About two years ago, writing about how Meera Nanda proudly strutted her ignorance, I observed two things at the outset:
Perhaps it takes only a Meera Nanda to have the guts to strut her ignorance with such confidence. It took me a few days to digest what she actually wants to say.
Now, two years later, we see that she’s lost none of these two distinguishing traits that mark her as a writer–I’d have said “intellectual” and “scholar” but she’s herself left enough records to show otherwise—of ignorant and confounding mass of words. Exhibit N, 12 Feb 2011: Not as Old as You Think.
The byline in itself is enough to prevent you from reading the ignorant nonsense of oceanic proportions. It says Yoga is not “very Hindu either. There is telling evidence to debunk this nationalistic myth.” But I did myself a disservice by swimming through her verbal scum because scholarly falsehoods are more dangerous.
One of the first things that confronts you when trying to write a rebuttal to any piece of Meera Nanda is: how the hell do I respond? As you sift through her textual muck, you detect a few patterns, which all lead up to the whole picture:
- Hinduism is bad
- Hindutva is worse
- There’s nothing positive about either/both
- Nationalism is dangerous
- Everything associated with Hinduism is negative/bad/dangerous by default
Her current piece though is novel and deceptive because it preempts “objections” by “Hindutva fanatics” and “nationalists.” Here’re the “objections:”
Indians tend to affirm their claims on yoga by trotting out the familiar icons of the ‘5,000-year-old Vedic tradition,’ which supposedly stretches from the Pashupati seal of the (actually very unVedic) Indus Valley civilisation to the Bhagvad Gita and the venerable Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga, Indians like to solemnly declare, is ‘eternal’ and ‘timeless’ and all the great yoga masters, from Swami Vivekananda to BKS Iyengar to Baba Ramdev of our own time, have only restored or reinstituted an ancient practice. It is also commonplace to hear Indians—even those who are not particularly spiritual themselves—blame Americans and other ‘decadent’ Westerners for reducing their spiritually rich tradition to mere calisthenics. Lately, Hindus in America have started flying the saffron flag over American-style yoga, which consists largely of yogic asanas and stretches. The leading Indo-American lobby, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has recently started a vocal campaign to remind Americans that yoga was made in India by Hindus. Not just any ordinary Hindus, but Sanskrit-speaking, forest-dwelling Brahmin sages who learned to discipline their bodies in order to purify their atman. The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis.
Here are just a few problems with this: she doesn’t present any evidence to her claim that the Pashupati seal is un-Vedic. Equally, she doesn’t cite any article or authority that says that BKS Iyengar and Ramdev have restored the ancient practice." She also doesn’t include any evidence to support her claim that the HAF’s definition of Hindus who “made Yoga in India” were the “Sanskrit-speaking, forest-dwelling Brahmin sages.” This done, she claims with same arrogant air of confidence that
There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false.
What follows this is pure and naked nightmare. Of the textual variety. Here’s how it begins.
Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis.
Really? Who even claimed that asanas were Vedic, to begin with? The mention about “Hindu intellectuals and reformers,” Swami Vivekanada, et al is a case study in selective quoting. I’ve dwelt on this issue earlier so it doesn’t merit repetition here. But the real question to ask is this: why did he and others “look down upon” asanas? Because they’re mere aids, which if relied upon exclusively, can be disastrous. As I’ve said at least thrice in the past, while debunking the spiritual profiteer Deepak Chopra, asanas are not Yoga and vice versa. However, in Meera Nanda’s clever-by-half spin doctoring,
Moreover, what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians.
This is barefaced falsehood. The Chandogya Upanishad dating back to at least the 1st Century BCE, says that:
A hundred and one are the arteries of the heart, one of them leads up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that, one becomes immortal. (8.6.6)
The Crown of the Head is the Sahasrara Chakra of the Kundalini Yoga. One wonders how you can have this conception without first having a system of Yoga that defines and explains it. But Meera Nanda propounds that it’s perfectly logical to build the third floor without first laying a foundation. And in a bizarre twist of facts and history, she claims that this “separation” started in the 19th and 20th Indian akharas by Indian nationalists! The rape of yoga is precisely that. Here’s the thing: no Hindu has a problem with gurus and gyms teaching asanas. But to call that as Yoga outrages people. But there’s worse:
Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.
Sure. Most Hindus don’t have a problem acknowledging the West’s contributions to asanas. We come from a culture that has honoured the contributions of the Kushans, essentially as “foreign” a race as it can get. And I have little doubt in my mind that had Newton lived in India, he’d have been honoured as a sage, a Rishi. But what this comment from Nanda shows is how her intellectual integrity works. We don’t fail to notice how cleverly she equates Yoga with Asana, an intellectual treason that she shares with the demigods of the Marxist-Secular pantheon and peddlers like Deepak Chopra. “Modern Yoga” eh? Yoga—and I shall never tire of repeating this—is a unified system of which asana is simply a minor component. And Yoga is derived from the Vedas. As an aside, I recommend reading Sarvesh’s really excellent and in depth piece that conclusively demonstrates how you cannot delink Yoga from Hinduism. There’s nothing like “modern Yoga.” And then she does a sudden zig-zag and states that the main theme of her essay is to unearth the “hidden history of modern postural yoga.”
