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Caste and Gender in Yoga: A Rebuttal

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Caste and Gender in Yoga: A Rebuttal
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The Global Popularity of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient, core Hindu discipline that is found as a prominent spiritual practice in other Dharmic traditions like Buddhism and Jainism as well. Practices resembling certain aspects to Yoga are found in other traditional cultures like Chinese and some African cultures. But the complete philosophy, theology, practice, and discipline leading to various spiritual and mundane goals of Yoga is available only in the Dharmic traditions, especially in Hinduism. The following components of the vast ‘Yoga Toolkit’[1] are very popular outside the traditional Dharmic civilizations today:

  • Hathayoga: Involving breath (and vital force – Prāṇa) regulation and various physical postures and exercises. This discipline is taught in the medieval manuals of Nātha Yoga and other traditions written in Sanskrit, Hindi and in other Indian/Nepalese vernaculars.
  • Meditation (Dhyāna): Disciplining, regulating, and calming the mind so that the ‘conscious self’ (ātmā) can shine in its own light and merge with the Divine Light. Scriptures discussing this path include the Yogasutras, Yoga Upanishads, Gita, Tirumantiram (in Tamil) etc.
  • Mantra Yoga: Listening to music that aids in meditation, chanting spiritual hymns individually or in groups etc., are some practices that are also associated with Yoga. Scriptures of Hathayoga, Nātha Yoga, the Purāṇas and many others teach this discipline in various ways.

Some western practitioners reduce the entire system of Yoga to one or more of these three practices. But for many others, these popular forms of Yoga provide an entry into the multi-winged mansion of Yoga and Hinduism. Love it or hate it – Yoga has now stuck deep roots in many parts of the world outside its place of origin (the Indian Subcontinent). In the United States alone, an estimated 25-30 million individuals practice Yoga in some form.  Numerous public schools here teach it to students to help them overcome stress and anxiety and enhance their learning abilities. Meditation is being used a tool to alleviate certain medical symptoms. There are thousands of Yoga studios across the United States. The Yoga industry today nets a few billion dollars every year.

Hinduism is an open-source tradition and as a Hindu, I have no issue with non-Hindus benefitting from what our tradition has to offer. What many Hindus resent is the commercialization of an ancient spiritual tradition discovered by our Sages several millennia ago for the benefit of all humanity. Secondarily, it often saddens us when a universal spiritual discipline is reduced to the practice of physical exercises.

The Attack on Yoga

But there is a third phenomenon as well, which is often inspired by malice. The obviously Hindu roots and branches of Yoga (along with its popularity) have predictably created some anxiety in the minds of those who lack an appreciation of diversity or the ability and willingness to learn from others with humility. Often coupled with Hindumisia[2] and Hinduphobia, this anxiety has manifested in many different ways-

  • Some religious leaders want their followers to reject Yoga because it is associated with the ‘false’ and ‘evil’ religion of Hinduism. Many Churches and Islamic institutions therefore exhort their adherents to steer clear of Yogic practices and oppose its introduction in public schools despite its well-known benefits.
  • Some have appropriated Yoga and have come up with mutants like ‘Christian Yoga’, ‘Jewish Yoga’ and ‘Islamic Yoga’. Others, like some teachers of the 3HO Sikh organization even claim that it was invented by the Sikh Guru Nanak (b. 1469 CE).[3]
  • Some even deny that Yoga is Hindu, or they treat it as an independent tradition having no Hindu connections. In this category are included New Age Gurus of Hindu origin like Deepak Chopra.[4]
  • Some scholars allege that many of the postures (āsanas) have no basis in the Hindu Yoga tradition and are derived from European physical exercise regimes of the 19th century.[5] This theory, recently revived by Mark Singleton, was immediately latched upon by detractors of Hinduism (like India’s Marxist historians) but has been disowned by Singleton himself. Textual and iconographic evidence of dozens of traditional Yogic postures predating British rule in India has been compiled in recent years.
  • A more recent smear tactic is to allege that Yoga is associated with patriarchy and ‘upper-caste’ hegemony. This is a standard trope used in woke circles to anything and everything associated with Hinduism, including Indian cuisine.

A recent article[6] written by a self-declared member of an Eelam[7] Tamizh  ‘upper caste Vellalar’ family of Sri Lanka that had converted to Christianity claims that Yoga is interlinked with Brahmanical oppression, upper-caste hegemony, systematic marginalization of lower castes, etc. Before we dissect the claims by the author, it would be better to explore the role of gender and ‘caste’ in Hindu Yoga.

