Sanskrit and Sanskritic texts are a pivotal part of the yogic tradition, but have also been integral to the oppression of Dalit caste groups.
After writing the blog entry on the pre-classical period in yoga's history, I thought it was important to explore the outlined texts from a different angle.
A bit of background: as many of you know, I'm a graduate student studying international development. My research is centred around gender inequities among low income groups in slum areas of Bengaluru, Karnataka, India. The vast majority of people that I interviewed in these impoverished areas were of Scheduled (or Dalit) Caste groups - that is, caste groups that have been historically marginalized and oppressed. It's no coincidence that the majority of India's poor also happen to be from oppressed caste groups.
To understand this, we must first explore how India's caste system works. It is important to note that there are hundreds of different castes that are all hierarchized differently depending on regional and social contexts. These caste hierarchies are also not static - they change in response to various social, economic and political stimuli. I will thus attempt to explain caste in very broad terms - employing the use of varnas (class groups) as outlined in Vedic literature.
There are 4 basic and stratified varnas:
1. Brahmin (priestly varna)
2. Kshatriya (warrior varna)
3. Vaishya (merchant/landowning varna)
4. Sudra (peasant/commoner varna)
The first 3 varnas are known as "twice-borne" groups because the males within these groups can be spiritually 'reborn' upon coming of age. Within and between all these varna groups there are a huge number of caste groups that, as mentioned above, vary between regions and cultural groups.
There are also a number of caste groups that fall outside of these varnas. These groups were traditional called "Untouchables" and were relegated to performing the worst tasks in society, such as dealing with corpses, sweeping streets, curing leather, etc. People of these castes were considered ritually defiling (within the caste system, Brahmins are considered the most pure with impurity increasing as one moves down the caste ladder).
Traditionally, Brahmins (as the most pure and priestly caste) were the people able to access religious texts and perform religious rites. Sanskrit - the liturgical language of Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism) - was thus only taught to Brahmins. Sanskritic religious values and messages were exclusively understood by and disseminated through them, while lower and more impure jobs were exclusively practiced by Dalit castes. In the words of Kancha Ilaiah (who is Brahminically categorized as a Sudra - ritually higher than Untouchable castes but still lower than those which are 'twice born'):
"The Bhagavad Gita is said to be a Hindu religious text. But that book was not supposed to enter our homes. Not only that, the Hindu religion and its Brahmin wisdom prohibited literacy to all of us. Till modern education and Ambedkar's theory of reservation created a small educated section among these castes, letter-learning was literally prohibited. This was a sure way of not letting the religious text enter our lives... Our Brahmin schoolteacher told us to our faces that is was because of the evil time - because of kaliyuga, that he was being forced to teach 'Sudras' like us. In his view we were good for nothing... Working in the field in his view was dirty and unaesthetic."
Sanskritic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita - which I'll remind you is considered one of the central texts within the yogic tradition - were used to maintain caste hierarchies which benefited the dominant castes at the expense of those underneath them. The yogic/dharmic path (if you haven't read the previous blog on this, please do to understand what I'm saying) that you must follow, according to this text, is the one that you've been born into. Brahmin men must follow the priestly path set out for them, and Brahmin women must follow the gendered path set out for them, as they are considered lower than their husbands (women are lower than men in all caste groups). Sudra groups, then, must follow the paths set out for them in unskilled labour - these are ritually impure practices that are necessary to ensure that people (including the upper castes who refuse to do such defiling work) can live in a functioning society with necessary services being performed. Untouchable groups must accept their subordinated place within caste hierarchies and follow their dharma of working low paying, polluting and often humiliating jobs such as leather curing, roadkill removal, corpse cremation, etc. for the same reason. If all of these groups follow their dharmic paths, they can burn off karma and move closer to escaping samsara. Ritualized inequities and oppressions are thus supported and maintained through Sanskritic texts such as the Bhavagad Gita - a point often missed by Western yoga practitioners who read them.
I think it's important to know the history of yoga and honour its Indian roots, but at the same time find myself at a bit of a standstill when it comes to using Sanskrit to do this. I know many yoga poses/practices by their Sanskrit names and often teach these in class in an attempt to be truthful about yoga's origins. But when I say these names in class, I'm also explicitly aware that I am speaking a liturgical language that has been historically used to oppress people and enforce violent hierarchies.
Given this reality, is it appropriate to cite Brahminical texts such as the Bhagavad Gita in class? Should we be speaking Sanskrit as a tribute to yoga's history, or forgoing it all together in an attempt to make yoga more egalitarian? Is this even possible to do in the West given our colonial history? I would love to know your thoughts. xx