Sharath’s Statement on Pattabhi Jois’s Assaults: Context, Links, Notes

Context:

Sharath Rangaswamy Jois has posted an acknowledgement of harm committed by his grandfather to his Instagram account. The post features a photograph that has been used venerate Jois and highlight Sharath’s relationship to him for years.

The context I’d like to provide here is with respect to the women who made Sharath’s statement not only necessary, but possible, and whose names he does not mention.

Sharath’s post comes nine years after the first published testimony by Anneke Lucas (republished here in 2016). It comes three years after a panel was convened in NYC at which Lucas was joined by another survivor; they both described Jois assaulting them (deleted page was here). It comes a year and a half after Karen Rain’s #metoo statement about Jois went viral and her activist writing on the issue started to take off.

It comes more than a year after my feature article presented the testimony of nine women who Jois assaulted. It comes almost exactly a year after an Ashtanga Authorized teacher created a petition requesting Sharath to make an apology on behalf of Pattabhi Jois as “the first step toward healing old as well as new wounds in the global Ashtanga community.”

It comes almost exactly a year after Jubilee Cooke published a detailed account of Jois assaulting her daily over three months in 1997, and asking the poignant question, “Why didn’t anyone warn me?” The question has since sharpened as disclosures from people like Beryl Bender Birch show that the assaults were an open secret dating back to 1987. My book, which expands the number of survivor voices to 16, quotes Cooke (p.29), based on personal observation and discussion with other survivors, estimating the number of sexual assaults committed by Jois to be 30,000. Cooke frames her estimate as “conservative”. The earliest assault documented in the book dates to 1983.

 

Notes:

 

If you are planning on sharing Sharath’s post to comment on it or as a newsworthy item, please consider that the IG photograph, which will post automatically with the link, depicts a sexual abuser. Rain and Cooke have specifically said in their white paper on addressing sexual assault in the yoga world that venerating images should be kept private. Sharath hasn’t done this, but you can, by copy/pasting his statement, or by screenshotting it in such a way that the picture is cropped out.

 

As of this writing, Sharath’s post has earned over 12.5K likes and almost 1300 comments. A scan of the comments shows that a negligible number are wondering aloud what the survivors might think about this statement. This alone should give a clear understanding of the work this statement performs, regardless of the intentions behind it. As of this writing, none of the survivors have yet commented publicly on it. In a more just world, the outpouring of response would be directed towards the survivors’ needs and concerns, and not towards the psychosocial drama of what a group leader has been forced to say, and how much better it makes his followers feel.

 

Given the lateness of Sharath’s statement, its vagueness, use of euphemism (such that there is no concrete admission of sexual abuse), its scapegoating of senior teachers, its lack of self-awareness around how he himself has benefited from their silence — it is extraordinary to read hundreds of comments that laud his “leadership”. The statement actually expresses the opposite of leadership that has been shown by Jois’s survivors.

 

The online petition is now closed. It garnered only 606 signatures. The ratio of Ashtanga community members who are praising Sharath after making the statement to those brave enough to ask him to make it are about 20:1. This doesn’t control for the differences in social media reach between Sharath and those who drove the petition, but that difference in itself is a product of power differentials.

 

There’s another online effort to gather acknowledgement statements from Ashtanga Yoga community members. Led by Guy Donahaye, the “Apology to the Victims of Pattabhi Jois’ Sexual Assault” Facebook page, first posted in May, has collected a mere 30-odd statements. None of them have come prominent Ashtanga leaders or writers, with the exception of statements from Gregor Maehle, whose affiliation with the Jois family ended over 20 years ago, and who has been active in calling for accountability. So the ratio of those praising Sharath’s late statement versus those who are willing to acknowledge their own complicity in the abuse is roughly 400:1. This ratio is also a function of the power differential between Sharath’s social media capital and that of those beneath him, especially those who have been willing to speak out.

 

It’s important to note that many of the commenters on Sharath’s post are calling him “Guruji”. I’ve heard “Sharathji” and “Paramaguru” before, but this transposition of the honorific used for Pattabhi Jois onto his grandson seems new. It may indicate a more fully symbolic passing of the torch. It also may be a way of transferring a now-shameful devotion to Pattabhi Jois onto a less problematic figure. The question of whether “guru” was ever an appropriate term for Pattabhi Jois, or could ever be an appropriate term for Sharath, is not only a matter for ethicists, but also for South Asian commentators to weigh in on, and perhaps ethnographers who specialize in the colonial, post-colonial, and transcultural meanings of these terms.

