Georg Feuerstein, David Frawley and Deepak Chopra, share the same faulty understanding of Indian history–that yoga came from the Vedas and that the Aryans, who brought the Rigveda to India, never actually came from the outside–as these die-hard fundamentalists. To tantrics and historians such as Romila Thapur and Alain Danielou, this is historical whitewashing and denial…

  14. yati says:

    It is correct that invaders mispronounced 'Indu'. However, there was a group of people living in this (H)Indus Valley. So, whether we correctly call them 'People of the (H)Indu', Sanatana Dharmist, Yogis/Yoginis, Vedantists, etc., they were still the same people that created and practiced a specific religion. Note, people must logically precede a religion (name/form). In this case, that religion is now commonly referred to as Hinduism and the people Hindus. Those who practice disassociating/misrepresenting the people from their religion are practicing cognitive dissonance…usually to exploit, discredit Hinduism / Yoga / Sanatana Dharma, or whatever other appropriate designation for a religion/culture spanning thousands of years one calls it. They do it for their personal agenda. This is just as unethical, to say the least, as the "invaders" they condemn.

  15. shiva says:

    It is an interesting article. I am a Hindu from India living in the US. Our ancesters called themselves as Hindus to protect their pluralistic spiritual traditions from abrahamic religions islam and christianity. Islam in particular when it was brought by Arab invaders more than 1000 years back was harsh and intolerant of Indian religions. By uniting under the banner of Hinduism our ancesters could defend themselves better.
    There are various spiritirual traditions in India who compete at intellectual level. All of them whether they are vedic, or tantric revolve around atma/paramath, brahman, or conciousness, whatever you call it. All of them point to the same truth. Truth alone triumphs (Satamev Jayate – in sanskrit).

    I am not a scholar of hinduism, or tantra or vedanta or yoga. Just my 2 cents.

  16. Ramesh says:

    your summary makes a lot of sense. I basically agree and would add that the national identity around Hinduism became more prevalent during the British era, especially in the last 100 years. Nationalism and unity around religion has positive aspects, such as you mention, as well as negative ones, such as religious dogma and intolerance.

  17. shiva says:


    The abrahmic faiths christianity, and islam are responsible for organized hinduism and nationalism. Christians, and muslims converted most of the planet to either christianilty, or islam. Only India, china, parts of east/south east asia escaped them. Both islam, and christianity are founded by single founders, revolve around a single individual their founder, and are fanatical, and intolerant. Christianity has reformed and moderated, but not islam.. To this day both islam, and christianity attack each other and other faiths and seek to destroy them. That is the reason why you see Hindu nationalism in India basically to protect spiritual traditions. If existential threat posed by islam/christianity disappears, then Hindu Nationalism will melt away.

    I do agree with you that yoga was nurtured and thrived outside of the organized vedic priesthood. In ancient times yoga was more accessible to masses than vedic texts/rituals.

    My 2 cents.

  18. Shiva, what you say is true to a great extent. But fundamentalism is also a reaction against the threat from within, from modernity, from rationality, from change, from loss of identity. Karen Armstrong has argued this convincingly in her book The Battle for God. Although her book's focus is on Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalism, her central thesis also applies to Hindu fundamentalism. India is also going through an internal crisis brought on by modernism.

  19. What Wilber does in bed is none of my business! Even if he plays with electronics! You need to judge his writings by doing the same thing Chopra did, by reading…

  20. Oh, OK, if I have to… But I'm not going to read that 800 page book. I'm not a super-scholar like you. I'm going to search the NYT and NYT Review of Books and Atlantic and New Yorker and such for a really good long article, unless you know of one.

  21. […] the fracas has spilled over to here and here over at elephantjournal even getting into the Aryan Invasion of India theory which is a […]

  22. @TimeToScoot says:

    Sanathana Dharma is what we call all the Spiritual practices and Philosophies that originated in ancient India. Hinduism is just another name for it given to us by the foreigners. I don't see why a new name is such a big deal.

  23. Suraj Dahal says:

    The computation of age is based on the life of Lord Brahma. Brahma lives hundred years, but they are years of Brahma, not human years. One Kalpa coincides with one Day of Brahma's life, and when the night will come, this Universe will be reabsorbed (Pralaya) in his divine sleep.

    One Kalpa (Day or Night of Brahma) corresponds to 4,320,000,000 human years.

    Indeed earthly time is marked in Yuga or Ages, which are:
    Krita (or Satya)-Yuga 4,800 years *
    Treta-Yuga 3,600 years *
    Dwapara-Yuga 2,400 years *
    Kali-Yuga 1,200 years *
    Total 12,000 years *

    * The years correspond to that of Mahayuga

  24. Jennifer says:

    Here here! I think people are afraid to talk about Tantra because of the sexualized images that arise for some. Great summary.

  25. Jennifer says:

    Hello all, quite interesting discussion especially the cross pollination with YD. I'm kind of new here and have not received proper training in Yoga but would like to pose a question I've been noodling on. Would it be apt to compare early yogis to gypsies (Romani)? Please bear with me and I hope I am not offending anyone. I am a cultural anthropologist by training that studied Roma culture in some depth. They are remarkable for their cultural insularity and marked traditions that are self-reinforcing and allowed them to remain a separate group and resist acculturation throughout time and space. They have passed through many other cultures, arriving at today. Gypsies have something like a bullet-proof cultural DNA, a seed pod that persists and regenerates. Their cultural traditions also compel them to CONTINUE living in such a way, never building a nation, and never acculturating, somehow subsisting off of economic activities transpiring between themselves and the local dominant culture/power structure/land holding.

    Could we say that the same was true for the somewhat subversive ascetics that we are aware of as the first yogis, who encamped at the fringes of society, had an internal set of insular traditions, were believed to have natural powers, performed mercenary services, were regarded by suspicion by some and whose marked traditions continue to inspire and be celebrated?