Q&A with Hari-k

keep-calm-and-answer-the-question-yogiLast September I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Bryant, a committed Christian who was taking a course, offered by an international Christian ministry, about constructively engaging with people whose worldview differed from one’s own. The course placed particular emphasis on the importance of gentleness and respect as essential elements of constructive discourse (non-violent communication). Recording and transcribing a collection of such engagements was part of the course and, as our casual conversation about the relationship between yoga and religion evolved, Jesse asked me if I would participate in an interview for his course. I happily consented. His questions echoed the kind of questions I often field in workshops and Yoga Teacher Training sessions. What follows is an edited excerpt from his interview.

JB: What are the roots of yoga? Does the whole “yoga thing” come out of the Hindu culture?

Hkd: The scriptures that form the basis of what we now know as ‘Hinduism’ are called the Vedas but the word ‘Hindu’ does not appear anywhere in the Vedas. ‘Hindu’ is an Anglicized version of a Persian word that describes the people who live on the other side of the Indus River: it originates as a geographical description of people who followed the Vedas and practiced what they themselves called ‘Sanatana Dharma’ or ‘the Eternal Occupation of the Living Being.’ Followers of the Vedas never referred to themselves as Hindus until around the 1500s, when they had to make practical distinctions between themselves, Muslims and, later, European colonials. It is only very recently that ‘Hindu’ has become a word associated with an ethnic, nationalistic or religious designation. [Read more…]

In Defense of Gurus, Part 2

I have a guru. Many years ago, in an elaborate Vedic ritual, I confirmed my commitment to the spiritual practice my guru specified for all of his disciples. My guru, in turn, confirmed his commitment to connect me to the highest truth through a lineage of gurus stretching back to antiquity. The deal between us is simple: I accept his authority as a bona fide representative of an authentic spiritual tradition and he guides my way home.

I do not have a business relationship with my guru. I did not pay thousands of dollars for a yoga teacher training in order to be initiated. There were no workshop tuitions, there was no free labor masquerading as ‘karma yoga’, and I’ve never been his employee. Although it’s customary for a disciple to offer donations, my guru never asked me for any money. The only things my guru asked of me was to chant and be happy and to try my best to help fulfill the mission of his guru, just as his own guru (my grand-guru) had asked him to help fulfill the mission of his guru (my great grand-guru), and so on back to antiquity.

Some members of the modern yoga community think antiquity is precisely where the institution of ‘guru’ belongs. In a rare case of near agreement with my modern yoga colleagues, I’m obliged to agree, albeit conditionally: the institution of ‘guru’ has no place within the framework of modern commerce-driven yoga. The reason is simple: profit motive. The very idea of yoga gurus running business enterprises runs counter to the principles at the core of an authentic guru-disciple relationship. [Read more…]

In Defense of Gurus – Part 1

kumare2Unless you’re a yogi who’s been living in a cave (which you’re not because cave-dwelling yogis are so passé), you’ve noticed, and perhaps support, a renewal of calls from the collective voice of modern yoga to banish, once and for all, the institution of ‘guru’. This is understandable: in the last few years many modern yoga ‘gurus’, and some presumably traditional ones, have betrayed the trust of those who placed their faith in them. The revelations of abuse and duplicity have been sufficiently flagrant and injurious as to inspire the assumption that anyone who claims to be a guru is really a wolf in guru’s clothing.

We have high standards for gurus but low expectations of people: we think a ‘real’ guru must be a flawless embodiment of supra-conscious morality and that no one is actually capable of such perfection. After all, we’re not: why should we think anyone else is. Our idealism crashes headlong into our cynicism and we conclude that there is not now nor has there ever been a ‘real’ guru so throwing the ‘guru’ out with the bath water will ensure that we won’t get ripped-off by smooth-talking Svengalis offering rose-colored promises in exchange for blind obedience.

With such reasonable doubts in mind, critical thinking about whether or not there’s a place for the traditional guru/disciple relationship in modern yoga is obviously a good idea. In considering the question the first issue that needs to be addressed is one of criteria: what are the qualifications for being a ‘guru’? [Read more…]

Sex, Death, and Yoga – Part 5

Alex_Grey-Kissing_240x340Yoga philosophy describes three gunas or elemental qualities of material nature: luminosity (goodness), activity (passion), and caliginosity (ignorance). Like primary colors, these three gunas combine to create the hues, tones and intensities of the people, places, and things that populate the world of our experience.

The project of yoga requires us to dovetail our propensity for action (the quality of passion) in such a way as to move our consciousness toward illumination (the quality of goodness) rather than obscuration (the quality of ignorance). So the question at hand is, “what manner of sexual activity (if any) moves consciousness toward illumination?” [Read more…]

Sex, Death, and Yoga – Part 4

radha_krishna_in_the_garden_of_love_he01Throughout this series I’ve proposed that our natural impulse for sexual intimacy originates in transcendence. In this post I’ll describe how sexual intimacy finds its expression in transcendence and in my next post I’ll conclude the series by offering some thoughts on how our sexual impulses can be channeled in an authentically spiritual way.

An abstract conception of transcendental sex is found in Tantric Yoga, where the union of Shakti with Shiva resolves the differentiated world into a monistic unity. Tantra offers a path to undifferentiated transcendence with a sexual component that calls for the retention of secretions during sex and the movement of vital energy up through subtle channels of the physical body, but Tantra does not propose relationships between varieties of beings in transcendence. Other traditions propose similar techniques for approximating spiritual ecstasy without reference to a diversified spiritual world within which erotic activities take place. [Read more…]