Some Reflections on Yoga as Political Theology

The idea that yoga could be simultaneously religious and not religious is less the magic of modern jurisprudence and more a keen perception of a fact that is very clear in yoga’s long history in India, from the ancient period to the present.

In the last few years, yoga has been the subject of several court cases in the United States, and particularly in the state of California over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools. The courts’ ruling in California produced a compelling problem: that yoga is both religious and not religious. The Honourable John. S. Meyer ruled that “yoga is religious” yet he also observed that “a reasonable student would not objectively perceive that [yoga instruction in the public schools] either advances or inhibits religion.” The court argued that it is “religious” as a tradition and an idea, yet in the way that it is practiced in US public schools, it is not religious. Whereas a court of law usually seeks a definitive answer (guilty or not guilty, illegal or legal), here its ruling rests in a state of seeming contradiction. How can we make sense of this?

The concept of “political theology” might help. This is the idea that the key concepts of modern political theory are religious or theological ideas that have been secularised. All the political theorists associated with political theology—from Hegel, Marx, and Weber to Carl Schmitt—see this transition from theological principle to political concept as a feature of modernity, and in particular, of the influence of Christianity on modern thought. Thus political theology implies that the secular ideas that underlie the liberal state in the West have their origins in Christian religious thought. It is interesting to think about yoga through this lens because, of course, yoga did not emerge from Christianity and though it is associated with religion, yoga is practiced by people of all religions and none. A modern court of law is also a modern court of theory, and this case, the California courts returned yoga to us as a political theology, as a fluid term that is now both theologized and secularized.

The idea that yoga could be religious and not religious simultaneously is less the magic of modern jurisprudence and more a keen perception of a fact that is very clear in yoga’s long history in India, from the ancient period to the present. Even before the historical process of secularization allowed the smuggled concepts of political theology to migrate from religious to secular life in Western theory, yoga freely crossed back and forth from the worlds of mundane politics to the realms of spiritual aspiration.

As a term of discipline, yoga was first used some 4000 years ago to express commitment to the field of battle, a point made well by David Gordon White. Warriors in the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata were described as “yoked to yoga,” White tells us, joined to their chariots in the face of violence and death. This idea is deeply inscribed in one of yoga’s earliest and most important texts, the Bhagavad Gita. It is yoga that Krishna teaches to Arjuna in order to convince him to fight, to engage in that ultimate expression of politics that is war. The historical record of yoga that leads to Patanjali’s citta-vriddhi-nirodha (“cease the turnings of thought”) begins with a battle that continues to turn the wheel of dharma, the cycle of political human affairs. From its beginning, yoga has offered a theory of action, that can be actualized as a theology or a politics, or both at the same time. Yoga is, and always has been, a political “theology” in this sense for it transcends not only the modern demarcations of religious and secular, but several other binaries on which the modern world turns. To understand the US courts’ seemingly contradictory ruling, as well as the varied other ways that yoga might function in the contemporary world, we suggest it is useful to consider it as a kind of political theology, in which core principles are evident regardless of the domain in which it functions. We propose three initial principles that may inform yoga as a political theory.

Yoga is not linear

Yoga bears the marks of its origin both before and outside modern Christian European worlds. Western modernity has long privileged linear development and teleological models. Political theology has proposed that an increasing secular rationality would lead toward a more perfect judicial order based on the godly figure of absolute sovereignty (Carl Schmitt). Theorists of politics view the state as a process of providential freedom (Hegel) or political development as progress toward a heavenly communist utopia (Marx) or modern capitalism as emergent from the values of Protestantism (Weber) or the entire disciplinary edifice of modernity as “a genealogy of the soul” (Foucault). We commonly hear technophoric assumptions about the upward march of science and reason, and we can see that a variety of related political ideologies in the West invest in singular and linear accounts of progress.

