OPEN Magazine Features HAF Rebuttals to Take Back Yoga Attacks
San Ramon, CA (March 7, 2011) - OPEN magazine has featured two pieces by HAF Board member, Swaminathan Venkataraman, rebutting claims and attacks made by Meera Nanda. The first rebuttal, The Audacity of Ignorance, was published on February 25 and can be found by clicking here. The second rebuttal, Disguised Hinduphobia, was published online on March 7 and can be found by clicking here. Both pieces can be found in their entirety below.
The Audacity of Ignorance - February 25, 2011
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) started a conversation on the deepening American embrace of yoga with letters to magazines and a position paper nearly a year ago. Struck by the disconnect between “Hindu” and “yoga”, HAF felt compelled to argue that delinking yoga from its Hindu roots was ahistorical, at best, and insincere and malicious at worst. The position struck a chord, and a debate with Deepak Chopra, a frontpage article in the New York Times, and a CNN segment later, more Americans are connecting the two.
Meera Nanda’s Open story alleging that Hindu texts have few asanas and that the yoga master Krishnamacharya borrowed most from European gymnastics is the latest salvo against HAF’s position, and mimics a similar rebuttal by Wendy Doniger. Nanda’s criticism of HAF’s ‘Take Back Yoga’ (TBY) campaign as being based on a false, non-existent history misrepresents TBY and maligns HAF as a casteist, sleazy political operation (Indo-American Lobby? HAF is neither Indian nor a political lobby). Where she makes relevant points about the Mysore Palace, she vastly exaggerates her case. Perhaps, as William Dalrymple said, Nanda is “overtly hostile to many expressions of religiosity.” Whatever her agenda, her audacious and flippant claims are both stunning and flawed.
What is Take Back Yoga?
Nanda concedes that American yogis say “Namaste,” quote from the Gita and play Kirtan music. Why then is she so bothered by TBY? TBY makes three key contentions:
1. Yoga is more than just asana
2. Yoga is rooted in Hinduism
3. The asana-based practice of yoga found in many Western yoga studios is inspired by the Hindu Hatha yoga tradition
An important spark for TBY came from the editorial practices of the influential ‘Yoga Journal’ magazine, which sees asanas as integral to a broader spiritual practice. So what’s the problem? The editors avoid the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’, but not ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’ or ‘Buddhism’. Repeated references to Hindu teachings as ‘ancient Indian’ or ‘Yogic’ or ‘Eastern’ seemed disingenuous. ”Hinduism has a lot of baggage,” HAF was told. Similarly, Deepak Chopra calls his philosophy Vedic, Yogic, Advaitin, or Sanatana Dharma, but never Hinduism, which he calls “one-eyed” and “tribal.”
In this context, TBY asserts that Yoga is one of six orthodox Hindu darshanas and indispensable to the practice of Vedanta. Non-Hindus can practice yoga as a secular activity by limiting themselves to asanas alone, but many go further into chanting, meditation, kirtan and other Hindu practices. Another driver behind TBY is the attempt to create “Christian Yoga” by some Christians who are worried that Yoga is leading Americans to Hinduism. Other Christians oppose Yoga outright, but it is ironic that Christian leaders are more honest in acknowledging the Hindu roots of Yoga than Mr Chopra and Ms Nanda.
A Brief History of Asanas
Nanda is right that Hatha Yoga is not a monolithic 5000-year-old tradition, but requiring that everything Hindu be traceable back to Vedic times is ludicrous. Two traditions that Nanda elicits, the Natha Yogis—Shiva and Shakthi worshipping founders of Hatha Yoga—and TS Krishnamacharya of the Mysore Palace taught yoga in a way inseparable from Hindu traditions.
Nanda demeans the Natha Yogis as seeking only magical powers. But the three key hatha yoga texts tell a different tale. All three are dedicated to Lord Shiva and teach methods to obtain samadhi through yoga. Verse 4.113 of the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Pradipika), written by Natha Yogi Svatmarama (whose name means “one who delights in the Atman”) emphatically states: “As long as the prana does not enter and flow in the middle channel and the vindu does not become firm by the control of the movements of the prana; as long as the mind does not assume the form of Brahman without any effort in contemplation, so long all the talk of knowledge and wisdom is merely the nonsensical babbling of a mad man.” The Shiva Samhita (Samhita), written in 1300-1500 CE as a conversation between Shiva and Parvati, cautions at the start of Chapter V that material enjoyments are obstacles to emancipation; and the Gheranda Samhita (Gheranda), a 17th century text, proclaims the truth of oneness in Brahman (verse 7.4) and calls maya the greatest fetter, yoga the greatest strength, jnana the greatest friend and Ego the greatest enemy (verse 1.4). No paeans to magic here. Powers may accrue to yogis, but they are never the aim. Far from wanting to “banish the matted-hair, ash-smeared sadhus from the Western imagination”, HAF cherishes them as one of pluralistic Hinduism’s time-honored traditions.
