[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]
In 2009, the noted Dutch anthropologist (and New Directions in the Study of Prayer Advisory Committee member) Peter van der Veer published, in the journal Social Research, an article devoted to explaining the origins of modern spirituality. Committed to Talal Asad’s call for an “anthropology of secularism” and riding on the coattails of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, van der Veer argued that modern spirituality first emerged in the West during the second half of the nineteenth-century, as an alternative to traditional religion fueled by the “secularization of the western mind.” In search of alternatives to institutionalized Christianity, the nineteenth-century witnessed the rise of various movements—Transcendentalism, Christian Science, Theosophy—hoping to discover a universal spirituality agreeable to the modern intellectual palate.
The desire to look beyond the conventional in pursuit of the spiritual, according to van der Veer, was enabled by western imperialism, which paved the way for Euro-American encounters with Indian and Chinese spiritualities. These were eventually reimagined and transformed to go beyond the dogmatism of Christianity. Engendered by the interaction between metropole and colony, the oppressed and the oppressor both played a part in the creation of a new spirituality—thus van der Veer’s startling conclusion that modern spirituality is incomprehensible apart from the expansion of European power. This, like much of the recent literature devoted to the anthropological turn to the secular, also suggests that contemporary notions of spirituality and religion are rooted in the not-so-distant past.
A recent Der Spiegel piece by Manfred Dworschak, entitled “Salvation Without a Savior” (Erlösung ohne Erlöser), nicely illustrates how van der Veer has recently applied these insights to the history of yoga in North America and Europe. The first half of the article centers on the significance of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.