Between The Ganga And The Volga: A Soviet U-Turn On Yoga
How Soviet intellectuals dismissed yoga as a regressive philosophy, only to embrace it later.
For anyone who grew up in the pre-1990s India, Soviet books were part and parcel of the reading environment in which he or she grew up. Low-priced but attractive, these books depicted an enlightened and progressive society where religion and spirituality were relics of a bygone era. The books showcased how Soviet scientists and technologists, philosophers, poets and painters were guided by the light that emanated from dialectic materialism as interpreted by Marxist-Leninism. Every book, whether on science, art or society, would be peppered with quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Studies on Indian culture were no exception. Indian culture was presented as a historical phenomenon obeying the Marxist dialectical rules of the fight between progressive and reactionary forces. For example, in a typical piece in a leading Soviet magazine on the ‘conjectures’ of ‘Indian wisdom’, the author sees how the ‘bourgeois researchers often ignore its humanistic, democratic and materialist elements’ of Indian philosophic heritage. They saw it as an arena of ‘intensified ideological struggle between the forces of reaction and progress’.
According to the Soviet academician, it was ‘a tendentious and narrow-minded treatment’ that turns Indian culture ‘into crude mysticism and sheer obscurantism’ making it ‘a universal panacea’. The ‘Bourgeois ideologists’ try this in order to pass off Indian culture as ‘as a new word in philosophy, morals and ethics and to oppose them to socialist ideology.’
With Glasnost and Perestroika, a new picture started emerging. The picture turned out to be one in which Indian culture and spirituality had been constantly interacting and motivating some of the best minds in what was then the Soviet Union. This three part series aims to provide, by no means a complete, but a bird’s-eye-view of how Indian culture and spirituality became a light unto the soul of Russia when it suffered under the dictatorship of Marxist-Leninist totalitarian regime.
A case study: Little Blue Book of Vasily Brodov (1912-1996)
A case study of Soviet propaganda with regard to the most popular spiritual export of India can be an apt place to start.
That quite handy blue book was very famous in left intellectual circles in India. And even today, it is used by them. It was then recommended to anyone, Indian or foreign, who was interested in Indian philosophy or spirituality, so that they could understand Indian philosophy in a scientific way. The book is ‘Indian philosophy in modern times’ written by Soviet Indologist Vasily Brodov, pages 366 published by ‘Progress publishers’ Moscow, in the year 1984.
The preface by the author has 29 footnotes of which 20 are references from VI Lenin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though the book is on Indian philosophy. So it is not surprising that the book finds Vedanta as ‘the worldview of the economically dominant classes of Indian society’, or that it declares that Ramakrishna and Vivekananda ‘can hardly be said to be ideological allies’ or that Sri Aurobindo ‘in the 1930s joined the ranks of reactionaries’.
Health concepts: Yogic versus Socialist
The take of the book on the subject of ‘Yoga’ is equally dismissive. After promising to give ‘a philosophical and sociological analysis of the theory and practice of Yoga’ in the chapter on Vivekananda, Brodov discusses yoga in ancient India. He emphatically declares that ‘in actual fact yoga is not a philosophy’ but ‘both in the remote past and at present yoga is actually regarded as a definite practice of which methodological foundation is the Samkhya philosophical doctrine.’ Patanjali’s conception of man is also deficient in that he sees man as ‘cosmic and individual rather than social’ though, as Marxism says, ‘man is the totality of all social relations’. Patanjali was ignorant of this Marxist truth and hence for him ‘the theory of laws and destinies of man’s earthly life is the province of astrology’.
In the chapter on Vivekananda, Brodov becomes even more blunt, declaring yogis to be ignorant and incapable of understanding ‘man’s true essence’ while Marxism had ‘revealed the laws of social development’ and had ‘formulated for the first time the genuine scientific definition of man’s essence as the totality of all social relations.’ The author caricatures yogic view of health. After all ‘yogis believe that correct breathing may give health not only to individuals or peoples but to the whole of mankind’ which makes it ‘strikingly obvious again that they completely fail to understand or else reject, man’s social nature.’
Then Brodov rhetorically points out that ‘it is a fact known to all the world that in recent centuries India, the birth place of yoga, has seen millions of people, yogins included, starve to death and die of diseases’ . No amount of ‘correct breathing’ could save them. Indians began ‘breathing correctly’ only when they attained political independence for their country. Man’s health depends not only on the level of physical fitness or the health services as a whole but also on the socio-political causes. Then he proudly went on to say that the ‘people in the Soviet Union enjoy free medical services, an annual paid leave and some other advantages of free socialist labour’.
However despite such theoretical and rhetorical propaganda against yoga there is a hidden history behind the above lines of attack.
‘Trojan Horse of Indian Idealism’
In 1970, the Kiev studio for scientific films, a state-owned propaganda institute, had released a documentary film titled ‘Indian yogis – who are they?’ It introduced yoga as ‘Ancient Indian health-care-practice” and showed ‘Indian yogis performing extraordinary physical actions, which contradicted all laws of human physiology’. The principal consultant and co-producer of the film was Brodov.
