Chennai: The recent announcement by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami that ‘Yoga’ will be taught in all schools in the state as part of “skill development of students” and to help enhance their skills, mental peace and physical strength, was intense enough to trigger a dialogue in the ethereal world between the great thinker and philosopher Patanjali, whose ‘Yoga Sutras’ are at the fountainhead of the Indian philosophy of meditation, and the social reformer and iconoclastic prophet of rationalism in modern Tamil Nadu, Periyar E V Ramasamy. By some strange telepathic coincidence, they caught up with each other in a candid conversation high in the air. You may like to listen in to this breezy allegorical narrative, as another candle to the search for Truth.
PATANJALI: So glad to meet you Periyar ji, though we may be poles apart. But now that we have eschewed our respective bodies, we are far freer to interact in the ‘third world’ of Ideas.
PERIYAR: I am equally astounded Patanjali ji. I have always stood for free exchange of ideas as a rationalist with a scientific temper. But how did you pick on me, as I am more known to my terrestrial ‘Thambi Maargal (younger brothers) as an atheist and an unsparing critique of the ‘Vedic’ system?
PATANJALI: That’s no issue; you know my memories transcend time. But the immediate telepathic trigger was the announcement by the Chief Minister of the State where you worked all your life – even your birthplace is fondly called by your admirers as Erode Gurukulam - saying they will take steps to teach ‘Yoga’ in all the schools, though more as a skill development sort-of-thing. Does it breathe down on you?
PERIYAR: We have to wait and see. I have always been down-to-earth. If it (Yoga) is only to do with stretching exercises and bodily poses for a better, healthy life of the mind and the body, selfies apart, my Tamil brothers now may not mind. I can see many of them are already practising it one way or other, with even Tamil manuals in Yoga freely available. To top it all, the UN has made it a global recipe now for good health, and Palaniswami may not have had much of a choice in the present political climate! ‘Yogic’ exercises, like a stripped-down version of the PSLV may be okay as Tamils go on higher economic growth path, but should it come with all the trappings of the infamous ‘Kula Kalvi Thittam’, then at least my ardent brothers down below would have a hard rethink.
PATANJALI: But Periyar ji, do you still believe in the Aryan-Dravidian divide? Is not what they call ‘Bharat Varsh’ that is now India have an underlying cultural unity for ages?
PERIYAR: My visit to Kaashi in my earlier days, when I wanted to renounce the world, was the eye-opener. It simply demolished my traditional, received worldview, when people like me, without the right caste-marks, could not even get food in a Choultry there! I saw half-burnt bodies of people floating ‘anaadic’ on the Ganges, when all the rituals were meant to send the dead ones peacefully to heaven. The rationalist in me was born in Benaras!
PATANJALI: I do appreciate Periyar ji. But ‘Yoga’ is not something entirely ‘Vedic’ and happily predates the ‘Manusmriti’. In fact for long years, nobody took me seriously, until much later, my aphoristic ‘sutras’ were all systematised and interpreted by Sage Vyaasa as ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. In fact, Yoga’s metaphysical basis lies elsewhere, in the ‘Saankhya’ system, which postulates two principles to explain the universe – ‘Purush’ (self or soul, or pure undifferentiated consciousness or whatever you may call it), and ‘Prakrti’ (the world of matter), an entirely mechanistic natural world that operates through the three ‘Gunas’ (qualities) that informs all forms of physical existence.
PERIYAR: Yes, Patanjali ji. I have heard of this and how Lord Krishna had systematised this doctrine of ‘Yoga’ on the Kurukshetra battlefield when he delivered his ‘baashan’ to Arjuna that later came to be known as the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. But our issues in the socio-political turf were quite different: very high, almost impossible entry barriers due to the caste factor, what in WTO language today would be termed ‘non-tariff barriers’. So, though born in a devout Vaishnavite family, I, as one leading the ‘Self-Respect Movement’, had to logically make it a critique of the entire ‘Varna system’. In fact, even the concept of ‘Prakrti’ is not problematic, for we too believe in Nature (‘Iyarkkai) working out its due course, but the problem is with the concept of ‘Purush’ or the ‘soul’.
PATANJALI: But the idea of ‘Yoga’ is to even make one detach the idea of ‘soul’! (Both break into a roaring laughter). It (Yoga) is ‘chitta vritti nirodha’ – complete cessation of all mental activities and all these exercises and observances are only to aid the achievement of that goal-. There is a possibility of people misusing the ‘paranormal’ powers that one could gain through the systematic practice of ‘yoga’, but I clearly warned against such tendencies in my ‘sutras’. All modern manifestations of ‘yoga’ including ‘Hatha Yoga’ are not necessarily to be traced to its source! We were an oral tradition and had no patents then! (both have a hearty laugh again).
PERIYAR: As a rationalist, I quite see your point. Though you also spoke of the concept of ‘Ishvara’ or God in your ‘sutras’, as some sort of a unique one-stop point to focus all the meditative energies and chants, the flexibility in your approach made even Buddhism and Jainism take to ‘Yoga’, much as the modern West has gone gaga over Yoga. But your classical/ puritanical followers’ only take the hegemonic interpretation and that is the problem my ‘thambi maargal’ face even today! So, we thought it better, even if with some unease, to co-exist as materialists! Isn’t there a Charuvaaka tradition also after all?
PATANJALI: Well, I empathise with your position Periyar ji. ‘Yoga’ is a health option for anyone, but India is truly many traditions! Let us again meet ethereally in the clouds!...