Yoga and Hinduism

Shiva Lingam worshipped by Shivaites

We try to understand the historical relationship between Yoga and Hinduism.

Who is Hindu?

Historically the ancient Persians referred to the people inhabiting the land on the other side of the river Indus as Hindus. The word Hindu was not a label for their religious beliefs; rather, it was a general term for all those sharing a common racial, cultural and social heritage in what is present day Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh even extending to Myanmar and Sri Lanka. This land was not ruled by a single power but was a collection of small and large kingdoms and their protectorates.

The word Hindu does not occur in ancient literature. Probably the first time this word appears is as late as the eighth century B.C. in a Tantric work where it means the people and not followers of a religion.

What did the Hindus call their faith?

The Hindus called their faith, a system of beliefs, lifestyle and attitudes, Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Law. The Eternal Law is based on the revelations and universal teachings of the Vedas.

When strangers met they would ask: Who is your family god? Are you a devotee of Shiva, Krishna or the Divine Mother? These personalized forms of God were seen as concrete ways of expressing an abstract reality. Everyone followed the same Eternal Law, irrespective of his innate inclination to a particular teacher or practice. Thus the Hindu saw (and still sees) all spiritual paths as valid.

When did the word Hindu get a religious twist?

Since around 800 A.D. the Hindu kingdoms suffered under frequent raids by Islamic armies that looted, burnt and then returned to their own land. It was only as late as the 16th century A.D. that the Islamic invaders decided to settle down in the land of the Hindus. This was the first time in history that the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were confronted by a completely different system of beliefs, one that made no claim to Truth.

When a Muslim would ask a Hindu, "Are you Hindu?" he got answers that he could not clearly categorize. The variety of answers, such as, I am a devotee of Shiva, I am a Brahmin or I am a renunciate, depended on what the Hindu identified with at that point in time. Since it was almost impossible to define this vague and ambiguous system of beliefs, the Muslims defined it by negation: Everyone who was not Muslim, was Hindu. Thus the word Hindu became associated with religion.

What is Hinduism?

Hinduism was a word coined by the British and other western powers that colonized Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh for the motley collection of gods, goddesses, philosophies, beliefs, world views, rituals, practices, social and cultural mores and the rest of the chaotic and mysterious fabric of social and spiritual life.

Today when westerners ask an Indian "Are you a Hindu?" he is asking about his religious beliefs and the Indian thinks for a while and then very slowly replies, "Yes".  This is because many Indians have internalised the western concept of religion.

What has Hinduism or Hindu culture got to do with Yoga?

The Hindu, Buddhist and Jain spiritual traditions or Dharmas have all grown out of a common spiritual heritage. The universal practices of Yoga were adopted by all three spiritual traditions and modified with time, this explains the differences in Yoga practices within each of these spiritual traditions.

However, when one speaks of Yoga today, it is the Yoga that developed out of the Hindu tradition that is meant. The terms Buddhist Yoga and Jain Yoga are not used in common parlance in India.

Book Recommendations

A History of Indian Philosophy (5 volume set)


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