The International Day of Yoga (IDY) is now in its fifth year. But 2020 sees an interesting twist. Due to COVID-19, the theme for this year is “Yoga for Health – Yoga at Home”.
Instead of 50,000 people all coming together with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a park or along a boulevard, participants are urged to stay at home. As a result there are countless ways to get involved online and also learn through many instructional videos. One of the more interesting social media hashtags to appear alongside #IDY2020 #StayAtHome this year is #ReturnToNature. The marketing of yoga involves an indelible sentiment that yoga represents the epitome of balance, harmony and sustainability in tune with nature.
In an article published by the Yoga Journal, Puravi Joshi explains the “true meaning of yoga,” which includes the idea that “Yoga is estimated to be at least 5,000 years old, originating in the Indus Valley Civilization in India.” Also, “True yoga isn’t just a workout. It is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living.”
The problems with these assertions are that they are ultimately articles of faith. They are regrettably intellectually lazy and disingenuous. They also potentially lend support to the Hindu nationalist interpretation of South Asia’s deeper history. It conflates the idea that Patañjali’s Aṣṭhāṅga Yoga is 5,000 years old and that it originated in the Indus Valley culture. Both are overdetermined and to the best of our knowledge, false.
Yet, through the logic of regressive identitarianism and the fact that it is a woman of Indian origin saying these things then the validity of these truth claims are buttressed through the precepts of Critical Race Theory and its South Asian sub-set, Desi Crit. Yoga is increasingly incorporated into social justice movements. This includes learning about how to become a “woke Hindu.” Yoga can supposedly assuage the perceived ongoing violence of settler colonialism and White supremacy that leave many wounds and voids.
How can yoga assuage settler colonialism and white supremacy?
One glaring issue is the way in which issues related to caste-based politics and representation are blind sided. The rush to instrumentalise yoga to fight all forms of oppression is seemingly geographically bound along with its promulgators. How can yoga be used to create an egalitarian society where members of marginalised communities in India and amongst the diaspora are not oppressed by those higher up the varṇa-jātī system? The yogic way of life is premised by adhering to varṇa-āśrama-dharma.
The traditional concept of a yogic way of life is underwritten by caste-based issues. Surgical removal of this core component while keeping “traditional yoga” relevant in today’s woke economy seems difficult to achieve.
While yoga might help address the settler-colonial issues in North America, how it might be applied in India is often left unsaid. As Melissa Heather explains, the issue is a European theft and biological coercion to create the artifice of a white, fit, flexible, female body as iconic of the yogic body, and that there is a moral imperative to adjust these issues. Yet, when institutionalising a modern yogic way of life it is imagined to be built upon a system that itself, is “internalized the value system of settler colonialism also perpetuates this system by branding yoga as a product that if bought will make one feel happy and peaceful, and be a better, more likeable person (in addition to skinnier, flexible and more beautiful). As such, yoga has become a willing accomplice in perpetuating the capitalist consumer culture that is dependent on extracting resources from stolen indigenous land.”
Where does fault lie?
It would seem that the Indian government and its local yoga industry is equally complicit in perpetuating capitalist consumer culture through stretching its meaning to capacity. Take, for example, how all ailments are solvable through yoga. How is it possible that yoga (whatever we imagine it to mean) can solve seemingly every problem humanity faces? Yet many people share and support this sentiment, for better or for worse.
For instance, here are a few prime examples: “Yoga creates lot of great vibrations in the people to make them to develop and change all their Bad things into the Good things.” What, precisely, are “great vibrations” and what is the difference between “Bad” and “Good” things? Who decides what is good and bad? We learn, that “Yoga changes the mind of the people to do every good task in the Country and stop every bad activity in the Country.” How precisely are minds recalibrated to know what is good for the country?
The irony of this situation is that Joshi’s version of history is a popular people’s version that has been filtered through so many lenses, beginning with German Romanticism and the colonial era of Indological essentialism, through to the post-colonial, consumerist, popularist imagination that runs on the uncritical idea that “Yoga is 5,000 years old.”
