The Revival of Yoga in Contemporary India

Newcombe, Suzanne (2017). The Revival of Yoga in Contemporary India. In: Barton, John ed. Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Abstract

The word yoga refers to a multi-faceted array of beliefs and practices. Yoga is twined with sāṃkhya as one of the six orthodox darshanas (worldviews) of Hindu philosophy, having been codified by around 400CE. A distinct body of texts known as the haṭhayoga corpus appears around the eleventh century and emphasizes physical practices most likely used by ascetic communities. The ultimate aim of yoga is described by various words (e.g., kaivalya, samādhi, mokṣa, etc.); it is often described as an experience of an individual soul’s uniting with the divine, and/or becoming liberated from the material world. These historical precedents have continuities with contemporary yoga practices and for many Indians today, yoga is understood as the essence of Indian spirituality.

However, yoga took on new meanings in the late colonial period, becoming a mental, physical and ethical discipline to aid in the struggle for an independent Indian nation state; a scientific, evidence-based practice to improve health and wellbeing; and template for the evolution of an individual as well as humanity as a whole. At the same time yoga kept an association with liberation and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality.

In the early twenty-first century, all these meanings are current in the Indian context, where yoga is continuing to experience a revival. Today in India, yoga is understood as a unique and valuable cultural resource which has the potential both to revitalize an individual’s health and the Indian nation-state, being an exemplar of the unique insights Indian traditions can give to the rest of the world. Despite a notable shift in what is understood by yoga in the modern period, yoga continues to be a multivalent and increasingly popular practice in contemporary India.

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