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Posted at: Jun 20, 2015, 12:12 AM; last updated: Jun 19, 2015, 11:58 PM (IST)

Yoga: Whose message & whose medium?

Yoga bestows health benefits and helps in inculcating self discipline. For Swami Vivekananda and Gandhiji, yoga was essentially an exercise in non-violence and ethical conduct. Sufis and thinkers in the Arab world interpreted yoga in terms of zikr
Yoga: Whose message & whose medium?
Among my exercises one pleases me particularly—the shirshasana. I suppose physically this exercise is very good; I liked it even more for its psychological effects on me. The slightly comic position increased my good humour and made me a little more tolerant of life''s vagaries. — Jawaharlal Nehru

S.N. Sahu

June 21 has been declared as the International Day of Yoga on the initiative of our  Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. More than a decade back, in pursuance of Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s initiative   on October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi was declared as the International Day of Non-Violence. One of the foundational pillars of yoga is  non-violence, which is inseparable from spirituality. Yoga minus non-violence is no yoga.  A day dedicated at the international level for the cause of yoga augurs well for entire mankind in making more people aware of its  profound significance, some aspects of which are being followed by peoples across the globe for getting health benefits.

Even though Mahatma Gandhi did not follow any yogic practices, he  with his phenomenal understanding of spirituality followed certain aspects of yoga for  regenerating  our nationalism and making it  constructive, liberating and all-embracing for the purpose of freeing  India from British rule. One may ask as to how certain aspects of yoga freed us  from colonial rule and exploitation? The foundational pillars of yoga are  Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), Bramhacharya (disciplining of carnal desire),  Aparigraha (non-possession) and Astreya (non-stealing). These are cardinal, sacrosanct and inviolable principles, without which none can make any progress on the path of spirituality. He made these principles part of his ekadash vrat or 11 vows, by following which individuals would be able to first rule themselves  on the basis of a disciplined body and mind and usher in self rule for our country. Such a larger vision of self rule shaped by  disciplining of mind, body and senses would result in a non-violent social and economic order, which would be beneficial not only for our country but also the whole world.

Modern western civilisation, which emerged following the industrial revolution in Europe celebrated the possessive individual and, therefore, built a political, social and economic architecture to protect possessive instincts and qualities. The book Possessive Individual, authored by Professor Macpherson, read by a generation of students in universities  very persuasively argued that the ideals of freedom, which included in its scope right to life, property, commerce, safety and security, were emphasised for the enabling the  individual to possess more and more and multiply wants and desires. In contrast to it, the enduring tradition of yoga is based on non-possession and non-stealing.  So while the modern era in the western world took shape in celebrating the material exuberance, it did not adequately focus attention on the non-material or spiritual dimensions of life, which are as important as material dimensions. Yoga, by emphasising on non-material dimensions, actually restores the sanity and strength of life and gives the material dimensions the much-needed spiritual content. Too much of an emphasis on material success has created an imbalance. It does not mean that material attainments are to be discounted. It means that there must be some balance in life by blending them with non-material dimensions. It is yoga which will make us realise the profound meaning of life — the aim of which is to attain higher consciousness. Patanjali's Astanga Yoga, the eight-fold path of yoga, is a revolutionary prescription to usher in that higher consciousness which is the state of Samadhi, where the consciousness is independent and much higher than the  consciousness based on sensory experiences and material possessions.  That kind of consciousness would coexist only with non-violence, non-possessions and non-stealing. In other words, if we talk about  yoga and integrate it with the texture of life  we need to simultaneously talk and put into practice non-violence, non-possession and non-stealing. In other words, yoga means a high level of consciousness, tolerance and acceptance. Otherwise, it will negate non-violence which is one of the highest attributes of yoga. By spewing hatred and venom on people just because they belong to the Islamic or Christian faith, we would negate the basic principles of yoga. This all-embracing aspect of yoga was very well explained by Sri Aurobindo in his scholarly book Synthesis of Yoga, the very first sentence of which  is: “All life is Yoga”. Sri Aurobindo who did the rigorous practice of Pranayam for more than two decades could predict that human beings would  evolve to attain  transcendental consciousness.

Yoga embraces all faiths and stresses on their commonalities and there is no scope in it to entertain even violent thoughts. It was Swami Vivekananda, who prophetically wrote that the day mankind would   discover and explore  yoga that day would  be far more significant than the renaissance and reformation which gave birth to modern science and modern civilisation. His profound articulation that ethics is inseparable from yoga makes us mindful of the ethical orientation of mind which should precede the practice of yoga. Any compromise on ethics would constitute serious compromise of yoga. That is why in Raja Yoga, exacting standards are prescribed and it is even cautioned  that a Raj Yogi would become insane if he or she entertains sexual thoughts. In other words, a measure of emphasis is given on disciplining thought which Swami Vivekananda described as internal motion. The disciplining of the internal motion would lead to disciplining of external motion which he said is manifested in action. So while celebrating the International Day of Yoga we need to be more ethical, more non-violent, less possessive, imbibe the values to share more and be more respectful to the  faiths of others. We need to be more noble and be guided by cosmic consciousness, which will broaden mind and remove narrowness. In other words, it captures in its scope the ideal of the Idea of India. 

