The new Patanjali of yoga

Did anyone think that Maharishi Patanjali, the giver of those priceless exercises, would become private property one day?

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Wednesday 12 June 2019
Maharshi Patanjali. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For Indians who know something of their past, Patanjali will always be associated with yoga, a sage who lived more than 2,000 years ago. In the orthodox tradition, the yoga sutra of Patanjali is considered the foundational text of the philosophy of yoga. His work and the summation of earlier accounts that he made are referred to as the Patanjali yogashastra.

In other words, we cannot think of yoga without invoking Patanjali even if people subscribe to different schools and methods of yoga. This ancient practice of yoga has been in the public domain for hundreds of years with no one thinking of claiming intellectual property rights (IPRs) on a system and methods of practice that are considered the collective knowledge of society. But new age yoga teachers are a new breed altogether untouched by the spirit of sharing that was characteristic of the earlier sages.

Over the last many decades, many yoga teachers, specially those who purvey the ancient wisdom to Americans, have been filing patents and copyrights on yoga postures they claim to have initiated. Some of the yoga exercises, although invariably a minor variation on an old theme, have been granted IPRs abroad despite the best efforts of the then Manmohan Singh government to prevent it. It had asked the

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) to compile an exhaustive list of yoga exercises to stop grasping yoga teachers from having a free run on common knowledge.

Yet, claims have been made from time to time. The most outrageous of these surfaced in May when Patanjali Ayurveda, a firm owned by yoga instructor-turned-tycoon Ramdev slapped a trademark infringement suit on a mobile app that features a yoga guru chanting the well-known Patanjali sutras.

The traditional sutras in the app named Patanjali Yoga Sutra were chanted by Ananda Balayogi Bhavnani, director, Centre for Yoga Therapy, Education and Research (CYTER) in Puducherry.

In the notice sent to the developer, the Chennai-based content developer Super Audio Madras Chennai, and Apple which hosts it, the Ramdev firm claims Patanjali is its trademarked IPR and that it has exclusive rights to the name. Ramdev’s company, which has a reputation for being litigious, said in its notice that it was “concerned with the proliferation of fraudulent and infringing activities of people who are trying to make illegal profit by offering apps posing to be part of the Patanjali group”.

That’s an absurd claim, responds Bhavnani, who says Patanjali’s wisdom has been in the public domain for well over two centuries. He was quoted by the national daily The Hindu as saying that he found it “absolutely ridiculous that Maharishi Patanjali, that wonderful and humane person who gifted us the whole yoga darshan, is now being put into a box and people are claiming that they can trademark him and you cannot even use the term Patanjali”.

It will be interesting to see how the courts handle the case since the developer has not used the Ramdev firm’s logo. TKDL has compiled a data base of 1,500 yoga moves and probably curbed some IPR claims. But did it or anyone else think the giver of those priceless exercises would become private property one day?

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated June 1-15, 2019)

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