New Tactics: Attack Yoga to malign Hindus

A certain ecosystem has been rattled, and now their survival depends on using their foot-soldiers to attack everything from India to Yoga

On the occasion of the International Yoga Day there was an article published in the Scroll, by one Vikram Zutshi, arguing against the Hindu roots of Yoga, and questioning why Patanjali’s yoga is given so much importance. Of course, all such discomforts are finally somehow linked to the political success of the new Prime Minister that India has, and his promotion of Yoga as an Indian export to the world. Naturally, a dying ecosystem does not give up without a fight, and will stop at nothing to malign whatever is seen to be helping the increasingly popular figure of Narendra Modi. Attacking Yoga day or trying to malign Yoga Gurus is the latest attempt on the same line of thinking, by those who stand to lose the maximum as it becomes clearer that the opposition probably stands little or no chance of regaining electoral supremacy anytime in the future.

The author thus makes no attempt to hide the political nature of his critique and starts straight by targeting the International Yoga day, asserting (without proof) that those who do not participate in Yoga have been deemed less patriotic, then quickly turning his attack onto Yogi Adityanath’s comment on Surya Namaskar, and finally poking Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar, arguably two of the most popular Yoga Gurus in today’s India, who are seen as being sympathetic to the new government in power. Eventually, there is a valiant attempt to debunk the ancient Patanjali system of Yoga, and delink Hinduism from this practice. To be clear, Zutshi is not the first one to attempt this, neither will he be the last as long as this government is in power.

But how far does he succeed in these attempts? Let’s examine his logic. Before starting, it must be made clear that this writer does not support absurd claims by Ramdev or anyone else of ‘curing’ homosexuality through Yoga, or any such questionable assertions, nor does he hold any brief for any of the mega spiritual institutions of modern India. However, accusations against specific Gurus is soon turned by Zutshi into a broad brush to tarnish the ancient Patanjali, slyly trying to insinuate, not directly, but by association, that somehow these hilarious claims have an origin in the historical Ashtanga system of Yoga.

Patanjali is arguably one of the greatest ancient Hindu masters, composed a book of crisp yogic instructions in the sutra style delineating one of the most powerful and revered systems of Yoga originating from India. His Yoga Sutras are not only very popular, but also highly praised in the Yogic circles till date.

However, as with all things within the fold of Sanatana Dharma, there were other competing philosophies too. The author picks up a line from Adi Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat to show how Shankara did not think highly of the Patanjali system of Yoga. Sri Adi Shankara Bhagavatpada was renowned for seeking out philosophical opponents who belonged to other schools of thought and bring them over to his camp through the process of debates. In the times that he lived, Yoga and Vedanta were considered as rival paths, just as Purva and Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta) were. The differences that Shankara points out and claims to refute are based on the core philosophy and epistemology of Samkhya, which bears a great similarity with the Yogic system, and not necessarily a critique of the exact procedural matters related to the path. In this light, if we read the bhasya of Shankara, we see why there was an opposition. A more detailed analysis of the differences and similarities would be beyond the scope of this article, for our concern really is neither Shankara nor Patanjali, but why does Zutshi – a film writer/director cum self-confessed practitioner of yoga – ignore all the context and pick parts of a verse?

He writes, “Pātañjala yoga is not a means to liberation: And so should suppression of the fluctuations of the mind be practiced?… No, because it is not considered a means to liberation.”

But the exact verse goes as follows: “And so should suppression of the fluctuations of the mind be practiced, because it has a different purpose from the self-realization generated by the sayings of the Veda-s, and because it is enjoined in other texts?  No, because it is not considered a means to liberation.”

Consider the important omission from the verse. Clearly Shankara sees Yoga as separated from, or not giving acquiescence to the saying of the Vedas and thus in the shastrartha tradition proper to those times, rejects the Patanjali system. However, many an Acharya from the Shankara’s tradition have had no problem with merging a practice based on the Ashtanga yoga, or at least parts of it, with the philosophy of the Adwaita Vedanta that Shankara championed. That is how integrative Indian spiritual traditions have been. But coming to the present, do we find a Ramdev or a Sri Sri – two people explicitly mentioned by Zutshi – opposed to the “sayings of the vedas?” Can he provide a single evidence for this?

