Yoga: Philosophy, practice, or politics?

Ever since the declaration of an International Yoga Day, there has been a curiously bifurcated international reaction to Yoga, Hinduism and India.

Ever since the declaration of an International Yoga Day, there has been a curiously bifurcated international reaction to Yoga, Hinduism and India. In general, well-meaning and open-minded people across the globe seem to have unreservedly embraced the idea of a day dedicated to celebrating Yoga as a great legacy of human knowledge. On the other side, there has also been an outpouring of angst from some quarters, over what Yoga means, whether Yoga is Hindu in origin or whether it can even be called Indian in any way, let alone Hindu. This reaction is seen not only among those who want to capitalize on such bizarre new creations as “Goat Yoga” and “Beer Yoga,” but also among those who today view everything Indian against a political Hindutva angle and feel a need to counter it in one form or the other. This would be unremarkable, if a politically motivated commentator stopped at commenting about contemporary politics. Where it becomes extremely problematic is when an author attempts to cast his political critique in the garb of academic scholarship and ends up spectacularly failing at both.

Vikram Zutshi’s recent article in is a textbook example of the rise of this recent phenomenon. I will leave it to official spokespersons of bodies like the Hindu American Foundation, whom Zutshi criticizes, and writers like Andrea Jain, whom he quotes with approval, to debate whether there is indeed an attempt to present a falsely homogenizing vision of Yoga and Hinduism. I will also leave it to political commentators to debate whether a declaration of an International Yoga Day by the UN means that a Hindutva supremacist agenda is gaining international legitimacy. And I will leave it to readers to evaluate his criticisms of the usual suspects nowadays, Indian PM Modi, UP CM Adityanath, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar. As far as I am concerned, Vikram Zutshi is entitled to his political opinions, which are quite obvious, notwithstanding the fact that Swarajya, a magazine at the other end of the political spectrum, also carries the occasional piece from his pen. However, when he moves on to a seemingly scholarly account of the Indian history of Yoga, I take serious objection to the numerous glaring inconsistencies and outright wrong statements that he makes in the process. At the outset, let me clarify that my criticism of Zutshi has nothing to do with Hindutva per se, either as ideology or as contemporary politics. It has everything to do with critiquing the low standards of the politically motivated pretense at scholarship that plagues studies of India and Hinduism nowadays, whether circulated within the rarified circles of academic publications or through magazines and newspapers out in the real world.

The one thing that Zutshi is right about is his assertion that Yoga did not emerge “from a homogenous culture with fixed metaphysical goals, and does not have an overarching narrative common to all its practitioners down the ages.” To my knowledge, nobody, including the most ardent Hindutvavadi, has actually denied this rather banal observation of the multiple textual and other traditional sources of Yoga. He begins by citing the Pātañjala Yogasūtra definition of Yoga as citta-vṛtti-nirodha and then credits Patañjali with teaching eight limbs or stages that every Yoga practitioner must master towards this goal. Attempting to make the point that Patanjali was not the definitive guide for Yogis through the ages, he goes on to cite a fairly recent text from a Tantric stream, by a Gujarati Saiva author named Haṃsamiṭṭhu. Here is how Zutshi presents an excerpt from his Haṃsavilāsa: “Patañjali’s teaching is nonsense, because there is nothing agreeable in anything achieved by force. … There is no point in these extreme exertions. … As a result the teachings of Patañjali are not included among true teachings.” Zutshi also cites the famous Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda as having rejected the value of citta-vṛtti-nirodha in his celebrated commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat. As Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda is such a highly-respected authority within what may be called Hinduism today, Zutshi presumably expects his readers to infer that traditional Hinduism itself rejects Yoga and that therefore Yoga must be “not-Hindu.”

To a majority of readers, it may perhaps seem like Zutshi has built a strong case in support of his position, but when examined from an impartial scholarly, rather than a biased political, perspective, it all falls apart rather quickly. To begin with, Zutshi fails to draw attention to the important point that although Pātañjala Yoga is the source for talking about the eight limbs of Yoga, it is not quite the same as what the international Yoga community thinks of when they hear the term, Ashtanga. For all intents and purposes, in today’s world, “Ashtanga Yoga” stands for a specific contemporary style of Yoga practice, as first branded by Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, to be distinguished from say, “Iyengar Yoga” or “Bikram Yoga” or “Power Yoga” or any of the numerous other appellations that people seek to prefix to the word Yoga nowadays. Beyond passing references to the text of the Yogasūtra, what is internationally known as Ashtanga Yoga today really has very little to do with the philosophical and practical concerns of Yoga as one of the premier darśanas of India. Every contemporary Yoga style is about āsana and some prāṇāyāma, with perhaps some lip service to dhyāna. There is hardly any attention paid to the Yoga practitioner’s underlying mental processes as pertaining to yama, niyama, pratyāhāra, dhāranā and samādhi, which together form the bedrock of the integrated Yoga teaching of Patañjali. Zutshi says nothing whatsoever about any of this, with all his stated concerns about the meaning and benefits of Yoga from a transnational cultural perspective. This is all about the politics of the modern “Yoga studio” and the people who populate it, bending their bodies into downward dog. It is not about the inward and upward orientation of human consciousness that Patañjali seeks to achieve, nor about the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga in general.

