Thursday 30th May 2024,
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De-colonization As De-contextualization: Why The ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Argument Is Not About Yoga

De-colonization As De-contextualization: Why The ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Argument Is Not About Yoga

To my chagrin and dismay, self-appointed defenders of oppressed cultures who cast contemporary western yoga as the second coming of the East India Company have attached themselves to the fabric of yoga discourse with the stubborn persistence of a burr on a sock. Consequently, perfectly serviceable yoga programs are now at risk of being run out of Dodge (or the University of Ottawa, as the case may be).

The politicization of yoga may have some value insofar as it calls attention to the need for culture warriors within and around the yoga ‘industry’ to acquire a higher level of knowledge about yoga philosophy and history than is currently in evidence. Beyond that, however, the argument that the westernization of yoga constitutes an act of cultural appropriation offers little more than a sideshow of righteous indignation without substantive benefit for either the cause of de-colonization or for practitioners who want to gain a better understanding of yoga.

Illuminating the injurious nature of imbalanced power dynamics is not a bad thing. On the contrary, raising peoples’ awareness of privileges they take for granted and the collateral damage the exercise of that privilege causes is both necessary and healthy. But framing the ‘yoga as cultural appropriation’ argument in purely socio-political terms rather than in yogic terms undermines the source of yoga’s power and ignores yoga’s own sociopolitical function.

What’s more, in the course of confronting the issue from a historical perspective, many members of the ‘yoga de-colonization’ camp do so without knowledge, or at least acknowledgment, of the history of yoga’s relationship with the west. As columnist Michelle Goldberg put it in a recent Slate article,

What these arguments really demonstrate is how jejune the whole “cultural appropriation” charge can be—particularly when it’s wielded by people who know very little of the cultures they purport to protect. In the case of yoga, it completely ignores the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.

Back then, Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism. Britain’s colonial administrators tended to be contemptuous of Indian religion; indeed, they treated the purported backwardness of Indian thought and culture as justification for their continued rule. Indian nationalists believed, rightly, that if they could popularize their spiritual practices in the West, they would win support for independence.”

While this important piece of information has been largely overlooked, there is a conspicuous hitch in Ms Goldberg’s argument: the yoga of 21st century American consumer- culture bares little resemblance to the “spiritual practices” that 19th and 20th century Indian gurus sought to export. And therein lies the purported problem: what contemporary western yoga teachers who are accustomed to exercising artistic freedom in a melting pot culture call ‘innovation’ is condemned as appropriation and distortion by opponents of presumed neo-colonialism.

The restrictive implications of such reasoning when followed to its logical conclusion borders on the absurd: should the United Nations pass a resolution condemning Japanese Baseball? Should The Beatles be shunned for appropriating and distorting America’s musical culture? Should we boycott Bollywood movies?

Cultural appropriation is a two-way street; it seems that the cultural appropriation police only want to give out tickets to vehicles moving in one direction.

But the more significant problem with the cultural appropriation argument is that it contextualizes yoga in terms that are exterior to yoga itself. We reflexively look at traditional yoga through a modern lens because we think, if we think about it at all, that there is no other possible way to do so.

In so doing, we dismiss the assumptions of traditional yoga with nary a thought even as we present the appearance of defending it.

And it is appearance only: the ire of the anti-colonial army is directed at modern yoga with scant attention paid to traditional yoga; their efforts are that of defending a conception of culture, not of defending traditional yoga. And here is where the problem of framing doubles down: when we look at modern yoga through the lens of modern history not only are we looking through the wrong lens, we’re looking at the wrong thing.

Instead of looking at modern yoga through the lens of race, gender, capitalism, and power we ought to look at race, gender, capitalism, and power through the lens of traditional yoga.

When I say ‘traditional’ yoga I refer to the Vedic tradition from which yoga originates. The first article of knowledge in traditional, Vedic yoga is that we are eternal sparks of spiritual consciousness, not these temporary material bodies.

Therefore, a socio-political discussion confined to temporary material designations such as white/brown, male/female, American/Indian, Hindu/Abrahamic, privileged/exploited, etc. operates within the box of material consciousness, which is concerned exclusively with material designations that are, by their very nature, temporary.

So let’s think outside the box by taking a second look at ‘material designations’ by way of language, specifically, the word ‘Hindu’.

‘Hindu’ is not a Sanskrit word and is nowhere to be found in the Vedas, the books upon which Hinduism is based. ‘Hindu’ is a modern word derived from a Persian geographical reference to the people who lived in the Indus River valley or thereabouts. ‘Hindu’ has only recently evolved into an ethnic, religious, and national identity.

Relative to Sanatana dharma, a phrase generally thought of as synonymous with Hinduism that means ‘the eternal and essential nature (of all living entities)’, the condition of being ‘Hindu’ is an upapdi: a temporary material designation. In other words, Hinduism, for all practical purposes, is not actually synonymous with sanatana dharma at all.

For example, I can be born Jewish, adopt Hinduism as an adult, and later convert to any other religion. In each case I can act on the basis of sanatana dharma, my eternal spiritual identity, irrespective of the form my faith takes. If sanatana dharma was synonymous with Hinduism, that would not be possible.

