Appropriation and the Quest for Cultural Balance

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It’s no secret that Indian culture has heavily influenced the entire world-especially the West. India’s influence can be found in everything from western fashion to food. Sharing and cultural exchange are part of the natural human experience. While this is something to be celebrated, it can also become a source of contention.

When culture becomes trend, it transforms into somewhat of a trivialised novelty and not necessarily treated with respect. Unfortunately, this often culminates in cultural appropriation which is a hot topic these days. There is a fine line between respecting or emulating a culture and copying it for one’s own sense of entertainment. Yoga has recently come under fire as a sacred tradition reduced to an exercise trend. Many Hindus living in the west are becoming frustrated with yoga being adapted into a more western practice where Hindu ideals are lost altogether. One trend is to replace Hindu ideals with Christian principles. The argument many Hindus make is that Santana Dharma is intrinsically woven into the practice of yoga.

The belief in that there should not be a push to divorce the two just to make westerners feel more comfortable. In some cases, yoga is being stripped of spirituality altogether. Yoga has become a billion dollar industry. In western society, Yoga studios are everywhere, yoga clothing is a hot staple in many wardrobes, and countless exercise programs/expensive classes are offered for those in search of a “better body.” Most consumers aren’t concerned with the spiritual aspects and sacred origins of yoga. They see it as a product to be bought and sold. Another issue involving consumerism is the use of Gods as decorations. Pictures of Gods and Goddesses can be seen on rugs, cups, sheets and even toilets seat covers.

Some people see it as harmless fun, while others feel it is a lack of cultural sensitivity and highly offensive. This is not just confined to Hinduism. Pictures of Jesus and Buddha can also be found on items deemed less than appropriate. The most troubling part of all of this lies in the ignorance of the consumer. There is not necessarily a desire for cultural understanding which constitutes a lack of respect and perceived intolerance. The Halloween holiday in the United States is a perfect example of this. Many people might choose to dress up as “an Indian” or a “Mexican” or “someone from China”. Should one person’s culture become another person’s costume? Does it always mean mockery or is it acceptable to try on other people’s identities for fun?

Even I am on the fence about where the line should be drawn at times. One of the more contentious subjects is clothing. Should American women feel free to wear sarees? Should a British woman of European ancestry have the right to wear a bindi? There are many women who feel these things are inappropriate. In 2015, there was a small movement that started called #reclaimingthebindi which saw many women with strong ties to the Hindu diaspora speak out against the use of the bindi by western women. This came of the heels of the Coachella Valley, Music, and Arts Festival in California where several celebrities were featured wearing “face jewels”- clearly bindis, wedding bindis, tilaks, and tikkas with another name slapped on.

The worst offender in western culture lies in the negative portrayals of Hinduism found in American children’s textbooks. Since 2005, several Hindu advocate groups in California have pushed for reform in the wake of inaccurate information. Last year (2017)finally saw advocacy turn into action with the draft of new textbooks. They not only contain more accurate information, but focus important achievements of Hindus throughout the world. Despite humans having more access to one another than ever before and participating in cultural exchange, we must remember to be sensitive to the history of tradition. Tolerance and respect are paramount when participating in a culture foreign to your own.

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