Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Integrity

“The main concern is not so much the sharing of knowledge that comes from international and intercultural contact, which is a completely natural thing. The real concern is, is there any theft occurring? Is there any movement in that direction without proper acknowledgement, without proper authority being given to do so by the originating culture?”

Thom Knoles

The ease with which we can travel has blurred many cultural boundaries over the past couple of hundred years, and especially so in the past 50 years.

On any given day you could start your day with a Vedic Meditation practice originating in India (of course), followed by Capoeira from Brazil in the park, have a croissant for breakfast, attend Spanish language lessons in the morning, enjoy Yum Cha from Hong Kong for lunch, spend the afternoon at a local indigenous cultural experience, meditate again before a Middle Eastern dinner, then watch an opera sung in Italian for the evening.

It’s not a typical day by any means. but these are the options available to many of us.

They build our understanding and appreciation of each other and add color to our world, but at what point does appreciation become appropriation?

How can we maintain cultural integrity without overstepping the mark? Thom explores this subject through the lens of Vedic wisdom and its application to modern life.

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Episode Highlights


None of Us is an Island



There Shall be No Italian Food



Representing a Culture



Is There any Theft Occurring?



The Shankaracharya Tradition



Troth of Initiator



The Command to Teach Vedic Meditation



The Layer Known as Yoga



Yogastha Kuru Karmani



Training and Accreditation to Preserve Cultural Traditions



The Secret Knowledge



Climb to Authentic Knowledge



Embracing Knowledge from Non-Native Practitioners



Invitation to Deepen Understanding of Indian Traditions


Jai Guru Deva


Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Integrity

[00:45] None of Us is an Island

Recently, because of growing cultural awareness of the misuse, or even abuse, of elements of cultures whose culture has been somewhat stolen by groups that haven’t yet earned the status that gave them access to that culture, a phenomenon known as cultural appropriation has become a rather current topic.

And I’d like to spend a few minutes on the subjects of cultural appropriation and elements of culture, of cultural integrity.

It’s a very obvious truth that we humans, here on the face of the earth, though we seem to be living within frameworks of very distinct cultures, none of us actually is an island. We’re all learning from each other at all times.

It’s a fact that though we think of pasta and perhaps those dishes that come out of Italy as being unique Italian phenomena, it can be shown non-controversially that the Italians learned all about pasta from the Chinese during the travels of the Polo family, Marco and his uncle, and others who made their way east and came back with elements of culinary culture that were not originally discovered in Italy, pasta.

And other elements of European diet came from pretty much around here. Around here means where I’m sitting right now in Arizona. You wouldn’t think of Arizona as being a great contributor to the diet of Europeans, but beans were unknown until explorers from the Western world, notably from Spain, came here.

[03:22] There Shall be No Italian Food

Squashes, pumpkins, and other kinds of squashes, butternut, and all of that were discovered here in the southwest of what is today called the United States. That’s what we call it today.

From the local tribal people here, the Hisatsinom and the Hopi and Dene tribal tribes who specialized in beans, squash. And these elements of food were imported back into Europe to enrich the European diet.

So from China, from Arizona, from all different places, we end up getting that what we consider to be, culturally, Italian food.

Italian food, in fact, has relatively little to do with Italy if we only go back about 600 years a bit more than 600 years ago, pasta began to arrive in Italy and they began to Italianize it.

So if we look at that and we say, “Well, alright, there shall be no cultural appropriation.” Then we’re going to have to say somewhat comically, “There shall be no Italian food.”

What were Italians eating prior to their explorations of other cultures? Probably just a lot of pig meat. And relatively simple grains that were available to Italians during the dark ages.

So now we have to look at that and say, “Well, okay, take care.” Because when you see somebody walking the streets who’s never been to Italy, and who’s constantly saying things to others like, “Ciao, bella,” even though they don’t actually speak Italian and they’ve never actually seen an Italian person in Italy saying, “Ciao, bella,” that it makes you cringe a little bit.

[05:44] Representing a Culture

And why is that? It’s because there hasn’t been an adequate passage of time and a period of time during which that person has earned the capacity to speak in very familiar Italian terms to other people in the way that Italians do.

We could probably be accurate in saying that someone who does a thing like that, that kind of cringeworthy thing, is doing cultural appropriation and showing off something that they have learned that’s just a fragment of a culture.

Likewise, we see the appropriation of elements of tribal cultures where tribal cultures have been extant and indigenous people for thousands of years, and without having earned or deserved, or having been asked to represent that culture, there will be elements of that culture that are taken and used inappropriately in cultural settings that might, in fact, cause a member of that tribe or that indigenous culture to cringe somewhat.

Because I represent ancient Vedic knowledge in the West, and from time to time, in appropriate circumstances, I will don the garb of my tradition, a silk dhoti. Sometimes I’ll be found wearing a string of beads. We refer to these as a mala. Mala is like the word for garland or a necklace of beads.

Or on my website, I am described as Thom Knoles, also known as Maharishi Vyasanand Saraswati, and sometimes people say, “Well, that’s cultural appropriation. You’re not an Indian. You have blue eyes and light colored skin, and if you had any hair back in the day, it would’ve been blonde. And yet here you are with this long swirly beard, and occasionally wearing Indian clothing, and beads, and using a lot of the language of a culture that is thousands of miles away.”

[08:33] Is There any Theft Occurring?

So what we have to ask ourselves as regards that which is appropriate is what does the originating culture think and feel about someone who is not a native-born member of their culture representing elements of that culture in a context outside that originating culture?

And really, it comes down to that, the appropriateness of the play and display of creative intelligence bringing elements of a culture into another.

The main concern is not so much the sharing of knowledge that comes from international and intercultural contact, which is a completely natural thing. The real concern is, is there any theft occurring? Is there any movement in that direction without proper acknowledgement, without proper authority being given to do so by the originating culture?

When people learn Vedic Meditation, a qualified Vedic Meditation teacher is referred to as “an Initiator,” someone who has been authorized by our tradition to initiate someone into the ancient practice of Vedic Meditation, as taught by the Shankaracharya tradition.

[10:22] The Shankaracharya Tradition

Shankaracharya means a tradition dating back to the time of Shankara 2,500 years ago. And Shankara, one of the great teachers of the Vedic tradition of India, who received all of the knowledge that he had from his own guru and multiple gurus coming before him dating back additional thousands of years. This is the Shankaracharya tradition.

Acharya means teaching. Shankara refers to Adi Shankara, the first member of our tradition known by the name Shankara.

And the name Shankara also applies to Shiva, who is the embodiment of that element of evolution that disintegrates anything that becomes irrelevant. Shiva.

And so then, when someone asks, with worthy inquiry, to learn Vedic Meditation, an Initiator, a teacher of Vedic Meditation will inform that student that they must bring with them a few elements of offering.

Typically a handful of flowers and two or three fruits, a handkerchief will also be needed, a piece of cloth for the ceremony, white, pristine piece of cloth.

And these offerings are used in a process of a ceremony of gratitude in which all of the names of the masters going back to time immemorial are spoken in a musical tone, sung really, in a ceremony that lasts three or four minutes.

This is by way of reminding the teacher of Vedic Meditation that she or he is not the innovator of this knowledge but is an authorized loudspeaker through which the knowledge is now being transferred to that student.

[12:46] Troth of Initiator

It also reminds the Initiator of their troth to the tradition to teach with purity. To teach in exactly the same way in which they were trained to teach.

And their troth to the student who was asked simply to witness the performance of the ceremony, there’s nothing for the student to do, but the troth of the teacher to the student to pass that knowledge along with fundamental integrity and again, to teach in the way that that teacher has been authorized to teach.

And authorized is a very important word here because, in our tradition nobody is authorized to teach until they’ve been properly trained. And then they’re authorized to teach only that which they’ve been trained to teach.

Not taking on any greater airs or engaging their individuality in some way that is making their individuality ridiculously too important,but really being a pure channel of this body of knowledge of Vedic Meditation.

[14:12] The Command to Teach Vedic Meditation

And when asked, in my case, when I asked Shankaracharya who is, in each generation, there is a Shankaracharya, that is to say, there is someone who dons the title of Shankaracharya. The supreme authority of knowledge of the Vedic tradition of India is referred to as Shankaracharya.

When most recently, I asked the extant Shankaracharya if I had permission to continue teaching, because some question had arisen from somebody in the West about my authority to teach, and I wanted to make a recording of his answer.

 He said, “No, you don’t have my permission to continue teaching. You have my command to continue teaching. I command you to continue teaching.”

