Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Yoga and Hinduism Redux: Kaleidoscopes of Time, History, and Consciousness

Given the breakneck pace of our 24/7 yoga news cycle, the “Yoga and Hinduism Debate” launched by the New York Times last November already seems oh-so-2010. But my mind keeps circling back to it. The question of how best to understand the relationship between yoga and Hinduism intrigues me. And once my interest is hooked, I have the sort of mind that wants to dig dig dig until I strike something that seems like at least an initial layer of conceptual bedrock.

At first, I thought that I'd hit a good position pretty quickly. Confronted with the Hindu American Foundation’s (HAF) demand to “Take Back Yoga” by “acknowledging its Hindu roots,” my first instinct was to put it in the conceptual boxes that I’m familiar with: i.e., those of American identity politics. Yes, I reasoned, it’s true that the yoga world is full of Hindu symbolism, with images of Shiva, Ganesha, and other deities adorning everything from altars to t-shirts. Yet in years of taking classes, going to workshops, and reading Yoga Journal, I’d never heard any sustained discussions of Hinduism (until, of course, this recent outbreak of debate). And, being aware of the history of anti-Hindu and anti-Asian prejudice in this country, I figured that the HAF just wanted the same sort of cultural acknowledgement that other minority groups have demanded. And that seemed perfectly legitimate to me.

And to some extent it still does. But much less so. Because this case is really not analogous that of, say, African Americans, whose fight to get some cultural respect was nothing sort of revolutionary only a few short decades ago. Back in the 1960s-70s, while what it meant to be African American was fiercely contested, there wasn’t much ambiguity identifying who this group was. On the contrary, given the “one drop rule,” the dominant culture was nothing if not Draconian in policing the boundaries of Black group identity.

Defining the boundaries of “yoga” and “Hinduism,” however – well, that’s quite a different story. Even leaving aside the vexing question of “what is yoga” (and we know how crazy-making that is) the seemingly simple question of “what is Hinduism?” is enough to keep your head spinning for days (if not weeks and perhaps years).

Kaleidoscope by Feeding the Fish

But that’s OK. In fact, in a way it’s better than OK, because it offers a great opportunity for learning on many levels. Trying to pinpoint a robust definition of Hinduism involves tangling with highly contested questions of history, politics, religion, and spirituality – all of which (just to complicate things further) are bound up with competing constructions of individual and group identity.

Such complexity is daunting. Which is one reason many people prefer to stay away from the Hinduism issue altogether: you never know when you’re going to unwittingly stumble onto some ideological minefield you didn’t know existed. Nonetheless, I believe that it’s worthwhile to engage with the yoga and Hinduism question – without, however, necessarily needing to resolve it.

This may seem pointless to some: Why pose a question unless you can answer it? Well, because much of our best learning comes through an ongoing engagement with big questions, rather than a rush to prescribe simple answers. As the Buddhists teach us, the fluidity of the self is a hard, but liberating truth to embrace. And so it is with the question of the relationship between yoga and Hinduism: maybe what we need to do right now is not answer it – or at least not too quickly or definitively. We North American yoga practitioners may benefit more by continuing to sift through it again and again in order to come to more finely grained understandings of its many nuances and complexities.

British India (pre-1947)

The Origins Debate: Was Hinduism Invented, Accreted, or Revealed?

Among scholars, there’s ongoing debate over whether “Hinduism” – understood as a singular, shared, coherent religious identity – really existed prior to the British colonization of India. Some argue that it was “invented” in the struggle to unify the modern Indian state and kick out the British. But others insist that different Indic religious sects shared a common meta-identity as “Hindus” long before the Brits arrived.

Richard King (author of Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "the Mystic East”) writes that it doesn’t make sense “to project the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as it is commonly understood into pre-colonial Indian history”:
Before the unification begun under imperial rule and consolidated by the Independence of 1947 it makes no sense to talk of an Indian ‘nation,’ nor of a religion called ‘Hinduism’ which night be taken to represent the belief system of the Hindu people. Today of course, the situation differs insofar as one can now point to a loosely defined cultural entity which might be labeled ‘Hinduism,’ or, as some prefer, “Neo-Hinduism’ . . .
Prior to 1947, King argues, Indian religious and spiritual traditions were simply too diverse to be bundled into the common identity of “Hinduism.” After India was consolidated as an independent nation, however, its culture correspondingly shifted to produce a more unified, if “loosely defined” religious identity.

(It’s worth noting that from this perspective, even accepting the category of “religion” itself meant shifting into a much more Westernized conceptual paradigm. Arguably, the term “religion” is too bound up with the entwined traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to do justice to the very different set of spiritual ideas and practices that later became lumped together as “Hinduism.”)

