India’s Matrix of Tolerance
By Linda Johnsen
There’s no requirement that yoga enthusiasts have to visit the subcontinent, but many of my friends who’ve been practicing for some years have made the trip at one point or another. They’re curious about the culture yoga came from and intrigued by the legends of enlightened masters and Himalayan yogis who still live there.
Yet an encounter with India sometimes leads to more confusion than clarity. As yoga students, what exactly is our connection with India? Is yoga Hinduism? If we study in the tradition of Indian teachers who are themselves Hindu, does that mean we’re turning into Hindus?
One of my teachers, Swami Rama of the Himalayas, specifically told me, “Don’t confuse yoga and Hinduism. Hinduism is the ancient religion of India. But yoga is a universal tradition. In Islam yoga comes as Sufism. In Judaism it comes as Kabbalah. In Christianity the desert fathers practiced yoga. You don’t have to change your religion to do this. Whatever your religion is, yoga will help you.” Great yoga masters like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda never required their American students to convert to Hinduism.
I believe Swami Rama’s claim that yoga has always been a worldwide tradition. I just finished researching a book on the ancient Greeks and Romans and was amazed to find extensive evidence of yoga practices in the West as far back as 2,500 years ago. Yoga seems to emerge naturally out of the spiritual experiences that people of all cultures undergo spontaneously. Even though India is not the only source of yogic insight and techniques, it does seem to be unique in that it’s the one culture that has most faithfully preserved the wisdom of the world’s ancient sages.
Since many of our teachers are Indian, we sometimes run into Hindu elements in our yoga and meditation classes. For example, if you read the Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest yoga classics of all time, you’ll meet Krishna, a beloved spiritual master of the Hindu tradition. What is more, many important yoga texts like the Yoga Vasishtha or the Tripura Rahasya are steeped in Hindu history and lore. This can confuse beginning yoga students, especially since Hinduism is often misrepresented in the Western press. And because so much of the yoga we practice now in the West was fostered over the millennia in a Hindu cultural matrix, it’s useful to learn more about this ancient faith and its connection with the yoga exercises and techniques we’re learning today.
First, Hinduism is a major world presence. Over a billion people we share the planet with are Hindu. We tend to forget that one out of every six people on Earth is a Hindu. Hinduism is stitched together out of 80,000 indigenous South Asian subcultures, communities of people speaking 325 different languages. It is by far the most varied and complex religious tradition existing today. What we call Hinduism is a massive collection of different beliefs ranging from honoring the spirits in trees and making offerings to departed ancestors, to fire rituals conducted outdoors, to temple rituals conducted indoors, to the highest yoga practices that are practiced within one’s own mind.
This tremendous variety of religious expression has made Hinduism the most tolerant of the world’s great spiritual traditions. The Indian subcontinent is not that large; in order to live together in peace Hindus have learned to respect each other’s deities and forms of worship. And this spirit of tolerance has made India a haven for refugees from other religious faiths. When the Zoroastrians were persecuted in Iran, for example, many fled to western India. When the Vajrayana Buddhists were run out of Tibet, they were embraced in northern India where the Dalai Lama has established his new seat. When the Mandeans of Iraq, the last of an ancient Semitic sect that used to be called Nazarenes (they claim John the Baptist as one of their historical teachers), were persecuted by the Muslims, many of them moved to India. According to Mandean mythology, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, they too fled to India. Hinduism itself spawned numerous other religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and still opens its arms to receive the persecuted from other traditions, like a mother protecting her children.
Hindus are often accused of worshiping idols. The key to this practice appears in a leading yoga text called the Tripura Rahasya, in which the Supreme Being says, “What I am is impossible for your mind to grasp, so worship me in whatever form appeals to you. I promise in that very form I will come to you.” And so you’ll find Hindus worshipping Shiva or Kali, Krishna or Durga, and even a delightful deity called Ganesha who has an elephant’s head! Yet in all my travels through India I’ve never met a Hindu who actually confused the physical statue of a deity with the Divine Being that animates it. When the statue gets old, they take it out and dump it in the river. The charge that Hindus are “idol worshippers” demeans the spiritual value of using a statue to focus one’s attention on during worship. Hindus recognize that if the Supreme Being is omnipresent, it can certainly manifest through any image they choose to venerate.
The oldest surviving Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, says repeatedly, “There is only one God. Men call him by different names.” This tremendous spirit of tolerance is a clear sign of spiritual maturity. Can you imagine how much bloodshed could have been prevented if people around the world understood that fundamental fact? Hinduism is also the only world religion that continues to honor the Supreme Being in the form of the Goddess.
We also know from the Hindus’ own historical accounts, and reports by foreigners such as Apollonius of Tyana who visited India during the 1st century AD, that Hindus honored their sages above all other men and women. Rulers bowed before the saints and ascetics who flourished there, and they often accepted their advice in governing their kingdoms. Except when India was under attack by foreigners, the region was usually safe and law-abiding—at least in comparison to countries elsewhere.
Hinduism is also the only major religion not rooted in the teachings of a single founder. All others are based on one figure such as Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, or Mahavir. In Hinduism, however, numerous sages—many of them anonymous—contributed to the birth of their tradition, basing their teachings not on one single prophet’s revelation but on the laws of nature and of consciousness. Thus, succeeding generations of sages were free to confirm or deny those teachings (which were based on their own personal experience).
This leads to the fact that many of the insights of the Hindu religion are based on scientific observation, which means that they are closely in alignment with the discoveries of modern science—while our Western religions now seem to be waging full-out war with science. For example, Hindus have always accepted the fact that the world is billions of years old, that there were other forms of humanity like the Neanderthals, that matter is made of atoms, and that the universe is immensely vast.
Hinduism is by far the most ancient of the major world religions (archeologists have found Hindu artifacts dating back to the last Ice Age), and during this long history it has fostered one of the most peaceful cultures in the world. If you look at the art preserved in most ancient civilizations from Egypt to China, Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, it’s filled with images of kings exterminating their enemies. But archeologists who have unearthed numerous art objects from the ancient Indian civilization have found very little evidence of violence. From Sumerian times 5,000 years ago until the advent of the British Raj in the 18th century, Hindu culture was famous for its peaceful way of life and its mind-boggling prosperity. That’s why so many other cultures, from the Huns to the Arabs, the Persians to the Europeans, all invaded India. The British considered it the “jewel in the crown” of their empire.
The Hindu tradition is by no means perfect; like other religions it had its share of unreasoning fanatics and greedy adherents. Yet on the whole, the peaceful, open-minded, and deeply spiritual nature of Hindu culture contrasts sharply with other civilizations—like ours—in which spiritual exploration is either generally suspect, or closely regulated by powerful religious bureaucracies.
Today very few Christians are aware of the meditation techniques and breathing exercises their desert fathers practiced 2,000 years ago. Yet yoga is still practiced openly and enthusiastically throughout the entire Indian subcontinent. Yoga and Hinduism are a good match, and we can well be grateful to the Hindu culture for giving yoga a homeland during the centuries when it was driven underground elsewhere. Today all of us are benefiting from its tolerance.
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism and Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece.