Expanding the Definition of Yoga

Ellen Gough on Christopher Key Chapple’s Yoga in Jainism

Christopher Key Chapple, ed., Yoga in Jainism, Routledge, 2015, 272pp., $148
Christopher Key Chapple, ed., Yoga in Jainism, Routledge, 2015, 272pp., $148
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In November of 2015, Jennifer Scharf’s yoga class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled after the university’s student federation expressed concerns that yoga was appropriated from a culture that had “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.” In causing the termination of Scharf’s class, these students joined thousands of their peers throughout North America, from Yale, to Brown, to the University of Louisville, in demanding that colleges reject any sort of misrepresentation of a culture. At Oberlin in a debate over the food served in the dining hall, one student explained that food represents culture, “so if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Invoking cultural appropriation in this way thus requires an original, definable culture from which its “authentic” aspects—be it food, dress, or practice—can be taken and modified. In the case of yoga, campaigns such as Take Back Yoga have gained control of much of the yoga narrative in North America, influencing parents and educators to understand the “culture” from which yoga comes as “Hinduism.” This campaign has argued that the text that most yoga teacher training courses in North America identify as the definitive source on yoga—Patañjali’s Yogasūtra—is a Hindu scripture.

Patañjali himself never claims to be a Hindu, however, and his current popularity is not a product of appropriation, but of a dialogue between nineteenth-century Indian and Western elites. Yoga has never been one thing, and all sorts of communities—including those identifying as Muslims and Jews, Indonesians and Americans—have brought different understandings to the term. The more we recognize the varied understandings of yoga, the more difficult it becomes to claim cultural appropriation.

A new collection of essays edited by Christopher Key Chapple, Yoga in Jainism, uses philosophy, social history, textual studies, and ethnography to widen students’ and practitioners’ understandings of yoga and therefore unlink it from immediate associations with Hinduism and Patañjali. Most introductions to yoga begin with the explanation that the term “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root √yuj, meaning to “yoke,” or “join,” and that Hindu scriptures describe yoga as controlling one’s senses like a charioteer yokes horses to a chariot, or as joining the individual soul to the ultimate universal principle, Brahman. The chapters of Yoga in Jainism paint a more complex picture of yoga by providing many other definitions of the term found in Jain materials. In his contribution on an important c. fourth-/fifth-century Jain treatise on the path to liberation, “Yoga in the Tattvārthasūtra,” Jayandra Soni examines the classical definition of yoga in Jain philosophy: The vibration of the soul produced by the activity of body, speech, or mind that causes the influx of karma to the soul. In Jain texts up until the middle of the first millennium, yoga was something ultimately to be avoided, as it attached karma to the soul and guaranteed reincarnation rather than liberation.

In the medieval period, however, Jain communities began to understand yoga as all theories and practices that are part of the path to liberation, from going on pilgrimage to belief in the soul. Olle Qvarnström’s “Hemacandra on Yoga” posits this wide definition of yoga by examining the most famous text on Jain yoga, the Yogaśāstra by the twelfth-century Śvetāmbara monk Hemacandra. This text defines yoga as the three jewels of right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. Because of this definition, to date, the most well-known secondary source on Jainism with “yoga” in the title, Robert Williams’s Jaina Yoga (1963), does not discuss yoga as it is commonly understood as a system of meditations and stretches, but instead focuses on medieval Jain manuals’ discussions of temple worship, festivals, charitable giving, and repentance rites. The best book on yoga in Jainism, therefore, has little to say about postures and mindfulness exercises, because for medieval Jains, yoga was much more than that. It was everything that leads the soul to liberation through the destruction of karma.

Several essays in Chapple’s volume emphasize this point by providing more examples of Jain definitions of yoga as a path to liberation that encompasses a wide range of activities. In Jeffery D. Long’s “Yaśovijaya’s view of Yoga,” which examines two understudied texts by the great seventeenth-century Śvetāmbara monk Yaśovijaya, the Jnānasāra and the Adhyātmasāra, we find that Yaśovijaya defines yoga as “all practices that are desirable because of their association with liberation.” Yaśovijaya understood these practices to be grouped under five “limbs,” or components, one of which, for example, is image worship in a temple. While scholarship often follows Patañjali’s eight limbs—which include postures (āsana), meditation (dhyāna), and breath control (prāṇāyāma)—this volume shows that these eight limbs are not the only activities that are considered to be “yoga” in Indic texts. Meanwhile, Chapple’s “The Jaina Yogas of Haribhadra Virahāṅka’s Yogabindu” provides yet another type of yoga in Jain scriptures, detailing the six limbs the sixth-century Haribhadra outlines. These contributions show the variety of ways in which Śvetāmbara Jain monks from the sixth to the seventeenth centuries present yoga as a complete soteriology by including within it various practices—from equanimity (samatā) to understanding the meaning of one’s recitations (artha). Clearly, for medieval Śvetāmbaras, yoga was not just about bodily postures.

