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Yoga Practitioners And The Unspoken Global Aspirations Of Indian Ethno-Nationalism (Patrick McCartney)

yoga practitioners

If an individual participates in the global yoga phenomenon in some way, does this leave them susceptible to becoming an unwitting supporter of a violent Hindu nationalist ideology? And, does this make them a yoga fundamentalist?

One of the more pressing matters involves clarifying the link(s) between the consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles and the potential for banal support of a Hindu supremacist ideology. My main argument is that an individual does not need to be aware of a Hindu supremacist ideology to, at least tacitly, support it.

The unwitting support occurs through the affective sharing of symbols, narratives, histories, and practices. It is through the consumption of fetishized, Hindu-inspired objects of worship, like the ubiquitous presence of Hindu deities in yoga studies, and the use of Sanskrit prayers (mantra-s), expressions, practices, and identities, which exposes the consumer of global yoga, first to a Hindu idiom, and possibly later, to supremacist ideology.

Sanskrit, as this article in the Times of India explains, is considered the “Latin of Asia”.  Interestingly, as a deva-bhāṣā (“language of the gods”), this post-vernacular language plays a central part in the political theology of Hindu supremacists, the Indian state and the experiences of global yoga practitioners.

Many global yoga practitioners assert that an apolitical disposition is key to expressing an “authentic yogic identity”. This assertion comes from the consumption of the dominant narratives found within the global yoga industry, which are typically inspired by nineteenth century romanticism and the exoticization of the Orient. Today, these narratives are reconstituted and institutionalized by the Indian state’s tourism and health ministries to promote spiritual tourism, trade and development opportunities in India.

The apolitical rationale is normally explained through the sacred/profane dichotomy. The perceived distraction and sullying interference that any mundane activity, like politics and social activism, could potentially have on the spiritual aspirant is considered by many, to be avoided. For other, more casual, consumers of yoga-inspired services, the issue of politics is less troubling.

That is simply because many people just want to “relax” and “unwind”, and find the effect of stretching, deep breathing, and moving in unison with a group of like-minded people to have therapeutic effects. As one respondent at a yoga studio explains, “our lives are busy enough, I don’t come here [to the yoga studio] to think about this crap, I come here for myself. I’m busy and stressed enough as it is”. Another consistent refrain by yoga practitioners, whom I have met in my research, assert that “yoga and politics don’t mix”.

Yoga, as a technology, has also become emblematic of an essential cosmopolitan aesthetic and bourgeois aspiration to improve the body, self, and nation. Yoga and capitalism are uniquely convivial in this regard.  Furthermore, self-identifying as “apolitical” is still a political disposition, helping directly to facilitate the soft power initiatives of the Indian state. As, the Indian state hopes that global yoga practitioners will remain uninspired and disinterested toward the domestic and international politics of India.

However, we cannot assume that the casual consumer of yoga-inspired lifestyles knows, or cares, about the questionable activities of Hindu supremacists. They should care, because the global aspiration is to create a pan-global Hindu world, which is eerily similar to ISIS’s caliphate. Therefore, self-reflexively, the question is worth asking: how much does my own interest in yoga and work within the global yoga industry legitimize and support a global ethno-religious agenda to create a Hindu world?

As a scholar, who works at the intersection of the production of desire and the politics of imagination within the field of yoga studies; and, who has taught yoga around the world for two decades, I am unable to answer this question as satisfactorily as I would like. What, then, are the consequences for the casual consumer of yoga products, who has little regard and/or interest for the complexities of history related to the politics of yoga?

Hindu supremacists advocate the supremacy of their group above all others, especially in the public domain. This is mostly located in the “patriotic” rhetoric of several disparate groups, which are normally identified as the Sangh Parivar (“The Family of Organisations”), and share the common goal of creating a “cohesive Hindu identity”.

One example of the politics of yoga is found through the political affiliations of the World Yoga Day organizers, which, in Australia, at least, are the international branches of the core groups of the Sangh Parivar. These groups are the Overseas Friends of the BJP (Indian Peoples Party); The Hindu Volunteer Corps (HSS), which has several links on its website to other members of the Sangh Parivar, and makes explicit its support of the Hindutva ideology (literally, it means “Hindu-ness”, and is often ideologically interpreted as “Hindu first”) through its reverence for the founders of Hindutva ideology in its Sangh Geet (‘Sangh song’ book), and The Hindu Council of Australia.  These articles in The Wire and in Frontline lucidly explain the relationship between the Sangh Parivars ideology and its political allies.

