The problem with decolonizing yoga and #namaslay

updated May 8, 2021

Susanna Barkataki appears to have a solid grip on the novel X+Yoga hybrid of “Woke Yoga.” How does someone claiming to honor yoga’s roots have such selective inclinations as to what these roots might be? It’s almost as if the process of decolonizing yoga is just a neo-colonial attempt to claim control, at least of the narrative, ultimately for collective healing. The real kicker is how often colonially-constructed narratives are re-installed as the decolonized history and development of yoga. Or, instead, things are just made up.

I’m mostly fine with decolonizing stuff. I suppose the thing that concerns me is how it is being done and by whom. It would seem advantageous if the people who claim to have the status of indigenous knowledge keepers and traditional stewards knew more than they do about the complexities and dynamics of the cultures they claim to represent in their for-profit race grifting to apply critical race theory to yoga.

Yet, here is a case in point.

The video from Barkataki’s Youtube channel is an attempt to push back against the perceived transgression of cultural appropriation of the term ‘namaste.’ I felt compelled to leave a comment, though, later, it appears the the comment had been deleted and the ability to leave comments turned off. I suppose some white mansplaining of basic historical linguistic facts was one yoga mat too many…

Below is my original comment, which I’ve added some stuff to. Here is some other stuff I’ve written on namaslay.

How might it be explained that namaste is not attested as a greeting in the way suggested until 1948 and that it is difficult to find it amongst prescribed pronoun-salutation lists going back 2000 years? For instance, “kṣemaṃ te” is what a vaishya would say to another vaishya (merchant class) to enquire if their property was ok, as in, “Is everything fine with you?”

Beyond namaste’s usage in supplication of deities as external displays of deference and servitude, it is challenging to find historical instances to support the claim that it was a trans-caste/varṇa salutation that everyone apparently used across the subcontinent, or even more locally. For instance, we can find textual evidence to show, at least, what some people prescribed as correct ways of addressing people. These prescribed salutations can be found in the sūtra text, the Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra, specifically the section: Praśna 1. Paṭala 4. Khaṇḍa 14. Though, it is not the only text to discuss this topic.

To basically say, ‘hello’ to someone and enquire of their state of being, the following prescriptions were made. They build off of the following statement kuśalam avaravayasaṃ vayasyaṃ vā pṛcchet / 26 /, which relates to using ‘kuśala’ (well-being) to someone younger (avarayasa) or the same age (vayasya). ‘Api’ generally means ‘also, as well, so,’ etc, but can be used to form a question. For example, अपि कुशलम्? api kuśalam?Are you all right?’ Though, Apastamba prescribes based on social ordering of varṇas, for instance:

api kuśalam’ for a brāhmaṇa

api anāmayaṃ bhavataḥ’ for a kṣatriya (24) ‘How is your body?’

(Notice the ‘anāmaya(kośa)’

api anaṣṭa paśu-dhanaḥ asi’ for a vaiśya (25) ‘Have you lost cattle or property?’

api ārogya bhavān’ for a śudra (29) ‘Are you well, sir?’

Here are the sentences as represented in the Apastamba Dharma Sutra by Ujwala Haradatta Mishra (1898)

SOURCE

The same passages are represented below. They are from Haradatta Mishra’s (1932) version of this text from the The Kashi Sanskrit Series.

Source

Here is another presentation of the Apastamba Dharma Sūtra section: Praśna 1. Paṭala 4. Khaṇḍa 14., which lists these salutations. Notice in verse 11 that the term for saluting is abhivādana and not namaste or namaskāra. The next few images are basically translations of the pages shown above.

Today, namaste is certainly used in some communities in a similar way that “ciao” can be used for both “hi” and “bye”, which itself is etymologically linked to the similar context and meaning of someone announcing their perceived lower position and offering themselves in servitude.

One of the reasons that the sanskrit revival movement adopted the distributed noun phrase, “namo namah” is due to the more recent rise in namaste being used as a greeting, though “namaskarah” has typically been more widely used, at least in upper dvija circles, particularly in West Bengal.

Most sects have their emic terms of address to identify affinity, like namo narayan, hari om, siya ram, ram ram, etc. Namaste is the enclitic (shortened) dative form meaning “Bend to/for you”. It has a similar sense to the Austro-Hungarian use of “servus,” which expresses deference and lower status, or an inferior position connoting servitude. For instance,

SOURCE

In premodern accounts, this is the context in which namaste is found, or rather, not. When someone acknowledges their relatively lower social standing, more or less, as a slave or one offering what is akin to saying, “I’m at your service.” Etymologically, it does not relate to seeing each other as equals no more than the utterly folk rendering of it “honoring the light in you”.

A collection of texts discussing slavery from Society, Religion And Art Of The Kushana India by Kanchan Chakrabarti (1930).

The RV verse is mentioned above. It contains the term, dāsa, which in its original context refers to an ‘enemy’ or a ‘slave.’ The verse is a plea to the war god, Indra, to destroy the poet’s enemies.

akarmā dasyur abhi no amantur anyavrato amānuṣaḥ |
tvaṁ tasyāmitrahan vadhar
dāsasya dambhaya || RV_10,022.08

The Dasyu of non-deeds, of non-thought, the non-man whose commandments are other, is against us. You smasher of non-allies, humble the weapon of this Dāsa.

For a comprehensive account of marginalization, see

A copy of book is here

This would imply the meaning has evolved and I guess one might wonder that, if it can and does, then its use and context, especially in a globalized world, might not render it as precious, static, or monolithic as Barkataki thinks.

In sum, it makes it difficult to accept the proposition that people shouldn’t put it on t-shirts, if they so please. An interesting example is the cynical way that traditional pundits refer to contemporary spoken Sanskrit, which is necessarily simplified to facilitate 2nd language acquisition. The interrogative particle, “kim,” which is used to form a question, is replaced by the Dravidian loan “vā” when asking a question. For example, “koshe danam asti vā?” (Do you have money (in your pocket)” instead could be “koshe damam asti kim?”

Traditional pundits use a pun to speak disparagingly of simplified sanskrit. Because the “vā” comes at end of sentence it is vā-anta (similar to veda-anta = vedānta). Which is where the medical chain of speciality institutes, Medanta, get their name from.

Though the pun refers to vomiting, as in vāman kriya, the shatkarma cleansing technique from hathayoga. Simplified (sarala) samskrtam is considered to be the “vomit language.” Now, that is not very respectful, is it? But, when have Brahmins afforded much respect to anyone lower than themselves in the varnajati system? There is much power and privilege and harm to be perceived in this joke…possibly more than “namaslay”.

Depending on how languages are classified, there are between 120 to 1500 languages / dialects in india. Even some like garwhali and kumouni, which have currently millions of speakers are in a vulnerable state due to rapid language shift to perceptibly higher status languages like Hindi and English. Though for some reason the Uttarakhand govt has wasted millions on trying to make these communities, across all districts in the state, adopt sanskrit as their primary language. In part the global popularity of yoga and hence by extension, Sanskrit, is in some ways involved in glottophagy, the eating of languages. This is partly fueled by the global consumers of yoga who are fed a silly narrative that Sanskrit is a sacred language, the most oldest and perfect, so much that NASA uses it to program satellites…

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