I love the play with “yoga’s soul” in the New York Times’ headline “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” (11-27-10). Paul Vitello briefly outlined a growing debate that Deepak Chopra, yoga practitioners, scholars, and historians are weighing in on. The Hindu American Foundation claims yoga philosophy has been ripped out of context from its ancient roots and commercialized. Yoga thrives in a multibillion-dollar industry and Hinduism doesn’t get credit for its transformational wisdom. What kind of acknowledgement would the Foundation like?
Deepak Chopra claims the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism. Does Dr. Chopra really want to argue yoga’s origins? To what purpose? Everyone knows that yoga originated from India. Dr. Shukla from the Hindu American Foundation says Hinduism is a victim of “overt intellectual property theft.” And Mr. Vitello, as most everyone will, calls Hinduism a religion.
Here we have a religion claiming intellectual property rights. Fascinating! Is there really an argument to be made about who owns a soul’s individual, personal journey? One can protest and lay claim, but no one can control a person’s path. Ask anyone who decides to control theirs.
Still let’s have some fun within the context of the debate, because it will take the absurd a little further and perhaps we can all have a belly laugh, then sigh about what fuels our debates – political and religious.
Hinduism is not just a religion. Not in the way we Americans understand. Hinduism is an umbrella title for a complex of several religious and philosophical schools of thought: Vaishnavism, a monotheistic tradition worshiping Krishna as God; impersonalism, a non-religious philosophy claiming nothing exists after corporeal existence from which Buddhism was born; and polytheism, a tradition worshiping several demigods as supreme. The various yogas – mantra, physical, and mental (I’ll spare you the proper Sanskrit names) — are used to awaken consciousness to reach one of the goals of either the atheistic, monotheistic or polytheistic eastern approach.
Okay, so not just a religion, but a massive body of divergent beliefs called Hinduism wants the rights to intellectual property? How does such a conglomerate come together? Dr. Diana Eck suggests Hindu American Foundation is emerging as a national advocacy group, and perhaps indeed they are. I hope they do. Whether they can speak for Hinduism worldwide is another topic. Here’s one more on point: What do they stand for? What do they really want?
I propose the debate is not about intellectual property and ownership. Rather the core issue is that Indians, who are referred to as Hindus, want to lay claim to their heritage and stand proud and understood in America. Owning identity is important, for individuals and groups. I bow to Hindus trying to protect their culture. However, owning identity oneself and trying to take possession of it from others are two different things. Then again, Indians are pushing back against their minority status and tremendous misconceptions and stereotypes among the American public that trivialize and disrespect wisdom that originates from their culture.
I’m not Indian and I cringe at some American yoga practitioner’s oversimplification of the purpose and power of yoga (no, its aim is not physical health, though health and balance is a powerful byproduct). Many people know a little bit about a very profound practice. Still they make assertions, as if they are masters, and thus we have mass ignorance. So statements like Mr. Vitello’s in the first paragraph come off the tongue easy as if truth, “Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it [yoga].” I agree with Dr. Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation that yoga has been offered up as “spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.” But I’m sorry and disheartened that we cut borders around spiritual realities by checking the color of our skin and lines on a map.