On the other hand, we come to know from this news report that Ramdev encourages Vedic Somayajña. Similarly, this image, shows Sri Sri participating in a beautiful traditional Vedic Rudra Homa. Dig up a bit and you will find plenty of examples of two famous Yoga Gurus participating in Vedic rituals. How then does the author justify the cherry-picked verses (missing out convenient portions) in these cases? No clue. Probably he did not think it through or it does not matter. After all, the aim was neither a detailed proper critique/analysis of the Patanjali Yoga system, nor of Uttara Mimamsa, but rather a desperate attempt to make a political point against all who are seen to be supportive of the present government. Yoga is just incidental here. It may interest the reader, as also Zutshi, to know that as per the Shankara Digvijaya, Adi Shankara himself refers to his guru Sri Govinda Bhagavatpāda as an incarnation of the great Adi Sesha, who in his previous birth happens to be none other than Patanjali!

Next, he picks up a rather obscure Shakta text from 18th century called Haṃsavilāsa that criticized Patanjali’s system and brands it “nonsense”. What is the extent of the influence that Haṃsavilāsa had on the Indian thought? Or even Shakta thought and traditions? We have the author Haṃsamiṭṭhu himself trying to answer that right at the beginning when he confesses that he is a rather obscure and unknown author. What is the influence of this text? Do we find this idea repeated across all other Shakta texts, particularly the prominent ones? Nope. On the other hand, we have many Shakta texts, which attest to the efficacy of the Ashtanga method.  The Gheranda Samhita, a Hathayoga treatise of the Tantrik School, says: “There is no bond equal in strength to Maya, and no power greater to destroy that bond than Yoga.” The Sammohana Tantra speaks of Jñana, Raja, Laya, Hatha, and Mantra, as five aspects of the spiritual life. Many such examples can be found. The point is not that someone cannot disagree with Patanjali, of course they can and Indian spiritual systems have had their fair share of such philosophical disagreements and debates. But picking an obscure book to show that Patanjali was not so valued (in the Shakta traditions), and using that to take a dig at the international yoga day in 2017 could have been deemed as an extremely brave attempt, if it were not so impotent as well, such that one is left unsure whether to feel outraged or amused by such antics.

Then the author mentions James Mallinson and Mark Singleton’s recently published Roots of Yoga, a scholarly book investigating the history of Yoga. Also, probably the only book Zutshi used for this Scroll piece. He picks references from the Mahākālasaṃhitā Guhyakālīkhaṇḍa and 12th century Amanaska. In the former again, there is a selective quotation devoid of the context mentioned in the original book. Mahākālasaṃhitā, breaks down the path of yoga between haTha (forceful) and krAmika (gradual). The latter is a slower step by step process, allows the practitioner to progress in steps and in a pace that is comfortable for the seeker, under the advise of an expert Guru. It warns against breath retention in particular and haTha yoga in general as a cause of death. Now how does it square up with the Amanaska, which Zutshi mentions in the same breath? This book, Amanaska, is about laya yoga and actually provides a great stress on breath retention techniques, using the laya-kala progression method, while the Mahākālasaṃhitā speaks against breath retention!  Which one does Zutshi believe in? To sum it up, he quotes lines from two texts, which contradict each other, in an attempt to show how Patanajali Yogasutras (a much much earlier composition) is not the final word on Yoga. Sure, there were varied traditions that arose (who denies that?), but the Amanaska is hardly a critique of Ashtanga Yoga when breath retention is so vital to laya. More importantly, how does any of these relate to the present day practices of Yoga and spirituality as propagated by Ramdev or Sri Sri? We have already seen how they are not really opposed to Vedic rituals, neither do they, at least Sri Sri, advocate any non-reading of shastras (which seems to be the grouse in the  Mahākālasaṃhitā), nor is it hugely different from the krAmika method of the  Mahākālasaṃhitā. So, what is Zutshi complaining about? Again, we have no clue.

