Interview with Dr. Koenraad Elst – Part (III)

This third installment of my interview (part 2, part 1) with Dr. Elst, discusses whether Yoga has fallen victim to cultural appropriation, useful suggestions about what can be done to prevent such an occurrence, and why certain Hindu Gurus in US have delinked their teaching from Hindu Dharma & packaged it as universal.

Adity Sharma: The West has built up a large and lucrative industry that sells yoga to millions of people. But more often than not, this is dressed up as a universal practice, and Hindu Dharma rarely finds a mention. Some Hindus view this as a harmful tactic that is a blatant example of cultural appropriation.

Koenraad Elst: Most yoga practitioners I know here in Europe, personally or through the specialized media, don’t do any appropriation, and never hide its Hindu origins. Already the Sanskrit name of the exercises serves as a constant reminder of its exotic origins. They usually have a much idealized image of Bharat in their minds. Often you see them at the Pre-Paid Taxi stand outside Delhi Airport taking a cab straight to Rishikesh, never seeing anything of Bharat except the Ashram scene. But then they call their activity “yoga” and regularly invite experts from Bharat, e.g. at the annual retreat of the European Yoga Union in Zinal, Switzerland, a mountainous scenery looking like Manali or other places in the lower Himalayas.

On the other hand, I am aware that all kinds of psychotherapies, neuro-scientific theories and the mindfulness industry borrow heavily from Hindu traditions without acknowledging their source. Hindus are often so naïve as to think that the West has “also” come up with theories and practices similar to yoga (when in fact the West has been borrowing from the East since at least Pythagoras), or even to look in awe at Western “inventions” and “innovations” that really are not Western at heart. It is not impossible that traces of meditation practices originated in the West, such as the “staying in the now” practiced every day by the Greco-Roman Stoics, but there is very little of it, or it has been destroyed during Christianization. So, let’s be practical and accept that if we want to study meditation, we will have to borrow from Bharat.

A.S.: But perhaps the appearance of concepts such as yoga or meditation could potentially lead to a yoga practitioner embracing Hindu Dharma later on?

K.E.: That is a very common trajectory: people start with Hatha Yoga for health reasons, and then gradually they discover the deeper dimensions. But even the posture stage is only rarely disconnected from Bharat and Hindu Dharma, which already makes its presence felt through the Sanskrit names of the practices (postures, breathing exercises, meditations). But only in a minority of cases does this lead to an embracing of Indian local idiosyncrasies like dress, names etc. outside the strict yoga activity. And that is as it should be. Just as Indians should not ape the West by wearing Western dress etc. As they do now.

A.S.: Do you think Hindus can strike a balance between denouncing cultural appropriations, while simultaneously, reaping the benefits of Hindu Dharma entering into Western culture piecemeal?

K.E.: Frankly, I am not really busy with that question. Neither were the Rishis. I acknowledge the importance of the question, and it is a good thing that, in the wake of Rajiv Malhotra, more people are aware of this dimension and think twice before being flattered by Western interest in their culture. But life is short and my interest goes out more to issues of history and thought history, which happen to be important to Hindu Dharma’s present and future as well.

However, I don’t want to leave your question unanswered. So yes, I do think that Hindus can strike this balance with a relatively small intervention, viz. setting the record straight whenever Westerners are appropriating Hindu heritage, and seeing to it that their presentation of this Hindu contribution gets corrected.

A.S.: The 1960s and 1970s were marked by rebellion against the establishment in the U.S. This was also the time when Hindu gurus got rich on propagating certain Hindu philosophies to an eager and rebellious American public. And yet, Hindu Dharma itself remains a somewhat tolerated enigma in the U.S. Hindu Swamis/Gurus have done precious little to change this perception, and rarely, if ever, acknowledge the Hindu roots of the philosophies and practices they package as universal.

K.E.: They have played to the gallery, trying to satisfy the supposed expectations of the Western public. Thus, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi simplified his teaching to essentially a one-size-fits-all mantra meditation, thinking this was what the Western public wanted – seemingly unaware that such a simple thing was what beginners wanted, but ignoring the fact that after the initial stage, they also wanted to grow and progress. His fad about “hopping” and then “flying” would only evoke general skepticism if not laughter, and give yoga in general the bad name of flakiness and incompatibility with a normal sober outlook. Could no one have briefed him about this?

America has centuries of experience with weird cults, like the Unitarians, the Shakers, the Mormons etc. The good side of this in the present context is that the damage done by some Gurus’ weirdness remained fairly limited. Their sex scandals, too, were only an echo of what Americans had been through with Jimmy Swaggart and all those other Evangelical Christian preachers.

On the other hand, in 1970, Hindus could still benefit from a background atmosphere of sympathy for Hindu Dharma. By contrast, all  American kids growing up today have a deep hatred for Hindu Dharma instilled in them.

Some Swamis say themselves that yoga is not Hindu, and that they themselves are not Hindu, since they are “universal”. This is a form of hubris. It is humble as well as just practical to say where you come from. All that has made them what they are, is Hindu. The entire message they have to sell, and that Americans feel they need, is Hindu.

A.S.: Why has this delinking occurred? Moreover, do Hindu Gurus/Swamis deliberately delink these philosophies and practices from Hindu Dharma, because of an inferiority complex? (An example that comes to mind is Deepak Chopra).

K.E.: In the case of Chopra, our analysis need not be very profound: he is a spiritual businessman, and will never take a principled stand if it comes in the way of his business success. A soft and conformistic stance gives him easier access to the Western audience, as well as to a large chunk of the Hindu diaspora. The factor “inferiority complex” plays a part too. It makes Hindu Gurus suddenly feel superior when they have exchanged Hindu Dharma for the American mainstream. But mainly it is a pragmatic calculation. They don’t expect most of the kind of people they attract, to be very interested in the intricacies of philosophy. Most of them have run away from Christanity, which is not just irrational, it is also demanding, morally and to an extent even intellectually. So they want something that is not too complicated nor too demanding. What they ultimately get is what they had wanted upon entry: an easy, watered-down version of Hindu Dharma.

To be continued….


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About the Author

Adity Sharma
Adity Sharma is a student at St. John's University School of Law in New York. She has previously written for India Facts, Vijayvaani, Chakranews and Beliefnet.