Others disagree. Citing poems, songs, and other folk referents dating back to 1400, Versus Lorenz argues that a common Hindu identity developed in India well before the British arrived:
Whatever the reason for the scholarly acceptance of the idea that there was no religious Hindu self-identity before 1800, the evidence against this view in vernacular Hindu literature is clear and abundant. The bulk of this evidence takes the form of texts composed by the popular religious poet-singers of North India, most of them members of non-Brahmin castes. This literature does precisely what Sanskrit literature refuses to do: it establishes a Hindu religious identity through a process of mutual self-definition with a contrasting Muslim Other . . . Without the Muslim (or some other non-Hindu), Hindus can only be Vaishnavas, Saivas, Smartas or the like.
“During the centuries of rule by dynasties of Muslim sultans and emperors,” he insists, “Hindus developed a consciousness of a shared religious identity based on the loose family resemblance among the variegated beliefs and practices of Hindus, whatever their sect, caste, chosen deity, or theological school”:
From the point of view of a modern observer, one can see the family resemblance taking a recognizably Hindu shape in the early Puranas, roughly around the period 300-600 C.E. Although the religion of these Puranas displays many continuities with the earlier Vedic religion, its principal features and emphases particularly its greatly expanded mythology of the gods Vishnu, Siva and Devi, I think, justify marking this religion off as something new, as the beginning of medieval and modern Hinduism.
The writer Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, presents yet another, historically intermediate position. “Hinduism,” he writes, “is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernizers.”

Nonsense, Lorenz counters: “Hinduism wasn't invented by anyone, European or Indian.” Rather, it grew organically through the course of (pre-colonial) Indian history.

Eternal Religion versus Historical Consciousness

Despite their differences, these positions share a secular, historical orientation. Others have quite different perspectives based on other forms of reasoning.

The Hindu Blog, for example, offers a series of essays on the history of Hinduism that begins by rejecting the concept of historical consciousness itself:
If you ask about the origin of Hinduism to a person who has perceived the essence of Hinduism, the answer will be a simple smile. This is because Hinduism has no history, it believes in the present. This might be hard for a common man to digest because we live in a world which gives so much importance to history . . .
The great sages who gave us the Upanishads, Vedas and other Holy Scriptures, never talked about the history of their clan or kingdom. This is because history is of no use to mankind.
Such a perspective insists on the unchanging centrality of eternal truths. The “great thoughts found in Upanishads are eternal and have practical use in everyday life . . . So for a Hindu, religion is ‘Sanatana Dharma’ – the eternal religion.” Still, if we insist on trying to date Hinduism, this can be done:
The earliest evidence of Hinduism is found in the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BC) . . . (but) it would be right to say the earliest seed of Hinduism was laid hundreds of years before Indus valley civilization flourished.
Of course, historically minded scholars and writers like King, Lorenz, and Mishra would counter that while the earlier forms of Indian spiritual and religious practice do indeed date back that far, it doesn’t make sense to retroactively lump these incredibly diverse traditions into the homogenizing category of “Hinduism.” These many distinct religious, spiritual, shamanistic, and yes, yogic traditions, they would argue, only developed some sense of unity under the umbrella of “Hinduism” much, much later.

Hindu Deities

330 Million Gods

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that a religion that says that Brahman (or God) is so complex that its Spirit is expressed through 330,000,000 different gods should not be easily defined. “Certainly, Mishra writes, “most Hindus themselves felt little need for precise self-descriptions”:
Long after their encounter with the monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity, they continued to define themselves through their overlapping allegiances to family, caste, linguistic group, region, and devotional sect . . . Their rituals and deities varied greatly, defined often by caste and geography; and they were also flexible: new goddesses continue to enrich the pantheon even today. There is an AIDS goddess which apparently both causes and eradicates the disease. At any given time, both snakes and the ultimate reality of the universe were worshipped in the same region, sometimes by the same person. Religion very rarely demanded, as it did with many Muslims or Christians, adherence to a set of theological ideas prescribed by a single prophet, book, or ecclesiastical authority.
Personally, I find this openness and fluidity refreshing – even liberating. There is, I think, something very profound in the belief that God has more manifestations than we can name. In my experience, religions that insist on unwavering faith in a fixed set of beliefs breed fear, self-righteousness, and division rather than spiritual growth.

(Of course, Mishra goes on to say that contemporary Hindu nationalism is moving in precisely that direction, abandoning the traditional inclusivity and tolerance of Hinduism in favor of religious fundamentalism and right-wing politics. This form of Hinduism – or at least the spectre of it – is also at play in the current “Yoga and Hinduism debate.” Some, for example, see the HAF campaign to “Take Back Yoga” as an offshore component of an Indian nationalist agenda – a charge which they strongly deny.)

