Revisiting International Yoga Day, a Day Later: Some Reflections

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is bent on making a Spiritual India. The symbolic repackaging of yoga to exert soft power in the world is one of the many problematic maneuvers of the ruling government that need to be debunked. As we celebrated the 3rd International Yoga Day yesterday, it is about time we question the unstated underlying nuances of Modi’s repackaged gift to the world. 

Modi Yoga Day
The following is an extract from Modi’s speech addressed to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 to advocate for the adoption of an International Yoga Day:
“[Yoga] is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition…It is not about exercise, but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature…By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.”
What exactly is going on here? The ancient tradition that is repeatedly used to root the practice of yoga is one purposively cleansed of the influence of ‘foreign [read Muslim] invaders’. The ancient tradition that is referred to unhesitatingly is a reference to the culmination of religious traditions that have now been embraced by the giant conglomerate of Hinduism. The Indian derivative of yoga is a recent phenomenon to manipulatively juxtapose an integral element of the demographically dominant religion with national identity.
The Yoga Sutra composed by Patanjali in circa 150 BCE states:
“The Lord of Yoga is a distinct form of spirit unaffected by the forces of corruption, by actions, by the fruits of action, or by the subliminal intentions. In the Lord of Yoga is the incomparable seed of omniscience…”
The word, ‘Yoga’ has Sanskrit roots and means ‘union’ according to one source; the Maitri Upanishad explains this union as one of breath, mind, and consciousness. Another source attributes the origins of the Sanskrit term to ‘yoke’, which first appeared in the Rig Veda to describe a chariot yoked to horses, in which a felled war hero might ascend to the sun. Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina writings have referenced the term, ‘Yoga’ since 3rd century BCE to mean eight steps of spiritual meditation. However, both Buddhism and Jainism have already been problematically brought within the legal fold of Hinduism under codified Hindu law. The Supreme Court too has indicated concern regarding the tussle between the secular pillars of Indian democracy and yoga, which has been acknowledged to possess a religious component, in determining the validity of State-sanctioned yoga classes in schools. The ‘Take Back Yoga’ campaign spearheaded by the Hindu American Foundation has expressly linked yoga with Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra. With Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, carving out the Bhagawad Gita as the best reflector of Indian (and not Hindu) culture, the ruling government is systematically conflating Hinduism with India, and relegating ‘othered’ religious minorities to the unfortunate destiny of second-class citizenry. True, the spread of yoga to different parts of the world has led to an inevitable diminution of the role of religion and a greater emphasis on health and spirituality sans religion. However, should that take away from the subtlety of Hindu fundamentalists revamping a religious ideal as they indulge in unapologetic assimilatory politics?
“Many countries which do not know our language, tradition, or culture, are now connecting to India through Yoga. The practice, which connects body, mind and soul, has played a big role in binding the world too.”
-Prime Minister Narendra Modi (1st International Yoga Day, 2015)
Modi deliberately affiliates and identifies India with a singular language, tradition and culture. The erasure of diversity, both within Hinduism and across religions and languages and cultures, ought to be weaved into the larger assimilatory narrative of a spiritual, saffronised India.
Hindu fundamentalists have followed through by typically demanding those who think surya namaskaar should be excluded from yoga, for being offensive to their religious sentimentalities in worshipping the sun, to leave Hindustan.
“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.”
 -N.Y. Times (Jun. 19, 2015)
The repackaging of the gift of yoga then seems suspect, for it legitimates Hindu majoritarianism in the name of precarious references to the (necessarily homogenous) cultural and national identity of India. Savarkar’s Hindutva dedicates itself to a nation building project that evokes commitment to one India. The past three years have been fraught with instances where the ruling government has consistently privileged Hindu symbols and members of Hindu fundamentalist organizations in the hope of building a Hindu Rashtra. Office bearers today play an active role in subtly maneuvering around the hurdle of secularism, and the symbol of the cow, Om, the Gita, Sanskrit, and yoga suffice to establish a trend of intertwining religion and politics in the name of the nation.
The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) was formed in 2014 and Shripad Yasso Naik, a former member of the Hindu nationalist Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was handed over the said portfolio. The Ministry is an official statutory body committed to recycling primarily Hindu practices and coercively selling it to a religiously diverse State as integral to the idea of India. Modi has effectively recast yoga in a new mold of secularism, strikingly similar to the Hindutva project of projecting the call for a Hindu nation as comfortably committed to secular values. 
One would think that the judiciary would live up to its promise of protecting the People and the Constitution that they gave to themselves. The Supreme Court has, hopefully inadvertently, sided with the narrative of the Hindu-right in declaring Om to be a mere symbol of “spiritual or mystical efficacy” (as opposed to bearing religious connotations), and Hinduism as well as Hindutva to mean a way of life of the Indian people. This has effectively extricated the religious symbolism of terms and their usages from their socio-political and intellectual histories. Identities are being crumbled, remolded and crystallized by the Politic and the Law. There is an imminent call for assimilation and with the absence of a politically viable alternative, the call is here to stay. 

(The author is a student of Jindal Global Law School)



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