Thus far, we have been handed these menu items on her grand feast:
- Yogic asanas
- Vedic Yoga
- Asanas divorced from their “spiritual underpinning”
- Modern Yoga
- Modern Postural Yoga
I challenge you to detect one, exactly one logical thread that connects and leads to these conclusions. This is followed by a no-brainer rant on the HAF, which among other things, makes veiled attacks on everybody from BKS Iyengar to Baba Ramdev without—sigh, as usual—a shred of evidence. However, this rant gets interesting towards the end:
Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of ‘om’ and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience. Iyengar yoga schools begin their sessions with a hymn to Patanjali, the second-century composer of the Yoga Sutras, and some have even installed his icon. This Hinduisation is not entirely decorative either, as yoga instructors are required to study Hindu philosophy and scriptures to get a licence to teach yoga.
Meera Nanda inadvertently drops the boulder on her own feet. The sinister reference to “Hinduisation” apart, she lays bare what she has chosen to “criticize.” Did she wonder why Yoga instructors are required to study Hindu philosophy to qualify? I leave the reader to figure the answer out.
And then she launches a tirade against the Take Back Yoga campaign of the HAF, which is similar in tone and content to the previous sections until we get here:
The take-back-yoga campaigners are not impressed with the growing visibility of Hindu symbols and rituals in yoga and other cultural institutions in the US.
This is a classic case of giving the dog a bad name. If you read several of the HAF’s campaigns, the truth is otherwise: the HAF is more concerned about the way in which these symbols and rituals are represented, and not with their growing visibility. And further,
They still find Hindu-phobia lurking everywhere they look. They want Americans to think of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the great Vedas when they think of Hinduism, instead of the old stereotypes of caste, cows and curry. They would rather, to paraphrase Shukla, that Hinduism is linked less with holy cows than Gomukhasana (a particularly arduous asana); less with colourful wandering sadhus and more with the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali.
The same technique applied again. If you scan news reports of the last 10 years at least, you find that the debates that raged on Sulekha (very popular then) were about how the US academia and media distorted Hindu concepts and portrayed India in general and Hinduism in a negative light. Then the California textbook controversy where US school children were taught that Hindus worshipped monkeys. If you were a Hindu parent living in the US, how’d you react is a question Meera Nanda never asks. In the same vein, Nanda doesn’t talk about the instant, manufactured outrage when even a frission of perceived insult to Islam occurs in the US. Still further,
It seems this yoga-reclamation campaign is less about yoga, and more about the Indian diaspora’s strange mix of defensiveness and an exaggerated sense of the excellence of the elite, Sanskritic aspects of Hindu religion and culture.
It’s obviously too much to expect Meera Nanda to understand or even have an iota of knowledge about Yoga but we don’t fail to notice her contempt for what she brands is the “excellence of the elite, Sanskritic aspects of Hindu religion and culture.” Any aspect about Hindu culture, tradition and philosophy requires a holistic and “360-degree” view if you sincerely want to understand it. Thus, if you want to understand Yoga darshana (Philosophy), you must at the least have a superb command of Sanskrit and the Vedas. Else, you’ll spout retarded nonsense like “this yoga-reclamation campaign is less about yoga…and an exaggerated sense of the excellence of the elite, Sanskritic aspects of Hindu religion and culture.” Going by the sheer amount of bile she’s generated about “elite” and “Sanskrit,” we wonder if she favours disbanding a quest for excellence.
What follows is truly mind-numbing for the sheer leap of logic.
This debate is really about two equally fundamentalist views of Hindu history. The underlying objective is to draw an unbroken line connecting 21st century yogic postures with the nearly 2,000-year-old Yoga Sutras, and tie both to the supposedly 5,000-year-old Vedas.
Wait, don’t let the acrid stench disgust you yet. Meera Nanda has shown nothing that proves that this debate is about “fundamentalist views of Hindu history.” All she has given us so far is some incomprehensible terminology: ref the menu items from #1 thru #5 above. As for her note about drawing an unbroken line, again, she hasn’t shown that Yoga didn’t exist in the Vedas or that Yogic postures/asanas are not Yoga. Actually, the fact is the exact opposite: today’s Yoga is the same as it was at the time it was conceived, in the Vedas. No amount of word play and semantic masturbation will make the truth a falsehood. Not especially when even a drop of evidence is absent.
Oh wait, actually she presents “evidence.” Here:
Anyone who goes looking for references to popular yoga techniques like pranayam, neti, kapalbhati or suryanamaskar in classical Vedic literature will be sorely disappointed.
This is so absurd that it’s brilliant. Some of the immediate places that somebody desirous of learning Asanas and Pranayama will go to are the following:
- An exponent of these physical practices
- An instruction manual
- An audio tape/CD that explains these instructions
- A VCD/DVD
“Classical Vedic literature” won’t even figure on such a person’s list. But he’s not Meera Nanda. Even more brilliance ensues.
The four Vedas have no mention of yoga. The Upanishads and The Bhagvad Gita do, but primarily as a spiritual technique to purify the atman.
