Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 52  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 45-51

An integrative approach (Vedic and Western) to Yoga Sādhanā in our times

Independent Researcher, Guelph, ON, Canada N1H 5T8, Canada

Date of Submission28-Mar-2020
Date of Acceptance14-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication11-Jun-2020

Correspondence Address:
Shrinivas Tilak
14-121 Bagot Street, Guelph, ON
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ym.ym_6_20

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A survey of available literature on Yoga Sādhanā (philosophy and practice of yoga) in our times suggests that it has been built up using conceptual frameworks and categories developed in modern (mostly Western) intellectual tradition. Traditional advocates and practitioners of yoga on their part feel (justifiably so) that contemporary Yoga Sādhanā is a product of appropriation of whatever the moderns deemed useful in yoga after detaching it from its Vedic and Indic context while at the same time retaining exegetical control over its interpretation and dissemination. That human beings think, judge, feel, and act differently is incontestable. Such “differently” posited difference, however, cannot be total or exclusive. Because otherwise, no difference could be identified, articulated, and claimed. This suggests the existence of a deeper similarity that makes understanding and communication among cultures and philosophies possible. In light of the preceding, it is argued here that Yoga Sādhanā, and the metaphysics undergirding it, should be approached in a collaborative, i.e., modern Western (“Etic” or outsider) as well as traditional Vedic (”Emic” or insider) scholarly perspectives. Such an integrative framework accordingly is proposed here incorporating (by way of illustration) insights discernible in the works of two Western (Ian Whicher and Soraya Franco) and two Vedic (Swami Kuvalayananda and T. Krishnamacharya) advocates of Yoga Sādhanā.

Keywords: Orientalism, Vedic, yoga

How to cite this article:
Tilak S. An integrative approach (Vedic and Western) to Yoga Sādhanā in our times. Yoga Mimamsa 2020;52:45-51

How to cite this URL:
Tilak S. An integrative approach (Vedic and Western) to Yoga Sādhanā in our times. Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Jun 9];52:45-51. Available from:

  Introduction Top

Vedic roots of Yoga Sādhanā

The Vedic worldview and lifestyle in ancient India were enriched by inputs from different types of spiritual and cultural strands. Rahurkar groups them into two major types referring them as “ṛṣi-culture” and “muni-culture.” The ṛṣis maintained the tradition and institution of yajña which constituted the focal point of the Vedic community. The munis practiced various austerities and lived in isolation in the forests and as wanderers (1964: 15-16). The “Keśin sūkta” (Ṛgveda 10:136) has preserved in a very poetic and metaphoric language the consciously cultivated way of life in the spirit of yoga as lived by the Śramaņa and Parivrājaka groups that belonged to the “muni-culture.” Etymologically, the term yoga is derived from the verbal root yuj meaning to “to yoke” or “to harness.” The earliest mention of yoga in that sense is to be found in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2:4), which presents the doctrine of the five sheaths (kośas) that make up the individual. Each sheath has five parts: head, right side, left side, torso, and lower part. “Yoga,” this passage informs us, is the torso (ātman) of the sheath made of understanding (vijñānamaya) linking or connecting the other sheaths with each other. In addition, yoga also yokes or links the four parts with each other within a given sheath. Over millennia, yoga acquired a great many more meanings that range from “yoking oxen” to “mathematical calculus.” (Bhargava's Standard Illustrated Dictionary: Hindi-English, for instance, defines Yoga as one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, a union with the Universal Soul by means of contemplation, means of salvation, the 27th part of a circle, a sum [arith], total, profound meditation to earn and enhance wealth, unity, conjunction, union, combination, mixture, contact, fitness, property, an auspicious moment, plan, device, opportunity, recipe, connection, love, trick, deception, as a suffix used in the sense of “capable, fit for love” [Alter, 2004]).

