Hindu Culture Commodification In Rishikesh And Yoga Tourism

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This paper examines the city of Rishikesh as a sample space and argues that culture and its devices are commodified at a magnified level through westernisation and appropriation of “exotic” hindu elements. This paper is a qualitative study inclusive of both primary and secondary data collected by conducting semi-structured interviews with participants and study of past literature. India is a globalizing economy and a liberalised market, thus, it is experiencing a rise in the spiritual market. Yoga and religion are brightly visible commodities in the streets of Rishikesh, attracting pilgrimage and tourism from all across the world. There is nothing insensitive about people wanting to know more and practice their beliefs. I thereby, aim to explore the merchandising of rituals, yoga and association of commodities with hindu culture. I problematize the superficial display of culture and its commodification by individuals with no understanding of the religion and its caste- related knowledge. The mass production of goods is only to sustain and show theistic Hinduism and the commodification of Yoga has reduced its traditional essence to merely a market- place for ‘therapeutic culture’. Spirituality has become a commodity on the global market with wide ranging options from Mahasiddha Yoga School’s Tantra to Sadhguru’s Hatha Yoga teacher training.

Keywords: Hinduism, Culture, Appropriation, Yoga, Merchandising, Commodification


The word “Yoga” is an ancient Sanskrit word “YOGA” is an ancient two syllable Sanskrit word, which encompasses the entire body of spiritual experiences. Yoga is as old as the Universe, it is considered to be both the Path and the Goal. In its essence it means to understand the innate structure of the universe. The word “Yoga” is often described as “union”. It implies that the individual is united with the Universe, the personality with the Universality. The root of the word “Yoga” is the Sanskrit Bija “Yuj” which means “to join together.” The English word ‘yoke” is directly derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj”. In fact, the English word “Union” has a sound similar to “Yuj”.

Perhaps one could more correctly say, Yoga is “re-union”. The Upanishad says, “That which was One became the many.” Prakrithi. The science of Yoga accelerates the “return of the many to the One”, the re-union of Purusha and Prakrithi, Shivan and Shakti, Ram and Sita. Thus, Yoga is both the Goal (Purusha) and the path to that Goal (Prakrithi). Yoga has its roots in Hinduism, it is undeniable, for it is not a religion but a way of life. The traditional art and practice of ‘Yog’ requires a Guru. Yoga has evolved tremendously ever since to forms of self practice, Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, etc and the contemporary new modern forms such as Aerial, Hot, Water etc. Yoga proposes a path of moderation with strict requirements of Dhyana, meditation in isolation and a focus on Prana, the breath of life. Yoga has numerous disciplinary requirements and a rich history which requires an in depth study of its emanation from the Vedas.

Spiritual tourism is related to Yoga and its temporal understanding has simply been shifted. More recently, there has been an expanding demand calling for the decolonisation of yoga on account of its commodification and industrialisation, and especially concerning what is argued to be a shift away from its spiritual and transformative tenets. It is reduced to a form of wellness and a meagre attraction for tourism.

Yoga is also a relationship, not a mass movement. It is a one-to-one relationship between people, not commercialization.(T.V.K Desikachar in Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice (HAF, 2016)). Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister at the International Conference on Frontiers in Yoga Research and its Applications opined, “Yoga is a symbol of the universal aspiration for health and wellbeing” (Modi, 2016).These sentiments express the underlying principle of Yoga and speak of its universal appeal as a lifestyle and practice along with this, it directly connects Yoga to health and wellness.

In non-traditional or contemporary (this acknowledges Indians who have westernised lifestyles) and Western contexts, yoga is a well-established phenomenon, not only as health and well-being practice but also as a conduit for the pursuit of spirituality, meditation and mindfulness (Aggarwal, Guglani, & Goel, 2008; Laing & Weiler, 2008; Lehto, Brown, Chen, & Morrison, 2006). However, the fondness of Yoga at a global scale has also birthed inevitable commercialisation. It has become impossible to maintain the rich yoga traditions balanced with the evolution of it in newer forms.

Commodification of Yoga

India is undeniably the birthplace of yoga and its renown as the global epicentre for holistic healing is underpinned by its capacity to offer unique health and wellness experiences (Aggarwal et al., 2008 p. 459). It is arguably the main spiritual ground attracting people from all across the world for spiritual practices. The qualitative study for this paper involves questions with foreign tourists in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand within the premise of tourist hotspots Lakshman Jhulla and Ram Jhulla. The key research question asked to conceptualise the further arguments are: What made you come to particularly Rishikesh for Yoga? How did you get to know about India? How much do you relate Yoga with religion? What is spirituality for you? How much are you paying for the courses that you are undertaking? Smith and Kelly (2006) define yoga tourism as “tourism which focuses on the union of body, mind and spirit, but which is essentially areligious”. This was also a common response by many of the participants who agree to deny that Yoga is religious and co relate it as an entity which is entirely of spiritual nature. Rishikesh is also home to a number of foreign swamis- Non Indians who live as Hindu monastics, this raises new questions of transmigrant identity. Simon moved to India 25 years back in 1994, he is a senior man, probably above the age of 60 who resides at an Ashram, practicing and teaching other foreign disciples. For these foreign swamis, the diasporic identity also stands redundant as they are transmigrants that they have migrated from one nation-state to another and maintain social relations that embed them in two or more nation-states (Glick Schiller, 2003). However, they have renounced their originality and other attachments to their natal families and adopted the Hindu ways of living. They preach Yoga during the daily Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh. Migration for them is in no sense of displacement but they often describe it as finally finding their place in the world.

