By modern yoga, I refer to schools of yoga that began to emerge in the nineteenth century and developed as a consequence of encounters between European and American metaphysicians and participants in physical culture (such as gymnastics and calisthenics), Indian yoga gurus, and modernity. Since the second half of the twentieth century, modern yoga has been popularized. Proponents market it as a system of body practices, particularly āsana aimed at physical health as well as stress reduction and thus the enhancement of life.
Such qualities and aims seem contrary to the world rejecting ascetic ideal associated with the Terāpanth. Bhikṣu (1726-1803), the founder and first ācārya, was a Śvetāmbara reformer who left his order in 1759. He established a new order, the Terāpanth, in 1760 and asserted that it returned to Mahāvīra’s dualist ontology, which has its logical end in an ascetic ideal that requires the reduction and eventual elimination of all physical and social action. He maintained that ahiṃsā is about the purification of the soul in its quest toward release from the body. Bhikṣu thus distinguished between two realms of value. The worldly realm consists of any action directed toward worldly benefits. The spiritual realm includes behavior oriented around ascetic purification. Bhikṣu argued that only spiritual behavior was appropriate for Jain monastics.
The contemporary Terāpanth is largely a product of innovations during the leadership of the ninth ācārya, Tulsī (1914-1997). Tulsī believed that Mahāvīra practiced a Jain form of yoga that was gradually lost, and he wanted one of his disciples, Muni Nathmal (1920-2010), to rediscover this system by means of research on Jain literature and personal experimentation. In 1975, Nathmal introduced prekṣā dhyana literally, ‘concentration of perception’, but most often translated by the tradition as ‘insight meditation and yoga. He presented prekṣā as universal and scientific. When he was selected by Ācārya Tulsī as his successor, his name was changed to Mahāprajña or ‘Great Wisdom’. Mahāprajña was consecrated as the tenth ācārya in 1994 and continued in that role until his recent death on 9 May 2010.
On the one hand, the introduction of prekṣā was not socioculturally innovative but was consistent with other social trends at the time: first, the popularization of Satya Narayan Goenka’s vipassanā (‘insight meditation’ prescribed as a ‘universal’ form of Buddhist meditation) within and beyond India; second, the turn by Indian yogis, often motivated by nationalism, to yoga as a tool for enhancing the male physique; and third, the global popularization of yoga as a practice for the enhancement of life, especially in India, the United States, and Europe.
On the other hand, prekṣā was a radical religious innovation because, in its popular dissemination, proponents embraced the worldly aims of health and well-being. Spiritual practice was not about the ascetic ideal but āsana and prāṇāyāma as fitness techniques. Furthermore, by appropriating the physiological and anatomical discourses of biomedicine, proponents of prekṣā medicalized a system that was classically a metaphysical practice aimed at purification, the manipulation of subtle energies, and mystical experience. In these ways, it is a case study of modern yoga.
The Terāpanth prescribed prekṣā for all lay people concerned with the enhancement of life. This led to an additional innovation on the part of the Terāpanth, since representatives were needed to teach prekṣā to people throughout India and the world. Thus, beginning in 1980, Tulsī introduced a new order of monastics, the samaṇas, who live a life of renunciation, but are not fully initiated monastics. Although in 1986, four male samaṇs were initiated, the large majority are samaṇīs or female samaṇs.