The Abuse of Yoga and Proposition YSB: Herd Immunity for Troubling Times

Patrick McCartney

The conference theme, for which this essay is written, was “Abuse in Yoga.” Here, I explore how the concept of Yoga can be abused through the promotion of, and unwitting support for, certain Yoga-inflected policies, as well as the unintended consequences that might arise. This is part of an ongoing attempt toward conceptualizing an analytical rubric for conducting evidence-based research regarding the hyperbolic claims that Yoga is the solution to seemingly every problem, particularly climate change. As Aroncyzk, Ermann, Hermanik and others have shown, the production of legitimacy and authority in diplomatic and economic arenas involves interweaving narratives involving a product, a place, and a nation, through which nations work to control their own images by implementing strategic communication strategies. This is something which I have also discussed elsewhere. At a global level, the Indian state leverages the symbolic capital of its intangible cultural heritage to have the International Day of Yoga (IDY) recognized and promoted by the United Nations. Yoga is marketed as an important cultural bridge in a similar way to a pseudo-secular Neo-Orientalist image of Buddhism. Particularly through hybrids, like Zen Yoga. Often, an imprecise, yet, nonetheless, popularly perceived meaning of Yoga rationalizes various policy initiatives. Through the disembedded meaning, that “Yoga means to unite,” the individual is, to a certain degree, coerced into accepting the proposition that Yoga can help solve all the world’s problems. This might otherwise cause perceived harm by not correctly doing Yoga. Yet, what evidence is there to support such a policy initiative and how can the notion of “transformative” be accurately measured? These are easier questions to ask than they are to answer.

As far as rhetorical strategies go, the idea that Yoga can solve all the world’s problems seems more effective at cultivating affective nationalism than offering critical insight or practicable solutions. What precisely does a Yogic way of life consist of? How might evidence-based policy be generated? From what evidence are these policies derived? One might consider fleeting and subjective interior feelings of wholeness to be insufficient data points. Which set of criteria might they be based upon? The aim, here, is not to compare lists of what may or may not be used to define Yogaland’s lifestyle boundaries, or where its moral compass points to a true north. Instead, it is a meta-discussion of how policy initiatives have consequences for transboundary and regional environmental issues, supply chains and infrastructures of connection and integration, and new approaches to diplomacy. This relates to ongoing global circuits of capital that, as Christopher Miller recently discussed, are operating at the level of soft power. This involves understanding the ways in which faith-based development, competitive diplomacy, and transformative travel merge in the various leisure tourism markets of the global wellness industry.

Using a legal metaphor, this essay bundles together a broad suite of policy arguments as Proposition YSB (Yoga, Sanskrit, and Buddhism). By order of judicial notice, the task is to differentiate between the factual basis for Proposition YSB’s policy argument and questions of fact. Proposition YSB argues that Yoga, Sanskrit, and Buddhism are powerful sources of transformation, which can tackle climate change and create a harmonious world. Put simply, if YSB has transformative power, then this should be measurable. The question is, how best to objectively measure YSB’s transformative power, especially across multiple dimensions and levels of focus, from the inner world of the individual to the industry segments, nations, and the world?

The implication embedded in Proposition YSB is that, if everyone adopted a Sanskritised “YSB way of life,” then, essentially, all the world’s problems would be rather easily solved. This sentiment sits at the core of the Indian state’s soft power diplomacy and branding of the nation. It was echoed at the World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok, 2015, when India’s former External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, explains, how “Knowledge in Sanskrit will go a long way in finding solutions to the contemporary problems, like global warming, unsustainable consumption, civilizational clash, poverty, terrorism, etc. […] Sanskrit should be propagated so that it purifies the minds of the people and thus sanctifies the whole world. You Sanskritists do bathe in the sacred Sanskrit Ganga and are blessed. […] In the present days, you are aware that scientists hold the view that Sanskrit can play an important role in developing software for language recognition, translations, cybersecurity and other fields of artificial intelligence.” Current defense minister, Rajnath Singh, echoed Swaraj’s sentiment suggesting Sanskrit is the most useful language for scientific purposes.

