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The Origins and Ownership of Yoga

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Of course no one owns yoga. Nor do you have to be Hindu to practice and benefit from yoga. Pretty obvious one would think, but not so for the many perturbed Western yogis who have entered the now global debate that the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) started about the Hindu origins of yoga. A letter to the editor of Yoga Journal, a scholarly position paper, the blog battle between HAF's Aseem Shukla and Deepak Chopra on the Washington Post's On Faith and one New York Times front-page story later, folks still don't get that it's not at all about ownership, but about origins. It's not about branding, but about acknowledgement. It's not about conversion, but about self realization. It's about understanding that yoga is but one of Hinduism's great contributions to humanity.

Perhaps some of the confusion is a result of the many ingredients of our modern lives -- mass marketing, crass consumerism, the worldwide Web and a Twitter-soundbite culture. It's a toxic cocktail that can lead to quick and faulty conclusions. But luckily there is an antidote -- directly from the source, which is HAF in this case.

"Take Back Yoga" is only the first half of HAF's campaign slogan, and the phrase may very well mislead one to conclude that HAF is asserting proprietorship. But a quick trip to HAF's website reveals the complete title of the campaign, "Take Back Yoga -- Bringing to Light Yoga's Hindu Roots," and also the campaign's history, purpose and catalyst.

It started back in 2008, with the Yoga Journal. The summer issue was not particularly different from any other -- the mantra of the month, the sacred Hindu symbol, Om, sprinkled throughout the magazine, advertisements for products like bottom-shaping yoga pants and sticky yoga toe socks, and, of course, feature articles offering advice, insight and wisdom on yoga. What we did not find, however, was any reference to Hinduism. In fact, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism were more overtly associated with the discipline.

It was as if the Yoga Journal, as well as much of the $6 billion yoga industry, had agreed to some sort of unwritten covenant to use code words rather than what they deemed the unmarketable "H-word." Vedic, yogic, Sanskritic, ancient Indian and Eastern were the pseudonyms of choice to source key elements of Hindu teachings: bhakti, karma and moksha, even the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism's most revered scriptures.

After writing a letter to the editor, HAF's suspicions were confirmed when, during a follow up phone call, the young woman answering said, "Yeah, they [the editors] probably avoid it [Hinduism]. Hinduism does, like, you know, have a lot of baggage." Really? Hinduism has baggage and the world's other religions don't?

As an advocacy group seeking to provide a progressive Hindu American voice and to promote a better understanding of Hinduism, we were compelled to act. And so started a quest to bring awareness to the Hindu roots of yoga and, in turn, gain acknowledgement of yoga as one of Hinduism's great gifts. Hindus across America, including my school-aged boys, face ridicule, discrimination and uninvited proseltyization as a result of caricature, misinformation and false judgment about our "religion." Idol worshipper, cows, caste, dowry, many gods (lower case "g") -- these are the terms that more commonly define Hinduism in Western popular culture. Thanks to Deepak Chopra, we can add "one-eyed" and "tribal" to the list too. At the same time, 15 million Americans, from all religions and no religion, are turning to the power and healing benefits of yoga; some are even going beyond the physical to study Vedanta and the Gita or other "yogic" texts.

Deepak Chopra's take is different, and absolutely wrong -- at least in what he has articulated here on the Huffington Post. He is going beyond delinking yoga from Hinduism; he is actually proffering to delink the Vedas from Hinduism! Even America's sixth grade social studies textbooks, flawed as they are, accurately state that the Vedas are Hinduism's holiest scriptures. And Chopra's argument that Shiva cults preceded Hinduism? Well, that is as baffling an argument as would be to hold that the Buddha's eightfold path preceded Buddhism as the Buddha cult was not yet a formalized religion.

Sadly, instead of using his position of influence to foster understanding of Hindu traditions, Chopra too has succumbed to the H-word aversion. He did not celebrate the Hindu origins of Transcendental Meditation as its spokesman, just as his New Age avatar repackages Vedic (read: Hindu) philosophy for empire profits. He writes books on Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and then specifies to Larry King that he is not a Hindu but an Advaita Vedantin (Advaita Vedanta is one of the most influential schools of Hindu philosophy). See a pattern of denial here?

Chopra is not alone though -- there have been many a Hindu guru in the last century, who in their desire to share that which they believed could enrich others, that which could be articulated in universal, SBNR (spiritual but not religious) terms, or that which could generate a pretty penny, have opted out of using the term Hindu. But call it what you may, Sanatana Dharma, Vedic traditions and Hinduism are synonymous. Hindus have long self-referred to our way of life as Sanatana Dharma -- the Eternal Law or Way which has no beginning and no end in history. And while "Hindu" may be the 12th century Persian abstraction referring to the Indic civilization existing on the banks of the Indus river, the diverse followers of Sanatana Dharma include those who accept the sanctity of the Vedas and other Hindu scripture. They believe in an all-pervasive formless or formed Divine; they believe in the laws of karma, dharma and reincarnation; they tread the various yoga paths (jnana, raja, karma or bhakti); and they accept that the ultimate goal of existence is enlightenment (moksha).

Dr. Chopra is absolutely correct in affirming that Yoga is ultimately about achieving enlightenment. But to profiteering yogis such as he, please remember that on the road to moksha there are still the signposts of satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (abstention from greed) guiding the way.

Around the Web

Origins of Yoga - ABC News

Yoga - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Yoga Hindu Origins | Hindu American Foundation (HAF)

It is wrong to deny that yoga has its origins in Hinduism | Ramesh ...

Hinduism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia