The Shadowlands of Yogatopia: The Unlikely Alliances between Global Yoga and Neo-Hindutva.
I was in India when the terrible rape of Nirbhaya occurred in December 2012. Actually, I flew on the same day from Delhi to Singapore as she did. I had been in India for almost 1-year, but I was flying to Singapore to meet my parents, sister and brother-in-law for Christmas; then, after a week, they returned to India with me to see where I was living and also have an adventure across Maharasthra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. But, you can imagine, my mother and sister, both of whom had never been to India, were actually scared. They had just heard about this story at the airport, and were thinking not to come to India, but stay in Singapore. It was my parents first overseas trip, so you can imagine their fear. But, they did come to India, they did all get sick, and they did all have an amazing time, while Nirbhaya suffered in Singapore, and eventually died.
After this happened, there was a huge outcry across the nation. It shocked the nation. Protests were staged, but as they went on for weeks, and intensified as well, the government tried to put out this anger with water cannons and batons, etc.
But, none of this changed much, really. The calls to honour India’s daughters while changing the mindsets of India’s sons has failed, yet again. As we continue to see the horrific violence metered out towards women and children.
The head of the Hindu supremacist group the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, decided that it was an opportunity to get political. By invoking the idea of the Hindu Nation (i.e. a fundamentalist Hindu theocratic state) through the concept of Bharat, Bhagwat claimed that the rape culture in India is a Western imposition and that in Bharat there were no rapes.
Now, there are many problems here. Let’s go through them one at a time.
This study suggests that the relationship between urban/rural areas and incidence of rape is complicated. And, that it’s basically nonsense to suggest that more rapes happen in urban areas than rural ones,
And, even though we will never know how many rapes actually occur, the statistics related to reports -> convictions in India is abysmal.
If we zoom out and compare this to the global statistics, the idea that India is not the ‘Rape capital of the world’ finds some merit.
But, this data is skewed in various ways. First, this data suggests that people in some countries feel more able to report sexual assault, while the parameters for what counts as ‘rape’ varies in different countries.
Coming back to Mohan Bhagwat and his claim that rape in India (not Bharat) is due to the polluting influence of westernisation; because, as he argues, the ‘pure’, imagined ‘village India’ is the bastion of ‘traditional’ or ‘core’ ‘Indian values’. This fervour for remembering the forgotten village in this way was championed by M.K. Gandhi. Yet, as the anthropologist, Ashish Nandy, explains, the distance and journey between the village and city has become ambiguous due to the reach of technology, which has left the boundaries between these social worlds quite porous; while today, the village is only “a statistic” and the urban Indian has lost the ability to reconnect with the shared village of the imagination. Discussing Nandy’s ideas, Gurcharan Das says that:
So, why all the rapes, anyway? One thought is that it is simply down to the over abundance of males. Like in China, there are simply too many millions of males. This is due to the cultural preference for males. Yet, even as China advances the sex robot to the next level with AI-enhanced, wifi-enabled, bodies, which, in part, has occurred to help deal with the problem of the inbalanced sex ratio between males:females; as Alex Gerdeu explains, how one Guangzhou-based company makes 30,000 internet-connected sexbots a year and controls 20 percent of the Chinese sex doll market. The dolls cost up to $10,000 each, and business is booming, in part because one company allows clients to customize their products. As the owner of the company said, “They like different kinds of vaginas in addition to different body types.”
Still, in China, there is not the same rape culture that there is in India. The simple analysis for this is the caste system plus the rise in the ultra-patriarchal, hyper-masculine Hindu supremacism (Hindutva). Shaan Kaan explains how:
“A simple answer points to the Indian caste system. There is an expression in India that “bringing up a daughter is like watering a neighbor’s plant.” India places women lower than men. There is a total and complete disrespect for women in Indian religious scriptures. The Mahabharata, Book 13 Section 40 (13.40), states, “There is no creature more sinful, than woman. She is poison, she is snake.” Other texts say that “Women are living lies.” (Source)
In an attempt to raise awareness of violence, the Abused Goddesses campaign drew a lot of heat from enraged Hindus who felt their religion and community of faith were being attacked. As aesthetically intriguing as it is, this campaign has also come under criticism for glamorising violence. As Sayantani DasGupta explains, this campaign falls short, because:
(1) Violence isn’t glamorous
(2) Female passivity/victimhood is too often valorized (and fetishized)
(3) Seeing suffering without a course of action kills empathy
(4) The images play into the idea that Indian/Brown women are particularly oppressed and in need of ‘saving’
While Rita Banerji wonders, “Recently there was a campaign in India about domestic violence that used glamorized images of goddesses like the image below. But most battered women don’t look like this! In India where women are attacked with acid, fire and brutalized in various ways they end up looking more like the woman below with her face scarred, distorted, made non-human almost.”