By mentioning Vedas and Upanishads as separate works, her erudition has truly dazzled the Heavens. One doesn’t wish one’s enemy to be in Meera Nanda’s position. Her claim that the Upanishads do mention Yoga simply means she has negated herself. It’s kinda shocking that Meera Nanda as a visiting professor isn’t aware that the Upanishads are part of the Veda. Equally, her other claim that Upanishads mention Yoga “primarily as a spiritual technique to purify the atman” is again a falsehood because:
Asana had already acquired a technical sense during mahAbhArata, and even before, from upaniShadic times. That patanjali does not need to define Asana itself, but simply add more specific qualifiers to it, also shows that the concept of specific Asanas was already a common knowledge. Such names of Asanas as padmAsana, daNDAsana, bhadrAsana, svAstikAsana, and vIrAsana, vajrAsana etc. were so very common and well known among the Hindus already from very early days. By as early as the 6th century we find the yoga authors not only mentioning them by name, but in a sense that it was such a common knowledge that simply indicating a few names appended by ‘etcetera’ is sufficient to indicate them all.
This also punctures Nanda’s other preposterous claim that
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, devotes barely three short sutras (out of 195) to physical postures, and that too only to suggest comfortable ways of sitting still for prolonged meditation…
And then she writes something that so horribly stretches the limits of ludicrousness that you wonder how this even got published in a mainstream, serious magazine.
Hatha yoga was a creation of the kanphata (split-eared) Nath Siddha, who were no Sanskrit-speaking sages meditating in the Himalayas. They were (and still are) precisely those matted-hair, ash-smeared sadhus…Indeed, if any Hindu tradition can at all claim a patent on postural yoga, it is these caste-defying, ganja-smoking, sexually permissive, Shiva- and Shakti-worshipping sorcerers, alchemists and tantriks, who were cowherds, potters and suchlike. They undertook great physical austerities not because they sought to achieve pure consciousness, unencumbered by the body and other gross matter, but because they wanted magical powers (siddhis) to become immortal and to control the rest of the natural world.
How does one even take this seriously much less respond to it? What next? Some oppressed or tribal guy who conceives a new posture to ejaculate without intercourse or masturbation? Some backward lady who can transform herself into a snake at will? More nonsense follows:
Far from being purely Vedic, hatha yoga was born a hybrid. As Amartya Sen reminded us in his recent address to the Indian Science Congress, universities like Nalanda were a melting pot where Buddhist Tantra made contact with Taoism from China…Taoists were already experimenting with qigong, which involved controlled breathing and channelling of ‘vital energy’. Taoist practices bear an uncanny similarity with the yogic pranayam, leading scholars to believe that the two systems have borrowed from each other: Indians learning exercise-oriented breathing from Taoists, and Taoists in China learning breathing-oriented meditation from their Indian neighbours…But this Taoist-Buddhist-Shaivite synthesis was only the beginning.
And then she uses this ridiculous and misleading “premise” to somehow link it to BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, et al.
The problem for historians of modern yoga is that even these medieval hatha yoga texts describe only a small fraction of modern yogic postures taught today. BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas, while the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita.
Even if we grant her her nonsense, we can’t overlook her falsehood yet again. What she fails to mention is the fact that there are a few “basic” asanas and that a small variation in any of these asanas can be given a new name. For example, Matsyasana (Fish pose) is, broadly speaking, a variation of the Padmasana (Lotus pose) as it’s impossible to do Matsyasana without first doing Padmasana. This way, you can experiment and come up with your own variation and give it a name. Because BKS Iyengar teaches 200 asanas and the Gheranda Samhita teaches 20 doesn’t prove anything. If anything, it simply proves the all-inclusive nature of the system of Yoga (notice, I’m not using the word Yoga here). Meera Nanda follows this up with an attack on Iyengar, Jois, and their common guru, Krishnamacharya on the grounds of fabricating and/or inventing ancient texts. This is a charge they should answer if they want to. But the point is, why does Meera Nanda hold them as a kind of final authority on Yoga or asanas? She doesn’t stop there. She unearths some research by a Swede student and some Mark Singleton, who as far as my research has informed me, have no credentials that establish them as authorities on the subject. The “research” basically talks about how Krishnaraja Wodeyar III and IV hired Krishnamacharya to teach “Yoga routines” to the princes and how his “Yoga routines” incorporated some exercises and techniques borrowed from the West. Note again her use of “Yoga routines” instead of asanas as if the two are interchangeable.
Her monumental nonsense concludes thusly:
Hinduism, whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on 21st century postural yoga. To assert otherwise is churlish and simply untrue.
This “conclusion” is basically the same refrain found in her entire piece. What we really have is this: a presumptuous article written in dense and cryptic prose containing a mass of accusations hurled liberally at people and organizations, and backed by almost no or false evidence by a person thoroughly ignorant of the subject she’s writing about. In other words, it’s a mere smear-pamphlet. Not only does this raise questions about her academic credentials but, and more seriously, damages the credibility of Open magazine as a publication that carries unbiased, factual, and well-researched articles.