Yoga and Gender

Are non-males entitled to practice Yoga, like males?[8] The answer from the Hindu sacred literature is in the affirmative. In later times, some Yoga practitioners believed that women are unfit for Yoga due to their anatomy. However, this belief, peculiar to Hatha Yoga, has no basis in ancient scriptures or traditions. Even the texts of Hatha Yoga do not prohibit women from practicing Yoga. In some of these texts like Hathayogapradīpikā, male practitioners of Yoga are asked to avoid women, but the same texts also clarify that this prohibition is only for initial stages where male practitioners can get distracted by the attraction for women. Once the Yogī masters his senses and mind, he no longer needs to observe this restriction. The Yogashāstra of Dattātreya (verses 307-309)[9] specifically mentions that the Vajroli can be performed both by women as well as men with their mutual cooperation provided they pay no attention to the gender of their helper. The Yogasutras of Patanjali or its Vyāsabhāshya commentary have no statement to the effect that Yoga is suitable only for men.

The Yoga Yajnavalkya exists in two different versions of which one deals specifically with Ashtāṇga Yoga[10] whereas the other is similar to Smriti[11] scriptures and lays great emphasis on the incorporation of Om and Gāyatri Mantra within the practice of Yoga. The former is in the form of a discourse of Rishi Yājnavalkya to his wife Gārgī. In this text, the Rishi praises his wife as the best among the knowers of Brahman (verse 1.10) and reveals the most secret part of his teaching to her alone, after all the other Rishis have left them. The Yoga Rahasya attributed to Shri Nāthamuni[12] devotes considerable attention to how women, and especially pregnant women, can practice Yoga. The traditions of Tantra, Kashmir Shaivism and others have numerous scriptures with the Devi as the student or the teacher of Yogic principles.

In other scriptures too, women are shown as adept at Yogic practices. In the Ramayana, Queen Kaushalyā is described as practicing Prāṇāyāma. And it was a Yogini named Svayamaprabhā who used her Yogic powers to transport the Vānaras to the southern shore of India, from where Hanuman was able to leap to Lanka and locate Devi Sita. In the Mahābhārata, Sulabhā used the Yogic feat of parakāyāpravesha to place her own ātman inside the body of King Janaka. Within the Nātha Yoga tradition, one reads of Yoginīs. Sant Jñāneshvara (13th century CE) and all his siblings including sister Muktābāī were adepts in Nāthayoga. The compositions of the Kashmiri woman saint Lalleshvari (14th cent. CE) reveal her deep knowledge of Yogic practices.[13]

In fact, going even further back in time, one can find several explicit proclamations hat Yoga is open to all. We give some examples below from the Mahābhārata[14]

Whether one belongs to a low social class, or whether one is a woman following the path of Dharma, anyone who practices Yoga attain the Supreme Goal. Mahābhārata 12.240.37

All have a right to practice austerity, include one of a low varṇa. But he should have conquered his senses, and his mind. Austerity takes one forward on the road to heaven. Mahābhārata 12.295.14

In the Anugita,[15] Krishna too advocates that meditation is open to all:

By seeking recourse to this Dharma [of Yoga], women, Vaishyas, Shudras and even those born in sinful wombs attain to this Supreme State. Anugita 4.61

Then what to say of the learned Brahmanas and Kshatriyas who are always engrossed in doing their Dharma and practice the means to attain Brahman. Anugita 4.62

Note that these two verses occur as Bhagavad Gita 9.32-33 with some variants and declare that the path of Bhakti (devotion to the Divine) is open to all. In the Anugita, these verses likewise open the path of meditation/Yoga to all human beings. The intention of Krishna is not to demean women, Shūdras and Vaiṣhyas, etc. Rather, he acknowledges their existing social disadvantages and yet declares that from the spiritual perspective of Bhakti and Yoga, they are all equal.

The Hindu scriptural injunctions entitling women to practice Yoga were not mere theory. Medieval sculptures showing women in different Yogic postures are quite common.[16] Another set of data comes from classical Hindu dances. Many poses from these dances are clearly linked to Yoga traditions.[17] Performance of these dance forms by women thereby includes their participation in Yoga indirectly. And today, a simple google search will give information on numerous Hindu women who are teachers of Yoga.

Yoga and ‘Caste’[18]

Like all spiritual disciplines, the path of Yoga is also open equally to all human beings, irrespective of their caste. Not even a single word in the Yogasūtra or its commentary makes it as a criterion for eligibility to practice Yoga. The verses from the Mahābhārata and the Anugītā quoted above too should make this amply clear.

