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Why these books by Yogi Adityanath and Baba Ramdev don’t qualify as works of philosophy

Chaudhary Charan Singh University’s inclusion of Adityanath and Ramdev books in philosophy course seems trivial but as an academic philosopher, it is disturbing.

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In the era of cutting-edge science and technology, the discipline of philosophy rarely makes headlines. However, in an unexpected twist of fate, philosophy was in the spotlight a few days back, albeit for a sad reason: Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut, UP, has included books of yoga guru Baba Ramdev and chief minister Yogi Adityanath in their undergraduate philosophy programme’s syllabus. In contrast to the recent claims made by the concerned authors, the decision — to include their books in a course that usually does not have many takers in the first place — appears trivial and even comical.

As an academic philosopher, however, I find this development disturbing since such inclusions in the syllabus deteriorate the quality and value of a discipline that doesn’t generate much attention and support in the first place, both in India and elsewhere. It is necessary then to understand why the concerned books are not relevant for philosophy education.

The problems revolve around two important questions.

First, what topics should be taught/read in a philosophy course? Can “instructions on and benefits of surya namaskar” be included along with other topics like “different theories of truth”, “is there consciousness?”, and “Ambedkar’s theory of ethics”? Second, whose works should be included in a philosophy course?

The above two questions are as old as philosophy itself because they pertain to the foundational aspects of the discipline: what is and is not philosophy? Who is and is not a philosopher? Each generation in every tradition of philosophy has responded to these questions uniquely. Tracing the trajectory of these responses is one way to understand the evolution of philosophy. Although addressing the above two questions in the present context might not be as revolutionary as the historical attempts, I will discuss both and point out some concerns about the inclusion of the two books in a philosophy syllabus.

Also read: Why Baba Ramdev’s comments on modern medicine are deeply harmful

Being philosophical

The first question that needs to be asked is: what is philosophical about the concerned books, Ramdev’s Yoga Sadana evam Yoga Chikitsa Rahasya and Adityanath’s Hathyoga: Swaroop evam Sadhana? Both the works, after a brief and scattered introduction to the concept of yoga in classical texts, primarily deal with the instructions and health benefits of asanas, satkarmas, breathing exercises and meditative techniques.

How are the above topics directly relevant to the study of philosophy? Members of the committee that recommended these books emphasised that yoga is important because of its “practical aspect” and that it is “our ancient science”. They also cited “the literary value” of these books. When did these aspects become the criteria for picking topics or books for a philosophy course? Given that the promotion of yoga by one of the concerned authors — by calling modern medicine “stupid” — did not sit well the scientific community, is this a new strategy to sell yoga by rebranding it as “philosophy”?

It might be pointed here that since yoga is one of the classical Indian philosophical schools, the information about the various bodily practices is also philosophical in characteristic. However, this claim does not understand the basic point about philosophy: the bodily practices are different from the framework that philosophically understands them.

The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’, historically, has varied meanings. In some of the earliest usages, like in Rig Veda, the word has the meanings of ‘effort’ and ‘practising (of custom)’. It is only much later, in certain upanishads, that the concept came to acquire a meaning that we in the present times might recognise: the specific bodily practices (like holding certain postures, breathing techniques, meditation, etc.) to discover atman (soul). Later, these yoga practices were systematised and given a philosophical interpretation by Patanjali in his treatise Yogasutra, which became the primary text for the philosophical school of yoga. So, the subjects of study for the yoga school of philosophy are the ontological, metaphysical and epistemological theories about bodily practices, not the practices themselves. Making films and philosophically analysing them are distinct professions. So is practising yoga and formulating its philosophy.

Introduction to Indian philosophical schools — orthodox schools (Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, Yoga, Samkhya, Vedantha and others) and the unorthodox schools (Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayutha and others) — and the prominent thinkers in these traditions has been an integral component of philosophy curriculums in most of the Indian universities. When there are already well known books on these topics, it is difficult to understand the inclusion of the concerned works that do not even deal with the basics of the yoga school of philosophy.

Also read: Meet ‘philosophers’ Yogi, Ramdev — their yoga books to be taught as philosophy in UP varsities

The labour of philosophy

The above discussion on what Patanjali did for yoga illustrates lucidly the work of a philosopher. It is a profession that requires specific expertise: providing conceptual clarifications, fine-tuning arguments, unearthing fundamental aspects of the concerned topics, and others. However, deciding who is and is not a philosopher has been a difficult and contentious question in the Indian context. Apart from the modern academic institutes, philosophy still thrives in traditional sites of learning (like madrasas, Hindu mathas, and Buddhist, Jain, Christian monasteries, among others) and is also “performed” by Tatvapad and Sufi practitioners, to name a few.

Accommodating this rich diversity of forms has been one of the central challenges for academic philosophy and there have been attempts to address these concerns. Curriculums have been designed to introduce various topics and thinkers from both Western and Eastern traditions of philosophy. There have also been projects to establish the dialogue between academic scholars and traditional practitioners of philosophy.

These attempts have not been completely successful and much needs to be done still. Yet, in contrast to these meaningful experiments, adding the concerned books is thoughtless and nullifies whatever minute progress that has been made. A reason mentioned by the selection committee to include these books was that one of the authors is a “yoga guru…he has taken yoga to the masses”! The contemporary notion of yoga as a practice of postural asanas is a recent formation that was catalysed by various factors, one of which is the nationalistic efforts to showcase yoga as a timeless “Hindu” exercise. This process involved selectively choosing to represent the connection of the bodily practices to the classical philosophical traditions and, at the same time, purging the tantric elements — like magic, alchemy and sexual practices — which were integral to hatha yoga. It is this simplistic and selective narration of the complex history of yoga that makes possible to inaccurately equate the concerned authors as “philosophers”.

To include the two books in a philosophy curriculum is to disrespect the discipline as a domain of activity that requires specific expertise. Philosophy is indeed open-ended. But this does not mean that everything is philosophy and anyone can pass as a philosopher.

Varun Bhatta @werunom is Assistant Professor of philosophy at IISER Bhopal. He is the co-founder of Indian Philosophy Network, a collective for academic philosophers in India, and is part of Barefoot Philosophers initiative. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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