The influence of Orientalism and esotericism on modern yoga

To better understand the beliefs that are spreading in modern yoga, especially those carried by the New Age, it seems pertinent to take a step back to examine the intellectual and literary landscape against which yoga has westernized and globalized since the 18th century. We will focus on the concept of Orientalism and its entanglement with esoteric circles.

The 18th century in Europe saw the emergence of what some call a second Renaissance: an oriental renaissance, carried by the romantics who were interested in the spiritual dimension of Asia. At this time, Westerners created learned societies in Asia to promote the study of oriental cultures, disseminate and develop knowledge of the "Orient" which encompasses a vast territory ranging from the Maghreb to the Far East. This is the birth of Indianism, which sees the emergence of Westerners discovering Hindu texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Bhagavad Gita and undertaking their first Latin translations in the early 19th century.

Born in Germany and England, romanticism gradually spread throughout Europe during the 19th century until the 1850s and is expressed in the arts, particularly literature and painting. Rising against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the romantics enliven the moods of man and his sensitivity in counterbalance to the sentiment of reason. The aim was to exalt mystery, fantasy, dream, to seek escape both in the morbid and in the sublime, to give full play to exoticism in a quest for the ideal.

In their mystical fervor, the romantics see in the sacred Hindu texts a model of spiritual perfection and wisdom to imitate. Sanskrit was then perceived as the language of origins, the Aryas as the people of origins, India as the cradle of humanity and a lost paradise, unsullied, guaranteeing a form of purity. Europe, on the other hand, had degraded and clashed with a dry rationality, losing its spirituality on the altar of exacerbated industrialism.

Orientalism: Between Aesthetic Fascination and Lever of Colonialism

It is in this romantic crucible that the so-called orientalism movement develops, characterized by a fascination for a mythified elsewhere, both free, exotic, colorful and languorous. Orientalism designs a fantasized aesthetic confusing styles, civilizations and eras, thus disseminating many clichés that are still found today in literature and cinema.

Filippo Baratti, La nouvelle favorite, 1889

In his book titled Orientalism published in 1978, the Palestinian-American academic and philosopher Edward Said develops the thesis that the image of the East in the eyes of Europeans is a conception created from scratch by the Europeans themselves. According to him, the "East" is an invention of the West which looks at itself in a distorting mirror game, and opposes an imagined alterity to (re)define itself. In other words, the cliché of the East exposed in the orientalist imaginary is none other than a colonial consolidation that exoticizes the other at the level of Western fantasies.

However, there is a plurality of discourses on Eastern cultures at that time, which does not make it a monolithic movement. We are dealing with both scholarly discourses (the chair of Sanskrit at the Collège de France appears in 1822, as does the birth of the sciences of religions), missionaries, colonizers, and artists driving this imagination. It is at the confluence of all this that we find the figure of the occultists and especially the theosophists who are going to be interested in yoga: both endowed with a certain erudition and also vectors of a colonial imagination around India.

The Theosophists and the Development of a Universal Primordial Wisdom

Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), born in Russia and the founder of Theosophy, an esoteric philosophical and religious movement, is often mentioned. After a sham marriage at the age of 18 to gain independence, she travels alone around the world to meet witches, healers, shamans from Mongolia and India, lamas from the Caucasus and Tibet, yogis from India and Ceylon, Russian and Egyptian spiritual figures, mediums, wise people who will deeply influence her.

Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891

Her spiritual questions lead her to find answers where established Churches had not satisfied her. She struggles to accept the dogmas of the strict Protestantism of her time, such as that of eternal punishment without possible redemption, and rejects the hypocritical deviations of religious institutions, such as the weight of the patriarchy. However, she also had difficulty conceiving of a morality that would only be a rule of conduct without real foundation and considers that atheism, which has removed God, is insufficient. Inspired by Eastern wisdom, she glimpses that all religions are only variations of a primordial universal wisdom, which leads her to develop a universalist religious ideal: there would be an original hidden unity at the origin of all religions that it would be necessary to rediscover.

She experiences crises (psychological or mystical?), also claims to possess paranormal powers, and eventually settles in New York around the age of 40 where she founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, with two friends: the Freemason Henry Steel Olcott and the lawyer William Quan Judge. The three goals of this Society are:

  • To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color;
  • To encourage the comparative study of Religions, Philosophies, and Sciences;
  • To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the latent powers in Man.

The Meeting Between Indians and Theosophists

In 1893, on the occasion of the World's Fair in Chicago, the Theosophists initiated the Parliament of the World's Religions: the first attempt to establish a global interfaith dialogue. For the first time in history, it brought together representatives of religions from around the world: Eastern, Asian, and Western.

It was at this event that the figure of Vivekananda (1863-1904), a philosopher and spiritual teacher invited by the Theosophists to present Hinduism, emerged. Inspired by the philosophical doctrine of non-duality (Advaita Vedanta) and by his spiritual master Ramakrishna, a preacher of an inclusive and universal Hinduism, he presented Hinduism to the West as such. (For more details on this subject, read our article Yoga and Nationalism (1/3): Conquering the WestVivekananda then settled in the United States where he gave lectures on yoga; he published the book Raja Yoga his interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga sūtra (according to this monistic doctrine) adapted for Westerners and which was a success.

Another fundamental encounter occurred when the Theosophical Society moved its headquarters to Chennai, India, in the early 20th century. Its leaders met Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), then fourteen years old. They saw in him a form of Messiah, the "world teacher" expected by the Theosophists, combining various aspects of Christ, the Buddhist Maitreya, and Hindu avatars. They obtained legal custody of him from his father in the United Kingdom to prepare him for his "destiny" as a "spiritual guide". We'll skip over the multiple twists and turns and lawsuits for this controversial custody and the sexual abuse scandals that tarnished the Theosophical Society at the time. Today we know the immense influence of Krishnamurti's thought, particularly in the counter-culture of the 1960s.

The valorization of metaphysics over the body

Often presented as the first Indian guru to immigrate to the West, Vivekananda fundamentally rejects postural yoga focused on the body (Hatha Yoga), which he contrasts with meditative yoga, Raja Yoga (or royal path), leading to liberation. He thus teaches his Raja Yoga, tinged with the esotericism of the theosophists, mixing in elements borrowed from the so-called New Thought movement. This religious thought movement, which developed in the second half of the 19th century in the United States, encompasses a series of metaphysical beliefs such as positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, creative visualization and personal power, right thinking and its healing effect (the precursor of the New Age?). This doctrine also includes the idea of panentheism, the belief that a divine force animates the entire universe. The divine is in all parts of nature and unfolds beyond. This perfectly echoes the notion of Brahman in Hinduism: the existence of a divine principle present in everything, both transcendent and immanent.

Given these few elements, we can thus trace the thread of yoga that we inherit today, developed on a complex history resulting from the expectations and projections of Westerners begun in the 18th century with the romantics, which will then evolve in the orientalist crucible before merging with the New Age religiosity of the American counter-culture from the 1950s onwards.

For further reading, also see: A sociological and political look at the New Age with Raphaël Liogier.

3 responses to “The influence of Orientalism and esotericism on modern yoga”

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