The political soft power of yoga, Ayurveda, and spiritual tourism to India are used by the Indian state on the global stage to rebrand India, and demonstrate the centrality of the new approach to cultural diplomacy.  Padaruth explains that the soft power initiatives have been deployed as part of Indian statecraft for some time.

Ancient and modern Indian literature on politics is replete with examples of the superiority of soft power in public affairs dealings. Chanakya’s conception of “samman” (respect) and “dana” (gift) clearly points at the importance of soft power in ancient Indian politics. The Upanishads have, unequivocally, taught that the whole world is my family (Vasudaiva kutumbakam).

An article in The Wire alludes to the social engineering of the Hindutva ideology, and how it is used to appropriate the symbols of others. Ironically, this is a claim often labelled at global yoga practitioners for their appropriation of Hindu symbols and practices, as cogently discussed by Shameem Black in in The Conversation.

The Indian republic is constitutionally socialist and secular, and Sanskrit’s literary canon has ample examples of secular and sectarian literature.  However, for many Hindus, and Indians alike, the practice of Vedic Chanting, in Sanskrit, is an important heritage marker, and a source of identity, cultural pride and inspiration, as an article in the Indian Express indicates.

This has led to Sanskrit, and more recently, yoga, entering UNESCOs  “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list. For others, particularly oppressed minorities, Sanskrit is an enduring symbol of upper caste hegemony.  Interestingly, practitioners of a popular global yoga also rely on what I define as the Sanskrit episteme for similar reasons. Quite often, this interest in all things Sanskrit engenders a romanticized consumption of necessarily simplified, new-age sensibility.

One, of course, should make a clear distinction between Hindus and Hindu supremacists, because uncritically lumping these groups together is as rudimentary and offensive as labelling all Muslims “terrorists”. Yet, just like in Islam, where moderate practitioners of the faith and radical fundamentalists converge on the same Koranic sources, Sanskrit is one of the tacit, underlying threads that joins the yoga and Hindu nationalist worlds together. This includes the use of Sanskrit by people who would not even identify as Hindu, which explains perhaps the tricky, and all too silent, position of moderate Hindus in the face of Hindutva.

A clear example of how a supremacist narrative is woven into the global yoga discourse involves David Frawley, a very popular, yet controversial scholar of yoga and Ayurveda, according to the Economic Times.  Many of his peripheral (and possibly core) students would not realize that he is an ardent, unapologetic supporter of Hindutva.

His students, accepting his truth claims as valid, are enculturated into a right-wing interpretation of history, culture and society, all of which occurs through a yogic idiom.  As Frawley is a long-standing influential figure in the New Age spiritual yoga world, many people consume his discourse without appreciating the political narrative embedded within it.

Examples of Frawley’s inclusion in yoga teacher-training curriculums are easy to find.  The Ray of Light Teacher Training is just one example. While Frawley’s inclusion in this curriculum, and central role in the training and inspiration of the owner of this yoga business, does not automatically lead to support of a Hindutva world view, it certainly normalizes his rhetoric and legitimizes his position of authority.

The Vedic Foundation demonstrates how this process of normalization works. Quite often, in yoga classes, one will hear the patently false claim that “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages”. This “fact” is uncritically recycled through many yoga studios and teacher-training courses. However, as the Linguistic Society of America explains, there are thousands of languages spread across several language families. In fact, the leading linguistic organization Ethnologue currently cites 147 distinct families. Genetically, Sanskrit only belongs to one of these families, namely, Indo-European.

These ideas are uncritically consumed and reconstituted also by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) generally known as the “Hare Krishna” movement.   One video from the annual Polish Woodstock festival, where ISKCON establishes Krishnas “Village of Peace”, suggests, among other things, that the Ka’bah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is a Shiva lingam,  a potent symbol of Hinduism related to the Shaivite sect. This is part of a post-truth campaign that posits a global Vedic civilization as the aboriginal culture (Urkultur) of humanity, and claims that Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were the first humans. And, due to the cyclical time of Vedic cosmology, we are supposedly in the process of returning to this pan-global Vedic “way of life. The “Vedic creationism” of ISKCON is encapsulated by the construction of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, which can be viewed as a three-part model on YouTube.

Stephen Knapp has been an ISKCON follower and priest for decades, a former chairman of the Detroit ISKCON temple, and is the current president of the Vedic Friends Association. Knapp is an author of several books, one of his most notable publications is titled Proof of Vedic Culture’s Global Existence. In the book on page 76 he explains that the Sanskrit term for Australia is apparently not the Latin-derived Terra Australis (“southern land”), but rather astra-laya, or the “abode of weapons.”  Knapp suggests this is the result of a pre-historic global Vedic culture, and that Australia was the location where the brahma-astra nuclear weapons were located and tested.

