Kaminoff and Frawley on Yoga and Hinduism


July 5, 1998

This is a very interesting exchange that occurred between myself and David Frawley when I raised the question of the distinction between Yoga and Hinduism.

The exchange opens with David responding to a list member who asked for his opinion about my suggestion that Yoga and Hinduism are separate systems.

From: David Frawley

Leslie Kaminoff is misinformed and uses terms improperly, though there is a point to what he says.

He identifies Hinduism with the Vedanta darshana, one of the six systems of Vedic thought, and says that Yoga is a separate Darshana. The Vedantic darshana, more correctly the Uttara Mimamsa based on Badarayana Brahma Sutras has some differences with the Yoga darshana of Patanjali. However Hinduism is not reducible to any of these darshanas and includes them all. All six darshanas accept the authority of the Vedas and many Hindu teachings developed later than these six systems.

No one becomes a non-Hindu by practicing Yoga. All Hindu traditions have some form of Yoga as asana, mantra, pranayama and meditation. Yoga itself arises through the Hindu tradition in the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita and Mahabharata long before Patanjali. In fact it could argued that Yoga is the essence or characteristic of all Hindu teachings, Yoga meaning not just asana but pranayama, mantra and meditation.

Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, or the universal or eternal set of Dharmas is beyond sectarian divisions and recognizes the existence of many paths.

You could ask Georg Feuerstein his views as well (or examine his books) and some Hindus also.

Best Wishes,

David Frawley

Leslie replies:

Hi David.

Thank you for your enlightening contribution to this dialogue. The key point that I am trying to make here is that just because two things may have a relationship to each other (eg: Yoga and Hinduism) that does not make them identical to each other. Am I misinformed and using terms improperly when I identify Yoga (Patanjali) as a distinct Darshana with it’s own unique mataphysics? Is it accurate to use the term Hinduism as if it referred to a single religion that is synonymous with Yoga?

I certainly am saddened by the the tendency to view Yoga merely as a form of exercise and thus divorce it from it’s rich spiritual tradition. All I am saying is let’s not go overboard in the other direction, and in the name of defending Yoga’s spirit attack those who choose to practice and teach it without also being Hindus.

Incidentally, if I am truly misinformed about this issue, we had better take it up with Desikachar so we can figure it out once and for all.

Take care,

Leslie

From: David

Dear Leslie,

Thanks for the reply. Much depends upon definition and semantics.

If we identify Yoga with the Yoga Darshana, whose chief, but not original or only text is the Yoga Sutras, we are placing it among the six schools of Vedic philosophy. As schools of Vedic philosophy we cannot claim they are not Hindu. After all Patanjali describes Ishvara as the original guru identified with OM – and the source of the Vedas in the commentary of Vyasa. To say Yoga Darshana is not Hindu would be like saying a Biblical based philosophy is not Jewish or Christian.

Yoga Darshana does not have its unique metaphysics. It relies on Samkhya for its cosmic principles (tattva), and Samkhya and all its principles can be found in the Upanishads (for example Katha and Prashna) and Mahabharata (Gita and Moksha Dharma Parva) long before Patanjali. Yoga has its own minor variation of Samkhya and Upanishadic metaphysics, to be sure, but there are many such varient schools.

As the Vedanta (more correctly Uttara Mimamsa) Darshana is another one of the six Vedic schools, we have to place any disagreements between it and the Yoga Darshana within the greater field of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma.There are also many disagreements both within the different Darshanas, like the many arguments between Dvaita and Advaita Vedanta. That the Yoga Darshana has its uniqueness does not place it outside of Vedas or Hinduism any more than the specialities of the other Darshanas makes them non-Hindu. The Purva Mimamsa system, for example, also is not theistic and is refuted by Vedantic Darshanas for this reason as is Samkhya. There are also many schools of Vedic and Hindu thought outside the six darshanas.

According to my view one does not have to be a Hindu to practice Yoga even up to Samadhi. However, if one does not accept certain views like karma and rebirth, Moksha and Self-realization, which are inherent in the Hindu tradition, then much of the deeper aspect of Yoga cannot be accessed.

I think we have to respect that many Hindus are offended by the non-spiritual and commercial way that Westerners use Yoga, and that they see exploitation of their traditions in this regard. Probably Deshikar falls to some degree in this category as well. Perhaps some Hindus have overreacted but clearly the lack of connection with the spiritual traditions behind Yoga is a real problem. Those who claim to teach Yoga, unless they want to make it clear that they are only asana teachers, should have some sense of what Yoga really is.

Yoga clearly was meant to be a religious practice in the sense that its goal is Self-realization or God-realization, transcendence of rebirth and gaining of immortality. While Yoga is not a dogma or belief system like most Western religions, to say that Yoga is not religious is simply not true, if we are referring to the Yoga Darshana. Yoga did arise as one of the schools of Hinduism, though we can take it beyond the bounds of that religion as long as we remain true to its spiritual principles.

