Friday, February 28, 2014

Yoga was "culturally appropriated"—by upper-caste Indians

Central to this discussion is “Take Back Yoga,” led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a campaign that claims yoga must be credited to Hinduism. HAF has cleverly used this deceptive appeal to white-liberal guilt, in order to get major play in the mainstream US media. The influence and “multiculturalist” legitimacy they acquire through their yoga campaign is useful for their real agenda—supporting the Islamophobic Hindu-right. According to a recent report by the Coalition Against Genocide, HAF is “positioning itself as an organization that represents the worldview of most Hindus in the United States. Although HAF projects itself as a lobby group working within a human rights framework, it has existential links to extremist and violent Hindutva supremacist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).” 
The cultural authenticity argument posed by HAF with regards to yoga is a dangerous one. Claiming that yoga belongs to Hinduism—or even to India or South Asia, for that matter—assumes the origins and evolution of yoga as monolithic. Neither contemporary “yoga” nor “Hinduism” is age-old or homogenous. Actually, both were assembled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in interaction with British colonial realities. Pankaj Mishra points out that many upper-caste Hindus were happy to collaborate with the British in shaping a Sanskritized “unified Hinduism” under brahmin hegemony:
This British-brahmin version of Hinduism—one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power, stand in a direct line of nineteenth-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of “Hinduism.”
Caste-privileged Hindu leaders, through violent domination, have culturally appropriated a variety of diverse sects, practices, beliefs and rituals that have existed for centuries. This history, of both European influence and brahmanic appropriation, holds true for yoga as well. It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.
Meera Nanda points out that the physical aspects of modern yoga as it is practiced today actually
were hybridized with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States, and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras—which has been correctly described…as "the yoga canon for people who have accepted brahmin theology"—to create an impression of five thousand years worth of continuity where none really exists. The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahmanical lineage.
How can something that is itself a product of appropriation and hybridization of a variety of cultures be accused of being culturally appropriated only now by “the West”?
If that bit interests you, read the rest, which seems to be addressed more to the Indian and yoga communities.