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Religious Foundations of Modern Yoga

The way Modern Yoga has been practiced throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is worlds apart from all the forms of classical Yoga.

Developments in modern Hinduism (adapted fromElizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. Print. p 37

Diagram above: Developments in modern Hinduism, adapted from Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. p 37 [click to ZOOM image]

How Modern Yoga developed was summarized by David Gordon White in his Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography (2014):

“In Calcutta and greater Bengal, the administrative and intellectual center of the British Raj [British government in India], Vedanta-inspired spirituality came to be increasingly embraced by India’s urban elites as a compelling Hindu response to the missionary colonialism of British Christendom. Here, the founders of the leading Indian reform movement known as the Brahmo Samaj fused Nondualist Vedanta with the various currents of Western humanism, spiritualism, esotericism, and social reform that had been introduced by Unitarian churchmen in the early nineteenth century. The leaders–Rammohan Roy (1774-1833), Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884)–drew upon Indian spirituality and Western esotericism to craft a hybrid Vedanta, known as Neo-Vedanta, whose modern-day adherents include several New Age movements and Hindu nationalist organizations as well as nearly every twentieth and twenty-first century Indian and Western yoga guru”1.

“Classical” Hinduism occurred before the eighteenth century–prior to the ‘Westernization’ of India. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British colonial power was centered in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal state. Native Hindus were barraged by imports of Western ideas. The “Classical” Hindu era included all types of yoga, and not just the ‘classical’ yoga attributed to Patanjali that is practiced today in the West. Most Westerners and yoga practitioners don’t know the history of modern yoga nor it’s religious foundations.

In British India, especially in Bengal, cross-fertilization occurred between Hinduism and Western esotericism. Christian Missionaries proselytized Hindus with Western-Christian ideals. Unitarian churchmen were particularly influential among the Bengali intelligentsia (Hindu upper classes). Rammohan Roy was an eighteenth century affluent Bengali, Hindu reformer, and a Unitarian who published a book Precepts of Jesus (1820). Roy and his Neo-Hindu contemporaries were inspired by Indianized versions of Unitarianism and European Enlightenment2.

The Age of “Enlightenment” (or the Age of Reason) was imported from Europe to India by way of the British and was quickly adopted by Hindu urban elites who wanted to “modernize” India’s social, political, and religious culture. Throughout the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a revolution of industries, inventions, and religions. Hindu “patriots” desired that India not be left out of the Western-Enlightenment revolution that swept the developing world. Cosmopolitan Indians, the educated and affluent urbanites in Bengal, used Western “Enlightenment” to reinterpret classical yoga, Hinduism, and Vedanta.

Vedanta, in Sanskrit means ‘the purpose, goal, or end of the Vedas [Hindu scriptures]’. Vedanta, one branch of the six schools of Hinduism, taught that all knowledge is contained in the ancient Hindu scriptures: the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and Bhagavad Gita. Neo-Vedanta reinterpreted classical Vedanta in a modern, western historical, spiritual, and scientific context. Proponents of Neo-Vedanta argued that everything discovered by Western science was already known to the Indian sages several millennia ago and was written into the Hindu Vedas. As for spirituality, it is universal to all of the world religions, but only the Vedanta wisdom of India was pure, and Western religion and Christendom was corrupt3.

The Neo-Vedanta founders (noted above) created the Brahmo Samaj, a society committed to Hindu religious and social reform, “modernized” Hinduism and yoga. The Brahmo Samaj exchanged letters with American Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson a Unitarian minister. Early Neo-Vedanta incorporated Western-style esoteric spirituality and adopted the values and worldview of Unitarian Christianity4.

In 1882, the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist esoteric group founded in the U.S., relocated to India to help promote yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism to Westerners. The Theosophical Society leaders claimed to be channels for various ‘Himalayan Masters (Mahatmas)’ from India and Tibet who secretly guided the evolution of humanity.

These Indian and Western cross-pollinations emerged in the twentieth century as New Age spirituality and formed the religious foundations of Modern Yoga.

More to come about the leaders who developed Modern Yoga

Notes
1 p 116.  David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press. 2014. Print.
2 p 27. Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. Print.
3 p 118. David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press. 2014. Print.
4 p 55. Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. Print.

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