The United Nations General Assembly in accordance with the call of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is celebrating World Yoga Day on June 21. This is the day of the Summer Solstice, the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere and a day considered significant in many traditions. The fact that scores of countries all over the world, including many Islamic countries, are observing the day is testimony to yoga’s universality.
Unfortunately, in India, this occasion has got caught in an unnecessary controversy. Some groups have alleged that the promotion of yoga is an attempt to covertly impose a Hindu practice on India, thereby threatening the country’s secular fabric. This allegation originates from an inability to separate the specific origin of a thing from its universal purpose. Consider a scientific thought-system such as classical physics. It began in Britain with an English scientist Isaac Newton, but has now become a part of the common human intellectual heritage whereby its insights and applications are accessible for everyone everywhere. Acknowledging that classical physics originated in Britain doesn’t amount to promoting Anglican colonialist nationalism.
Similarly, yoga originated in India, but it has now become a part of the common human wisdom-heritage. Acknowledging that yoga originated in India in the traditions from which Hinduism originated doesn’t amount to promoting right-wing Indian nationalism. To misrepresent yoga as a tool for such nationalism and to thereby score political brownie points is to distressingly devalue yoga.
While yoga is devalued by political posturing in India, in the West it is devalued by physical posturing–it is reduced to an exercise for treating and shaping the body. However, at its core, yoga is a time-tested process for experiencing our universal spiritual essence and harmonizing with it–a harmonization that can bring physical health benefits as well. Within the spiritual process of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s classic treatise, the Yoga-Sutra, physical postures, called asanas, are the third among the eight limbs of yoga. For a cricketer, standing in a posture is not an end in itself; it is a means for hitting the ball well. Similarly, the asanas in yoga are not ends in themselves; they are launching pads for catapulting human consciousness on a spiritual journey.
This deeper purpose of yoga is conveyed by ancient yoga texts through the various definitions they give of yoga: for example, “sense control” (Katha Upanishad), “control of the mind” (Yoga-sutra), “skill in action” (Bhagavad Gita), “union between the individual self and the Supreme Self ” (Yoga Yajñavalkya). Significantly, none of them equate yoga with postures alone–to the contrary, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (4.79) categorically declares that practicing asanas without striving for mind control is not yoga practice at all. To illustrate how the current meaning of yoga as postures has strayed far from its original meaning, consider the English word ‘lady.’ It stems from the Middle English lavedi, which comes from the Old English hlaefdige “kneader of dough.” In contemporary Western usage, kneading dough is the work of servants, not ladies.
Perhaps the meaning of “yoga” that best reflects its universality is its standard dictionary meaning: connection. Yoga enables us to connect with our spiritual side, to experience our spiritual connectedness as parts of the same spiritual tree, to rejoice in our shared spiritual purpose: to love and to be loved. The Bhagavad-gita (06.46) declares intrepid yogis as the best among all human beings, and further deems (06.47) as consummate those yogis who link in love the finite human consciousness with the infinite divine consciousness.
If we strive to savor and share this yogic spirit of connectedness, we can go beyond political and physical posturing to progress towards lasting fulfillment. If the World Yoga Day is celebrated in this mood of spiritual sharing, then it will become a truly global and universally uplifting event.
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org