“I won’t do Yoga tomorrow”, says an article in a major Indian English daily, with reference to the International Yoga Day being promoted and observed by the Indian government on 21st June, 2015. “I won’t have the government dictate my fitness choices,” it continues, “especially if they are linked to religion, nationalism and patriotism.”
Another one says, “You won't find many of my fellow yogis involved in the tamasha that is the International Day of Yoga.” It relegates the government’s efforts to something as silly as “record chasing”. It says that the “International Day of Yoga never had much to do with yoga. It was always more about the churning PR wheel of the government.”
These are just two instances. There are many such in the media and internet. Such reaction from a particular section of media and intelligentsia was well expected. By this time it has become like a pattern which doesn’t take rocket science to recognize. You could very well predict what you would expect from whom. At times it sounds like a broken record.
Debates and arguments are the pillars of a vibrant democracy. It’s always useful to hear all the voices and put forward your own too. That’s how raw concepts or ideas could crystallize into a diamond of a thought. But the problem arises when someone’s intention is not to indulge into any form of constructive or argumentative discussion, but only to vilify anything with a preconceived and prejudiced idea.
Some of the clichéd critiques of the International Yoga Day are as follows:
· It’s another Hindutva propaganda of the BJP government
· It’s just a media gimmick, “churning of the PR wheel of the government” and another effort to be in the news
· It’s another divisive tactic of the government to exclude the minorities
· Who’s the government to enforce Yoga on us? We’ve been practicing Yoga since long enough to be reminded of it like this
All of these critiques are quite amusing, rather ridiculous. Let us discuss each of these one by one.
Connecting The Yoga Day to Hindutva is a very expected reaction from the fiery band of neo-secularism (pseudo secularism??), which Mr. L K Advani, in his autobiography, rightly refers to something that “has come to mean allergy to Hinduism”. For no good reason anything that’s associated with the ancient Indian past (pre Christian and pre Islamic) is seen with suspicion by these neo-secularists. What they forget is that the civilizations and cultures in India and China predate both Christianity and Islam by many many centuries, and perhaps a few millennia too.
The various and diverse ways of lives, traditions and thoughts that evolved over many millennia in the Indian subcontinent eventually got a Hindu designation. Today whatever goes by the name of Hinduism is something that’s truly indigenous in nature. Over the years many other traditions and cultures did appear in the subcontinent from various sources, often naturally, peacefully, and often through force and coercion, all of which along with the indigenous ones finally gave the current shape and form to the Indian culture. So, trying to ignore the indigenous elements of the Indian culture just because it has the Hindu designation is like ignoring the foundations of a large edifice.
Now coming to this particular event of celebrating an ancient Indian tradition through an International Day of Yoga, let us see whether it can be really seen as something communal, belonging to a particular community, or universal, especially when Pakistan has abstained from observing it.
“By proclaiming 21 June as the International Day of Yoga,” says the United Nations “the General Assembly has recognized the holistic benefits of this timeless practice and its inherent compatibility with the principles and values of the United Nations.”
Yoga is, as stated by the United Nations, “an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India. The word ‘yoga’ derives from Sanskrit and means to join or to unite, symbolizing the union of body and consciousness.” International Yoga Day, it continues to say, “aims to raise awareness worldwide of the many benefits of practicing yoga.” The draft resolution establishing the International Day of Yoga was proposed by India and endorsed by a record 175 member states.
It’s indeed true that the proposal was first introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address during the opening of the 69th session of the General Assembly, in which he said: “Yoga is an invaluable gift from our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action ... a holistic approach [that] is valuable to our health and our well-being. Yoga is not just about exercise; it is a way to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”
But just because it’s an ancient Indian tradition which predates Christianity and Islam, and which is well connected to the Hindu or Indian philosophy, does it make it communal? Or is it so because the idea was mooted by Narendra Modi, who represents BJP, which has connection to RSS, and so on?
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself pointed out that “Yoga is a sport that can contribute to development and peace.” The late B. K. S. Iyengar, perhaps the most famous Yoga Guru of the world said, “Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.”
Even without going into what’s said about Yoga in the ancient Sanskrit texts and what it exactly means in the context of Indian philosophy, there’s no doubt that it’s nothing that should be viewed with suspicion by any community.