Contemporary Hinduism, despite claims to the contrary, is not as inherently pluralistic as its forerunner, Sanatana dharma, which, one could argue, has been appropriated and distorted by Hindus.

What Hinduism has in common with yoga is that they both come from the Vedas. The Vedas are not a product of Hinduism; Hinduism is a product of the Vedas. Similarly,

The Vedas are not a product of Yoga; Yoga is a product of the Vedas. If you say “The Vedas are a Hindu text, yoga comes from the Vedas, therefore yoga is originally a Hindu practice” then you are indulging a logical fallacy that conflates cause and effect. Yoga and Hinduism are two branches growing from the same Vedic tree. The insistence that yoga is rooted in Hinduism is itself rooted in a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Vedas, Yoga, and Hinduism.

The greatest misfortune of the assumption that yoga is a product of Hindu rather than Vedic culture is that it denies the transcendental origin of yoga and, in so doing, divests yoga of its transcendental content. As modern, educated people we naturally think of yoga in evolutionary terms: as a product of human speculation (and primitive human speculation at that).

Again, we find ourselves looking at the Vedic origins of yoga through a modern lens rather than looking at our modern assumptions through a Vedic lens. Since yoga is a product of Vedic culture it stands to reason that we ought to consider where Vedic culture comes from according to Vedanta itself.

According to Vedanta (‘the conclusion of knowledge’), the Vedas derive their authority from their source: Vishnu, the Supreme Being. The first aphorisms of Vedānta philosophy, athāto brahma jijñāsā / janmādy asya yataḥ, establish an intention for one’s life and define the ultimate object of knowledge: “Now, try to understand the Transcendent Truth (Brahman) from which all existence proceeds”.

The concise teachings of Vedanta and Yoga, along with Sankhya and the essence of the Upanishads (the philosophical portions of the Vedas) are found in the Bhagavad-gita.

The speaker of the Bhagavad Gita is Krishna, who is also referred to as Bhagavan (the possessor of all opulence) and Yogeśvara (the Lord of mystic yoga). The description of Īśvaraḥ in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra corresponds directly with Krishna’s description of himself in the Bhagavad Gita: a categorically different person who is transcendental to the obstacles of yoga (ignorance, attachment, aversion, egoism, and fear of death), beyond the influence of time, unaffected by the laws of action and reaction, the original teacher, the unsurpassed seed of omniscience, and identical to the sound vibration ‘Oṁ’.

Therefore one who accepts the authority of the Vedas must also accept the authority of the speaker of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna. “I am seated in everyone’s heart and from me come knowledge, remembrance and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedānta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Bg 15.15).

Transcendental knowledge must, by its very nature, emanate from a transcendental source.

Thus, the Vedas and Vedic literature are understood from within the Vedic tradition to be apauruseya: supernatural, not of this Earth. From the point of view of transcendental knowledge there is no point in arguing over the earthly origins and ownership of the Vedas or the products of Vedic culture, such as yoga.

As far as  Vedic culture is concerned, Vedic knowledge is a transcendental gift of revelation for everyone, not a product of human speculation that anyone can claim as ‘intellectual property’.

As such, one simply cannot propose that yoga is the intellectual property of Hinduism without adopting a position that simultaneously supports the materialistic assumptions that yoga philosophy denies and denies the concept of transcendental revelation that yoga philosophy supports. Hence, the argument devours itself in a loop composed of its own internal contradiction: if you have to deny the fundamental teachings of yoga in order to defend yoga from being appropriated then… what is it that you’re defending?

You’re defending a materialistic conception of culture. Does yoga philosophy support a materialistic conception of culture? Nope. The whole discussion takes place outside the framework of yoga and thus is not really about yoga at all.

Despite its grounding in a materialistic conception of yoga, the movement to de-colonize yoga is motivated by an admirable idealism. Opposition to cultural appropriation and neo- colonial aggression is rooted in the need, recognized as self-evident by thoughtful people everywhere, for humanity to become one in peace, friendship and prosperity. As human society becomes increasingly globalized the ideals of unity in diversity and respectful pluralism take on an increasing urgency.

The Vedic ideals of spiritual unity are based on a recognition and acceptance of a common source of all creation. Looking at the modern world through the eyes of traditional Vedic yoga thus offers us far more than can be deduced or accomplished by looking at yoga through mundane-colored glasses; it offers us both a transcendental science for personal transformation and a cultural paradigm shift with the potential to re-spiritualize the entirety of human society.

Yoga is a gift that’s available to everyone, without exception or consideration of material conditions. The argument that yoga is a product of the material world and thus subject to appropriation is a diminution of yoga rooted in precisely the kind of material conceptions that Vedic wisdom has been imparted to eradicate.

If our discussion of yoga is merely an indulgence of our proclivity for mental speculation then the discussion has no hope of contributing to the solution of the world’s conflicts, born as it is of the same speculative mentality from which the world’s conflicts arise. As the saying goes, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

On the other hand, if our discussion of yoga centers on its status as a transcendental science for the realization, by direct perception, of a universally shared Absolute Truth then we will fulfill our duty to contribute to the perfection of human society on the basis of perfect knowledge.

By Hari-kirtana das

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