An Instance of Hinduphobia in Edwin Bryant’s “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
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It is unfortunate that most Yogasutra classes in universities, colleges, and yoga institutions happen through English in India. Teaching of the Yogasutras through Samskrita or even regional languages is seldom heard of. Even while teaching in English, there is a trend to follow or refer to works on Yogasutras from the West. In this essay, we will show the pitfalls and problems in such interpretations.
I was preparing to write a textual research paper on the Yogasutras sometime ago, with my focus on the wisdom from traditional Samskrita Yogasutra commentaries. In the process, I read the Yogasutra translation and interpretation by Edwin Bryant (2018). I was drawn towards this translation and interpretation because of the subtitle of the book — “A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with insights from the traditional commentators”. I have underlined a portion of the subtitle that indicated consonance with what I was doing – referring to traditional commentaries. As I was reading the book, I noticed a problematic, Hinduphobic comment by Bryant which I will share and discuss in this brief commentary/essay.
The Hinduphobic Passage
“As an aside, many Hindu gurus and yogīs have been embroiled in scandals that have brought disrepute to the transplantation of yoga and other Indic spiritual systems to the West. This sūtra provides a mechanism of interpreting such occurrences. If one reads the early hagiographies of many Hindu gurus whose integrity was later found compromised, one is struck by the intensity, devotedness, and accomplishments of their initial practices. Nonetheless, however accomplished a yogī may become, if he or she abandons the practices of yoga under the notion of being enlightened or of having arrived at a point beyond the need of practice, it may be only a matter of time before past saṁskāras, including those of past sensual indulgences, now unimpeded by practice, begin to surface. The result is scandal and traumatized disciples” (p.51).
The above passage in Bryant’s book is in the context of interpreting the following Yogasutra:
स तु दीर्घकाल-नैरन्तर्य-सत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः| (1.13)
sa tu dīrghakāla-nairantarya-satkārāsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ| (1.13)
Abhyasa attains a firm ground when done for a long period, continuously and with devotion.
This is a very important sutra that highlights the qualities that makes Yoga abhyasa firm. It is to be noted that, abhyasa and vairagya are stated as the twin methods by Sage Patanjali to attain the state of Cittavritti Nirodha (restraint / cessation of activities of mind).
To understand the Hinduphobic paragraph quoted above, the paragraph previous to that from Edwin Bryant’s book is given below:
“The cultivation of sattva takes constant attention and cultivation—the minute the yogī relaxes his or her practices and vigilance, Vācaspati Miśra’s highway robbers of rājasic and tāmasic saṁskāras overwhelm the sāttvic qualities so arduously developed. This is because, like weeds, saṁskāras are never actually eliminated or destroyed; they remain in a latent subconscious state and thus can become activated at any moment, unless constantly curtailed (although, as will be discussed below, they can be “burnt” by certain practices, rendering them inoperable); hence Patañjali’s notion of devoted uninterruptedness over a prolonged period” (p.5).
To summarize, by letting down one’s guard in the prolonged, uninterrupted practice of yoga, negative tendencies raise the hood in yogis. Fallen Hindu yogis and gurus have been mentioned by Bryant in the subsequent passage to illustrate this. This is the context.
At the outset, let me clearly state that this essay is not to justify the behavior or brush under the carpet scandals about one or the other individuals from Hindu origins in the field of yoga, and whether such behaviors have traumatized some sincere seekers – whether in the West or elsewhere, including India. But this article is intended to call out the Hinduphobia that lurks in the background in the statements of western authors in the name of yoga or the interpretation of the Yogasutras. In this context, then, let us look at the aspects of Hinduphobia that emerge from the problematic passage in Bryant’s book:
- Restricting the universal problem of human minds to Hindus alone: Anyone who lets down the intensity in practice in any religious, ethical, moral practice will come under the influence of undesirable previous negative tendencies, resulting in inappropriate behavior, harm, and “scandals”. Disciples and followers could indeed be hurt, disappointed, and even traumatized. This is true for any religion or religious practice or any self-discipline practice from whichever origin. When such is the case, limiting the problem to Hindu gurus and yogis betrays the Hinduphobic mindset of Western scholars, and in this instance, the mindset of Edwin Bryant. It is quite possible to interpret one or the other human weakness arising in a religious context in an agnostic manner. But that is not the case in Bryant’s commentary on the Yogasutras, seeking as he does to castigate the misbehavior of one or a couple of gurus in the context of the grand and the whole of Yogasutras, and seeking as he does to sympathize with only those in the “West” who may have been traumatized.