This narrative is evolving from its green, eco-friendly roots. There is a digitizing of Sanskrit, which is different from the supposed health benefits of adding saffron to green tea. A common, albeit erroneous and misplaced sentiment is that Sanskrit is the “most computerable language.” There are many factoids, rumors, and errors circulating about the perceived success and necessity of Sanskrit’s revitalization. This narrative is only a few clicks away from confirming one’s bias. The following quote, from an article by Soumitra Mohan, encapsulates the sentiment around its didactic potential.

The language deserves to be treated much better than it has been so far, more so when it has been called the best ‘computerable’ language. Sanskrit’s credentials to be a language of future India are definitely better and greater than we have realised so far. Its revival will not only renew and revive the pride in our own cultural heritage, but will also bring about spiritualism and the concept of a meaningful society and polity, thereby bringing order and peace all across the country, a desideratum for any developed society.

It is not just a scientific revolution, but a theo-political ambition. The leader of the World Hindu Council, Ashok Singhal said, at a function attended by Sushma Swaraj, that: “Sai Baba told me by 2020 the entire country will be Hindu and 2030 the entire world will be Hindu. I feel that revolution has started. […] This is not a modest revolution. It will not remain confined to India but present a new ideology before the world.”

The Mann Ki Baat (“Heart’s Voice”) program is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly prime ministerial address to the nation. Between 13:42-17:00 of Episode 44, Modi discusses environmental issues and culture. Then, between 17:00-20:00 he asserts that Yoga is a practice for developing a harmonious society, which has apparently been universally accepted. He quotes from Bhartṛhari’s (c. 5th century CE) Śatakatraya.[1] A translation of the verse is offered in the full transcription of Modi’s talk, as: “A man whose father is patience, mother is forgiveness and peace as consort, Truth as his friend, compassion as his sister and restraint for brother as family members and whose bed is the great earth, is clothed by the great sky and whose food is only knowledge. Is indeed a Yogi who won’t know any fear.” In Episode 47, the part about climate change and Sanskrit occurs between 1:30-7:00, during which Modi attempts to speak Sanskrit between 1:30-2:30. The rest of the episode is in Hindi. The role of Yoga and climate change is mentioned around 3:54. A full transcript of the translated text is available, which suggests that “Sanskrit can even tackle climate change.” The question is, then, how exactly can a “dead language” do this?

A YSB lifestyle is regarded by many to be the most sustainable lifestyle and most suitable option for sustainable development. The popular assertion that Narendra Modi makes is that nothing short of global adoption of an (ill-defined) “Yogic way of life” is going to solve all the world’s problems. This is linked, through frame of faith-based development, to the UNs’ Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (particularly Goal 12), which suggests that sustainable tourism development is achievable, in part, through Yoga-Buddhist-related tourism and faith-based development. Yet, when asked, many people are unable or unwilling to meaningfully explain what constitutes a sustainable YSB lifestyle. Especially when it comes to tourism.

