Rape in India and Western Yoga Philosophy
Reports on the horrific gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi raced around the world in the first two weeks of 2013. Her death shortly after the unbelievably violent rape in a private bus, and the demonstrations protesting the brutal rape and the lack of prosecuting rapists in India produced a global plethora of news reports, journalistic commentaries, and opinion pieces in the mass media.
One of them is Sohaila Abdulali’s opinion piece entitled “I Was Wounded: My Honor Wasn’t” and it stands out for me. She mentions the rape she survived as a 17 year-old young woman living in Mumbai and makes this apt observation:
“We have spent generations constructing elaborate systems of patriarchy, caste and social and sexual inequality that allow abuse to flourish. But rape is not inevitable, like the weather.”
She got it right. Systems of patriarchy, caste and social and sexual inequality have produced comprehensive structures of domination silencing uncountable rape victim-survivors, excusing most rapists, and fostering theories and practices harmful to the well-being of women and girls. Gender justice is thus a central element for any in-depth understanding of society, culture, politics, economics, and, yes, religion. And just to be clear: gender justice includes sexual violence of any kind, including rape.
That’s why Abdulali’s observation is so important. It connects rape with society’s manifold traditions, conventions, and practices.
A long-term strategy for eliminating rape from the face of the earth needs to be grounded in the understanding that political, economic, legal, literary, cultural, and religious traditions have contributed to keeping rape out of the mainstream consciousness and dismissing it as a problem of victims and victim-survivors.
More specifically, let’s focus on religion. Are there still people who contest that religious traditions have contributed, made excusable, and legitimated violence against women, girls, and sometimes also men and boys? It seems impossible, as religions almost anywhere have been so obviously rape-prone for so long.
During the past four decades, feminist thinkers and theologians have made headway in analyzing the complicity and active or indirect promotion of rape-prone practices in various religious traditions.
For instance, the anthology by Carol J. Adams and Marie Fortune, Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Sourcebook, gathers important materials that expose Christianity’s complicity in the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the past and present.
Another volume comes from Daniel C. Maguire and Sa’diyya Shaikh, the editors of Violence against Women in Contemporary World Religions: Roots and Cures. The contributors examine Christian, Christian-Catholic, South African Muslim, Chinese, African traditional religious, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions, illustrating acceptance and support of misogyny. The volume also tries to give reason for optimism, maintaining that certain aspects of these traditions have aided in “curing” sexual violence.
Let me also mention my own work, entitled Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress 2010), which critically investigates the role of biblical scholarship in fostering rape-prone attitudes and habits within Bible-influenced cultures and traditions.
But what has not happened (yet) is that Western yoga practitioners connect their study of yoga philosophy to the prevalence of rape in India and elsewhere.
Some say there is no such link.
Others say that what we call yoga today is a modern invention of the last one-hundred years. In my view, this is a very convincing historical observation. Scholars like Elizabeth de Michelis and Mark Singleton classify yoga as “modern posture practice” and regard it as only vaguely related to ancient Indian yoga practices of the pre-colonial era.
Be that as it may, but many contemporary Western yoga practitioners believe that yoga philosophy based on texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, or the Upanishads, refers to spiritual-individual development only. They read these texts divorced from socio-political and cultural-religious problems in the world, whether they are sexual violence and misogyny, heterosexism, misogyny, the caste system, classism, racism, homophobia, or neo-colonialism, to name just a few. This, at least, is what I have noticed in my twenty-years of doing Iyengar yoga in the United States. We practice asanas and often talk about yoga philosophy in utter disregard to the socio-political, economic, and cultural-religious problems in the world.
In short, Western yoga hermeneutics is privatized, personalized, and sentimentalized (PPS) although religious studies scholars, such as Veena Talwar Oldenburg, encourage a critical analysis of the Indian literary-religious traditions.
She examines the Sita-Ram story, as told in the Ramayana, one of the great epics in India. She explains that the narrative is particularly popular among Hindu nationalists who push the Ramayana as the Hindu bible (Oldenburg 2007, 155). It is also widespread in contemporary Indian storytelling, such as on TV, in comic books, and even in dance. Oldenburg explores the story’s connections to modern patriarchal and legal constructions of gender, as they are often articulated by Indian women who experienced sexual violence. Oldenburg’s is a fascinating and complex analysis indeed!
But the question is: why do contemporary Western yoginis and yogis show so little interest in this kind of work in their study of Hindu-Indian texts?
The horrific rape situation in India has brought this question again to my attention. Should the prevalence of rape anywhere not make everyone sensitive, suspicious, and allergic to any kind of disconnection between one’s physio-spiritual practices and the material conditions in the world? Many western yoga practitioners do not think so. Why?
Two possible reasons come to mind. One reason relates to the fact that Western yoga practitioners have been socialized to be comfortable with PPS religiosity. Privatized, personalized, and sentimentalized views of the world, including religion, are legion, also in traditional Western religions, such as Christianity. Another reason concerns the fact that in Western societies rape is still legally tolerated, religiously silenced, and socially excused, as the recent Steubenville rape exposes.
So could it be that many yoginis and yogis avoid looking closely at the prevalence of rape and misogyny here or there because they want to study Indian sacred texts to escape from their daily lives and to restore and to relax? Since they are used to ignoring structures of domination prevalent in the world, they seek a physio-spiritual path that does not ask them to connect religion and the world. They want PPS yoga philosophy and are usually unaware of the high price to be paid for this preference.
Admittedly, my comments are a speculative attempt to understand why in many years of asana practice, I have yet to encounter yoga teachers who are willing or trained to encourage critical reflection on the link among misogyny, rape, and yoga philosophy.
As Veena Talwar Oldenburg advises so succinctly:
“Sita’s story needs to be retold from a woman’s point of view in print, film, and a blockbuster television series. Violence against women will only cease when women reject the patriarchal conditioning and become the writers of our laws and the retellers of our epics.” (Oldenburg 2007, 173)
Perhaps one day soon, Western yoga studios and institutes—after all populated mostly by women—will recognize that the recent torturous rape case in India demands no less.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, “Sita’s Epic Journey: Reflections on the Violence in the Lives of Hindu Women in North India,” in violence against women in contemporary world religions: Roots and Cures, ed. Daniel C. Maguire and Sa’diyya Shaikh, 153-173. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.