The Simulacra of Yoga

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Posted on December 1st, 2010 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Philosophy, Social Issues
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No one wants to believe in fakery. Whatever we believe or do, we want it to be authentic.

In  a recent post about the Hindu American Foundation's statement on the place of yoga as a Hindu practice, contributor Brad Bannon brought up the thorny issue of who owns religious practices. As he put it:

Do religious persons “own” their forms of prayer and practice? Granted, adaptations should be done carefully and respectfully…but are there limits to which practices can and cannot be performed? Are there dangers of religious syncretism here? If there are, then can these dangers be negotiated – and to what end – or should we just stick to “our” traditions and practices? If religious traditions are an amalgamation of history, doctrine, and praxis, then can we come to know and understand our religious others without knowing – or perhaps even practicing, on occasion – “their” traditional practices? What do you think?

Another contributor, Paul Joseph Greene, offered a response in terms of authentic and transformative relationships:

Because of our new situation, the gift of so many religious Others are available to us in a way that was forbidden even for my grandparents— who were prohibited to mix their Catholic lives even with the Lutheran lives of their neighbors.  These religious Others are not resources to be mined.  They are living, breathing, loving persons with whom we are challenged by the irrevocable divine invitation to enter into the beautiful risk of real mutually transformative relationship.

But I think we need to come at this another way. I want to push Paul's emphasis on synchretism to the brink. Rather than asking about ownership I think it  might be better to think about the question of authenticity.

The question about authentic religion is a relatively new one. I would argue that it is a question mixed up with modernity. Religions were once (and still are, by some) thought of in terms of true and false--or more often 'ours is true and theirs is false.' But in our contemporary (post?)modern world, individuals search out authentic religious/spritual selves through practices and beliefs they feel to be authetic. To return to original HAF statement, the HAF was interested in reminding the public that yoga had its "roots" in ancient Indian culture. Sure one could practice merely the breathing techniques and postures but to truly--that is, to authentically--practice yoga one must engage it as a holistic Indian practice. It must be understood as "integral to Hindu tradition." To practice an authentic yoga required an acknowledgement of Hindu tradition. Meanwhile, many practitioners consider themselves authentic in their non-Hindu religious identity while practicing yoga. However one comes at the issue what really seems to be at stake is the authenticity of the practice and the practioner.

Why all this emphasis on authenticity? In the plastic world of modern American mass culture we are always sold the copy but never the original. So too with religion. Jean Baudrillard described postmodern culture as pure simulation. A place where that is full of signs that correspond to nothing. These simulacra appear to represent something of an original but there is no original--the only reality is the simulacra itself. We live in a world where everything is a copy of a copy. There is no authentic original. But we still look for one. The HFA wants to claim an original moment for yoga in the ancient Indian past. The Protestant practicing yoga in the church basement wants to claim an authentic spiritual practice for his or her spiritual self. We all want to think we are the original or we have access to the original. But like Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych, all we find are so many copies of copies.

So where does this leave us? And what about that question of ownership? I don't think the simulacra leaves us in despair. I think we should acknowledge the situation--the simulation--and move forward to a place where we can acknowledge our desire for authenticity and the reality that it will always already be eluding us.

I was once on a panel of speakers to a group of liberal Protestants about the question of borrowing from Hinduism and Buddhism. A fellow panel member told the story of a group of Protestants who had been practicing Buddhist meditation in their congregation. Some of the members of the group then traveled to Japan. Interested in meditation they visited a Zen monastery and were shocked. The practices they observed in Japan were nothing like what they practiced back home. They thought they had been engaged in authentic meditation but here they were in Japan--what could be more authentically Buddhist than Japan?--and it didn't match up. According to the panelist, they had quite a spiritual shake-up over the encounter.

To avoid such dissonance, the search for an authentic self and authentic religion or spirituality must be tempered by an awareness that all we will ever find is a copy of a copy. In this light, ownership and authenticity are questions of asserting authority or power. By saying that this community owns this practice we empower them or by claiming to dictate what is or is not authentic a group tries to assert authority in public. If all we have is the simulacra--the copy of the copy--then ownership and authenticity boil down to politics and identity. We must learn to enjoy the copy and acknowledge the politics of ownership and the search for authenticity. We must learn to admire and enjoy the print of Marilyn's face because Miss Monroe herself is long since gone.