A more serious problem is Zutshi’s refusal to examine the claims of the Haṃsavilāsa itself. Any researcher with any care for impartial and objective evaluation of his sources should have asked himself whether Haṃsamiṭṭhu is correct in reading Patañjali as advocating achieving anything by force. This is actually the way of Haṭha Yoga, as encapsulated in its very name. There are numerous other textual sources for this kind of Yoga, including the famous Haṭhayogapradīpikā. Indeed, what is practiced in the international setting of the modern Yoga studio is basically repackaged Haṭha Yoga, not Pātañjala Yoga. Incidentally, this Haṭha Yoga tradition is also the original paramparā home of UP CM Adityanath’s Yoga lineage, codified as it was by the legendary Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath and their disciples, the first few Yogi Mahants of Gorakhpur. That tradition of forceful Yoga practice is arguably only peripherally related to the old Yoga school of Patañjali, which is also heavy on philosophy. Haṭha Yoga overemphasizes the practice of āsana, with all its variants, but this is only one out of eight limbs in Pātañjala Yoga. Throughout the Yogasūtra and its commentaries, the Pātañjala tradition does not advocate forceful mastery over any aspect of Yoga. What it does advocate is a natural progression of mastery over one’s bodily and mental processes that can happen as a result of gaining experience and expertise in the meditative practices of Yoga. And it must be reiterated that the Pātañjala tradition does not focus inordinately upon the āsana aspect, but quickly turns its attention to the mind, culminating in citta-vṛtti-nirodha. It follows that Haṃsamiṭṭhu is himself quite mistaken in his criticism and rejection of Patañjali, while Zutshi who quotes him as if he were a widely-accepted authority, three centuries later, is even more mistaken for not discerning this fact. Even one who agrees that there is no point in extreme and forceful bodily exertions needs to recognize that these are not what Pātañjala Yoga is all about.

One might argue that in Haṃsamiṭṭhu’s time, there wasn’t such an appreciation of the differences behind the Haṭha and Pātañjala streams of Yoga. Perhaps that may have been so, but it is simply unconscionable that a 21st century author, who makes much of the diverse and heterogeneous traditions underlying what we see as Yoga today, fails to recognize this. Indeed, key and influential texts such as Haṭhayogapradīpikā, which pertain more directly to contemporary international Yoga on the one hand, are also foundational to the lineage legacy of UP CM Yogi Adityanath on the other! Zutshi has nothing to say about this deep dichotomy in the contemporary legacy of the Haṭha Yoga tradition, between the suave, international face of modern “Yogis and Yoginis” versus the earthy and rustic legacy holder of the Haṭha Yoga tradition back in Gorakhpur. Adityanath may have been catapulted into political power by a modern democratic process and his views may seem outdated, to say the least, offending the cultural and political sensibilities of modern and educated people. However, the contemporary international struggle over who can lay claim to Yoga is a manifestation of this fundamental divide within the Haṭha Yoga spectrum, and it far transcends the transitory electoral fortunes of Hindutva and anti-Hindutva forces in India.

Needless to say, in the meantime, the more ancient tradition of Pātañjala Yoga also continues in various parts of India, in various forms, outside of the Haṭha Yoga School. A scholar, whether of old Sanskritic texts and traditions or of current worldwide political and cultural trends, should have found this a fascinating problem to comment upon and study deeply. Instead, Zutshi merely chooses to shoot at Patañjali over the shoulders of Haṃsamiṭṭhu, and completely misses the mark in the process. If that were not enough, Zutshi is even more completely mistaken when he attempts to downplay Yoga’s Hindu roots by appealing to the authority of Śaṅkara, probably the best-known figure in the tradition of Vedānta, which underlies almost all of contemporary Hinduism. He refers to Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka text and presents him as teaching that citta-vṛtti-nirodha should not be practiced as it is not a means to liberation. This portrayal is not only misleading, but also shows that he misunderstands Śaṅkara at a fundamental level. To understand what exactly Śaṅkara has to say about this issue, a brief digression to elaborate some key tenets of Advaita Vedānta will be needed here.

