Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 2015

Last weekend we were invited to remember World Refugee Day, Father’s Day and International Yoga Day. No need to guess which was the most popular. Crass commercialism rules. And the greatest tragedy for me is the way it has engulfed so many affluent churches, reinforcing their inward focus and tendency to being mere pawns in the hands of corporate and political forces.

If anyone experienced a local church remembering World Refugee Day, I would love to hear from you- and especially how it was remembered.

Since 2000, the 20th of June has been marked by the UN as World Refugee Day to honour those who are forced to flee their home countries under the threat of war, persecution, conflict and environmental disasters. The UN High Commission for Refugees informs us, in a report released last week, that one out of every 122 people in the world is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to 59.5 million, compared with 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. Overall, the largest refugee populations under UNHCR care are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis – together accounting for more than half of global refugees.

Refugee camps have become permanent settlements for many people, as in Palestine since 1948. Children born in such camps may spend their entire lives there, lacking citizenship rights let alone access to basic education and healthcare. These become the breeding ground for political and religious extremism. Pakistan, Iran, and Lebanon are hosting more refugees than other countries, yet receive scant financial help from the rich world (the politicians of whom only complain about the relatively meagre numbers who end up on their shores). Humanitarian organizations are also massively under-funded. There is no political will to resolve long-standing conflicts, and statesmanship on the world stage is sorely lacking.

In Denmark’s recent elections, the results of which were announced on World Refugee day, the candidate who received the most personal votes turned out to be the most fascist, running on a brazenly xenophobic ticket. Danes and Britons can go as “economic migrants” to the USA. But an “economic migrant” to these countries from Africa or Asia is regarded as a criminal. And often, especially in Britain and Australia, it is the recent migrants from South Asia who become the most vocal in opposing migration from their home countries, jealously guarding their jobs from competition.

As for the patronising demand that all migrants must “accept our values”, it is clear that the Western media will never rest until their sexual mores are imposed on the rest of the world. Tourists show no respect for native values and sensibilities- as in the case of those who stripped off their clothes on the top of a mountain in East Malaysia that local peoples regard as sacred. The typical Western media reaction has been to ridicule such local superstitions and “backwardness”. Ironically, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia have been pilloried in the same media for the way their aboriginal populations were decimated by “re-education” in mainstream (often church-run) schools. So, either “They should become like us” or “Leave them to themselves”- this is the impoverished language of late modern secularism. Respect for other peoples and their cultures involves mutual listening and interrogation, not blind accommodation or arrogant dismissal.

As for International Yoga Day, this was the work of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a good example of how traditional Indian religious practices have been colonized and “de-religionized” by Western enthusiasts and then reclaimed, commodified and transmitted by modern Indian gurus and their middle-class followers as a political tool.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “discipline”. It has a complex history with a number of disparate traditions, but the classical text is Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras which was probably composed around the fifth century A.D. It was Swami Vivekananda in the late nineteenth century who elevated yoga into both a “science of supra-consciousness” and a unifying sign of the Indian nation. As the religious historian Peter van der Veer notes (in his book Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain), this was not only for national consumption but for consumption by the entire world.

“This is a new doctrine, although Vivekananda emphasized that it was ancient ‘wisdom’. Especially the body exercises of hatha yoga, underpinned by a metaphysics of mind-body unity, continues to be a major entity in the health industry, especially in the United States. What I find important in Vivekananda’s construction of yoga as the core of ‘Hindu spirituality’ is that it is devoid of any specific devotional content that would involve, for example, temple worship and thus a theological and ritual position in sectarian debates. Vivekananda is, first and foremost, interested in Hindu unity… Hindu nationalism could hardly exist without such a notion… there seems to be no escape today from the relentless marketing of India’s spirituality.”

Thus for modern religious Hindus, yoga is “Indian spirituality”. For Western “fitness” devotees, yoga is merely a route to mental calm and physical health. Both represent the combination of consumerism and cultural imperialism that we saw last weekend. I suggest that truly divine spirituality is rather seen in the men and women who risk their security and comforts to protect, support and speak for refugees all over the world.


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