Upaniṣads often compare the human senses with horses; hence, “yoga,” which in the Rgveda, was originally applied to the control of the horses, began to be used in the sense of restraining the senses. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad (2.3.11), for instance, declares yoga as the state of mental stability made possible by restraining the sense organs. The Maitrī Upaniṣad offers one of the oldest statements on the theory and practice of yoga in six stages: Prāņāyāma (regulation of breath), Pratyāhāra (withdrawal of senses inward), Dhyāna (meditation), Dhāraņā (concentration of mind on one thought), Tarka (discursive contemplation on that thought), and Samādhi (absorption in that very thought, i.e., a state of being one with it) (Shastri, 1970). The Upaniṣadic reflections on yoga as a pathway to spiritual liberation as well as techniques of attaining it (known as “Sādhanā”) were reorganized with the addition of Yama, Niyama, and Āsana (and removal of Tarka) to the Maitrī Upaniṣad list and put in a systematic format in the chapter two (called “Sādhanā pāda”) by Patañjali in a work called the Yogasūtra (1971). After explaining the overall plan, design, and goal of liberation in the first section of this work (Samādhi pāda), Patañjali lists in the first sūtra of the “Sādhanāpāda under the heading of “Kriyā yoga” the three essential components of Yoga Sādhanā: tapas (performing ascetic practices to gain mastery over the body and the sense organs), svādhyāya (study into the self in relation to the body and mind), and īśvarapraņidhāna (submission to the deity of one's choice to facilitate Sādhanā). Over the centuries, four interrelated spiritual pathways or schools known as Rāja[Jñāna] Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Haṭha Yoga (Yogacatuṣṭakam) evolved and flourished.

Western exegesis of Yoga Sādhanā

After India came under direct British colonial rule in the nineteenth century, ancient Vedic worldview and lifestyle came under intense gaze and scrutiny that later came to be known as “Orientalism.” As an academic discipline and methodology, Orientalism involves Western projection on to the Orient and the urge to rule over it. As a result, the power to represent India and its civilization and to translate/explain relevant ideas, thoughts, and acts not only to Westerners but also to Indians themselves securely remained in the hands of the Western scholarship. In his Preface to seven-volume Sanskrit Worterbuch (Sanskrit Dictionary) published from St. Petersburg (1855ff), Rudolf Roth, for instance, arrogantly claimed that a conscientious European interpreter may understand the Veda far better and more correctly than Sāyaņa (Ram, 1983; Satavlekar, 1997). Subsequently, in the specific context of Yoga and its Sādhanā, Orientalist scholars (Mircea Eliade, 1958) for one) developed more interest in relating mysticism, magic, and religion to yoga than understanding the value and role of human body and mind in the yogic quest for spiritual liberation.

The drive toward modernization coincided with the removal of Yoga and its Sādhanā from the public sphere and its domestication. Yoga Sādhanā in modern India became mostly a personal matter because none of the four traditional expressions of yoga (noted above) were formally taught in colonially administered schools or in higher centers of learning. There did exist a few schools where yoga was taught in the traditional manner, but their impact on the modern Indian society remained negligible. Traditionally, sādhakas were inducted into placing emphasis on svādhyāya where memorizing and understanding are not viewed as separate but rather interlocking processes. Sādhanā requires both to deepen understanding. Alienated from this traditional source, modern Indian practitioners of yoga have continued to think and act in terms of ideas and concepts associated with Western culture, philosophy, and religion and express themselves or write about yoga in English. This has produced a dubious imagery of Yoga and its Sādhanā (yogābhāsa), which has no real “denotative” in traditional yogic culture rooted in the Vedic worldview and lifestyle. In the process, Indians have lost the intellectual and epistemic sovereignty in exegetic matters pertaining to Yoga and its Sādhanā and the ability to speak and stand up for them.

  Etic and Emic: Competing Approaches to Yoga SĀdhanĀ Top

Etic and emic

It was Kenneth L. Pike who coined the neologisms “etic” and “emic.” While etic refers to a detached, trained observer's perception of the uninterpreted “raw” data, emic refers to how that data are interpreted by an “insider” to the system. An emic unit is a physical or mental item or system treated by insiders as relevant to their system of behavior in terms of the context: the slot, class, role, and cohesion (Pike, 1967; Pike, 1990). The distinction between the emic and the etic parallels the distinction between the insider and the outsider and the relative and the absolute. Michael Polanyi compared the emic knowledge of a person's own culture to that of bicycle riding – “I cannot say clearly how I ride a bicycle… (for I don't know it clearly), yet this will not prevent me from saying that I know how to ride a bicycle” (Pike, 1990). A sādhaka proceeds similarly without necessarily knowing how to analyze his/her action.