- What about the scandals of Gurus and Yogis elsewhere? Further, in the current scenario, yoga is taught not only by Hindu gurus and yogis. There are teachers of yoga of various origins. Does this phenomenon of susceptibility to previous negative vasanas not apply to them – especially to those in the west? Why have only Hindu gurus and yogis been singled out? Do we not have examples of scandals of Western yogis and gurus? This is not to disrespect in any way the majority of sincere practitioners of yoga of different origins, including those in the West. We point this out to indicate the universality of the problem of negative samskaras. Bryant could have very well have mentioned the vast majority of sincere Hindu yogis and gurus even while warning of the flaws of a few.
- Is this not traumatization of Hindus? Bryant speaks about “traumatized” western disciples due to the scandals of some Hindu gurus and yogis. By generalizing, highlighting, and gaslighting this matter of the rare errant among Hindu gurus and offering his Hinduphobic warning and apology, is Edwin Bryant not “traumatizing” Hindus? How can an interpreter be so ignorant of and callous toward Hindu sensibilities?
Apart from Hinduphobia, other problems can also be noticed from the above interpretation by Edwin Bryant. They include the following:
- White Man’s Burden: The colonizer/imperialist mindset also expresses itself through these words of Bryant, who himself states that “This sūtra provides a mechanism of interpreting such occurrences”. A person from the West here is assuming the mantle of teaching all, including Hindus, on how to interpret the vices of Hindu gurus and yogis in the context of explaining Hindu Shastras! Is Bryant carrying the “White man’s burden” like his imperialistic forefathers? Does he want the unsuspecting reader to think ill of Hindu gurus and yogis alone as scandal-ridden and look up to “masters” like himself for Yogic wisdom?
- Transplantation or teaching? The Appropriation and Misappropriation of Yoga: The expression “…scandals that have brought disrepute to the transplantation of yoga and other Indic spiritual systems to the West” in the Hinduphobic paragraph quoted above is also problematic. The “…teaching of Yoga and other Indic spiritual systems…” would have both sufficed as well as have been a straightforward description of facts/reality. So, the word “transplantation” is not just an accidental choice by Bryant to replace “teaching” or “training”. So, let us think of the possible intentions behind such a usage. Everyone is aware that the process of transplantation involves uprooting a plant from one place and planting it elsewhere. It also means to “remove from one place or context and settle or introduce elsewhere” and to “relocate”. Does Bryant believe that the transplantation of yoga is done because the future of yoga lies only in the West and not in its place of origin? Is this not a blatant and overt case of disconnecting yoga from its root and an attempt at appropriating yoga?
- Non-Sattvik Interpretation: The interpretation of yoga texts should be done with a sattvik frame of mind that exhibits balanced views with care and concern for all. The yoga works of sages like Patanjali and others have stood the test of time because they were written by masters who had attained that frame of mind reflecting universal and transcendental values. But this interpretation by Bryant seeks to selectively vilify Hindu yogis and gurus alone, indicating dvesha –hatred – at the sub-conscious level in the interpreter. Hence the interpretation itself is not according to the spirit of yoga.
Apart from Hinduphobic views, there are technical problems in the translation of other sutras by Bryant. I have pointed out one such technical problem in my talk in the context of the Yoga Sutra Prayantasaithilya-Anantasamapattibhyam (2.47) — “Role of Traditional Samskrita Commentaries in Fathoming Yogasutras” – (twentieth minute in the talk). More problems with Bryant’s interpretation will be discussed in due course, and while it is true that a thorough review of his entire book is needed, yet, by the ancient maxim of Sthali-pulaka-nyaya (examining just a grain/morsel of rice from a boiling pot to know whether the rice in the pot is well-cooked) this single, unjustified Hinduphobic comment may symbolize the quality of his interpretation.
As I said in the opening passage, this is just an example to highlight the pitfalls of and problems in western interpretations which are consumed unquestioningly in India. The solution would be Atma-nirbharata (self-reliance). It is good to read translations from regional languages or translations by teachers of proven and indubitable intentions like Swami Vivekananda to have a sattvik understanding of the Yoga Sutras.
Bryant, Edwin (2018), “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition Translation and Commentary, with Insights from the Traditional Commentators,” New Delhi: Pan Macmillan Publishing, Ltd.
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Keywords: Hinduphobia, Hindus, Yoga Sutra, Edwin Bryant, yoga, yogi, Patanjali, guru, Swami Vivekananda,