However, the real reason, apparently, for India’s rape culture is not the toxic patriarchy, legisimation of rape in “sacred” texts, or the caste system. Instead, the Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, Bhupendra Singh, believes that internet porn is to blame. Therefore, #pornban has been suggested as the final solution to the rape epidemic.
As this article alludes to, there are many people concerned with the possibility that porn is unrealistic, and this distorts our perceptions and expectations around what sexuality and sexual practices ought to entail. Yet, there are also many people who do watch porn… who do not rape. So, to determine that porn is the problem is short sighted, especially when porn has been a political instrument to gain liberation and awareness about sexuality and sexual health.
Now, the other thing we need to discuss is that, if the incidence of rape culture in India is a colonial imposition on an otherwise civil society, why then, do the ancient economic/political/moral treatises like the Manu Smriti, have some pretty clear ideas about about the punishments for rape and sexual assault, etc? If these things didn’t exist way back when, then why would there be laws for them? Societies generaly make up rules post facto, rather than ex ante.
Patrick Olivelle’s translation explains how:
It is interesting, sadly so, that the punishment of death for rape was not necessarily seen as a sense of justice and retribution for the survivor of such a crime. Instead, as R.K. Sharma explains, during the Vedic, and post-Vedic (śāstra), period; capital punishment for rape was meant to prevent future rapes. However, this was not for the sake of the hypothetical rape survivor, and, instead, it was to prevent the possibility of inter-caste pregnancies that would violate the caste divisions and the idea of purity. Yet, inter-caste violence continues today. Rape is a corrective tool. Just like murder.
Saurav Datta explains how, ‘Twenty two years ago, in Bhateri village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by five men. The reason was neither lust nor just patriarchy. Devi’s fault was that as a lower-caste woman, she had dared to transgress the age old strictures of caste — by protesting against the practice of child marriage, which was a staple among the upper-castes. Hence, he was meted out a “deserving punishment”. When the matter finally reached the court, the judge acquitted all the five rapists, holding, among a host of other reasons, that since the upper castes practised strict untouchability, it was inconceivable that any of the five would touch a lower caste woman. Till today, Devi remains deprived of justice.”
The Human Rights Watch created this extensive document into violence against marginalized groups in India.
Another point worth mentioning is the following. By the Indian government reacting in the way it has to the latest atrocities, to make the death penalty for rapists:
Has this actually brought India closer to the stated aim of replacing the Constitution of India with the Manu Smriti, which is the avowed goal of certain people? According to Lalu Prasad, who is a very controversial politician:
Alankar, explains that, “The RSS had laid out a clear roadmap to appropriate the Dalit vote bank for the BJP and to consolidate them under the Hindu identity through its Samajik Samarasta Manch and other social programs like ‘One Well, One Temple and One Crematorium’, but it forgot that in the Varna system, the Dalits cannot be given an equal place. The RSS, or for that matter any organisation, cannot solve the essential paradox of promoting a society based on Manu’s laws and yet assimilate the principles of equality and liberty as enshrined in the consitution. The RSS and the BJP will have no option but to choose between Manu and Ambedkar. They cannot let go of Manu since that will mean letting go of their soul.”
Now, this is the rub, as far as I am concerned. And, unfortunately we don’t have some soothing lube to liberally apply to the bits where we are chaffing. Rape is without a doubt, disgusting. There would be little thought by many global yogis that rape is okay. Yet, many yoga gurus and teachers have been caught up in countless controversy over abuse of power. It is so ubiquitous that I don’t need to bother to add any links to justify this claim. Still, Asaram Bapu was, just moments ago, convicted of raping a teenage girl.
There are more charges against him. In this seedy case, three witnesses have been murdered as well.
It was only a few months ago that another self-styled godman was convicted of rape and sentenced to 20 years. The followers of Ram Rahim Singh (or the Messenger of God, which is the title of his films) were not happy. The violence that immediately erupted ended in a state of emergency and 38 people dying.
