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Hinduism: Cows, Karma, and Yoga

posted by sheetal
Over the course of the last year, as the Hindu American Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign has grown in prominence, I’ve been asked many times why we felt compelled to address this issue.  Why not just appreciate the fact that yoga is hugely popular and has a beneficial impact on its millions of practitioners?  Why do we have to be so possessive about its origins?  Who really benefits out of this campaign?

The short answer is my nieces, the young children of my coworkers at HAF, and the countless school-going Hindu Americans who are going through their world history classes and learning from textbooks that our rich, pluralistic tradition is essentially composed of an oppressive caste system, cow worship, and karma.  As the only Hindu in my seventh grade world history class, I clearly remember cringing when my teacher covered Hinduism, describing the many gods with multiple arms, arranged marriages, and the dowry system.  And from my work at the Foundation, it appears that not too much of this description has changed (despite some concerted efforts from the Hindu American community at large).

Still, I grew up in an age when yoga was only known to Hindus and the new-age weirdos.  Most people hadn’t heard the word “Namaste” nor seen the Om symbol nor balanced in Nataranjasana.  But that’s all changed today.  Yoga is everywhere.  In NYC, yoga studios are the new Starbucks – there is one around every corner.  Yoga is accepted.  It’s no longer “new age,” but “spiritual.”

And that “spirituality” is rooted in Hindu philosophy.  The yogic (or spiritual) idea that there are many paths to reach the ultimate truth, Divine, or self-realization is firmly rooted in the pluralistic nature of Hinduism.  The Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text, states, “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti,” or “The Truth is One, the wise call It by many names.”  Hinduism teaches us to be open to various paths, and we can see that philosophy carried over to the physical practice of yoga as well, where a number of asanas, such as ustrasana, are designed to open up the heart center, allowing us to be more receptive.

For the younger generations of Hindu Americans, yoga should be a source of pride – their heritage’s contribution to humanity.  But it cannot be if the disconnect between yoga and Hinduism continues to deepen.  They cannot hold their heads up high if schools and textbooks continue ignore the pluralistic ethos of Hinduism.  It is for them that we at HAF began the Take Back Yoga campaign.

Imagine, for a moment, being a young Hindu American and reading a textbook which stated, “The popular practice of yoga is rooted in Hindu philosophy.”  Imagine knowing your peers (and maybe their parents) are reading that.  Imagine adding that to your classroom discussion about Hinduism…imagine smiling instead of cringing.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Krishna

    While I agree with the basic gist of this article (re: addressing the stereotyped and unflattering portrayal of Hinduism in the Western Media), I feel compelled to point out once again that Hinduism does not teach us, “to be open to various paths.” We should be respectful of others, but this is not the same as validating their beliefs out of some fear of offending them. The Rig Veda text “ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” merely teaches that Brahman has many names, not that there are many valid paths. Many times throughout the Vedic scriptures we are enjoined to discriminate between right and wrong behavior, and between right and wrong beliefs. Arjuna wanted to renounce fighting and take to non-violence, but Sri Krishna criticized this decision and spoke Bhagavad-gita to correct his thinking – this is not consistent with a religion that asks us to be “open to different paths.”

  • http://www.loveandyoga.com Kashif

    As a Muslim-Indian Yogi, I’ve always seen Yoga not so much as a part of Hinduism, but rather orthogonal to the religion. Religion is something you believe on the basis of faith, where as spiritual practice involves you in an conscious experiment to grow towards spirit. Yoga the esoteric complement to the faith of Hinduism, much as Sufism is to Islam or Kabbalah to Judiaism.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Pari

    Is the statement, “only known to Hindus and new-age weirdos…” a typical expression from any human being who wants others to respect and not denigrate them? I’m sorry, but although I agree that many who followed the so-called new-age, did so in some really foolish ways, calling them weirdos is not a good way to get people to be sympathetic to your plea for respect for your own belief system. BTW, Yoga was known about for a long time by many white people before the new age, and it was treated reverently and respectfully as well.

    India, to my mind, is the cradle of all human life and civilization and she needn’t look to anyone for validation. However, if you are Hindu and grew up in America or some other western country, I am hoping you have also learned to respect that place and that culture too. They gave your family haven, a home and a way to live. May I also say that I am glad the West has incorporated Hindu or Vedic ways to some extent, even though I realize we don’t do it the same as a born Hindu might. Do Indians who practice Christianity in India do it the same as someone might in Europe or America? Do American citizens follow their own native religions all the same and with the same awareness? Religion is often about feeling, fitting in, fulfilling the heart. So its bound to evolve and change to fit the people who embrace it.

