Religious nationalism and transglobal yoga
Across the Indian media and online there are several rumours, or factoids, that suggest there are communities in rural and often remote areas of India where entire villages speak only fluent Sanskrit.
Throughout the several years I have spent living and working in India, I have heard many times the emphatic assertion by people from all walks of life that ‘there is a village somewhere in India where everyone speaks Sanskrit’. I resolved that one day I would substantiate the veracity of these claims. As an anthropologist, the way in which rumours like this grow and take on a life of their own, indirectly feeding a nationalist and romantic image of “pure, untouched, and pristine” village life in rural India, fascinates me. Professionally, I am interested in the macro-level processes of creating imagined communities, and how this manifests at the micro or interpersonal level. The construction of our collective ideas regarding any community or nation is based on a tacitly agreed-upon imaginary landscape.
In my research, I focus on what the transglobal yoga community imagines itself to be, who is involved, and who gets to say what an authentic yoga lifestyle, practice, identity, and community can, ought to, or should be. This leads me to explore larger social and political processes of banal nationalism related to religious fundamentalism, and whether these questions are important to modern yoga practitioners. Part of this research includes exploring the role that spoken Sanskrit plays and the value ascribed to it within and beyond the transglobal yoga community. For those not ensconced in a Hindu thought-world and religious practice, Sanskrit is generally considered a dead, dying, or endangered language. A good way to appreciate its position and cultural prestige is as the Latin of Asia.
Approximately seven years ago, during an Internet search for information about these villages, I came across a clip on YouTube about a Sanskrit-speaking village called Jhiri. In this nationally syndicated news clip the presenter asserted that “almost all the people always converse in Sanskrit.” I found this phrase deeply ambiguous. I wanted to know more, and so, during April and May 2015, I spent four weeks in the village of Jhiri, where I faced exceptionally challenging conditions related to my health, the heat, and the fact that the village does not have electricity or running water. I was treated as a village guest. The hospitality shown to me by this community touched me deeply, and I am sure we will be friends for many years.
During this time I conducted anthropological research to understand the sociolinguistic reality of Jhiri, and the aspirations of this community to become a Sanskrit-speaking village. The community leaders decided about twelve years ago that they wanted to make this transition happen. While it was successful for five years or so, over the past seven years the active teaching of Sanskrit has stalled. The reasons for this are complicated and somewhat opaque. It remains to be seen whether the community can revive its own interest in this project of language reclamation.
I am also making an ethnographic documentary series about Jhiri, entitled Imagining Sanskrit Land. This is part of my broader investigation into the politics of imagination, which is specifically related to the reliance of various groups—including the transglobal yoga industry—on the Sanskrit episteme. This refers to the justified true beliefs located within the voluminous Sanskrit corpus, which, as yoga practitioners, we know is the source of the names of the yoga āsanas (postures) and countless treatises related to various branches of science, spirituality, and society.
As I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of the diplomatic enclave in Delhi watching the outside temperature rise steadily past 40°C in mid-April 2015, my anxiety also continued to increase. This was because I could not locate the Sanskrit-speaking village I had come to India specifically to look for. In over five years of thinking about this village, and the others I have heard about through the Indian media, I had not met a single person who had actually been to Jhiri. Yet countless people assured me that Jhiri and other similar villages exist, and that, more importantly, “everyone speaks fluent Sanskrit.” This included people who work for Samskrita Bharati, which, since the early 1980s, has evolved from an office in Bangalore to become an international organisation devoted to promoting a vernacular, simplified Sanskrit around the world. None of the several employees within this organisation who emphatically asserted that “everyone in Jhiri speaks Sanskrit” knew where the village was or even how to get there.
This was because even in Rajgarh District there are several villages named Jhiri. In the local language, Malvi, which is about 70 percent intelligible to speakers of Hindi, Jhiri refers to a place where water is found. Therefore, it is easy to understand why there are several villages named Jhiri. In the case of the Sanskrit Jhiri, the villagers identify their community as Jhiri-Sandawata. Sandawata is the closest town to Jhiri, situated three kilometres away on the Pachore–Soyat Kalan Road between Jirapur and Khujner.
Refining my search meant bringing the focus down from the state level through the jilā (district) level to the smallest administrative division, known as a tehsil. Still, even with the help of Google Maps, it was impossible to determine which Jhiri within Rajgarh District was the right one. As it turned out, this particular Jhiri does not even come up on Google Maps as a town. Thanks to Google Maps, the Jhiri I was heading to was actually about 100 kilometres off target. It wasn’t until after I had already left Delhi and was in Rajgarh District that I realised this mistake.
