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Every year, 21 June is a time set aside globally to reflect upon one a global phenomenon of popular culture, so to speak. We’re taking about International Yoga Day. Yoga means different things to different people, but the common thread in the eyes of the consumer, the practitioner, the global audience and the “foreigner” is that yoga is the ultimate in spiritual wellness.
On the occasion of Yoga Day 2022, we caught up with Dr Patrick McCartney, CHL Visiting Fellow and alumni, who has made yoga the centre of his research from a very different and refreshing lens. Here’s what he had to share on yoga, Sanskrit, and how his studies at ANU CHL has shaped his sensibilities and his research.
Today is World Yoga Day. What does that mean to you?
It means a lot of things. On the lighter level, it appears to be a celebration of what might otherwise be described as a “yoga lifestyle”, which is an encompassing “way of life” for seemingly millions of people. I think it is amazing how in a short time, Narendra Modi and the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) and the Ministry of AYUSH have managed to build and promote the event. All around the world, people gather to attend a yoga class and mingle with like-minded folk. There appears to be nothing wrong with any of that.
On the deeper level, the day operates at a more subtle level of indoctrination and enculturation. Yoga is an instrument for the soft power expansionist agenda of the Indian state. Therefore, it is necessary to at least acknowledge the ways in which the social worlds of yoga’s consumers, who might not have any idea about the ideology of Hindu exceptionalism, might come to unwittingly and tacitly support it. If that is what people choose to do, then I don’t really mind, one way or another. I have, ultimately, mixed feelings about the day. For instance, the International Day of Yoga event held in Dehradun’s Forest Research Institute required the felling of several trees and other issues related to flora and fauna; yet, the event was billed as apparently having a positive influence on so-called “climate change”.
At an even more abstract level, a yoga lifestyle is framed by many institutions promoting such a thing as being the most sustainable lifestyle, which everyone ought to adopt. Yet, the contents of the lifestyle are hard to find and so is any empirical data that might support the claim. Moreover, the perceived core texts of yoga's invented tradition quite often do not say or say the opposite of what some promoter of a yoga lifestyle might claim. In the end, the faith-based development strategies and for-profit motivations of the Indian state attempt to wrestle yoga out of the realm of mythology in an effort to transplant it into the realm of technology. This seems to be faltering in many ways, for obvious reasons.
What are you currently engaged in? Tell us more about your project and how your journey at ANU has shaped your research.
I have a few interrelated projects. The oldest one is titled “Imagining Sanskritland”. Back in 2008, I enrolled in a Diploma of Asian Studies (Sanskrit) at ANU, alongside an MA in Applied Linguistics at the University of Adelaide. I was working full-time on remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory as a social worker. I’ve always had an interest in old things and languages. My Bachelor degree is in maritime archaeology. I love SCUBA diving and shipwrecks. During my studies, between 2008 and 2010, I became aware of the rumours around people claiming to speak Sanskrit. This instantly fascinated me. In 2009–2010, I spent three months in a Sanskrit residential college/ashram in southern Gujarat (near Valsad) exploring sociolinguistic issues related to people speaking Sanskrit and switching to other languages like Hindi.
Sanskrit is imagined to hold a special power as the so-called “language of the gods”. Rumours exist that NASA uses it to power its satellites. Sanskrit is spoken by some people. Yet, the actual figures are difficult to discern with much, or any, confidence. I have conducted a fair bit of ethnographic fieldwork in some of the more famous “Sanskrit-speaking” villages in India. I recently published an article on my analysis of the Sanskrit tokens in the Indian censuses going back to 1872. Regrettably, the results dissolve any support for the myth of the “Sanskrit-speaking” village. Yet my work is often interpreted as intent on myth busting for the sake of being a trouble maker. However, I am an empiricist involved in language policy planning and second language acquisition, therefore I don’t see how making things up to suit a narrative actually helps to promote the speaking of any language.
My other projects are Transglobal Yogascapes and The Wrestler’s Pole. Yogascapes crosses over with Imagining Sanskritland in many ways. I’m curious, ultimately, about the narratives and biographies of Sanskrit and Yoga. I’m interested in the utopian worlds people create, or wish to. Yoga, at least in my definition, is firmly rooted in the first definition we have, which is from the Ṛgveda. It relates to a temporal context of yoga-kṣema. Here, yoga refers to a period of time in which men would assemble and then go to battle. “Yoga” ended when the men disbanded to go home to celebrate their victory in smashing their enemies.
Over the past 3,000 years or so, many types of yoga have emerged and disappeared. One sustaining feature appears to be that yoga is an instrument for the accumulation of power, property and prosperity. This is what kṣema relates to, ultimately. It refers to a period of time some describe as “rest”. Whereas yoga is defined as (martial) “action”.
