No, You can't Separate Yoga from Sanatana Dharma

An essay that traces the philosophical, textual, traditional and practical roots of Yoga and exposes the attempts both by the West and Indian Yoga entrepreneurs to dissociate Yoga from its Hindu moorings.
No, You can't Separate Yoga from Sanatana Dharma


Of the more unfortunate but widespread phenomena in recent times regarding Hinduism, just two prominent ones are worth mentioning. The first is the flood of self-proclaimed experts who typically lack traditional scholarship (or at any rate, deep scholarship based on foundational texts and practice) on the fundamentals of Hindu philosophy and its various schools. The second is the consequence of the first. It appears that there is now a constant need to produce elaborate evidence for facts accepted as self-evident just thirty or forty years ago. In other words, even solid scholars in Hinduism are now forced to write defences instead of doing original, constructive or path-breaking work. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the realm of Yoga.

About five or six years ago, a mini-controversy erupted over the Government’s flip-flop regarding the inclusion of OM in the Ayush Ministry’s Yoga CD. For a Government led by a party committed to the civilisational roots of Sanatana Bharatavarsha, this controversy was not only avoidable but shows yet again, its failure in developing a robust intellectual discourse.

However, there’s also another, deeper side that shows how easily the controversy over Yoga was and can be whipped up. This is rooted in how Yoga is perceived across the globe.

Arguably, the overwhelming majority of people perceive the word Yoga merely as Asana—as a set of physical exercise movements and postures. The same perception holds true for Pranayama as merely a set of breathing exercises. Still others associate Yoga not only with Asana and Pranayama, but Dhyana, which they translate as “meditation.” Even worse, Yoga is a “lifestyle.”

Such perceptions would perhaps be forgivable ignorance in the land that first germinated them: America. However, the same perceptions have attained the status of settled truths in the land of Yoga’s birth: Bharatavarsha. How many in the “educated” class of India would associate Yoga as a Darshana, as one of the six schools of Hindu philosophical thought? How many in this class are even aware of something called Darshana.

But there’s something even worse: hypocrisy and ingratitude.

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The so-called Yoga “gurus” who have built multi-million dollar empires do not mention the fact that Yoga is a Darshana. Least of all do they mention or teach the rigorous training that a student must undergo to realize this Darshana. Neither are these mere students, they are seekers. To put it bluntly, some of these self-declared gurus are aware of this difficult truth: the moment they mention this aspect of Yoga as a Darshana, their glittering empires would come crashing down because a truthful pursuit of Yoga might take an entire lifetime of patient and devoted steadfastness, an attitude of non-acquisition, non-materialism and non-reward as we shall see. Therefore, packaging it merely as a time-tested tonic that improves your health, boosts your sex life, reduces your stress, helps your concentration, and other superficial benefits, has proved immensely rewarding for these seven-star Yoga “gurus.”

Yoga is Rooted in the Veda

Like everything in Sanatana Dharma, Yoga has its roots in the Veda.

Even a cursory reading of the Vedas and the principal Upanishads shows the widespread usage of the word Yoga therein. From a mantra used in everyday Puja, like say the Ganapati Atharvashirshakam, where Ganesha is described as one who the Yogis constantly meditate upon to the philosophical summits of the Upanishads, the word, the conception, and expositions on Yoga is vast, elaborate and nuanced. More importantly, in the Vedic corpus, the word Yoga is used in different philosophical contexts, and conveys different meanings and is not as a one-size-fits-all “theory” as these Yoga gurus claim it is.

In no particular order, the word Yoga is used profusely throughout the Rg, Yajur and Atharva Vedas, and the Aitareya, Katha, Mundaka, Mandukya, Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, and the Mahanarayana Upanishads. These apart, there are about fifty dedicated Yogopanishads—that is, Upanishads specifically dedicated to exploring various aspects of Yoga. Some of these include the Amritananda, Amritabindu, Yogatattva, Yogashikha, Pasupatabrahma, Hamsa, and Varaha Yogopanishads.