Nanda argues that asanas, even pranayama, are not found in the Vedas. Inconveniently for her, the Maitrayaniya Upanishad presents a six-limbed discipline, including pranayama, virtually identical to Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. She argues that while BKS Iyengar taught some 200 asanas, Pradipika listed only 15. Indeed, not all 200 existed at first, but a clear trend of development exists. Asana lists appear in the 6th-7th century commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Vyasa (nine) and Shankaracharya (three), with “etc” following both lists, clearly indicating knowledge of more asanas. Shankara, who wrote before the three hatha yoga texts, also refers to “asanas mentioned in other shastras”. Pradipika 1.33 says: “84 asanas were taught by Shiva. Of those, I shall describe the essential four”, and Samhita 3.84 says: “There are eighty-four postures, of various modes. Out of them, four ought to be adopted, which I mention below”. This indicates that at least 84 were known by the 14th century. Finally, the Sritattvanidhi (early 1800s) illustrates 122 asanas.
Modern Yoga Traditions
The crux of Ms Nanda’s allegation is that Krishnamacharya built on the Sritattvanidhi by borrowing from European gymnastics. First, its unclear the number of Krishnamacharya’s innovations that were inspired by his guru versus gymnastics. His first writings featured vinyasas (sequences of asanas synchronised with breath) that he learnt from his guru, illustrating that the Guru-shishya parampara always had teachings not available in texts. Ms Nanda cites Mark Singleton’s observation that “at least 28 of the exercises” in Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar to yoga postures taught by Krishnamacharya’s students, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. But even if their combined repertoire has asanas that are “similar” to gymnastics, is that enough to deny Yoga’s Hindu roots? Rather, Singleton in his book points out that his comparison should not be construed as evidence of Krishnamacharya’s having borrowed directly from Bukh, and in fact names an equally influential Indian tradition of Swami Kuvalayananda, with whom Krishnamacharya spent time. Singleton concludes that “This does not mean… posture-based yogas....are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga.”
Norman Sjoman, whom also Nanda mentions, states in his book that Iyengar’s 200 asanas are found in two independent yoga traditions. “The asanas themselves are not unknown, for a similar set of asanas with different names was shown by Swami Vishnudevananda, published in his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. He was a student of Swami Sivananda, a Dravidian belonging to the Dikshitar family, the traditional guardians of the Chidambaram temple. He must have inherited their traditions. Swami Yogesvarananda brought out a book in 1970 titled First Steps to Higher Yoga containing 264 asanas”.
Many yoga traditions popular in the West, such as the Yogoda System of Paramahamsa Yogananda (from which the Bikram School of Yoga is derived), Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, and Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga are not in Krishnamacharya’s lineage. Also not examined: the 108 dance poses of Shiva containing many vinyasa movements. The Indian Government has created the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, an effort being coordinated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, to prevent patenting of Yoga. Thus far, they have documented 1,300 asanas with the cooperation of nine traditional yoga institutions.
TBY is succeeding in its quest to link yoga with the Hindu spiritual tradition from whence it comes. This is not a facile claim of ownership. Rather TBY roots this practice within its metaphysical framework that practitioners eventually discover on their own. Om Shanti.
Disguised Hinduphobia - March 7, 2011
Meera Nanda was offered an opportunity to rebut my article, “The Audacity of Ignorance”, and Goebbels would be delighted that his spirit is alive and well after all—repeat a lie a hundred times and render it true. Nanda does not attempt countering the plethora of scriptural evidence I offered that definitively place yoga within the Hindu tradition and trace the growth of asanas over the centuries, but she is generous in heaping scorn on Hindu Americans and pretending that makes for another argument. Fortunately, in the era of blogs, Facebook and X-Tape exposes, Nanda’s tactics can only go so far.
