Twists of faith

In Mumbai, a Catholic priest-yogi attacks Western propaganda against yoga

Father Joseph Pereira, who teaches Iyengar yoga around the world, believes its opponents are extremist 'God addicts'.

Is yoga incompatible with Christianity? Conservative Christians in Europe and the US have been posing this question with growing fervour in the past few months, accusing India’s biggest export to the West of propagating Hinduism and leading Christians down the path of evil.

The controversy was in the news again again last week, when an appeals court in California ruled that yoga is secular, “devoid of religious or mystical trappings” and can be taught in schools without violating students’ religious freedoms. The ruling was in response to a 2013 lawsuit filed by worried Christian parents of Encinitas town, who claimed that yoga classes introduced in a local elementary school were promoting Hinduism and Buddhism amongst their children.

But an Indian Catholic priest from Mumbai has a thing or two to say to the Christian groups in the West whipping up fears against yoga in the West.

Joseph Pereira, a Catholic clergyman and proponent of Iyengar yoga, wears both his hats with perfect ease as he teaches yoga around the world. He studied the practice directly from BKS Iyengar, the legendary founder of Iyengar yoga, and his students include everyone from Christian priests to Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Through his 34-year-old organisation Kripa Foundation, he uses yoga to rehabilitate people with alcohol addiction problems.


Father Joseph Pereira with BKS Iyengar. Photo courtesy Kripa Foundation


Anti-yoga propaganda, says Pereira, is the work of a specific lobby of fundamentalist, “born-again” Christians who he describes as “God addicts”. This may sound strange coming from a Catholic priest, but Father Joe – as most people know him – has chosen his words for a reason.

Opium for the masses

“Jesus, for me, is the supreme yogi, because he spoke about being one with God,” said Pereira, who emphasises that Iyengar yoga transcends all ideologies and philosophies with its ability to unite people. Just this year, Pereira published a book called Yoga for the Practice of Christian Meditation, connecting the practice of various yoga asanas to teachings from the Bible.

The Catholic church, he says, has actually been open to the idea of opening up to practices like yoga since the Second Vatican Council of 1962, when the church issued two documents – one about the church in the modern world and the other on its relationship with non-Christian religions.

“In both documents, we have been encouraged to imbibe spirituality from world religions,” said Pereira. It is in this spirit that Bede Griffith, a British Benedictine monk living in India, began to promote Hindu-Christian dialogue, wrote a Christian reading of the Bhagwad Gita and came to be called a yogi.

“How many people in the West know about all of this?” said Pereira. The anti-yoga propagandists, he said, not only fail to see the spiritual aspects of yoga, they also fail to delve deeper into the meaning of their own religion.

“So many people who come to church every day are lost in religion – they make a fetish out of their idea of God but don’t know what it really means,” said Pereira. “Marx was right when he said that religion can be like opium for people.”

Christian denominations like the Pentecostals, the Southern Baptist churches in the US and various television evangelists – the groups that routinely oppose the practice of yoga – are highly fundamentalist “God addicts” who Pereira likens to the Hindutva Bajrang Dal or the Islamist Al-Queda. “All these groups preach the prosperity gospel – the idea that if you follow the gospel, you will prosper,” said Pereira. “They are only in it for the money and power.”

Acrobatics versus yoga

To Pereira, yogic spirituality is primarily about healthy living, and he plans to promote the idea this year on June 23, which Kripa Foundation will mark as an International Yoga for Addiction Recovery Day. Representatives from de-addiction centres from at least 25 countries will participate, including the US.

Pereira emphasises, however, that it is mainly Iyengar yoga that he chooses to defend from opposition in the West. “All kinds of yoga are being popularised in Western countries these days, and some of them do present yoga through a Hindu religious lens,” he said. “Most, however, have just reduced yoga to acrobatics. But yoga is not just a work out – it is a work in.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.