Om Sweet Om

Last week, I received an inquiry from a Christian theologian interested in showing that “the postures of Yoga” (asana) are directly tied to Hinduism and thus, cannot be easily incorporated into daily life by Christians.  While the origin of yoga is undoubtedly tied to the Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, I struggled with his idea of researching asana divorced from yoga in its entirety.

As we at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have repeatedly said, asana alone is not yoga.   It is but one of the eight limbs of yoga, albeit the most well-known and the limb through which most people begin to explore yoga.  But to attempt to draw conclusions on the theistic nature of yoga by examining only posture is problematic.  If posture alone is religious, then what is difference between a headstand in gymnastics and shirshasana in yoga practice?  If it’s only about posture, then are all gymnasts who do headstands also doing something religious?

A cursory exploration of the sacred yoga texts, particularly Patanjali’s much-revered Yoga Sutra, will easily demonstrate that more important than the posture itself is the intention behind it.  It is the intention – on and off the mat – that determines whether a practice is yoga or not.  If the intention is to purely reap physical health from posture – strength, flexibility, stress reduction  – then the asana practice is not theistic and thus, not yoga.

But it’s important to step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture and examine what the reason is for all the postures as they relate to Hindu practice and philosophy?  In Hindu scripture, “asana” is primarily used to be mean “seat,” and more importantly, a seat for meditation on the Divine.   The postures in yoga were developed with the intention that by their regular practice, the individual will remain healthy and fit enough to sit comfortably for extended periods and meditate on the Divine.   The average person cannot suddenly sit down one day and start meditating.   Our bodies have not been trained to sit still for even a few minutes, and as many of us have undoubtedly experienced, various limbs begin to fall asleep within minutes.  Second, our mind has not been trained toconcentrate (Patanjali differentiates between concentration – dharana – and meditation – dhyana).  Anyone who has closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on a mantra or any single object can attest to the difficulty of staying focused.  The mind has a tendency to constantly wander, jumping from one thought to the next because we have not spent time training it to concentrate.

In Ashtanga yoga (as taught by Pattabhi Jois), which is what I practice, the body is trained through the various asanas and the mind is trained through focus on the breath combined with drishti (or gaze).  The postures keep us engaged in the practice.  By focusing our gaze at the the tip of our nose, for example, we no longer pay attention to what is happening on the neighboring mat and thereby, enhance our ability to focus on our own breath.  Slowly, the body opens up, and the power to concentration strengthens.

Naturally, that begs the question, why do we need to concentrate?  Because concentration, or being present, allows us to focus inwards on our Divine self.  As we further develop this focus, we find that we  can focus on making our every thought, word, and action selfless and thus, worthy offerings to the Divine that resides in us all.But therein lies what I see as the fundamental disconnect with the teachings of yoga and exclusivist traditions that insist on acceptance or belief in a particular, external, and patriarchal God.

Yoga is one of the six schools of Hindu thought, and Hinduism is a pluralistic tradition.  Hinduism, and thus yoga, teach that ALL beings can reach union with the Divine, regardless of which name one chooses to call God, be it Shiva, Jesus, or Allah, because the Divine is One and within each of us.  It is not the religion or God an individual professes to that matters.  It is her karma that matters.  And by karma, I mean the combination of one’s thoughts, actions, and intention behind actions.  Part and parcel of karma is being in the present and focusing on the task at hand without worrying about the future result or reminiscing about the past.  The past is gone, and we cannot change it or relive it.  The future is out of our control.  It is only our present actions and thoughts that we can control.  Yet, most of us are motivated by or attached to the future intended results of our actions.   In Ashtanga yoga, the combination of posture, breath, and gaze teaches us how to be in the present.   And when we commit to its regular practice over a long period of time, we notice that we are better able to focus on the present throughout our day, even when we are not on the yoga mat.

