by Uma Majmudar
Rudyard Kipling’s statement, “East is East and West is West, and the twain shall never meet,” falls flat on its face in the new millennium as the East and the West come together. We now share, contribute and learn from each other in ways that enrich and expand our cultural, intellectual, industrial-technological and spiritual boundaries.
For example, consider the stupendous Indian contribution to America in the fields of business, technology and computer sciences. In recent news, seven Indian-American entrepreneurs — all technology czars — have made Forbes magazine’s list of the super-rich! Similarly, ever since the 1960s, American fascination for the exotic Indian fashions, jewelry, dances, music, artifacts, and especially for India’s spiritual traditions — has kept increasing, reaching an all time high in the new millennium.
Ironically, however, as India is attracted to America for material things, science and technology, America is drawn to India for spiritual guidance, wisdom and inspiration!
American people today desperately seek spiritual solace, if not salvation. It is as if America is invaded by all kinds of Indian gurus, yogis, swamis, pandits and astrologers who come here for mainly two reasons: One, because most Americans are spiritually starved and psychologically stressed out; they cling, therefore, to anyone who promises them a quick-fix remedy for all their spiritual ailments. And second, most visiting Indian swamis also want to make a quick American buck by supplying what is in the highest demand! And isn’t America the richest country thriving on the principle of supply and demand?
According to Pravrajika Vrajaprana, even spirituality has become a commercial commodity in the contemporary American market. In her article, “Contemporary Spirituality and the Thinning of the Sacred: A Hindu Perspective” (Cross Currents- Spring/Summer 2000), she discusses how “the reality of contemporary life betrays an inner emptiness.” She further comments:
“Contemporary spirituality in the West betrays a lack of the grounded-ness that comes from a deeply centered spiritual life. While western contemporary spirituality parrots Hinduism’s most sacred precepts—karma, dharma, yoga, guru, nirvana—the talk remains just talk because there is no genuine spiritual effort to support it; like a Hollywood set design, the semblance of the sacred remains just what it is, a cheap façade.”
Yoga in particular seems to be for sale today in the American market. Yoga is popular, however, not as an art and science of spirituality, but as a “fun” thing to do for feeling good or for getting in touch with one’s body. I would not be surprised if I saw the President of the United States doing a headstand on the White House lawn!
Yoga can be a “fun thing to do,” but it can offer a whole lot more to those who want to be in touch with their deeper self, which is in alignment with one’s true divine nature. We need to understand that the word “yoga” is derived from two Sanskrit verb roots which have different but complementary meanings. One verb root is “Yujir” which means to “yoke” or “to join, to align, to harness, to bring together or to come into union.” Taken this way, yoga would mean bringing all aspects of one’s nature into proper alignment or balance. It is an integration of one’s whole personality, including the body, the mind—the thought processes both conscious and unconscious—and the spirit. The other meaning of “yoga” is “to focus,” or “to concentrate upon” one’s true self as in meditation or contemplation.
According to Patanjali, the founder of the yoga system, and the author of the Yoga Sutra, “Yoga is a methodical system for attaining perfection, for the establishment of the self in purity, through the control of different elements of the human nature —physical and psychological.” By controlling the mind (“chitta vritti nirodhaha”), one controls the body, and by bringing both in harmony, one meditates upon the Divine. Patanjali prescribed two ways to attain perfection, purity and self-equilibrium: one by practicing self-restraints (yama) such as abstinence from injury ( nonviolence), from theft, from greed and avariciousness, and from sexual/sensual indulgence. The other is by observing certain rules and moral principles (niyamas) such as cleanliness, study, contentment, purifying actions, and meditation upon the Supreme or the Brahman.
The above description is the original meaning of the word “yoga,” which seems to have been completely lost or bypassed in the contemporary commercialized western society. Instead, what is offered today is hatha yoga (hatha: violence or physical force), only a partial version of the original. Vrajaprana explains hatha yoga as “a technique of strengthening the body and increasing longevity—a mere preliminary practice to be followed by higher spiritual disciplines.” Indisputably, hatha yoga is a legitimate science of training the body—keeping it fit and strong not only for good health and good looks, but for using it as a means to an end of achieving total physical, mental and spiritual harmony.
Today, the hottest selling item in America is “Power Yoga” which specifically aims at muscle-building and increasing the body’s endurance by an inter-mixture of Eastern and Western techniques. This kind of undue and overt attention to the physical can be compensated only by an authentic yoga teacher, who is a master not only of the technique, but also of the underlying spiritual and psychological principles of yoga. A true teacher of yoga would incorporate other spiritual practices as well, such as meditation, pranayama (deep inhaling and exhaling of the breath), soothing music, sacred mantra-chanting and similar others; he or she would take time, however, to first explain to students the deeper spiritual import and the psychological benefits before showing them how to do various hatha yoga exercises.
Hatha yoga is masquerading today as true Yoga, the latter being a multi-petalled Indian lotus—beautiful, fragrant and sacred. The sacred, alas, has lost much of its value to become only a thing of big commercial value in the American market. As everything else, yoga is also for sale today! Let us hope and pray that authentic yoga is taught by an authentic teacher.
Uma Majmudar, a member of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, is the author of Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. She has taught courses in religion and philosophy at Emory University and is currently leading classes on the Bhagavad Gita at Spellman College. Uma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.