But one thing that the term definitely does is to focus psychosocial attention on Sharath the person, his intentions, desires and virtues (his “pure heart” as one Ashtanga blogger notes in the comments), and away from his responsibilities as an administrator. Someone who could spearhead institutional and policy changes that go beyond vague aspirations for the ending of harm. We must ask whether the leader/charisma/personality-driven nature of Ashtanga yoga has changed between the tenures of the grandfather and the grandson. As if from a king who speaks for his people, and whose body represents their bodies, this statement from Sharath is being greeted by the vast majority of commentators as a kind of internal direction and validation.

 

Just as the question of using the term “Guruji” carries enormous cultural, religious, and historical complexity, so too does the question of what it costs a person in Sharath’s position to make a statement like this, as a legacy inheritor in a South Indian Brahminical family. It may be historically unique: that a grandson openly acknowledges the crimes of the family patriarch.

In a broader context, it will be interesting to see opinions and data emerge concerning the political and financial costs incurred by Sharath through this statement. The transcultural and globalization questions are complex. Is he speaking from within familial restrictions, or in response to global pressures? Virtually none of the commentary so far reflects this.

I believe this absence is not just the result of cultural ignorance or access issues, but also the result of the “Guruji” bias, which views the entire event in personal, psychological terms, i.e.: that the only thing at play here is Sharath’s internal experience and heroic journey, and how that might be inspiring to devotees.

Implicit in that bias is a serious flaw: the assumption that Sharath is speaking freely, from his “pure heart”, as opposed to coerced by a tangle of heavy influences: his family devotions, his own bystander trauma, his business commitments, the advice of family astrologers, pressure from petitions written in London and New York, the influence of California hedge fund money, and who decides what it means to be respectable in the globalized era.

When it has come two years late and a class-action’s worth of money too short, it simply does not make sense to view a statement so beholden to so many stakeholders as embodying leadership.

And yet, conferring the honorific “Guruji” upon Sharath closes off that question, leaving the community with an accidental guru, a leader who follows the survivors of his grandfather, without speaking their names or offering them reparations.