Etic only approach to Yoga Sādhanā

Using the etic lens alone, the scholar or researcher may try to understand a given culture formally by comparing it to others and seeking to explain the relations between elements of the culture. Culture here becomes a “thing” and statements people make refer to this thing since culture belongs to groups of people. Culture can therefore be isolated and studied as a coherent, self-contained, but changing and flexible, unit. The concepts and theories used in such analysis are derived from a comparative framework, which, however, may not make much sense to members of the culture that is being studied. The hazard of employing an etic approach alone is reflected in the study of yoga carried out by anthropologists such as Joseph Alter, which is concerned, as claimed by the author, with the metaphysical anatomy of yogic cyborgs – human beings who, in some sense, have embodied or seek to embody the universe manifesting immortality and freedom (Alter, 2004).

Emic only approach to Yoga Sādhanā

The emic approach tries to understand a culture the way the insiders see it and by learning the concepts they use in order to look at the world the way the insiders do. The goal is to penetrate deeply into the culture to gain greater insights. Using participant observation as a key method and by writing about the culture, the scholar/researcher first learns to appreciate how people in another culture live out their lives and make sense of their world and then shares or teaches about it to others interested. The hazard of using an “emic” approach alone is discernible in the commentarial literature on the Yogasūtra of Patañjali wherein yoga comes out as a subjectively oriented path of withdrawal from life. The goal set by Patañjali, Vyāsa tells us, is to realize the steadfastness of consciousness in a state of isolation (kaivalya) which he construes as leading to isolation. His “liberated” yogi comes across as a disengaged figure that is removed from the human relational sphere having severed all ties with the world.

The detached, etic observer's view is one window on the world. The view of the local scene through the eyes of a native, emic participant is a different window. Either view by itself is restricted in scope and may therefore lead to distortion. The first ignores the concept of relevance, purpose, and meaning. The second may distort or mold vision or experience so that one interprets what one sees, hears, or understands, only through the colored glasses of one's own experiential structure. Yet, Pike himself saw the emic and etic approaches as complementary, rather than alternative (or even conflicting) ways of achieving these understandings. In order to apply comparative concepts appropriately, therefore, it is necessary to do research first from an emic perspective followed by an etic one since emic and etic are endpoints of a continuum, rather than complete opposites. Superficially they look alike, on closer inspection, however, they are notably different. However, taken together in a bifocal vision, the new perspective is startlingly “holistic” which Pike called “stereographic” (Pike, 1967).

  Suggested Inclusive Framework for Yoga SĀdhanĀ Top

That human beings think, judge, feel, and act differently is incontestable. The posited difference, however, cannot be total or exclusive because, otherwise, no difference could be claimed, identified, or articulated. This suggests the existence of a deeper, “stereographic” similarity that may make understanding and communication among cultures, philosophies, religions, and societies possible. Over the last few decades, sporadic attempts were made to promote a dialogue along the lines noted above. Charles A. Moore, who was a dedicated advocate of a “meeting” between Asia (specifically India) and the West organized “East West Philosophers' Conference” at the University of Hawaii from 1939 onward. To “naturalize” Indic thought in American academic and scholarly life, he founded the Journal of Philosophy East and West (Halbfass, 1990). Then, in 1990, India through Hindu Categories edited by McKim Marriott was published. A comparable initiative came in India from Professors Daya Krishna and Rege in collaboration with the Indian Council of Philosophical Research and the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan who jointly sponsored a dialogue between the Indian and Western philosophical traditions in Pune in July 1983. The proceedings were later published as Samvāda: A dialogue between two philosophical traditions (Rege, 1991). Not much, however, came out of such initiatives thereafter.

Although Halbfass lauded the effort of Daya Krishna and Rege to eliminate the asymmetry in the dialogue between the West and India, he did not expect any significant hermeneutic reversal from it. “Is there,” he asked in a tone of resignation, “a truly common ground for a comparison of different traditions of thought and a neutral, universal medium through which they can communicate?” Neither the language of “science,” nor that of “metaphysics,” nor that of “historical understanding” can provide the proper medium for a dialogue. The urge to initiate change, he felt, would be counterproductive. For the time being, there was little choice but to continue the (admittedly asymmetrical) dialogue using logical and linguistic analysis and the methods of modern analytical philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon type as the basis (Halbfass, 1990; Halbfass, 1997).