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In the Veda, the term Yoga is used in the sense of Tapas (literally, “burn,” “fire,” “heat,” but it usually means intense penance). This extract from the Mahanarayana Upanishad, which has an entire section dedicated to Tapah Prashamsa (Praise of Penance) describes Tapas variously as rta (the Cosmic Order), truth, peace, self-restraint, and upholds the importance and glory of the Sanyasa Yoga or the Yoga of renunciation.

ऋतं तपः सत्यं तपः श्रुतं तपः शान्तं तपो दमस्तपः
शमस्तपो दानं तपो यज्ञं तपो भूर्भुवः
सुवर्ब्रह्मैतदुपास्वैतत्तपः || (Mahanarayana Upanishad, 10th Anuvaka)

ṛtaṃ tapaḥ satyaṃ tapaḥ śrutaṃ tapaḥ śāntaṃ tapo damastapaḥ
śamastapo dānaṃ tapo yajñaṃ tapo bhūrbhuvaḥ
suvarbrahmaitadupāsvaitattapaḥ ||

Other principal Upanishads refer to Yoga in terms of Shravana (concentrated listening), Manana (revision, reflection), and Nidhidhyasana (intense contemplation on that which is learnt), all essential qualities that an aspirant of Vedanta should possess. The Katha Upanishad carries this celebrated verse, expounding the nature of and relationship between the Atman, sense organs, the mind, and the intellect:

आत्मानं रथिनं विद्धि शरीरं रथमेव तु।
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रगहमेव च॥

ātmānaṃ rathinaṃ viddhi śarīraṃ rathameva tu।
buddhiṃ tu sārathiṃ viddhi manaḥ pragahameva ca॥

The soul/Self is the charioteer, the body the chariot, the intellect the driver,
The mind the reins, and the senses are the horses||

The Mandukya, a short and terse Upanishad of just twelve verses, expounds on the meaning and nature of OM. It describes the states of Jagrat (wakeful), Swapna (dream), Sushupti (deep sleep), and Turiya (the Fourth state beyond deep sleep, the state of pure consciousness). The focus of this Upanishad on meditating upon OM in a way, forms some of the roots of the Yoga Darshana. Similarly, we find a reference to Nadis in the Chandogya Upanishad, which says:

A hundred and one are the arteries of the heart, one of them leads up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that, one becomes immortal. (8.6.6)

The “crown of the head” mentioned here is the precursor to the development of Kundalini Yoga. The whole of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is indeed, the exposition of the Moksha Yoga or the Yoga of Liberation. The Aitareya Brahmana mentions the Brahmarandhra, or the Gateway of Bliss located at the center of the skull, which again has a parallel with the Sahasrara Chakra found in Kundalini Yoga.

Yoga in Hindu Lore

Another definitive source that helps us trace the foundations of Yoga Darshana is the mammoth Yoga Vasishta attributed to Maharshi Valmiki, author of the Ramayana. The Yoga Vasishta is a conversation between Sri Rama and Rishi Vasishta and forms one of the main texts of Hindu philosophy.

And then, we don’t need a text other than the Bhagavad Gita to look for ample references to Yoga. Celebrated verses about Yoga include

  • Yogastah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva Dhananjaya… (Perform your duty/actions being steadfast in Yoga without getting attached to your actions, Arjuna)

  • Yogah karmasu kaushalam…(Yoga is doing things right)

  • Samatwam yoga uchyate… (Being equanimous in both success and failure is Yoga)

These apart, the chapter on Dhyana Yoga (Yoga of Meditation) is a veritable guide to the aims, methods, and goals of Yoga. In a way, the entire Bhagavad Gita is a treatise on Yoga.

Tracing the Origins

The foregoing exercise of providing a brief catalogue was necessary to underscore a fundamental point: that this vast literature of meditations on Yoga in a few thousand verses spread over several centuries occurred before Patanjali systematized Yoga as an independent school of Hindu philosophy.