The 1987 definition of sustainable development evolved out of the Bruntland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. It explains that it is “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It has three pillars related to environmental, social, and economic issues (cf. Sayavong 2019; Fayos-Solà and Cooper 2019; Jain 2011; Goodwin 2003). Still, it is difficult to appreciate how this relates, as it becomes virtually impossible to disambiguate one’s culpability into the ways in which one’s participation in and promotion of social justice movements, like #Yoga4SDGs and #Yoga4ClimateAction, for example, occurs. Or any of the potential unintended consequences related to tacit and unwitting support of multiple Hindu nationalist aspirations that build on the very subtle transmission of specific ideas, which rely on reaffirming a deep-eco-feminist-dharmic-theology built, as I have discussed elsewhere, upon a Neo-Romantic sentiment fueled by appeals to purity and mystery. Dharma is used to justify particular faith-based initiatives that focus on sustainable development, particularly within the niche wellness tourism industry. Deep ecological theology provides an inter-religious/cross-cultural framework to find a way to live, possibly, more sustainably. Another way to understand what a deep eco-theology can be is as a manifestation of the development of an ecocentric philosophy. Opposed to humanism, ecocentrism does not place humans above nature and rejects fundamental divisions between the human and non-human. This includes an aspiration to achieve a sense of oneness with nature, which might include perceiving a reliance on technological progress as a hindrance. Initially central to Green politics, ecocentrism is an unstable blend of the romantic and scientific ideology that has come to rely on a middle class, pro-business, politically-centrist ideological direction of forward, as opposed to either left or right. In a related manner, two interpretations of sustainable tourism, are: 1) the tourism-centric approach, which interprets sustainable tourism as the economic viability of the industry in the long-term, and 2) the more ecocentric position that tourism is an integral part of an effort for overall sustainable development that does not negatively impact on other systems.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to determine some first principles. The starting point assumes a common meaning for the term, Yoga, which is purposely framed as a static monolithic. What does Modi, or for that matter, anyone, mean when they talk of Yoga? The default concepts are vague, purposely avoiding meaningful definitions. While this might simply seem an uncharitable outsider’s opinion, it is merely a reflection of what much, possibly most, of Yogaland’s communication strategy boils down to. This serves the pragmatic purpose of reducing, in a similar way to what John Fahy discusses, as the constructive ambiguity of ISKCON’s Vedic way of life. Such noun phrases are curiously vague, for a reason. It is a general mix of mysterious ambivalence. Each Yoga frame has enough semantic coherence for utopian aspirations and communal identities to coalesce around, while simultaneously having enough semantic valency allowing entirely different ideations from one person to the next. Yet, all the while remaining fundamentally Yogic or Vedic, no matter how tacit, distanced, or incongruous, be the interconnecting threads.

It is possible that the term, Yoga, might be less substantive and more stative. Put simply, one could read Yoga as a verb articulating a state of being. Like, for instance, “I am Yoga;” in contrast to “Doing Yoga.” It could imply a progressive tense of Yoga-ing or Yoging? How, then, to make sense of the “Be Yoga” brand? Is this a command to literally Be Yoga(!) set in the imperative mood? Is it an example of nominalization (using a noun as a verb), with zero derivational morphology? This might seem redundant, but how might we begin to even think about measuring the outcomes, real or imagined, of Proposition YSB when it is unclear what most people even mean by the primary term? The terms of reference need to be determined.

At a rhetorical level, a concise definition remains necessarily vague. This enables subjective relativism to foster internal heterotopic “worlds within worlds” across a larger social imaginary landscape that is difficult to quantify and qualify not only the merits of, but, more importantly, the carbon footprint. Regardless, Modi’s fundamental proposition is that, unless all the world’s citizens adopt an ill-defined “Yogic way of life,” then the SDGs will not be achieved. Yet, compared to what, exactly? By whose metrics are these articles of faith to be measured and how are they to be used to legitimately create policy?

Leaving to the side the meta-language hair-splitting analysis, the terms of reference chosen define Yoga as technology or lifestyle that is perceptibly transformative. There is a shared meaning between “Yogic way of life,” “Vedic way of life,” “Hindu way of life,” or “Dharmic way of life.” This forms the basis of multiple policy initiatives proposed by state and non-state actors. One need only explore the ways in which Yoga has become a glocal branding tool and an ideological apparatus for just about anyone to hoist an identity upon. Is it worth wondering where this lifestyle started?