A basic principle to remember is that as per Śaṅkara, ultimate liberation from all bondage is only through Self-knowledge (ātma-vijñāna), which is taught primarily in the Upaniṣad portions of the Veda. The second is that attaining Self-knowledge is never the result of any action whatsoever. The true Self, the innermost ātman, as per Śaṅkara, is intrinsically never a doer of any action, so in his view, it is fundamentally unsound to think that Self-knowledge will result from action. In Śaṅkara’s philosophy, human beings do various actions, good and bad, because we are ignorant of our own innermost Self. Every action inevitably has its consequences, which must be experienced. Inasmuch as anything that is born must die, any consequence that is born out of a past action will necessarily undergo a future death. No result of action can ever be permanent in its intrinsic nature, no matter how long-lived it may be. If liberation were understood to be the result of an action, it should necessarily have an end too, which would mean that this kind of liberation would only be a temporary state of being. In contrast, Śaṅkara teaches that true liberation, which is the attainment of Self-knowledge, is a permanent cessation of all bondage and is therefore fundamentally opposed to action, as action necessarily presupposes ignorance, the opposite of knowledge. In other words, the cycle of karma is never-ending, but Self-knowledge liberates precisely because it takes one completely out of this cycle. So long as one thinks of one’s quest for Self-knowledge as something that involves action, one is doomed to move endlessly in the cycle of karma. The quest of Self-knowledge therefore necessarily involves a stage where one needs to be ready to renounce all notions of doership, which is why formal renunciation of all action (saṃnyāsa), and its attendant monastic and ascetic practices, have such a centrally important place in the Śaṅkaran tradition.

Now, because Śaṅkara also grounds his thinking in an interpretation of texts belonging to the Veda, he has to contend with the earlier school of Vedic interpretation called Pūrva Mīmāṃsā. According to this older tradition of Vedic hermeneutics, the central purpose of the Veda is to enjoin one set of actions and prohibit other actions. This principle is taken to such a rigorous extreme in the Mīmāṃsā school that the primary validity of the Veda is seen to subsist in those sentences that order us to do or not to do. All passages in the Veda, even those that teach Self-knowledge, like the Upaniṣad texts, have to be read contextually, in light of the injunctions and prohibitions that they carry or may be related to, in one way or the other. If no explicit order is to be found, grammatically constructed with a verb conveying an order, then one has to interpret that Vedic passage in a manner that implies an order. Needless to say, this view of scripture is based upon an idea that human beings are fundamentally always agents, doers of action, and can therefore never renounce action. Scripture exists solely to regulate what one should and should not do. This school of thought, which was the dominant method to understand and interpret the Veda during his time, has a view of the human self that remains diametrically opposed to Śaṅkara’s view of the ātman. This is the actual context of the discussion when Śaṅkara interprets the Bṛhadāraṇyaka passage that Zutshi cites.

A full analysis of all the subtle issues involved in this very important commentary will become too long for this article. A more detailed discussion of how Yoga has fit into the worldview of Advaita Vedānta from the earliest times can be found in my chapter on this subject in the book Yoga: The Indian Tradition. Other contributors to this book have discussed Yoga thought and practice, from its early codification in the Pātañjala system to the views found in late Tantra texts, and also how Yoga has drawn from and informed the Indian Dharma traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Tantrism, in addition to Hinduism(1). For my immediate purposes here, I will only reiterate that the fundamental proposition that Śaṅkara rejects is the idea that one must do something in order to gain Self-knowledge. He firmly holds that the true Self is not a doer, and therefore Self-knowledge and the means to it can never be enjoined by scripture. Meditation on the Self is not enjoined, because the Self is not an object out there, external to the seeker that he can then think about or meditate upon. Therefore, when a Vedāntin from another school posits that perhaps it is the cessation of mental fluctuations, citta-vṛtti-nirodha, that is enjoined for Self-knowledge, Śaṅkara rejects that perspective as unacceptable too. There is nothing that is enjoined, including citta-vṛtti-nirodha, to gain Self-knowledge.