1 Comment

  • When I saw Maty’s picture heading this post, I thought you were going to put something together between Sharath’s message and Maty’s death. I was wrong. There’s so much to this story already, it feels like a giant wave of speculation and blame, and I’m afraid I’m only going to give a runaway narrative even more power. It’s not your fault, Matthew. Maty’s death is not your fault, or Sharath’s fault, or my fault, or anyone’s fault, but a narrative about it could put the blame on all of us. Narratives can easily take on a life of their own. It’s part of the Heideggerian nature of Writing. “Language” writes us. Narratives write their own story, leaving out what doesn’t work with good story telling, like too much ambiguity. I recommend your book to “my” Ashtanga students. Thanks in part to your book, I no longer call the practice I learned from Maty “Ashtanga.” But that’s what it is. I support the existence of it like I support the existence of your flawed book. Reading it was hard, especially in respect to Maty. Along with Karen and the other victims, Maty is the key figure in the story and as we can see now, basically removing her from the narrative had consequences that may have helped create another sorrowful real-life part of the story. But, again, I don’t blame you. Your Narrative wrote itself, and I can only guess that Karen thought she was sparing Maty by not saying what happened between them. Maybe you should have seen the story-telling issue there. But I understand. I can also imagine how Maty felt, especially if she didn’t know. And even if she didn’t, she would have felt unimaginably guilty. Maty was far more sensitive than people knew. She was a very gifted teacher and an incredible business person. She was not a sophisticated thinker. Really, she was at everyone’s mercy on a narrative level. She was so tough it didn’t seem like she was, but I know her to have been extremely vulnerable when it came to what people thought of her. She cried easily away from the studio. In respect to her lack of sophistication, I also remember her telling me that her favorite movie was Pretty Woman. The film had just come out, and though I knew it was mostly due to Maty’s naive relationship with narrative story-telling, I was very troubled by the anti-feminist implications of her enjoyment of it. Actually, two decades later, I’m even more troubled by it. Pretty Woman Narrative: small town girl moves to LA, prostitutes herself until she’s rescued by a predator. Yikes. Lots of Narratives are scary when they are broken down to their simplest communication. Your book narrative about Ashtanga is “They all knew and didn’t say anything.” That’s just not true. It’s possible Maty didn’t know. You constructed a narrative that fits what you know to be true about other cults. The Ashtanga community was a separate breed. Your depiction of it is not totally lacking in nuance, but it simplifies things a lot and if there was one thing about the community that is undeniable it is that it there was nothing simple about us. I could detail how much different the reality of Yoga Works life back then differed from your supposed reconstruction of it, but I’m not in the mood right now. Again, I’m also not blaming you for Maty’s death. I’m not blaming Karen either. I’m speculating about the possibility that Sharath’s message was the final straw in constructing a new reality around Maty’s sense of herself and in explaining my speculation I’m giving rise to a new wave of Narrative take-over. It may be pointing the finger at you. I point my finger at it. Narrative is a scary thing, and it always puzzled Maty. Again, she was a very simple thinker. I know she couldn’t grasp how it can be framed and how it can literally frame someone without even really naming the someone being framed. The Narrative is framing us all and may have taken Maty’s life. Again, I’m just speculating. Most importantly here, I’m guessing how your telling of the story impacted Maty. I know that Maty loved Karen Rain. And just one historical correction: Karen became part of the famous Ashtanga video only after Annie Grover backed out. Maty gave the nod to Karen next, not because Karen was the most advanced practitioner in the LA Ashtanga community but because the two were very close. I have no idea what happened to their relationship. Karen and I were Maty’s “adjusters” at the same time, for a good amount of time. I have written supportive comments on Karen’s posts, identifying myself. She has never responded and I wonder if that’s because she is still protecting Maty, trying to not draw her into the scandal and avoiding the hard questions someone like me might ask. I don’t know. I apologize for my intrusion into their relationship in any case, especially at this time. What I’ve learned is that anything is possible in this situation. I went to Maty’s classes six times a week for eight years and never heard a whisper about Jois assaulting anyone. It’s possible that Maty didn’t know what Jois was doing to Karen. It’s possible. Your book makes it seem impossible. That’s its main flaw, journalistically. Story-telling wise, I get it. Writing that truthfully would have created an incredibly unwieldy narrative. But to tell the story correctly, you’d have to do the hard thing as a writer and not let an easy narrative take over the story. “Everyone knew” is the easy way out. As a writer, I understand how that happens. Even here, I’m struggling to nuance what I’m writing about Maty. It’s complex. She was a shrewd business woman. So how can she be an “unsophisticated thinker”? Those two fact don’t go together. Oh, well. Ambiguity is our reality. Let’s at least acknowledge that. But I get how hard it is to keep any kind of narrative (even a journalistic one) from, in a sense, writing itself. You, Matthew, let the narrative imply a reality within which Maty (especially from her perspective as an unsophisticated reader) had to have known what was happening. And maybe she did. Because the reality is different from the one your narrative creates, it’s also possible she didn’t know. Maybe we will never know the truth. In this post, without identifying her as the target, you’ve done a good job of explaining how Sharath’s seeming confession redirects the blame away from him, on to Maty. I don’t know if that was the last straw for her. I don’t know if it’s wrong of me to speculate like I’m doing. But I’m doing it. The narrative is happening. I’m responsible for it but I can only write what Writing itself allows to happen. And maybe that’s creepy. As you point out, if we don’t take responsibility for our actions, then we are vulnerable to misdeeds and worse. I agree. I take responsibility for writing speculatively about something very complex and volatile. Again, I don’t have any idea how guilty Maty felt about not protecting Karen. I don’t know if her death was a literal suicide or a psychic one, or what. I don’t know if the two things are connected. Again, i don’t know if Sharath’s blaming was the final straw. I take responsibility if that idea of mine unmindfully encourages more bullshit speculation like this. It could all be in my head. All I really know is that the narrative in my head has me suspecting it’s all related and I’m immature enough to air my mind-blown state of consciousness publicly.

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