A genealogical search for the origins of this phrase brings us to Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s Hinduism: Doctrine and Way of Life (1900). It offers a now well-trodden interpretation of “Vedantic” philosophy as “ancient yet modern.” It particularly preferences the c. 11-12th century qualified non-dualist philosophy (viśiṣṭādvaita) of Rāmānujā, as both progressive and moral. Importantly, it is considered necessary for recalibrating modernity to be more harmonious and centered through the adoption of a perceived scientific moralism. For instance, Rajagopalachari explains, that:

A divorce between action and moral responsibility follows. This is not good either for the present or for the future generations. It is the writer’s conviction that Vedanta is a faith as suitable for modern times as it was for ancient India, and more especially so, as the world is now fully and irreplaceably permeated by the discipline and knowledge that have come to stay through science and are bound to grow as time advances.

Yet, it appears the origin is more likely found between 1850-1900. This socio-cultural movement emerged in Calcutta during the Bhadralok’s Bengali Renaissance. The first of several such groups, the Dharma Sabhā, formed in 1830. Another prominent group, the Tattvabodhinī Sabhā, formed in 1839. Its origin is closely linked to the spiritual awakening of Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905); who explains, in his 1896 autobiography, that, in 1843, the merging of various groups lead to the formation of the Brahmo Samāj and the conceptualization of dharma as a duty-bound lifestyle.

Several reformist movements emerged during this time, such as Dayananda Saraswati’s Ārya Samāj. In 1875, he authored the Satya Prakāśa (“Light on Truth”). The publisher’s note, to the 1984 English edition, refers to Satya Prakāśa, as “the way of life as envisage [sic] by the Vedas and the Vedic cultere [sic], which prevailed throughout the whole World about 5000 years back, when enlightenment, peace, and prosperity was at the Zenith of its glory.” The foreword, in the 39th Hindi edition (2005), explains that the text aims to “promote Vedic religion around the world.”[2] In the original 1875 text it is difficult to find a 1:1 translation of the “Yoga way of life” phrase. The foreword to the second Hindi edition–published in 1884–explains that this treatise is a “means to improve the world.”[3] On page 94 of the 2005 edition,[4] the fundamental essence of the Yoga/Vedic/Dharmic lifestyle is explained through Mānava-dharma-śāstra (2.28).[5] This verse explains how this lifestyle consists of studying the Veda, sticking to one’s vows, offering burnt oblations, reciting “sacred” texts, acquiring the threefold “sacred science,” offering to the gods, Rishis, and manes, begetting sons, performing the five types of sacrifices, and creating a clean body–through performing the Śrauta rites–to be fit for union with Brāhman.

Regardless of who first coined the phrase, it seems to have appeared sometime during the 19th-century reformative process, which Gyan Prakash explains as a broader context of Vedic revivalism. This aimed to reconstitute a perceptibly original Vedic tradition through a bourgeois-inspired purge to filter out the perceived impurity and backwardness that had supposedly crept into and sullied Hinduism.

During the 1840s, the Brāhmo Samāj came to see the Brāhmo path as dharma (morality). Brian Hatcher and Harald Tambs-Lyche explain how they were often opposed to the conservative Hindus (Sanātan Dharma Sabhā), which objected to the Brāhmo’s critique of idolatory and explicit rejection of purāṇic inspired myths and ceremonies. While the popular, post-colonial umbrella term, Sanātana Dharma (“Eternal morality”), is used today as an alternative monolithic signifier to Hinduism, John Zavos explains how the conservative orthodox sanātani movement partially emerged in opposition to the reformist groups. However, it is important to note that they often converged on issues. Such as the promotion of Sanskrit and Hindi. One important point Edwin Bryant makes is that, now, just like then, there are many different views on what substantively constitutes, a “Vedic way of life”; and that, particularly regarding religious fundamentalism, we ought not to oversimplify, through homogenization, discrete groups into a homogenous whole.

To make this somewhat abstract idea more concrete, take, for example, any instance when a yoga teacher, studio owner, travel brochure, or state representative, such as India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, asserts that adoption of a Yoga-inflected and Sanskrit-inspired lifestyle, which is perceived as able to help solve some, or even all, of an individual’s, or all of the world’s, problems. Yet, when we consider Knut Jacobsen’s isolationist reading of kaivalya (independence), comparing it to Shyam Ranganathan’s reading of the Yogasūtras, as two contrasting takes on a moral-ethical system–along with David Gordon White’s compelling argument, suggesting that the Yogasūtras are far less relevant for contemporary yoga practice than we think–our reliance on the Yogasūtra,s as a guide, defining how to act in the world toward creating more sustainable lifestyles–today, becomes quite complicated.

