Rejoinder to Wendy Doniger’s The Real Roots of Yoga

Rejoinder to Wendy Doniger’s The Real Roots of Yoga – Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Original article by Wendy Doniger at

Wendy makes some interesting points in her The Real Roots of Yoga. Quite in contrast to some of the remarks I heard about her ignorance of Hinduism, she says
“The word yoga/yoga/Yoga thus became a triple homonym, referring sometimes to a physical praxis, sometimes to a mental praxis, and sometimes to a particular philosophical school.

While there are no two separate physical and mental praxis, there are indeed three subjects that one refers to a worldview (what she calls as a philosophical school), a philosophy of spiritual practice, and a methodology. Patanjali covers the first two. The third is visible in almost every Hindu tradition, and is not the creation of a single school. Even here her note is accurate, Yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it.

But the real inaccuracy is in the separation of mental and physical praxis, which is antithesis of every Hindu school modern or ancient. Mind, life and matter are inseparable continuum in Hinduism, and this holds good for every school. Mind, speech and action are inseparable too. The separation of physical and mental practices does not reflect well on ones understanding of Hindu approach.

The entire attempt to separate mental and physical or the esoteric vs terrestrial shows is incorrect. The same Veda talks of Devatas, and also of every material and esoteric gain. And here, both Wendy and Mark Singleton fall short in their evaluation of an experiential school like yoga.

In the practical sense yoga is about perfection, and every yogic school attempts at perfecting the mind-body-breath-speech-intellect-ego-memory complex. Each of them emphasizes some of these more and some less, but essentially the perfection in entire being is the goal of every school. Raja yoga or laya yoga focusses more on mind, and physical exercise is the means to give a perfectly stable posture suited for holding breath and thought for long durations. Nada yoga focusses on how sound and speech originate and manifest in the body. It does involve its own set of physical training, although not as apparently external as, say hatha yoga. Mantra yoga is close to it, but has its own uniqueness. Hatha yoga focusses not on the niceties of mind but on disciplining it through a rigorous physical austerity  again, as a *means* to the subsequent limbs of yoga such as dhyana and samadhi. Kundalini yoga focusses on arousing kundalini, which requires good deal of physical sustainability too. For this reason we see people taking to exercises and strengthening their body even after some basic practice of inner yoga. The are several other forms of yoga too, but we can do with this for now.

So to see physical and mental disciplines separate is missing the very essence of yoga. Yes, people do use physical exercises for health and other worldly reasons that in itself only shows a specific application of the underlying concept and not a partitioning of the concept itself. The basic principle of yoga is to use the underlying relation between mind-life-speech-body and achieve an overall perfection.

Seen in this light, the assertion of some specific part of yoga evolving under a conceptually alien influence is not just provocative as Wendy notes:

Contemporary postural yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century. This is Singleton’s most provocative assertion. He argues that a transnational, anglophone yoga arose at this time, compounded of the unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA, grafted on to a rehabilitated form of postural yoga adapted specifically for a Western audience.

It is one one hand trying to separate what is not actually separate, and then trying to search for its source. First of all, how many practicing traditions before British times did Mark Singleton survey? How many martial art schools, how many music and dance traditions did he survey? How many combinations of mudra-asana-bandha-pranayama did he survey, before making this assertion?

However Wendy kind of refutes his claim by asserting a pre-existence of physical discipline.

By this time, most educated Hindus had nothing but scorn for postural yoga, though there was still respect for yoga as a spiritual discipline. The followers of the great Vedantic philosopher Shankara (c.788-820 AD) rejected the physical discipline and engaged only the philosophy and the meditational praxis.

But more importantly, there are a few traditions that still exist. Surya Namaskara-s, the well known Sun-salutations have centuries of legacy. While the mantra-s are found in many places including Aruna Ketuka(the first prapathaka of Taittireeya Aranyaka), the Surya namaskara-s, along with the compilation of mantras, asana-s, their sequencing, and the whole procedure as is known today, are arranged by the great Baudhayana, who is among the most well known seers for arranging several such prayoga-s or applications. He is the author of a set of Kalpa Sutras, a limb of the Veda. They contain Sulba sutras (geometry of altars), Srauta Sutras (this is the primary text for ritual procedures), Grihya and Dharma sutras. Besides, there are several ritual procedures he created, including the celebrated Mahanyasa and graha worship.

Saura or the worship of Surya/the Sun God was one of the six major religions in India, but is now not visible more than as a small aspect of Vaishnava and as the celebrated Gayatri. Surya is worshiped as the giver of health, the father of the doctor-god twins Asvins, the sustainer of life.

And the Surya namaskara-s of Baudhayana prayoga krama enjoyed an uninterrupted legacy, till date. While these are known in oral tradition, old manuscripts are also available. While the antiquity of Surya namaskara-s is indisuptable, Samartha Ramadasa (Sivajiâ’s Guru) is also known to have practiced those, which rule out the possibility of their import in the past two centuries. If one merely surveys the fact that he established akhada-s or traditional gymnasiums to strengthen people physically and be able to fight the Mulsim invaders, and also that he was a great spiritual practitioner for once dispels the incorrect division of yoga into physical and mental disciples.

The physical discipline fell drastically precisely because the warrior class was eliminated fighting the Muslim rulers, and the fact that Hindus are still majority in India shows the success of the warrior class one should only read through the physical discipline of those warriors and the stories of their physical yogic perfection. It is not invented but only attempted to be revived to fight the British. Yes, the techniques evolve and people pick whatever is ready and handy. That does not discount the fact of a pre-existence of physical discipline.

The real biggest loophole of Wendy’s review and of Mark Singleton’s book is skipping the period of long Muslim invasion which immediately preceded British colonization, which sufficiently explains all the disappearance of physical culture.


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