India and the Politics of Yoga

India and the Politics of Yoga

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Eleanor Taylor

BALTIMORE — ATTENTION, downward-facing-dog enthusiasts. The International Day of Yoga is coming on Sunday. A brainchild of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, it is being backed by more than 175 countries and heavily promoted worldwide. Last week, the Indian Embassy in Washington emailed me an invitation to celebrate on the National Mall, complete with a downloadable yoga “protocol” of exercises. Even Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, has been seen, shoeless, practicing his tree pose in Delhi.

The plans for India are even more ambitious. Multitudes of primary, secondary and college students have been summoned to perform the yoga protocol on Sunday at 7 a.m., as have government workers. Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat alone is organizing celebrations at 29,000 locations. Pursuant to the national obsession with setting world records, the Guinness Book has been invited to observe a yoga rally with more than 35,000 practitioners, presided over by Mr. Modi himself, in the nation’s capital.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Some Muslim preachers and opposition politicians have accused Mr. Modi of using the day to foist Hinduism on religious minorities under the guise of yoga.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has responded quickly to such concerns by dropping the requirement to chant or perform a sun worship pose, which might be construed as un-Islamic because it posits the sun as a deity. The party has also relaxed earlier directives that made participation by students and others compulsory, and it has distanced itself from members who have branded protesters as “traitors” who should “drown in the sea.”

Yoga has encountered such objections before — conservative Christian parents in New York and California have branded its use in schools as religious indoctrination. Since 2004, Islamic clerics have issued fatwas prohibiting yoga for Muslims in Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia. The question of whether there is any justification to such opposition is a delicate one.

Certainly, yoga’s evolution has been inextricably linked with that of Hinduism. The word itself, linguistically related to “yoke,” first appears in the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text from around the 15th century B.C., to describe a chariot yoked to horses, in which a felled war hero might ascend to the sun.

As the tradition of meditation and exercise developed among Indian ascetics between A.D. 200 and 400, “yoga” acquired its new meaning of reining in body and mind to rise above worldly concerns. In this sense, yoga undeniably embodies the worldview of Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism), in which the goal is to end suffering through enlightenment.

However, there is no historical record of other religions’ disapproving of yoga. Muslim travelers in India, fascinated by yoga’s teachings, started bringing translated works to the Islamic world almost a millennium ago.

The Mughal emperor Jahangir commissioned a Persian text, Bahr al-Hayat, which depicted 21 asanas, or positions. Swami Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu reformer, became a sensation after presenting yoga to the West as a scientifically based philosophy at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Since then, interpretations of yoga have multiplied. A number of practitioners, both in India and abroad, view it purely as a set of exercises. At the other end of the spectrum are Shiva devotees aiming for moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life and death, through intense meditation and asceticism. Somewhere in the middle lie New Age variations, the ones with incense and mantras and piped-in incantations of the sacred Hindu word “om,” swirling around yoga studios like stereophonic movie-theater-sound logos.

What’s striking about Mr. Modi’s grand project, given his formative years in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization, is the presentation of yoga as a secular activity. His government takes great pains to point out that 47 Muslim nations supported his United Nations resolution. In his United Nations address, he characterized yoga as “an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition,” rather than Hindu tradition.

Mr. Modi’s careful scripting shows him to be a consummate businessman. By presenting yoga as one of the monumental achievements of Indian thought, he is increasing the country’s visibility, promoting its brand on the world market. He will not allow the distraction of religion to interfere with the return on his investment.

Yoga is big business, estimated at $10 billion a year in the United States alone, and India needs to be associated with it — not just to attract tourists to yoga retreats, but also to assert its intellectual rights. The country has been fighting attempts by Western gurus to patent yoga poses, assembling a repository of over 1,500 asanas to keep them free.

Within India, the goal is different. Those on the Hindu right have always harbored the vision of returning to India’s greatness as an ancient civilization. A practice with Vedic origins that has nevertheless attained such secular popularity is the perfect vehicle to create a shared national consciousness. The physical engagement, mental discipline and sublimation of desire enshrined in yoga meld seamlessly, yet discreetly, with the more militaristic tenets of organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The churlish might question whether huge public rallies can be conducive to the quiet spiritual advancement that yoga promises, or whether the pollution generated in transporting all those participants to their Sunday events helps us deal with climate change, as Mr. Modi claims yoga will do. But that would be missing the point, which is to demonstrate that the prime minister can mobilize such large tracts of India’s population, that he possesses the assertiveness and authority needed to bring together such a diverse and willful people.

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