An Interview with Professor Edwin F. Bryant, PhD

A heated debate in the blogosphere recently occurred on the subject of the relationship between Hinduism and Yoga. One side argued that westerners have appropriated Yoga and tried to divorce it from its Hindu roots. The other side argued that Yoga predates Hinduism and cannot be contained under one label or as belonging to any religion or group, that it is eternal wisdom. We asked Edwin Bryant, a professor of Hinduism, a scholar and a Yoga practitioner, to weigh in on the controversy.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): As you know, there’s been a debate going on as to whether or not Yoga belongs to or is rooted in Hinduism.

Edwin Bryant (EB): The word “Hindu” was used by foreigners and that term doesn’t surface until the 16th century, long after Yoga originated. But let’s begin by accepting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the text representing classical Yoga. The Yoga Sutras focuses on what Yoga is and what it consists of. Patanjali defines Yoga as the stilling of the states of mind. When that happens, the seer abides in its own nature. Otherwise, consciousness is absorbed in the mind. The goal of Yoga is to experience consciousness as distinct from the body and mind. Ethnicity, religion, culture and skin color are all various states of the body and mind.

The idea that we are having a discussion about whether Yoga is Hindu would be something I think Patanjali would have found to be missing the point. Patanjali clearly states that Yoga is that which takes you beyond the body and mind to what is common to all embodied beings: pure consciousness. The goal of Yoga is to not identify with the ego but to minimize, or remove, the false notion that I am the body and the mind—to see and experience oneself as pure consciousness. Yoga is that which takes us away from false identifications such as I am Hindu, Muslim, American, African—or “this or that” belongs to “me” or “us.” Yoga situates us in a place beyond all that. Yoga is what takes us away from these mindsets; it’s transcultural.

IYM: Doesn’t Patanjali address this issue?

EB: Yes, if you read the Yoga Sutras carefully, there’s nothing that suggests it’s for a cultural tradition or ethnic community. In fact, in Chapter Two, sutra 31, Patanjali explicitly states that these practices are universal, going on to specify that they’re not tied to a community, country, time or condition. Yoga is not context specific. Sutra writing is minimalist, so it’s unusual for Patanjali to clarify or use redundant words. But, he makes a point of qualifying his statement that Yoga is universal, sarva bhauma, (an absolute term that needs no further qualification) by stressing that it’s for all people, in all times, at all places. When Patanjali describes the yamas, the first practice of the eight limbs of Yoga, he specifically says that they’re to be practiced irrespective of where you are born, in what community or time period. The yamas and niyamas are universal principles found at the heart of many traditions.

IYM: Some people may still argue that Yoga has its roots in Hinduism.

EB: Let’s examine the first references to Yoga, which surface in the Upanishads, the late Vedic texts. The Vedas are the oldest texts in the Sanskritic traditions and the later post-Vedic traditions would consider Yoga a Vedic knowledge system; something associated with a body of texts known as the Upanishads, seen as the higher Vedas (although archeologists have uncovered some seals that date much earlier than the Rig Veda that depict ascetics in seated postures like padmasana, which suggests something like this has been practiced for at least 5,00 years, that is, from before even the oldest of the Vedas).

IYM: How do the Upanishads differ from the Yoga Sutras?

EB: The Upanishads are Jnana Yoga; they deal with the ultimate nature of life and its goal. Mainstream religionists, at that time, were followers of Vedic culture, using rituals and mostly interested in material gain. But some became frustrated with rituals and turned to the Upanishads, with its higher goals of life beyond getting boons from rituals performed. They realized: Even if I get boons from the gods, that’s not freeing me from the cycle of birth and death—I’m still going to die! So they turned to the Upanishads and began seeking ultimate truth—beyond the lower gods, the rituals—to the atman or ultimate true Self. But, the Upanishads are not prescriptive texts telling us how to achieve the goal…

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2011 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.