Someone recently asked a question about the history and practice of traditional yoga, and I suggested reading up on the 1893 world parliament of religion. I thought it might be helpful to explain why this event matters for people who do yoga.
In 1893 there was a world fair. As happens (still today as it did then) such a gathering meant lots of people, and lots of smaller meetings grew out of that meeting. One was the first formal meeting of delegates representing various major religions, both eastern and western. The person who represented India (and Hinduism, and also yoga.... not the standing on the head variety, but the philosophical variety) was Swami Vivekananda. As a matter of fact his opening speech was so powerful that he became the highlights of the meeting. He went on to travel and give talks, and found Vedanta societies, and so on through the country. He was not the first person to bring yoga to the west, but he was seminal as someone who was talked about, listened to, and someone who opened doors to many others to bring these ideas to a wider audience. Although he personally represented Hinduism more than yoga, and meditation and spiritual quest more than posture and physical practice, his status and presence helped create interest in other aspects of eastern thought and practice, including yoga.
If one spends one's whole life in a small town, never traveling, never meeting people who think, or live, or eat differently than oneself, it is harder to find the commonality with, or to learn from the differences of others. As long travel became easier the movement of people, and with them culture and philosophy, also became easier. Today in Rhode Island I can make Japanese Mochi in my own kitchen, I can listen to Sanskrit chanting on my ipod, and I can turn on the computer and see news from all over the globe. While I have no interest in accepting everything from everywhere as inherently good because it is different, I also do not reject it because it is different, and it enhances my life. I am grateful every time I eat a piece of chocolate. I am grateful to Vivekananda and others of that time because without them and those who listened to and learned from them I would not be doing down dog on my mat today.
These connections are interesting, in the richness of possibility they give us. In the words of Swami Satchidananda (and Ghandi) “Truth is one, paths are many”. The shifting history that brought to the west yoga gave us a tool to look at things a bit differently, but not really a whole new 'truth'.
Before the world parliament of religions at the world fair was the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875. At least one of the founders was, in my opinion, likely a charlatan of great proportions (Blavatsky), but the ideas of the society were interesting: universal brotherhood, the study of faith and thought from around the world, and investigation of the powers within humans for improvement. Although the original society broke into factions later, theosophical societies still exist today. One of the original ideas was that we needed to prepare for a great world teacher (or guru). In 1909 the leaders of the Theosophical society decided they had done just that in the rather sickly quiet adolescent figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Coming upon the boy one of the leaders decides he has an amazing aura, and proceed to talk his family into allowing them to take over his upbringing.
He was embraced by the society and groomed to be their great leader. It was a little like the 'My Fair Lady' project. He was given education, a life without want, and the opportunity to travel and speak before followers. He was also given the idea that he was to have a special role as leader and teacher. But when the moment came, and at a large meeting where he was supposed to take on this role, instead he made a speech in which he dissolved the society, (though many of the followers did not accept that), and refused the role of 'guru'. This was his “Truth is a pathless land” speech, in which he said “....the moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth”, and ecouraged people to be their own leaders. Whatever the rest of the backstory of Krishnamurti may be (and the whole story is complex, as are all human stories) we can learn something it.
How many of us, offered the opportunity to stroke our own vanity.... to be adored, to have wealth and status, would choose to follow our own truth instead? I do not entirely agree with him. I think the problem with truth is that it is not pathless, but marked with so many footprints it is hard to follow. I think it is useful to follow teachers, just to make your own choice of how far, and where to stop, and look for other guidance. In other words, the teacher points the way, but we each choose the path. But the simple beauty of holding truth more vital than ego has always seemed powerful to me.
There have been, and continue to be, in yoga (and in any activity that has a power dynamic) the temptation to take advantage, to exploit. It is true in fitness as in spiritual endeavor. The difference is that people follow the beautiful body, rather than the beautiful words. There is the temptation to seek gratification through adulation, rather than within oneself. There is also the temptation to seek ego gratification not through one's own work and thought, but by attaching oneself to someone with charisma, or power. Many of the greatest teachers have succumbed to this. Swami Vivekananda himself said “Of one hundred persons who take up the spiritual life, eighty turn out to be charlatans, fifteen insane, and only five, maybe, get a glimpse of the truth. Therefore, beware.”. That seems a little harsh to me, but it is true we need to choose our teachers carefully, honor ourselves and our paths, find our strength within, and forge community with those others who see and honor us in our simple humanity, rather than for what they want to see, or want from us, wherever, and from whatever culture they come.