    Let’s stop denigrating each other. Weirdos? When did any deserve to be called that?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Stefan

    As an Indian Hindu currently studying in Miami, I agree with so many of the points in this article. The majority of these Americans practising ‘yoga’ here have little or no idea of yoga’s roots, many are totally unaware that yoga is one of the main branches of Hindu philiosohy. They have little to no knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita or Yoga Sutra, and though they say that yoga is spiritual to them, are so involved in the physical practice that they neglect the moral and ethical observances that we in the Hindu community hold so strongly to. Yoga in the West has become a tool to boost self image. Many of my American friends seem eager to learn about Eastern philosophy so they can impress others, it’s just a fad, a trend to most of them. They go to expensive yoga studios, get Sanskrit tatoos and wear malas as a fashion accessory. This is a watered down version of eastern beliefs. I believe that yoga is for everyone, we can all benefit from it, but we have to get rid of the Beverly Hills Yoga Studio attitude, this is false spirituality. We need to elimitate this concept of yoga as the current trend, bring light to it’s pure and sacred roots in Hinduism and cultivate sincerity. Then we can truly progress spiritually. God bless you all.

  • http://www.sivananda.org Steve Scott

    Had my first Yoga lesson in October 1968. Am a Yogi Siromani through Sivananda Yoga Vedanta. Also am a Myers-Briggs INTP (read pure research scientist) – IQ 141. I’ve formally taught over 6000 classes.

    Yes, Yoga has its roots in Hinduism which is a world religion. Yoga means union. Yoga is NOT a religion although IF you really get into it, you may be exposed to some Hindu practices. Yoga is the SCIENCE of unifying your self and of discovering your place in the universe. Yogis have observed that in every religion there are commonalities and true Yogis don’t care in which religion you were raised or practice. Most Yogis are not religious but the vast majority of us are spiritual and interested in learning more about how the Universe works and our place, position and purpose therein.

    No one suspects me of knowing anything at all about Yoga, except other observant Yogis who are able to clearly read subtle nuances of body language.

    You cannot learn much of any real use at all about Yoga through reading or discussion. Attempting to achieve perfection through physical practice (asanas, meditation, chanting) will place you on the path of self-discovery, self-knowledge and balance. You learn to control your body, breath and mind. All of this will not make you more like me but it will certainly make you more like you, except calmer, more focused and clearer.

    Yoga was never “new age” although there have been many “new age” persons who have attempted to brand some individual exercise style to make money. How can a practice which is between ten to twenty thousand years old be new?

    Try it out. Persevere past like and dislike; past boredom and elation; past philosophy and spirituality; past desire and aversion; you will finally get to what IS and that will truly be your beginning.

    Religion requires community. Yoga is a most solitary path – for you alone. Skip the flash and chrome. Get real.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cristie

    I’m reading these articles while listening to Native American Music. We are all one. The comments above – just sound like more nah-say – to some degree. When we feel spiritually connected – definitions, relgious ideas, history – everything and anything – doesn’t matter. Last week – I was connected to the world – getting physically sick from another human being trying to intimidate me. Today, I am practicing breathing, releasing the ideas in my mind that are bringing me down and listening to relaxing music. On Facebook – I marked – Spirituality – instead of chosing a religion. Each day, I need to practice saying positive messages to myself and others. Let everything else go – and don’t judge. Just be you – and who you are suppose to be. Message – from one who loves to learn about all cultures and people.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Joy

    We may be all one,I don’t deny that and wish everyone else could see it too, but there’s something to be said about honesty, Yoga is of EAST Indian origin and will always be.There’s no Christain Yoga, American Indian Yoga, that I know of. Why not show respect instead of trying to change an already perfect Indian Yoga? Yoga is Indian by whatever name you call it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dr Ravi Puri

    I have gone through the views of Sheetal very carefully and agree with her 100%. We must give credit to the origin of yoga and feel pride in its roots. Though Yoga was described in details by Maharishi Patanjali 2500 years ago, yet I believed that it must have had an origin even earlier than that. Rishi Patanjali described the science of yoga in various forms such as physical, mental and spiritual. It is very deep, complicated and philosophical. Western has followed only the physical aspect of it and others two are missing in their followers and preachers. I agree fully with Steve Scott that yoga is not a religion. Though it comes from Hinduism and described by Hindu Rishis’ but they have never associated it with Hinduism. It is a spiritual science for self-realization. However, the credit for its origin should be given when required. Western have always laugh at multiple forms of God, monkey God, elephant God and cows etc but they never try to understand the philosophy behind these all. Their hearing and imagination are selective. They can criticize any religion but not open to embrace any criticism from others.