I’m a master of that tradition as assessed by the tradition itself. And the teachers whom I train also are teachers of that tradition, acharya’s of that tradition, as authorized by the tradition itself.

So the tradition itself has rather adopted certain members of the population who may not have been born in India. Some of them are, sometimes Indians come and are trained by me. Other times, and mostly, people who are not natives of India are trained by me.

But in order to receive their authority to teach, not only do I authorize them, which I’m entitled to do, to do singularly and independently autonomously, but also, as an addition to this, they received the blessing and command of the extant Shankaracharya, the Supreme authority of the Vedic tradition in India, in order to bring this knowledge to the world without there being any question of cultural appropriation.

[16:41] The Layer Known as Yoga

Now I’m not in the habit of speaking ill of anyone, but we’ll come close to the mark by saying that it’s very evident in much of what is taught in the name of Indian philosophy, in the name of the Vedanta, in the name of Yoga, taught and frequently written about in the name of these various traditions, is knowledge written, particularly in the West, by people who, if we go back to India itself and ask the extant masters there if those people had the authority of the tradition to teach, the answer would be no.

They neither grew in the knowledge, nor did they inherit it familialy, from their family, nor did they take any formal training, nor have they received any authority from a master of the tradition to teach any one of the things. Especially in the world of yoga, there are lots of questions that could be raised on the subject of appropriation.

And I find that sometimes when I, I haven’t yet in my life attended a yoga class. That may seem incredible to people who are listening to this, who know that I’m also a master of the realm of asana.

Asana is the physical positions into which one bends oneself and stretches oneself in order to have a frictionless flow of creative intelligence through the body and preparation for meditation. That which we call asana in India, in the West, has come to be known as “yoga.”

Yoga is a thing that you do in the West. In proper understanding of it, you cannot do yoga because yoga is an experience. It is the experience of that layer of human consciousness deep within every human, at which level one’s individuality is found merging with cosmic status, where the Unified Field of consciousness and individuality and its expressions meet. This is the layer known as yoga.

[19:29] Yogastha Kuru Karmani

And established in that layer, Yogastha, one is to perform action, Kuru Karmani. Yogastha Kuru Karmani is a phrase that comes from one of the ancient sacred texts of India, the Bhagavad Gita.

Yoga is not a thing you can do. It’s an experience that you can have. One of the ways in which you can have this experience, or initialize it or start a process is through the purification and normalization of the physiology by practicing asana, various kinds of stretches and bends, and breathing techniques, Pranayama, that come along with that.

So the idea that you can do yoga is an idea that brings a smile to the lips and a raised eyebrow of anyone who is a great master of our tradition. Doing yoga is not a thing that one is found saying in the academic and scholarly circles of the Indian tradition of the Veda, knowledge.

However, westerners have begun to adopt that phraseology, and they use it, and so then everybody seems to think they know what doing yoga means.

And you know, “I do yoga. I’m a Yogi,” or a Yogini if one is a female, whether or not one has had any contact or access to the yoga consciousness state, but because one bends one’s body at certain times of the day, in class settings, where the whole thing is about physiology, it’s been made to be about physiology.

The anatomical benefits and shapeliness, desired shapeliness, that could be had if you “do yoga.”

[21:40] Training and Accreditation to Preserve Cultural Traditions

So from my perspective, this is a classic example of cultural appropriation. The vast majority of the appropriators have had relatively little experience with anything to do with scholarly India or that culture that, for thousands of years, maintained this knowledge.

Nor can they cite any authority going back to extant traditions in India. Someone who takes anywhere between a 20-hour to 200-hour training program in how to move your body around and do various kinds of breathing techniques, that have been given Sanskrit names…

It’s natural that for those who study a little bit more, and more deeply, there comes a question of to what extent is this cultural appropriation? And I would say these are appropriate questions to ask in the current environment.

As regards me and my crew of Vedic Meditation Initiators who are dotted around the world, each of us has been through a process of receiving the authority of that ancient tradition. And we acknowledge the ancient tradition publicly in a way that can be seen by everyone every time we teach.

And this, to me, is the appropriate showing of the badge of rank that Initiators of Vedic Meditation possess in order to bring the knowledge of this ancient tradition, the light of this knowledge, into the West.

[23:33] The Secret Knowledge

A great desire, by the way of the masters of our tradition, who always have wanted this knowledge to radiate life for all to enjoy, not for this to be secret knowledge.

