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The Hindu Renaissance
and Its Apologetic Patterns
Why the Yoga Sutra feels so good
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.
~ Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
When I was immersed in my yoga teacher training, I remember thinking how amazing it was that so many of the ideas I encountered in the ancient texts we studied everyday anticipated the humanist philosophers celebrated by my college education.
I felt deeply reassured in the soundness of my decision to become a yoga teacher, and in the beauty and truth of a tradition that reached through my personal history into the wisdom of a distant past. I was anchored to a timeless reality that diminished the pain and confusion of the present and simultaneously demonstrated the shallowness of contemporary Western life.
All the stars I had sailed by on the journey of my life, from my gnostic inner wayfinding as a teenage geek to my adult mistrust of pharmaceutical companies, fit like a round peg in a round hole.
It was good to be with like-minded people, who would not allow the gift of the ancient wisdom we all treasured to be lost.
That was what I thought before I understood the “pizza effect.”
A round peg in a round hole
Writing in The Journal of Asian Studies in 1970, Agehananda Bharati coined the term “pizza effect” to describe what happens during the flow of culture stuff between different groups of people who use it and give it its value.
Bharati wrote about pizza as an example.
The original pizza was a simple, hot-baked bread without any trimmings, the staple of the Calabrian and Sicilian contadini from whom well over 90% of all Italo-Americans descend.
After World War I, a highly elaborated dish, the U.S. pizza of many sizes, flavors, and hues, made its way back to Italy with visiting kinsfolk from America.
The conceit of the pizza effect made its debut as part of a shift in Asian Studies.
Bharati, the chair of Syracuse University’s anthropology department, was also a Sannyasi acharya. He questioned the objectivity of the Western scholars who studied India. Bharati demonstrated Indologists had themselves become involved in the construction, validation and dissemination of a particular story about Indian culture.
Not coincidentally, it was the same story I was taught as a yoga teacher in training, and the pizza effect explains why it felt like “coming home” when I heard it.
Apologetic pizza: propping up a story
Bharati’s essay, The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns, takes a clear eyed look at what happens when Western ideas are brought into Indian culture and rendered into ancient wisdom through the engine of Sanskrit.
The term “scientific” is only one among a very large number of terms which are as Western, hence, as truly “imported” as democracy, nationalism, etc., regardless of whether these terms are used in English or in a revamped Indian vernacular.
Where they are used in an Indian language … they are translations from English culled from Sanskrit roots: they are, paradoxically, true neologisms.
“Scientific” now translated vaijñānik, a perfectly permissible guṇa-formation of vi+jñāna; but the connotation is quite new, as are all other Indian terms for Western concepts, utilizing Sanskrit morphemes, randomly selected.
One and all, they gather momentum and respect through a process of re-enculturation.
The pizza effect, in other words, is in play wherever the results of the effect are consumed as “authentic”: both in the West and in India. Together the West and India created stability for the myth that consolidated power for some while strategically disempowering others.
Sanskrit, and the act of translation, have always been at the heart of that power.
Yoga as part of a conservative elite
[Alexander] Duff was a tireless crusader for the “Classical” (that is to say, graeco-Christian) within Indian religion.
His 1840 “unfoldment” of the “grand theory of Hinduism” is a self consciously selective rendering which seeks to isolate ‘the real genius and spirit of the system’ uniquely within high-caste orthodox Brahmanism.
Religious expression outside this orthodox framework is treated to a lengthy denunciation that is both lurid and pious by turns.
~Mark Singleton, The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Constructive Orientalism
Mark Singleton’s essay The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Constructive Orientalism details the British master-minded, mid-nineteenth century project of “constructive Orientalism” overseen by James Ballantyne at Benares Sanskrit College.
Ballantyne “commissioned new translations of the orthodox Hindu darsanas by Benares Pandits,” in which the terms of the teachings would be, as Bharati noted above, consilient with and reflective of European ideals, creating
a pedagogy which was intended to demonstrate to the learned Hindu elite that the truths of European philosophy and science, while constituting a significant advancement upon Hindu learning, might also be reached by way of the latter’s sound yet undeveloped premises.
Ballantyne hired the Pandits to translate Europe into the texts, to render Western ideals as natural inheritors of Indian “undeveloped premises.”
In other words, no wonder it feels like we have found our spiritual roots when we discover the Yoga Sutra. That’s because we have found them – the very Western ideas we believe we set ourselves apart from by studying Eastern ones.
