On 19 to 21 September 2013, a conference took place in Vienna on the subject of "Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on a Global Phenomenon." The organizers announced the conference thus:
„Yoga type practices and associated teachings emerged for the first time in South Asia around the middle of the first millennium BCE. Ever since the phenomenon yoga has shown a protean flexibility and creativity. It constantly produced new forms of practice and theories depending on the changing social, religious and philosophical contexts with different uregional variations. Thus, the history of yoga is a complex and multifaceted one, and still remains far from having been exhaustively investigated.
„Furthermore, yoga today has become a phenomenon of global mass culture, which influences the everyday lives of millions of people. Against this background the investigation of yoga in both the past and the present is a task of high topical value that affects several academic disciplines.
„The past two decades in particular have brought new insights, methodological approaches and questions concerning the history of premodern yoga traditions, the interpretation of yoga-related literature, and the impact on other Asian cultures. Furthermore, the investigation of modern transnational yoga has established itself as a multidisciplinary field of study in its own right. The motives and experiences of contemporary practitioners and their global networks are being investigated with methods of the social sciences and cultural studies. The startling results of studies on the history of modern yoga have not only caused scholarly discussions but also public debates on the relation of traditional and modern yoga, which sometimes have been politically charged, especially in India.
„The conference will explore yoga from a broad perspective: it will examine different strands of South-Asian yoga in the premodern period and forms of modern yoga, the changes that occurred within the premodern yoga practices and theories, as well as more recent developments and the current transformation of transnational modern yoga.
„For this purpose, outstanding specialists in South Asian studies, the study of religions, sociology, cultural studies, theology and history of religions have been invited to contribute their research papers. The conference will give them an opportunity to intensify their mutual communication. For those who are interested in yoga in general, it will provide convenient access to information on recent high-level research.
„Vienna has been a fertile ground for yoga studies, as is evidenced by the seminal work of the indologists Erich Frauwallner (1898-1974) and Gerhard Oberhammer at the University of Vienna, and by more recent initiatives such as the international conference on ‚Yogic Perception, Meditation and Altered States of Consciousness‘ which was held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 2006. The organizers of the present conference are happy to continue this tradition.“
Let us decode this introduction. „Around the middle of the first millennium BCE“ means that yoga does not predate the age of the Buddha. Anything of value should be denied to Hinduism, and if it exists, it has to be borrowed from „another religion“, viz. Buddhism. In reality, the Buddha himself already learned at the feet of several yoga teachers, who in turn did not claim to be innovative. Asceticism was an established institution. Centuries earlier, the Rg-Veda already describes sky-clad wandering muni-s with muddy long hair, or what we now know as Naga Sadhu-s. The Upanishads describe the fundamental ideas of yoga, starting with the attention for the breathing process. The fundamental definition of yoga and the analysis of the human person (compared with a chariot) is given in the Katha Upanishad. In order to belittle Hinduism, all this history is either denied or chronologically put as late as possible, and the role of the Buddha, deemed a non-Hindu, is magnified.
„Complex“ has acquired a specific connotation. It is often used when established scholars are confronted with hard but inconvenient evidence for a position not their own. Thus, when Romila Thapar is presented with hundreds of Muslim testimonies for wilful temple destruction, she says that communal relations in India were „highly complex“. When Michael Witzel is faced with the fact that the early part of the Rg-Veda (roughly books 6, 3,7, 4, 2) describes inner India and its animals and geography, while the later part (roughly books 5, 1, 8, 9, 10) describes western India and Afghanistan and their animals and geography, he understands the implication that the Vedic Aryans moved from East to West, and consequently declares that Rg-Vedic tradition is a „complex issue“.
“Complex“ is a tactic against something straightforward and simple. In this case, it is directed against the „essentialist“ notion that yoga is an authoritative tradition practised by specialists and respected by the common Hindu. It is meant to free Hindus from the illusion that -- perish the thought! -- yoga is a Hindu contribution to human civilization. indu scholars
Nonetheless, most participants were not aware of any political agenda, which turned out not to be so intrusive after all.
The welcome address
was given by Dominik Wujastyk, currently staff member of the Asian Studies department at Vienna University. After the usual polite platitudes, he said one memorable thing. As an academic who worked for long and till recently in London, he said he was very happy now to work in a free university. This means that in Austria, like in some other countries of the European continent, university education costs no more than a nominal fee. He knew grimly well that in the UK, as also in the US, people have to borrow astronomical sums for a university education.
My comment on this point: it is the Continental view that society as a whole, including those who don’t have children, has a stake in educating the next generation. Therefore, it is deemed reasonable to use taxpayer’s money for financing the universities. I, as a product of this system of low-cost schools and socialized education, support that view.
In subsequent instalments, we will discuss the important papers read at this conference.