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8 Responses to “The Simulacra of Yoga”

  1. Ian Burzynski says:

    Nice post, Michael! I am a fan of Baudrillard and I must say I find your affirmation of the simulacra in regard to religious praxis to be pretty unique. I wonder if a wider acceptance of this view would lead to more focus on the function served by religious practice and ritual as opposed to a fixation on the particular content (i.e. notions of authenticity). Once the stable reference point for the ritual is eliminated we can more clearly observe how cultural performance fluidly adapts itself to local contexts in a way that responds to the particularized needs of these contexts.

    I think ritual primarily serves the function of grounding people in space and time – and since the histories and geographies of diverse groups of people never coincide, regardless of their common religious affiliation, it is nonsensical to expect any close correlation between their ritual performances. Moreover, since the postmodern views history and geography as sites of contention and struggle, the religious practices must also be in a continuous state of flux to keep up with our changing notions of place and of past/present/future.

    This for me illuminates the topic of religious syncretism, which can be seen as a hybridization of rituals in order to grapple with increased contact with difference. The exposure to previously isolated groups of people changes geographical/historical narratives retroactively. As I enlarge my, say, Protestant conception of time and space to include Buddhists, I must enlarge my ritual corpus to sufficiently ground me in this new geography and history.

    I think that to attempt to retard this process of syncretism will only serve to alienate us from space and time, our conception of both becoming more restricted as our actual context becomes increasingly complex. In this case religious practice will break down and no longer serve its primary ‘grounding’ function, leaving us with no ground to stand on.

    Sorry, long comment! Thanks again for writing :)

    • Ian, thanks for the great response. I think you take what I was gesturing toward and push it further in some great directions.

      I totally agree with you about taking a functional approach to practice. I would definitely self-identify as a Durkheimian in a lot of my thinking and I’m always interested in the ways practices function to exert what he called ‘force’ in society.

      On the idea of the simulacrum, Georges Bataille saw the importance of the simulacrum in ritual sacrifice as serving to substitute for the community or the sacrificer himself. For him, ritual sacrifice was always a simulacrum of actual self-sacrifice. Furthermore, he took a Durkheimian view of ritual as social cohesion. So, Bataille may be a way to think through both the functional and content questions. Though he is not at all interested in authenticity.

      Thanks for the comment–kept me thinking about this.

      • Ian Burzynski says:

        Michael,

        Georges Bataille is one of my favorite thinkers; I have been reading him a lot lately and am currently reading ‘Erotism: Death and Sensuality’. Can you provide the name of the text(s) where he discusses this topic of simulacra & sacrifice?

        Thanks!
        -I

  2. Thanks for your post, Michael. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading a book that might be of interest to you: _Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England_, by Timothy Rosendale. Writing about enforced conformity to Prayerbook religion, Rosendale argues that Hobbes uses the Calvinist/Zwinglian representational model of the Eucharist to insist that external acts of conformity can’t really ever reflect the truth of internal conviction–meaning that conformity for the good of social order isn’t hypocritical. Prayerbook worship, on Hobbes’ account, thus permits and even enables a wide range of “authentic” belief: it is nothing more than a role one plays.

    Rosendale also writes extensively about the hybridization of rituals (especially involving the Eucharist) that occurred in the composition of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, as well as in subsequent revisions.

    Just a thought…

    • Thanks, Jason. I’m interested in taking a look at that book. I think that the roots of modern concerns about the authentic self lie in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. So I think Rosendale’s study, as you describe it, would offer a view of how these early constructions of authenticity might shed light on their contemporary progeny.

  3. [...] last part of that sentence seems right, and Michael Altman has explored this further in The Simulacra of Yoga as has Paul Greene in Shared Spiritual Inheritance and Mutual Transformation and others have [...]

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Ph.D. student of American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. Specialization in American religious history and Asian religions in America. Twitter: @MichaelJAltman.


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