What is really required, therefore, is an inclusive framework that will draw upon the synergy existing between emic and etic approaches generating a more creative perspective that the sādhakas and scholars [whether visiting or indigenous] may utilize to carry out research on yoga and its expression through the four interrelated spiritual pathways (noted above). Whatever the external differences among these pathways, they are of one voice in acknowledging that it is through Yoga Sādhanā that one may realize the intrinsic values of “support,” “sustenance,” and interdependent expectancy (sāpekṣatā) among all living entities, thereby upholding an ethically nuanced and integrated organic continuity within the natural and social word (The sādhāraṇa dimension of Kriyā yoga can render it universal in the sense that its three constitutive members are generally acceptable after suitable reinterpretation in particular socio-cultural contexts).

The operative principle of the integrative framework such as proposed here can be anchored in the epistemological impulse to be found in Bhartŗhari's Vākyapadīyam: Insight gains in maturity and discrimination from (the study of) different views (prajñā vivekam labhate bhinnair āgamadarśanaiḥ; 2:489ab) (Bhartŗhari, 1977). Yogadŗṣṭisamuccaya, a Jaina text, suggests that though the teaching may be one, there are various people who hear it. On account of the inconceivable merit it bestows/it shines forth in various ways [Chapple, 2003]. The etic and emic perspectives on Yoga Sādhanā could, in that light, be examined and discussed, prima facie, in their mutual opposition and complementariness. As the Jaina scholar Haribhadra advocated, one should grasp the other's position in the strongest possible light; without looking to score a point by exploiting the other's weakness [Chappel, 2003; Houben, 1997; Berry, 1990; Harris, 1990] is the source of this line of interpretation). Thus, with the help of insights gained from Bhartŗhari and Haribhadra, it would be possible to persuade the visiting scholar to make a common cause with the host Vedic tradition and consider incorporating in his/her methodology the inclusive element advocated in it with a caveat that it is “perspectival.”

  Etico-Emic Component of Yoga SĀdhanĀ Top

The partisan and protective agenda that was implicit in Orientalism encouraged Indologists and other scholars to keep the emic and etic insights into yoga and its education separate and apart as it happened in the case of Joseph Alter. However, not all scholars go along with that scheme employing instead an inclusive approach: the emic approach for exploratory research and the etic one for testing hypotheses. This can enable the scholar to move away from (1) a typically etic form of historical and philological positivism, which is committed to the Romantic ideals of “origin,” or “original version” of a given text or an idea and (2) an obsession with isolating “earlier stages” disregarding organic historical growth and meaningful totalities that an idea or a text may reveal (Halbfass, 1995). Ian Whicher and Soraya Franco, for instance, employ such an approach in studying yoga because, unlike Alter, they study it as practicing yogis and the difference is clearly discernible in their respective conclusions.

Ian Whicher

A longtime practitioner of yoga, Ian Whicher (Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada), specializes in philosophies of India and is currently engaged in a project on “The Reconciliation of Contemplation and Action in the Yoga Tradition.” According to him, Patañjali's unique contribution (and his real genius) lies in his ability to “overcode” previous teachings on yoga adding to its articulate and integral understanding as defined in Yogasūtra 1:2, which masterfully incorporates a sophisticated philosophical theory of yoga along with a rich diversity of practices. This central definition of yoga “threads together” the meaning and essence of yoga as being: (1) process and transformation implying spiritual growth and development and (2) a culminating state of freedom. The practical and soteriological orientation of the Yogasūtra is therefore informed by the pedagogical dimension (Whicher, 1998).

Whicher argues that after reaching the “truth-bearing” state (dharmamegha samādhi), the yogi gains proper access to the world and is therefore established in proper relationship with it. The term “yoga,” which can mean “addition,” carries with it the philosophical connotation of an inclusiveness in that yoga ultimately adds or includes the power of consciousness that is puruṣa but not to the exclusion of prakṛti (Whicher, 1998; emphasis in the original. See also endnote # 1). It is therefore crucial to view yoga contextually (as it is understood, experienced, and embodied by the yogi) and not simply to impute a content-system to the whole process of yoga whereby the ontological priority of puruṣa is extended over prakṛti. In the process, the priority of axiology over epistemology is set up. Whicher's inclusive hermeneutics, it may be argued, provides a more comprehensive way of reading the tradition of yoga within its cultural/spiritual context – the realization that the problem (kleśa) pertaining to “self” and “identity” lies not in ontology (existential categories of puruṣa and prakṛti) but in perception, self-understanding, and the activity of decision-making (Whicher, 1998). Vyāsa's ontologically nuanced definitions and explanations for such key terms as puruṣa and prakṛti would become more inclusive if understood and interpreted from an epistemological angle. Kaivalya, the goal of yogic quest, then need not denote an ontological superiority of puruṣa, or exclusion of prakṛti but rather their “integration.”

