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What Is the Line Between Cultural Respect and (Mis)appropriation?

The Goddess Pose is fascinating story of how an Eastern European woman became a global chameleon and the most recognizable face of yoga in the world.

The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 336 pages
Author: Michelle Goldberg
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-06-09

One of the major topics of debate in the South Asian American community is the issue of cultural appropriation. What is the line between cultural respect and (mis)appropriation? As so much desi culture becomes co-opted by Americans, particularly whites, and the foods, clothes, and traditions are copied and then infused with other beliefs and practices, a parallel debate rages about whether those that “borrow” from South Asia are doing it out of genuine respect and interest, or out of classic exploitative capitalism. What is the difference between my white masseuse at Massage Envy greeting me with a “Namaste” and a black hip hop duo sampling Pakistani qawwali music?

One aspect of this discussion that often gets left out is how much South Asian cultural practices tend to not only become replicated by Americans, but also transformed, and how these new hybrid practices, subsequently engender changes back in the countries of origin. In particular, I think of India, and the righteous indignation that many Indian immigrants feel when they see Bollywood dance classes at the local YMCA or hot yoga classes at the local Crossfit “box”, its participants going shirtless and wearing tiny shorts. But can Indians truly be self-righteous about cultural appropriation when so many people in the US and in India cater to these white, would-be yogis?

This all went through my mind as I read Michelle Goldberg’s fantastic new book, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, which is muc more than just a biography. Born Eugenia Petersen in 1899 to a Russian mother and Swedish father in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, Petersen lived what can only be described as an extraordinarily life.

Her metamorphosis from Eugenia Petersen to Eugenia Labunskaia to Jane to Indra Devi to Mataji and back to Indra is the stuff of fantasy, yet it's true. Goldberg says, “Devi was a Zelig-like figure, an esoteric female Forrest Gump who seemed to show up wherever tumultuous world events were unfolding.” What other woman in modern history can claim to have known Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Prithviraj Kapoor, Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Manuel Noriega, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Elizabeth Arden, and Jawaharlal Nehru? In his 2003 masterpiece,http://www.popmatters.com/review/impressionist/, Hari Kunzru created a character that started life as Pran Nath Razdan, and then became Rukshana, Clive, Robert, Pretty Bobby, and lastly, Jonathan Bridgeman. Yet that was fiction; Indra Devi was very real, and this book provides a suitable encomium to a chaotic and brazen life.

The Goddess Pose begins as a sort of travelogue and recounts Goldberg’s experiences in Nepal and her initial interest in yoga. During an interaction with Vijay her yoga instructor and a “Gumby-limbed South Indian”, he tells her, “I’m not a yogi: I’m a businessman.” After her return to the United States and a new interest in yoga, Goldberg begins the process of tracing its story, particularly in the United States. The result is the marvelous work, an amalgam of the history of not only yoga, but also New Religious Movements, India, Hollywood, fitness, holy men, and the long-standing and sharply convoluted tether between the religious and spiritual ancestry of the East, and its desire in the West.

Devi’s life begins at the closing of the 19th century, and the dawn of a new epoch in world history. As the daughter of an actress, she desires a career in the arts as well, and becomes one, studying with Theodore Komisarjevsky. Her desire for stardom and public recognition takes her around Europe, which at the time, was in the grip of what Republicans today might describe as a “moral panic” – a reckless time of hedonism and wanton waste, nihilism and rampant use of cocaine and opiates, with everyone having an eye and ear to the tumultuous political events surrounding them and the possibility, at any time, that life could change for the worse.

It’s no surprise, really, that this era also gave rise to many religious movements, particularly centered around Theosophy and Anthroposophy, and a whole host of charlatans, conmen (and women), savants, mystics, spiritualists, and “yogis” who all claim to know something of the ancient religious practices of Asia and the Middle East. Such opportunists were willing, for a fee, to share their knowledge with others. Goldberg does a fantastic job of documenting this time and these characters – Madame Blatavsky, Rudolph Steiner, Henry Steele Olcott, Annie Besant, Jiddu Krishnamurti, William Walker Atkinson (aka Yogi Ramacharaka) – and how their work set the stage for Devi, and her meteoric rise as a purveyor of yoga and Indian tradition, to the West.