Today, the US$70 billion yoga market is a part of the US$4.5 trillion wellness market. The main narratives used to create consumer demand spike around the nostalgic sentiments that yoga is apparently timeless and therefore able to transform the individual and transport them into eternal present or futured-past. It’s romanticism, to be sure. Globally, and this includes any notion of a “traditional”, “authentic” or “indigenous” form of yoga, is best described as a conglomerate of various prosperity cults. One just needs to look more closely at the marketing literature, whether it’s in English, Japanese, or Telugu. Yoga is framed as an embodied instrument for individual and societal transformation, yet the substantive and material components are often not defined. While some wellness yoga-preneur might mention the Yoga Sutras as evidence of a definition of yoga being about Social Justice activism, community building, and “embodied experience”, these claims are difficult to find. Particularly when the author, Patanjali, explains in the second chapter that some signs of progress are disgust for the body and disdain for society, while the final verses of the fourth chapter seem to suggest nothing short of spiritual nihilism, with the body being discarded and consciousness merging into the “cloud", as it were.
My newest project relates to the “ancient sport” of “pole yoga”. Otherwise known as mallakhamb (wrestler’s pole), it blends with the other two projects for similar reasons. The origin stories and ongoing myths do not line up with historiographical facts. Ancient Indian wrestling and acrobatics are a thoroughly understudied phenomenon. This is a curious thing, simply because many scholars have surreptitiously claimed that “yoga might be influenced by acrobatics and wrestling”. Yet no one has got around to asking what needs to be asked.
What my project focuses on charting is the social networks of professional guilds of both street and royal “stage performers”, as this is what wrestlers and acrobats were classified as in some texts. Essentially, in a roundabout and reluctant way, I have come to now directly tackle the question regarding the influence of wrestlers and acrobats on yoga’s postural development. Expanding out from this, I’m in the process of mapping the ancient and medieval trade routes across Asia, from Anatolia to Japan and India to Europe, essentially, to document the movements and developments of professional guilds of performers, particularly pole dancers and rope walkers.
In the end, I have three degrees from ANU. A Diploma of Asian Studies (Sanskrit/Hindi), a Master of Studies (Hindi/Urdu/Sanskrit/General Linguistics), and a PhD (Anthropology). While I’ve got a nice HECS debt that I haven’t even begun to pay off, my time at ANU shaped me in ways I’m still coming to understand. A PhD changes you, possibly for the better. Though, I’ve never felt more alone or stressed than the period after returning from fieldwork, knowing my scholarship was more than half-way through, and I still didn’t have any clue what I was doing with the data I'd collected or all that “problematic theory" everyone kept talking about. I figured it out, in the end, I’m glad to report and graduated on my birthday.
In the deepest moments of self-doubt and fatigue, I employed a visualization. I even went into the School of Music’s hall, where the ceremonies take place, and stood on the stage when it was just an empty room. I took this feeling, the smells, the ambience, and whenever I felt like I was close to giving up, I would summon this futured moment and pull myself toward the day of graduation, seeing my family in the crowd, smiling back at me. It might sound like a bunch of woo, but it worked!
Tell us more about your time at ANU.
My time at ANU was a mixed bag. It contained some of the most intense and interesting with the most stressful and isolating. Writing a PhD is no joke. I’m glad I had the Polish Club to regroup at after the Fellows Bar ran out of beer. It was not until after I submitted it that I found out I have a very strong case of narcolepsy. I used to take naps under my desk almost every hour. I think I broke the coffee machine in the Baldessin Precinct Building in the lead up to submitting.
I spent most of my time not in Canberra during my PhD. I spent 18 months in India and 12 months in Germany, and as a PhD exchange student at the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute. It was there that my dissertation finally came together. I have fond memories of Canberra and ANU. I played a lot of soccer at lunch time. I went on countless bike rides and hikes. I spent a lot of time in Menzies library and the basement in Chifley, before it flooded.
What was the highlight of your study at CHL? Why would you recommend it to others interested in taking the same academic path you have?
It’s been six years since I graduated. I’ve spent most of the time since living in Kyoto, Japan. In terms of studies, I found the weekly anthropology seminars to be most stimulating. I remember my Hindi and Sanskrit teachers fondly, they opened up my eyes to the wonders of medieval poets such as Kabir and Ghalib and Kalidasa. I’ve spent seven years living in India, mostly in the north. The language training I received at CHL is a part of the reason I can now speak and write and read several Indian languages. CHL provided a good template, but it’s really up to the individual to take matters into their own hands. I couldn’t say I really know what my academic path is or has been. I’ve taken a very serendipitous approach, learning things as when needed. I never set out to do much beyond gain a deeper appreciation for the linguistic diversity of India. But here I am now writing about 4,000 years of pole dancing prostitutes across Asia.