Soraya Franco

Born in the Dominican Republic, Soraya Franco was trained as an artist performer, teacher, and choreographer. After receiving a certificate as a yoga teacher from the Kaivalyadham, Lonavla, India, she began to develop a modern art form based on the application of yoga principles in dance, hand gestures (mudrās), eye exercises, and expressions. This also included a movement-oriented sequence of āsanas (postural patterns and movements) harmonized with different world dance traditions in addition to the Indian classical dance, ballet, and contemporary dance. Subsequently, Franco registered insights gained from her teaching and working experience as “Yoga Dance Therapy” (YDT™) with the aim of promoting body–mind awareness, understanding, and patterns for therapeutic choreography.

In an article published in Indian Horizons, Franco describes how YDT™ was inspired directly from the concept of five cardinal elements (found in many cosmologies) and why she equates the five essential practices of YDT™ with them: yoga = space, ballet = air, philosophy = fire, contemporary dance = water, and Indian dances = earth (Franco 2009). Something similar is to be found in one of the episodes from the Yogavāsiṣṭha wherein a yogi, trapped within a rock, learns from the goddess Kāli how to dance through the universe by enlivening each of the five senses in turn. Beginning within the rock that entombed him, he explores flowing streams, feels the radiance of the sun, celebrates the wind as it “teaches the creeping vines to dance,” and enters the vastness of space. According to Christopher Chapple, the relationship here is more than metaphorical, more than imitative or representational. The rock and the earth constitute a totality, a present reality, and an immediacy that invites an experience of feeling connected, fulfilled, and complete (Chapple, 2008).

  Emico-Etic Component of Yoga SĀdhanĀ Top

Although Indian scholars and intellectuals recognized the asymmetry of the encounter between the West and India and its negative assessment of Yoga Sādhanā (deep cognitive dissonance between lived experience and the theorizing about it), only a few academics have had the will to explore the actual feasibility of balancing the terms of the encounter and perhaps reverse the asymmetry of the dialogue. While most have remained satisfied with the status quo (citing historical contingency for their inaction), a few (like Swami Dayananda) were unwilling to wait for the West to return “epistemic sovereignty” to the Indians having concluded that such an act of restoration could not be relied upon etic self-abrogation or hand-out alone as Inden suggested (1990). The careers of Swami Kuvalayananda and T. Krishnamacharya, seem to follow Swami Dayananda because of the emic initiative and self-assertion (laced with some self-critique) they demonstrated in charting a new course pertaining to Yoga Sādhanā.

Swami Kuvalayananda

Jagannath Ganesh Gune (1883-1966) was born in the erstwhile princely state of Baroda in today's state of Gujarat and grew up to become a scholar and educationist of repute and national freedom fighter. After being initiated by Madhavadasji Maharaj at Malsar, on the banks of the river Narmada, he formally received training in the various aspects of yoga acquiring the title Swami Kuvalayananda. In 1934, he established the Kaivalyadham Yoga Ashram at Lonavla near Pune where he also initiated the scientific study of yoga, built a yoga clinic, and published extensively on the subject of yogic physiology and physical culture. He also started yoga teacher-training programs. All his life Swami Kuvalayananda was engaged with harmonizing yoga with the principles of science and medicine and rendering the body the primary instrument of accomplishing dharma following Kālidāsa's dictum to that effect (śarīramādyam khalu dharma sādhanam; Kumārasambhavam 5:33).

