Recently, a Muslim man was lynched by a Hindu mob for the crime of suspected possession of beef. A Dalit PhD scholar committed suicide after being expelled from a University for exercising his right to protest. The Student Body President of a nation’s leading university was arrested and jailed for protesting the injustices which lead to the suicide of that same PhD scholar. And a well-regarded secular intellectual was murdered in his home for pursuing research which questioned certain tenets of Hindu theology. These events occurred in a place often described as spiritual and beautiful, a country renowned for its mystical, ancient wisdom — India.
You may be inclined to dismiss such lynchings, murders, and miscarriages of justice as the actions of a fringe, extremist, right-wing religious group (or to indulge in knee-jerk racism about India’s backwardness), but in fact, the Prime Minister of India himself seems to approve of such righteous killings. At least he certainly hasn’t spoken out against them, and perpetrators have certainly not been brought to justice. Narendra Modi is the same Prime Minister who — once banned from entering the U.S. because of his involvement in genocide — is now embraced by Mark Zuckerberg, hosted at a state dinner by President Obama, cheered wildly by a capacity crowd at a rally in Madison Square Garden and welcomed on stage with Hugh Jackman at a concert in Central Park in New York City. It doesn’t get more mainstream than that.
When I enter a yoga class in New York City, I am invited to let go and sit still, at peace. I am invited to consider a few verses of Sanskrit. I am invited to chant Om. The Yoga Alliance requires that all yoga teacher trainings spend 30 hours on traditional texts — one option, being the Bhagavad Gita, an explicitly religious Hindu text. Over 68,000 people are registered with the Yoga Alliance, and that number is rapidly growing as 15,000 additional people complete yoga teacher training every year. Teachers are required to know the names of poses in Sanskrit and memorize verses in Sanskrit — a language used to keep lower castes from being educated and now solely spoken by the Hindu priestly caste in religious rituals.
All teacher trainings are also required to teach philosophical concepts of Karma — which refers to the circle of life and death, and implies that you are born into your caste and are defined by it until your death — and Dharma, which refers to your purpose and work, and demands conformity to your duty and nature — but are not taught how these concepts have come to be used as philosophical justifications for the caste system, both in India today and for everyone who practices Hinduism around the world. If you watched the recent documentary, Meet the Patels, that’s the modern-day caste system at work right here in the U.S. In India, the reach and impact of that same caste system are much more insidious and profound.
While I was aware, growing up, of the caste system around me, I never really understood how deeply the ironclad framework divided India’s social structure. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t fully realize the extent of the caste system — and the depth of its grip on and oppression of lower castes — until I read this essay by Arundhati Roy. The dominance and terrorism practiced by the Hindu upper castes seem to be a common thread through India’s history. The essay is an introduction to the book, Annihilation of Caste, by B.R. Ambedkar. He was a Dalit (so-called ‘untouchable’); fought for equality, as well as for women’s rights; and managed to include some safeguards for lower castes in the Indian Constitution, which he was integral in drafting. The nature of his relationship with Gandhi (who saw to it that the caste system remained in place) is particularly eye-opening.
As a yoga teacher, it’s been complicated for me to unravel the Hinduism with which I grew up; the appropriation of Hindu symbols, gods and script in American yoga practice; and the real benefits of yoga. We can argue about the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism until we’re blue in the face. However, cultural appropriation in yoga is fundamentally problematic because the Om symbol and sound, Sanskrit and Vedic texts, the Bhagavad Gita, and images of Hindu gods are explicitly Hindu in nature, and are often evoked to justify communal (that is sectarian) violence by individuals who raze mosques, forcibly convert tribal communities and dominate what is supposed to be a secular nation. Look up ‘RSS Hindu Symbols’ in Google Images. Now search just ‘RSS Hindu’; the similarities to Nazi Germany could not be more clear.
The Hindu extremists certainly haven’t missed the opportunity to promote yoga as a global New Age spiritual model in their own interests though. (See this article breaking down International Yoga Day which was promoted heavily by Prime Minister Modi himself).
Historically, yogis were seen as outliers — exceptional individuals who chose to give up their possessions, moved to a remote place and isolated themselves from society in search of enlightenment. However, shutting out the context of the ‘outside world’ for inner peace too often amounts to a version of practicing ‘ignorance is bliss’. Today, we are more globally connected than ever. We know people all around the world; we can travel across oceans in a day; and we are now able to instantly share messages, pictures, video with anyone and everyone (who enjoys the privilege of connectivity) in seconds and we enjoy access to a wealth of information at our fingertips.
What then, is the responsibility of a modern yogi?
Individuals have power. People have power, especially when they form a collective body. We have purchasing power over influential brands and organizations. We have the ability to demand better leggings, better yoga mats, better teachers and better trainings to create a more thoughtful community.
So if we get Sanskrit tattoos, chant Sanskrit verses, share Indian philosophy or post yoga poses on social media, attend a yoga retreat or a yoga teacher training, or teach or take a yoga class, we need to put in the hard work to inform and educate ourselves so as to understand the significance of our actions. It isn’t easy, but enlightenment isn’t supposed to be.