Can you share a fun fact about Sanskrit or your research journey?
What intrigued me about the Sanskrit-speaking phenomenon was how strongly divided people were regarding the matter. It all started, for me, at least, listening to some older scholars argue about whether it was true or not. Many people tried to dissuade me from this topic, warning me of its “dead end”. However, the number of times someone said to me, while in India, that there “is a village where everyone speaks Sanskrit”, compelled me towards taking a linguistic anthropological approach to the topic. The odd thing was that nobody seemed to know where exactly these villages were. Even the people officially promoting them. Finding them was a major hassle.
Doing fieldwork in the middle of Madhya Pradesh’s summer in a village with no running water, no electricity, and fewer than half of the houses attached to the mains plumbing, sleeping on the roof and bathing with the buffalo—while wedding season made my ears bleed—really made me think about the faith-based development rhetoric in which both yoga and Sanskrit are embedded. For example, I've had people send me abusive messages and the occasional death threat for simply pointing out that not everyone speaks fluent Sanskrit all the time in these villages. Yet even some people in these believe this to be true. Cognitive dissonance is fascinating.
What is your favourite Sanskrit word or expression and why?
Gosh. There are so many. I’m a bit of a contrarian and black sheep. I don’t consider yoga to be amazing and I don’t consider Sanskrit to be sacred. I’m curious about the social history of these things and what people do with them. Even though I was teaching three or more classes of yoga by age 20 and sustained myself from it for more than a decade, I always felt there were many loose threads relating to what I was being told to believe. I’m a sceptic, ultimately. I think, however, that this word is my favourite: Nipalāśam: “as softly or silently as the falling of leaves”.
There is no particular reason, other than I find this image and the act of witnessing leaves fall to the ground to be a moment in which I become absorbed in something other than myself; yet it feels complete, nonetheless.
I have been working on a “Sanskrit Smut Dictionary”. Many people consider Sanskrit has little capacity for swearing or cruder articulations. The dictionaries, however, show this to be incorrect. While it might seem as if I make an attempt to disparage the language, and by extension the culture and people of India, the ambition is rather to highlight the humanity of the language.
Many people seem to think that the “language of the gods” has some power unknown to other languages. While this might be the case, the hope is that it will help make the language more relatable to people if they can see that Sanskrit does have words for things that might actually either make one blush or laugh, or both. However, while claims are made that utterances of Sanskrit can lead to moral reformation and help with all manner of social and environmental issues, my work creating a multi-dimensional environmental assessment method for Sanskrit/yoga lifestyles at least suggests these claims are inconclusive, at best.
Why is Sanskrit significant, in your opinion?
Sanskrit is an interesting language. It impresses me that I can pick up a text written 2,000 years ago and come to know that the same feelings, thoughts, fears, aspirations and desires riddled the people of ancient times. This delights me, as Sanskrit is in some sense a time machine.
However, it also fills me with anxiety, since it seems that the issues plaguing humanity are intractable, or simply indelible to the condition, as is. Perhaps, there is some solace to be found in this.
I don’t necessarily think Sanskrit is a special language. It just happens to have been afforded the chance to be preserved and promoted and have special universities for it’s promotion. There are something like 1,600 Indo-European languages. Sanskrit is just one of them, found in the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-Iranian group. Sanskrit is significant for the ways in which it inspires people and of people find meaning and identity and purpose and solace in that, then I wouldn’t dream to take that from them. I’m not sure that I could, anyway.
There is much of the corpus literally rotting on shelves. It is a pity more people don’t study Sanskrit. Sadly, there is only glory to be had. Well, perhaps there are plenty of riches to be found. It just depends on what one values.
What are your future research plans?
Currently, I have four monographs I’m working on. I’m yet to flip my dissertation. I have a mostly complete manuscript for Imagining Sanskritland. I have another mostly complete manuscript on Global Yogascapes, and I have a somewhat complete manuscript on my “pole yoga” project. It is possible this will expand into a second monograph.
I’m trying to slowly move away from the centre and make enquiries deeper into the margins of society. I’d like to focus less on yoga’s consumption and more on the art historical and philological aspects of the spread of wrestler-acrobats, first as tribes and then as guilds. Essentially, no one has really paid any attention to the topic. Scholars of yoga steer clear of earnestly looking at the probable links with yoga. However, professional wrestler-acrobats had been performing complex and dynamic contortions of their bodies for more than 2,000, if not 3,000 years before medieval haṭha-yoga emerged. What are the odds that it is just a coincidence?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Svahṛdayaṃ anugaccha…”Follow your heart”.