The shared ideology between Hindutva and ISKCON is not hard to establish. According to an article in DNA, the leader of the World Hindu Council (VHP) claims that the Middle East, Africa and Europe were previously Hindu, while a senior member of ISKCON explains his organization’s support for creating the shared aspiration of a Hindu/Vedic nation and world.

There are several ISKCON-affiliated retreat centers in many countries linked to this sectarian group. In an article in Firstpost  we learn about the ways in which environmental movements overlap with Hindutva ideology. While Govardan Eco Village, India, has won an international tourism award for its blend of yoga, spiritual tourism, and an ecologically-sustainable ethos, it is linked to ISKCON and the Jivanmukti Yoga brand.  The links between organizations that promote ecologically sustainable sensibilities and Hindutva ideology need to be studied in further detail.

The Sanskrit episteme is at the core of the global popularity and utopian-inspired imaginings of yoga for both self-styled yoga “modernists” and “traditionalists”. It is used to re-enchant disenchanted worlds through the consumption of various yoga-inflected lifestyles through the Indian state, which uses the cultural capital of its yogic heritage to generate prestige, economic investments, and effect ge-political outcomes on the global stage.

The task, then, of decolonizing yoga is exceptionally complicated, as it inevitably leads to discussions of yoga fundamentalism, as Joseph Alter explains in demonstrating the link between fitness, health, yoga, the Indian state, and an assertive Hindu nationalism. For example, in The Indian Express the leader of the World Hindu Council (VHP) explains the global aspiration to create, not only a Hindu nation, but also a Hindu world, where Sanskrit replaces English as the global lingua franca. This plan is made clearer in a lecture given by the founder of Samskrita Bharati, which is the linguistic-cultural wing of the Sangh Parivar.

However, in a rather contradictory way, this appeal to purity and authority is often found in apposition to the claim that Hinduism is not like the Abrahamic (i.e. monotheistic) religions. In this version it is argued that Hinduism should not be considered a religion at all, but rather as  as sanātana dharma (an “eternal way of life”).  This shared use of the dharma narrative is another way in which these worlds merge.

Scholars like Peter van der Veer, Romila Thapar, Meera Nanda, and Christophe Jaffrelot describe how the supremacist concept of Hinduism ultimately semiticizes, through conflation to a monolithic identity, the very diverse “way(s) of life” it supposedly promotes. This results in a streamlined monotheistic identity, which places the metaphysical body of the secular Union Territories of India with a divinized Hindu nation-state.  The state comes to be known, anthropomorphically, as Bhārata Mātā (Mother India).  Veneration focuses around a single “holy text”, alternating between the Bhagavad Gītā, often referred to as the “Hindu Bible”, and the Indian Constitution, itself.

These associations are not fringe aspirations. Instead they involve key ministers of the Indian government, who attend and give keynote addresses at conferences, such as one titled Re-establishing a Vedic India. They also involve people like the controversial yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, who has announced his plan to build a “Vedic India and a Vedic world” to much applause from the audience.

Finally, while the world is worried about the rise in populist politics, and the appeal to disaffected and marginalized populations yearning to join organizations like ISIS, there is little discussion about the insidiously subtle ways in which global yoga practitioners are potentially radicalized into a supremacist ideology, without even knowing it.

While the only bombs these yoga practitioners might be dropping are of “ॐ/om” the meditation type, , the global popularity of yoga, combined with the expansionist ideals of the Indian state and the Hindu supremacists groups requires greater attention, since what is envisioned turns out to be a pan-global Vedic (i.e. Hindu) theocratic state.

It is particularly troubling, when we realize that many global yoga practitioners do not even understand, or care, about the tacit ways in which they may support these kinds of supremacism and fundamentalism.

Patrick McCartney is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and a Lecturer in linguistics at the University of Adelaide. He has accepted a 2-year fellowship at Kyoto University. He works at the intersection of the politics of imagination, the economics of desire, the sociology of spirituality, and the anthropology of religion.  His research is enriched with ethnography in yoga studios, online forums, yoga teacher-training courses, yoga festivals, and Sanskrit-speaking” villages. He wishes to thank Elizabeth De Michelis, Pallabi Roy, and Rohini Bakshi for reading the article and offering comments.

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