For Swami Kuvalayananada, yoga was not just a philosophy or a physical culture, it also included a system of knowledge manifest in action – physical philosophy. With the help of prāṇāyāma, for instance, it is possible for the yogi to manipulate the metabolic rate; but more importantly, to influence the respiratory feedback center. In modern times, we look to exercises in deep breathing mainly from the point of view of its “oxygen value.” However, Swami Kuvalayananda prized prāṇāyāma for its usefulness in nerve culture, i.e., the way in which prāṇa (as subtle air and energy) produces psychosomatic power by flowing through the subtle body's network of nāḍīs. The more yoga is subject to science, and the closer one gets to discovering the nature of prāṇa, the more powerful yoga may become a means by which to discover truth (Maheshananda & Kulkarni, 2012).

Swami Kuvalayananda did not set up an ashram to “revive” or “reform” Indic spirituality. Nor did he set up a laboratory to study yoga purely and simply in physiological terms subsuming yoga into the disciplinary system of science within the framework of academic research and development. He decided to localize and harness the power of Western science in order to translate Yoga Sādhanā into a “message for humanity”. This change in orientation defined the “integrative” moment whereby the physical, worldly, and health-promoting aspects of yoga became as important as the mental, spiritual, and liberation-promoting ones.

Thirumalai Krishnamacharya

Thirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) was born in the Chitradurga District of Karnataka. After obtaining advanced education in Mimāmsā, Nyāya, and Āyurveda in the traditional manner, he studied yoga for 7 years with a master in the Himalayas before being appointed as a yoga teacher by the Maharaja of Mysore in the Yogasālā of the palace (According to Singleton (2011), Krishnamacharya also studied with Swami Kuvalayananda in the early 1930s). While there, Krishnamacharya had a visionary experience of Nāthamuni who had lived in the 9th century reciting a text called Yogarahasya which stresses the uniqueness of each individual and that Yoga Sādhanā must be adopted to suit particular needs of age, gender, body type, and station in life. A special sadhana, accordingly, is prescribed for pregnant women. It introduces previously unknown techniques of prāṇāyāma, brings āsana and prāṇāyāma simultaneously together rather than developing them sequentially (as in Patañjali), and introduces the postures known as the “head-stand” (śīrṣāsana) and “shoulder-stand” (sarvāṅgāsana) into Yoga Sādhanā (Ruiz, 2017) N.E. Sjoman has argued that there is no continuous [āsana] practice that can be traced back to the texts on Yoga, and that many of the āsanas, prāṇāyāma, and principles of movement taught by Krishmacharya were created by him using the exercises performed by wrestlers and explained in a traditional text called the Mallapurāṇa (the śīrṣāsana for instance). It is likely that Krishamacharya recognized the therapeutic benefits of various wrestling practices and incorporated some of them into the work that he had previously learned via spiritual revelation [i.e., Yogarahasya of Nāthamuni]. Such possible sources of influence on Krishnamacharya in no way detract from his creative genius (Connolly 2007).

From the tradition of Mimāmsā, Krishnamacharya innovatively employed an old concept of vinyāsa, where it referred to the subsidiary factors around a mantra that are required to make it effective. In his Yoga Sādhanā, vinyāsas became activities that prepare the practitioner for a particular āsana and to restabilize him/her after it has been achieved. When applied to a particular posture, vinyāsa begins with visualization, proceeds to the starting position, and the incorporation of the breath into the movement. The āsana is performed with concentration on the flow of the movement and smoothness of inhalation, exhalation, and retention of breath. Each step is the preparation for the next (Connolly, 2007). Here, then, we have the kernel of an inclusive form of Yoga Sādhanā that is available to all, regardless of age, sex, nationality, and social status; emphasizing health and well-being; grounded in physical practice (āsana, prāṇāyāma etc.) yet drawing inspiration from ancient yogic texts that focus on meditation and spirituality. It is also important that these teachings are rooted in a householder tradition of yoga. Krishnamacharya took yoga to other countries and made it international on this very basis (Ruiz, 2017; De Michelis, 2008; Newcombe, 2009).