In her article, the author harps on a single issue that Yoga in the west derives from the school of B K S Iyengar and T Krishnamacharya, who were both from Brahmana descent. What she fails to mention is their spiritual lineage – the Shri Vaiṣhṇava tradition. In that tradition, Nāthamuni (823-951 CE) is said to have written the Yogarahasya which was list but is said to have been recovered miraculously by Krishnamachari in modern times. There is no stricture against any Varṇa-Jāti or gender for eligibility to practice Yoga. In fact, this Yoga Rahasya attributed to Shri Nāthamuni, the founder of this tradition, even devotes considerable attention to how women, and especially pregnant women, can practice Yoga. The Shrivaishnava cannon is crowned by the Thiruvāyamoḷi of a Nammaḷvar — called the Draviḍa Veda. He was a Thevar (Shūdra) and his 1000 hymns are called the Samaveda in Tamil. When we visit temples of this tradition, the Pandit places on our head a crown representing Nammaḷvar. And the author mentions that she is of upper caste Christian Tamizh Eelam descent, she might well have remembered that the greatest Tamil classic on Yoga, a part of the Nayanmār Shaivite Hindu sacred cannon, is the Tirumantiram,[19] authored by Tirumular – a low caste cowherd. Traditions associated with him clearly mention that a Brahmana saint was considered unfit to teach the doctrines of Yoga because his language would have been too scholarly for the common man’s understanding. Therefore, he was asked to abandon his own body and animate instead that of a cowherd who had died recently so that he became fit to instruct the laity in Yoga in a simple language. This splendid scripture of Yoga in Tamil has approximately 3000 verses.

In fact, Yoga as a spiritual discipline, along with Bhakti, is extremely amenable to practice by the underprivileged sections of the society. Yoga seeks the divine within oneself. It needs no riches, has no pre-requisites of linguistic proficiency, social class, gender, scholarship and so on. All one needs is a true Guru and sincerity in following this path. Little wonder then that many exemplar Yogis have emerged from these sections of the Hindu society. In early medieval period, the strongest proponents of Yoga were Natha Yogis. Many of their nine primary teachers (Navnāth) and their prominent followers were Shudras or from communities that would be called Dalits today — Jālandharnāth, Charpatnāth, or even their founder Matysendranāth (considered a fisherman by some). In fact, there are Muslim practitioners of Nātha Yoga in India and Pakistan today.[20] This is relevant  because the author of the article mentions her Muslim friend who was also apparently mistreated at a Yoga center. The same might be said of the social origins of numerous Siddhars, closely associated with the Yoga traditions, in Tamil speaking areas of India. Following the Nātha Yogīs, the Nirguṇa Bhakti Sants, many of whom did not belong to  upper-caste Hindu families, also adopted elements of Hathayoga and Aṣhtāṇga Yoga. These Sants include Kabīr, Dādū, Jagjīvan Dās, Bhikhā, Dariyā Sāhib and many others.[21]

A scholar, Dr. Nagaraj Paturi, also noted (in a private discussion list):

“The other important point is that it is through Yoga-based movements that mystic Yogis hailing mostly from non-Brahmin, from castes that are seen to be treated lower in social hierarchy, asserted their right to spiritual practice rebelling against ritualism and ritualism based caste-supremacist tendencies. By ritualism, I don’t mean antagonism towards rituals. I am giving the name ‘ritualism’ to the attitude of arguing for the efficacy of ritual action with zero involvement of the spirit on the part of the ritual-actor/ritual practitioner. I am using this coinage of mine not to argue against that approach, but to analyze what was being opposed by the Yoga-movement leaders of pre-modern India.

Mystical songs called Tattvaalu /Tattvam songs in Telugu are all Yoga songs, majority of them articulating Yogic experiences, methods, and ideas in a cryptic / an encrypted language and a significant portion of them attacking ritualism and ritualism-based, caste-supremacist and gender-supremacist claims. Veerabramham, Vemana etc., in Telugu, are examples for such Yoga-movement leaders. Vemana threw his thoughts in verse. Brahmam and his disciples sang their ideas / experiences through songs. There are parallels to this in almost all regions of India.”

In this regard, a couple of relevant articles by Dr. Paturi available online might be referred to.[22]

In more recent times, the great Hindu Swami Vivekananda is credited by some for having brought Yoga to West. The Swami was of the Kāyastha caste, considered Shūdra in most parts of India but often as Kshastriyas in Bengal. So was Swami Paramahansa Yoganada (born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh) whose ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ is an all-time classic. Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, the teacher of Transcendental Meditation was also a non-Brahmana. To therefore harp on the ‘Brahmanical’ association of Yoga lineages in the United States is contradicted by facts.

