Westerners and Indian Yoga, Part 2: A Hindu Temperament in a Westerner’s Body?

When a Westerner takes up a serious yogic practice, they frequently hear that they must be Hindu souls born into Western bodies. They are then viewed as somehow anomalous to the cast of mind, vital force and emotions that tend to develop through life-long exposure to Western culture, educational systems and social interactions. In some cases, there is speculation about whether they have taken prior births in India and are continuing the yogic practices of the past. Yet, this does not change the fact that taking birth in the West and undergoing the developmental process there has a significance of its own and should not be disregarded or undervalued. The integration of the Western and the Eastern ways of relating to one’s life in the world can actually bring about new solutions to old problems. The materialistic bent of the West needs balance with the spiritual focus of the East. The tendency to extreme other-worldly spiritual practices of the East may find a balance with an appreciation of the cosmic creation and its reality as part of the divine manifestation. Even supposing that someone brings forward sufficient mental and vital formations from a past lifetime to actually take up those activities as before (not a common, but a possible occurrence), the object in taking a Western birth is clearly not to simply fall into the groove of the former lifetime.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Your explanation of the ability of many Westerners to practice Indian yoga seems to be that they have a Hindu temperament in a European or American body. As Gandhi is inwardly a moralistic Westerner and Christian, you say, so the other non-oriental members of the Ashram are essentially Hindus in outlook. But what exactly is this Hindu outlook? I have not myself seen anything in them that can be so described nor has the Mother. My own experience contradicts your entire explanation. I knew very well Sister Nivedita (she was for many years a friend and a comrade in the political field) and met Sister Christine, — the two closest European disciples of Vivekananda. Both were Westerners to the core and had nothing at all of the Hindu outlook; although Sister Nivedita, an Irish woman, had the power of penetrating by an intense sympathy into the ways of life of the people around her, her own nature remained non-oriental to the end. Yet she found no difficulty in arriving at realisation on the lines of Vedanta. Here in this Ashram I have found the members of it who came from the West (I include especially those who have been here longest) typically occidental with all the quality and also all the difficulties of the Western mind and temperament and they have had to cope with their difficulties, just as the Indian members have been obliged to struggle with the limitations and obstacles created by their temperament and training. No doubt, they have accepted in principle the conditions of the yoga, but they had no Hindu outlook when they came and I do not think they have tried to acquire one. Why should they do so? It is not the Hindu outlook or the Western that fundamentally matters in yoga, but the psychic turn and the spiritual urge, and these are the same everywhere.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Westerners and Indian Yoga, pp. 365-370

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