Myth #1: India is a country
Pushkar, Rajasthan, India
First myth about India, it is often called the subcontinent. In fact, not so long ago before and even during the Raj. The British colonial period, India was a nation of princely states, not unlike the city states of Italy. Before that powerful rulers who often attained that power through conquest and invasion reigned over vast tracts of the country. The result is that India is an extremely diverse nation. As you travel from one part of the country to another, you meet people with very different linguistic, cultural and even ethnic backgrounds. In the south, the people are descended from the Dravidian culture. In the north, which was subject to many more waves of invaders and conquerors, the people are of Aryan descent. Rajputs from Rajasthan are about as similar to the Christians of Goa as an English peer is to a Greek fisherman.
There are 14 official languages – each state has its own official language – and just about every religion the world has to offer. Four of the world’s great religions were born in India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Today, the vast majority – about 82% – are Hindus, but with a population of 1.2 billion, that still means that the other religions are well represented. Islam, with 12% of the population, has 144 million followers.
So don’t expect the food, language or customs to remain static as you travel. In the north, wheat is commonly eaten as bread (naan, poori, roti, parantha, chapati, etc.); in the south it’s all about rice. Many people speak Hindi – but in the south, very few.
Fishermen in Kerala
Myth #2: Yoga is a system of exercises
Yoga was lost in translation again it’s a myth. It did not survive the transatlantic voyage. What we have in the west is but a shadow of yoga’s full stature. You are forgiven for not knowing this; I also did not know until I went to India to study yoga.
Shiva, god of yoga, in Rishikesh, India
It is among the six schools (darshanas) of Hinduism, and one of the four that adhere to the advaita tradition. This is the belief in one truth, one consciousness, and all is god. Beneath the apparent duality of life – which is illusion, maia – all is one. The point of yoga is to still your mind so that you can become aware of this truth, and act accordingly.
In the classical system of yoga, known as Raja Yoga, there are eight limbs. One of them is asana, or the physical practice of postures. The point of the postures is to create and maintain bodily health so that you have the vigor to follow the other seven limbs, such as meditation.
In one of the most important books of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, asana is mentioned only three times, while meditation is mentioned many times. Meditation is one of the primary tools for achieving the awareness of truth – thus it is far more “important.”
My teacher in India, Swami Brahma dev, does not teach asana. He answers questions during sat-sang, chants during evening meditation and founded and runs a beautiful, peaceful, garden-like ashram for people who want to live in a spiritually focused environment. There is an asana teacher at the ashram, but the ashram does not revolve around asana practice. Not at all.