The same may hold true for Surya Namashkar or the Gayartri Mantra, none of which has anything that could be communally charged or divisive. The later says, “We meditate on the power and glory of Him, the Creator, the Savitri, who sharpens our thoughts.” All religions and cultures, Christianity and Islam included, look upon the Creator of the Universe with utmost reverence and pay obeisance to Him. The Creator is often seen as the Supreme God Himself. May not be in the exact same language, but a similar reverence for the Creator is found in the Prophet Muhammed’s own words too. The 30th hymn of the 21st chapter of the Quran says, “Awalam yara alladhin kafaru, don't see those who disbelieved, anna al-samawati wal-arda kanata ratqan, that the heavens and the earth, were a joined entity. Fafataqnahuma, then We parted them…”
So what’s the issue if a government wants to invoke the Gayatri Matra at the beginning of a function? It could be argued that similar hymns from the Quran or the Bible could also be invoked. But then those were not written in India and the Gayatri Mantra was. Doesn’t that make it more relevant to be used in India? It doesn’t harm if any country adopted a poem, written by someone not belonging to that country, as its national anthem. But it does make more sense to use a poem written in its own land, by its own countryman. Would you call it a communal act? No. In the same way, invoking a Sanskrit poem with a universal message or celebrating an ancient Indian secular tradition like the Yoga can’t be a communal act. It’s in no way a divisive tactic to frighten the minorities.
Interestingly, the present day Iran with its predominantly Muslim population still celebrates the Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which is an ancient pre Islamic tradition connected to its Zoroastrian past. Though they have persecuted all the Parsis, the Zoroastrians, but they have retained the ancient traditions of the land. The same holds true for Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which are now Islamic states that have retained many indigenous practices and traditions which date back to their pre-Islamic past. Ironically, India is not a Muslim country, but still its pre-Islamic traditions are looked upon with suspicion.
Let’s move on to the next point. It’s said that this entire thing about the International Yoga Day is just a media gimmick, the churning of the “PR wheel of the government, and its desire to assert itself on the global stage, assuaging anxieties about being left behind.”
Is there any problem to assert India on the global stage? Yes, India has been left behind in many aspects and it’s the duty of its government and the Prime Minister to keep no stone unturned to assert itself in the global stage in all possible ways. It’s all about PR – even an ass knows this in today’s context. That the US is a super power, much of it is because of the perception that it has created in the minds of the rest of the world over the past hundred years through a very effective PR. Apart from doing everything correct, it’s PR which plays a big role in asserting India the right position it deserves in the world. What’s the problem here? Yoga sells and it’s Indian. So why not claim the ownership to something “Made in India”?
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has rightly said that “Yoga is the soft power of India and through that soft power the whole world can be a global village.” This comment of hers has also been taunted by many. But in reality what she said is a historical truth.
In the context of India’s influence over the rest of the world William Dalrymple, in an article, quoted the historian Michael Wood as saying, “history is full of Empires of the Sword, but India alone created an Empire of the Spirit.” What he refers to here is indeed India’s soft power with which it had established its influence over a large part of the world over many centuries. Talking about the process by which this happened, Dalrymple says, “it appears… that large numbers of highly educated monks and Brahmins traveled with the fleets of Indian merchant ships trading with Indo-China, carrying portable religious objects and artworks. They sought employment and offered in return their literacy… as well as their political, technical, and cultural knowledge.”
Dalrymple mentions that according to Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, “in the first millennium it makes hardly more sense to distinguish between South and Southeast Asia than between north India and south India…. Everywhere similar processes of cosmopolitan transculturation were under way.” Pollock describes this cultural commonwealth as the “Sanskrit cosmopolis.”
It was indeed through India’s soft power that it had asserted its influence over Central Asia, China, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. “These were conscious acts by which the living landscape [of these countries] was empowered with mythological Indic names and Indic metaphors of divinity, in effect extending the sacred landscape of the Indian holy land so that it became their own.” The best testimonial of India’s soft power is what Hiuen Tsang said. “People of distant places with diverse customs,” wrote the Chinese Buddhist monk in the mid-seventh century, “generally designate the land that they admire as India.”
So, it’s nothing wrong in exploiting India’s soft power to assert its position in the world. It has yielded rich dividends in the past and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t now.
Finally, it’s being questioned who the government is to dictate what I should do on a particular day. This is perhaps the most ridiculous of the arguments. West Bengal government celebrates the birthday of Rabindranath Tagore through cultural functions and other events all throughout the 25th of Baisakh, the birthday day of the poet as per the Indian calendar. So does it mean that I won’t listen to Rabindra Sangeet on that day just because the government is making me to listen to it? Remembering something or someone on a particular day neither means that we shouldn’t do it the rest of the year nor that we’re being coerced to do so only on that day. Celebrating Christmas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about Jesus the rest of the year or that we are being coerced to think about Him on a particular day. If you have been doing Yoga for a long time that doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate one particular day as the Yoga Day. I don’t see any problem there too.