Yoga and Fetishism: Reflections on Marxist Social theory./Yoga et Fetichisme : Reflexions Sur la Theorie Sociale Marxiste

By Alter, Joseph S. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Yoga and Fetishism: Reflections on Marxist Social theory./Yoga et Fetichisme : Reflexions Sur la Theorie Sociale Marxiste


Alter, Joseph S., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


  Whether one be a god or a tiny insect, the mere fact of existing in
  time, or having duration, implies pain. Unlike the gods and other
  living beings, man possesses the capability of passing beyond his
  condition and thus abolishing suffering.
  Eliade, Yoga: immortality and freedom (1990: 12)
  Imagine a being which is neither an object itself nor has an object.
  In the first place, such a being would be the only being; no other
  being would exist outside it, it would exist in a condition of
  solitude. For as soon as there are objects outside me, as soon as I am
  not alone, I am another, a reality other than the object outside me.
  Marx, 'Critique of Hegel's dialectical and general philosophy'
  (2002a: 84)

Introduction: the problem with religion

For Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, the social ontology of religion made the question of religion's relationship to experience foundational to the development of social theory as well as to the politics of knowledge. And although Durkheim and Weber in particular sought to define religion and various kinds of religious experience in different ways, the basic structure of the argument in classical social theory--whether focused on social facts or Verstehen--was binary, with religion being an inclusive category covering everything from animism to asceticism and magic to mysticism. (1) This left no room for an analysis of phenomena that are--self-consciously--neither religious nor the opposite of religion. Although focusing on the abstract nature of religion, rather than its constituent elements, Geertz's definition is similarly broad, open-ended, and implicitly binary:

  (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful,
  pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [and women]
  by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4)
  clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5)
  the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (1973: 90).

Definitions are always problematic, but I would like to suggest that an inclusive, uncritical conceptualization of religion--whether orientated towards meaning or social function--has inhibited the force of social theory in general and Marxist social theory in particular. Yoga, as it has developed over the course of several thousand years in what is now India, and as it has mutated into forms of practice in what is now China--as chan--and Japan--as zen--is really very different from religion, even though many forms of practice have been assimilated into institutionalized religion. In essence yoga can be defined as a form of embodied practice by means of which the illusion of self-consciousness becomes the truth of enlightenment. In this regard it is unique and quite different from ritualized forms of practice--including asceticism--that are meaningful and functional in the context of social life, broadly defined. Given that yoga, in all its various permutations, is fundamentally anti-social and contrary to the nature of direct experience, an analysis of yoga done from the vantage point of its relationship to social formations and social value provides an interesting perspective on social theory and the politics of knowledge associated with theory. That is the goal of this article.

In developing this analytical perspective it is important to keep several key points in mind. First, it is necessary to understand that the term 'yoga' is being used here as a broad, general designation comparable to terms such as 'religion', 'science', and 'medicine', even though the specific kind of yoga being discussed is medieval hatha yoga (yoga of force; physiological yoga) and those aspects of hatha yoga that derive from Samkhya philosophy and classical yoga philosophy as articulated in the Yoga-sutra by Patanjali in the second century CE. This allows for the translation, and transformation, of a philosophical topic with a long historical trajectory into the subject of anthropological--although not ethnographic--analysis. …

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