In the end I reserved a sleeper bunk on a train to Madhya Pradesh. I thought that if I got myself to Rajgarh District I could eventually narrow down my search. After a few nights in Gwalior sightseeing and staying with my Couchsurfing host, I took a bus to a town called Guna. The manager of the hotel, who was a friend of my Couchsurfing host, assured me that he knew where Jhiri was, and that he could arrange a car and driver to get me there. However, I still had my doubts that it would be as simple as that, even though the village is quite famous in Madhya Pradesh and across India. This is because the Indian media promotes the romanticised notion that Jhiri is “India’s own Jurassic Park.”
My driver and I left Guna after the midday prayer. Heading south along AH (Asian Highway—the network that connects Gwalior and Bangalore) 47, we found ourselves sometimes literally going in circles. Our patience and enthusiasm rapidly waned as the sun headed towards the horizon. Doubt crept in. I began to think that I would have been better off staying in air-conditioned comfort in Delhi. We stopped countless times at dusty, windy intersections to ask people if they knew how to get to the Sanskrit village. While many had heard of it, even people within the same group offered various potential locations and subsequent directions. On more than one occasion two people standing next to each other pointed in the opposite direction at the same time. Tired, anxious, hungry, and agitated, I had at least two terse conversations with my driver, who implored me to allow him to turn around and increasingly suggested that I could get on a bus—and continue without him to a place whose location I still wasn’t sure about.
Eventually, around dusk, we rolled into one more Jhiri. We were certain that we had found it. The last people we had spoken to were positive we were on the right path. On the outskirts of the village I stuck my head out of the window and spoke in Sanskrit to an elderly man who wore a big, yellow turban: Bhavan, Samskṛtaṃ vadituṃ śaknoti vā? (Sir, do you speak Sanskrit?). He responded with a nonplussed grin and pointed deeper into the village, suggesting that I might find my quarry there. The next person I met, whom I came to know as the ever-smiling Gheesha Lal, stuck his head in the window. I said to him, Saṃskṛtaṃ vadituṃ śakyate? (Do you speak Sanskrit?). He replied, Ām (Yes). I continued, saying, Aham asmi Paṭrikaḥ. Auṣṭreliyā deśataḥ āgataḥ. (I am Patrick. I am from Australia.) Mama icchā asti iti ahaṃ bhavataḥ grāme sthāpitum icchāmi; śaknoti vā? (My wish is that I can stay in your village; is this possible?)
Gheesha Lal beamed an even bigger smile, wiggled his head and said, Tathāstu, cinta māstu, susvāgatam, āgacchatu bhavan. (Let it be, don’t worry, welcome, come, sir.) Asmākaṃ grāmaḥ bhavataḥ grāmaḥ asti. (Our village is your village.) With that warm invitation, I took my gear from the car, paid the driver, gave him a generous tip, and wished him a safe journey back home to Guna. Thus began my four weeks in Jhiri, the Sanskrit-speaking village.
Across the Indian media and online there are several rumours, or factoids, that suggest there are communities in rural and often remote areas of India where entire villages speak only fluent Sanskrit. This myth fuels a type of cultural pride even among people who are not Sanskrit speakers, Sanskrit knowers, or even religious nationalists. Sanskrit, which many people consider a dead language similar to Latin, classical Greek, ancient Hebrew, and classical Chinese, is still spoken as a second language in some places in India and in very small pockets, or language nests, abroad, usually among the Hindu diasporas. Some people whom I have met even assert that their mother tongue is Sanskrit. On a couple of occasions this assertion was based on their being able to say om (ॐ), the symbol that has come, in many ways, to define Hinduism and yoga.
