Word of the Week: Yogi, a word for the spiritually wise – art and culture

Yogi (noun), a practitioner of yoga, a person who is an authority on yoga, has practised yoga and attained a higher level of consciousness.

Usage: The Beatles became devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had translated his knowledge of yogic practices into a new science of “Transcendental Meditation”.

The English word yogi comes, of course, from the Hindi योगी (yogī), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit योगिन्(yogin),which descends from the verbal root yuj (coming from युनक्ति (yunakti), to connect. In Hinduism, the god Lord Shiva and his consort, the goddess Parvati, are often depicted as an emblematic yogi–yogini pair. It must be admitted, however, that in the West, the word “yogi” became popular from the cartoon character, Yogi Bear, who was known for conning tourists out of their picnics – a far cry from the Indian yogi’s meditative practices based on profound religious and spiritual training.

Though the earliest evidence of yogis and their spiritual tradition is found in the Keśin hymn 10.136 of the Rig Veda, which is as old a Hindu tradition as it is possible to get, the term yogin also appears in the Katyayana Shrauta-sutra and in chapter 6 of the Maitri Upanishad, where it means “a follower of the Yoga system , a contemplative saint”. The term also sometimes refers to a person who belongs to the Natha tradition.

While the term yogi clearly has a very specific meaning, it can, by extension, be applied to people who demonstrate the qualities of yogis without necessarily being trained in yoga or meditative practices. I remember describing my old boss, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as someone who was “anchored in himself like a yogi”, immune to either pleasure or pressure, able to focus on the challenges before him with serene detachment. To the best of my knowledge he had never practised yoga, but was rather a Wise Man in the African tradition, someone who practised these virtues as hallmarks of personal character rather than as the fruits of a spiritual or religious system.

Yogi Bear is a totally different phenomenon, and I remain at a loss at to why his creators dreamt up his first name, since the avaricious bear in question displays not a single yogic quality. Nor does the other famous American “Yogi”, the baseball player Yogi Berra, who no doubt acquired his monicker only because of the similarity of his Italian-derived surname to that of the eponymous Bear. Still, this has led many Americans to be bemused by the term, precisely because they associate it with a cartoon bear and a baseballer rather than with any other-worldly spiritual wisdom.

On the other hand, we in India have the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Bisht, who chooses to go by the name “Yogi Adityanath”. From his sponsorship of a thuggish “Hindu Vahini” to his propensity for proposing changes to the names of towns across the country, there seems nothing remotely Yogi-like about Mr Bisht. Still, it is one of the anomalies of the Hindu faith that there is no single recognized spiritual body to award official certificates of Yogi-hood. Various bodies award the title of Yogi, for people of varying qualifications and spiritual merit. At the end of the day, all that matters, if you want to be a Yogi, is the number of people who are prepared to take you at your word, and accept you as one.

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