Yoga Body, a book by Mark Singleton---Add "dharma"

Shyam Ranganathan shyamr at YORKU.CA
Wed Mar 9 15:15:44 UTC 2011

Dear all,

Philipp Maas wrote: 

" In my view, a good example to support the view that there is such a
radical break between the meaning of "yoga" in Indian philosophies and
religions and its use in connection with postural modern yoga as to speak of
two different words is a statement ascribed to the actress Julia Roberts
who allegedly said that she don't want yoga to change her life. Just her

In contrast to a purely linguistic or social scientific approach to the
issue, I would like to raise a philosophical concern about defining yoga.
Namely that The meaning of a word is also a philosophical question on two
fronts. First there is the general philosophical question of what accounts
for the meaning of a word. Much work in the philosophy of language and
semantics is on this. 

Secondly, we ought to recognize, I think, that some words are used to
articulate controversial theses in a debate. Words of a philosophical
importance are of this sort, I have argued in my day job as an analytic
philosopher (for instance in my in press 2011 "An Archimedean Point for
Philosophy," Metaphilosophy 42(4)). For instance, "good," "right," "real,"
etc., are all of them words employed by thinkers with differing theoretical
and philosophical perspectives. It would be a mistake to say that the word
"good" in the history of Western philosophy means different things when
employed by Utilitarians and Kantians, for instance, for one would foreclose
on the possibility of understanding that "good" operates as a token to
articulate a philosophical disagreement between moral philosophers. It is
true that Utilitarians take external states of affairs to be the referent of
"good" while Kantians hold that only the praiseworthy will can be called
"good." But it would be a mistake to believe that "good" means something
different for Utilitarians and Kantians for if it did there would be no
disagreement between them on goodness. 

In Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass 2007), I
argue that contrary to the orthodox approach in Indology, the latter is the
appropriate stand that we should take towards "dharma" if we want to
understand the history of Indian moral philosophy. This of course runs
counter to the tradition of treating "dharma" as a homonym whose semantics
is catalogued by the speaker-identified-referent. Why ought we to take this
stand with respect to "dharma"? 

We could, if we wanted to, adopt the more traditional approach in Indology
by taking the position of a social scientist who has no interest in treading
on historical debates in India: we simply want to describe and explain what
*they* where talking about. Hence, deciding that Buddhists *mean* something
different by "dharma" (many different things) from, say, the Smartha, is a
fine way of not getting involved. And it seems perfectly objective for it
allows the scholar to retain a type of philosophical agnosticism about what
"Really Is Dharma" for methodologically she has decided that she is doing
social science, not philosophy. But this approach to defining "dharma" with
respect to its designata fails to preserve an important type of practical
agnosticism, namely the practical agnosticism that characterized the shared
discourse of Indian philosophy, where people disagree with each other. It
seems to me that a better way of simply not getting involved in philosophy
is to attempt to understand a term such as "dharma" as articulating
theoretical disagreements about what is in fact Dharma. But to do so is to
treat it as having a single meaning, like "good", across different
philosophical systems and paradigms. 

I think something of the sort is appropriate for "yoga" as well. If we do
not adopt such an approach to "yoga" we seem to be allowing Julia Roberts to
decide what is Yoga, by definition. But what counts as yoga it seems to me
is not something that anyone of us gets to decide, by definition, if it is a
philosophical issue. I'd rather us take this approach to understanding the
meaning of "yoga" for that allows the question to remain alive: what is it
that truly counts as yoga?

In taking this approach I am not denying that we cannot fruitfully define a
word like "yoga" in terms of what particular theorists or commentators
believe counts as yoga. Neither am I committed to denying that Julia Roberts
is talking about something different from Patanjali: Patanjlai's conception
of yoga (Yoga Sutra Book I.2, II.1) is a lot wider than mere tapas. But what
I am suggesting we do is resist the notion that simply talking about
different things amounts to employing a device with a different meaning. If
we allow that "yoga" is a philosophically important word, we allow the
philosophical question to remain open to discussion: whether Patanjali or
Julia Roberts is right about what is yoga. 

Likewise, historically, while some theorists might draw distinctions between
different types of yoga, it is probably more useful in understanding the
history of Indian philosophy to regard "yoga" as having a common
philosophical meaning that allowed theorists to participate in a wider
debate on yoga.

Best wishes,

S. Ranganathan, MA, MA, PHD
Department of Philosophy, 
York University, Toronto

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