Obfuscate, Confuse and Create a Strawman
Nanda repeatedly fails to acknowledge that “Take Back Yoga” (TBY) is all about the willful blindness in the West to the Hindu roots of Yoga, even the spiritual side of it. When I started writing my previous article on February 12, I casually looked up the website of the Yoga Journal given their role in sparking the HAF’s campaign. The ‘Daily Insight’ on their website said (all parentheses are Yoga Journal’s):
"At its core, Sivananda Yoga is geared toward helping students answer the age-old question, "Who am I?" This yoga practice is based on the philosophy of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India....In 1957, his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda introduced these teachings to an American audience.... summarising Sivananda's system into five main principles: proper exercise (asanas); proper breathing (pranayama); proper relaxation (Savasana, or Corpse Pose); proper diet (vegetarian); positive thinking (Vedanta) and meditation (dhyana)...”
And the Yoga Journal refuses to label this Hindu, even as issue after issue pays copious respects to meditation-like practices in mystical Christianity or Sufi Islam. Is it any wonder that Hindus find it disingenuous? Does Nanda believes that Vedanta is also non-Hindu? It is stunning that HAF even needs to make such an obvious point but here we are. HAF also started TBY for Hindu children in the U.S. When they go to school and say they are Hindu, nobody says, ‘Oh, yeah, Hindus gave the world yoga.’ They say, ‘What caste are you?’, ‘Do you pray to a monkey god?’, ‘Does the Red mark on your forehead represent blood?’ etc. Because that’s all Americans know about Hinduism. It is not that we are embarrassed by our respect for cows, curry or karma, it is that HAF’s advocacy informs the American dialogue that we are so much more.
"But this is an American problem, why bother me with it?”, Indians can rightfully ask. Absolutely, which is why we launched the campaign in the US. It was Nanda who chose to write in India. Note that TBY talks not just about asanas, but rather about Yoga in its entirety as a spiritual practice, including asanas. This is what Aseem Shukla meant by Yoga being rooted in the Vedic tradition.
This would have been clear if only Nanda had perused HAF’s original paper on Yoga, but then the problem with some ‘scholars’ is that they ignore original sources, cherry-pick secondary or tertiary renditions, and selectively quote or misrepresent translations. For example, had Nanda consulted the Hatha Yoga scriptures, she would not preposterously continue to characterise Natha Yogis as “sorcerers, jogis and fakirs” who did not care for moksha. She says Natha Yogis only wanted to make their bodies strong. But how could they Ms. Nanda, if asanas came only in the 20th century? You cannot have it both ways.
Hiding a Pumpkin in a Plate of Rice
Nanda says she finds a “tiny sliver of agreement” in my contention that requiring everything Hindu to be traceable back to Vedic times is ludicrous. Thank God for small mercies. But she wrongly claims this supports her position. Making an ostensibly magnanimous concession of her error in claiming Vedas have no mention of pranayama, Nanda claims to stand by everything else she said. What exactly does she stand by? That European gymnastics is central to modern yoga? Then why did she fail to respond to the central thesis of my rebuttal that lays this claim to rest? I provided detailed references tracing the evolution of asanas within Hindu tradition over the centuries, from the Upanishads to 6th to 7th century commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, to hatha yoga scriptures of the 14th to 17th centuries and the Sritattvanidhi of the early 1800s.
She also does not respond to many other facts that I presented, such as Shiva’s 108 dance poses containing many vinyasas (perhaps European sculptors descended into India in the Middle Ages or Bharatanatyam was inspired by Native American foot stomping?). What about the fact that Krishnamacharya learnt vinyasas from his Guru who lived near Mount Kailash? Hinduism’s guru-sishya tradition has always had numerous teachings not found in any text (the Vedas themselves were an oral tradition). Or the fact that the Indian Government has recorded nearly 1300 asanas by consulting Hindu scriptures and yoga institutions to preclude foreign patents? Are there any counter-claims from the Swedish Government? Perhaps Nanda won’t allow Hindus to claim anything post-Vedic as their own. What next? Shankaracharya as Buddhist and Bhakti saints as Christians?
Nanda is also quiet when I point out that Norman Sjoman, who first studied Krishnamacharya’s work in the Mysore palace, acknowledges that the 200 asanas and vinyasas of BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are independently found in other traditional Yoga schools. Mark Singleton also names Swami Kuvalayananda, with whom Krishnamacharya spent time, as having influenced Krishnamacharya’s work. All said, Singleton finds 28 asanas out of 200 taught by Krishnamacharya’s school (which itself is only one among numerous schools of Yoga) as having “similarities” with European Gymnastics. Nanda wants to use this to pull the entire Hatha Yoga tradition out of Hinduism. Nauseating vulgarity seems to pass for scholarship these days.