Sanskrit lives and continues to evolve beyond the fossilised grammatical treatises composed around 2,500 years ago. This is the approximate time when speakers of Sanskrit began to adopt languages other than Sanskrit as their mother tongues. Over the course of several generations, the Sanskrit-speaking people migrated into the northern parts of the subcontinent, and, by the time of the famous grammarian Pāṇini (circa 500 BCE), four regional variations had emerged. Over the next 200 to 300 years, around the time of Patañjali, the cultural elite became worried that there could be potential soteriological consequences for their ethnic community if this shift to what they perceived as the less prestigious mleccha (barbarian) or piśāca (goblin) languages occurred. As a result, Patañjali and his grammarian-theologian predecessor named Kātyāyana essentially created a cultural and moral panic in response to this decline in usage of bhāṣā (which means “language” in Sanskrit). The vernacular, conversational form of Sanskrit, as opposed to the ritualised form that consists of Vedic mantras (prayers), was also given special status. Patañjali and Kātyāyana proposed that speaking Sanskrit in one’s home with one’s family and friends would lead to the accumulation of puṇya (religious merit), not only for the individual but also for their family and the community within which they identified. This moment is important, as previously the theology of the Vedic religion decreed that the meritorious value of Sanskrit was only ascribed to the Vedic mantras performed during ritual.
Today, Samskrita Bharati uses the same logic to assert that if people speak or hear a vernacular Sanskrit then there will be a localised purification of space and community. Due to the proposed moral edificatory power of the devabhāṣā (language of the gods), it is believed that the people considered fortunate enough to speak or hear Sanskrit will become more righteous, that there will be a cultural and moral reformation, and that their lives will be transformed. It is alleged that people will renounce many so-called vices, such as drinking spirituous liquor, gambling, fornicating, consuming meat and other intoxicants, fighting, etc., and that they will lead what is considered to be a dharmic (ethical) lifestyle.
The Vedic period (circa 1200 to 500 BCE) is when the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were composed in Sanskrit. Generally, the adjective ‘Vedic’ is used to qualify and denote a perceived purer golden age. While the aspirations of the multibillion-dollar transglobal yoga industry might at first seem to run counter to the aspirations of a Hindu supremacist agenda, these two worlds intersect through the narrative of the “Vedic way of life” or “Vedic lifestyle.” Central to this is the concept of sanātana-dharma (eternal ethical principles or way of life). The term is too often crudely translated as “religion,” but it is the basis of an ethnic religious identity and self-understanding that formed in the 19th and 20th centuries in India as a counterpoint to Western notions. Prior to this, even though the term can be found in ancient texts, it was not until it was politicised during the seminal nationalist period that it took on its current meaning, which signifies an idealised, homogenous Hindu politico-religious identity.
Promotion of this dharmic or Vedic lifestyle is part of a broader postcolonial pushback against the West and the perceived ills of modernity. Yet this Vedic lifestyle ought also to be seen as an expression of modernity and not simply as an antiquated or anachronistic revitalisation of a perceived local or even global culture; Hindu supremacists believe that the Vedic lifestyle was the original and therefore best culture humanity has known, and that a return to it is absolutely necessary to limit the damage caused by war, climate change, financial ruin, and failed states.
At the core of this clash of civilisations is the neo-Hindu concept that religion (i.e. dharma) is central to morality and humanity. While going backwards in time is not an option, the chosen path is a utopian aspiration to reconstitute this world in an impression of what the Vedic culture might have been. There is no better way to do this than through the multibillion-dollar wellness industry, which includes spiritual tourism and the alternative health options of yoga and Āyurveda, which are perceived to be part of an authentic lifestyle. This includes spending time at spiritual retreat centres that are marketed as holistic, organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly intentional communities (i.e. ashrams) like Govardhan Eco Village (GEV). GEV is a project inspired by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON; Hare Krishna movement). On its website it explains how it offers a “blend of traditional wisdom and modern practicality, from innovative award-winning eco-solutions to education in spiritual living, we call this Symbiotic Development.”
Central to this shared Vedic ideology is the perception that it is a more sustainable and holistic approach to life. It is part of a broader religious environmentalism, a neo-pagan and ‘dharmic ecology’ movement that is neo-Hindu rather than genuinely Vedic. This holistic philosophy appeals to the individual concerned with hyper-consumption, the rapid depletion of resources, and the moral and ethical implications of the neoliberal project in which we all seem to be thoroughly ensconced. This is where the Hindu supremacist, big business, the political elite, and transglobal yoga aspirations merge in the utopian realm of an eco-friendlier world of yoga and dharma. However, the big business of yoga and state-supported crony spiritualism controversies—like that caused by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Cultural Festival, which in early 2016 caused untold damage to the fragile ecosystem along the banks of the Yamuna river—demonstrate how the aggressive political will of the Indian state uses yoga in an antithetical way to support its broad-spectrum vote banks through collusion with mega-gurus to increase India’s soft power and brand value abroad.