Deconstructing Prinita Thevarajah

Thevarajah’s article is abundantly laden with uninformed and irrelevant cut-and-paste assertions from other Hinduphobic writings and is devoid of relevant data. In the entire article, the author uses a grand total of one data point – her own experience, which is filtered through a woke lens without any relationship to the raw data. That single data point is contradicted by my own experience where non-Brahmana teachers instruct Brahmana students at my own local temple in Yoga and Meditation. In her provocative article, the shortest, and the only section devoted to the actual topic comprises of a mere two paragraphs and presents no data except claiming that Yoga uses terminology like “Om” and “Pranayama” which are from Sanskrit that was “not accessible to Dalits”. Ironically, some scholars have argued that “Om” was a Dravidian-origin word.[23] To claim that Dalits could not utter “Om” is so absurd that it does not merit futation. Likewise, as mentioned above, there was no dearth of Yogic terminology in languages other than Sanskrit – the example of Tirumantiram in the author’s mother tongue Tirumantiram has been provided above. Another clichéd and patently false claim she makes by quoting a Hinduphobic left/Marxist magazine named “Caravan” is that “In 2019, the mammoth victory of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) confirmed the country’s ongoing values of fascism, patriarchy, and caste”. Perhaps she is unaware that Narendra Modi is from the Shūdra caste and his government nominated a Dalit — Shri Ram Nath Kovind — as the President of India. Under Modi, India saw its first woman Finance Minister and the first woman Defense Minister.

Prinita’s ignorance is also exhibited from her quoting Navi Gill, whom she refers to as a member of a marginalized community from India. As far as one can see, “Gill” is a Jatt surname – a community that is dominant among Sikhs, and owners of more than 90 percent of agricultural land in the Punjab, and the controller of Sikh institutions. In fact, the reverse is the truth, that is, Jatts like Gills have completely marginalized low-caste Sikhs in their areas. The Jatt Sikhs have considered themselves as superior to Sikhs of all other Varṇas and Jātis for centuries, and actively look down upon Tarkhān (carpenter), Khatri, Arora, and other Sikhs. Inter-caste marriage among Sikhs is rare,[24] with a Jatt Sikh marrying only other Jatt Sikhs although they will take wives from lower castes too especially if they have multiple wives.

In fact, assertions that Hindu traditions are “Brahmanical” are demeaning to the 95 percent non-Brahmana Hindus like me because they imply that all of us are perpetually fools for having been tricked by Brahmanas for thousands of years into becoming their slaves. The Brahmanas were codifiers and upholders of Hindu traditions that originated in all the sections of our Dharmic community. As an example, the Bhagavad Gita has four speakers of whom none is a Brahmana. The codifier of this most popular Hindu scripture, Rishi Veda Vyasa, was born to a fisherwoman and Rishi Parashar, who himself was of mixed parentage. If Hinduism were purely Brahminical in origin, it could have never emerged as the third largest global faith community despite having no tradition of religious wars and forcible conversions. Our spiritual, religious, military, economic and service leadership has historically emerged from all sections of the Hindu society. In fact, real target of haters like the author is not Brahmanas, but Hindus per se. I think that instead of indulging in Hindumisia, she might well research how her forefathers in Sri Lanka converted into the faith of European colonialists who brought nothing much except temple destruction, forcible conversions, and other forms of persecutions upon Tamil Hindus of The Emerald Island.

[1] There are many varieties of Yoga within the Hindu tradition. The Bhagavad Gita itself teaches about four: Jñāna Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Dhyāna Yoga. Note that all varieties of Yoga are open to all human beings.

[2] Hindumisia is active hatred for Hindus. It is linked to Hinduphobia, which is more passive.

[3] I know a personal example where a 3HO teacher claimed in her class that Yoga was invented by Guru Nanak. Ironically, the Guru had supposedly written a Yogic text named ‘Prāṇ Sangalī’ which was rejected as spurious by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun while compiling the Sikh scripture. Today, conflated versions of the text attributed to Guru Nanak are available in print.

[4] The prestigious Yoga Journal does not even hint at the Hindu origin and connection of Yoga. The dirty ‘H’ word is mentioned only in negative contexts in some of their publications. For a critical look at this category of dishonesty, refer to the Hindu American Foundation’s online resource at https://www.hinduamerican.org/projects/hindu-roots-of-yoga

[5] For a rebuttal of this view, see Swaminathan Venkatraman;s “The Audacity of Ignorance” at https://openthemagazine.com/features/world/the-audacity-of-ignorance/

[6] “How Casteism Manifests in Yoga and Why It’s a Problem” by Prinita Thevarajaj published at https://www.byrdie.com/casteism-in-yoga-5119378

[7] The secessionist movement for an independent Tamil homeland called Eelam carved out of Sri Lanka was marked with terrible acts of terrorism including suicide bombings and beheadings. Although the movement for Eelam was apparently derived from a linguistic nationalism, its leadership was predominantly Christian Tamil. Some of their overseas organizations like FeTNA was indicted in the United States for raising funds for terror activities in Sri Lanka.