Karma also simplistically refers to a metaphysical principle of cause and effect; our thoughts and actions produce appropriate and corresponding outcomes.  And these outcomes may span over lifetimes.  How else can we explain why “bad” things happen to “good” people?  Thus, along with a genuine belief in karma comes the corollary concept of reincarnation of the soul.   Both are absolutely necessary, not only to fully understand the eight limbs of yoga, but to truly benefit from the intended purpose of asana.

The point of yoga is to help us reach such a stage in our spiritual development, which has occurred over countless births in various physical bodies, where our actions no longer accrue new karma, or corresponding outcomes that must be experienced.  Thus, we are freed from the need to experience those outcomes, and freed from this continuous cycle of birth and death.  This freedom from reincarnation, also known as moksha, is open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, or sexual preference.

Thus, in yoga there are no “saved” or “condemned” people.  There are only individuals at various stages in their journey toward moksha.   And, just as importantly, there is no one single path to moksha because we are all inherently different in nature.  What works for me may not work for you.  Hinduism recognizes that and because of its universal and pluralistic nature, anyone, regardless of their professed religion, can practice asana without converting to Hinduism. However, the intended purpose of asana in the practice of yoga —  to prepare the mind and body for samadhi, and ultimately, moksha — may place some practitioners in a metaphysical or religious quandary.

I just ran across these stunning images of Holy Men by photographer Joey L. The initial set of images are of Indian sadhus living in the holy city of Varanasi…and they are absolutely breathtaking.

The following piece was written by my friend Raman Khanna, who is also a member of the Hindu American Foundation’s Executive Council.

“Hinduism was invented recently.”

“The word Hindu is problematic.”

“It’s not accurate to speak of Hinduism, only Hinduisms.”

More than a decade has passed since I majored in religion as an undergraduate, but these phrases, conventional wisdom then, remain conventional wisdom today. When I was on a Hinduism panel in November with two professors of South Asian studies, the issue of the “construction of a Hindu identity in the United States” came up again in a question from an audience member. Conventional wisdom, often wrong, may seem merely annoying, but in this case is frequently deployed to declare Hindu identity somehow flawed and illegitimate. As a proud Hindu-American, though, I see the issue quite differently through the prism of both comparative study and common sense.

First, the reality is that all identities are “constructed.” The very term “America” derives from that of an Italian explorer whose name was Latinized and placed on a popular map. Moreover, the idea of “America” has encompassed, since its inception, more than mere hoary notions of democratic representation, but also massive land grabs from indigenous people and the enslavement of an entire race. Yet the “American” identity is one of the strongest in existence in the hearts of its proudest adherents, of which I consider myself one.

Second, this “construction” of identity is a feature, not a bug, of the human experience and a key means for achieving security and survival. The American Revolution consisted of Northern industrialists and Southern slaveholding landowners making common cause against the British. Despite this devil’s bargain that perpetuated oppression, birthed civil war, and papered over still extant political fissures, the resulting “American” polity became, and has remained, one of the most impregnable in the world.

Third, identities exist or persist only as and when they speak to larger realities. Despite the real differences that led to a bloody civil war and persist in racial and regional divisions, America’s genesis was based on a very real commitment to republican representation and progressive enfranchisement that have served as a common touchstone and inspired not just its citizens, but the world.

Finally, construction is not a one-time process, but rather an ongoing one. What it meant to be American in the 1700s, before our nation existed, to the 1950s, when an entire race was disenfranchised, is quite different from today, and will be different again in 2043 when whites are a plurality rather than an absolute majority of the U.S. population.

“Hindu” is different, of course, from “America;” layers of this identity extend thousands of years into the past rather than hundreds — from the Vedic people and their intricate, elaborate hymns to the tribal cultures they encountered and with whom they fused along the way. But if one assumes that the Hindu identity was first constructed at some point in the past, “Hinduism” is quite similar to America. The identification of rarified Gods of preservation, dissolution, and energy onto local village deities was a source of unity and defense for both the individual tribes and their urban descendants, and ultimately a wellspring from which Lokamanya Tilak and later Mahatma Gandhi could launch their respective attempts to unite India against the British. What it means to be Hindu has likewise changed with Puranic Hinduism, with Bhakti, with the Vedantic revivals and reinterpretations of the last 200 years, and with a rich diaspora and, increasingly, Hindus of non-Indian extraction (such as the first Hindu elected to the House of Representatives).