Underwriting this Vedic lifestyle is the Sanskrit language, which is promoted as the devabhāṣā and increasingly, albeit problematically, as the janabhāṣā (people’s language). Historically, Sanskrit was reserved for the elite: ancient legal text the Gautama Dharma Śāstra (12.4-6) proposes pouring molten tin and lac into the ears of non-twice-born (i.e. lower-caste) people who listen intentionally to a Vedic recitation that includes Sanskrit mantras; if they recite Vedic texts their tongue should be cut out, and if they remember or teach the mantras their body should be cut into pieces.
The Hindu globalist predictions are that, due to its perceived purity, Sanskrit will facilitate a cultural and moral renaissance. It will help to create a Hindu theocratic state and re-establish a Vedic India (i.e. a Hindu nation—India is currently a constitutionally secular nation and has no state religion), it will supplant English as the next viśvabhāṣā (world language), and facilitate a pan-global Hindu theocracy, which is eerily similar to an ISIS caliphate. These assertions are made clear on Samskrita Bharati’s Canadian website (samskritabharati.ca):
This goal is being gradually realized with steady progress in the escalating numbers of Sanskrit speakers globally, increase in Sanskrit speaking families worldwide, and even a rise in Sanskrit spoken [sic] villages in India. Such preliminary success has served as a powerful catalyst to effect further change, and initiate a potent cultural renaissance movement. […] Besides being a treasure trove of knowledge, Sanskrit has the power to unify India.
However, the use of a vernacular Sanskrit in a village like Jhiri is problematic for the religious nationalists’ theology, which demands purity. The religious symbolism of Sanskrit is used to create an imagined community known as Bhāratavarṣa (the divine Hindu kingdom). The globalist aspirations are clarified by K. C. Shastry, one of the co-founders of Samskrita Bharati, who asserted during a speech he gave in Sanskrit in San Francisco in late 2015 that “by 2050, viśvasya dharmaḥ hindu-dharmaḥ bhavati. yaḥ dharmaḥ saṃskṛta-bhāṣayā pratipāditaḥ. (By 2050, the world way of life [viśvasya dharmaḥ] will be the Hindu way of life, which is the way of life taught in the Sanskrit language.)”
The role of yoga and Sanskrit in the globalist endeavour can be seen as part of the performance of a particular religiosity. Religious identities are intimately connected with politics and patriotism in modern India. How the devotional becomes political and what the motivating forces are for individuals and communities ought to be important points of anthropological focus, due to the commodification of religious symbols embedded in popular and political discourse. This is especially the case when these symbols are seamlessly transferred and mapped onto the consumption-scape within the transglobal yoga industry.
A Google search of Sanskrit villages brings up an initial bounty of results. However, as one sifts through them, one quickly realises that the same information is repeated either verbatim or rearticulated in various ways across different websites and blog posts. This repetition seems to justify the belief that these villages generate ethnic, national, and cultural pride.
The situation in Jhiri today is quite different from the idyllic description of it found online. Jhiri is no Vedic wonderland. Instead, it is a compact village of about 600 people who live in approximately 100 houses. None of the houses has running water or electricity. Instead of practicing yoga, the villagers are busy attending to the basic requirements of living in a difficult location, like fetching water in the scorching heat, or travelling to another village to trade grain or celebrate weddings and the departure of daughters.
Most of the villagers openly defecate at the edge of the village because they do not have toilets in their homes. There is a high unemployment and illiteracy rate, and child brides are common. It is possible that this description would befit an authentic Vedic village of 3,000 years ago—it is difficult to say. Yet I am sure that the average urban spiritual seeker, yoga practitioner, curious traveler, or religious nationalist would not find too much comfort in the harsh reality of life in a typical Madhya Pradesh village like this.
In an article that describes a similar Sanskrit village, Kashyap asserts that “each and every men, women and children, though some of them are even illiterate, speak Sanskrit. It is worth mentioning that, the Muslim families of the villages also speak Sanskrit without any hesitation and with the same fluency as the Hindus speak it.” While the first statement is rather ambiguous, the second displays part of the aspirations of the Sanskrit-revival movement to create, at least, the impression of a Sanskritised (i.e. Hinduised) landscape. It should also be noted that Kashyap’s comment is a broader commentary on the Sanskrit-speaking village project and is not restricted to Jhiri. Furthermore, Jhiri does not have any Muslim inhabitants. Most of Jhiri’s residents belong to the Sondhiya caste, which is a subcaste of the kṣatriya-jātī (warrior caste). Even though by designation this group is sanctioned to consume liquor and meat, the community chose several years ago to no longer do so. However, this does not stop individuals from discreetly consuming various substances.
The attitude of several Sanskrit speakers in Jhiri towards the hybridised Sanskrit they speak is that it ought to be purer. I heard the phrase atiśuddhaṃ bhaviṣyati (it will become more pure) on several occasions when discussing with the villagers the frequent mixing of Sanskrit with Hindi, Malvi, and English that I observed in the village. The community sees this as a sign of impurity that must be countered through the adoption of a purer, higher-register form of Sanskrit that is free of the perceived influence of other languages as well as of the camouflaged use of loan words. One reason for this idea that Sanskrit is ‘pure’ is that, regardless of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, it is thought by many people that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages and the ‘oldest language in the world’. This is routinely taught in yoga teacher-training courses all around the world. The use of English loan words in Hindi (and by extension in Sanskrit) has affected the perceived purity of both languages.
The political-religious aspirations that seek to create a pan-Hindu world where everyone speaks Sanskrit are not realistic. In Jhiri, these aspirations of a cultural and political elite seem more than a world away. A belief in the purity of Sanskrit has been inculcated in the residents of Jhiri, and it is this perceived purity that will supposedly revive their community, then the nation, and finally the world. We can see how this idea filters down from the highest ranks of politics: Sushma Swaraj, the minister for external affairs, has asserted that “Sanskrit should be propagated so that it purifies the minds of the people and thus sanctifies the whole world. You Sanskritists do bathe in the sacred Sanskrit Ganga and are blessed.” The residents of Jhiri have a humble aspiration to increase their prestige throughout the district. They are, to a certain extent, famous throughout the world as a Sanskrit village. However, regardless of their village’s lack of electricity, toilets, and running water, they still wait patiently for the Prime Minister’s utopian idea of acche din ānewalleh haĩ (good days are coming) to arrive.
While this happens, those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the creature comforts of life in a developed part of the world continue to consume and appropriate various aspects of India’s cultural heritage and practices. This process of transcultural exchange is much more complicated than the accusation levelled at many individuals and groups of insensitive cultural appropriation. Even though yoga is said to be a great technology and science for self-enquiry, many ractitioners of yoga like to consider themselves apolitical. However, I argue that any disposition that includes a utopian aspiration for a more sustainable, eco-friendly, dharmic life is, however unwittingly, political. Therefore, in the process of discovering how much cultural appropriation we as yoga practitioners engage in, it is important that we explore the source of the dominant narratives employed to inspire us to consume yoga-inflected lifestyles. More importantly, we need to become clearer as to who is producing desire and who controls the means of persuasion. The romantic, essentialised, and idealistic narratives used in the marketing strategies of the transglobal yoga industry undoubtedly have their origins in a colonial milieu. However, one needs only to explore the rhetoric of the Indian state’s ministries of tourism and health to see how these tropes are reconstituted and propagated to help us imagine a better world and conduct spiritual tourism in the pursuit of an eco-friendlier lifestyle. I am certainly not trying to absolve westerners of our yoga-related cultural appropriation. Instead, due to the commodification of yoga, and to a lesser degree Sanskrit, it is important to acknowledge that the charge of cultural appropriation does not always hold up: the Indian state uses the very same narratives, which more or less fall under the rubric of a Vedic lifestyle. Furthermore, we need to consider our position as unwitting participants in real-life, soft-power political maneouvres that the Indian state uses to promote “Brand India” abroad. I am not suggesting that we should stop practising traditional or modern yoga. However, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider larger cultural processes that continue whether or not we care to acknowledge them. While it is quite unlikely that Sanskrit will replace English as the next global lingua franca, it is a seemingly timeless repository of knowledge and inspiration. In the same way, yoga, in whatever form it is practised, has taken firm root in the global imagination about what it means to be cosmopolitan.
While villages like Jhiri might not be included in the itinerary of any spiritual tourist to India, it also does not really matter whether a Sanskrit-speaking rate of 0.033 per cent (20 out of 600 residents) makes it a Sanskrit-speaking village or not. This type of rumour has a subtle effect on the social imaginary. It instills cultural pride and provides hope that a better future is possible through the promise of cultural and moral reform.
Dr. Patrick McCartney is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. His work focuses on various aspects of the transglobal yoga industry, and is situated at the intersection of the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, and the economics of religion. A version of this essay was published in Arena Magazine (April 2017), a magazine of critical thinking and ideas for change.