Here is a list of some of the more well-known guru rapists. All of whom have had die hard supporters close ranks around their beloved guru and victim blame, gas light, or silence in other ways, either legally, or in the extra-judicial sense. If yoga does have the power to transform, what is going on with these so-called gurus? Either yoga falls short, or people are really just too gullible. Take Baba Muktananda, for example, it was apparently an open secret that he was sleeping with many of the female devotees. As Lis Harris’s article in the New Yorker explains.
Some of Muktananda’s most important former followers now charge that the guru repeatedly violated his vow of chastity, made millions of dollars from his followers’ labors: and allowed guns and violence in his ashrams. The accusations have been denied by the swamis who took over his movement after the master died.[…] Members of the guru’s inner circle, however, say Muktananda regularly had sex with his female devotees. Michael Dinga, an Oakland contractor who was head of construction for the ashram and a trustee of the foundation, said the guru’s sexual exploits were common knowledge in the ashram. “It was supposed to be Muktananda’s big secret,” said Dinga, “but since many of the girls were in their early to middle teens, it was hard to keep it secret.”
Yet, the schism that occurred following Muktananda’s death between the sibling co-successors of Chidvilasananda and Nityananda was anything but civil. It was, according to witness accounts I have personally collected, unimaginable. It is interesting how people either know that this happened, because they were there, or come to know later through various means; and, having invested the time, capital and emotional labour in being accepted into a community, making it difficult to uproot and find another place to sink a well, how the spiritual bypassing allows them to rationalise events and actions by supposedly superhuman yogis. Still, I’m pretty sure no one has the intention of allowing yoga to transform them into rapists…but, why are there so many gurus who have fallen?
And, so, regardless of people paying lip service or being sincere, what are we to think when popular yoga information portals provide such a shallow and Brahminically-hegemonic perspective on the such texts as the Manu Smriti? I mean, it is completely sanitised of its broader implications, which are abhorrent, at least from a western, enlightenment, humanist, feminist perspective.
If the Hindutva Parivar privilege the Manu Smriti as their ultimate politico-theological text to replace the Indian Constitution and create a Hindutva theocratic state, followed by a pan-global Hindutva ‘caliphate’:
What does it mean when an uninformed, yet globally successful charismatic yoga teacher inadvertently cherry picks some verse from Manu Smriti?
What about if this happens at international yoga festivals like the Sedona Yoga Festival?
It might seem like I’m stretching here…but the example below is indicative of a bigger problem, as far as I see it; which is related to the ways in which particular ideologies are legitimised through the commodification of yogic ideals. This leads to porous and ambiguous boundaries between how the actors within different social worlds understand the semantic valency of each symbol. When borders of meaning related to each symbol used by various actors, this can facilitate tacit and unconscious acceptance for such texts like the Manusmriti, which is just one text that any feminist would take major offence to, if they knew more of its content. In a similar way to how other religious adherents like to cherry pick versus, like from the Old Testament, but then skip the ones they don’t like:
Validating discrimination of non-cis-hetero identities based on Leviticus 18:22, but they might have tattoos (Leviticus 19:28 says ‘no’); or sell our daughters into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7; Or kill my neighbour who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death), or eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:10 says its a lesser abomination than homosexuality, but a crime nonetheless).
We find ourselves wondering about some random quote that is supposedly from Manusmriti, which is attributed to Tymi Howard from a talk she gave at the Sedona Yoga Festival in 2014 about ‘Truth, Love, God’.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Tymi Howard or the people involved with Sedona Yoga Festival support rape, or a proto-fascist political theology like Hindutva. Yet, does it not strike the reader as odd, how these texts, and the worlds they legitimise, which are seemingly incommensurable, in some ways facilitate what Andrea Smith refers to as ‘unlikely alliances’?
To further explicate my point, the mention of the highest morality by the “golden age” links directly into the imagined utopia of Hindu supremacists. The pursuit of the idyllic “good life” during this late-secular age is typified by the middle-class adoption of certain yoga-inspired “lifestyles”, which are imaginatively consumed, and coalesce across heterotopic spaces that enable the utopian project to become tangible, and localizable through such enigmatic phrases as: the “Vedic way of life”, which is conceptually premised by a reconstituted imagining of an ahistorical “pure Hindu nation” through the Vedic Golden Age (see Jaffrelot 2017, 160); which is nestled at the heart of Hindutva’s “mythical reconstruction of a so-called Vedic Golden Age” (Siddiqui 2017, 156).