While this may seem like a rejection of Yoga and its goal of citta-vṛtti-nirodha, the structure of Śaṅkara’s response makes it clear that what he is rejecting strongly is the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā hermeneutic principle of scriptural injunctions and of human doership. Śaṅkara actually goes on to say much more about it in the rest of his argument, which Zutshi completely ignores. Self-knowledge itself cannot be enjoined, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be sought after, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it can never be attained. Meditation on Brahman is not enjoined as a means to liberation, but this doesn’t mean that meditation should not be done. By the same token, citta-vṛtti-nirodha is not enjoined as a means to liberation, but that doesn’t mean that it should not be practiced by the student of Vedānta, who seeks liberation. In fact, further along in the same passage under consideration, Śaṅkara revisits the place of Yoga and affirms that Self-knowledge and its steady recollection are the only means to achieve citta-vṛtti-nirodha. Far from being a rejection of Yoga, Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka actually affirms that while citta-vṛtti-nirodha is not enjoined as a means to liberation, the steady recollection of Self-knowledge, which is learned from the Upaniṣads, is the sure means to achieve citta-vṛtti-nirodha, the end goal of Yoga. The other aspect that clearly emerges is that some pre-Śaṅkaran Vedāntins had attempted a different kind of synthesis between Yoga and Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, arguing that citta-vṛtti-nirodha must be enjoined as a means to liberation. When Śaṅkara rejects this argument, what he rejects is this problematic synthesis, because of the intrinsic incompatibility of injunctions with Self-knowledge, not because of a rejection of citta-vṛtti-nirodha itself. His strong affirmation, that Self-knowledge and its steady recollection are the only sure means to the goal of citta-vṛtti-nirodha, makes it obvious that the state of liberation, as per Advaita Vedānta, includes the Yogic goal of the cessation of mental fluctuations as an integral part of its vision. The important point to note here is that it is Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda himself, the premier commentator in the Advaita tradition, who says so. What comes out in the full argument presented by Śaṅkara is that for the individual seeker of liberation, the paths of dualistic Yoga and that of non-dualistic Advaita Vedānta meet at the end. Their starting points and their methods of using scripture and human experience on the path to liberation are different in crucial respects, yet there is a great deal of common ground in how the two systems of thought handle various philosophical problems, especially with respect to consciousness.

In his commentaries on the Brahmasūtras, the Bhagavad Gītā and the other Upaniṣads, Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda goes on to reject the dualistic worldview of classical Yoga, but also accommodates Yoga thought and practice in various ways, when he builds up his rigorous Advaita interpretation and teaching. It is no wonder then that later Vedāntins, both within the Advaita School and from other schools, give increasing room for incorporating different aspects of Yoga into their own works. Quoting Śaṅkara partially, in an attempt to show that he rejected Pātañjala Yoga, is either an attempt to deliberately mislead readers about what he actually says or it is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of what Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda teaches about Self-knowledge, the means to it and the nature of liberation in Advaita Vedānta.

Either way, it should be obvious that in his zeal to delink contemporary, international Yoga from its Indic Hindu roots, Zutshi reveals his ignorance of the intellectual history and concerns of the key Hindu philosophical traditions. Zutshi might comfort himself that he is not alone in claiming that Śaṅkara rejects Yoga in the specific passage that he has cited. Over the last few decades, many authors within the world of academia, whose output is in the English language, reveal themselves as having missed and misunderstood the role and background of Yoga in Śaṅkaran Advaita Vedānta. Yet, the rules and processes of scholarly publication at least provide a mechanism within which scholars need to demonstrate independent study of original sources and also update and revise their knowledge, taking fresh evidence into account.

However, the first problem with contemporary Indian writers like Zutshi, who write for public consumption, whether in Scroll or in Swarajya, is that their own knowledge of the Indian texts and traditions is highly derivative of the secondary academic literature, with hardly any knowledge of the original source texts. The second problem is that they view all their own secondhand knowledge through a heavily distorting political lens that is completely informed by contemporary concerns, leftist or rightist, which often have no relation whatsoever to the texts and the histories of the Indian knowledge traditions. This is exacerbated by their inability and/or their unwillingness to equip themselves with the requisite level of language skills and research methodology training, in order to study and interpret the original texts for themselves. Piercing through these successive veils of ignorance is going to be a Herculean task, but in the meantime, we’re going to see many more instances of half-baked opinions and pretensions to scholarship being pawned off as the real thing.


1. Yoga: The Indian Tradition, edited by Ian Whicher and David Carpenter. London: Routledge Curzon. 2003. Pp. xii +206. My chapter in this publication, Yoga in Śaṅkaran Advaita Vedānta: A Reappraisal (pp. 99-129) presents a detailed study of this issue, based on all the major commentaries written by Śaṅkara. Other contributors to this book, other than the two editors, include John Brockington, Lloyd Pflueger, Chris Chapple, Olle Qvarnstrom, David Gordon White and Glen Hayes.

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