Om Sweet Om

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.

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