We’re being fed a concoction of our own European inheritance filtered through Sanskrit translations designed from the ground up to demonstrate European values to an Indian elite.
Although pizza has some old Italian antecedents, American pizza as we know it was largely a product of Italian-American cooking.
However, pizza-loving American tourists, going to Italy in the millions, sought out authentic Italian pizza. Italians, responding to this demand, developed pizzerias to meet American expectations.
Delighted with their discovery of “authentic” Italian pizza, Americans subsequently developed chains of “authentic” Italian brick-oven pizzerias.
~Stephen Jenkins, from Black Ships, Blavatsky and the Pizza Effect
Buddhist Studies scholar Stephen Jenkins discusses the pizza effect with his students as part of helping them to see their own participation in history, how their personal experiences are conditions that form part of the sense they make of the texts they read.
He presented a paper on his teaching methodology at a conference on Teaching Buddhism in the West. (You can read the essay in its entirety below.)
Before they look at another world, they must begin by asking what are the causes and conditions that have delivered them up into a moment of consciousness such as they experience.
How do those preconditions dispose them to respond to the traditions they are about to encounter, to react like American students?
They learn to see themselves … as part of a larger historical process and a distinctive historical moment.
There certainly is a distinctive historical moment occurring when 100,000 yoga teacher training graduates realize that contrary to what they have been told, “from the mid-nineteenth century the YS was accorded a status and a context within Indian intellectual life that it did not have before.” ~Singleton, Classical Reveries. *
A status that it didn’t have before? What – the Yoga Sutra, as I had been taught about it, isn’t a 5000 year-old timeless tradition? It’s not like the Nyaya, Mimamsa or Vedanta? It’s not a practice manual or a paddhati?
No. In fact, it is not. The Yoga Sutra was chosen as part of Ballantyne’s project and maintains it status today precisely because it was not remotely important enough to resist its repositioning. (Ballantyne had difficulty finding a Pandit who even knew it.)
Singleton’s essay succinctly describes the process by which the “construction of the Classical within yoga reflects a wider process of political and cultural legitimization within India at the time.”
According to the pizza effect, my participation in disseminating yoga to middle class Americans is exactly the same thing: legitimating a set of ideas by giving them a fabricated paternity that the purported parent has been only to happy to validate.
Up to a point. The point at which we find ourselves today. The point at which we legitimate the ideals of our contemporary traditions as authentic, the needs of our contemporary bodies as valid, and educate ourselves in the possibilities of the many practices, the many yogas that have existed across time and culture.
To do that we must let go of our role in legitimating a fabrication, and release ourselves from being instruments of someone else’s agenda.
Yoga designed for meaningful practice
Re-enculturation is one of those buck-fifty academic terms that can make you squint hard or skip to the next paragraph. Gnarly or not, it’s an essential landmark on the map of the practice of yoga all over the world today, including yoga in India.
If you want to understand where yoga studies and yoga practice began to part roads, you could do worse than having a look at the writing of Agehananda Bharati.
When scholars talk about yoga and re enculturation, it boils down to one thing: the duck rule. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…
Without a deep consideration of American religious preconceptions and tendencies and their effect on the evolution of our interaction with Buddhist ideas and cultural phenomena, we do not know who we are or what we are doing.
Directly connecting historical critical awareness to the understanding of [our] immediate experience generates a positive attitude to theoretical issues … beginning with the fact that the same processes are active here in the West, and that [we ourselves] are indeed part of those processes -
~Stephen Jenkins, from Black Ships, Blavatsky and the Pizza Effect
If your new way of life involves guiding principles – the right turn left/ turn directions of a belief system – that sound a little too much like something you’re only too happy to buy into, and especially if believing it sets you apart from the people you would be most interested to set yourself apart from, you should be suspicious about their origins.
The ideas are unlikely to be from some far-away, enlightened Shangri-la. They’re probably from somewhere in your neighborhood.
* NB In correspondence with me, Mark Singleton remarks,
The YS simply wasn’t being studied like Nyaya, Mimamsa or Vedanta were, and it certainly wasn’t a practice text (such as the “paddhati” genre, or “cookbook” as Gavin Flood calls them).
Maybe, in fact, it was precisely because of the YS’s lack of gravity in the world of 19th century India that it could be appropriated in this way.
Let’s make a finer distinction here: that the YS participates in Indian tradition in a way that is different to what most people in the “yoga world” assume today (but it’s not an historically insignificant text in that regard). And that it has been reworked radically in the modern age (a point you make very powerfully elsewhere).
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.