Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ex Occidente Lux. Or at least Yoga

“A History of Modern Yoga” is an extremely interesting book, and could be quite shocking if you are an anachronistic “true believer” who thinks everything New Age-related is really ancient wisdom from Vedic India, Tibet or Atlantis. Actually, all those ideas you grew up with comes from your own backyard in California! People with a more fearless experimental-experiential mentality won't become scared by Elizabeth de Michelis' work, however, and ultimately it's that seeking New Age is supposed to be about in the first place. A small word of warning for the general reader, though. While “A History of Modern Yoga” is more accessible than most scholarly tomes, it *is* scholarly and can therefore put off people who aren't used to the terminology of comparative religion studies. Words such as “cult”, “cultic”, “esotericism” and “occultism” are used in unusual ways (thus, “cult” means almost the exact opposite in the book's scholarly universe compared to everyday usage). You might also want to check up the meaning of terms such as “emic” and “etic”. The author, a former practitioner of Modern Yoga, writes as an outsider to the “tradition” and therefore treats Hindu gurus such as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda as fallible humans rather than quasi-divine teachers. However, she isn't hostile to the traditions she is describing. This is a serious work of scholarship, not a scandal-mongering screed.

Elizabeth de Michelis makes a number of interrelated claims in her book. First, she argues that Western esotericism underwent significant changes during the 18th and 19th centuries. The “esoteric” components of the current New Age movement therefore aren't primordial, perennial or genuinely Eastern. Rather, the origins of New Age religion can be traced to Mesmerism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Theosophy and New Thought, all Western and all products of a fundamental transformation of the Western esoteric heritage. To mentions just three aspects, this form of esotericism is individualistic (compare Ralph Waldo Emerson), evolutionary (compare Romanticism or Theosophy) and makes claims to be “scientific” (compare Mesmerism). There is also a strong connection to holistic health concerns, alternative medicine and positive thinking (compare New Thought). Modern Yoga has been fundamentally shaped by these new currents of thought, including those forms which still retain explicitly Hindu terminology (or even Indian teachers).

Second, Michelis argues that Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), often credited with bringing Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta and Yoga to the West, was strongly influenced by modern Western esotericism. It wasn't simply an attempt to communicate ancient truths in modern language. No, Vivekananda was himself a modern reformer. His teachings are best described as Neo-Vedanta or Neo-Hinduism. Modern Western esotericism wasn't unknown in India during the 19th century. Quite the contrary, it was actively propagated there by Freemasons, Unitarian missionaries and Theosophists. The Brahmo Samaj, a “monotheist” Hindu reform society close in spirit to Unitarian Christianity, was the main conduit of this influence in India, most notably in Bengal. Western alternative medicine was also popular, most notably homeopathy. The works of Emerson was eagerly studied, as well. (Thus, Emerson influenced circles in India more than India influenced Emerson.) Vivekananda was thoroughly steeped in these ideas when he arrived in the United States, where he was quickly adopted by the cultic milieu in California and Boston. There, he deepened his understanding of the issues, and essentially became a modern Western esotericist in Hindu garb. The author believes that a closer analysis of his seminal text “Raja Yoga” proves this.

Third, the author argues that Vivekananda and Ramakrishna were extremely different. This is really a no-brainer, but since Vivekananda's Ramakrishna Mission and related organizations claim spiritual descent from Ramakrishna, the point could be controversial in some quarters. Ramakrishna was a more traditional Hindu, didn't adhere closely to Advaita Vedanta and was a rowdier mystic and ecstatic than the civilized Vivekananda. Nor was Vivekananda ever properly “initiated” by Ramakrishna. I noted with some surprise that some stories about Vivekananda's relation with Ramakrishna have a strong Christian flavor. Brahmo Samaj also used Christian imagery and terminology. The author argues that it was really the symbolism of “esoteric” Christianity (“esoteric” in the modern sense). Related to this is the author's claim that Vivekananda's teachings are strikingly different from those of Shankara and Ramanuja, the two fonts of Vedantic orthodoxy.

The last section of the book deals with Iyengar Yoga, a modern form of hathayoga widely practiced in both India and the West, arguing that a close reading of its canonical texts prove that we are dealing with a modern synthesis. Here, the author introduces the appealing neologisms “Neo-Hathayoga” and “Neo-Vishishtadvaita”. Where do I sign up? ;-)

Although “A History of Modern Yoga” is extremely expensive (despite being a book of normal length), it is well worth reading and pondering. It did clarify some things which I found murky, or only perceived dimly. But, of course, it doesn't “disprove” Neo-Hathayoga. While I frankly doubt it, it's always possible that the light of liberation really comes from California…

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