December 8, 2010

Who Owns Yoga? Not Bikram!

In a recent article in the New York times, a Hindu group asserted that yoga owes a great debt to Hinduism. According to The New York Times, “The campaign, labeled ‘Take Back Yoga,’ does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.”

But how much debt does yoga really owe to Hinduism? On closer scrutiny, perhaps not so much. For starters, yoga is thousands of years older than Hinduism.

Hinduism as a term is not very old, not more than about 1000 years old. The term first appeared during a time Muslims invaded India (about 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 their money- and power-hungry East India Company—came to India in the 1600s, to loot and pillage, like all great empires and imperialists do in order to turn a profit, they gradually gave that term nationalistic shape and recognition.

Hinduism is not very old at all. The Vedas are old, Yoga is old, Tantra is old, Shaivism is old, but not Hinduism. So, if yoga is much older than Hinduism, how can Hindus claim they invented yoga?

Hinduism is a sacred sponge that has soaked up all of India’s mystical traditions—from Shaivism to Shamkhya, from Jainism to Buddhism, from Vedanta to Patanjali’s Yoga.

More importantly, how can anybody claim to own a practice that has been shared freely for thousands of years? I understand that Hindus feel that yoga is part of their tradition, but the fact remains: very few Hindus practice hatha yoga (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), or meditation, some of the most integral practices of yoga. Indeed, most Hindu practice consists of Vedic prayers.

Hinduism is actually a foreign construct. Before Hinduism, India was a conglomerate of religions and spiritual paths—a colorful universe of belief systems and mystical practices. And the fact is, India is still that way today—a composite culture of numerous spiritual traditions that only loosely come under the umbrella Hinduism.

So, who owns yoga? This has become a central question in the debate over the now  multibillion-dollar yoga industry. Follow the money, follow yoga moguls like Bikram, and issues of ownership will not lag far behind.

Bikram Choudury, the glamorous Hollywood yogi, has not been successful in laying ownership claims to this ancient practice, however.  Even though he copyrighted 26 of his Bikram-style poses in 2007, the Indian government is fighting back by showing that yoga is quite a few thousand years older than Bikram.

The New York Times writes: “The Indian government [has begun] making digital copies of ancient drawings showing the provenance of more than 4,000 yoga poses, to discourage further claims by entrepreneurs like Bikram Choudhury.”

So, if yoga was not invented by Hindus, who actually invented it? Deepak Chopra and some historians will tell you “that yoga originated in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium B.C., long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged.”

Deepak Chopra maintains that Hinduism is too “tribal” and “self-enclosed” to claim ownership of yoga. Consequently, according to him, yoga belongs to the Vedas and originated with the Vedic people.

But the complex history of yoga does not end there. What the New York Times and Deepak Chopra fail to mention is that other historians, most notably Alain Danielou and N. N. Bhattacraya, as well as yogi teachers and writers such as Swami Satyananda Saraswati and Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, trace the roots of yoga to the Tantric or Shaiva tradition, which traditionally remained outside Vedic culture.

Think of Indian history this way: There are two archetypes within the Indian sacred traditions: the Vedic Priest and the Tantric (Shaiva) Yogi. While the Vedic priests developed Vedic prayer, mantra incantations and astrology, the Shaiva yogis were the inventors of yogic practice, meditation as well as yogic texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, in which the practices of yoga are detailed.

In other words, it is fairly common knowledge that the functions of the Vedic priests and the Shaiva yogis are quite different. Throughout Indian sacred history, nobody went to a Vedic priest to study yoga. So why does Deepak Chopra claim Vedic culture and not Shaiva culture developed yoga?

That question goes to the heart of the complexities and controversies regarding Indian history and who actually developed yoga in the first place.

“Other historians,” writes the New York Times, “trace the first written description of yoga to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture believed to have been written between the fifth and second centuries B.C.”

These scriptures, often termed the Fifth Veda, do indeed contain a vast repository of yogic wisdom and philosophy, for in India yoga has always meant a lot more than physical postures.

These scriptures were written down by rishis, swamis, tantrics, avadhutas, kapalikas—ascetic yogic living for the most part outside Vedic culture. Hence, I would venture to say that all of yoga, even these sacred texts now so central to Hindusim, originated outside mainstream Vedic society, but was gradually adopted by it as the Vedic Aryan outsiders gradually became the dominant culture in India.

Much the same way the Catholic Church incorporated the Mayan culture into its worship ceremonies. Still, just like the Mayan shamans have always remained largely independent of the Catholic Church, the yogis have also often remained fiercely independent of mainstream Vedic and Hindu culture.

Indeed, both the shamanic Mayans and the Tantric yogis differ quite radically in practice and lifestyle from mainstream Catholic and Hindu religion.

So, if anybody should claim ownership of yoga it should be the yogis that invented it, namely the ancient, dreadlocked Tantrics. Who, after all invented yoga according to Indian sacred history? His name was Shiva. And what is Shiva popularly called? The King of Yoga. What does he look like? For sure not like a Vedic priest with shaved head. No, he looks like a dreadlocked yogi with ashes smeared all over the body. He looks like a Tantric Yogi.

So, there you have it. Yoga was neither invented by Bikram, the Hindus, nor the Vedic priests. Yoga has always been a renegade activity, somewhat outside mainstream Vedic and Hindu culture and religion.

So, who owns yoga, then? The short answer: nobody. The long answer: everybody practicing yoga.

Yes, if yoga belongs to anybody, it belongs to humanity. And since we are all part of humanity, yoga—like soccer, like drumming, like dancing, like meditation—belongs to us all.

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