A distinctive mark of anything that can be called Hindu is its origins in the Vedas. The discussion so far proves beyond doubt that Yoga does possess this mark. More importantly, Patanjala Yoga doesn’t really deal with what modern day Yoga-hawkers say it does: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras do not have instructions to perform various Asanas and Pranayamas as we shall see.

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There’s even more direct evidence as to the undeniable Hindu roots of Yoga as it is (mis)understood today. Maharshi Patanjali is worshipped as an avatar of Adishesha, the thousand-headed serpent upon whom Lord Vishnu reclines. The story of how Patanjali took this avatar is in itself quite thrilling and highly elevating. Representations of Patanjali in pictures and sculptures show his lower body coiled like a snake. See an example below.

However, if one argues that Adishesha himself is not connected with Hinduism, such an “argument” directly falls in the realm of political ideology.

Later day scholars, philosophers, saints and savants of Sanatana Dharma interpreted Yoga Sutras in the light of Vedanta. Bhoja, Vignanabhikshu, Adi Sankara, Sadashiva Brahmendra and Ramana Maharshi are prominent examples.

Closing Notes

Contemporary Yoga entrepreneurs instead of being grateful to the philosophy, culture, geography, and the combined penance of hundreds of saints and sages, all of which enabled them to earn their millions, are actively dissociating Yoga from its mother-roots in Sanatana Dharma. As I’ve mentioned in my book, 70 Years of Secularism, these Yoga entrepreneurs are overpriced gym and fitness instructors, not Yoga “gurus.”

Indeed, if they really “taught” Yoga, they wouldn’t have paid lip service to the basic prerequisites a true seeker of Yoga should follow: Yama, Niyama and other rigorous disciplines. What’s more, I’m not sure how many of these snake-oil salesmen even tell their students about these disciplines. On the contrary, these are some of the common buzzwords these glorified gym instructors casually throw around: “meditation,” “vibrations,” “cosmic energy,” “quantum,” “Being,” “super consciousness,” etc.

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One doesn’t really “learn” Yoga. One realizes it. As with any millennia-old tradition of Sanatana Dharma, Yoga has its own codes and discipline, which must be respected and adhered to as such. It has to be realized under the compassionate guidance of a Guru who is himself a Yogi in the truest sense of the word. The outward trappings of Asana, Pranayama, etc are mere crutches and aids to a more profound quest. Indeed, all our philosophical traditions including Yoga forbid a person to declare himself as a Guru. One of the basic qualities such a Guru possesses is Aparigraha (non-possession), one of the five Yamas (Abstinences) identified by Patanjali. Additionally, every Guru recites the name of a chosen Deity, his parents, Rishis and his immediate Guru as a method of showing abiding reverence and gratitude to the tradition and all the people that enabled him to become a Yogi. This is his way of repaying a debt, which you can never really repay. This in short is how Yoga (in the fullest sense of the word) is taught and learnt traditionally.

And now, for starters, we need to take a headcount of the number of Yoga-hawkers who practice Aparigraha. Their Gurudom, and what they peddle as Yoga violates every known precept, tenet, and principle laid down by say, Patanjali and other sages. Why exactly do they need such copious amounts of real estate throughout the world given the fact that Yoga, even at a superficial level involves looking inward? Why do they need to travel in private jets and choppers and have a security detail rivalling a political leader? What definition of Yoga includes this? Even if we discount this level of wealth-mongering and vulgar personal aggrandisement, the is truly unforgivable fact is this: who or what gave them the right to hack off the very roots of the noble Sanatana tradition of Yoga which they obscenely monetised to fund their swanky lifestyles?

Without exception, all these Yoga Entrepreneurs are deserving candidates for this timeless Sanskrit proverb:

|| कृतघ्नस्य न निष्कृति: ||
kṛtaghnasya na niṣkṛtih ||

There is no atonement for the ungrateful.

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