Indeed, as someone whose childhood was split between the United States and India, I found The Goddess Pose to be almost revelatory in what I learned about Chennai and its role in the worldwide Theosophical Movement. While Adyar was a “sleepy colony” in the late 19th and early 20th century, it’s a bustling and buzzing extension of Chennai now, and actually where I attended school. I passed the Theosophical Society probably a thousand times, and only once went inside.

Besant Nagar was where my grandmother lived and I have been on Rukmini Road and Arundale Beach Round more times than I can imagine. Olcott Memorial High School still stands and continues to provide free education, uniforms, and food to poor children in Chennai. And my cousins attended the singularly named The School, founded by Krishnamurti. Yet, only now do I realize the significance of these places being named for Annie Besant, Rukmini Devi Arundale, J. Krishnamurti, Henry Steele Olcott, and George Arundale, and do I appreciate their roles in the Theosophy Movement, and its historic connections to Chennai and India as a whole.

Following a 1926 event known as the Order of the Star in the East in Ommen, Holland, Devi ventures to India, and thus began her tryst with the country she would claim as her spiritual home for the rest of her life. Yoga expert Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, brother-in-law of B.K.S. Iyengar, took her under his wing and she becomes one of his disciples. Armed with knowledge gained only through excruciating and punishing hatha yoga poses and asanas, Krishnamacharya commanded her to teach yoga in America. And so began her American adventure, specifically, in California.

Of all things, American immigration policy and xenophobia was at least partly responsible for Devi’s legend. Between the 1924 Immigration Act and the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, Indian immigration to the United States was severely limited, if not impossible; as such, Devi, a white European woman, was able to not only become the public face of yoga, but in her guise as a sari-clad guru, was seen by many as an authentic representation of Indian culture.

The Goddess Pose also lends itself to the ongoing debate over the role of “holy men” in Indian society. This work is bookended by references to Satya Sai Baba, the late South Indian holy man with the orange robes and massive ‘fro, who originally claimed to be a reincarnation of a former saint, and later, claimed to be divine. What Goldberg describes as the “ambient spiritual hysteria” of Sai Baba’s followers is highly accurate, even now, after this death. Yet, rather than simply passing judgment on the man, Goldberg is able to weave his story into the life of one of his most famous disciples, Indra Devi, who, under his tutelage, becomes known as “Mataji”. Devi’s ego, ultimately, and her interest in another holy man, Premananda, got her censured by Sai Baba, in a story similar to Malcolm X’s tryst with Elijah Muhammad. Her public break with Satya Baba is an ugly one, but she continued to venerate him for the rest of her life.

The only weakness in this book was Goldberg’s inability to objectively discuss Devi’s flaws. In one particular passage, she writes, “Fortified by a lifetime of spiritual discipline, Devi largely transcended regret, learning to observe the world’s flux with smiling detachment. Further, because she seemed to flat through life rather than cling to it … she never became marginal.” It seemed to me that Goldberg had started to drink too much of the Devi Kool-Aid … or perhaps, more appropriately, the coconut water.

When people ask me what constitutes cultural appropriation, I often reply with what doesn’t in my mind, and that is the hard work and dedication I see from the thousands of keen students who flock to India every year and immerse themselves in their communities to study with masters of various religious, musical, artistic, and linguistic traditions. Maybe that vegan restaurant I went to last year in Portland that served kale dosas was misappropriating Indian culture, but you cannot tell me that applies to the guy from Kansas or the woman from Kazakhstan who travels to Chennai (formerly Madras), learns to wear a veshti or sari respectively, and spends hours every day learning Bharatnatyam, a South Indian dance. Their commitment is the highest form of respect, in my opinion.

Would yoga have attained the popularity it did without Indra Devi? We will probably never know the answer, but this book provides us with a great opportunity for introspection on how an Eastern European woman became a global chameleon and through a combination of perseverance, luck, and social skill, became, for a time, the most recognizable face of yoga in the world. That this was accomplished by also neglecting her husband and, paraphrasing Roberta Flack, killing him softly with her song is a point of concern. Ultimately, however, the story of Indra Devi is as much a tale of triumph, as it is of caution, and we owe a lot to Goldberg for giving us this incredible story.


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