Some American Hindus have recently argued that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga”. The Hindu American Foundation insists “that the philosophy of yoga was first described in Hinduism’s seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching”, that yoga is the legacy of a timeless, spiritual “Indian wisdom”. Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga – from the many Christians who embrace it: R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls. This fight evokes for me the Monty Python skit in which Greek and German philosophers compete in a football game (which ends with Marx claiming that the Greek goalscorer was off-side). Declaring the Southern Baptists (or at least the Revd R. Albert Mohler) off-side, we may still ask, why do so many American Hindus care so much whether yoga is Hindu? And is it? One reason for the Hindu concern is suggested by the capitalist overtones of phrases used by Dr Aseem Shukla, a urologist who is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation: Hinduism has “lost control of the brand” of yoga and has been the victim of “overt intellectual property theft” by people who have “offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism”. In other words, yoga is a sacred cash cow: about 15 million people in America practise (and generally pay for) something that they call yoga, making it a multi-billion-dollar industry.
But a deeper casus belli lies in the two-fold historical claim made by activists of Hindu American identity politics: that yoga (a) was first described in the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism and (b) has always been the core of Hinduism. Hindu Americans’ deep investment (to continue the financial metaphor) in these claims about history has its own history. For, given the human obsession with roots, those claims generally take the form of arguments about the origins of yoga, a quest for purity of lineage, for undefiled racial descent, here as always a mad quest, since the history of yoga is, like most histories, a palimpsest.