    I also disagree with the statement of Pari—”I am hoping you have also learned to respect that place and that culture too. They gave your family haven, a home and a way to live.”

    Nobody has given anything free to anybody, we all have worked very hard to earn all that comfort though we have respected the place and culture more than their own people. Sorry to mention that even after residing 50 yrs in the USA, American Hindus are foreigners.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Maya

    As a Hindu I have to agree, it IS frustrating to have people laughingly look down upon Hinduism.
    Comment such as cow worshiping??? What about the Caste system???
    How many Gods DO you HAVE??
    Just a few minutes before or after they proudly proclaim that they are going to Yoga class because it’s SUCH good exercise.

    Yes it is. BUT please, just please acknowledge where Yoga comes from.
    Please.

    You do not have to become Hindu, but just be respectful ok?

    Can anyone picture a devout practitioner of Karate speaking ill of Buddhism?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment gigi

    Greetings

    I appreciate your article and your opinion. I am black and my husband is Indian. I come from a large family so a handful of my cousins are married to Indians. Some from the Caribbean, England ,Canada and two from India. I must comment particularly on the caste system you mentioned in your article. My husband’s mother is CONSUMED with colour. She constantly speaks of our daughter as lucky she is “light”. I was shocked that he is turned out the way he is. He loves colour and loves his Black wife, with no apology. But sadly my experiences in India are punctuated with me noticing people putting whitening cream on their skin. People telling me thankfully, I do not look Black. People ever so politely asking me if my daughter is really mine because she is so fair. So despite the cultural richness you speak of colour is a HUGE issue in India. For those of us that are not White, the caste system is very real. By the way my husband’s mother is of a lower caste than his father. Yet despite all the hardships she experienced in marrying him she embraces the caste system. Which surprises me as she is quite educated. She is a physicist?!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Emerson

    And, I agree with Dr. Puri and Sheetal 100%.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Joy

    The whole of Yoga is a spiritual path, not just exercise. It’s a life’s path meant to heath and and bring about union–to calm the mind is to calm the body. What better way to find untion with God?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment V Parker

    Great article but now its time to stop being ashamed of Cow Worship. Im an American in India for 6 months. One of the most uplifting and spiritual moments of my day is seeing and being with the cows. Not just because they are cows but because they are truly beloved and happy cows and they know it. Many get happiness from their cats and dogs yet seem clueless regarding the true joy and sense of the sacred that a happy cow exudes. Hindus in America, rather than adding Cow worship to the shame list, step up to the challenge. Explain that until one comes to India and looks into the eyes of these cows, and every other animal around here for that matter, one can never understand that cow worship is an essential and practical part of true spirituality and an authentic aspect of a civilized humanity. The dullness of the rest of the world allows for its slaughter and blinds most to the absolute necessity of cow worship. History reveals that cows were also worshiped in ancient Egypt. Rather than an odd quirk of Indian culture, Cow worship is at the foundation of true spirituality and high civilization. Beyond that it is also the reason Indian civilization is the only remaining ancient culture that is not only still alive but it is thriving. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Peru, Mexico, Sumeria, Babylon, China and America are history. Only India remains; an unbroken continuity that is indeed part of that same history yet it thrives to this very day and continues into the future. And it is not yoga that keeps India alive. It is the humble and sweet cow. So stand up for Cow Worship and remind the world that true Yogis respect all life and yes they worship cows.

