Caste, Hindutva, and Yoga

The reason this blog post has been written is to work towards making the practice inclusive, trauma-informed and accessible. There is no room for a practice that continues to further systems of oppression (either veiled or otherwise).

India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Undivided India is also the birthplace of Yoga, which draws from many ways of life, practices and eastern mysticism.

Over the centuries, human migration has manifested as immigration, colonisation, trade, war. Those who settled in India also brought their culture, practices and religions like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam.

No single ethnicity marks the Indian subcontinent. Instead an ethnic diversity does.

This diversity is found in language (over 122 major languages & more than 19,500 dialects), religion (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, Animism, Bon, Sanamahism, Meitei, Santal, KiratMundhum & various other indigenous religions) music, dance, food, architecture, literature, clothing, festivals, customs, traditions, art forms and cinema.

The true definition of that cliché – ‘a melting pot’ – to be Indian today, is to enjoy and be proud of a dynamic culture borne out of accepting, welcoming and assimilating so many cultures, religions, ethnicities and practices over the centuries.

We know India’s diversity comes both in broad strokes and subtle nuances. To be Indian is the sweetest of paradoxes. At heart, we acknowledge our differences and more importantly, celebrate our oneness. We are the same.

If you grew up in India, you will remember partaking in each other’s ritual celebrations, fasting, feasting and mourning. Our communities were marked for their texture, their involvement beyond family. Thriving, codependent, warm – our neighbourhood fraternities took to the streets at every momentous occasion, immediately inclusive.

Cultural diversity has helped us recognise and respect ‘ways of being’ that are not necessarily our own, so that as we interact with others we can build bridges of trust, respect, and empathy across cultures.

“Atithi Devo Bhavo” – The Guest is God; this is one of the tenets of Indian culture. Irrespective of creed, culture and ethnicity, we welcome everyone into our land and accept their practices and ways of life. ‘Live and let live’ with acceptance of all – that is the beauty of India and its culture. (According to me, this is also what Hinduism is.)

Today, sadly, this idea of India – the inclusive, secular, democratic entity – is under threat.

To begin with, Hinduism is not the static monolith it is being made out to be. And it certainly is not what some of its so-called proponents are re-branding it as – knowingly or inadvertently – a violent, nationalistic Hinduism aka Hindutva.

For someone new to the term, let me offer a simple parallel. Hindutva is Hindu Supremacy, like White Supremacy. And now we are beginning to witness that both ideologies are two sides of the same coin.
Hindutva seeks to evict us from our fraternal co-existences, box and label us. We are no longer ‘Indian’. Instead we are reduced to our religious identities or worse, our castes. This racism manifests as all racism does – your religion, your caste automatically allows people to make assumptions about your intentions, your behaviour as an individual or community and of course, “justifies” the need to exclude you from a space.

The polarisation that has followed is tangible and is evident in the bitter loss of courteous, productive, nuanced discourse. Many in India have paid an unduly high price for their desire to maintain the values of India. Some with their lives. Journalists, students, activists, dissenters, even comedians and poets, are jailed under draconian, non-bailable laws (UAPA), and many face harassment online, or at their workplaces and businesses.

This culture that thrived on our ability to ‘agree to disagree’ can no longer agree on anything except mutual distrust. The hate, divisiveness and fissures in society have gone beyond social media to the real world. It is everywhere. It’s tearing us apart.

People said the hate was the fringe. Today the fringe is – mainstream.

The loss of nuance and intelligent, empathetic discourse means we ignore the fact that several realities and truths co-exist.

You can love your country and criticise aspects of it.

You can hold a culture/religion/community in high esteem and still call out the harm and injustices some interpretations of it may perpetrate.

You can be oppressed and be an oppressor.

You can be a Christian and be fully immersed in Yoga.

There is no binary of belief systems. No one right and one wrong. We cannot lose our sense of nuance. We need room for this and this is the space, I hope you can read this in now.

Hindutva seethes in every aspect and sphere of society – including Yoga. Let’s begin with acknowledging that caste is critical to understanding Indian society from a contemporary and historical perspective. All manifestations of the caste system, through history, have been an irredeemable, indefensible playing out of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

Casteism is a widespread failing of Indian society across all religions. It is not limited to one religion and it is certainly evident in the world of Yoga. Yoga has been interlinked with Brahminical oppression, upper-caste hegemony and systematic marginalisation of lower castes. For example, Hindu Dalits who attempted to learn or speak Sanskrit had their tongues cut off or ears burnt with hot oil.

And caste is no longer an, ‘only in India’, problem. Caste impurity in various forms has even been exported to the West.

Our yoga practice should not be, and cannot afford to be, oblivious to these discriminatory and oppressive systems that cause discrimination, oppression, injustice, and harm to others. How can we attain our goal of knowing our higher selves by ignoring or being in denial of the systemic casteism and oppression, perpetuated by the dominant culture?

It is our duty, as those from South Asian Savarna (upper caste) backgrounds, to make the changes in our families and our communities and to also be critical of how religious fundamentalism and casteist oppression are embedded in Yoga. Yoga is meant to shine light in uncomfortable places, within and outside, of ourselves. Speaking about caste and introspecting on it, will make us uncomfortable, especially if you are privileged, but it is necessary work.