After these examinations of medieval and early modern texts, the volume reveals how another shift in the meaning of yoga occurred in the nineteenth century. As Andrea Jain explains, yoga was no longer seen in this period of modernization as an “all encompassing religious [worldview]….but as one part of self-development.” The final three essays in the book by Jain, Smita Kothari, and Chapple chart this shift, showing how the Jain yoga most popular in the West—the “Insight Meditation” (prekṣā dhyān) that an anioconic sect of Jainism, the Śvetāmbara Terāpantha, developed in the twentieth century—is not a product of appropriation, but of a dialogue between practitioners inside and outside of India. In a first-of-its-kind ethnography of an Insight Meditation camp in Ladnun, Rajasthan, Kothari shows how Terāpanthīs actively encourage non-Indians to undertake these Jain yogic practices said to have been derived from older scriptures.

In addition to showing historical changes in Jain definitions of yoga, this volume also provides alternative understandings of yoga practitioners that go beyond the stereotypical image of the yogī as a flexible trickster. As John Cort explains in his “Images of the yogī in Digambar hymns,” Hindu yogīs are often portrayed as magicians and circus acts. In the Digambara sources Cort analyzes, however, both in early medieval Yogī Bhaktis in Prakrit and Sanskrit and in early modern Hindi poems, the yogī is understood as a naked renunciant who has retreated to the forest. Here, Cort offers an important reminder: Yogīs are not only people who contort their bodies; they also are monks who retreat from worldly life and ideally cease all actions.

The strength of the volume thus lies in contributions like Cort’s that focus on unstudied texts and practices that shed light on overlooked understandings of yoga and the yogī. Other essays, however, rely heavily upon texts that, at least for the small field of Jain Studies, have already been studied extensively, such as the Tattvārthasūtra, the Samayasāra, and Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra. In addition, most of the essays focus only on one sect of Jainism, the Śvetāmbara. Cort’s contribution, as well as that by Kamal Chand Sogani, “Ethics and mysticism in Jaina Yoga spirituality,” provide important exceptions in that they focus on lesser-known sources coming from the other major, although lesser-studied, sect, the Digambara. The only two contributions to draw extensively upon both Śvetāmbara and Digambara sources, Piotr Balcerowiz’s meticulously detailed essays on extrasensory perception in Jainism, are not explicitly related to Jain definitions of yoga.

Different types of yoga are formulated in part because competing sects look to forge identities and attract followers by distinguishing their practices from those of their competitors. Future studies should thus draw upon the hundreds of unstudied Digambara sources related to yoga to show how Śvetāmbara and Digambara beliefs and practices were formed from significant, lasting conversations between the sects. Qvarnström’s chapter on Hemacandra’s twelfth-century Yogaśāstra provides a great place to start this comparative project. While he focuses solely on Śvetāmbara ideas, rejecting the suggestion that Digambaras influenced the text, further analysis would likely reveal how much the Digambaras Amitagati (tenth century) and Śubhacandra (ca. eleventh century) influenced the Yogaśāstra.

Kothari’s ethnography could similarly be expanded to provide more specifics about the practices undertaken in the modern Insight Meditation camps to allow for comparisons between the Jain yogas of different sects and times. How, for example, do the twelve types of contemplation (anuprekṣā) Sogani discusses in his contribution on medieval Digambara texts relate to the contemplations undertaken as the final stage of the modern Insight Meditation, which are also called “anuprekṣā”? Future studies should build upon this volume to show not only the differences between Jain yogas, but also the many connections between them.

Can we determine a unifying principle that makes a type of yoga “Jain”? And should this type of yoga, when practiced in American universities, be considered appropriative?

In the seventeenth century, the Jain monk Yaśovijaya insisted that if a person does not believe and practice the Jain teachings, he should not undertake yoga. Students at the University of Ottawa might wish to use this claim to show how non-believers should avoid yoga. But Yaśovijaya’s definition of yoga as a complete soteriology is very different from the stretches taught in Scharf’s course or even the contemplations of Insight Meditation that Kothari shows Jains actively promote to non-Jains. My hunch is that there is no unifying “Jain” component of different yogas, nor is there a unifying “Hindu” or “Indian” component of all yogas, and that this lack of a single definition of yoga makes it very difficult for any one culture to claim it. Rather than rushing to label yoga classes appropriative, students would be better served by studying the history and current interpretations of the particular type of yoga taught at their universities. For those who wish to examine the history of Jain yogas, Chapple’s book is a great start.

Ellen Gough is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. She researches South Asian religions, in particular Jainism. Her current manuscript examines the life of a single Jain mantra, from its inception at the beginning of the first millennium, to its use in medieval tantric initiations and meditative exercises, to its popularity as a source of healing today.