[8] Note that in addition to male and female genders, Hindu scriptures recognize the existence of other genders as well. These are referred to as ‘the third’ (category). Hindu scriptures are very clear that Divine grace is available equally to the ‘third’ gender(s) as well. For example, a text of the Yajurveda declares that the same Divine conscious exists within everyone – “I am all, whether eunuchs, men or women.” Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 1.11.10

[9] Yoga Śāstra of Dattātreya (1985), Ed. by B M Awasthi and Translated by Amita Sharma. Swami Keshawananda Yoga Institute: Delhi

[10] Yoga Yājñavalkya translated by A G Mohan and Ganesh Mohan, Svastha Yoga Pte Ltd (2013)

[11] Bṛhadyogiyājñavalkyasmṛti, English translation by M L Gharote and V A Bedekar (2010), Kaivalyadhama S M Y M Samiti: Pune

[12] The text is said to have been lost soon after its composition but miraculously recovered by Yogacharya Krishnamacharya in recent times. For its printed edition and translation, I consulted-

Śrī Nāthamuni’s Yogarahasya (1998). Presented by Yogācārya T Krishnamacharya and translated by T K V Desikachar. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram: Chennai

[13] I referred to Lalleshwari (1981), Rendered by Swami Muktananda, Gurudeva Siddha Peetha: Ganeshpuri

[14] The verse number is per the vulgate text published by the Gita Press of Gorakhpur.

[15] This text is another Gita of Shri Krishna and occurs in the Āshvamedhika Parva of the Mahabhārata.

[16] One can look at numerous pictures of these statues in Rekha Rao (2017), Yoga in Indian Temple Sculptures – a New Perspective.  [ISBN 9781549967245].

[17] See Roxanne Kamayani Gupta (2000), A Yoga of Indian Classical Dance, Inner Traditions: Rochester (Vermont).

[18] The term ‘caste’ is problematic and has been used here only because of its popularity and identifiability. The proper terms applicable to the Hindu society are Varṇa, Jāti and Gotra representing three of the many different ways for classifying humans.

[19] The English translation of this Tamil Yoga classic is available online at https://archive.org/details/tirumantiramshivayasubramanya_799_Y

[20] They are referred to by terms like Jogī, Rāval and Qalandar etc. In Pakistan, they are found in the vicinity of Sufi and old Nathayogi Hindu shrines. In Thar Parkar and Cholistan area of Pakistan, however, Hindu Yogis are more common.

[21] For an overview of Yoga in the Nirguṇa Sant traditions, one could refer to (in passim) the following classical work: Pitambar Datta Barthwal (1936), The Nirguna School of Hindi Poetry. Indian Books Shop: Benares

[22] Tattvams: gender and Super-gender, International Seminar on “Gender and Genre in Indian Folklore”, at the Center for Folk Culture Studies, University of Hyderabad 1992

https://www.academia.edu/8614202/Tattvams_gender_and_Super_gender_International_Seminar_on_Gender_and_Genre_in_Indian_Folklore_at_the_Center_for_Folk_Culture_Studies_University_of_Hyderabad_1992

Tattvams: Social Protest in the mystic lyrics”, National Seminar as part of SAP, History Dept. University of Hyderabad 1994

https://www.academia.edu/8614222/Tattvams_Social_Protest_in_the_mystic_lyrics_National_Seminar_as_part_of_SAP_History_Dept_University_of_Hyderabad_1994

[23] Asko Parpola (1981), “On the Primary Meaning and Etymology of the Sacred Syllable Om” Pages 195-213 in Proceedings of the Nordic South Asia Conference Held in Helsinki, June 10-12, 1980, Studia Orientalia vol. 50

[24] Indera Paul Singh (2015) conducted a study in a Sikh village close to Tarn Taran – the cradle of Sikhism, and discovered widespread casteism among the Sikhs with Jatts considering everyone else inferior to them.

See Singh, Indera Paul. Caste in Sikh Village. Pages 51-70 in Grewal, J S (Ed). 2015. Sikhism and Indian Society. Indian Institute of Advance Study: Shimla

Many other studies with similar conclusions may be cited but reviewing casteism in other religions is outside the scope of this article.

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Vishal Agarwal

Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism.