Autobiography of a Bhogi: Part 3: If yoga offers an unparalleled ethical system, why are many yogis so unethical?
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There is something that I’ve noticed about many global yogis. Like just about all of us, they don’t seem to mind bending the ethical rules to suit them. Here’s four examples:
- Photo on a website:
I was trying to find the copyright holder of an image I found on a website. It was for a yoga business, Bodhi House, in Australia that I wanted to use as an example to show how deep ecological ethic combined with Sanskrit lends itself to the forming of an intoxicating narrative built on appeals to purity, tradition, and mystery. I contacted the business owner asking for permission to use their image. I was simply told that the “business has shut down”. I wrote again asking for permission. No response. I then did a reverse image search, which is a trick anyone can do to look for the source of an image. All you do is upload the image to the website and it will give you however many sources the internet can find. I then went back to the yoga business owner and said, “Hey, so I found your image on the blog site of an elderly woman in Townsville. Unless you were standing next to her at the same time on the same sunny day, I am assuming that you’ve taken her photo and used it without permission. You realise that the person who took the photo is the copyright holder? I’m not interested in whether you took the photo from the person, but if it is yours, could you please give me permission?”
Ten minutes later, the website was taken down…
I contacted the woman whose blog I found the image on and asked her about the image and whether I could have permission to use it, or not. After some clarifications, I got the answer I was needing for the publication.
This is the same photo. No doubt. It’s just been cropped. So, it appears that the Bodhi House is not so bodhi-ful, after all.
There seems to be an overabundance of yogis who either don’t know or don’t care about copyright infringement and licensing for music. Many yoga teachers have bought an album and then think this gives them the right to use the music in their yoga class or studio. A lot of yoga studios do have business accounts for spotify or whatever, which is the way to go; but, even companies like spotify have really vague royalty payment systems, which are just as ethically challenged as not having the right license. So, even if yogis are trying to do the right thing by the artists they like, it doesn’t always mean the royalties are getting paid.
3. Plagiarism and the Ideas of Others
There is another thing I’ve noticed. It is the lack of credit that many yoga people online give to their sources. As an academic, I’m terrified of the idea of someone calling me a plagiarist. If anyone has ever seen how long my reference lists are, it is because I acknowledge everyone. However, in the online world of yoga, people trying to carve out a niche for themselves, often fail to acknowledge their sources.
The Blissful Athlete is a oddity in the world of global yoga, for many reasons. But, today, he dropped a video on the yogic idea of the kośas (the so-called 5 subtle “sheaths” that encapsulate the soul of the individual) — it was immediately obvious that he had cut and pasted this information about the kośas from somewhere else. Interestingly, I ended up finding the same quotes on a few other websites. The exact same quotes. Which makes me wonder, where, exactly, did he get it from? Was it this site? Or this site? Or, somewhere else? None of the websites has acknowledged, in any way, where they got this information from, apart from, maybe saying, “The Upanishads”.
By information, I mean the translation of the original Taittirīya Upaniṣad where this is first mentioned (in Chapter 2). The start of chapter 2 is where one finds the “oṁ saha nāvavatu, saha nau bhunaktu” invocation … which looks like this:
ॐ स॒ह ना॑ववतु। स॒ह नौ॑ भुनक्तु ।
स॒ह वी॒र्यं॑ करवावहै।
ते॒ज॒स्विना॒वधी॑तमस्तु॒ मावि॑द्विषा॒वहै ।
ॐ शान्तिः॒शान्तिः॒शान्तिः॑ ॥
Anyways, below are the relevant verses that describe the evolution of the so-called kośas out of anna-rasa-maya into the more subtle ones that supposedly follow — it’s in the second chapter, which is called the, brahmānandavallī … it’s on pages 4–5 of this document. It basically says, “from annarasamaya comes prāṇamaya; from prāṇamaya comes manomaya; from manomaya comes vijñāmaya; from vijñānamaya comes ānandamaya”.
स वा एष पुरुषोऽन्न॑रस॒मयः (annarasamaya)। तस्येद॑मेव॒शिरः । अयं दक्षि॑णः प॒क्षः । अयमुत्त॑रः प॒क्षः । अयमात्मा । । इदं पुच्छं॑ प्रति॒ष्ठा । तदप्येष श्लो॑कोभ॒वति ॥ १॥ इति प्रथमोऽनुवाकः ॥ अन्ना॒द्वै प्र॒जाः प्र॒जाय॑न्ते । याः काश्च॑ पृथि॒वीश्रिताः । अथो॒ अन्ने॑नै॒व जी॑वन्ति । अथै॑न॒दपि॑ यन्त्यन्त॒तः । अन्न हि भू॒तानां॒ज्येष्ठम् । तस्मात् सर्वौष॒धमु॑च्यते। सर्वं॒वै तेऽन्न॑माप्नुवन्ति । येऽन्नं॒ब्रह्मो॒पास॑ते। अन्न हि भू॒तानां॒ज्येष्ठम् । तस्मात्सर्वौष॒धमु॑च्यते । अन्नाद् भू॒तानि॒ जाय॑न्ते। जाता॒न्यन्ने॑न वर्धन्ते। अद्यतेऽत्ति च॑ भूता॒नि । तस्मादन्नं तदुच्य॑त इ॒ति । तस्माद्वा एतस्मादन्न॑रस॒मयात् (from annarasamaya)। अन्योऽन्तर आत्मा प्राण॒मयः (prāṇamaya)। तेनै॑ष पू॒र्णः । स वा एष पुरुषवि॑ध ए॒व । तस्य पुरु॑षवि॒धताम् । अन्वयं॑ पुरुष॒विधः । तस्य प्राण॑ एव॒ शिरः । व्यानोदक्षि॑णः प॒क्षः । अपान उत्त॑रः प॒क्षः । आका॑श आ॒त्मा । पृथिवी पुच्छं॑ प्रति॒ष्ठा । तदप्येष श्लो॑कोभ॒वति ॥ १॥ इति द्वितीयोऽनुवाकः ॥ प्रा॒णं दे॒वा अनु॒ प्राण॑न्ति । म॒नु॒ष्याः प॒शव॑श्च॒ ये। प्रा॒णोहि भू॒तानाम्॒आयुः॑ । तस्मात् सर्वायु॒षमु॑च्यते। सर्व॑मे॒व त आयु॑र्यन्ति । येप्रा॒णं ब्रह्मो॒पास॑ते। प्राणोहि भूता॑नामा॒युः । तस्मात् सर्वायुषमुच्य॑त इ॒ति । तस्यैष एव शारी॑र आ॒त्मा । यः॑ पूर्व॒स्य । तस्माद्वा एतस्मात्प्राण॒मयात्। (from pranamaya) अन्योऽन्तर आत्मा॑ मनो॒मयः (manomaya)। तेनै॑ष पू॒र्णः । स वा एष पुरुषवि॑ध ए॒व । तस्य पुरु॑षवि॒धताम् । अन्वयं॑ पुरुष॒विधः । तस्य यजु॑रेव॒ शिरः । ऋग्दक्षि॑णः प॒क्षः । सामोत्त॑रः प॒क्षः । आदे॑श आ॒त्मा । अथर्वाङ्गिरसः पुच्छं॑ प्रति॒ष्ठा । तदप्येष श्लो॑को भ॒वति ॥ १॥ इति तृतीयोऽनुवाकः ॥ यतो॒ वाचो॒ निव॑र्तन्ते । अप्राप्य॒ मन॑सा स॒ह । आनन्दं ब्रह्म॑णो वि॒द्वान् । न बिभेति कदा॑चने॒ति । तस्यैष एव शारी॑र आ॒त्मा । यः॑ पूर्व॒स्य । तस्माद्वा एतस्मान्मनो॒मयात् (from manomaya)। अन्योऽन्तर आत्मा वि॑ज्ञान॒मयः (vijñānamaya)। तेनै॑ष पू॒र्णः । स वा एष पुरुषवि॑ध ए॒व । तस्य पुरु॑षवि॒धताम्। अ॒न्वयं॑ पुरुष॒विधः । तस्य श्र॑द्धैव॒शिरः । ऋतं दक्षि॑णः प॒क्षः । सत्यमुत्त॑रः प॒क्षः । यो॑ग आ॒त्मा । महः पुच्छं॑ प्रति॒ष्ठा । तदप्येष श्लो॑कोभ॒वति ॥ १॥ इति चतुर्थोऽनुवाकः ॥ वि॒ज्ञानं॑ य॒ज्ञं त॑नुते। कर्मा॑णि तनु॒तेऽपि॑ च । वि॒ज्ञानं॑ दे॒वाः सर्वे । ब्रह्म॒ ज्येष्ठ॒मुपा॑सते । वि॒ज्ञानं॒ ब्रह्म॒ चेद्वेद॑ । तस्मा॒च्चेन्न प्र॒माद्य॑ति । श॒रीरे॑ पाप्म॑नोहि॒त्वा । सर्वान्कामान् समश्नु॑त इ॒ति । तस्यैष एव शारी॑र आ॒त्मा । यः॑ पूर्व॒स्य । तस्माद्वा एतस्माद्वि॑ज्ञान॒मयात् (from vijñānamaya)। अन्योऽन्तर आत्मा॑ऽऽनन्द॒मयः (ānandamaya)।
It makes me wonder, also, about the apparent ethics of yoga. While there is no doubt that texts like the Mahābhārata propose deeply ethical and moral questions, the so-called “Bible of Yoga”, Patañjali’s yogasūtras, in my mind, is far from an ethical system. I’m open to the possibility of being wrong, but even all the Buddhist stuff in the sūtras is not openly talking about helping others. The system is designed to help the aspirant reduce tension so as to remove distractions, in order to achieve kaivalya. Perhaps, I skipped the sūtras that extol the virtue of social work? Or, maybe, the epilogue, is this:
PYS: 0.0.1 athā dhyānam: yogaḥ iti lokahitaṃ bhavati. (yoga is concern for the world).
PYS: 0.0.2 yogī iti samājasevikaḥ. ( A yogi is a social worker).
PYS: 0.0.3 yogārtham iti lokasevā khalu. (The aim of yoga is indeed worldly service).
Sure, in the BhG, Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna, “tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ jñāninas tattva darśinaḥ” — which implies service (sevayā). But, in line with my thesis, this service is not to the benefit of society. Neither is it toward helping the downtrodden and oppressed. Instead, it extols the virtue of serving a spiritual master for one’s own spiritually narcissistic desire to be free from saṁsāra. That seems to fit in perfectly with the atomized, neoliberal, individual pursuit of being happy, blissful, or otherwise annoying, most, if not, all of the time. Is it any wonder that yoga and neoliberal values have forged together to make yoga so popular around the world?
4. The Ethics of Yoga
Not only this, how one comes to find inspiration in this text as some beacon for humanity, without acknowledging all the contextual issues it has, basically comes from either blissful or willful ignorance. The Kundalini Yogini’s video explaining why the BhG is "one of the most profound spiritual works and is extremely beautiful" demonstrates the type of fundamentalist thinking possible amongst earnest, myopic, global yogis.
It should be obvious how the Kundalini Yogini implicitly relies on wedding the neoliberal ethic of the individual as being the source of one’s success or failure — as well as set up a karmic argument for victim blaming — which nearly obfuscates her support for the inherent structural inequality that the BhG was produced to justify. However, this is not surprising, since the Kundalini Yogini sincerely believes that caste does not exist. As this response to my question on her Youtube channel, explains:
I’m going to put a bunch of links at the bottom, if the reader is interested in understanding this issue more. But, Kundalini Yogini is not alone in this apologetic mode. We find such organisations as the NCHT(UK) propagating the idea that caste and conversion are ongoing colonial conspiracies. Briefly, however, the idea that there are only 4 varṇas, i.e. Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, and nothing else exists is just wrong. Divinely sanctioning it through the Purusha Suktam (Ṛgveda 10.90.11–12) also doesn’t really help. And, just because the idea of “caste” is found in the earliest of attestable layers of “Hinduism”, doesn’t mean that caste was set in stone all the way back then, as Sharma explores. Still, the seven mentions of it in the 10th book of the Ṛgveda generally take this meaning:
However, Jaiswal explains, in the blurb to her book, Caste: Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change, that, The work provides a critique of the current theories of the caste system which locate its essence in endogamy and argues that present morphology of caste is the result of the changes the institution has undergone over centuries of its existence, but the origins are embedded in the ecology of the Vedic cattle-keepers. Processes of patriarchy and state formation have played a crucial role in its evolution and its ideology has made significant conceptual adjustments in the course of its long history without however, abandoning its basic principles.
I get it, to some degree. I mean, this video has cosmic images and the sound of “sacred” Sanskrit mantras. Who wouldn’t be mesmerised by it’s content, even without knowing the meaning. But, the verses that seek to legitimise a static social order are found between 2.40–3.00. Don’t forget to turn on the subtitles/captions for the translation.
This is the transliteration of the verses:
This video, below, even though it’s hosted by the Hindu nationalist organisation, the Srijan Foundation, has Ananda Ranganathan explain in a talk about Ambedkar, the guy who wrote the Indian constitution, how the four varṇas evolved into 4000 different castes. 4000 castes! How is it that the Kundalini Yogini thinks there are no castes?
Kundalini Yogini, is just one example amongst countless others, who demonstrates an earnest desire to support a non-western epistemology and way of life premised by appeals to tradition, authority, purity, and emotion, that are imbued with a romantic ethic’ which is built upon a myopically-obfuscated, long-distanced, affectively-banal ethno-nationalism. This can, and quite often does, lead a sincere seeker looking for their place in the world to becoming an apologist or supporter of Hindu supremacism.
Subhash Gatade explains how, ‘It is not widely discussed how Dr Ambedkar had unravelled the unholy ideological link between Manu, who inspired Nietzsche, who in turn inspired Hitler. And it is common knowledge how Hitler and Mussolini have in turn inspired the Manuwadis of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS: Savarkar, Munje, Hedgewar and Golwalkar. Communalism Combat (May 2000 issue) had collated extracts of Dr Ambedkar’s writings (From Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings & Speeches, Volume 3, published by the education department, government of Maharashtra, pages 72–87) to show how Nietzsche had felt inspired by philosophy of Hinduism which, “..[i]s not founded on individual justice or social utility. The philosophy of Hinduism is founded on a totally different principle. To the question what is right and what is good the answer which the philosophy of Hinduism gives is remarkable. It holds that to be right and good the act must serve the interests of this class of Supermen, namely, the Brahmins.”’
As an anthropologist, I’m deeply curious about why things become so important to people. And, more specifically, how global yogis wilfully choose to ignore the socially regressive content of Hinduism in place of a magical, utopian, othering.
This very short review of Meera Nanda’s book, Prophets Facing Backwards, provides a cogent summary of the deeper logic I am working with.
Perhaps, I’m just a little dull. But, the idea that a song composed over a few centuries, approximately 2000 years ago, that justifies social inequality, human rights, and war, by misrecognising the theo-political ideology at its core through the use of poetic metre and philosophical language, is beyond my ken. The popularity of this romantic-inspired appeal to tradition is troubling.
But, maybe, I should read less about the annihilation of caste, which is exactly what the BhG is trying to stop. And, whenever a global yogi tweets or posts about how great the BhG is as a book that has somehow inspired them, I wince. Because, in some way, it is akin to someone reading some hate manifesto like Mein Kampf, that justifies itself in a similar way to the BhG, but then not accepting their preference, or unwitting support for, Hindu supremacy. Or, to name this in another way, Brahmanic Hegemony.
The BhG asserts the hegemony of this group as superior and legitimate over others, especially marginalised and oppressed groups. But, since the prescription of many global yogi’s guru goggles are myopically strong, and seem to filter in a lot of spiritual bypass and pathological altruism, and the discussions around the text only seems to focus on it being the source of yoga and spiritual wisdom — instead of critically examining the historical sociological context from which it evolved — is it any wonder that we find global yogis typically appreciating this text in a monolithically, static way?
Which demonstrates the obvious traits of fundamentalist ways of thinking. Here are five common traits:
- (1) Dualistic Thinking: Fundamentalists are inclined to divide the world into clear binary categories. You are either good or bad, right or wrong, with us or against us. There is little room for nuance, qualification, and probabilities in the mind of the fundamentalist.
- (2) Paranoia: Fundamentalists tend to have deep feelings of suspicion, bordering on rage, directed towards those who fall on the wrong side of the dualistic dividing lines. This paranoia is usually brought to the surface in a group context.
- (3) Apocalypticism: An obsession with the ultimate ends for society and humanity. Usually has two components. First, the desire to witness or bring about the demise of the present form of existence; and second, the desire to participate in a new beginning.
- (4) Charismatic Leadership: Fundamentalist groups are often founded by charismatic leader(s). Followers tend to be devoted to these leaders. A cult of leadership often arises.
- (5) Totalised Conversion Experience: If the fundamentalist enters the group from the outside (either from another ideology or from a state of apathy), then they become totally immersed and committed to the fundamentalist viewpoint.
Obviously, not everyone that does yoga and reads the BhG is a yoga fundamentalist. But, it is certainly worth asking oneself, why is this book important to me? Do I understand the bigger picture? And, why does the yoga-industrial complex propagate such a static, monolithic narrative around the special place of this text? Especially when it was more or less plucked from obscurity during the colonial period. The very fact that it has, in some way, become the “Bible of Hinduism” is, itself, a colonial product; as Nagappa Gowda K. explains:
The Bhagavad Gītā is about 700 couplet-style verses long. It takes about 3 hours to sing the entire text. I know. I’ve song it, in its entirety, literally hundreds of times. I’ve read countless commentaries in different languages, including Sanskrit. So, why am I now denigrating it so much? Perhaps, after all, I’m just a mleccha.
And, this is where it ends up.
A government running on the ideology of Thapar’s ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ under the synonym of the Brahmin-Bania-Patidar Combine, which alludes to the confluence of power around caste-based political and mercantile groups; and, which has the Hindutva ideology at the heart of this government’s policies, is destroying the minds of its future by setting up an theo-political epistrocracy — which is a system in which the votes of people who can prove their political knowledge count more than the votes of people who can’t. In other words, it’s a system that privileges the most politically informed citizens — it does actually sound, in theory, to be a good option. If you are uninformed and don’t follow politics, then your vote is worth less than the person who is obsessed with politics. But, it’s open to abuse, particularly when it is based on pseudoscientific nonsense.
I find it difficult to not call global yogis on their stuff. I can’t help but write this cautionary tale from the POV of an Autobiography of a Bhogi. I haven’t even got into the ethics of yoga businesses that use emotional labour tactics as a way to get green-horned yoga teachers to do service (sevā), just like Kṛṣṇa recommends, apparently.
Ambedkar’s ideas on the Gita being a counter revolutionary text, here.
Manual scavengers, which is a product of the caste system, that is highlighted in this film — Do you think these people want to be cleaning up garbage? This film, Kakkoos (toilet), was basically banned from being screened in the cinema by the police upholding caste privilege.
Issues for menstruating women.
Violence against Dalit women and the use of corrective rape and lynchings along caste lines, which is related to the sexual violence of caste dynamics and asymmetric power relations where women are raped as punishment. So, if caste really isn’t an issue, it then confuses me why there is such a thing as “Dalit Studies”.
Which is linked to a particular worldview, or political theology and agenda; which corrodes the idea of India through its potent form of ethno-nationalism; which seeks to replace the democracy with a theocracy.
Patrick McCartney, PhD is a JSPS Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan; a Research Associate at Nanzan Anthropological Institute, Nanzan University, Japan; and a Visiting Fellow at the South and South-East Asian Studies Department, Australian National University, Australia.
Building upon an anthropological premise, Patrick’s work intersects the commodification of desire and consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles. It explores the consumption of global yoga through the politics of imagination and the sociology of spirituality. Patrick’s current project focuses specifically on the Japanese yoga industry, which includes understanding the aspirations of Japanese yoga consumers and how modern yoga is reconstituted in unique ways into Japanese culture. You can follow this project at Yogascapes in Japan, and also find his articles and films there too.
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