Anyone wanting to get beyond the initial stereotyped responses to the question “Who owns Yoga” should take the time to read an essay by Pankaj Mishra that appeared six years ago: The Invention of Hindu. For an example of the latest twist in the debate, check out Who Owns Yoga? Not Bikram! (I think that Ramesh Bjonnes actually read the Mishra article that I am pointing to, though he does not cite it specifically). Or Think Body Electric’s really thoughtful Yoga, Hinduism, and Contemporary American Culture. Or go back even further back in time: Take Yoga Back! What? Who? Huh? when the sh*t started hitting the fan.
Mishra is useful because he is not talking in the “Yoga in America” context, which distorts the fundamental question of what is Hinduism by inserting the issue of American appropriation of yoga? He actually addresses current affairs in India, nationalistic Hinduism, caste and class, religion and race. He is a shrewd, articulate decryptographer that deciphers the cultural and social codes that shroud the historical roots of Hinduism’s emergence. He sees it as a political manifestation. He states:
Hinduism is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernisers.
Why is it important to understand the “extraordinary makeover undergone by Hinduism since the nineteenth century when India first confronted the West, and its universalist ideologies of nationalism and progress?” Because the modern phenomenon of hatha yoga as practiced in the Western world rose out of that transformation. Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar and other yoga masters were among the “modernizers.” Mark Singleton’s book states it quite clearly.
Reading the essay helped me understand the question of “who owns yoga” as much as any other piece I’ve read. I should tip my hat to Alan Little who originally drew my attention to the article.
Mishra has also written an excellent book about the Buddha: An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Mihra’s personal Columbia University page, NY Review of Books bio and articles, and personal site should provide sufficient references to prove that he’s a reputable Hindu writer, not some American blogger quoting his/her first yoga teacher saying that yoga is a practice of 5,000 years.
Because the Mishra article now resides in Archive.org, I am not sure that how likely it will remain available; I was unable to find it on the Axess site.. I have also made a PDF copy (The Invention of Hindu by Pankaj Mishra) of it for anyone wanting to save it for future reference.