In the same way, as damaging as the whitewashing of Yoga feels to South Asian people of colour (POC), the solution to make Yoga accessible by offering POC sessions may still promote harm. Due to so much diversity of caste, creed and culture within POC communities; chanting mantras in Sanskrit may still inflict harm on South Asians who have experienced violence and discrimination from Hindus. South Asian yogis have a unique responsibility and duty, to intersect critiques and go beyond condemning Western cultural appropriation.

Westerners need to be mindful of the content that they are teaching, consuming and learning from. Just like one would be wary of the lens a neo-nazi, White supremacist, teaching you the Bible and Christianity, the same applies to the lens of learning & teaching texts and scriptures of Yoga. There are so many Hindu Indian yoga teachers who may be upper caste but, are true allies of lower caste and denounce Hindu supremacy, religious fundamentalism and casteism. Seek them out along with others across the world who teach with similar inclusive values.

The reason this blog post has been written is to work towards making the practice inclusive, trauma-informed and accessible. There is no room for a practice that continues to further systems of oppression (either veiled or otherwise).

Practitioners must be aware of the emergence of Hindutva in the yoga space via usage of white yoga teachers and spiritual Anglophone ‘Gurus’ from India in the West or on social media, as “props”, to further Hindutva and to bypass the contradictions of Hindu nationalism. There is a normalisation of the usage of Hindu supremacist language to conceal human rights violations in India. Anyone who raises social justice causes, casteism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, hate crimes, caste-based violence, human rights violations, governance failures etc. is labelled “Hinduphobic”.

We have to listen to the voices of marginalised sections of society who have suffered historical oppression and violent discrimination. The discourse presented by upper-caste Indians is replete with denials of caste and caste-based violence, religious intolerance, human rights violations, or hate crimes. You wouldn’t ask a white person if racism exists, and in the same vein, asking the dominant culture/caste if casteism, racism, discrimination or intolerance exists, would be an exercise in futility.

Find the “Truth.”

Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.

Mahatma Gandhi


Macro patterns of society are mirrored in the micro-world of modern Yoga.

Social media has allowed hate and vitriol to flourish. Let’s find ways to limit harm and hate, including towards yoga practitioners and teachers of other faiths and castes.

Let us not let our religions be used to further hate and violence on other human beings in thought, word, speech or action.

Remember that not everyone is privileged, and it is our duty to step up, speak up and make our spaces inclusive. There are many socio-political-religious-gender-class-economic-caste-cultural aspects at play, with practitioners that may bring up trauma in yoga spaces.

How can we make yoga spaces healing spaces – that are inclusive, egalitarian, accessible and trauma-informed?

Yoga is a beautiful healing practice. It has changed so many lives for the better, including mine.

Let us take its best practices forward, and leave inequality, dietary practices rooted in oppression, and violent discrimination in the past.
There is a lot of work to be done by all of us. Let the healing begin.

Every serious practitioner will want to read and research beyond. Here are a few topics to explore. Learn. Un-Learn. Re-Learn.

  • How were lower caste Hindus (Bahujan, Dalits), indigenous tribals and religious minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis) excluded from Yoga in India?
  • Which people had access to the knowledge and learning of the Vedas, of Sanskrit and of priestly duties? Who was excluded and why?
  • Was the study and practice of Yoga reserved only for a certain sliver of the population? Who was, and is allowed, to be ‘liberated’?
  • What is ritual pollution and caste impurity?
  • What is the Varna system, who are the Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis?
  • How is Yoga being used as a political construct for fascism in India?
  • How is Hindutva creeping into yogic spaces creating exclusion and discomfort among practitioners of other faiths and marginalised communities? (We should not erase Yoga’s roots, but we need to move forward with sensitivity to be inclusive and trauma-informed.)
  • How can chanting in Sanskrit (even religious chanting, unrelated to Yoga) bring up trauma for those who have faced historical oppression, discrimination and violence because of their caste/religious identities? Especially to those who have faced riots, hate crimes, targeted violence, slurs and micro-aggressions.
  • Explore the works of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (Annihilation of Caste), Jotibha Phule, Dalit Literature
  • Read up on the racism faced by North East Indians by mainland Indians, human rights violations across the country and internet shutdowns
  • Read up on AFSPA in Kashmir and North East India, the UAPA laws
  • Where does India stand in rankings in Press Freedom, Democracy, and Hunger Index etc.

By Protima Rodrigues

Protima Rodrigues is the founder of True Bay India – India’s first homegrown Ashtanga Yoga Workshop and Retreat Organiser, bringing top International Ashtanga yoga teachers to India, since January 2019.
Protima creates awareness as a yoga practitioner, on mental health, social justice, inclusivity, equality, diversity and believes that, yoga is for all, devoid of any barriers. She quit her corporate career as a Vice President in Private Equity after 15 years in banking & finance, to start True Bay India in end 2018.
True Bay is a solo, POC, woman-owned small business, based in Mumbai, India.


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Image by Varun Kulkarni from Pixabay