Westerners have a great fascination with things that are referred to as “the secret,” the secret knowledge. The Vedic worldview is that things that are of value should be the opposite of a secret. They should be knowledge that can be had by anybody.

A secret is knowledge that somebody decides to keep the knowledge exclusive, and that somebody is generally not one of the masters of the Vedic tradition. The Vedic tradition wants to go Universal. It wants there to be as many practitioners of it as possible.

And in this, we can also have a compassionate viewpoint and an angle that everybody moves from being less sophisticated in their offerings to being more sophisticated in their offerings. This is what evolution means.

That we might discover that, with all good faith and all of our best intentions, we were inadvertently appropriating some knowledge of a culture or behavior of a culture, without realizing that anything that we were doing might in any way be offensive to the originating culture.

And then we come into contact with members of that culture who have taken deeper levels of training and dives into that knowledge, and we make a discovery of areas that may even be embarrassing to us, where inadvertently we have been appropriators, misappropriators of culture. And so there’s always evolution.

[25:57] Climb to Authentic Knowledge

What do we do next? We need to climb the ladder of the tradition from which our own knowledge came.

Supposing you learned how to “do yoga” in a yoga studio in some suburb in Cincinnati, and it was all about getting your body in shape and to look fabulous, and it may have done a bit of that then you got interested in a little bit more about it, and you began asking questions that reached the limit of the yoga teacher.

Why not go beyond that and find out more?

I invite all of those who practice yoga or Eastern philosophy, or indeed any of the knowledge traditions that come out of ancient India. That would be inclusive of everything to do with Yoga, Ayurveda and Ayurvedic medicine, self healthcare, inclusive of all Eastern philosophy, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, the traditions of the Tao, and the traditions of all Eastern philosophy, ultimately find their way back into the Veda.

Historically, we could take almost anything ancient that is taught in the East and follow it back historically, and it will find its origins in the Veda.

I Invite anybody who’s had anything to do with yoga or any kind of Eastern philosophy to dive in more deeply into the knowledge of the source of this ancient wisdom, and to become more conversant in it, to become more authoritative in it, and to increase their deserving power as a broadcaster and loudspeaker of this knowledge.

[28:25] Embracing Knowledge from Non-Native Practitioners

By being in contact with my tradition of Vedic Meditation, one is able to come back to the source and to receive the highest grade knowledge and the highest level of authority for teaching this knowledge, that’s possible to receive.

And then you’ll know that you’ve attained this when you go to India and have a conversation with a native Indian, an educated native Indian, and you find that that educated native Indian wants to become a student of yours.

Even though they have access to other Indians who have a certain amount of knowledge, your mastery in the subject is considered by them, a native of that culture, to be a level of mastery that they want to incorporate into their lives. One of the great and amazingly generous aspects of the Indian, as it is today, the Indian culture is that someone who is not genetically related in any way to India as it is today, not born in the culture, not raised in the culture, but trained in the ancient Vedic culture, someone who has the training, will be considered by any Indian to be a valuable guru to acquire for their lives.

Someone who could teach them even about the sources, origins, and knowledge of their own ancient culture.

I don’t find this happens in most countries of the world, that someone who is conversant in the knowledge of that culture but who is not genetically of that culture would be accepted as an authority in the home culture.

[30:42] Invitation to Deepen Understanding of Indian Traditions

But in India, this is a common occurrence that Indians who have access to any level of knowledge through their own tradition have learned how, through that access, they’ve learned how to spot someone who is a genuine knower and exponent of Vedic knowledge, and someone who they would seek as a teacher.

Consequently, in India, though I have tens of thousands of students worldwide. I also have tens of thousands of Indian students. And I’m considered, when I meet with the master of our tradition, to be one of the honored masters of the modern-day Indian cultural phenomenon, known as the Vedic and Shankaracharya traditions of India.

And it’s my desire to share that status with as many people as I possibly can in my life. And that sharing has to happen through a process of proper training. I’m available to train you to also become a recognized master of this knowledge.

I don’t wish to be the only one recognized at this level from the West but recognized in India from this level. I wish for this level of acceptance and authority to be granted to as many as can come in my lifetime, and I’ll make all the proper introductions after training you and also get you onto this status.

This is my invitation to everyone in the West who has some contact with and is expressing in their knowledge base something of the knowledge of Yoga, Veda, Indian philosophy in particular.

Jai Guru Deva.

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