If we take the term Yoga in a more general sense than the Yoga Darshana, we will find Yoga practices of asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation employed in all Hindu traditions of karma, bhakti and jnana yoga, as well as tantra and in all schools of Vedanta, which almost universally follow an ashtanga model. Many of these practices can be found in other Indic or Dharmic traditions like the Buddhist and the Jain. Several have parallels in mystical and shamanic traditions all over the world.

I hope this clears things up. Perhaps Deshikachar could be encouraged to address this issue directly. I am sure he could enlighten us on many points.

Best Wishes,

David

From: Leslie

Dear David,

Thank you for your lucid, complete and thought-provoking response. As I am currently composing some correspondence to Desikachar (next month marks the tenth anniversary of our association), I would be happy (with your permission) to forward your comments to him and ask if he has anything to say.
Let me know.

Leslie

P.S. I pulled this off the AOL yoga board. It is one of your Hindu pals responding to a posting. Is his attitude the practical consequence of your views regarding the inseparability of Yoga and Hinduism? I’m curious to know your response.

Hello,
I want to take up yoga but i’m not sure about the “spirituall” aspect of it. I’m a christian and a baptist and don’t really believe in hinduism. I really want to meditate and relax my body and mind and soul. And I’m also wondering if there are any home videos I can buy, and what you recommend? thank you very much! 🙂

Kella

Swami Param responds:

With all due respect, (Hatha) Yoga is, then, not for you. To believe in the truths of the spiritual disciplines that are Yoga is to believe in Hinduism–they are one and the same.

From: David

Thanks for the email. I don’t think I would answer the query the same way.

I would probably say something like:

“If you are really worried about protecting your religious beliefs you should probably avoid yoga, except for the physical exercise aspect of it, which is only a small part of the entire system. The Yoga tradition is based upon the view that truth is not limited to any savior or scripture and holds that the goal of life cannot be gained by mere belief or adherence to a creed. It comes from a tradition that teaches karma, rebirth and Self-realization, ideas that most Baptists are quite opposed to.”

A note to you Leslie:

Western missionaries, including Baptists are still quite active in India and would put an end to Yoga in its own country if they could. Hindus in America are routinely under seige by such groups, who are now even faking an interest in yoga as a means of getting in to promote their conversion agendas. I would rather see Hindus being more assertive than passively letting themselves get run over, which has more been their tendency.

From: Leslie

Dear David

Well, all I can say is that I am very happy to an Atheist. My commitment to Yoga remains very clear and doesn’t get tangled up in religious turf wars.

I’ve attatched a Word document that contains an interview I did with Desikachar in India in 1992. Towards the beginning, you will find his comments on the separation of Yoga and Hinduism. Let me know what you think.

Leslie

From: David

Dear Leslie,

Thanks for the attachment and Deshikachar’s responses. It explains a lot about where your ideas come from and makes the whole issue clear to me.

He has his points but I would not agree with him on many things, nor, do I think, would most teachers from India. I also wonder if he still subscribes to these views.

He does appear to recognize that both Yoga and Vedanta are Vedic systems, which is to make them part of Hinduism in most peoples eyes.

Certainly atheists or agnostics can use Yoga to some degree but that is not to say that Yoga has no concern for religion. Bhaktas can also use it.

What is most confusing about his presentation is that he reduces Yoga to Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are the main text of Yoga Darshana but not the only, the first or the last, and much that Patanjali mentions briefly in the short Sutra style is explained in great detail elsewhere. If we reduce Yoga to a few cryptic sutras that are often little more than subject headings, we will take away most of the Yoga tradition.

Hiranyagarbha, not Patanjali is the traditional source of the Yoga Darshana. Patajanali is just a compiler at a later period, just as Ishvara Krishna (not Krishna of the Gita) compiled the Samkhya Karika, the main text on Samkhya, at a much later period than its originator Kapila.

Yoga and its terms and practices is commonly mentioned in prePatanjali literature of the Upanishads, Mahabharata and other texts. There are many other Yoga Shastras as well, like the Brihad Yogi Yajnavalkya Smriti or Vasistha Samhita that are very old also. There are also various commentaries on Patanjali that explain much. The joint study of Samkhya and Yoga is also very ancient and even the Gita mentions them as a pair. So Deshikachar’s reduction of Yoga to Yoga Sutras seems to be cutting off Yoga from its greater context and tradition.

Like Ahamkara. The Sutras do not mention Ahamkara but they mention Abhimana, a synonymn, and the commentaries like Vyasa bring in Samkhya and its terms. The Brahma Sutras does not mention all the terms of Vedanta either but these are not rejected because the cryptic short hand Sutras have not spelled them all out! Patanjali defines avidya as the confusion of the Self and the not-Self. This is also a traditional definition for ahamkara. Of course the Western term ego has its own connotations which are not exactly the same as ahamkara or abhimana either, but we are compelled to use English equivalents.

Ishvara in the Yoga Sutras is identified with OM which commonly in the Vedas, Gita and Upanishads is said to be the origin of everything. I don’t see how Patanjali didn’t know this!