While I’m no longer inclined to take the HAF’s charge that Westerners are “delinking yoga from its Hindu roots” quite so much at face value, I remain grateful to them to galvanizing what I think is a fascinating, informative debate. If we keep digging into it, it’s not long before we’re confronted with some really deep questions regarding how to think about religion, spirituality, history, politics, and identity.

At the moment, the one that interests me the most is this question of historical consciousness – which applies just as much to yoga as it does to Hinduism. As we learn more about modern yoga history, a parallel debate is starting to emerge. Does yoga have an unchanging, eternal essence – just like the Hindu Blog claims for Hinduism, or the Sanatana Dharma? If so, how do we account for the fact that we have so much evidence showing that the ideas and practices that constitute “yoga” as we know it today didn’t coalesce until the early 20th century?

How do we square the compelling evidence of radical evolution with the felt experience of a seemingly timeless practice?

The Ouroboros: A serpent biting its tail – a symbol of eternity.

Image from the Horapollo Hieroglyphics (1556), where it is said to signify the universe. In the Renaissance, the symbol came to mean eternity.
The serpent that holds its tail in its mouth . . . is customarily taken for the course of a year, for time, for age, for immortality . . . St Cyril gives this reason: that it stretches out, and curls back again and again, and that represents the passage and revolution of the days and years . . . But one might be able to give another reason that the serpent catches its tail: whether one considers the past or the present or the future, all these times are uncertain to us. For we cannot see the past or conceive of its spirit given that it has no beginning; likewise more of the future, because it is not yet, and the end of things is unknown . . .

Old Sages by the Figure of the Snake
Encircled thus) did oft expression make
Of Annual-Revolutions; and of things,
Which wheele about in everlasting-rings;
There ending, where they first of all begun . . .
These Roundells, help to shew the Mystery
of that immense and blest Eternitie,
From whence the CREATURE sprung, and into whom
It shall again, with full perfection come . . .

Emblem from George Wither's A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (London, 1635). This plate was engraved by Crispin de Passe and son, and was first used in Gabriel Rollenhagen's Nucleus emblematum selectissimorum, quae Itali vulgo impresas vocant (Arnhem and Utrecht, 1611). The Greek running around the picture (aionion kai proskairon) means something like "timeless, and timely."

  • Richard King, “Orientalism and the Modern Myth of ‘Hinduism,’” Numen, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1999), pp. 146-185. 
  • David N. Lorenzen, “Who Invented Hinduism?,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1999), pp. 630-659. 
  • Pankaj Mishra, “Who Invented Hinduism?” Axess Magazine (12/9/20) [PDF available at Prana Journal: http://pranajournal.com/history/understanding-invention-hindu/]  
  • Ouroboros image & text I:   http://bestiarium.net/bilder.html 
  • Ouroboros image & text II: http://www.mun.ca/alciato/wither.html


  1. Stumbled upon your blog today. I'm from India. I'm short on time otherwise I would have commented at length on the theme of the article. Just writing to inform you that Pankaj Mishra is a self-confessed India basher/hater. A communist by ideology, he even denies Vedic religion has anything to do with Hinduism.

    Next time when you read a book, do check out authors' ideology and bias also. 95 % of Indian historians are Hindu hating Marxists. Since the Right is almost non-existing in literature and intellectual space here, they dominate the popular discourse. Nobody counters their falsehoods. Beware of them.

  2. Hi Carol, you are correct in alluding to an 'ideological minefield' wrt discussions of Hinduism and Yoga. The truth is that there is no 'right wing' in the Indian context (as it's understood in the West). Fiscal conservatism and laissez faire ideology is virtually non-existent in the Indian national discourse. The ruling dynastic party - Congress, is as socialist or left of center as the opposition. The so called Indian right wing is largely a construct of the mainstream media and academia, which are dominated by Marxist ideologues. Today the term 'Hindu' has become a four-letter word, eagerly attacked by all those attempting to burnish their pseudo-secular credentials. Caste and identity politics have long been a staple of Indian politicians, mainly from the self-declared 'Secular' Congress. The media however turns a blind eye to this, instead preferring to demonize the 'Hindu nationalist' opposition, painting it as right wing, when more often than not it's policies are as left wing as the Congress and it's media acolytes. Ironically even American academia is now involved in it. Diana Eck from Harvard recently waded into the debate by referring to the opposition party as the 'Hindu right', not aware that she had fallen hook, line and sinker for age old bromides spouted by the pseudo-liberal establishment.