Is yoga Hindu or Indian, secular or religious? Take your side and you can debate forever. For the origin and template for these words — Hindu, India, secular, religion — is Euro-American, not Indian, and certainly not universal. Indians are expected to force fit Indian thoughts, like a twisted yogic asana, into this template to explain ourselves. It’s a trap best avoided.
Yoga is Hindu because Hindu religious texts continuously refer to the word. Krishna and Shiva are often called yogeshwara, the lord of yoga. The author of Yoga-sutra is Patanjali often identified with the serpent that coils himself around Shiva’s neck. The Bhagavad Gita refers to gyana yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga, the behavioural, cognitive and affective aspect of Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna.
Yoga is Indian as it originated in the Indian subcontinent and thrived in various forms because of various schools of thought, even those who distanced themselves from Hinduism, such as Jainism and Buddhism. In fact, the word ‘zen’ in Japanese Buddhism can be traced to the word ‘dhyana’.
Yoga is religious in the sense that it does refer to the idea of God, and speaks of the union of the individual soul (jiva-atma) with cosmic soul (param-atma), at least in Vedanta, the most popular school of Hinduism in the 21st century thanks to the work of many Indian gurus
Yoga is secular because in Yoga Sutra, the idea of ‘ishwara’ or divine is a very small component, and a tool at that, of the eight practices meant to ‘uncrumple the mind: like social disengagement (yama), personal discipline (niyama), postures (asana), breath (pranayama), sensory isolation (pratyahara), awareness (dharana), attention (dhyana) and withdrawal (samadhi).
In the West, the physical aspect of yoga has become more important than its psychological aspects. In fact the psychological aspect, twisted in rather bizarre ways as spiritual and/or occult, often becomes ‘New Age’ and ‘hippie’! Christian and Islamic fundamentalists challenge that yoga should not be taught as it has religious undertones, a result of Hindu NRIs demanding yoga’s Hindu roots be acknowledged. Yoga fans go out of their way to show that yoga, as practiced in the West, is not religious, not spiritual, in fact, not even Hindu, or Indian.
Take the case of David Gordon White’s Biography of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (Princeton University Press), the primary hypothesis is that Patanjali’s set of aphorisms is not an ancient knowledge passed down through the ages by gurus, but a forgotten obscure ancient text re-discovered by European Orientalists and made famous by leaders of the Hindu Renaissance, such as Vivekananda, only in the last century.
These and other such works reveal the pompous insensitivity of many, not all, Western academicians who are unable to admit their own inability to grasp the nature of traditional Indian and Hindu scholarship, which is less textual or institutional, and more oral and ritual, very different from the familiar and hegemonic European or American scholarship. For these academicians, everything the average Hindu considers good about being Hindu/Indian is actually a British invention, middle-class Brahmin ‘imaginary’, or Right-wing patriarchal propaganda.
This outrages many, especially the NRI, who feel cornered by ‘objective’ scholars. They find themselves ill equipped to argue. So, they turn yoga teachers like Ramdev into ‘sants’ (saints), consider hate-spewing cult leaders like Rajiv Malhotra as ‘intellectual kshatriyas’, and find validation when academicians like Vamsee Juluri categorise this tendency as Hinduphobia. They yearn for a saviour, a central theme of Abrahamic mythology, since Western media systematically ignores their cry as ‘unsecular nonsense’. Hence, the PM’s call for International Yoga Day and reclaim the yoga heritage.