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