Beyond these high level overviews, let me end on a more personal anecdote. When my mother, a proud Punjabi, felt a calling to teach her children and her community’s children about the crown jewels of our traditions–from the Bhagavad Gita to Yoga to Vedic chanting and to major religious holidays — she didn’t just turn to other Punjabis or even North Indians in our community. She turned instead to Hindus she had known at temple, at the various Diwali functions the community had put on, and social functions in our sleepy Ohio town. The response was overwhelming from Hindus of all language and community groups represented in my small town. Whether they celebrated Pongal or Holi, identified with Shankara or Satya Sai Baba, or drew strength from the Ramcharitmanas or the Kamban Ramayana, they saw the fundamental value of the enterprise and came together around it. The entire process of creating this Hindu school can indeed be called “constructed”, but there was clearly already a foundation for it. And as Hindus came and went over the years, the influence of each changed in slight ways which components of Hindu school were or were not emphasized.

So, my advice to students and academics alike is this: don’t sweat the “constructed” part of identity, in the case of Hinduism or otherwise. All identities are constructed, whether in the modern day or in the distant past. This is perfectly natural and indeed essential to survival, and identities will only persist if they respect underlying realities. And identities can, should, and do transform over time. The Hindu identity, like the American one, is no different, and there is no reason to be either suspicious or ashamed of this.

Principled opposition is expected when litigating issues in the public square, and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) , for which I serve as the Senior Director, has at times faced stiff opposition from the right and left of the ideological spectrum in response to various positions, reports, and statements released by HAF. Recently, in our campaign to oppose what we believe to be a Hinduphobic, Anti-India Resolution, (H. Res. 417), an ostensible coalition calling itself the Coalition Against Genocide, and made up of far fewer member organizations than it claims, struck again. It has lodged some pretty inflammatory allegations against HAF — calling us “Hindu Supremacists” and trying to link HAF with the Hindutva movement in India. While those of us amongst the old guard at HAF are used to ad hominems from time to time, I was especially touched by the reaction shared by Nicholas O’Connell, a member of of our Executive Council, who will soon join the master’s program in South Asian Studies with a concentration in History at Columbia University, has been a long-time blogger , and is really the next generation of HAF’s leadership. So, I share his thoughts with you.

The Coalition Against Genocide (CAG) recently authored a report, in which they seek to associate the Hindu American Foundation with various Hindu Nationalist organizations, and furthermore brand us with the unflattering label of “Hindutva supremacist.” The accusations are serious, but thankfully easy to refute. We take our commitments to uphold pluralism, defend human rights, and maintain our political independence very seriously, and our track record speaks for itself. However, since this is not the first time the CAG has come forward with such allegations, their claims warrant a detailed examination.

According to the CAG, the fact that some of HAF’s leadership was involved with Vishwa Hindu Parishad America affiliated groups during high school and college is evidence that we are a Sangh Parivar front group with a narrow, Hindutva perspective. They allege that we make an effort to “eliminate the voices of the oppressed majority within Hinduism- Dalits and women” and conceive of Hinduism as “a political rather than a religious identity where India becomes the ‘natural’ and exclusive home of Hindus.” This Hindutva supremacism is what allegedly inspires much of our activism, particularly our challenge of the portrayal of the Aryan Invasion in California textbooks.

