Owning Faith

Today’s NYTimes carries an interesting account of a debate over the alleged ownership of yoga by Hinduism, and the alleged “theft” of yoga by just about everyone else.

Yoga is already rich with the rhetoric of ownership, and in this instance it seems clear that both the Times and the protagonists of its story — particularly Aseem Shukla, a founder of the Hindu American Foundation — are using property metaphors pretty loosely.  Dr. Shukla wrote

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.

The Times reduces this to the “question at the core of the debate”:  Who owns yoga?

Which, of course, is not really the question, at least not if the word or concept of “ownership” is meant to do any real work here.  Because if the authentic “owner” could really be identified — and that is likely an insuperable problem – then what exactly would be “owned,” and what could or would that “owner” do with whatever rights of ownership that attached?

These are questions that surround debates about traditional knowledge (TK), but with the added complication that the subject matter is explicitly religious.  If we take Dr. Shukla at his word, then yoga is not merely a practice at risk of inappropriate and exploitative commercialization.  Yoga offers a path to the divine, but most yoga studios aren’t equipped to show customers the real way.

The “ownership” argument therefore borrows more than an ordinary amount of the Faustian quality that accompanies most TK problems.  Advocates of an IP-style framework for TK claims would, in a manner of speaking, sell their cultural souls for the benefits of IP rights.  Metaphorical claims to ownership of yoga on behalf of Hinduism make that bargain explicit:  They would commodify the soul — they would “own” yoga — in order to reclaim it.  Even at a metaphorical level, that’s a problematic bargain.

Eventually, one hopes, debates about the role of Hinduism in yoga, like debates about the best legal frameworks for TK, will be softened by less blunt-edged claims about rights and property.  There are important and undiscussed questions floating around that have to do with the relationships among spirituality, organized religion, and ostensibly secular cultural practices.

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