The Hindu origins of Yoga asanas are so obvious that Meera Nanda’s arguments only remind me of a popular Tamil saying which roughly means “Don’t attempt to hide a whole pumpkin inside just a plate of rice”.
'Scholars' of Nanda’s ilk have always disliked Swami Vivekananda. Being profoundly alienated from their heritage and considering anything traditional as mere superstition, they are no doubt discomfited that a Sanyasi who proudly called himself Hindu was able to convey Vedanta in a manner that the West loved, and in immaculate English to boot. Nanda claims that “His (Vivekananda) interpretation of Yoga Sutras by no means reflected the mainstream of Hindu thought in India at that time“. Huh? Has Ms Nanda read commentaries on the Yoga Sutras by Shankara and Vyasa? Maybe she believes that Shankara and Vyasa are not mainstream? Or perhaps again, they were European transplants?
Yes, Vivekananda did consider moksha a higher goal than physical fitness. So what? Why does that imply Hatha Yogis are not Hindu? The same Vivekananda also once told Indian youths, who lacked a culture of physical fitness, that they can be closer to God through football than the Gita ! It is a time-honored Hindu tradition that teachings are always tailored to the needs of the student.
Finding her argument in tatters on substantive grounds, Nanda, like a true demagogue, takes refuge in criticising HAF. After all, why bother arguing when you can just shoot the messenger? One senses that Nanda’s real problem is simply the emergence of an articulate, credible, and professional Hindu voice that is bringing authentic, apolitical Hindu perspectives into the public sphere.
Why would Nanda feel that way? Since she quotes Koenrad Elst, here is Elst himself shedding light on her motives while critiquing one of her works: “I will conclude with an observation on what seems to be her sincere declaration of interest. Among the points that ‘worry’ her, she mentions this as the final one: ‘The more prominence Hinduism gets abroad, even for wrong reasons like the new age and paganism, the more prestige it gains in India’. Here, she really lays her cards on the table. It is very good that...she does not try to be clever and claim to speak for ‘true Hinduism’ against a ‘distorted Hinduism’... Instead, she clearly targets Hinduism itself, deploring any development which might make Hinduism ‘gain prestige’. Let us see if I can translate that correctly: wanting something or someone to suffer rather than to prosper is what we call ‘hate’. She hates Hinduism, and her academic work is written in the service of that hate.” Ita vero!
Meera Nanda finally acknowledges HAF’s point even if she wont admit it, “...hatha yoga’s interest in the body has captured the global imagination—thanks largely to Indian yoga masters and swamis who set up ashrams and schools in the West”.
These swamis did not come to the US as physical fitness instructors. They taught asanas as part of a spiritual practice aimed at realising one’s true nature, call it self-realisation, brahman, nirvana, moksha or yes, even the ‘kingdom of heaven within’. Many Americans who turned away from institutional Christianity found solace in these teachings and in the pluralistic, non-proselytising outlook of Hinduism that is able to see Jesus as a saint and interpret his teachings in a Vedantic light. That is why Yoga studios are full of Hindu symbols, chants, kirtans, and quotes from scriptures.
But what does TBY ask of non-Hindus who practice asanas but eschew meditation, chanting, kirtan etc. and who don’t read Yoga Sutras, the Gita, or other Hindu scriptures? TBY asks for recognition that the concept of asanas arose as, and remains, an integral part of Hindu spiritual practice. Strictly speaking, even when Yoga is practiced solely as exercise, it cannot be completely delinked from its Hindu roots. As BKS Iyengar says in a foreword to an English translation of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “Hatha yoga…is commonly misunderstood and misrepresented as being simply a physical culture, divorced from spiritual goals…Asanas are not just physical exercises: they have biochemical, psycho-physiological and psycho-spiritual effects.”
Nanda gratuitously advises Hindu Americans to, “take a deep breath and get over it.” So, in the same spirit, here is mine: Nanda should learn to get her facts about the Hindu tradition straight, and from original sources. And learn to accord the same respect to Hinduism as to other religions. The days of the Hindu community cowering before self-appointed pseudo-scholars are over.