Yoga, we feel, does not reflect such ideas of a line of progress toward an inevitable goal. Yoga leaves the physical, spiritual, or political goal underspecified even while it lays out a very prescribed means of achieving it. For Krishna who counsels Arjun, the object of yoga is the commitment to the war before them; for Siddhartha Gautama it is nirvana; and for Gandhi’s karmayoga it is non-violent national liberation. Yoga provides form but not content. It is a practice that offers a very specific technique but one that can be directed to an infinite variety of ends.

Yoga is dialectical

From Socrates to modern Western philosophy and the law, the dialectical process—of resolving two points of view in order to access a more perfect synthesis—is a central feature of how progress is understood and defined. However, the dialectics of yoga resolve oppositional categories without compelling a particular end point. For example, yoga, as we think of it in its conventional forms, has long proposed solutions to the mind-body problem, but these are not consistent solutions but rather adaptive solutions to each theological, political, or cultural-physical context. Yoga is at home in dualist and non-dualist contexts in Indian philosophical and theological worlds. Yoga is shared by Hindus seeking the True Self, by Buddhists seeking No-Self, by the Muslim seeking Allah, or by atheists seeking to chill. And yoga’s application to the mind-body problem easily crosses the barriers of the religious and secular, the pre-modern and modern, the scientific and spiritual. This is because the core dialectic to which yoga is perennially addressed starts with an absolute vision of the individual set against a world of infinite dialectical partners, both physical and metaphysical, theoretical and theological.

The dialectics of yoga is then closer in spirit to the “negative dialectics” proposed by Theodor Adorno. Adorno, writing after the horrors of World War II, believed that the dialectical process in the modern world would not necessarily achieve a “positive” end. Likewise, in yoga, the finale is unwritten. Moreover, in some cases, as in non-dualist traditions, the dialectic’s resolution is ultimately a rejection of the very premises on which the dialectic is first constructed. And here we see, rather than the canard of an “East vs. West” difference, a place of mutual interest, a problem shared fundamentally.

Yoga resolves the problem of the individual

What seems to unify yoga in all its forms is the way in which yoga resolves the problem of the individual, another shared concern with Western modernity and much of its political theory. In the case of yoga, any application that it might have to the political problem of collective action must first pass through the individual. In emphasising this focus on the individual, our reading of yoga’s political theology offers a way to query the stylised representations of East and West, Europe and Asia, that developed during the European enlightenment and continue to hold sway today. Far from representing a culture in which the individual is subsumed to a collective that is often construed as dominated by a religious world view, yoga gave rise to this preeminent technique of the individual. By contrast, one could argue that in Europe the most potent contemporary resolutions to the problem of the collective that subsumes the individual have emerged: the hierarchically organized church, the joint-stock company, and the dominant political form of the liberal nation-state, all formations of the modern that were rooted in religious ideas that migrated to the social imaginary of the secular. Yoga transcends the dogmas of church structures, defies the legal confines of corporations, and evades the borders of nation-states. Yoga remains unconfined to any of these because it resists the collective locus; it is a technology of the individual first and foremost.

In using the idea of political theology, we are borrowing a Western theoretical paradigm to understand yoga in a contemporary secular liberal democracy. But yoga also provides a way to think through – and possibly even out of – the constraints of current ideas about political theology. Yoga might help to re-theorise political theology as a shared idea that helps us understand non-Western, non-linear, and non-Christian ideas as they flourish in the contemporary global ecumene.

Sunila S. Kale is Associate Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, where she is also the Director of the South Asia Studies Center. Her first book, Electrifying India (Stanford, 2014), examines the politics of India’s electric grid from before independence to the early 2000s. 

Christian Lee Novetzke is Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Religion and Public Memory (Columbia University Press 2008 and Permanent Black 2009); Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation (with William Elison and Andy Rotman, Harvard University Press 2016); and The Quotidian Revolution: Vernacularization, Religion, and the Premodern Public Sphere in India (Columbia University Press and Permanent Black 2016).

Sunila and Christian are writing a book together on yoga and politics to be published by Columbia University Press in 2018.

Acknowledgments: We’d like to thank Cynthia Chirot, Dan Chirot, Naisargi Dave, William Mazzarella, Nicole Mellow, and Andy Rotman for helpful advice.