There’s a photo that I bought at a Chicago art fair years ago that hangs on my wall. It’s of a pole on a city street, on which a mark of graffiti is scrawled in paint. YOU ARE FREE it reads in the foreground, city life continues in the background. I love this photo because it’s always felt like a kind of reminder to me. Look at yourself, Jessica, the words seemed to say, you’ve come so far, you’re capable of so much. You are as free as you decide to be, your own bondage or liberation is as close as your willingness to recognize it.
It hangs over my desk right now. I look up at it when I’m working and try to stay inspired, try to remember all that’s possible.
Lately though, when I think about Kashmir, it sounds less empowering and more ominous. It sounds like the voice of colonizers. You are the kind of free I am willing to bestow upon you, the picture says. You are free because I say so, and never forget, I can take that free away whenever I choose.
Islam has five pillars, or practices that are to be adhered to by members of the faith:
Shahada, or the sincere recitation of the Muslim profession of faith;
Salat, or engagement in ritual prayer five times daily;
Zakat, or giving to the needy;
Sawm, the observance of fast during Ramadan; and
Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Conversion to Islam, like conversion to any faith, is a decision not to be entered into lightly, but once you know you’re ready to step into the faith, it can be a quiet, private affair. You recite the Shahadah, and in order to be made a legal part of the community, you do so in front of other witnesses or local leaders of the faith. Immediately after you recite the Shahadah, you take a bath or shower. This act of purification washes away the dark of your past, and symbolizes your rebirth. Because Islam is a state of perfection, you are said not to convert, but to revert, to the state in which you were born.
Conversion to Hinduism is a different story. There is no prayer to be uttered, no allegiance sworn that cloaks you in the faith. There are rituals you can perform as part of the practice of Hinduism, but no one need attend your puja and affirm or dismiss its authenticity. There is nothing in particular you need to wear or marking on your body. It’s not just a religion, it’s a way of life. Some might say that Hinduism is a faith identity you’re born into; you can’t convert, and if you weren’t born Hindu, you can’t become Hindu. It seems both expansive and insular in that nature, but only insular, I suppose, if you’re attached to wearing a label. If you know what you believe but don’t need to call it something special, carry on.
I know very little about both of these religious traditions. For now. But I feel safe saying that on general principle, there isn’t any reason why Islam, an Abrahamic faith with roots in middle Asia, and Hinduism, a tradition that’s come out of the Indus River valley, can’t peacefully coexist. I feel the same way about the children of Isaac and Ishmael, though, and I know folks would line up around the city to tell me I’m wrong and the many ways in which I’m wrong. On top of which, the faith I was raised in has the blood of people on it’s hands from all over the world, starting with the blood of a Jew. So maybe it doesn’t matter what I think. It just matters that here, now, in this iteration of our world, whatever it is and whatever we’ve become, we’ve warped our faith practices so thoroughly that we can’t live in peace with others who practice differently.
The first time I went to India my husband and I had a driver. It’s not as posh or as special as it sounds—though in a nation like India, where the echelons of both poverty and wealth extend farther than the U.S. by an order of magnitude, it might have been a privilege that most Indians that we met couldn’t experience. For two weeks we put ourselves in the care of a man and his tiny white Toyota (stocked daily with bottled water, gum, and candy, for Mister’s comfort and pleasure, he reminded my husband repeatedly), and he shuttled us from city to city, where we met different tour guides who took us on the routes: Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Hanuman temple, evening marketing, and once or twice even to temple to worship with the guide. The tour guides changed depending on the region, but they were always men. (There are probably many reasons why this is: I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for a woman to navigate all the paths our guides had to: not because she wasn’t capable, but because of how hard it is to be a woman in India.)
More than once we noticed that he driver and the guide would talk politics. Mister would be listening to the front seat conversation, while I was gazing out the window. He would open up his Notes app and his thumbs would dart a few seconds across the screen and then he would show me:
They’re talking about politics.
I’d type back:
how can you tell?
I heard the guide say the name Modi.
