For the context of this article, Indian culture with the Hindu religion is the focus. Yoga and other practices can belong to multiple Dharma religions and traditions like Buddhism and Jainism. The harm to one specific group can apply to all Dharma traditions as a whole.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation has infiltrated our society in different ways that many people don’t think about. Sometimes operating under blissful ignorance, other times due to lack of deep interest or personal connection to the greater culture being appropriated.
Cultural appropriation occurs when one group of people, who have historically disenfranchised another group of people, take something from the exploited culture and benefit from their theft while completely disregarding where it comes from. For instance, benefits such as through generating a profit or in receiving praise and credit for turning borrowed culture into a trend.
For instance, a primary symbol in Hinduism, the swastika was appropriated and used during Nazi Germany. The swastika in Hinduism actually symbolizes well-being, prosperity, and good luck.
The Pervasive & Silent Cultural Appropriation of Hinduism.
Western culture has capitalized and nearly monopolized on the appropriation of Indian religions. Consider YOGA, a spiritual practise found in many Indian religions has been integrated into the billion-dollar fitness industry and sold for a capital venture in the west.
Holi Festival of Colors vs. The Color Run
Holi or “The Festival of Colors” is an ancient Hindu festival that welcomes spring after winter. It is a celebration rich in music, food and culture. The main way of celebration is by smearing paint on each other and throwing coloured dye into the sky. All things considered, the Color Run took the beauty of Holi and turned it into the key selling point of their entire organization, without any mention of where the practice originates from.
Mehndi vs. Festival ‘Henna’
Mehndi is another huge example. When used in western culture it is simply used as an accessory, yet the real significance is much deeper. Mehndi is applied to the hands and feet, where the nerves end, as a way of cooling down the body and relieving stress. That’s why Mehndi is a tradition for something like a wedding. As well as signifying love and prosperity in a marriage. It’s not something to look cool with. Once the West picked up on Mehndi, an abundance of fake henna like products erupted. The over-saturation has made the true meaning be overlooked.
And thus, we arrive at the topic of yoga. A deeply rooted cultural tradition that has also had its meaning overlooked. Westen Yoga publications often employ influencers to sell ‘balanced’ lifestyles in association with Yoga and complimentary gear. This idea is in fact connected to yoga as a principal of a religion. Therefore, the balance must be deeply understood, not commercialized and used as a slogan.
Make no mistake, this is not to say no more yoga in the mornings. However, consider that Western society has a whitewashed picture of yoga and the culture in general, associating with mega-corporations like lululemon or with The Simpsons franchise’s character, Apu. Therefore, Western culture’s dominant reference points for Indian culture are debilitating, harmful, and massively benefiting from cultural appropriation.
Of course, this is not saying that people should withdraw from things they enjoy, such as yoga. However, it is time to change how society views and understands things; we must be conscious of our engagements. When the only google images that come up of yoga are thin white women doing the warrior pose, the true origins are hidden. Changing that is something that needs to happen in order for us as a society to respect cultures, rather than appropriate them.
Allies, especially white allies, stay educated in every aspect. Think of other cultures that are poorly spoken about, and take the time to learn more. Education is crucial and abundant; learn more about things that aren’t at the forefront of the conversation.