Thanksgiving reading; like summer reading but shorter and less of an actual thing. Anyway, mostly I’m writing this to talk about the exceptionally cool book I read in the course of researching my paper. “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” details one of the earliest publicized struggles between Hmong immigrants and Western doctors. Its used often times as a teaching aid in medical anthropology classes and occasionally in medical classes as well as an example of the difficulties in inter-cultural communication, and the barriers that language and culture can construct. I don’t want to give to much away (especially since you’re all going to have to read quite a bit about it in my paper) but the story talks about a young girl who suffered from epilepsy and her parents, who spoke very, very limited English and the difficulties they had negotiating their own religious and spiritual practices and the expectations of Western doctors. The problem stemmed mostly from a lack of Hmong interpreters and from the way in which epilepsy is perceived in the Hmong culture. The title is the literal translation of the term for epilepsy. It is seen as showing a talent for entering the spirit world, which means that the person suffering from the seizures possesses the potential to become a shaman. Fadiman alternates chapters between detailing the greater picture behind the story and the case study itself, and does so quite masterfully (at least in my humble and poorly qualified opinion).
The short answer is that it seems like no one knows anymore.
I went into this week intending to talk about this article, in which Lawson discusses various movements against the “Americanization” of Yoga, including the efforts of the “Take Back Yoga” movement of the Hindu American Foundation, which sparked as a reaction to the perception of yoga in America as something purely secular, not to mention a lucrative market to exploit, turning it into a multi-million dollar industry in a truly American fashion. Lawson is insistent that the whole situation “is about blanching the culture out of something to make it fit our needs.” But is this the whole story? An article I found shortly thereafter states that issue may not be so wonderfully clear cut anymore. The article details the many differing viewpoints on the issue within India itself- meaning its not the clear cut co-opting of a tradition that Lawson makes it out to be. No, it appears to go much deeper than that. Would would assume that, within India yoga would be more wholly understood, with a cohesive public opinion. This would be incorrect, however. Many push for it as an important part of spirituality and want it to be installed as part of school curriculum. Others argue that its inherent use of religiously significant chanting and terminology (such as the use of the ‘Om’, an important symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism alike) means that due to India’s nature as a secular democracy, yoga cannot be implemented in public schools. Still others find it to be purely physical, and others deem it a tool for cultural nationalism in India, thanks to the actions of prominent guru Baba Ramev.
And maybe that’s the basic, extremely simplified answer. Maybe yoga has become a tool, be it for spiritual enlightenment, for peace, for money, for cultural nationalism, or for physical fitness. Maybe no one knows what yoga really is anymore because it is in such a constant state of flux, meaning different things to different people, but useful to all of them. Whether or not that cheapens yoga’s rich spiritual history or ensures that it will continue to persist in a constantly changing world remains yet to be decided.
Over the past few class meetings we read and discussed “Transcendent in America” and have been tasked with writing a review. While I can’t speak to how qualified I am to do this, I’ll attempt to give you an idea of how I felt about the book and its usefulness in our curriculum. Transcendent in America presents an interesting look at HIMM (Hindu -Inspired Meditation Movements) and how they came to shape Hinduism in America over the years. The author is able to come from aplace of personal experience, having participated in and had contact with many of these movements first hand, which provided a plethora of fascinating first hand accounts and testimonies. She did a fair job nof addressing negative aspects or things that were widely perceived negatively, but her overall look at HIMM ignored more ‘cultish’ aspects as discussed in class. Furthermore she did little to relate the HIMM and Christianity at the time, though only selectively. She relates spiritual experiences to Pentacostalism, for example, but later pointedly states the stark line between Evangelical Christianity and HIMMs. She also seems rather reluctant to delve into the question of why abuse of power (and abuse in general) seemed to be so endemic to these organizations (as well as many other organizations, of course, particularly those featuring charismatic leaders who demand loyalty), though she displays a great deal of empathy and compassion for those hurt in said scenarios. Additionally, she spends a great deal of time towards the end of the book relaying first hand accounts of spiritual experiences without providing much analysis, or any methodological information. In this way I think she occasionally presents a more narrowed view. However, despite these issues I found the book as a whole to be incredibly informative and useful, as well as inadvertently raising interesting questions on the nature of insider/outsider observation.