The writer is Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat. 

The views expressed are personal

Vandana Shukla

Much before secularism became a rhetorical lodestar for us, yoga was adapted and assimilated across geographical and religious boundaries. Our current dilemma about  suryanamaskar — having Hindu roots or not — does not find much resonance in history. The knowledge of yoga had indeed travelled to the Middle East region by the beginning of the 14th century, where the treatise on yoga were translated and adapted by Islamic intellectuals and sufi mystics alike. It is believed that The Pool of Nectar is one of the earliest books on yoga translated into Persian. It postulates that Indian yogis (jogis) are the equivalents for Elijah, Jonah, and Khidr (revered figures in Islam).     

When the Italian traveller, Pietro della Valle stopped at the western Indian city of Cambay in 1624, he took the opportunity to visit a temple outside of town which was  home to many yogis. After describing them in detail in his memoirs, he added a long account of their yogic practices. Though, long before Della set foot in India, he was familiar with yogis, and their art.

Perhaps, Della Valle received this knowledge from a Persian treatise The Kamarupa Seed Syllables on yogic breathing and divination techniques, which was circulating independently in the intellectual circles of Iran, even before The Pool of Nectar,  an Islamic interpretation of yoga, Kamarupa Seed Syllables was quoted in a fourteenth-century Persian encyclopaedia, the Nafa'is al-funun of Amuli. Della acquired a copy of The Kamarupa Seed Syllables for himself during his stay in Iran, prior to his India visit. Della decided to translate the book into Italian. He was proficient in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, his plan to translate the work from Persian into his native Italian might have yielded the first European study of an Islamic interpretation of yoga. But it never materialised. In the list of his oriental manuscripts, donated to the Vatican in 1718 by della Valle's heir Rinaldo de Bufalo, it was described as “a book on magic, translated from the Indian into the Persian language.” This work is still preserved in the Vatican library. It is remarkable how translators prepared a Persian-reading audience to get interested in a subject as alien as breath control. Equally fascinating is the kind of Islamicate categories used to present material such as yoga and feminine deities (yoginis) to the followers of Islam.

Scholars say, the extent of amalgamation of these knowledge systems in the Arab world was so complete it makes one wonder, if yoga originated in India or in the Arab world. Prof Carl W Ernst, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, who has extensively researched the subject, has argued that though yoga originated in India, texts on yoga began to be available in Arabic and Persian as early as the 14th century. The main text on yoga translated into Arabic was The Pool of Nectar, supposedly translated from the Sanskrit Amritakunda, as mentioned in the translation, but researchers have not been able to find any Sanskrit work by this name so far. The Arabic text was further translated into Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Urdu.

History, too, played its little tricks on the issue of origins of yoga in the Arab world. The Arabic translation of The Pool of Nectar travelled to the Ottoman Empire, where for some reason its authorship got ascribed to a famous Sufi, Ibn Arabi. There are many copies of the manuscripts of this text in Istanbul. A Sufi Shaikh in Damascus still teaches this text, which he firmly understands in terms of Sufi metaphysics, not in terms of yoga.

Are there, then, different kinds of yoga — as practised in India and the Arab world? The cultural references used in the process of adaptation lent some ambivalence about these texts in the Arabic, which were sometimes considered to be magical and sometimes spiritual. Muslim readers such as sufis and philosophers, who became interested in texts on yoga, tended to understand it in terms of familiar categories of their spiritual practice, such as zikr as the equivalent of mantra. At times the Arabic and Persian accounts of yoga do not look Indian at all, because they have been familiarised in terms of Islamic references. Arabic accounts of yoga too emphasise ascetic practices such as fasting. Yogis or jogis were well known as colourful figures encountered by Middle-Eastern travellers. The postures described in Arabic and Persian texts on yoga are not the same in name or detail as those practised today. This divergence perhaps,  reflects different cultural influences in the development of yoga in India and the Arab world. Practitioners of yoga are found in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Iran even today. In recent years, the International Yoga Festival in Egypt has become a popular event. Recent publications on yoga by popular authors like Richard Hittleman and Swami Satyananda Saraswati have been translated into Arabic and Persian.

It is largely believed by scholars that Patanjali Yoga Sutra is the original and the oldest treatise on yoga. The Arab world got the original source by a translation of Al-Biruni (AD 1048) from Sanskrit. But this was too scholarly a text and failed to garner wide readership; only its single manuscript now exists at Heidelberg. Nearly a thousand years later, in 2010, Dr Abdul Wahab Al Maqaleh from the Republic of Yemen translated an English version of Patanjali, by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood titled How to Know God into Arabic, and it has been published by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH). Ancient knowledge systems that travelled far in terms of time and space, and were assimilated by diverse cultures cannot be claimed by a single community. Yoga belongs to the entire humanity.


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