05/27/2010 06:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yoga: Reaffirming the Transformational Practice's Hindu Roots

Recently, a debate played out on the Washington Post's On Faith blog between Aseem Shukla, a physician who heads the Hindu American Foundation, and Deepak Chopra. The argument, which was also reported in Newsweek, began with Shukla's essay, "The Theft of Yoga," in which he lamented that the phenomenal popularity of yoga has been achieved at a cost, namely its disconnection from the tradition that gave it birth. "Yoga originated in Hinduism," he wrote. "It's disingenuous to say otherwise. A little bit of credit wouldn't be a bad thing, and it would help Hindu Americans feel proud of their heritage." Chopra countered on historical grounds -- which Shukla later refuted -- and on the grounds that modern yoga is one response to the need for a secularized spirituality that transcends religious forms.

It seems like an almost comical irony: yoga proponents, including many of Indian descent, disassociate yoga from Hinduism, while many Hindus wish to claim it. In fact, it is a tribute to the tremendous depth and complexity of India's spiritual heritage that both sides can be considered correct. The same teachings can be understood in spiritual/religious terms and in secular/scientific terms.

The problem is largely one of language. "Hinduism" is, by definition, a religious term. It was coined by British imperialists to describe the dominant spirituality of the "Hindus," which is what the inhabitants of the Indus River region were called by earlier invaders. What we call Hinduism is actually so multifaceted that it makes the sects of Christianity look uniform by comparison. It has also been the victim of centuries of misconceptions (e.g., that it is polytheistic) thanks to mendacious colonists, condescending missionaries, and ordinary ignorance. Further complicating the matter, the everyday religion of India is as different from the teachings that caught on in America as everyday Judaism is from Kabbalah or as Sunday morning Christianity is from the mysticism of Meister Eckhart or John of the Cross. As a result, many people prefer not to use the term Hinduism, favoring instead Sanatana Dharma (the original term, commonly translated as "Eternal Path"), or phrases such as "Vedic tradition" or "Indian philosophy." All of this means that you can argue for or against the premise that yoga stems from Hinduism, depending on how you define "Hinduism" and interpret its history.

None of this is new. About 200 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson, America's greatest homegrown philosopher, read the first translations of Hindu texts to land in Boston Harbor. While he made explicit his debt to Vedic philosophy, he blended those ideas with other ingredients in his Transcendentalist stew, and the individual flavors are not always easy to identify. That kind of adaptation has been going on ever since.

The first Indian-born guru to grace our shores was Swami Vivekananda, the star of the landmark Parliament of the World's Religions in 1893. In the face of attacks from Christian leaders, Vivekananda patiently explained and fiercely defended Hinduism. But, when he created an organization to carry on his teachings, he named it the Vedanta Society, not the Hinduism Society. It was an accurate term, since Vedanta was the component of Hinduism that he emphasized, but it was also an expedient one, since it did not carry religious baggage that might cause people to think he was out to convert them. To this day, there are monks and nuns in Vivekananda's lineage who refuse to call themselves Hindus, while others happily accept the label.

A few decades later, Paramahansa Yogananda made similar choices. He named his organization the Self-Realization Fellowship, not the Hindu Fellowship, and the title of his enormously popular memoir was Autobiography of a Yogi, not Autobiography of a Hindu. Then came the perfect storm of the Sixties, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with the help of the Beatles) ushered Transcendental Meditation into the mainstream and convinced scientists to study the practice. His organization was an educational non-profit, not a religious one, and his rendering of Vedanta was called the Science of Creative Intelligence.

Like those three seminal figures, virtually every guru and yoga master who came to the West made similar adaptations. They expounded one component of Hinduism or another, but in a universal context, and they were circumspect about using the word Hinduism. They offered a spiritual science -- a science of consciousness, if you will -- and not a religion as such. Therefore, Americans were free to utilize the teachings on their own terms, whether religious or secular. Millions took them up on it. In the process American spirituality changed, and so did health care, psychology, and other fields of endeavor.

I just devoted about 400 pages to analyzing this history for a book that will be published in November. Its title is American Veda, not some variation on Hinduism in America. My publisher (Doubleday) and I made that decision because: 1) if Hinduism were in the title, potential readers might think it is only about the religion practiced in Hindu temples, and 2) what influenced American culture was a combination of the philosophy of Vedanta and the mental and physical practices of yoga, not the everyday Hinduism that most people associate with exotic rituals and colorful iconography.

From the perspective of Hindus who are proud of their great heritage, such choices are unfortunate. Advocates like Dr. Shukla are doing exactly what ought to be done to rehabilitate the image of Hinduism, and I for one hope they succeed. At the same time, we probably would not be having this conversation at all if the influential gurus had not made the choices they did. How many Americans would have taken up meditation or yoga if those practices had been offered to them as Hinduism?

I look forward to the day when people like me can use the term Hinduism without fear of being misconstrued. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon yoga proponents to give credit where it is due, not just because India deserves it after centuries of exploitation, but to keep the spiritual and philosophical foundation of yoga in the foreground. If those deeper elements are lost and yoga comes to be seen as just another fitness exercise, we will fail to take full advantage of its gifts. Most veteran yoga teachers recognize this, which puts them on the same page as the Hindu advocacy groups -- except for that pesky issue of nomenclature. I would urge them all to not let arguments over terminology overshadow what really matters: the depth and authenticity of the teachings. Putting substance over form would be in keeping with the most fundamental premise of Hinduism and the Vedic tradition that predates that term by centuries: "Truth is one, the wise call it by many names."