And since we have a growing body of evidence to show that postural yoga’s origins do not really go back further than the 11th century, as Jason Birch discusses, asserting a later date can result in simply being labelled, ‘racist,’ no matter what evidence is available. This is because one might be oppressing another’s lived experience of their cultural heritage. Regardless of whether it is historiographically correct or supported by textual evidence. This is evident in Joshi’s assertion, that “But if I’m honest, I sometimes find myself resentful of the fact that yoga is infrequently seen for its original purpose and meaning.”
Now, just what is the original purpose and meaning of yoga? While yoga’s semantic ground zero is popularly considered to be the later upanishadic (from the Brihadāraṇyaka and Kaṭha Upaniṣad-s) idea related to the union between the macrocosm and microcosm the earliest attested meaning of “yoga” is located in the Ṛgveda.
Why do many people stop short of using the earliest meaning of yoga? We know that early Vedic life oscillated between periods of seasonal movement (yoga, “harnessing”) – for warfare, cattle raids, and shifts to new pastures – and times of settled peace (kṣema). Jarrod Whitaker explains it best:
R̥gvedic poet-priests clearly propagate a violent masculine ideology — a R̥gvedic warrior ethic — wherein all males, whether young or old, become real men by participating in the ritual tradition and by being strong, tough, and dominant. Of course, ritual participants value generosity, protection, benevolence, and poetic knowledge, among other qualities. Nevertheless, we have seen that R̥gvedic poets consistently project animage of themselves and their community that is shot through with notions of conflict and competition for resources.
While yoga does refer to uniting or joining things together, this is only one part of the context. Typically, promoters of a monolithic, ahistorical, essentialised idea of yoga are ignorant of the actual daily life of the early Vedic culture. Or they have an agenda to promote an idea that everyone was vegetarian, Hindu, and did yoga, all the time. Why this is important to detail is that they promote a vague enough concept of a Vedic lifestyle, or, at least, a return to an imagined Vedic lifestyle as necessary to solve the problems of the 21st century. One example is the ISKCON guru, Radhanath Swami, who asserts, that “The underlying cause of all the pollution in the world is polluted consciousness.” And that, “the Vedic solution is something very different. And that is to find substantial satisfaction within ‘simple living and high thinking.’”
When we think or talk about IDY or “Yoga” more broadly, what exactly are we referring to? One wonders what the early Rigvedic people would have done in the face of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions?
Here we see a curious rhetorical strategy. A “Yoga lifestyle,” whatever that practicably means, is now spliced within health, development, and sustainability contexts. In 2018, Narendra Modi explained that yoga is a path to wellness and not simply a fitness regime, and that a “Yoga lifestyle” is the most sustainable way of life that everyone on the planet ought to adopt. This coercion through a perceived moral imperative is fascinating. Especially how it extends through assertions, such that “Yoga makes the connection between the Health protection as well as Development of the Sustainable Health.”
How does it do this? And what is a Yogic Lifestyle? The answer is seemingly as circular as one’s breathing ought to be. Apparently “A yogic lifestyle involves consciously shaping our attitudes, habits, and general ways of life to be more congruent with the philosophies, principles, morals, and ethics of yoga.”
Of course the concepts of Yoga today have moved on from what they originally were, yet there is often very little appreciation for the imagined pillars of a what many describe as a “classical yoga” system that underpins many assertions about how to live a supposedly sustainable yogic lifestyle. For instance, we are told that the first two limbs of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) yoga system are the moral/ethical principles otherwise known as the yamas and niyamas. Yet, how are they ethical and moral? These concepts of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, cleanliness, etc are not offered within the context of being a better person “in the world.” Or to be involved in somehow making the world a better a place through community service or somehow living a more sustainable lifestyle that only upper-middle class consumers can realistically afford.
