Koenraad Elst
Yoga and Hinduism
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

In the Rajiv Malhotra Yahoo discussion group, someone quoted Prof. Ann Gleig of Religious Studies (Central Florida) as saying that two groups have continually asserted that yoga is inherently religious, viz. evangelical Christians and some Hindus who want to preserve the practice’s religious influences. “So both of these groups, which have very different agendas, ironically support each other in an historically flawed construction of yoga as an essential unchanging religious practice that is the ‘property’ of Hinduism”. The poster juxtaposed this remark with his own opinion: “In Hindu spiritual traditions, yoga is one of many techniques by which the truth of man’s ultimate unity with the Supreme can be verified, empirically, at a personal level.”

Patanjala Yoga Sutra, known till Shankara as a branch of Sankhya or simply as Patanjala Darshana, defines yoga in an non-theistic and non-religious way. “Yoga is the stopping of the motions of the mind” is a purely technical definition. The next verse, “Then the seer rests in his own form”, explicitates the book’s definition of the goal of yoga as “isolation” (kaivalya), i.e. of consciousness (purusha) from its objects (sensory perceptions, desires, memories, intellection, all belonging to the less or more rarefied reaches of nature/prakrti). In both phrases, there is no God in the picture, He has nothing at all to do with the goal of yoga.

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 (prakrti) in the largest sense. Consciousness in the ordinary state is constantly entangled in thoughts and perceptions, and yoga means withdrawing it from all these entanglements

Patanjali makes a practical concession to the believers among his readers by saying that “devotion to God” is one of the preparatory stages of yoga. He defines God/Ishvara exactly like radically atheist Jains define their liberated souls, namely as a desireless purusha; so it remains highly uncertain that “God” as currently understood is meant. At any rate, he refuses to make this special purusha somehow the goal of his yoga. Yoga does not revolve around an external being called God, but is purely a matter of relating to yourself, viz. totally sinking into yourself and forgetting about the world and the “tentacles” of consciousness into it.

When modern Hindus speak about yoga (and they speak about it a lot but practice it very little), they have a distorted view of it, inflected by what has been the dominant stream in Hinduism for centuries, viz. theistic bhakti (devotion). “Unity with God”, whatever that may mean, is a concept from bhakti/sufism and also adopted by some writers on Christian mysticism.  But it is completely absent in historical yoga as defined by Patanjali.

Even if we leave Patanjali out of the discussion, at least the atheist yoga of Jains and Buddhists proves that yoga does not require any belief in God, much less God himself. To that extent, the quoted American researchers are right: only religious diehards on both sides maintain that yoga is connected with Hindu religion in the dominant devotional-religious sense. Indeed, in debates between the Nath yogis and the bhakti poet Guru Nanak (founder of the Nanak Panth, better known as Sikhism), the latter identifies their yoga as self-directed, earlier a standard Hindu allegation against the atheist Buddhists.

However, even if yoga is considered godless, it remains very much part of Hindu civilization. As modern Hindus are wont to say, even an atheist can be a Hindu. I am afraid that this is past glory, that nowadays Hinduism defines itself as theistic; but historically they are correct. Yoga is Hindu, though it is not the property of contemporary God-centered Hindus.

I am currently finishing a booklet for the greater public on the external enemies of Hinduism. It will make me very popular among Hindus. But next, I want to write a similar booklet about the internal enemies of Hinduism, or is other words: what is wrong with the Hindus so that e.g. they cannot settle the Kashmir dispute or the constitutional/legal discrimination of the Hindus in spite of being a democratic majority? This should make me a few friends among the secularists, but I think the enmity on that side in already too entrenched; but it will certainly make me many enemies among Hindus. They don’t like a Westerner criticizing them, though I have most of these criticisms from Hindus themselves. At any rate, if Hindus don’t make a systematic diagnosis of the problem, someone else has to do it. And the current (sentimental and confused) Hindu bhakti notion of “God” is certainly a big part of the problem.

 The same list member also quotes one Professor Andrea Jain, assistant professor of religious studies (Indiana), that the forms of yoga commonly practiced in the US are the result of the mix of colonial India and euro-American physical culture: “In fact, postural yoga has been shown to be a successor of fitness methods that were already common in parts of Europe and the United States before postural yoga was introduced. So we could think of postural yoga as a 20th century product, the aims of which include all sorts of modern conceptions of physical fitness, stress reduction, beauty and well-being, these things were not present in pre-colonial traditions of yoga at all.”

This supposed expert Andrea Jain is simply parrotting a very recent theory. She is plainly wrong, for yoga in the sense of meditation is very ancient, and was given a synthesis (of pre-existing views) by Patanjali. It existed in many varieties including the Jain and Buddhist ones, which built on a tradition that was already ancient by the time of the first writings around 300 BC. As for postural yoga, it dates back at least to the Nath yogis, who started in maybe 1100 AD, before Muslim rule in the Ganga plain, when the British were nowhere in the picture and America as a state didn’t even exist yet.

Unlike Patanjala Yoga (meditation) the more recent postural Hatha Yoga is indeed directed to relaxation and fitness. Hatha Yoga classics promise you a lustrous body and concomitant success with the opposite sex — not quite the goal of Patanjala Yoga, but very much the goal of Madonna and millions of other American yoga practitioners. Hatha yoga is a different tradition from Patanjali’s yoga, and partly directed to a different goal. But whatever may be the worth of that, Indians invented it themselves, long before British conceptions of fitness could (marginally) influence it.