The Yoga of Definition

jzsquoteSo writes Jonathan Z. Smith in his article, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Mark Taylor’s well-known edited book, Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998). Because most scholars presume (mistakenly, I think) religion to exist prior to, and outside of, their studies of it, few understand their definitions to be stipulative–specifying the limits of the object in advance, e.g., “For the purposes of this study, religion is defined as…” Instead, definitions are most often assumed merely to describe, after careful observation, the limits of an already established item in the world that we, as scholars, have somehow just stumbled upon.

But as Smith so nicely makes evident, the problem is not the challenge of defining such a supposedly complicated thing as religion–i.e., first describing its every nook and cranny so as not to exclude any of its essential parts when we later set about defining it; no, the difficulty instead lies in regulating the many definitions of it that other people offer. Defining it therefore isn’t the tough part; minimizing the effects of definitions in competition with ones own is when the heavy lifting begins.

Regulating definitions came to mind the other today when I read Deepak Sarma‘s blog on defining yoga. Entitled Yoga and Pornography: The Problem of Definition, it comes in the wake of an ongoing California trial in which the religious nature of practicing yoga (at least when included in a public school’s curriculum) is up for debate. According to one expert witness, Candy Gunther Brown (a Professor in Indiana University’s Department of Religious Studies), yoga is indeed religious (read her deposition here [PDF]). Contrary to the apparent certainty of her judgment, a variety of other scholars have recently come out on the difficulties of making any judgment concerning what yoga really is.

In this vein Sarma opens his post by writing:

sarmaquoteMaking reference to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s now famous 1964 judgment that, although difficult to define in advance, he at least knew pornography when he saw it, Sarma seems to introduce much needed complexity into this debate to, presumably, call into question the certainty of those (like Brown?) who think they’ve nailed down this ancient practice. And ancient it is, for his blog then goes on a linguistic origins quest–not dissimilar to the etymologies of those who argue for what “jihad” originally meant–complete with Sanskrit characters and a link to a Sanskrit-English dictionary for The Huffington Post‘s more intrepid readers.

But my eye was drawn in the above quotation to the work being done by that third person (sometimes possessive) pronoun, “it”–“its origins” and “defining it.”

For although I admit that my historical sensibility is drawn to the complexity Sarma seems to introduce, the trouble with Sarma’s blog is the way it authorizes itself by presuming such a thing as yoga to exist in the world in some proper manner (anchoring it, in an earlier blog, to Patanjali, comes to mind)–that is, the problem is the silent referent for that pronoun that I mentioned earlier, the uniform “it” that apparently once occupied a context, so long ago, and which is somehow linked to ours today. It is therefore ironic that, in seemingly introducing history (i.e., variability, contingency, happenstance, etc.) and thus much needed complexity into debates on the identity of yoga, Sarma actually introduces ahistorical simplicity (though surely serving a different end than Brown’s!) by way of this notion of things having an extra-discursive life of their own.

Much as with those whom Smith critiqued, the moral of Sarma’s blog is that yoga pre-exists (by several millennia, in fact) our modern efforts to define “it,” that some sacred thread of tradition or identity snakes backward in time from discussions in courts today to authoritative texts that happen to use a related word in an entirely different, ancient language, and that this perhaps eternal thing will invariably outfox our misguided efforts to pin “it” down. While this historically anti-historical stance may be an effective strategy to try to manage others who are also claiming the right to speak on behalf of yoga’s identity–literally, practicing the yoga of definition–thereby pinning “it” down well off the map, doesn’t strike me as the most intellectually productive way to study the situation of the contest itself, and it is the latter, discrete moment, with which I think scholars ought to be preoccupied.

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