The main issue relates to the fact that the key indicator for determining an individual’s consumption of, and participation in, a YSB lifestyle, is largely a matter of economics. It is, unsurprisingly, related almost entirely to disposable income. This is essentially universal across the global north and south. Relatively lower levels of wealth reduce an ability to afford access to a new, ahistorical, hybrid of democratized Yoga; which is equitable, accessible, and diverse. Somehow, it is explained, this honors Yoga’s traditional roots.

Not only does this throw the yogin out with the yoga mat, as the sheer popularity of Yoga is due to the very capitalist infrastructure and markets it activated to reclaim, through social justice, it also makes a clever appeal to the mystery that asserts how, regardless of wealth being a clear signifier of health and well-being, it is also possible that the adoption of a “Yoga lifestyle” might arrest the myriad cascading implications demonstrably linked to being poor (cf. Woolf, Laudan, Dubay, Simon, Zimmerman, and Lux 2015). The neoliberal coercion to even adopt a YSB lifestyle, so as to fix a perceived incompleteness and relatively lower position on a moral index, would not be thrust upon members of any social class if it were not for the ability of Yoga to evolve and expand and create profit across global markets (cf. Andrea Jain 2020). To then attempt to employ a YSB lifestyle to disrupt or dismantle capitalism seems ironic, at the very least.

Yet, as sedentary lifestyles and stress-filled competitive work environments increase, the consumption of services for such things as Yoga and Buddhist-inflected mindfulness multiplies at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of around 8 percent. While the global market is competitive, the Asia Pacific region is the fastest-growing region. The rise in disposable income across the world, also in India and China, fuels the demand for domestic and international meditation options, which is often overlaid with the active cultivation of national interests through the soft power promotion of wellness tourism. For example, “In 2016, India initiated a National Medical & Wellness Tourism Promotion and its board to provide services among these sectors.” However, in the case of China, the privilege of access is complicated by multiple levels of legality modulated by an ecumenical sentiment enabling internationalized consumption of Yoga in China.

The crux of the matter, however, relates to this. If the biggest barrier to increasing diversity, access, and inclusion in Yoga studios is to manipulate the market to reduce the costs to the consumer and foster more equitable options to increase BIPOC consumption (beyond those with enough disposable income to participate), how might Yoga practicably help address or actually solve some, or all, of the complex and dynamic issues related to health and wellbeing? It is as if Yoga is perceived to be some sort of magic technology that somehow fixes all the issues associated with being poor, without actually reducing poverty or the factors involved in its perpetuation. This is the confusing part. Is Yoga going to help eradicate extreme poverty, like China’s premier, Xi Jinping, aims to do with setting up “Yoga villages” for Yoga tourists to visit and buy quinoa from the farmers? Can a YSB lifestyle sustainably develop local and more distanced economies, fill the perceived voids in people’s souls, purify all the rivers and lakes, end extreme poverty, dismantle white supremacy, and destroy capitalism?

Hopefully, the USD $650 billion niche-specialty “inner wellness” market can live up to its prominent catchphrase, Transformative Travel. This makes it incredibly difficult for an earnest, yet a potentially naive global citizen, convinced of the perceived power of a “Yoga” or “Buddhist” lifestyle to change the world, especially if inconspicuous consumption of this lifestyle actually requires traveling to distant lands that require creating huge carbon footprints. While Tatiana Schlossberg explores the consequences of consumption, it is Elizabeth Currid-Halkett who returns to Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of the leisure class’s conspicuous consumption of luxury (surplus), as a performative barrier (think, for example, how high heels or a top hat show an inability to perform manual labor). Though, Colin Campbell’s critique of Veblen is worth keeping in mind.

