Tag Archives: Hinduism

Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

Mocko, “Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy”

In November, Oxford University Press will release “Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy” by Anne T. Mocko (Concordia College). The publisher’s description follows:

At the turn of the millennium, Nepal was the world’s last remaining Hindu kingdom. Even the most skeptical of observers could hardly imagine that the institution of the monarchy could soon be in jeopardy. In 2001, however, Nepal’s popular King Birendra was killed in the royal palace. Though the crown passed to his brother Gyanendra, the monarchy would never fully recover. Nepal witnessed an anti-king uprising in April 2006 and over the course of two years, an interim administration systematically took over all the king’s duties and privileges. Most decisively, beginning in the summer of 2007 the government began blocking the king from participating in his many public rituals, sending the prime minister in his place instead.

Demoting Vishnu argues that Nepal’s dramatic political transformation from monarchy to republic was contested-and in key ways accomplished-through ritual performance. Mocko theorizes the role of public ritual in producing Nepal’s state ideology. She examines how royal ritual once authorized kings to serve as the privileged apex of national governance and shows how in the twenty-first century those rituals stopped serving the king and began instead to authorize rule by a party-based “head of state.” By co-opting state ritual, the king’s opponents were able to attack the monarchy’s social identity at its foundations, enabling the final legal dissolution of kingship in 2008 to take place without physically harming the king himself. All once-royal rituals continue to be performed, but now they are handled by the country’s president-a position created in 2008 to take over state ceremonial functions. Demoting Vishnu illustrates how upheaval in ritual contexts undermined the institutional logic of the monarchy by demonstrating in very public ways that kingship was contingent, opposable, and ultimately dispensable.

Mukherji, “Gandhi and Tagore: Politics, Truth and Conscience”

In November, Routledge will release “Gandhi and Tagore: Politics, Truth and Conscience” by Gangeya Mukherji (Mahamati Prannath Mahavidyalaya, India). The publisher’s description follows:

This book brings together the political thought of Gandhi and Tagore to examine the relationship between politics, truth and conscience. It explores truth and conscience as viable public virtues with regard to two exemplars of ethical politics, addressing in turn the concerns of an evolving modern Indian political community.

The comprehensive and textually argued discussion frames the subject of the validity of ethical politics in inhospitable contexts such as the fanatically despotic state and energised nationalism. The book studies in nuanced detail Tagore’s opposition to political violence in colonial Bengal, the scope of non-violence and satyagraha as recommended by Gandhi to Jews in Nazi Germany, his response to the complexity of protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the differently constituted nationalism of Gandhi and Tagore. It presents their famous debate in a new light, embedded within the dynamics of cultural identification, political praxis and the capacity of a community to imbibe the principles of ethical politics.

Comprehensive and perceptive in analysis, this book will be a valuable addition for scholars and researchers of political science with specialisation in Indian political thought, philosophy and history.

Kumar, “Radical Equality”

Stanford University Press has released Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, gandjhiand the Risk of Democracy, by Aishwary Kumar (Stanford). The publisher’s description follows:

B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, and M.K. Gandhi, the Indian nationalist, two figures whose thought and legacies have most strongly shaped the contours of Indian democracy, are typically considered antagonists who held irreconcilable views on empire, politics, and society. As such, they are rarely studied together. This book reassesses their complex relationship, focusing on their shared commitment to equality and justice, which for them was inseparable from anticolonial struggles for sovereignty.

Both men inherited the concept of equality from Western humanism, but their ideas mark a radical turn in humanist conceptions of politics. This study recovers the philosophical foundations of their thought in Indian and Western traditions, religious and secular alike. Attending to moments of difficulty in their conceptions of justice and their language of nonviolence, it probes the nature of risk that radical democracy’s desire for inclusion opens within modern political thought. In excavating Ambedkar and Gandhi’s intellectual kinship, Radical Equality allows them to shed light on each other, even as it places them within a global constellation of moral and political visions. The story of their struggle against inequality, violence, and empire thus transcends national boundaries and unfolds within a universal history of citizenship and dissent.

“Religious Transformation in Modern Asia” (Kim, ed.)

This March, Brill Publishing will release “Religious Transformation in Modern Asia: A Transitional Movement” edited by David W. Kim (Australian National University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious TransformationThis volume explores the religious transformation of each nation in modern Asia. When the Asian people, who were not only diverse in culture and history, but also active in performing local traditions and religions, experienced a socio-political change under the wave of Western colonialism, the religious climate was also altered from a transnational perspective. Part One explores the nationals of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, focusing on the manifestations of Japanese religion, Chinese foreign policy, the British educational system in Hong Kong in relation to Tibetan Buddhism, the Korean women of Catholicism, and the Scottish impact in late nineteenth century Korea. Part Two approaches South Asia through the topics of astrology, the works of a Gujarātī saint, and Himalayan Buddhism. The third part is focused on the conflicts between ‘indigenous religions and colonialism,’ ‘Buddhism and Christianity,’ ‘Islam and imperialism,’ and ‘Hinduism and Christianity’ in Southeast Asia.

