Alan Watts once suggested that in another fifty years or so, people in India will drive around in cars, live in suburbia, and play baseball, whereas people in America will sit in caves in Oregon and in the Rockies and meditate on their navel and on atman and nirvana. Nothing annoys and frustrates a modern Hindu more than witnessing Europeans and Americans grow beards, wear beads, and do yoga. Toward the end of the term, three students came to him and announced they would be going to India shortly, to visit the holy city of Banaras, and the yogis in the Himalayan foothills. This discussion epitomizes a trend.
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Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. In a certain sense she is absolutely right — what does yoga have to do with Purim?
Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.
The Living Point of Conception Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in , upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk.
As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous.
But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine.
This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga. A Universal Technique Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all — men and women, Occidentals and Indians — and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians or Muslims, or Jews can become better Christians or Muslims, or Jews by practicing it.
He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West. And he reaped thunderous applause. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers.
Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy.
Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path! Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm.
The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever.
It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers. It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles.
On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants.
In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations.
Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be — original pizza — can only be had in Italy. The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation — that is, change, integration and cultural customization — in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form.
This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans or Westerners in general but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition.
Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. We call it democracy. On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days.
And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. And that is also not a bad thing at all. Translated by Rechavia Berman.
His interest in South Asia began when he was a young boy in Vienna learning classical Sanskrit and Hindi. He received the name Agehananda Bharati in when he was ordained in the Dasanami Sanyasi order of Hindu monks. He earned his acharya, the equivalent of a PhD. Early in his career, Prof. Bharati became a noted scholar of Indian culture, teaching linguistics, comparative philosophy, anthropology, and South Asian studies at universities and institutions in India, Japan, Thailand, and the United States.
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