Yoga and the commissars

Every summer between 2014 and 2018, students at Northeastern University traveled to Spain as part of a “Dialogues of Civilization” programme. Led by Liz Bucar, professor of religious studies, they spent eleven days walking the last 150 miles of the French Way, the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Bucar helped her flock to treat blistered feet and sometimes to overcome panic attacks. She also introduced sharp historical perspectives to general practice the Camino’s image as an example of tolerance and integration, observing, for instance, that the statue of St James Matamoros in Santiago’s cathedral had white daisies added to the base, partly covering the Moors whom he is crushing . She obliged her students to question the distinction between “authentic” pilgrimages and tourist industries, the Camino having become important in the economy of northern Spain.

But she sometimes went further. In Stealing My Religion she acknowledges an ethical slip of her own: on one occasion she pulled rank in ordering a group of four Evangelical students, assertive critics of Catholicism, not to take communion in a local church. After five years Bucar decided that the whole pedagogic exercise was flawed in that it could reinforce rather than dissolve stereotypes and hierarchies, including her own professorial authority. She terminated this highly rated annual programme, though now she is thinking of redesigning it in a way that puts acknowledging exploitation at the center of the planned experience.

The Camino walks provide a case study for one of the three chapters that make up this book. Another focuses on the hijab or headscarf, the subject of much debate both within and outside Islam. Two illustrations stand out. One is a poster designed in 2017 by Shepard Fairey as part of “We the People”, a project backed by a US non-profit foundation to oppose the election of Donald Trump as president. It is a portrait of an attractive young woman (actually a Bangladeshi New Yorker) wearing a headscarf made of the American flag, with stars on one side and stripes on the other. Though the widespread adoption of this poster, especially by feminists, was motivated by a desire to show a commitment to diversity and solidarity with Muslims, some Muslim women objected. In fact, a high proportion of Muslim women never wear a headscarf: about 42 per cent in the US in 2017. Those who do may see it as a way of cultivating virtues of piety and restraint, and/or as a protest against anti- Muslim prejudice. The second illustration is a news photograph published by New Zealand media after the mass shooting of Muslims in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. This shows a fair-haired policewoman standing guard with a rifle at a cemetery on the day of the funeral for the fifty -one victims. She is wearing a uniform and a black hijab. New Zealand politicians and ers also took part in the “Headscarf for Harmony” campaign, but Bucar records that this was criticized by some Twitter commentators as “liberal virtue signaling”.

Drawing on historical studies of the meanings attached to Muslim women’s dress both by colonial reformers and by resistance movements, and on her own research into contemporary fashion, Bucar exposes the deficiencies of “activist chic”. She down hard on a certain “white feminism”, pervasive in the US, that has shown itself to be oblivious to the overlapping modes of experienced by African American Muslim women. She argues that American liberals should set out not merely to understand a religious difference, but to “let difference change us and become a source of values”. It is not quite clear what she means by this. One conclusion to draw from her chapter on the hijab could be that non-Muslims can learn something from the characteristic Muslim emphasis on modesty in dress; but that would be a truly radical challenge to current liberal mores.

Bucar’s third case study applies the same concept of appropriation to a fine-grained study of what she calls “respite”, as opposed to devotional, yoga in America. As part of her research project she became a 200-hour certified yoga teacher in the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This has been called the Harvard of American yoga schools, despite a sex scandal in the 1990s that prompted its transformation from an ashram, led by a guru and staffed by volunteers, into an educational charity with paid employees. Bucar brings out the complexities of the relationship between the yoga of “wellness culture”, a watered-down variant acceptable to white Protestants, and its multiple South Asian antecedents. Yoga is a flourishing industry practiced by 36 million Americans, reliant on teachers whose low wages are justified by the invocation of seva, the Indian religious concept of selfless service. Americans acknowledge yoga’s eastern origins only vaguely, giving offence to some devout Hindus: in 2008 the Hindu American Foundation launched its “Take Back Yoga” campaign. Yet, as Bucar notes, the bundling together of various South Asian cults and devotional traditions as Hinduism dates back only to the early nineteenth century. A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that today Jains and Sikhs are more likely than Hindus to practice yoga in India.

The Hindutva movement led by Narendra Modi has energetically promoted yoga in its political plan, an important element of which is to downgrade the citizenship rights of Indian Muslims. Here Bucar puts aside her sometimes formulaic invocations of orientalism, racism and classism to recognize that religious appropriations based on structural inequalities are not exclusively to be blamed on Euro-American institutions. Most of her criticism is directed at people who are normally accustomed to claiming the moral high ground: New Ages and the “woke”. Hasn’t the history of religions been one of continuous appropriation – the Ka’bah in Mecca and Yuletide in Christendom being two examples? Bucar accepts that it is difficult to determine who “owns” a religion, but for her it is stealing when a dominant group borrows from a marginalized one.

Though lively in style and backed by solid, unobtrusive scholarship, Stealing My Religion is marred by a confusion of approach. Bucar writes that she is “part of the 27 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated”, and she aims at a wide readership. It would have been more rigorous to opt for “methodological agnosticism”, which facilitates a level playing field for debate irrespective of the strength or otherwise of discussants exclude’ beliefs, but does not efforts to empathize with the life-worlds of religious adherents. According to this principle claims to transcendence should not be taken at face value. If they were, the spiritual claims advanced by a movement such as Scientology would have to be treated with unconditional respect (since many of its followers find them inspiring, and in an eccentric unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2013 it was legally endorsed as a religion), when they might otherwise be seen as an opportunistic mélange of dharmic religiosity, psychoanalysis and science fiction.

Though Bucar takes the view (a majority view in current social science) that the exact definition of religion is problematic, she asserts that “exploitation in cases of religious appropriation is not the same as in other forms of cultural appropriation”. Yet Marxism in its various forms has often been interpreted as a series of political religions. The Chinese party-state today, with its doctrine of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, recently reframed with the personality cult of Xi Jinping, has clearly appropriated an ideology that meant very different to Rosa Luxemburg. But why can we not apply much the same interpretative lens here that we would apply to Vladimir Putin’s co-optation of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Religion has prominent overlaps with aesthetics as well as with politics. The retention of the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum and other public collections (some of which are returning them to Nigeria) after their acquisition through military looting in 1897 is clearly a case of cultural exploitation. As examples of what used to be called “tribal art” they are highly prized, especially because they were not made for sale. But this was a form of religious appropriation too, since the Oba of Benin, the kingdom’s traditional ruler, was held to be divine, and some of the bronzes were made for rituals designed to maintain close connection between him and his ancestors.

In her call for responsibility in borrowing, Liz Bucar singles out for criticism forms of exploitation close to her own identity as privileged and religiously unaffiliated. She provides evidence en passant for a broader inference: the contestability of all claims to authenticity and purity, claims that are especially salient when politics overlaps with cherished traditions.

Jonathan Benthallis an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College London

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post Yoga and the commissars appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment