It’s interesting that so many Americans quickly and easily refer to themselves as Buddhist, but none of the yogis I’ve ever met refer to themselves as Hindu. A fiery online dialogue took place at the Washington Post between Dr. Aseem Shukla and Dr. Deepak Chopra, both regular contributors to the paper’s On Faith blog. Dr. Shukla, an Associate Professor at the medical school at the University of Minnesota, began by denouncing the “Theft of Yoga,” saying that 20 million people in the USA gather together to practice Hindu practices, using Sanskrit terms like Namaste and pose names, but never acknowledge their source. Is yoga Hindu?
Dr. Chopra responded saying that yoga comes from India but is not inherently Hindu. This is because yoga predates the rise of Hinduism by centuries, and the foundation of yoga lies “in consciousness and consciousness alone.” In India, Dr. Chopra points out, yoga’s practices are part of a spiritual discipline with the aim being liberation.
The roots of both Hinduism and yoga lie in Sanatana Dharma. I translate this Sanskrit term as “the all pervading way,” like the way of the Tao. Most translators translate it as the “eternal religion,” but it is not a religion at all, nor is it simply eternal – it is eternal, but also all pervasive (in time and space). The all pervading way describes the way this universe is constructed, where it came from, why it exists, what our place as human beings is, and the purpose of your own life and existence. The ancient rishis dove into consciousness by exploring their own self, which (the tradition says) they were taught to do by Shiva, who is the One Reality from whom this universe comes. Describing their profound perceptions to others, the sages enumerated the multiplicity of levels that comprise this universe and how to maximize your experience of them, giving specific methodologies and techniques.
The religious practices were later entitled “Hinduism” by foreign invaders. Yoga’s traditional practices come from the same source but are used for a different purpose. Every religion shows you how to invite God into your life, by whatever name, language, form or formless approach, utilizing the methodologies of worship and prayer, contemplating teachings and stories about your specific form of God (even if it is the formless), along with precepts for living your life and staying in relationship with the divine. They all use candles, bells, flowers and fragrances (incense, perfumes, etc). Yet most people pray, “Please, dear God, give me ______ (fill in the blank).” They are asking for divine help in living a good life, whether praying for a healing, a new car, or more compassion for others.
Yoga’s powerful way of working with your body and breath is quite new in the timeline, documented only 1500 years ago, but the more traditional practices include many things that look a lot like religion: worship, prayer, precepts for living your life, contemplating teachings and stories of the Gods and sages, as well as flames, bells, flowers and incense. What’s the difference? A yogi’s prayer asks, “Please, dear God, let me know you fully, within my own being.” The prayer is based in the key principle of Sanatana Dharma: God and Self are one and the same thing. You must find God within yourself – which you find as your own Self.
So there’s a lot of difference between Hinduism and yoga, which is completely dependent on your purpose: if you are practicing it (yoga or Hinduism) for the purpose of being prettier, younger, stronger, healthier, happier, wealthier, smarter, etc – it’s religion, or worse – just another way of trying to manipulate your body and your life. If you are practicing it (yoga or Hinduism) for the purpose of knowing Truth / God / Reality within yourself, it’s yoga.
Now I’m going to tell you that, at the same time there is very little difference between yoga and Hinduism. They use common terminology (Sanskrit terms), are based in shared texts, are looking at the same realities, and have the same foundational understanding: You are the One Divine Reality, whether you know it or not. Someday you will want to know. Then you’ll be ready…
With great love,