Dr.Koenraad Elst in http://centreright.in/2013/02/yoga-and-hinduism/ argues that Patanjala yoga is “non-theistic and non-religious”.
A Hindu practitioner would find this argument unacceptable. In Hindu-Buddhist traditions religion, spiritual philosophy and spiritual methodology subscribed to by religion have their distinct relevance. And yoga sastra spans these – it has the philosophical backdrop (namely the discriminatory knowledge between Purusha and Prakriti), prescribes a methodology (the ashtanga or shadanga) and its own unique approach to spiritual realization (namely identifying the consciousness faculties in mind-complex and mastering those to achieve the ultimate discriminatory knowledge between matter and consciousness). Darsana is more about the philosophy and approach, while methodologies are developed by several sampradayas or traditions using the same philosophy. Thus you have laya yoga, mantra yoga, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, hatha yoga etc all evolving from the same principles of yoga.
Yoga sutras is a canonical darsanic text and hence understandably agnostic to theology. That however is entirely different from saying that the ancient yoga traditions have been agnostic of theology. Historically most of them have been theology + mantra sastra + yoga sastra. Majority of yoga traditions have never been completely detached from theology.
That belief in Isvara is not a prerequisite for yoga is a perfectly valid assertion. The possibility of yoga siddhi without being devotional is also never disputed. At the same time, using a devotional terminology to describe yoga is not invalid either. Hindu spiritual systems are diverse and at the same time overlapping.
As a matter of fact even today there exist spiritual missions that take a non-theistic approach to ashtanga practice, but history does not show that such practice had ever been a majority even among the practitioners of ashtanga/shadanga yoga – leave alone entire range of Hindu-Buddhist-Jaina traditions.
Sri.Elst points out to a definitional issue with yoga as it is understood today –
“Yoga here does not mean “union (viz. with God)”, as most modern Hindus will tell you. There is nothing to unite with, only something to separate from, viz. nature (prakriti) in the largest sense.”
However, this is a non-issue and is merely a thing of terminology. After all, the Hindu-Buddhist thought does not use ambiguous terms like God. The “union with God” is nothing but realizing the state of identity with pure consciousness, and is not different from yoga’s goal. Separation or discrimination between matter and consciousness or dissolving the mind in unitary consciousness is not different. It is only a question of who uses which terminology.
Moreover it is not the “modern Hindus” who tell you this – the entire Puranic corpus is a bhakti-yoga confluence which on one hand uses the “technical” terminology of yoga and on the other hand the “popular” terminology of devotion with the same object. Just take for instance the imagery of Sri Krishna – the Yogiswara and at the same time the object of devotion.
Ultimately whether it is bhakti or yoga what is done is dissolving the mind. The way it is done is different and hence the terminology. In yoga the mind is “stilled” while in bhakti the mind is “melted” in devotion – both to the same effect of realizing the deeper consciousness, the unitary consciousness.
That bhakti is a different salvation approach from yoga is an entirely valid argument. It is also acceptable that while the Ishtadevata is an indispensable alambana in bhakti it is not so in yoga’s method. However there is not much to differentiate as per the goal – whether it is expressed in theistic or non-theistic terminology. The “goal” of any school, whether is bhakti or yoga is always defined and understood with respect to the individual/jiva and not with respect to the upadhi or alambana.
Hence Sri.Elst’s statement that
“At any rate, he refuses to make this special purusha somehow the goal of his yoga.”
is also not accurate. Discriminating between prakriti and purusha leaves you being the Purusha separated from Prakriti and hence is very much the goal.
Bauddha and Jaina being theist or atheist is not really something that has a bearing in this matter. Both these traditions have their allegiance to mantra sastra, yoga sastra and even theology and mythology. This neither confirms nor refutes the religious connotations of yoga.
Regarding the more “physical” appearing Hatha Yoga, Sri.Elst says –
“Hatha yoga is a different tradition from Patanjali’s yoga, and partly directed to a different goal”
Hatha yoga is shadanga, which also culminates in samadhi. It is wrong to go by preliminaries and ignore the entire ladder and the goal. Shadanga is not a “different” tradition from Patanjala generalization; it merely is a variant of ashtanga.
However there is nothing disputable in the bottom line –
“Indians invented it themselves, long before British conceptions of fitness could (marginally) influence it.”
The Hindu-Buddhist approach with asana is at least three-fold. One is health culture – involving the Ayurveda, Surya namaskaras etc. Second is martial culture – involving the dhanurveda, dynamic asana, martial arts etc. Third is aesthetic culture – involving mudra, natya-asana etc. “Fitness” is really a by-product and never an explicit goal in any of the Hindu-Buddhist systems. Hatha yoga is not at all about fitness, it is about self-mastery through body. Its unique contributions to yoga systems also happen to be the mudras-bandhas etc which have to do with self-mastery and health culture, not really a fitness-culture. All the three are definitely more ancient than European encounters with India.
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