Barua, “Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity”

In April, Routledge will release “Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity” by Ankur Barua (University of Cambridge, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

Hindu and Christian debates over the meanings, motivations, and modalities of ‘conversion’ provide the central connecting theme running through this book. It focuses on the reasons offered by both sides to defend or oppose the possibility of these cross-border movements, and shows how these reasons form part of a wider constellation of ideas, concepts, and practices of the Christian and the Hindu worlds.

The book draws upon several historical case-studies of Christian missionaries and of Hindus who encountered these missionaries. By analyzing some of the complex negotiations, intersections, and conflicts between Hindus and Christians over the question of ‘conversion’, it demonstrates that these encounters revolve around three main contested themes. Firstly, who can properly ‘speak for the convert’? Secondly, how is ‘tolerating’ the religious other connected to an appraisal of the other’s viewpoints which may be held to be incorrect, inadequate, or incomplete? Finally, what is, in fact, the ‘true Religion’? The book demonstrates that it is necessary to wrestle with these questions for an adequate understanding of the Hindu and Christian debates over ‘conversion.’

Questioning what ‘conversion’ precisely is, and why it has been such a volatile issue on India’s political-legal landscape, the book will be a useful contribution to studies of Hinduism, Christianity and Asian Religion and Philosophy.

Walzer, “The Paradox of Liberation”

In March, Yale University Press will release “The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions” by Michael Walzer (Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study).  The publisher’s description follows:

Paradox of LiberationMany of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness. Michael Walzer, one of America’s foremost political thinkers, examines this perplexing trend by studying India, Israel, and Algeria, three nations whose founding principles and institutions have been sharply attacked by three completely different groups of religious revivalists: Hindu militants, ultra-Orthodox Jews and messianic Zionists, and Islamic radicals.

In his provocative, well-reasoned discussion, Walzer asks why these secular democratic movements have failed to sustain their hegemony: Why have they been unable to reproduce their political culture beyond one or two generations? In a postscript, he compares the difficulties of contemporary secularism to the successful establishment of secular politics in the early American republic—thereby making an argument for American exceptionalism but gravely noting that we may be less exceptional today.

Bauman, “Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India”

In February, Oxford University Press will release “Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India”  by Chad M. Bauman (Butler University). The publisher’s description follows:

Every year, there are several hundred attacks on India’s Christians. These attacks are carried out by violent anti-minority activists, many of them provoked by what they perceive to be a Christian propensity for aggressive proselytization, or by rumored or real conversions to the faith. Pentecostals are disproportionately targeted.

Drawing on extensive interviews, ethnographic work, and a vast scholarly literature on interreligious violence, Hindu nationalism, and Christianity in India, Chad Bauman examines this phenomenon. While some of the factors in the targeting of Pentecostals are obvious and expected-their relatively greater evangelical assertiveness, for instance-other significant factors are less acknowledged and more surprising: marginalization of Pentecostals by “mainstream” Christians, the social location of Pentecostal Christians, and transnational flows of missionary personnel, theories, and funds. A detailed analysis of Indian Christian history, contemporary Indian politics, Indian social and cultural characteristics, and Pentecostal belief and practice, this volume sheds important light on a troubling fact of contemporary Indian life.

Carmen & Rao, “Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009”

This month, Eerdmans releases “Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009:Carman_Christians in South Indian Villages.indd Decline and Revival in Telangana,” by John Carman and Chilkuri Vasantha Rao. The publisher’s description follows:

A discerning study of a slice of modern Indian Christianity and Christian-Hindu encounter.

This book revisits South Indian Christian communities that were studied in 1959 and written about in Village Christians and Hindu Culture (1968). In 1959 the future of these village congregations was uncertain. Would they grow through conversions or slowly dissolve into the larger Hindu society around them?

John Carman and Chilkuri Vasantha Rao’s carefully gathered research fifty years later reveals both the decline of many older congregations and the surprising emergence of new Pentecostal and Baptist churches that emphasize the healing power of Christ. Significantly, the new congregations largely cut across caste lines, including both high castes and outcastes (Dalits).

Carman and Vasantha Rao pay particular attention to the social, political, and religious environment of these Indian village Christians, including their adaptation of indigenous Hindu practices into their Christian faith and observances.

Dixie & Eisenstadt, “Visions of a Better World”

Last month, Random House released the paperback edition of Visions of a Better9780807001721 World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence, by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. The publisher’s description follows:

In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.

When Thurman (1899–1981) became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance.

After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers—among them Martin Luther King Jr.

Visions of a Better World depicts a visionary leader at a transformative moment in his life. Drawing from previously untapped archival material and obscurely published works, Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt explore, for the first time, Thurman’s development into a towering theologian who would profoundly affect American Christianity—and American history.