Most sinister part of Ramdev article in New York Times Magazine is author’s own biases

Most sinister part of Ramdev article in New York Times Magazine is author’s own biases August 9, 2018

Misreporting, prejudice, and plain old laziness in reporting on India, Hinduism, and the relationship between the two is hardly new. It has a long tradition dating back to the British Raj, upheld since independence until today. Frankly, I’m a bit jaded to it at this point. But, then some new article is published that takes general ignorance and thinly veiled bias to new levels.

Such is The New York Times Magazine’s The Billionaire Yogi Behind Modi’s Rise by Robert F. Worth. The article sets out to profile Baba Ramdev, the outspoken guru, entrepreneur of Ayurveda and yoga, and big booster for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

I say ‘sets out’ because in his effort to portray Ramdev as a Hindu nationalist bogeyman, Worth makes so many arguments based on false equivalencies, commits a good number of errors of history, and generally so mucks up the presentation of India and Hinduism that for whatever genuine criticisms of Ramdev, Modi, and the current political climate of India are worth making, the article as a whole is dismal.

Before I get into these errors, I must state that I have no intention of either adjudicating any of the charges Worth makes about Ramdev’s personal statements, how his company, Patanjali, is run or the purity of their products. Others can and will do a better job at that. And, besides, I must admit that some of Ramdev’s pronouncements are to my conscience, and grounding in Hindu ethics, fully indefensible (his negative views on homosexuality, for example).

So let’s get into it. In italic are quotes from the article for context, with bold used to highlight what my commentary will focus upon. My commentary follows below each.

“Ramdev took the microphone and introduced the phalanx of several hundred Hindu religious students, known as brahmacharis, sitting in neat rows on the field. Everyone repeat after me: “Bharat mata ki jai!” he shouted. The crowd raised their arms and pumped their fists as they chanted the words — “India my motherland is great” — that have become a defining slogan of the Hindu nationalist movement.”

The choice of translation here is curious, done to fit the bigger narrative of the story. More usual would be “Hail Mother India” or “Victory to Mother India.” The whole paragraph is an example of negative Indian exceptionalism. The phrase itself has the same connotation as saying “Vive la France.” or “God Bless America.”  The ‘ki jai’ part of the phrase being parallel in intent to ‘vive’ in French or ‘bless’ in English, if not a literal translation. This slant sets the tone for what’s to follow.

“Ramdev has been compared to Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist firebrand who advised several American presidents and energized the Christian right.”

Here my issue is one of falsely assuming that all religions are the same in practice. There is fundamental difference in worldview, when it comes to embracing differences of theology and practices of worship, between Hinduism and Christianity — starkly so when Hinduism is compared to evangelical sects of Christianity. Hinduism posits that there are many paths to realizing the Divine, to the point of some teachers actually overstate the similarities of different faiths. In comparison, Billy Graham and similar preachers don’t have, let’s say, as charitable a view of the worth of Hinduism. Also worth noting is that in India this disdain for Hinduism among evangelical Christian sects goes beyond praying for souls, to actively seeking to convert Hindus, sometimes using less than ethical methods, including predatory proselytization. Hindus may certainly have theological differences with other faiths — and without a doubt are reasserting themselves politically — but as a rule don’t actively go around seeking to convert non-Hindus, to bring people into the faith. This difference should be enough to make ludicrous a comparison between the religion of Ramdev and that of Graham.

Ramdev has led vastly popular campaigns against corruption, donning the mantle of swadeshi, or Indian economic nationalism, to cast foreign companies as neocolonial villains.

Two things here: 1) Apparently leading campaigns against corruption, in a nation world renowned for corruption, is a bad thing. 2) Apparently Worth has missed the numerous very public cases of multinational companies in India in fact acting as villians — from Union Carbide to the various companies who have engaged in biopiracy of Indian traditional medicines.

Although Ramdev prefers to speak of Indian solidarity, his B.J.P. allies routinely invoke an Islamic threat and rally crowds with vows to build temples on the sites of medieval mosques.

Here the accusation is just not so simple. It’s a well documented fact that a good number of these medieval mosques were themselves built on the sites of ransacked and destroyed Hindu temples, sometimes using the very stones of the temples themselves. A decent solution in 2018 to this situation doesn’t necessarily mean tearing down these mosques — I’d hope a more peaceful reconciliation that respects the wishes of both modern Muslims and Hindus is possible — but omitting the violent history that led to the construction of these mosques is a critical problem that decontextualizes the issue.

And the nation, in Ramdev’s telling, is subtly twinned with a history and culture that is distinctly Hindu: yoga, ayurvedic medicine and the ancient Vedic scriptures from which they are said to have emerged.

India’s history and culture over the past millennium is hardly just Hindu, but the phrase “from which they are said to have emerged” is curious to say the least, considering that yoga, Ayurveda, and Vedic scriptures are in fact a central part of the religious traditions we now call Hinduism.

Stating that these things are ‘said’ to have emerged from Hindu culture is absolutely belittling of both academic research and popular sentiment on these profound contributions to human civilization. You would never say that Stoicism was said to have emerged from ancient Greek culture. You would never say that algebra was said to have emerged from Islamic culture’s scientific tradition. You would never say that the code of bushido is said to have emerged from Japanese culture. I could go on, but in short the reason for including weasel words such as Worth has used here is because you are trying to belittle what you are talking about.

