DOES CASTE PLAY A ROLE IN YOGA TODAY?
As a non-resident Indian I have felt both unwelcome by the countries I have lived in and did not feel like belonged to the country of my origin. Unfortunately, this is the price I and many immigrants pay and therefore I believe it’s important to establish an identity in order to have a strong foundation of self.
Unless we are firmly rooted and connected within our own sense of identity to a culture/ethnicity, our own actions of moving forward or creating change and how we relate to others will always be misinterpreted.
NRIs have the best of both worlds in terms of benefits and privileges; the ability to hold citizenship and reap the benefits of their country of residence while enjoying the privileges from their country of origin. This is something many do not talk about and when reminded it is met with silence and resistance.
The first step in establishing an identity is learning everything about a civilization and its culture. Understand its history, our ancestors’ journey and actions. In order to comprehend it fully, it is important to view it not through our present modern western lens but a historical one.
Having an identity is fundamental in the way we live, function and relate to others. If there is no grounding to one’s history and culture, then is it safe to say that our state of confusion of identity will and can be exploited, undermined and or misdirected?
Our identity tells a personal story of who we are and how we arrived at this point in our lives. It is about our relationship and connection within the fabric of our cultural civilization.
Identity reflects the manner in the way we think and act and this can be broken down in various groups like, race, religion, gender, age, ethnicity, caste, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and cultural.
I bring this up because I have had to take a hard look at my own identity, caste and privilege. I have experienced both racism in modern society and enjoyed benefits that come with being privileged.
So, before I point fingers or call out others for taking a hard look at their own privilege and role in yoga, I need to be transparent and open about my own.
As a privileged Hindu Punjabi Kshatriya woman, myself, my experiences do not compare to those of the underprivileged or Dalit community. Many are still oppressed and barely have the basic necessities within their own country. We who are privileged and live in the west, cannot begin to understand the challenges they face.
With privilege comes responsibility and one of them is realizing that it does not give an entitlement to capitalize on those that have been deeply oppressed and disrespected in society, after all is this not what the SA yoga community movement is trying to highlight!
My caste or privilege does not give me the authority to decide what is being appropriated or should be taught within yoga, for the simple reason that it reflects privilege and highlights caste.
Privilege does not give me the liberty to exclude voices irrespective of their perspectives, backgrounds, traditions, lineage and caste. As Savarna women (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) who wear our progressive label, should we not question our own privilege, caste and need to control the present narratives of yoga?
As Savarna women we can use our influence and platforms to highlight plights of the underprivileged and Dalit community. We can fight alongside them. We can step back and hand them the mic. We can offer places at the very same conference tables that we sit on. We can band together even with our differences in perspectives and work towards the change we all want to see in yoga. So why do we not see more of this?
Which brings me to the word of ‘inclusivity’. My understanding of it means to provide equal access, opportunities, voices of those that are excluded or marginalized but I have yet to see this. Yoga conference platforms created for and by SA teachers living in the west, uplift their own dominate narratives while the minority Indian perspectives are side-lined. This lack of inclusivity and diversity is not only hypocritical but paints a very narrow outlook and takes away from the rich heritage and nuanced philosophy and practice that this can offer to our western counterparts.
Now there are theories about how yoga has an oppressive history and needs to be decolonized. To this I would say it all depends on how you view the system; if your outlook is through a western mind without any prior understanding of India’s history then yes it would reflect just that, but if you view it from an eastern mind then it would reflect a different story.
There are many theories and tackling the caste system is not only vast but complicated.
India during Vedic period (1500-1000 BCE) did not have any social economic classifications. It was broken down into VARNAS. This was a system based on how specific task were allocated to each citizen.
Chapter 4 verse13 of the Gita mentions the classification of people depended not only by their occupation but on the basis of their gunas as well.
The use of the word 'caste' was introduced during the British Rule and was used as a means to divide and oppress these groups for their benefits. In modern India it is being used as a means to gain votes for political agendas. The caste system was abolished in 1950 but unfortunately it is still prevalent in modern India. Bhimrao Ambedkar campaigned for the rights of Dalits.
So, I ask … In highlighting 'privilege of others' have South Asian teachers consciously avoided to look at their own privilege, caste and its role in yoga today?
Indian Casye System
Picture credit: Jarrod Fankhauser