Recently there has been a pictorial campaign launched in India depicting various Hindu goddesses as victims of abuse- it presents a jarring contrast between the serene, traditional poses and depictions of powerful goddess by showing them with bruised faces, as seen in the image above. This is intended to play on the shock value of the idea of these powerful, benevolent figures being so disrespected, in order to shed light on the awful issue of domestic violence and violence against women in India. However, this blogger argues that it is emblematic of a problematic change in representations of Hinduism. According to Vamsee Juluri, a professor at USF, Hindu deities are increasingly being presented in ways that do not highlight their virtues of compassion, kindness, and so on. Instead, modern Hindu representations reflect only the violent, action driven motifs present in their mythos, and Juluri believes this campaign to be similarly problematic. The underlying problem, he says, is that children being raised by Hindu parents today see more compassion and kindness from the Wiggles and Cailou than they do from representations of Hindu deities, and as such are missing out on the messages of compassion in favor of an increasingly violent idea of Hindu deities and as such extending into Hinduism itself. Given the discussed propensity for Americans to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are purveyors of some ancient and mystical, peaceful vision of wisdom, I found his concerns to be quite fascinating, and something I would not previously have ever considered, and I wonder how American converts to Hinduism would address his worries.
Some time ago, SNL featured a sketch called ‘The Rude Buddha‘. While I tried to find a video for you all, it was rudely interrupted by copyright and a lack of youtube availability, though you can watch it directly on the NBC website here I was unable to figure out how to embed it, so my bad on that front, guys. Anyway, the point of the sketch was to have the Buddha dispense wisdom… in the form of vague and largely pointless statements that sounded a little bit like the might have been ancient Chinese proverbs, followed up by lewd, rude commentary and derision. I had planned to write a blog post describing how this perfectly reflects the interesting phenomena of regarding the East as an enlightened and magnificent place of mysterious and ancient wisdom, and then promptly turning that stereotype on its head by portraying the Buddha as the complete opposite for the sake of easy humor. As I was looking for a clip of the skit, I came across a few interesting blog posts, including this post reflecting how Buddhism was an easy target for a sketch because it is a marginalized community in America, making the skit “funny” to the mainstream population- although she argues that it wasn’t, in fact, funny at all, because it took cheap shots at a serious religion. She also goes on to discuss other representations and references to Buddhist culture in mainstream media, including a lot of examples from Lost that I didn’t really understand because I honestly never watched the show (I must be the only person who hasn’t, right?). Still, I think the skit itself reflects interestingly on what SNL writers are assuming are mainstream American ideas of Buddhism, which are akin to what we’ve discussed in prior classes. While it may not have been funny, or may have been insensitive or in bad taste or otherwise rubbed people the wrong way, it was at the very least an interesting discourse on what stereotypes of Buddhism are present in the collective American mindset.
A few classes ago we looked over the results of a Pew Forum survey that covered a general overview of religion in America. Of course we focused a lot of our attention on various Asian Religions and their comparisons with responses from various protestant communities. As I was passing my weekend holed up in bed and sick as a dog, I found myself searching around the internet in search of something to keep me at least mildly entertained, stumbling back onto Pew Forum, specifically to this overview that was a rundown of a lot of what we’d discussed in class. So here it is for those who may not have seen it yet, and would like a little sample of the sort of things we discuss off the blog, so to speak ! Its a really interesting overview and analysis, showing overall differences between Asian American responses to questions of religion, and the differences between various subsets of the ambiguous and large ‘Asian American’ heading. I found in particular the comparisons between subsets of Asian American Buddhists interesting- a majority of 60% stated they never meditate, for example. On top of that, Buddhists of Vietnamese descent make up a third of all Asian American Buddhists, and are markedly more likely to state that religion is important to them, answering on the whole more positively in regards to the likelihood of having a shrine, praying, and so forth.
Overall it was largely a fascinating read, and I would certainly recommend taking a look- its chock-full of information that helps construct an idea of the “whole picture” so to speak.
This article from all the way back in 2012 discusses the changing landscape around the Ashtanga branch of yoga within America. It discusses how the practice evolved from a small number of guruji from India to, gradually, bigger and bigger venues, more and more students, and with that, an undeniable change. This change trended towards the accessorizing of yoga, taken on by – according to the article- a number of trophy wives and other typical “yuppie” advocates looking for a quick and easy spiritual fix to go with their daily exercise. It discusses the tensions and changes within the community as students of the original guruji slowly begin to branch off- some borrowing select poses to write books detailing ‘fitness’ types of yoga, and others even launching smart phone apps that promise to teach yoga as well. I thought it raised quite a few interesting points that have been addressed here before in one form or another- how religious is yoga? Can middle aged women who are only after strengthening their core and limbering up really be understanding the full ideas behind what they’re practicing ? As the title asks- who is yoga for anyway? In the final paragraphs of the article it states that some of the current teachers and practitioners believe that the changes in this branch of yoga should occur to accommodate the students and what is best for them- but will that leave them with a form of yoga that exists mostly to show other people how spiritual and flexible one is, whilst showing off formfitting exercise wear and monogrammed yoga mats?