Currid-Halkett demonstrates how it is not an economic bracket, but one of cultural capital, that is inconspicuously consumed through transformative travel and experience. Even if a lot might be known through seeing a latte-holding, yoga mat-carrying, Lululemon-wearing, yoga practitioner conspicuously sauntering down the street, either toward or from a yoga studio. Currid-Halkett argues that the leisure class no longer exists. This leaves the wealthy overworked and time-poor. The wealthy have to work, and they work hard and long. In response, they take their cultural capital, institutionalized through education that has enabled a high-paying career and exchange it into social capital through becoming, or at least, performing, to know how to be sustainable and find a sense of peace in a tumultuous world.

Yoga is presented as a civilizing force enabling citizenship in a modern, sustainable world. Yet, we know that poor people do not do, consume, or have access to Yoga, as the middle class does. Increasing accessibility for everyone to participate also seems a misplaced sentiment. Particularly considering the luxurious nature of spare time, the very real issue of the middle class and upper caste boundaries in India, undoubtedly restricts access to sleek, modern Yoga studios. For example, in downtown Mumbai, no member of a perceptibly polluted caste will gain membership of any trendy yoga studio. They would be hurried on by security no matter if they could afford the membership fee. The issue, however, is that YSB lifestyles are overwhelmingly consumed by the degree-educated, middle-class inhabitants of urban metropolitan centers, who have the opportunity and willingness to imbibe this cosmopolitan sentiment, as part of an evolving aspirational class. Also, regardless of the platitudes asserting that Yoga brings people together, there are many instances where it creates social boundaries and class structured opposition through being a form of high-brow culture.

The perception that a yoga-inflected lifestyle, if adopted, enables individuals to become calm and centered extends to the macro level that Yoga if adopted at an international level, by as many people as possible, could pacify relations between individuals, groups, and nations, as well as sanitize space and clean the rivers. One might first look to the home of Yoga, India, to see how well these initiatives are working out. One wonders whether such policies ought to be adopted by other nations.

Considering the 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), India’s rankings seem to complicate the fundamental assertion that a yogic way of life will help achieve sustainable development targets. Particularly if we consider the profoundly impossible neoliberal utopia of a “world-class slum-free city,” nation, or the world. The WEF report shows that, as India’s tourism ranking increases, its environmental sustainability ranking decreases. This is a common occurrence. It seems that increasing tourist development is not so adjacent to balancing social and environmental issues to do with tourism pollution or social justice, for instance. With an overall ranking of 40th/136, India is ranked further, for tourist infrastructure (110th), prioritization of travel and tourism (104th), environmental sustainability (134th), safety and security (114th), and health and hygiene (104th).

Finally, it is worth pausing to ponder how YSB faith-based sustainable tourism can practicably achieve these ambitious development goals and make the world a better place. All without “abusing” Yoga. What can we consider, then, from this discussion? If (1)Yoga is one of the fundamentally essential, sanātana dharmika, core attributes of an imagined Indic civilization, and if (2)Yoga is the implicit essence of an essentialized South Asian beingness, and if (3) it is so that, once adopted, the bodies of yoga consumers transform into more conscious beings, how might we, then, explain India’s poor ratings, above? Finally, based on the environmental impact assessment of India’s performance, across multiple indexes, how could any one individual, or state, for that matter, earnestly consider Proposition YSB as a viable solution for tackling #Yoga4ClimateAction?

Patrick McCartney’s background is in linguistic anthropology, classical philology, the sociology of religion, and maritime archaeology. This is complemented by other interests in political economy, moral philosophy, and historical sociology, which expand into leisure, wellness and tourism studies, as well as a focus on how these topics intersect with sustainable development, governance, and the psychology of nation branding and building. An overarching frame explores the politics of imagination and the economics of desire, as they relate to the chasing of rumors, pertaining to the biographies of Yoga and Sanskrit, across Yogaland.

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