It is ironic that the origins of a yoga lifestyle are in effect bereft of any idea of community or sustainability or development or wellness. In some ways, the original proto-yogis were part of a death cult, which had nothing to do with helping the downtrodden. The point is that the yamas and niyamas are part of system that is designed to reduce cognitive distortion and error. In this context error refers to all the ways that one can get distracted. If one is stealing, lying, cheating, living in a cluttered and dirty environment, etc then the chances of being in a mental space free from tension and diversion might be difficult to attain. And since the stated aim of the eight-limbed yoga is isolation (kaivalya) one wonders how that in any way can come to refer to community development or being “woke.” The classically-imagined concept of yoga that is promoted today as enigmatic of solving the world’s problems is about as opposite to this intention as is possible.
In a similar way, the concept of adopting a vegetarian diet is considered emblematic of an advancement in one’s progress. This shared sentiment sees the entanglement of different groups. For example, the Hindu Students Council is a coordinating group for Hindu students in North America. It is a concentrating hub for promoting Hindutva(-lite) ideology and is institutionally linked to the National Volunteer Corps (RSS) through its international branch, the Hindu Volunteer Corps (HSS). Yet, as “traditional knowledge keepers” and “stewards” who are equally interested in “tackling issues facing humanity – environmental protection, vegetarianism and animal rights, interfaith respect, LGBTQA+ rights, and feminism. These topics delved into the unique contributions that Hindu dharma can make in resolving existing fault lines in a progressive, sustainable manner,” they have chosen to erase the religiously-sanctioned omnivorous origins by asserting that “Hindus have a belief that the killing of any other human or animal is wrong (This information can be found in the Rigveda).”
Does being a “woke Hindu” mean erasing the uncomfortable bits of one’s heritage in a similar way to knocking down every statue regardless of who is represented?
Well, there is much to be found in the Rigveda. For instance, verse 10.86.14 has Indra explain to us that 15 to 20 oxen are cooked (pañcadaśa sākam pacanti viṁśatim) for him and that he only likes to eat the fatty meat (utāham admi pīva id ubhā kukṣī pṛṇanti). We don’t have to dig too far to see that the people, and their gods, who gave us the term “yoga” were actually very fond of barbecues. Maharishi Yagyavalkya says in the Shatapath Brahmana (18.104.22.168) that, “I eat beef because it is very soft and delicious (yājñavalkyo ‘śnāmyevāhamaṃsalaṃ cedbhavatīti).” Yet, as the Manu Smriti advises (5.45-50), the violence of killing animals should be avoided at 5.30 and 5.56. However, not only is the consumption of meat (and other items) permissible, these acts are not considered “sinful.” As Brahma supposedly created both the eaters and the eatables. Also, the Vashistha Dharmasutra (11.34) explains, that one would go to hell for not consuming meat as part of “shraddha” or worship (tāvat narakam).
Yet, it is explained that to “Eat like a yogi” requires adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet, which assuredly should be “organic, minimally processed, in season, and locally-grown.” This is perhaps beyond the price point of many aspiring yogis.
Apparently “Yoga makes the people to strengthen the Coordination of the World,” and “Yoga spreads peace and Honor with better development and Growth of all the activities in the World,” and “Yoga makes the connection between the Health protection as well as Development of the Sustainable Health.” It’s about as digestible a word salad as might be offered at the next yoga retreat.
However, this 21st-century reinterpretation of a Vedic lifestyle seems diametrically opposed to the picture presented in the original texts that are to be completely consumed upon risk of excommunication. The repetitive use of words building from the roots √yudh-, √yuj, and √yā (refer to war, movement, etc) and √kṣi (etc) that refers to intervals of settled life (it is not appropriate to translate kṣema as “peace” in the way śānti means “peace”) means that in the many couplings of yoga and kṣema point to the idea that the earliest Vedic “lifestyle” consisted of performing action to accrue more resources, fighting to protect one’s own resources, which was interspersed with intermittent periods of rest and movement that typifies a nomadic lifestyle and the securing of borders. All of which puts an interesting spin on #IDY2020 and its theme of #StayAtHome.
Patrick McCartney, PhD, is a Research Affiliate at the Anthropological Institute at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. He is trained in archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and historical linguistics. His research agenda focuses on charting the biographies of Yoga, Sanskrit, and Buddhism through a frame that includes the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, the anthropology of religion, and the economics of desire. His social media handle is Patrick McCartney.