Is Yoga a Mere Physical Exercise and Not Part of Hinduism?
We celebrated the International Yoga Day a couple of days ago. There is a widely-prevalent notion among people that Yoga is just a set of bodily postures they practice to preserve their physical and mental health. Nothing could be further from the truth. And, moreover, there are some forces who have been striving hard to create a false perception that Yoga does not have any relationship with Hinduism.
For example, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, participating in a Yoga Day event, stated, “Yoga should not be related to any one faith” and wanted the ‘secular’ nature of the Yoga to be retained. The same Chief Minister, in 2017 stated, “Yoga should not be mistaken as a religious ritual. It can be practiced by all and it is just a physical exercise and needs to be seen in that manner”.
The National Herald, a news website owned by the Indian National Congress (INC) Party, published an article, whose headline reads, “Yoga is just an exercise, was a Western fad, is not an extension of Hinduism and should be optional”. I fully agree with the argument that Yoga should be optional. In fact, nobody forces anybody to practice Yoga. But anyone who knows the basics of Yoga take umbrage at the words such as “Yoga is just an exercise and it is not an extension of Hinduism”.
People who know about Yoga only laugh at these ignorant rants.
Now, let us examine the claims made by the so-called ‘intellectuals’ to detach Hinduism from Yoga.
First things first. What is Yoga? Yoga is a comprehensive system of spiritual practices that is aimed at attaining enlightenment. One of the most authoritative Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita is all about Yoga. All the eighteen chapters in the Bhagavad Gita have Yoga suffixed to them (Arjuna Vishada Yoga, Sankhya Yoga, Karma Yoga, etc.). Even Lord Krishna, who is known to be the supreme soul (Saguna Brahman) and delivered the Gita to his disciple Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, is called as ‘Yogeswara’. Because he taught the warrior Arjuna about the path to self-realization through Karma Yoga (the Yoga of Action), Gyana Yoga (the Yoga of Knowledge) and Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of Devotion).
Karma Yoga advocates selfless action (Nishkama Karma), Bhakti Yoga advocates loving devotion towards a deity, and Gyana Yoga advocates the attainment of knowledge. All these three Yogas are the paths to attain self-realization, which paves the way to ‘Moksha’ (liberation or freedom from the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth). Therefore, the belief that Yoga is only a system of physical exercises or bodily postures to maintain physical and mental health is completely misplaced. In fact, all the bodily postures that are mistakenly considered to be Yoga, are just Asanas and these asanas are just a part of ‘Astanga Yoga’, which falls under the umbrella of Karma Yoga. Astanga Yoga, as the name suggests, is an eight-fold path that includes, Yama, Niyama, Aasana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. So, the Aasanas are only a small part of the Astanga Yoga, which mostly falls under the purview of the Karma Yoga.
Now, let us examine the origins of Yoga. As has already been stated, Bhagavad Gita is all about Yoga. Then, is Gita the origin of Yoga? No. The Bhagavad-Gita, though part of the Bhishma Parva of Mahabharata, is just an essence of the Upanishads. The Upanishads, also known as Vedanta, are the culmination of the Vedas (The Vedas are classified into four groups, namely Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads). If that is the case, can we consider Upanishads as the origin of Yoga? No. Upanishads, being the ‘Vedanta’, emerged from the Vedas. Hence, we can conclude that the Vedas are the ultimate origin of the Yoga.
Even the ‘Yoga Sutras’ that were compiled by the Hindu Sage, Patanjali was based on the Vedas. The word Yoga was first mentioned in the Rig Veda, an ancient spiritual text of the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Though many so-called historians opined that Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali, the sage merely compiled them not wrote them. There is also a prevailing notion that Yoga predated the Vedas and attributed it to Indus valley civilization. But the fact of the matter is even the Indus valley civilization was Hindu.
Therefore, anyone who commands at least the primary knowledge of the Hindu scriptural literature can easily understand that Yoga is a comprehensive Hindu philosophy that is aimed at the spiritual progress of the humans. It is not easy to become a Yogi. If a person who can do a ‘Sirshasana’ can become a Yogi, everybody will become a Yogi within a month.
A Yogi is a person who aims to attain self-realization. He/she follows a very difficult path of Yoga (with Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga or Gyana Yoga or a combination) to know the supreme being, that is Brahman. The Brahman as described by the Upanishads as omnipotent, omnipresent, formless, immutable, and eternal. Many enlightened people believe that the Brahman (please don’t mistake this word with ‘Brahmin’ a priest who officiates temple rituals) who is the supreme being, is none other than the spirit soul that dwells in our bodies (as per Advaita Vedanta). Though the bodies are transient, the supreme soul is eternal and will keep taking new bodies to eternity. The Vedanta literature clearly proclaims that only a person who purifies his/her heart by performing ‘Nishkama Karma’ and maintains strict control over his/her sense organs can see the Brahman and attain Moksha. One can’t attain liberation just by performing Sirshasana. Therefore, equating Yoga with Asanas amounts to misleading people.
Now, let us examine the claim that Yoga does not have anything to do with Hinduism. Really? Do they want to say that Bhagavad Gita, which is all about Yoga, is not a Hindu text? Do they want to say that the Upanishads, also known as the Vedanta from which Gita, a yogic text, has been derived, are not Hindu texts? Do they want to say that the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures from which both Upanishads and Gita originated, don’t have any relationship to Hinduism? Do they want to say that Lord Krishna, an embodiment of Saguna Brahman (the supreme soul) who taught Yoga through the Bhagavad-Gita and known as ‘Yogeswar’ is not a Hindu deity? Do they want to say that Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras was not a Hindu sage?
Hindus must not have any problem with anyone practicing Yoga and deriving benefit from it. Anything that ensures the welfare of the humankind must belong to everybody. But at the same time, not giving credit to the culture and the people to whom the Yoga belongs and making mischievous attempts to detach it from Hinduism are highly reprehensible. These people, by making such attempts, are only trying to portray the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) in poor light, and also trying to show them as a regressive society, which is bereft of any achievements that could be claimed as their own.
Yoga is a glorious philosophy and an exalted spiritual system that paves the way for a human’s ultimate objective, that is self-realization. It must not be restricted to Aasanas, and it is hundred percent Hindu spiritual practice. Any attempt to detach Yoga from Hinduism is akin to detaching ‘OM’ from the supreme soul, Brahman.
The chanting of OM during the practice of Asanas is a manifestation of the fact that the practitioners are invoking the supreme being, the Brahman. The supreme being, which is formless, manifests through the sound OM. Even a Muslim or a Christian can perform Yoga by chanting their own religious chants. But that does not change the fact that yoga is inextricably intertwined with Hinduism and it will remain so forever.