Education

Setting the Record Straight on the Proposed Yoga Philosophy Course at JNU

Students are always the greatest victim of ill conceived and patchy courses; the Sanskrit Centre owes it to them to engage seriously with the suggestions the Academic Council made.

The JNU library. Credit: Jai Pandya/Flickr CC 2.0

The JNU library. Credit: Jai Pandya/Flickr CC 2.0

Earlier this month, highly inaccurate and misleading reports appeared in a section of the media about a meeting of the Academic Council (AC) in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The most controversial element in these reports was the entirely false claim that “secularists” and “leftists” had rejected two courses (Yoga and Philosophy and Indian Culture) that were brought for approval to the AC by the Special Centre for Studies in Sanskrit (SCSS). On the contrary, these were referred back to the centre for re-consideration and reformulation.

The criticisms made of the proposals were on academic grounds and not motivated by political differences. These courses were not rejected; they were discussed threadbare and found severely wanting in their conceptualisation and articulation, and therefore not accepted in the form they were being presented by the overwhelming majority of members present on that day. The discussion took more than two hours. In fact, the overwhelming refrain from the members was that they agreed with the criticisms made by the subject experts who provided a detailed critique of these courses. It is also relevant to mention here that these courses have received serious comments twice before, and returned to the SCSS for reworking. This was the third such exercise.

The suggestions ratified by the Academic Council, and its chair, the vice chancellor of JNU, after discussion, were the following:

  1. In view of its acknowledged expertise in the field, the Sanskrit Centre may offer certificate courses, if it must, on Sanskrit language at various levels of proficiency – from introductory to advanced
  2. The SCSS could consider offering these courses, after careful revision, as ‘optionals’ for their students as part of their M.A. program, instead of as ‘certificate’ courses
  3. Finally, it was agreed, by the members and the chair, that the two proposed courses on Yoga and Philosophy and Indian Culture be referred back to the SCSS to be reworked either as Sanskrit language courses, or as courses specifically based on Sanskrit texts but not designated as ‘Indian Culture’. The third course, on Computational Linguistics, was approved by the AC.

Three out of the four main comments by experts are included here. These are in their own words, and reflect their concerns regarding a part, or all of the courses under discussion. A fourth comment, by Prof. Vijaya Ramaswamy could not be included as she is away from the university at the moment.

S. Shivaprakash,
Professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics

“’Yogada holabanaaru ballaro?
(Who knows the path of yoga?’
-Allamaprabhu (12th Century)

As a committed student of yoga for decades blessed and initiated by great masters like Swami Satyananda Saraswati and Swami Vishnudevananda, I had no reason to oppose the idea of starting a course on Yoga philosophy. I even started welcoming the move.

However, the way the proposed certificate course was conceived and structured was appalling, I said as it did scant justice to the depth and vastness of Yoga philosophy which has been evolving and developing in many directions for over two millennia. It was not a course on Yoga practice or just one of the countless varieties of Yoga. It was supposed to be course on Yoga philosophy as a whole. One of the untenable assumptions of the course was that Yoga philosophy culminated in Patanjali (400 CE), though it was after this period that varieties of Yoga developed and proliferated. The course made no mention of this. It mentioned no primary texts other than the Patanjali Yoga Sutra and the Gita.  No reference was made to Tantrik, Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava, Buddhist, Jain or Bhakti contributions to Yoga philosophy. Neither was there even a bare mention of seminal non-Sanskrit seminal texts like the Tamil ‘Thirumanrhiram’.

The contributions made to Yoga Philosophy in the 20th Century by great yogis and teachers like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Ramathirtha, Paramagamsa Yogananda sand others was nowhere referred to in the course outline. I could not see in the bibliography any works by Gopinath Kaviraj, a great yogi and philosopher who wrote elaborately in many works on  diverse schools of Yoga, Swami Vivekananda, who wrote wonderful volumes on different Yogas and a remarkable commentary on Rajayoga, or Sri Aurobindo, who pioneered a new philosophy of Yoga called Poorna Yoga .

Further, the course presenters had hastily concluded that Rajayoga is the only Yoga to the exclusion of Mantra Yoga, Nada Yoga and Laya Yoga. If only our Sanskrit colleagues had structured a course on Patanjali Yoga Sutras alone, I would probably said yes to the course.  Instead, they had arrogated to themselves unfounded authority to teach the entire philosophy of Yoga which was beyond their understanding. It was for these reasons, stemming from my deepest respect for Yoga, that I pleaded that the course be redrafted and presented again. I can now see that my knowledgeable colleagues turned completely deaf to my positive and sympathetic suggestions.

Though I did not speak elaborately on the lacunae in the other course proposed on Indian culture, as my learned colleague Prof Vijaya Ramaswami had already listed its several shortcomings, I pointed out that a course on Indian culture is null and void if it does not take cognisance of the enormous contributions of Bhakti traditions, which have been transforming Indian culture for over a millennia from 700 CE onwards. It is like offering a course on European culture without mentioning the Renaissance.

