The Illusions of Scholarly Practice

The academic study of yoga is subtly at odds with its practical objectives. Intellectual gymnastics are clearly a block to the ultimate goal of transcending the mind. Although many scholars perform a great service—translating texts and explaining their history—this is largely detached from applying their teachings. Scholarship and practice are rarely combined. Even those who do both tend to highlight the former, while keeping the latter a private matter. It might inform their research, but not how they present it. They mainly write for each other, not yoga practitioners.

Part of the problem is structural. Constraints of methodology tie people’s hands, along with the need to impress senior colleagues, whose support is essential to build a career. This process starts with securing approval for Ph.D work. However radical the rhetoric of many researchers, an inherent conservatism underpins everything. Plans with institutional backing are generally easier to pursue. Of course, trends change, as in all fields, but the pace can be glacial, and the influence of elders looms large over everyone.

A recent novel by the Buddhist academic C. W. Huntington—entitled Māyā—presented an archetypal scholarly colossus named Abraham Sellars, “an internationally renowned historian of religion who occupied an endowed chair at the University of Chicago.” This intimidating egghead is first introduced as a guest at a party, “sipping his scotch, gazing down like some Olympian deity on me and my life.” Sellars is the Ph.D advisor of the novel’s narrator. With echoes of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the plot involves a quest to escape his intellectual straightjacket. As Huntington puts it:

Abe Sellars had never himself set foot in India, and he had no desire to do so. His interest in Indian culture was strictly professional. He delighted in exposing the delusion and outright hypocrisy that—in his view—lay behind ancient Hindu ritual practices and, one gathers, behind the entire ancient Indian religious world. He had built his substantial reputation brick by brick, demonstrating in considerable detail how—through a meticulous historical analysis—humanity’s deepest spiritual impulses could be adequately understood in terms of power and wealth. Abe Sellars was a man of formidable intelligence, but he was cursed by a sort of reverse Midas touch: In the brilliant light of his intellect, everything could be explained and everything turned to dust.

I once encountered a similar character in the flesh. Unlike Sellars, he had spent time in India, and even studied with traditional teachers. But he spoke with pride of exposing the fallacies in their philosophies. He also shared his delight at annoying the seekers among his fellow students with awkward questions. A laser-like force seemed perpetually poised to burst out of his forehead—by way of his mouth and computer keyboard—to scythe down opponents.

Nothing seemed to strike him as quite so absurd as the “scholar- practitioner.” A scholar was either a scholar or a misty-eyed fraud. Over the years, he had taken great pleasure in picking apart the less erudite work of more spiritual colleagues. “This is a daring attempt to elucidate complex material,” says one such review. “It is also misguided, because the author’s Sanskrit is not up to the task.” Having listed a range of mistakes, he zeroes in. “Other errors are more fundamental. They are perhaps a reflection of the mystical zeal underpinning this study.” 

Perish the thought that one might actually see merit in putting theory into practice. For a start, it was riddled with blatant superstition. As the stand-in Sellars once asked a packed room: “How can mumbo jumbo bring about a state of enlightenment?” Respect might be due to its author—like admiring creators of primitive art—without needing to swallow the doctrine wholesale. Anything more than such rigorous detachment would render one gullible, and therefore unserious in scholarly terms.

The tyranny of this sort of thinking makes writing obscure. Translators seem at pains to avoid using terms that the average practitioner might find accessible, defending their choices as technically accurate. “People think yoga means union and you have a great chance to educate them,” a friend was told by a colleague who was editing her work before publication. His preferred explanation was “psychophysical subjugation.”

This reflects deeper issues within yoga scholarship. It would be difficult to earn a Ph.D by explaining how philosophy might be embodied. Engaging with traditions in practical ways is not the preserve of academics, for whom the word “critical” is borderline sacred. Most research is thus one step removed from the subjects it analyzes, shrouded in layers of arcane theory. Interpreting ideas for the public is an intellectual afterthought. It might serve to demonstrate “impact,” but it is never the primary focus of study.

As Huntington notes of Abe Sellars: “He had an international reputation as an Indologist, but what he truly excelled at was withholding approval.” Throughout a year on research leave in India, this domineering presence haunts the novel’s protagonist. He only starts to let go when his mind unravels during an encounter with a Tibetan:

Nortrul was charming, no doubt, but this whole pantomime about “welcoming pain” struck me as somehow disingenuous. It was fine in theory—I understood the theory—but I didn’t need more theory. I suddenly felt very much like I’d had more than enough theory to last a lifetime. Several lifetimes. All those classes and seminars at Chicago, reading the texts, arguing about grammar and syntax, writing papers so that Abraham Sellars could flood the margins with his vicious red scrawl, using his words to open wounds that would never heal because they weren’t supposed to heal. That was the idea—right?—the arguments must never end, the words must never, ever be allowed to stop. All those massive intellects on parade, endlessly churning the soup of reason. Words, words, words. Words in Sanskrit. Words in Pali. And here I was trying to learn Tibetan when it should be blindingly obvious that all the words in all the languages on earth translate into nothing but more tears.

The Buddha’s first Noble Truth has begun to sink in—the unsatisfactoriness of chasing desires, including his desire to get one over on Abe Sellars. There may be little more to hope for than similar breakthroughs by osmosis. Scholars face competitive pressures that are hard to resist, and their critical distance from yoga practitioners limits their audience. For now, as Robert Pirsig observed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.