…communal riots broke out in the western state of Gujarat, reviving the party’s old demons. It started when a train carrying some Hindu pilgrims caught fire. Revenge mobs quickly formed. […] Many Indian Muslims still consider the riots a state-sanctioned pogrom, and see Modi — who has never apologized for his role — as a criminal.

Why omit how this train caught on fire? It wasn’t an accident. The fact is that it was a mob of Muslims who set fire to the train, killing 59 people, the majority of whom were Hindus. 11 people were sentenced to death and a further 20 sentenced to life in prison for their role in the arson; 118 others, both Hindus and Muslims, were acquitted of rioting charges.

As Modi was acquitted of wrongdoing in the courts, including the Supreme Court of India, whether you agree or not with that decision, why should he apologize? I suspect no politician in any nation would do so.

But even among Hindus, the B.J.P. suffered from its reputation as a party led by Brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus. It had trouble winning votes from Dalits (untouchables) and others at the lower end of India’s caste hierarchy.

So I suppose Modi’s own background, being from a ‘lower’ caste; and the fact that the BJP has appointed a Dalit to the highest level of government means nothing?

Ramdev was just the kind of unifying figure the B.J.P. needed. At the time of the Gujarat riots, he was emerging as a celebrity, crisscrossing India to preside over mass yoga camps and pitch his home remedies.

‘Pitch his home remedies’ belittles the ancient history and proven efficacy of Ayurvedic medicines. As phrased this makes it seem like Ramdev was some snake-oil salesman working out of a suitcase, one step ahead of angry townspeople. Later Worth again belittles Ayurveda by describing the origins of Patanjali as “peddling their homemade herbal pills and unguents.” Is Worth not aware that leading American medical institutions and research have incorporated Ayurveda into their treatment modalities where allopathic medicine has failed? This is 101-level knowledge about alternatives to allopathic medicine.

This narrative about yoga’s ancient roots has become a sacrament for Hindu nationalists, and it is echoed in the West. But it is mostly myth, an idealized origin story of the kind so many would-be nation-builders, from ancient Rome to the Zionists, have fostered about themselves. The oldest Hindu scriptures contain almost no mention of physical postures. Even the Yoga Sutras, the so-called bible of yoga, include only a few short verses suggesting comfortable postures for sitting. Many of the postures practiced in yoga today appear to have emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens of modern ashtanga yoga postures are similar or identical to those found in a gymnastic routine introduced to India by the British in the first decades of the 20th century and originally developed by a Danish fitness instructor named Niels Bukh, who later became notorious for his pro-Nazi sympathies. Bukh, needless to say, has been conveniently forgotten by both Indians and the yoga-loving celebrities of Hollywood.

Here, Worth jumps into the deep end of the debate about yoga’s history and sinks. 1) Very few people versed in yoga idealize its history as Worth alleges. 2) No one debates the fact  that the Yoga Sutra contains few physical postures other than a handful of ones for seated meditation. Descriptions of other asana are found in other texts, still hundreds of years old. Plus, only in the comparatively recent history of yoga has it been taught outside of a 1:1 teacher-student relationship. For much of its history many postures were taught only in this manner, not written down. 3) Yoga isn’t a static practice, even if the core is ancient; no one disputes that in the past century there has indeed been great innovation in asana. 4) And then there’s the Hathabhyasapaddhati text, dating to the 18th century, which definitely indicates a strong tradition of physical culture and movement in India, prior to the introduction of any British gymnastic routine in the 19th century.

Yoga is only half of Ramdev’s work. He and Balkrishna also use their television empire to tout the healing virtues of Patanjali’s ayurvedic medicines and health foods, rooted in the supposedly curative powers of herbal and mineral compounds. Western scientists view ayurveda (the “science of life”) with skepticism, and studies have found that some ayurvedic products contain toxic levels of heavy metals, usually from soil or ash, in the mix.  

For a third time, more disparagement of Ayurveda and double standards. For each instance of an Ayurvedic treatment being less effective than claimed, or sometimes manufactured to a less-than-scrupulous standard, there are examples of from modern Western medicines that have bad side-effects, turn out to not work as well as claimed, or end up hurting people.

“We are mentally conditioning them,” Singh said. Patanjali ran more than 380 workshops for prospective employees, where it taught a “value system.” Assam’s people, he explained, had “bad habits,” including eating nonvegetarian food and a lack of proper respect for the nation. “They’ve been listening to corrupt politics from corrupt people for too long,” he said. “We take what our sages said thousands of years ago and put it to use. We didn’t invent it. We took what’s available in our scriptures and put it in a modern format.” In other words, they inculcate Hindutva.

Inculcate Hindutva? Or, if you aren’t going into this biased against Hinduism, simply put into practice Hindu values…

At one school, young children — some of whom had been raised Christian — recited Hindu prayers and sang songs to Lord Ram before starting their lessons, which include Sanskrit instruction.

If the situation were reversed, and it was Hindus going to Christian schools (which has been the case for many decades) would the instruction in Christianity that goes along with that be questioned? At minimum, it certainly wouldn’t be cast in the negative light it is here.

He went on: “We will see an Indian education policy in this country instead of the education policy given us by Lord Macaulay.” Before stepping down, he pumped his fist once again in a chant of “India my motherland is great.” The crowd roared.

Last but certainly not least. A reminder of Lord Macaulay’s view of the value of India’s knowledge: Macaulay believed that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Considering the immense contributions from India to European science, medicine, astronomy, technology — arriving, sometimes unattributed, through Arab trade — characterizing a desire for education policy for India that asserts itself independently of its previous colonizers in an ominous and threatening light is simply ridiculous.


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