In any case Deshikachar does appear to have a lot of knowledge about Yoga but from my opinion, whatever it is worth, he also seems to have rather significant gaps in understanding of his own tradition that I find quite surprising, though not unique, particularly among Western educated Hindus. His Yoga Sutras commentary (or rather adaptation) was also quite disappointing but I had hoped it reflected more his students than himself.

To understand Yoga one must study the Yoga tradition and its relates darshanas and background. To reduce it to Patanjali and take him out of context is bound to breed errors.

But Yoga (and Hinduism) is a pluralistic tradition and doesn’t require that we all agree or all teachers teach the same thing. I am sure my opinions would not be accepted by everyone either.

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3 comments on “Kaminoff and Frawley on Yoga and Hinduism

  1. Thank you both for a very enlightening discussion. I have a number of comments/questions regarding the crucial issues raised here:

    1)David Frawley makes mention of Georg Feuerstein and his scholarly works. On my reading, Feuerstein clearly disagrees with David Frawley’s understandng of the relationship of yoga to Hinduism. In his essay “Is Yoga a Religion?”, Feuerstein clearly states his view that yoga, while obviously using a good deal of Hindu imagery/cosmology, is unquestionably separable from Hinduism as a religion – and this holds even when we understand Hinduism in the expanded sense of Sanatana Dharma. In addition, in “The Yoga Tradition”, Feuerstein has separate discussions of “Sikh Yoga”, “Jain Yoga” and “Buddhist Yoga” – and he by no means indicates that these are “misguided” or “really” doing Hinduism. Unless I totally misread him, Feuerstein’s view seems to be that yoga is a “pan-Indian” spiritual technology, adoptable to other spiritual/cultural traditions. Feuerstein does not at all seem to be writing for “fellow-travellers” – his views on the non-sectarian nature of yoga seem to me to be quite sincere.

    2) A question – my understanding was that Hatha Yoga was/is rooted in medieval Tantra, and that the latter was, at least implicitly, a repudiation of the Vedic tradition. Is this inaccurate? If indeed, Hatha Yoga is based on Tantra, not the Vedic tradition, then the argument that Yoga (or at least Hatha Yoga) is “really” Hindu because it is based on the Vedas becomes problematic.

    3) Finally, a comment on contemporary Hatha yoga. The real question for me is – can a set of practices such as Hatha Yoga be set off/cut off from their cultural and sectarian origins, and presented to a wider public as a generic spirtual practice? David Frawley seems to think not; I respectfully disagree. I would also add a personal note here; I am Jewish and a (admittedly imperfect) pratitioner of Judaism, and the same sort of debate is currently going on within Judaism. Here, the qustion is – can Kabbalah be separated
    from the Jewish tradition from which it sprang, and become a usuable set of spiritual practices for a wider public? I would argue in the affirmative (though this should in no way be taken as an endorsement of the Kabbalah Center).

    Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. Thanks again for the enlightening discussion.

  2. To be ignorant is not a such a bad thing it seems to me, especially as I read the dialogue between Leslie and Mr. Frawley.

    Being born and raised in India and coming from a family in which one parent practised Bhakti yoga exclusively and the other parent an atheist whose only religion was honesty and doing things right (whatever the definition is), I had mixed feelings. The confusion of why is my mother so desperate for me to be religious and the awe looking at the strength an atheist has and not knowing where it came from.

    So with that background, my introduction to yoga was as a discipline I adopted at a time when I needed to cling to something. My teacher who taught Hatha yoga made it easy for me to keep it from becoming my pooja which I resisted for a while as my rebellion towards my mother’s obsession with God and the evidence in front of my eyes that being an atheist is not going to outcast me as long as I am a good person and practise honesty. 20 years later, yoga has done much for me as long as I practised it but everytime I drift from it, I was lost. There was nothing else.

    Coming to Breathing Project during extraordinary circumstances in my life, I realize that there was a missing link in my practice. Call it Bhakti, call it reverence, I still am not sure. There is a difference in my practice and with all due respect to Leslie and Zack, it is not just the breath. It is where I am spiritually in my life at this time.

    With only my “street” knowledge of religion from growing up in India (and not really much exposure to anything except education in the most formal sense), I happen to agree with Mr. David Frawley. Yoga cannot be taken out of context. I am amazed at a lot of Americans (Westeners if you will) who can embrace Hinduism inspite of not being born into it. I am compelled to quote Sankaracharya “Gnana and Bhakti are one and the same”
    Thank you for inspiring me to be curious about my religion. I am looking forward to spending my life learning about it.

    p.s. No offense meant to anyone. I am just expressing my humble opinion. I am aware of how ignorant I am.

    Love Padma

  3. Hi Leslie. Thanks for posting this.

    It’s worth knowing that Abhimāna is also not in PYS. At least, not in the 4 versions I checked just now.

    Abhimata is. Different word. Different meaning.

    That seemed quite critical to David’s argument. I dare say TKV didn’t make the mistake David said.

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