Spirituality & The Politics of Cultural Appropriation
I find it sad when individuals legitimate stripping spiritual practices away from a particular culture because white people find it useful or interesting. And then try to pass it off as ´spiritual enlightenment´ or wisdom. What is ironic is that spirituality itself – as a concept – got popularized in the West through engagement with Eastern mystics and the traditions that supported them. And then got appropriated.
For those who have studied the history of colonial rule, and the ways in which indigenous cultures were suppressed – or in some cases – entirely re-written by their oppressors – this is basically the same old wine, in a sparkly new, rainbow-chakra coloured bottle.
The debates that inflame people on facebook have truly been read, researched, assessed to an incredible depth by a whole body of international scholarship. The wheel doesn´t need to be re-invented here – it just needs to be acknowledged.
Trying to assume that a lay understanding of history and politics surpasses the need the engage with the work and life-worlds of indigenous scholars is yet another form of colonial appropriation.
Trying to erase away the history of these practices (and the politics of appropriation) using the rhetoric of being ´enlightened´ or ´at Oneness´ has its own costs.
And yes – of course some indigenous practitioners do fleece innocent seekers who go in search of answers – left, right and center. That´s the other side of the equation. But so much of that can be averted by making the effort to be informed.
Ask the tough questions.
Pick up that really heavy book on the origins of your tradition and read it.
If you can, look for the marginalized voices that the tradition itself chose to ignore or suppress (and that creates so much growth).
Make sure the source actually has the credentials to know what they claim to know.
Ask the tough questions.
Remember your roots, and remember the traditions you engage in.
It takes work to do so, but it´s work that is well worth doing.
It shows respect and honors the lifeblood of the civilization that created it. And if that´s not worth doing – one really has to ask what kind of ´spirituality´ is being practiced here.
I see people leaving my page over this – and you know what – I´m glad. I´m not going to, through my efforts (free or otherwise) support the development of spiritual practices that are disconnected from their roots. By now, one would think that it´s pretty clear I don´t do what I do to score brownie points or likeability.
My spiritual path has never been divorced from my politics. It´s easy to claim that politics exists in elections, institutions, officials – and so on. But that´s just the starting point. The surface level.
Politics exists and permeates through every decision we make in our lives. There is a political dimension that operates in the smallest detail that makes up the picture of ´normality´. It creates the framework for what we accept as the status quo, and what we think does not need to be questioned. It sets up the parameters of what is seen as dominant, hegemonic or mainstream – and ´others´ all that exist outside of it.
Spirituality is, like politics, something that permeates and suffuses itself through all dimensions of one´s life. They are both fundamental layers, or perspectives on reality that intimately re-inforce one another.
What we take as the accepted domain of ´the spiritual´ is itself a political choice. Who is allowed to regulate and commodify spiritual practice is – again – a political choice. Be it one that was made thousands of years ago in the midst of cultural and economic change – or one that takes place in the present, shaped by the needs of a market-based economy in a digital world.
As a spiritualist, I have found my academic understanding of politics to enhance my work and help me locate myself with greater authenticity. And to raise my voice in support of spiritual practices that do not repeat historical injustices.
I didn´t realize it at first, but I get people to think about things they normally wouldn´t. That´s worth doing.
As a Tamil (South Indian) woman with a PhD in Political Science, I have found the discernment and analytical tools of academia make me question the wool that others have sought to put over my eyes in the name of ´the spiritual´. Or to know when the name of Spirit is used to perpetuate greater violence and separation.
In my life at least, the two are intimately interconnected. It would be hollow for me to have one and not the other.
Here´s a couple of useful articles that – at least on the topic of yoga and Hinduism – provide a decent general introduction.
https://postyoga.wordpress.com/…/yoga-as-the-colonized-sub…/ – a beautiful piece by Sri Louise. I admire someone willing to stand up to members of her own ethnic grouping because of her love for another. And who backs it up with research.
Seriously, the idea of India – as a nation – and the dominant narrative of Hinduism came about only with colonial rule. I´d highly recommend looking into the works of the ´subaltern studies´ branch of Indian sociology / historiography. A lot of what is ´sold´ as an idea, practice or concept has strong Brahmanical roots – that came at the cost of excluding other indigenous traditions.
In the video, I also address why these distinctions need to be made, and why it is so telling that indigenous practitioners are shamed for wanting to assert their own cultural boundaries. (Using watered-down spiritual terms that came from their own lineages, no less) .
Post, linked Video © Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2018. All rights reserved.