Hinduism is the oldest organized religion in the world, whose beginnings go back to the mists of Time. Unlike the other major religions of the world, however, it has no known founder. Neither does it have a single scripture, nor a set of teachings that are common to the thousands of different religious groups within its ambit. However, as is to be expected, there are fundamental points of convergence in all this diversity. Some of the common essentials in all forms of Hinduism may be said to be a belief in God, in the revelatory nature of the Vedas (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, which originated in ancient India), in the doctrine of Karma and transmigration, and in the concept of Moksha. Broadly speaking, Moksha means, on the one hand, release from the cycle of death of rebirth and, on the other, the attainment of a state of infinite bliss in which one realizes the whole universe as one’s self.
It is the Vedas that serve as a common link between Hindiusm and Yoga, which comprises one of the six main branches of Hindu philosophy. The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means ‘to yoke’ – a term that is taken to signify the union of the atma or individual soul with Paramatma, the universal soul. The goal of Yoga, therefore, is inseparable from the goals of all the variants of Hinduism. What is distinctive about Yoga is the way it incorporates bodily postures or asanas, control of the universal life-force or pranayama, and meditation, in its practices.
Is Yoga a Religion?
While there is an obvious historical link between Hinduism and Yoga, a large number of practitioners and followers of the latter dissociate it from religion per se, and view it as a practical system for attaining bodily, mental, and psychological well-being that is applicable to human beings in general, irrespective of their religious, philosophical, or cultural backgrounds. Some adherents of Yoga see religion as being more associated with factors like beliefs, culture, and rituals, while Yoga’s primary focus is on self-realization or a direct experience of life’s ultimate truth. The great 19th century Indian saint, Ramakrishna, compared religion to the husk of a grain, and a direct experience of the truth to its kernel. Both are necessary, he said, but to arrive at the grain, one had to first remove the husk.
Outside India, particularly over the last century, Yoga has often been popularly seen largely as a system of postures or asanas that promote physical and mental well-being. Thus, it has a wide following in Iran, a Muslim country, where it has been stripped of all features that may arouse controversy, and is referred to as a sport, and where the Iranian Yoga Federation functions as a sports organization. In the U.S.A., there are places where English equivalents have replaced the traditional Sanskrit names of Yoga postures, with the Surya Namaskar, which means ‘Salutation to the Sun’, being replaced by the term Opening Sequence, and words like Kangaroo and Washing Machine substituting for their Indian originals.
Yoga and the United Nations
Yoga as a secular practice received a great fillip recently when, on 11th December, 2014, the United Nations proclaimed the 21st of June as International Yoga Day, with its Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon observing that ‘the General Assembly has recognized the holistic benefits of this timeless practice and its inherent compatibility with the principles and values of the United Nations.’
Clearly, then, today there is Hindu Yoga, Buddhist Yoga, and Secular Yoga, and there is no reason why all these forms, along with others of their kind, if there are any, should not thrive together side by side in a troubled world where any unity for a good cause is welcome.