The Elephant in the Room

Illustration: John Lund


The Hindu American Foundation thinks so, as reported this week in The New York Times, and has launched a campaign it calls, “Take Back Yoga.”

The campaign, it says, does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism…but only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.

For a lot of people –a whole culture, in fact– this is personal.

Mocked by Hollywood, condemned by religious fundamentalists and pillaged by colonialists for millennia, many Hindus are now standing up and saying,

Enough already. There’s nothing to be feared about yoga’s Hindu connection.

So please stop ignoring the elephant in the room.

Fair enough –or so you’d think.

A vocal opposition has arisen with an unofficial spokesman in Deepak Chopra, who asserts that yoga predates Hinduism, calling it too “tribal” and “self-enclosed” to claim ownership of yoga. “Yoga,” he says, “is a practice rooted in consciousness, not proprietary religion.”

It’s true that yoga isn’t religion.

And I understand why people like Deepak Chopra reject the assertion that yoga be championed as a product of Vedic/Hindu culture. With no disrespect intended to Dr. Chopra, he and others have built their careers on marketing Vedic truths to secular and non-Hindu audiences, and doing so might reduce his customer base significantly.

But by removing the potentially polarizing (often theistic) aspects of yoga, Chopra and others have boiled away many of its key tenets, leaving something more easily masticated but devoid of much of its original texture and vitality.

Is it still yoga? I’m not sure; Prashant Iyengar and others think not.

As I see it, the Yoga/Hinduism debate is largely about semantics –and a little about fear. Most scholars of South Asian Religions agree that yoga can be traced back to the ancient Vedic culture of India.

That’s not a point of contention.

It’s the word “Hindu,” I think, that has everyone’s yoga pants in a bunch.

What is it about the H-bomb?

New Age teachers such as Chopra and Ekhart Tolle borrow liberally from the Vedic traditions, quoting Sanskrit slokas and even gurus, but they back away from the H-word. Even many traditional gurus distance themselves from the term (my esteemed grandfather guru being among them) stating boldly, “We are not Hindus.”

Why not?

For one thing, the word never appears anywhere within the Vedas. Its etymology is Persian, not Sanskrit; it’s fairly modern, and it has nothing to do with religion or spirituality but geography, of all things.

The actual term used within the Vedic literatures to describe its faith is Sanatana Dharma, or the eternal nature, and it refers not to religion as we know it, but to the inherent quality of the soul. Every soul. That’s the sticking point.

Explains HAF Director, Dr. Aseem Shukla,

Today, Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism are synonymous, and Chopra and I both agree that yoga is both part of and beyond this tradition…[However] there are no Sanatana Dharmists or Vedantins in today’s world, but only a billion people around the globe and 2 million in the U.S. who call themselves Hindu..

Unfortunately, the word “Hinduism” for many conjures up one of two things:

  1. Another “ism.” (a religious box).
  2. Something scary. With lots of arms. Or something.

Perhaps it’s time to restore the word Hinduism to its original, Vedic moniker, Sanatana Dharma, just as Calcutta was restored to Kolkata and Bombay was restored to Mumbai. It would be less divisive and far more accurate a description of India’s non-sectarian, Vedic tradition.

“Take Back Sanatana Dharma!” I say.

Hey, if Westerners can learn to put their foot behind their neck, they can learn how to pronounce Sanatana Dharma.

And think of how much more convenient it will be for Christian Fundamentalists to denounce us SAnaTANa Dharma practitioners. Everybody will be happy!


“Hindu” it is, then.


A complete transcript of the Shukla-Chopra debate is available here at The Washington Post. It’s a brilliant, articulate duel.

For more, check out the postings and comments at Yoga Dork blog. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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2 Responses to The Elephant in the Room

  1. Thank you for lifting me from Total Ignorance on the important subject of yoga, which I’ve been practicing in an admittedly self-adulterated lay form for nearly 50 years, mistakenly thinking it was somehow linked to Buddhism… Now that I know I’m a practicing Hindu, will the yoga still be as effective?

    Love your blog!

    • Dasi says:

      Ha ha! “A rose by any other name smells as sweet!”
      Thank you so much, Connie, for reading and commenting.
      50 years? I could learn a lot from you. x

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