And then in comes the charge of misogyny in which he fluently conflates Tantric sadhana paddhati with Patanjali’s Yoga instructions, clubs all together into a khichdi, and comes up with bindu and menstrual blood. Now is the time when “confused” would be an apt word to use for Zutshi’s article. Or maybe an attempt to mislead the readers. But coming to Tantric sadhana, there are texts which mention women sadhikas, not only so, but even in practice, Bhairavis were known to become guru-s and mentors of lesser sadhakas in the vamacara Tantric paths. While certain texts followed by the Gorakpanthi Yogis mention clearly to avoid the company of women, this was easily understood as an instruction for celibacy. Brahmacharya or celibacy is not a new concept in Indian spirituality. Most ascetic orders require celibacy, and women are never explicitly forbidden from yoga. To add to it, texts like the Gerandasamhita and Hathapradipika mention that these restrictions apply to the beginner yogis. One who has reached beyond the state of a beginner must be judged by a competent Guru, least every charlatan believes in his own greatness thus deluding others and himself. Elaborate instruction for the Vajroli mudra to be practiced by women is mentioned in the Dattatreyayogasastra, which further states that such methods confer siddhis to women. But never mind all that. The article quotes only the convenient parts, ignores contrary evidence and quickly jumps back to Yogi Adityanatha and stereotypes all ancient Yogic traditions as anti-women. His agenda is clear, but his construction of arguments is too weak and does not hold water.

But is Patanjali really controversial or were his methods neglected in India of the ancient or medieval times? We have the Svetashvatara Upanishad, with Shankarabhasya, that says, “After practicing the postures as desired, according to the rules, then, O Gargi, the man who has conquered the posture will practice pranayama.” This is not very different from Patanjali’s more detailed instructions. In fact, there are scores of texts which broadly borrowed from Patanjali’s Yoga methodology and added to it or customized it as the followers of that particular text or sect thought fit. Even the greatly revered Jnaneshwara’s commentary on the Gita mentions yogic bandhas and breath control.

Finally comes the crucial part where Zutshi tries to delink Yoga from Hinduism quoting Andrea Jain, who is a “scholar of South Asian religious traditions.” But imagine the irony of this whole piece where he quotes not even a single text that is outside of the Hindu traditions, and then claims all of it has nothing to do with Hinduism! Sure, there have been brilliant texts of Buddhist Yoga as well as Jain Yoga. And they all fall under the ambit of Dharmic traditions of Indian origin. Yes India, not America, nor any of the Abrahamic religions. This bit is vital. Here we have the Dalai Lama – you can’t get more Buddhist than this – stating India is the Guru and Tibetans are the disciple. The time when many of these texts were composed, there was only Sanatana Dharma, which is now referred to as Hinduism. No one has a problem with anyone practicing Yoga, there is however a huge problem in trying to appropriate the Yogic traditions and cutting it off from its roots, which are firmly entrenched in the Indian society and culture. The very word Yoga has no meaning in any language apart from Samskrita or those Indian languages which have taken it from Samskrita, just as every step of the Yogic process and development and terminologies are all meaningful only in the context of the culture and land from where it evolved. To deny this using any sort of selective-quoting gymnastics is like trying to deny that the Sun rises in the East. Yoga was, is and will always remain tied to its Indic roots.

Never mind Patanjali, or Hathayoga, or Tantric Yoga, and all these things. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the original article is not a scholarly take on the history of Yoga, which would have been a great read, but is rather a political hack job done using the time-tested methodology of selective quoting and broad generalizations to paint a gory picture of the new government specifically and discredit Patanjali’s Yoga in general. Those who follow politics will find nothing new in this. A certain ecosystem has been rattled, and now their survival depends on using their foot-soldiers to try and attack everything from India to Yoga, basically all that is seen to help the Prime Minister maintain his unbelievable popularity among the public. Many such Zutshis in the world may burn in anguish and dismay, but Yoga will always be associated and rooted in the Indic religious traditions, and acknowledged to be so. Also, since this is essentially about politics, the right wing in India is set to gather greater strength and momentum with every passing day and will steer the course of this Nation, for it is an idea whose time has come. Live with it, or the reality will come to live with you.