Prime minister, right?
He’d nod. I’d look into the middle distance of the car, the console between the front seats, and try not to betray my listening. They were speaking a language I don’t understand (Hindi? Urdu?), but they seemed to be in agreement, not necessarily with Modi, but perhaps with each other about Modi.
I’d sigh and stared out the window at the throng of pulsing traffic. I didn’t know a lot about Modhi, except for that he represented a Hindu nationalist party, which I found troubling because it had shown a lack of capacity to tolerate anything other than absolute agreement from its citizens and colleagues in government. What has our world become, I wondered silently, what does it mean that nationalism is so popular—and so destructive—in so many places?
I found out about the conflict in Kashmir a few weeks ago because my Mister asked me about it. If he hadn’t, I’d have had no idea, and not much in my feed or sphere—perhaps to my shame—notified or educated me about it. When I made a bit of effort, I found a few articles, and I couldn’t sit still, I was so sad and uncomfortable about this news. There’s a line out there about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, but I think that maybe too many of us being comfortable with the oppression, censorship, marginalization, and abuse of others is what’s led us to our current world state of affairs. Children are being abandoned, separated from their families, neglected, On Our Watch, for fuck’s sake. So: I can be comfortable with the discomfort of waiting for school to start, the anxiety of not knowing if I’ll be able to take the classes I want to, or how much books will cost, or if I’ll be able to hack it at this fancy new div school or if I’ll just make a fool of myself; I can tolerate all that. But I can’t get comfortable with the discomfort of watching the government of a nation disenfranchise their own citizens and call it leadership. It’s happening all over the world, you bet, and that’s no reason not to feel it or care about it in South Asia.
It’s beyond my capacity to begin to articulate the historical and societal origins of conflict between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. I just don’t know enough. I know that there are periods of history wherein peoples ran or rode or sailed across lands and seas to minister, or to discover, or to use, abuse, rape, or pillage, and it happened in many directions and over hundreds of years. I don’t know if any of us have clean hands when we look at the behavior of our ancestors. There is no moral high ground. So rather than try and tell this story badly, I’ll try and put what’s currently happening in terms we can understand.
Reminder: this is sophisticated stuff, and the picture I’m going to draw here is high level. It doesn’t take into account any kind of nuance or sophistication of American History, and it glosses over a lot. I’m not any kind of historian, or Indo-scholar, or even a journalist. I’m a yogi and a teacher and a student, and woman of color devoted to the liberation of all people in this plan and on every plane.
Imagine that, as the United States was forming, the state of Texas, which used to belong to Mexico, wasn’t annexed to the US, but was rather claimed by both countries. Texas is America, and Texas is Mexico. Imagine Texas as a fertile, beautiful, verdant landscape, home not only to lush, nourishing plants and vistas, but also full of resources that both nations are interested in claiming. Imagine that the people of Texas share cultural and identity ties with Mexico: they share a language, and more deeply and powerfully, they share a faith, a faith that the people of the US don’t share nearly to the same degree. Imagine that because both countries place a claim on Texas—meanwhile Texas just wants to be free to be Texas, neither Mexico or the US—the Mexican American war was a longer, bloodier war, fought repeatedly on and off over the course of thirty years or so. (and imagine these wars fought in the 20th century, without the generous blurring of the dust of history. Imagine this war as bloody as World War II, as visceral as Vietnam, and as hair-trigger sensitive as a bar brawl between a drunk Cheesehead and a drunk Bears fan. Or a drunk Celtics fan and a drunk Lakers fan.) Then imagine that Texas is able to have a kind of peace, a detente, if it will allow itself to be folded into the US and given special status. It isn’t a state per se; it has representation in Congress, and many of the benefits of statehood, but it determines its own destiny. It’s like a protected territory. This doesn’t please Mexico at all: after all, the people of Texas are the people of Mexico. They worship the same way, they live the same way. They feel like the US is bullying them and the Texans. But they’ve lost too much of their own resources and citizens in war, and they can’t keep fighting. They do have one weapon, they know that the US can match but can’t beat. But using that weapon is mutually assured destruction, and they just haven’t come to that point yet.