However, if ‘Truth is superior to silence’, why then do global yogis inadvertently, ostensibly through a distanced, de facto way, rely upon similar texts for legitimacy as Hindu supremacists do? And, why is this not a problem? If some eco-friendly yoga business started using quotes from Mein Kampf, would we not be left wondering what that might be about? I mean, international yoga day and Nazi Socialist group exercise performances in devotion to the mystical political yoga body of the nation-state, are already eery enough.
The Indian state is currently controlled by an unapologetic Hindu supremacist regime, which uses the cultural capital of yoga to legitimise its soft power operations abroad. This is legitimised by charismatic gurus like Chidananda Saraswati, who arrogantly explained at the World Vedas Conference, that Vedas are the source of core spiritual values of all the world’s religions, and that the Indian government has global missionary agenda to proselytise the world.
Global yoga indirectly facilitates the transmission of transnational Hindutva, which Anderson calls ‘neo-Hindutva’. It is worth appreciating the ways in which Hindu supremacists, albeit late to the game, seek to capitalize on yoga’s popularity to ultimately saffronize (The euphemistic term used to describe the process of promoting Hindu supremacist ideology) the world, through yoga. As Jaffrelot (2017) alludes to, technology enables the deterritorialized diffusion of Hindutva ideology through online mediums, which facilitates interaction between unsuspecting global yogis and Hindutva apologists.
What should one think about the banal distribution of an almanac at a Sunday morning satsaṅga, that just so happens to be produced by a far-right Hindu supremacist organisation (the HJS), whose sister organisation (the SS) was founded by the same guy, which is implicated in domestic terrorism and assassination of Indian citizens?
I was sitting in the Shanti Mandir ashram in 2012 when this almanac was distributed amongst the audience. Here is an article of mine that discusses how the inherent performativity, aesthetic devotionalism and the logic of the guru-disciple relationship cultivates affect, which in turn can lead to the banal, unwitting enculturation into supporting Hindutva organisations through this form of affective nationalism.
Taken aback by the banal promotion of a Hindutva ideology, I asked many of the audience what they thought of this almanac being distributed here. Were they concerned, and did they have problems with the idea of a Hindu Nation or world. Some were quite certain that a Hindu world was appealing. Others were surprised to find out that India is not already a Hindu nation, but rather a secular nation, as per its constitution. Even more surprising, was one person’s response that they did not realise there were Muslims in India. They thought everyone was Hindu. Still, this response below is indicative of the level of interest in discussing politics or any issue that extended beyond the myopic gaze afforded by their guru goggles.
“I’m sure Gurudev has his reasons for it…I’m not interested in any of this stuff, I’m just here for my guru”. *Jenny, Devotee, Australia
It is through the very production of desire, which sits at the core of the global wellness industry, that citizens of yogaland are made docile and uncritical participants in this global agenda, which relates to the fascist/ethno-nationalist/supremacist aspirations of the BJP (Indian People’s Party) government. As Edward Bernays demonstrates, the engineering of consent amongst groups is just as possible in times of peace, as it is in times of war. Sport and fascism have a long history in the ideas of nation building. The way in which yoga is situated within a bourgeois context to create stronger/healthier bodies — as part of a biomoral creed, i.e. if you do yoga then you are a better person — and if enough people do it, then the nation and world will enter a veritable golden age of enlightened eco-sensitivity. This fits into this very paradigm of a nationalist ethos. Whether one agrees or not, there is something eerily uncomfortable at the level of global, neo-liberal, nationalist yoga. I can only imagine that the coming together of people to participate in International Yoga Day can be energizing. Yet, there is a bigger nationalist assumption that is misrecognised or bypassed along the way to an affective support of a yoga-inspired, ethno-state utopia.
It seems, then, that the answer to why we don’t red flag the use of similar texts by proto-fascists is that due to the fact that these texts are large and corpus voluminous; so much, in fact, that there are seemingly countless texts. As for the original question; no, I don’t think that global yogis support rape or saffron supremacists, at least consciously. Still, it is worth asking these questions.
Patrick McCartney is a JSPS Post-Doctoral fellow at Kyoto University, Japan, a Visiting Fellow at the South and South-East Asian Studies Department, Australian University, Canberra; and, a Research Associate at Nanzan University Anthropological Institute, Nagoya, Japan. Patrick explores the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, the anthropology of religion, and the economics of desire in relation to the imaginative consumption of global yoga. Patrick’s current project focuses, specifically, on the Japanese yoga industry, and more peripherally on yoga in Asia. You can follow this project at Yogascapes in Japan, and stay in contact via various social media options found on the website.
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