It rekindled strong interest in yoga throughout the Soviet Union. Suddenly Soviet officials woke to the fact that yoga was a philosophy that might be contradicting Marxist-Leninism. As the official Soviet line showed changes, the Soviet press started portraying yoga negatively, even warning people that it would cause epilepsy, mental illness, and physical damage. Yoga was banned in the public sphere and Brodov was forced into further distorting yoga. He even made the proper ideological adjustments to the yoga system and got an entry for it in the official Soviet ‘Scientific and Atheist dictionary’. Finally in 1973, the Sports Committee of the Soviet Council of Ministers officially condemned yoga, declaring it ‘incompatible with Marxist-Leninist ideology and called “a Trojan horse of Indian idealism.”
Soon Brodov found himself in a leading position among a group of eminent scholars containing scientists and public figures, who took the great risk of ‘writing an open letter to General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Aleksey Kosygin with a request to legalise yoga and establish a yoga therapy scientific research institute.’
Despite such public posturing the Soviet Union was conducting secret experiments with yoga, particularly its effects in highly reducing the metabolic activities and then switching back to normal conditions – anabiosis. Soviet leadership saw the value of this research for space explorations.
In the 1970s, Anatolii Zubkov, a philologist, who had worked in India for several years, began to popularise yoga, giving public lectures and publishing articles in popular Soviet magazines. He was perhaps the first certified yoga teacher in the USSR. He was careful enough to avoid the spiritual dimension of yoga and emphasised only the therapeutic dimensions. Another Soviet researcher and a student of Indian yoga, Konstantin Buteiko, developed in 1950s a shallow breathing exercise which was ‘similar to the yogic pranayama’ and which later became very famous in Russia. It is a well-known fact that both in the Soviet Union as well as in the Eastern bloc there was an interest in Pranayama.
Bio-physicist Aleksei Katkov, who worked in the secret Pirogov Institute for Cosmic and Aviation Medicine, was highly interested in yogic breathing techniques. He discovered that Pranayamic hypo-ventilation of certain types led to a decrease in the metabolic rate and to mental relaxation. Today, the Buteiko breathing technique (BBT) is patented and employed in asthma treatment with varied success but its probable Indian roots may soon be forgotten, though occasionally it is pointed out that BBT imitates Pranayama. We may have here a Soviet case for Rajiv Malhotra’s ‘U-Turn’.
Rocket technology to Yogic technology
Despite an official ban, in 1976 Yan I. Koltunov, one of USSR’s leading experts in the field of rocket science, ran a yoga centre camouflaged as a sports-institute, Kosmos. It attracted over one thousand practitioners. According to V Pyrozhenko, initially Koltunov was interested in man’s survival in outer space and issues such as efficient breathing and nutrition, but later he turned to Indian yoga and soon gathered a very large audience.
Though Kosmos had a ’short life because Koltunov pushed his ideas about yoga philosophy too far and was severely criticised by the Soviet Communist Party’, the officials could not ignore what it had created and even supported numerous centres of “youth creativity” that drew on the experience of Kosmos all over the country.
Kosmos became a movement with its members actively promoting new ideas and practices and giving free lectures throughout USSR. Pyrozhenko points out that the ‘spiritual practices’ of ‘Kosmos’ influenced the Natural Child Birth Movement (NCBM) in the USSR, whose impact in turn, studied in the maternity hospitals of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city, is that ‘there has been a shift from the military model of maternity care towards a more woman-centered psychological model’. So yoga with its ‘correct breathing’ can bring not only health to the individual but can also transform the quality of services provided by the health care systems – even in Socialist countries.
Koltunov also popularized ‘Lung-Gom’, or yogic running, which involves doing pranayama and meditations during a long group running. (Incidentally, on Maha Shiva Ratri – the day of the great night of Siva, a similar run is performed in Kanyakumari district)
Twist in the Tale
However, the proverbial twist in the tale came from Brodov himself, who also eventually became the chairman of the Yoga Association of the USSR. Graduating in philosophy from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy and working as a lecturer in the early 1940s, Brodov was least interested in Indian philosophy. In Stalinist USSR, his free thinking had landed him in the Gulag. As World War II started, the prisoners in Gulag were sent to the front at one point. Brodov, then 33, was severely wounded and damaged for life. It was only in 1990 that he could tell then what happened:
‘After WW II. I returned wounded and ill from the front lines in 1945. The doctor who prescribed my medicine reassured me, “You’ve got another 10 or 15 years to live…’ Unfortunately, prescribed medicine helped very little. Illnesses that became more acute, cardiac insufficiency, radiculitis, salt deposits, kidney stones and many others forced me to try hatha yoga. Studying primary sources and consulting with Indian experts helped me master the elements of this physical therapy. As a result, all of the ailments that were troubling me disappeared. They disappeared without the aid of doctors or medicine. Today, being 78 years old, I give my heartfelt thanks and deepest respect to the great people of India for giving yoga to humanity.’
Brodov had to wait for 45 years to tell this truth to the outside world; meanwhile his own ideologically-mandated writings slandered yoga in the very land of its origin.
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