As far as the Texans are concerned, this isn’t a great solution either, but it promises them something that looks like freedom. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and we take what we can get when we’ve been ostracized and oppressed for so long. )
Then imagine that POTUS, in his… “wisdom” decides to without precedent and warning, revoke the special status that Texas has enjoyed for the last thirty years and make it a state. Its governor, representatives, any and all self-determining capacity that Texas had is gone. That special status treaty that Texas signed is as permanent and valuable as what POTUS uses to wipe buffalo sauce off his weak chin and his thin lips. There is no Texas, anymore. There is only America… and as a show of the unity this choice illustrates, the US sends troops in to occupy the streets of Dallas, Houston, Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio. Along the Rio Grand, hard-faced men with massive semi-assault rifles are posted every 40 feet. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and any other social media outlet you’ve ever heard of are all dark now, no content in our out of Texas. In fact, no power in or out of Texas. Cell phones are useless bricks in pockets and backpacks. No school. No banks. No operations of any kind. Just millions and millions of citizens who want to be free to live as they choose suddenly swallowed up and absorbed into a government that calls itself democratic. Imagine that for the better part of this month, the entire state has been protesting this occupation, violent, Byzantine, and you don’t know about it because the blackout in Texas is so thorough and the propaganda in the US media is so effective. US reporting says that the American government thinks this is a great idea, that so do most Texans, and that any protests have been handled peacably. There have been no violent outbursts, absolutely none, and any reports of Texans being beaten bloody and lame by American military forces are simply… untrue.
I’m not saying this is original, that it hasn’t happened before. It might sound like a really common story, common at the very least in our own democracy.
And ain’t that a bitch.
My favorite reporting about this has come out of The Atlantic. It’s nuanced and it’s global and it’s Paying Attention. You can read about it here, and here, and don’t forget about Al Jazeera. There’s a piece in the New York Times, too, about India—the world’s largest democratic nation—illegally rounding up and arresting Kashmiri citizens in the days before Kashmir’s status was revoked; and if there’s video footage, make sure you watch it.
So what, Jess? This really does happen all over the world. Freedom has to exist between an individual’s ears, because if you look closely you’ll see the myriad ways in which millions of people are bound, oppressed, and enslaved every day. What else is new?
To answer that question, I have to talk about Chimamanda Adichi and “The Danger of the Single Story”, her TED talk, which entered my life while a grad student and teacher at an art school in Chicago. In it she argues that it’s easy for us to spend our time in the ignorance of thinking we know a place, a people, a faith, because we know one story of it.
What’s the single story of yoga being told in this country, in the industry, of which I am a part? Peace, love, and harmony? Everything is one? We’re all light? Divine is within you as it is within me? I’m sure I’ve said this kind of thing before, and meant it. But I owe it to the people and culture of India, the home of this tradition where I find a place for myself, and by which I earn my bread, to dig deeper than that. Despite what you heard at the gym or Core Power, yoga is a part of this culture, historically if nothing else, and embedded in that culture are the same spectres of oppression, misogyny, hierarchy, and abuse as are currently showing their hideous, harmful faces in our country and culture, as well as others. If I teach yoga without acknowledging the shadow side of where it comes from, I’m lying to myself and to every student who steps into my class or looks at my content. If I tell a story of yoga, of India, that isn’t informed by all the things that India is—by its diversity of faith traditions, by its politics, by its history and its contemporary identity—I’m telling a single story. I’m telling a folk tale, and not the truth.
So I’m paying attention. It’s not easy to choose to stay informed, especially when there’s so much heaviness and sadness and destruction to keep learning. So I’m also practicing gratitude, and actively pursuing the things that bring me joy. And, I’m watching the world’s largest democracy intern its citizens. I’m feeling some kind of way about the fact that this national leader thinks he can force people to be what he wants them to be. I’m watching and wondering if I can return to India, and what it will be when I get there.