The Politics of Yoga

By Suri, Manil | International New York Times, June 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Yoga


Suri, Manil, International New York Times


What's striking about Prime Minister Modi's grand project is the presentation of yoga as a secular activity.

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 written 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 ultimate spiritual 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. …

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