Tuesday, January 3, 2023

A Story in the News, Rajanaka, the Past and Future of Yoga

"I read the news today, oh boy...and... the news was rather sad..."

As you know I've only had a peripheral connection over these many years with the "yoga world." The person mentioned in this NPR story cited below was not known to me, personally or otherwise. I am sad for her family, her friends, her students, for her. She died of a pulmonary embolism. I know that can happen to anyone because I too have lost friends suddenly this way. I have nothing more to say about this particular case and person. In a world in which love can be measured in grief, the depths of grief are unfathomable. 
May love find more to measure even if it too is unfathomable.

My reason to write is to comment about this well-known yoga teacher's involvement in conspiracy theories, QAnon, vaccine-denial, and the rest that has caused us all so much pain and confusion.

I have heard, again all second hand, that the conspirators are rampant in the yoga world.  In the article Matthew Remski makes the point that it's not uncommon with the "find your own truth" crowd. (For the record I have always had a wonderful, genial relationship with Matthew who came once to a seminar.  I hold his work in warm regard.)

Ironically, historical yoga philosophers (at least the ones writing in Sanskrit) have never been about finding "your own" truth. That would be a terrible misreading of their claims. Rather, their aim is usually about bringing you to experience *their* versions of truth, especially their conclusions (siddhanta) and dogmas. This is true of Hindus and Buddhists (and Jainas, etc) alike. The goals are undoubtedly personal and experiential but they are decidedly not yours---these are constructed as arguments of persuasion "verified" personally in experience.

This is an important distinction becasue this renders Rajanaka (n.b., Rajanaka simply means what Appa taught me) once again entirely outside the mainstream of these traditions.  Rajanaka is obliged to yoga traditions by sharing resources---mythologies, queries and questions, ideas and values along with practices.  But Rajanaka has no siddhanta as such, it is more method than goal, and I suppose we should say that it aligns itself more closely with the methods of scientific truth-seeking and tasks rooted in shared, empircal learning aka academics.

A Rajanaka critic once said to me that "this makes Rajanaka just another strategy of secular humanism." I offer no objection to this characterization. Rajanaka loves Hindu lore, the history of religions, the artistry and passion of the Indian tradition in all its forms---and all forms of serious learning and artistry, in all culture and history. We are seekers of a shared humanity, of human achievements, the imagination and the power of creativity in fostering a life of values, tolerance, integrity. We're here to learn and converse about things we think are compelling and important because they contribute to shared concerns.

Appa made this point with me on day one: we are here to learn, to take processes of inquiry seriously, to ask better questions and understand how "truth" is a process, provisional, empirical, experimenting with facts. We are learning about ourselves, about the world as we have been made and as we make it.  It's called a Vidya---the word is cognate to the English "verify" or "verification"---he said, because Rajanaka really is like science, knowledge refers to  hat we verify using our senses and minds, in reason and in shared empirical studies: our learning is not perfect, just the best we can do in learning.

As most academics would likely put it the problem with conspiracies is not unlike the problem with "finding your own truth." This is not a serious way to learn. "Seriousness" is something of a technical term to us: it implies methodologies and the pursuit of shared learning. Those not trained academically, skeptical or hostile to academic methods may not fully appreciate the effort placed on "seriousness."

But let me be clear with you good folks: Rajanaka loves seriousness and has little use for conspiracies or the nonsense that passes these days as "truth." Reducing to "your own truth" is a slippery slope to foolish solipsism and, worse, a kind of stochastic nihilism. That's a fancy way of saying that you think your own opinions (whenever you are thinking or feeling them) are not merely valid but sound, important, true because you say or believe them to be. This is a kind of subjectivism that can be dangerous but it is certainly the opposite of "serious."   All experience claims made in good faith are valid but not all qualify as sound.  We observe this important distinction.

I would be happy to explain the distinction further but I think this can suffice for now. The link between Trumpist conspiracy/QAnon nonsense and yoga worlds in this "personal truth" creates a swift path to stochastic nihilism. In no time things are true because you say them, feel them, believe them---and more likely because you hear them and follow along.

The whole point of "seriousness" as the alternative is to learn how to think critically, read closely, and write argumentatively. This is my mantra to undergraduates; this is what we are learning to do. It is precisely the same in Rajanaka. I am not here to teach you what to think. I am here to help you learn how to think.

Thinking is no small matter. It requires information and methods to sort out misinformation and disinformation. When Rajanaka disagrees or rejects or criticizes yoga traditions (or religions) it does so using historical facts and sources. Our aim to point out the process of argument that is implied or stated. "Argument" is another misunderstood term (like "seriousness"). 

Argument is how we conduct rational discourse, it is not a quarrel as such. We ask what are the assumptions, evidence, reasons, and conclusions drawn. It is the very process of learning itself. Rajanaka makes no religious arguments because religions begin with the notion that their conclusions, like their assumptions, are beyond disproof. More correctly, there are matters we believe withstand the critical method and so deem true and thus what remains isn't skepticism but the persistence of method. What could be disproven remains even if we are reasonably sure we have arrived at a fair and honest provision, a truth as such. 

Rajanaka takes this stance common to scientific and indeed to all historical critical method: we are vigilant in the pursuit of facts sharable because we share methods. Some religions, like certain elements of modern Buddhism, claim not to function like religions (where assumptions and conclusions are theoretically disprovable). But I've yet to find such a Buddhist like our pal the Dalai Lama who didn't subscribe to non-empirical, non-verifiable (by method) claims.

Some such claims are clearly not in the least dangerous to the common wield. In other words, there's lots about religious claims that don't do damage, even things that are downright helpful. Like "be a good person" or "be compassionate" for which there may be little argument to sustain the case. We're not reducing the world to argument, only looking for ways to have a sensible conversation about what makes us human.

I study religions professionally not because what they teach is "true" but because I seek truths. Truth is what happens when you share in a conversation that takes facts seriously, that enjoins human achievement to human fallibility and flaw. Truth depends on asking better questions, learning to formulate argument and attend to what is serious--and that too is a learning process.

Conspiracy is hearsay, gossip, nonsense, repeated as if it were true but without the processes of serious or honest learning. That's where Rajanaka stands, if you wanted to know. We are serious about learning and we mean to study yoga to engage life as fully engaged human beings. Serious learning can be soulful though it need not be, it doesn't have to be. What I mean by that is we can ask "how does this really matter to me or change the world or effect life." How does what I learn create purpose, meaning, and value in my life?

Truth isn't necessarily about relevance or application but it can be. Art can move us and shape us and change us and reveal things in our hearts we know, we feel, that are true. Sometimes the facts alone don't suffice. But they are never not the facts. So it's no small matter. The "what" is not the "so what." Understanding that distinction is helpful to having further serious conversations. "Serious" doesn't mean un-fun or boring. But it does ask more from you than your "own truth."

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