  • http://www.vedicempire.com V Parker

    UPDATED
    Great article but now its time to stop being ashamed of Cow Worship. Im an American in India for 6 months. One of the most uplifting and spiritual moments of my day is seeing and being with the cows. Not just because they are cows but because they are truly beloved and happy cows and they know it. Many get happiness from their cats and dogs yet seem clueless regarding the true joy and sense of the sacred that a happy cow exudes. Hindus in America, rather than adding Cow worship to the shame list, step up to the challenge. Explain that until one comes to India and looks into the eyes of these cows, and every other animal around here for that matter, one can never understand that cow worship is an essential and practical part of true spirituality and an authentic aspect of a civilized humanity. The dullness of the rest of the world allows for its slaughter and blinds most to the absolute necessity of cow worship. Rather than an odd quirk of Indian culture, Cow worship is at the foundation of true spirituality and high civilization. History reveals that cows were also worshiped in ancient Egypt and Egypt’s abandonment of Cow Worship surely led to its demise. Beyond that, Cow Worship is the reason Indian civilization is the only remaining ancient culture that is not only still alive but is actually thriving. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Peru, Mexico, Sumeria, Babylon, China and America are history. Only India remains; an unbroken continuity that is indeed part of that same history yet it thrives to this very day. And it is India’s Cow culture that guarantees a sustainable future. It is not yoga that keeps India alive. It is the humble and sweet cow. So stand up for Cow Worship and remind the world that true Yogis respect all life and yes they worship cows. Its high time the world realize this crucial truth: Cow protection is not an option. For all its popularity Yoga exercises are optional and not required for spiritual evolvement. Cow protection is required and as long as they are being murdered there will be wars, abortions and disasters. Cow worship is the best form of Yoga and it represents true religion at its best.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raj Rajyguru

    Thanks for the great article and all the fabulous work Ms Shah.

    Scott Says : Yoga is the SCIENCE of unifying your self and of discovering your place in the universe.

    Yes it is and it is the SCIENCE Of unifying yourself in the path to SELF REALIZATION perfected over millenia by the Hindu Yogis who forged a path toward an EXPERIENCE of the GOD principle and not just a belief in a super human being called GOD.

    Each self realized soul who followed and follows this path through completion is one of the Founders of Hinduism.

    Yoga is just the initial physical practice [Hatha Yoga] and a rung on the ladder to this God Consciousness along with Karma Yoga , Bhakti Yoga and Gnana Yoga and as such it, therefore it cannot be divorced from Hinduism or Sanathan Dharma.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment BigOil

    “For those of us that are not White, the caste system is very real.”

    The misinformation and false accusations in your post is one of the reasons why Hindus need to mobilize and correct the propaganda hurled against us.
    Caste is a casta system that comes from Spanish Christian casta system found in Latin America. Maybe you can talk to them about it. The whole idea of linking a foreign word: caste, to Indians is ridiculous. How can Indian Jathi’s (ethnicities/tribes) be called caste’s? Varna is not skin color, it was class and was not rigid. And certainly soldiers, auto workers or software engineers are not hired based on their Varna in India, so what’s your point?

    Perhaps you can explain to us the caste system that exists among African’s and African Americans. We all know that Nigerian movie actresses for example look fair skinned and different features from the majority population. Why is that? Is that due to Indians also? Why is Halle Berry and other light skinned Africans at the top of the heap in the U.S. (like Obama, Colin Powell). Perhaps you should address the caste system within your own community first. Why do a large number of African American male athletes marry White women?

    “But sadly my experiences in India are punctuated with me noticing people putting whitening cream on their skin. People telling me thankfully, I do not look Black”

    Well first of all, skin color is not race. It may have ben quasi-racial in the Western Hemisphere due to skin color correlating with race but that’s not the case everywhere in the world. People have a range of skin color within the same family in India. People skin color changes significantly upon hours of exposure to the sun. I have two theories for this, one is that light skin meant that person was mostly indoors and therefore more prosperous while darker skin meant they were less prosperous and had to work outdoors. The other theory is, during the TAP invasion (Turko-Arab-Perisan Islamic invasion) of India and later the British, the conquerors being light skinned used that as a distinguishing sign of superiority. Although I think the former is a more solid theory than the latter, especially given the fact that individual skin color changes based on sun exposure and correlates with economic prosperity.

    BTW, have you traveled much? Because Light Skin is put up in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia as well. Like an ancient Chinese saying goes: “Fair Skin equals three blemishes”. Are you saying they all have a caste system? East Africans are much fairer skinned than West Africans and they discriminate against them from my personal experience. Perhaps you can address these issues as well, including the casta system in Latin America.

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