Shukla vs. Chopra: The Great Yoga Debate

A fascinating debate unfolded recently at Washington Post’s On Faith: The medical professor and blogger Aseem Shukla wrote an essay on yoga’s American popularity and Hindu heritage. Decrying the “severance of yoga from Hinduism,” Shukla asked:

Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins. It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism–the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage–not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

Soon after Shukla’s column ran, physician and best-selling author Deepak Chopra responded: “Sorry, Your Patent on Yoga Has Run Out.” Actually, Chopra, says, Yoga came first, and Hinduism second, so Hinduism can hardly claim any ownership over yoga. He adds:

Beneath Shukla’s complaints one detects the resentment of an inventor who discovered Coca-Cola or Teflon but neglected to patent it. Isn’t that a rather petty basis for drawing such a negative picture? Most Indians, when they contemplate the immense popularity of yoga in the U.S. may smile at the pop aspects of the phenomenon but feel on the whole that something good is happening. Shukla regards the same scene with a withering frown.

What Do You Think? Should Hindus “Reclaim” Yoga? Would that mean, anyway? Do “Christian Yogis” and “Jewish Yogis” represent fraudulent cultural borrowing or even “theft”?

About David Charles

David Charles joined Patheos in September 2008. Since then, he has helped shape the structure and content of the site and has led partnership development with a wide range of academic and religious organizations.

David was educated in Switzerland, England, and the United States. He holds advanced degrees in religious studies from Oxford and Harvard Universities. His academic training spans a number of disciplines and fields of study, including anthropology, literature, and history. He is the recipient of a teaching award from Harvard.