“Everybody knows me here and they love me too, probably because I am from outside the country” said Simon Inaugurating the first international conference on Yoga for holistic health in Delhi, Narendra Modi cautioned against commodifying yoga “If we make yoga a commodity, then maximum damage to it will be done by us. Yoga is not a commodity, yoga is not a brand which has to be sold”. The phenomenon of commodification is well established. Jain, 2010 examines the claims of ownership over yoga and its legitimacy in the contemporary as anti-thetical. The practice of ‘taking back’ or decolonising yoga is considered more than just staking claim to cultural heritage by diaspora, but more about bio-piracy and the potential patenting of cultural assets (Jain, 2010). The call for decolonization revolves around the sense that yoga has become subject to misappropriation and domination for commercial gain with no regard to its sacred symbolism, its traditional entitlements or the significances which are factors of its genesis. In the documentary Who Owns Yoga? (Al Jazeera, 2016), the question as to whether Eastern traditions that underpin yoga's preeminent heritage and ethos have helped evolved its contemporary ridiculous westernised formations. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has been vociferous in its criticisms of modern and westernised invocations of yoga including new forms that bear little semblance to its roots (Bowers and Cheer, 2017). Globalization has connected the world, but has failed in its unification, pertaining to this, I argue that Yoga has reached the United States but has lost its essence of spirit in its physical translation. In the commodification of Yoga in the contemporary U.S, Demeter (2006) denotes that in its popular, widespread incarnation in the United States, yoga is not usually learned at the feet of a guru, but at exercise centers and gyms. The 1960s marked a period of experimentation in the United States and yoga was one of the experiences involved. One major factor in the development of yoga in America occurred in 1965 when the United States relaxed Asian immigration laws. As a result, tens of thousands of immigrants entered the country, bringing their unique lifestyles, languages, and religions with them. This influx did not go unnoticed, especially by celebrities, who continued to pave the way for the acceptance of Eastern ideas and practices. Many celebrities, such as the Beatles, certainly influenced the acceptance of yoga in the United States when they became involved with the practice through the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation. The visit of the Beatles to India also left an ashram behind their name locating their presence during their practice. A participant mentioned when asked why did she choose Rishikesh for Yoga over United States? She mentioned, the first cause is Yoga in the United States is only about fitness and it also lacks authenticity. Second, it is unaffordable to learn yoga in the states as it is an expensive commodity at the gyms and studios.

Merchandising Hindu Culture and Its Appropriation

Commodification of religion refers to the process where in religious symbols are turned into objects/ commodities which are sold and consumed in the market. The market here mainly refers to the temples and other pilgrimage spots with loads of items required for Puja or worship. The merchandise is available in numerous religious manifestations such as books, fabric sheets, Ganga Water, deity figures, flower garlands, Diyas, Jewelled religious figures, these are objects consumed for religious practices. Vineeta Sinha in Commodification and Religion writes that there is a profound importance of ritual paraphernalia in the enactment of everyday Hindu religiosity. She also refers to Hindu weddings, funerals and any number of daily and calendrical rituals, festivals as well as birthdays and anniversary celebrations are 'crowded' with things and marked by the colourful and lively presence of an apparently random combination of objects and materials which in fact do connote order. Every item has a value in Hindu ceremonial sentiments. Sinha examines the objects in the traditional rituals were provided and produced by Jati(s), occupational groups, charged with these responsibilities, this was in spiritual faith, a responsibility and not approached as just 'work.' The almost sacred connection between occupational groups such as garland makers, temple musicians and craftsmen, artisans and sculptors has been clearly severed in many religious places in India. The pilgrimage is expensive and the puja has now become a performance as happens in Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. The puja is a live international telecast for its international viewing. This is not confined to hyper-religious places like Rishikesh, the phenomenon of merchandising is especially true in urban centers. As the objects required for ceremonies in Hindu practices become superficial and are undertaken by individuals with no traditional understanding, this has birthed the ultimate commodification of objects necessary for sustaining Hindu practices.

This has lead to the emergence of a commercial industry that rests on the mass production of goods. Rina Arya in Cultural Appropriation: Analysing the use of Hindu symbols within consumerism explores the notions of appropriation and cultural boundaries. She mentions the case of 2015 when bindi, a Hindu symbol of religious significance, became a key cultural trend and the latest fashion accessory at Coachella and other music festivals in the U.S. In early 2017 Amazon came under fire for selling flip flops depicting the Father of India, Mahatma Gandhi. This came shortly after Amazon Canada apologised for selling doormats featuring the Indian flag. Desecration of the flag is a punishable offence in India resulting in fines or imprisonment. According to the post colonial discourse, the act of adoption of elements from one culture becomes political when there is an imbalance of power between two cultures. Tourists in Rishikesh wear ‘Om’ in as many as forms available, there is a market which produces yoga mats imprinted with the symbol ‘Om’ and also the sacred body chakra symbol prints. From Harem pants to Bindis, white dhotis to saffron tops, Rudraksha to semi- precious stones. These tourists consume the market which also caters to deliberate shared appropriation. The west is always fascinated with Hindu imagery with imaginaries of mystique and sense of exotic.


When originality is hampered by duplication, there is always a loss, such is the case with Yoga. It has an element of fitness attached to it but it is not entirely fitness. The essence is much more intense and it simply should be studied. Westernisation in Rishikesh is two- fold, the remainder of the post colonial westernisation and then the touristic westernisation. One can observe how Rishikesh caters to the needs of its western tourists more than the Indian tourists. From cuisines to clothes, from gazes to observances, acceptance and involvement, the market is devoted to serve its western population. Whether it is yoga or religious artefacts, it evokes misappropriation and commodification.

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