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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Cultural Appropriation of age-old Hindu knowledge

Cultural appropriation refers to illicitly borrowing elements or ideas from another culture without acknowledging and giving credit to the source. Typically, the cultural theft is carried out by a globally dominant culture from a less dominant one.

Being the oldest civilization in the world, Sanatan civilization has been one of the main cultures from which cultural appropriation has occurred, mostly by western white cultures. A new trend is a similar attempt by ‘Hindus in Name only’ (HINOs) and other ‘seculars’ including descendants of those who were forcibly converted in the Mughal regime. From cuisine to music, this lot wants to attribute all the beautiful aspects of Bharatiya culture to the Mughal invaders.

Claiming free credit for an idea is one goal while the underlying reason for doing it is a racist mindset that seeks to undermine other cultures and brand them as inferior.  Looting, exploiting, and colonizing other countries was guided by the same mindset. Floating the now disproved Aryan Invasion Theory had a similar goal of claiming ownership over the vast treasure trove of knowledge that Bharat’s ancient Rishis bestowed upon the world and which is contained in ancient texts of the Hindu Sanatan Dharma.

In recent times, the appropriating cultures first spend years undermining the wisdom of age-old Sanatan concepts and practises like yoga, Pranayama, meditation, and Ayurveda and even branding these as having no scientific basis. But once these cultures realize the value of many of these ancient practises, they go about ‘inventing’ similar techniques and rebranding them as their own original discoveries.

But cultural appropriation is no longer easy to accomplish in a digital world where suck  fake claims can be countered swiftly.

Yoga and Pranayama

While it was Baba Ramdev who did stellar work in taking Yoga and Pranayama to the masses in Bharat as well as abroad via TV and holding of mass yoga camps, another step taken for reclaiming yoga was taken by PM Narendra Modi. It was at the behest of PM Modi that the United Nations in 2015, declared June 21 as the International Yoga Day.  A booklet on Yoga was released on this occasion in which the PM’s message about Yoga reads:

‘Yoga is an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature and a holistic approach to health and well-being. Yoga is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with ourselves, the world, and Nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us to deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an international Yoga Day.’

The message clarifies that Yoga is not merely an exercise unlike what many in the west believe. Similarly, Baba Ramdev clarified that stretching exercises and Pranayama are not yoga and yoga in its complete form includes jnana yoga, karma yoga, and bhakti yoga.

Some westerners practise yogic postures but choose to call them stretching exercises. The same is true for the ancient Bharatiya science of breath control (Pranayama). It is fortunate that along with Yoga, Baba Ramdev also worked to popularize the various Pranayama techniques among the masses. Over time, the west has borrowed our science of breath control also and tried to rebrand certain techniques from the science as their own.

For example, the Scientific American came up with the nomenclature ‘cardiac coherence breathing’  and described it as a technique which will help control heartbeat and reduce anxiety, something that various Pranayama techniques have helped achieve  for centuries

This claim was called out as cultural appropriation by many netizens.

The detailed article on the subject, does mention Hinduism at the start with reference to how it emphasizes the manner of breathing as important, but does not specify that the science of Pranayama includes a plethora of breath-control techniques such as the one discussed in the article.

Mindfulness meditation

Many in the west are into mindfulness meditation which the west tends to present as its own creation. Mindfulness meditation however originates from the Sattipatthana Sutta of Buddhism which speaks of various types of contemplation including contemplation of the body, feelings, consciousness, mental objects, and breathing.

In the west, mindfulness meditation is promoted in a manner such that it is completely severed from its roots. As one commentator remarked, the west is keen on adopting practises that make them calmer, healthier, and more at peace, but they are ‘plucked out of their cultures and whitewashed beyond the point of recognition.’

Similarly, a US-based practitioner was honest enough to state:

 ‘The practice of mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn did research on comes from the Thervada Buddhist tradition. If he had tried to sell this to the small minds in the west (people afraid of meditation/yoga/eastern religion stuff) we wouldn’t have it. That said, if people pay respect to the origins of the practices, it is not appropriation.’


For long, Ayurveda has been labelled as alternative medicine even by Bharatiya citizens. But for centuries it was mainstream medicine in Bharat. This has been a consequence of colonial brainwashing.

One twitter user considers this a conspiracy by so-called mainstream medicine which came much after all the so-called alternative systems of treatment:

In fact, it has also been referred to as a pseudoscience by Wikipedia which continues to call it an alternative medicine with a pseudoscientific basis.

It was only during the ninth five-year plan (1998 to 2002) that Bharat gave Ayurveda its due when an attempt was made to integrate Ayurveda with western medicine. The Department was renamed AYUSH in November 2003. It was made an independent ministry in November 2014.  Even in the write-up on the Ministry of AYUSH on Wikipedia, the term pseudoscience continues to dominate and a large section is reserved for criticism.

While Wikipedia lambasts Ayurveda, in the west, the sale of Ayurvedic supplements is a huge market and the global Ayurvedic market was valued at US $4.5 billion in 2017. The role of Big Pharma in lambasting and undermining Ayurveda cannot be ruled out.

Many western companies sell supplements merely as herbal supplements while knowledge for developing such supplements is drawn from Ayurveda. Undermining the science and simultaneously profiting from it is a form of cultural appropriation as well. In fact, Ayurveda is said to have given the world the science of performing surgery and Sushruta is considered to be the father of surgery.

In a recent development, the WHO wants to set up a Global Centre on Traditional Medicine in Bharat. Interestingly, the WHO chooses to name it as a Centre on Traditional Medicine rather than using the age-old name Ayurveda. Perhaps the intent is to include other forms of traditional medicine from Bharat such as Siddha and other lesser known indigenous schools of medicine. But proper naming of such an effort would be good so that Ayurveda gets its due.

Reclaiming our Dharmic culture

With Yoga/Pranayama and meditation, the west sought to remove these age-old practises from their cultural context.  Likewise, through the theory taught under modern medicine, the west had for long sought to brand Ayurveda as unscientific, but more recent research studies seem to be reversing this trend.

But attempts to whitewash and undermine our ancient knowledge by the west are a lesson for the followers of Dharmic faiths to stay rooted in our culture. This would include embracing our ancient knowledge systems of Ayurveda, Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation. Apart from this, it’s important to stay connected to our Dharmic  practises of daily worship (pooja), regular temple visits, sadhana, recital of Sanskrit shlokas, doing seva (service),  and doing daan (charity) for Dharmic causes.

(Featured image source:rishikulyogshala.org)

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