The criticisms on proposed courses were not entirely negative. It was suggested that they could go in for a more modest course on subjects like the Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali or Yoga in the Bhagavadgita. They could also offer a sensible course on an identifiable area of Indian culture like  kavyamimamsa, vyakarana, shilpashatras, sangeetashastras or aspects of the Vedas, Puranas, Agamas or Tantras. But it looks like they never heard any one of these things.

The greatest scholars of Sanskrit like K. Krishnamurthy, Hiriyanna, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Kunjunny Raja, Rahul Sankrityayan and several others were able to establish the significance of Sanskrit lore not by shutting themselves from modern knowledge but by facing them head-on. I hope our Sanskrit colleagues will learn from examples and interact with other JNU colleagues academically in a democratic way. That will be beneficial both for Sanskrit and other disciplines. I request them not to hide in a holier-than-thou or superior-to-thee cocoon”.

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Kunal Chakrabarti,
Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences

“The course on Yoga philosophy, going by the suggested readings, is only about the Yogasutra of Patanjali. Therefore, the three other units, mentioned in the course outline, have no operational validity and the course title is extremely misleading.

There are very major problems with the course on Indian culture. It more or less completely ignores the contributions made by two very influential religions of early India – Buddhism and Jainism, to the composite culture of India. When the proposed courses were discussed in our centre, we strongly objected to these glaring silences. As a concession to that, it seems, a smattering of books on Buddhism has been included in the bibliography, but it is not reflected at all in the course structure. It is surprising that the Sanskrit Centre is oblivious of the contributions of Buddhism to Indian culture in view of the fact that the Buddhist scholars have produced a very large corpus of texts in Sanskrit. The bibliography for both the courses contains books more or less exclusively written in Hindi. (I wonder whether the courses are meant to be offered to only Hindi-speaking students.) However, there is one exception in the mention of a volume of The Cultural Heritage of India series, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. From this I presume that those who framed the course find Radhakrishnan’s view of Indian Culture acceptable. Anybody familiar with Radhakrishnan’s authoritative two volumes on Indian Philosophy would know that he considered Buddhism and Jainism to be quite central to the evolution of Indian philosophy. Even the six Brahmanical systems of philosophy developed in close dialogue with the four schools of Buddhist philosophy.

To ignore this entire intellectual legacy in framing a course on Indian culture is to present a very distorted view of Indian culture, to put it mildly. In fact, the course offers a Hindu Brahmanical view of Indian culture, and that too a very partial and incomplete one. It is inconceivable to conceptualise Indian culture without the contributions of many Bhakti religions that began to develop in many parts of India from the early medieval period. It is also grossly erroneous and improper to disregard the contributions made by Islam and Christianity, not to speak of those millions of Indians who are not affiliated to any institutional religion, to Indian culture”.

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Rajat Datta,
Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences

“After extremely valuable and focussed criticisms made by Professors Vijaya Ramaswamy, Kunal Chakrabarti and Shivaprakash on a very lopsided understanding of Yoga, ancient Indian history and the omission of key Sanskrit texts, I drew attention to the grossly inadequate attention given to Islam’s contribution to the making of Indian culture in these courses. They made the most cursory and uninformed inclusion of one or two readings on Islam, almost as if to make a token gesture in that direction, whereas its main intention was to push an overwhelmingly Hindu view of culture based on Sanskrit texts.

I therefore pointed out (1) that a large number of Sanskrit language texts were translated into Persian during the medieval period (for example, the project of translating the Mahabharata and the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian under Akbar and Dara Shukoh respectively), (2) a large corpus of Sanskrit texts, particularly on law and jurisprudence were compiled and commented upon under the patronage of Muslim kings, nobles and regional rulers in places like Banaras and Nadia, and (3)  the Sufi-Islamic interaction with Hinduism and Hindu folk religions created the most significantly plebeian monotheistic religious movements, commonly known as Bhakti in this period.

A course which calls itself ‘Indian Culture’ but doesn’t recognise these strands in their proper historical context, is a travesty of academics.

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In fact, the biggest criticism from the house that day was the conflation of the term ‘Indian’ with the ‘Sanskrit’ and, the total neglect of all other markers, for instance, the contribution of tribes and of the so-called ‘lower’ castes to Indian culture”.

These comments make it amply clear that the spirit of the interventions was to safeguard the scholarly and academic credentials of JNU. The thought and detailed engagement is testament to the seriousness that colleagues across the university, and especially specialists in the field, have given the subject.

It is indeed a great pity that the faculty of SCSS, JNU has chosen to misrepresent this as a politically motivated attack on them and “Indian culture”. It would be far more profitable for all, and especially for students – who are always the greatest victim of ill conceived and patchy courses – if they would engage seriously with the suggestions given, and create courses that showcase their expertise in language studies.