  Meeting the Challenge of Cultural Relativism Top

Cultural relativism is an important tenet of anthropology, which dictates the practice of examining a culture in its own right without imposing one's own views of right or wrong on it. We should not judge a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange, or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in their own cultural context. In that light, any effort to include or accommodate an etic/emic perspective in any etic/emic-based scholarly inquiry becomes suspect. Because, it is argued, every etic vs. emic debate inevitably boils down to the notion that a people's values and customs must be understood in terms of the culture of which they are a part. Joseph Alter in his study of Yoga (2004), therefore, warns us that from the discourse of Himalayan sages as well as from Patañjali we learn that our perception of reality is illusion. Similarly, you can try to understand what Krṣṇa said about the war to Arjuna by contextualizing it to a point at which killing comes to make sense, even though the context in this case is that ultimately everything is ignorance and illusion. “But what, if anything,” Alter wonders, “does a cultural perspective on Yoga provide beyond a relativist understanding of human ingenuity and creativity? What is it worth beyond being a contextualized understanding of a different kind of philosophy?” (Alter, 2004). Cultural relativism thus opposes the idea that moral truth is universal and objective and contends instead that there is no such thing as absolute right and wrong. There is only right and wrong as specified by the moral code of each society.

But as Edward Younkins points out, relativism contends that all truth is relative except for the claim that “truth is relative.” “Cultural relativism wrongly claims,” he adds, “that each culture has its own distinct but equally valid mode of perception, thought, and choice” (Younkins, 2000). Taking a culturally relativistic perspective does not mean that we have to agree with everything another culture practices or believes in. In the case of Yoga Sādhanā, a bioethical and socioculturally diverse practice, it is helpful to take a culturally relativistic perspective when recognizing differences among groups of practitioners. Culture-based relativism in the context of Yoga Sādhanā is not relevant because (1) Sādhanā is embraced and structured locally and (2) no claim is made for its applicability generally or universally any or every time. There is therefore no reason to rule out of court a universal but nonabsolutist conception of yoga or its Sādhanā. Using the saptabhaṅgī Jaina logic (seven possible combinations of three values of truth, falsity, and indeterminacy) as hermeneutical tool, it may be possible to counter the objection to the inclusive framework by drawing attention to the fact that all truths are true, if only, from a perspective (Phillips, 2009). The criticism of self-referential contradiction is therefore not valid because referents of Yoga vary according to the context as Haribhadra, the Jaina scholar, had already argued.

If, as Joseph Alter has claimed, that the insiders do not perceive the thought attributed to them as genuinely their own, then we are faced with the logically absurd claim that the etic investigator knows more about what is in other people's minds than they do (as Rudolf Roth had claimed). Alter's study of Yoga is uniquely an etic approach because he studied it through those who practice it, i.e., an instance of meta-scholarship rather than the study of Yoga as Sādhanā; as practitioner of yoga. The alternative framework proposed here, by contrast, would enhance universal scope and applicability of Yoga.

  Conclusion Top

The endorsement of an inclusive approach by Ian Whicher and Soraya Franco and by Swami Kuvalayananda and T. Krishnamacharya is making yoga “new age” by widening its access and by eroding traditional barriers as they relate to social status/caste/gender and country of origin. Their careers and teachings straddle the etic/emic divide because of their advocacy of engagement of meditational practice alongside the postural work while at the same time shaping the understanding of yoga beyond India. It goes without saying that this fact, however, does not confer absolutist status on India (nor do Indians claim it). In this way, yoga can creatively address the challenge posed by the fear or apprehension of cultural relativism. In many ways, the modern academic discipline in the West is inching toward implementing the inclusive framework discussed here as many academic departments (albeit within the context of an implicit Christian worldview) seek representation of yoga traditions on their faculties to assure an etic as well as an emic input in learning and teaching of yoga.

Pluralism has been the core of the Indic mind-set which is discernible from the seals of the Sindhu Sarasvati (Indus Valley) culture and the pantheon of gods/goddesses to the contemporary coexistence of the four major expressions of Dharma (Hindu, Jaina, Bauddha, and Sikh) through tolerance and syncretism. In its sādhāraṇa dimension (see endnote # 2), yoga represents the universal truth/s of spirituality which could not be claimed as the exclusive property of any one religion or country. This truth/s no more belonged to India than does the law of gravity belongs to Isaac Newton and England (Elkman, 1997; Goldman,1997). If it was in India that such a truth/s was first discovered and worked out, that is no doubt to the credit of India where, in the continuous and living tradition of yoga and in its perennial mystical tradition (other versions or examples of which once existed, or may exist even now, in other cultures) the possibility of realizing them has been preserved (Such a possibility of harmonizing diverse religious, cultural, and social traditions is already discernible in the Yogavāsiṣṭha) (Wasudev & Acharya, 1937).

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