Hindutva Affiliation: Firstly, it is true that a few HAF leaders participated in VHPA affiliated student groups during high school and college. This is not surprising, considering that the vast majority of well-organized, national Hindu student organizations that existed in the 1970’s and 1980’s had VHPA affiliation. This speaks more to the dearth of active Hindu groups in the United States at that time, than to the present ideological orientation of our organization. I had the opportunity to attend more rigorous philosophically oriented Hindu camps in rural Pennsylvania, for example, but those opportunities simply did not exist 25 years ago. Some HAF leaders were indeed among the thousands of teens who attended VHPA affiliated summer camps, and volunteered in their affiliated student groups, but CAG’s conclusion that as a result HAF promotes “Hindu supremacism” is truly strange. HAF’s current team spans both the political and religious spectrum, most of whom have a distaste for Indian politics of any sort, and none of whom espouse Hindutva politics. Never have my colleagues pressured me ideologically, and such pressure would certainly be seen as bizarre and unacceptable by our staff.

I personally find left and right wing politics to be equally distasteful, but I do have strong sympathy for reform oriented Hindu movement such as Arya and Brahmo Samaj. Spiritually, I find the most meaning in schools such as Samkhya, Tantra, and the Naastikas, which are all minority viewpoints in current Hindu discourse. On my website I frequently offer critiques of traditional Hindu gender roles, and write on such subjects as Lokayata(materialism) and Muslim feminism. Given my spiritual and political stances, I, along with most of my colleagues, would probably be purged from an organization which actually promoted “Hindutva supremacy.”

Caste and Women: The CAG asserts that in the eyes of HAF, Dalits are “not seen as deserving of any defense.” A simple search of our website will turn up multiple statements advocating for Dalit access rights to Hindu temples, a statement commending the U.S. Congress for drawing attention to the plight of Dalits, and multiple statements by Hindu religious figures condemning of caste discrimination. Pravrajika Vrajaprana perhaps put it best in her observation that, “It is a tragic irony that Hinduism, whose scriptures contain soaring evocations of the unity of existence and the oneness of all life, should also have been the locus of caste-based discrimination…The Hindu traditions assert that the divine dwells within the heart of every being. Knowing this to be true, those in the Hindu traditions should join together to remove the stain of this long-standing injustice.”

Similarly, a simple search of our website will turn up articles advocating the empowerment of women, and condemnations of misogynistic violence. Claims that we are an anti-Dalit and anti-women organization are made all the more absurd by the medical aid which the HAF has provided to Pakistani Hindu refugees, whose female population is notoriously vulnerable to rape, and the vast majority of whom are Dalits.

Aryan Invasion Skepticism: The authors of the CAG report assert that HAF’s effort to contest the dominance of Aryan Invasion theory in public school textbooks must be fundamentally rooted in Hindu Nationalist ideology. The claim seems to be divorced from the intellectual history of the Aryan Invasion concept. To take a notable example of how the CAG narrative misses the mark, the highly respected Dalit activist, and Buddhist leader, B.R. Ambedkar, was an early opponent of the Aryan Invasion theory. In fact, Ambedkar’s primary opponents were Hindu Nationalists who sought to glorify their Aryan ancestors as a race of heroic conquerors. Ambedkar undercut Brahmin and Kshatriya supremacism by arguing for the common genetic lineage of all Indians.

While the final answer to the Aryan puzzle may be yet to come, in the scholarly community Aryan Invasion theory has already evolved from a narrative centering on warfare and subjugation, to several different competing theories of Aryan Migration. In light of modern genetic research, Aryan Migration theory also has to contend with the possibility of Indigenous Aryans. The notion that our efforts to compel public schools to present the full range of scholarly opinion on Bronze Age Indian history constitutes “Hindutva supremacism” seems ludicrous.

HAF has already put out a report exposing CAG’s affiliations with violent groups. It is true that many leaders of the Coalition Against Genocide have advocated violence, either in the name of proletarian revolution, or jihad. However, in my estimation it is likely that many members of CAG’s constituent groups are genuinely concerned with social justice, and the alleviation of oppression of minorities. I would encourage those individuals to actually read some of HAF’s material and determine for yourselves if we are truly your enemy.