By many accounts, Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Call it what you will, 5,000 years ago, when everyone staying south of the Himalayas could be called a Hindu, the more evolved sought the union of body and mind through yoga. It has been part of the Hindu way of life ever since.
Today, Baba Ramdev alone boasts of 30 million followers. The West got acquainted with yoga in the 1960s, when hippies discovered in the Orient an escape from religious dogma and corporate slavery. Today, although the hippies are back in suits and ties, 20 million Americans are limbering up and maybe finding themselves via meditation. Becoming calmer and more centred while others watch them and get more and more agitated.
“Yoga’s goal is ‘self-exaltation’, ‘realising’ one’s own ‘divinity’ and ‘yoking with the universal consciousness’. These things have nothing to do with Jesus Christ and everything to do with Satan. Christian yogis, it is time to repent!”
So sayeth many evangelists, especially since 2004, when the National Pastors Conference incorporated a yoga workshop, giving the practice the kind of legitimacy that anything priestly bestows. Those Indian Americans who were happy that the Yanks had learnt one more four-letter Hindi word — after sari — may now bemoan the fact that this unexceptional part of their culture has become the subject of controversy, having epithets like ‘pagan occultism’ and ‘unbiblical’ (well, natch!) thrown at it.
The controversy has been a dampener for svelte gurus of all races and faiths who have made a career out of teaching stretch exercises to the obese and the inflexible. Take Laurette Willis, who ‘came to Christ’ after 22 years of New Age spiritualism. She and others now teach ‘Christian yoga’ in which the spiritual aspect has been hijacked and reinvented to make it acceptable to the flock. For, in her logic, “Yoga postures really are offerings to the gods. If you do these postures and you do this breathing technique and this meditation, then you will be accepted by a god (small ‘G’). That’s the real danger.” To salve her conscience, she has linked a psalm to each of the postures.
These conceptual gymnastics might be easy for one who has learnt contortions never dreamt of before in Western metaphysics. When a person like her makes a neat living out of yoga, and gets a healthier mind and body to boot, why not spurn the biological parentage and get adopted by richer, trendier foster parents? After all, success has many parents while failure is an orphan.
It is this trust deficit that perhaps made the BJP-led government decree that there will be no ‘Om’ (or Aum, if you want to spell it that way) intonations when yoga is made compulsory in schools. Ironically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi might now be accused of coining a new oxymoron; ‘secular yoga’, as much of a hot potato as ‘Christian yoga’ has become in the West. Is ‘Moditva’ itself becoming apologetic about what ancient sages decreed? Is this a leader with a two-thirds majority, often accused of majoritarianism?
Actually, Modi hasn’t lost his touch. While taking Om off the table, he stuck by surya namaskar (salute to the sun) till the ripples of alarm in the Islamic world made him do a rethink. On 7 June, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (aiplb) decided to launch a campaign across the country to make people aware that Muslims cannot bow before anyone but Allah and that they don’t want their children to be forced to do anything against their beliefs.
It was then left to the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath, MP from Gorakhpur, (surprisingly out of control for one whose name suggests a better karma) to suggest that those opposing surya namaskar should “drown in the sea”. As scientific as his leader, who talked of the elephant god being proof of ancient India’s surgical skills, Adityanath came out with these words of wisdom, “Sun god has never deprived anyone of light based on caste, creed or religion. Despite that if they are calling the sun communal, I feel amused at their mindset.” Chalk up one more inflammatory remark to him.
Christians have a similar problem. In the words of Prophet Ezekiel, “The priests of Israel, instead of crying out to God for mercy on behalf of the idolatrous people, were themselves bowing down to the sun in the East. The priests had their own backs turned on God (in God’s temple).” Verily, the sun rises in the East. Might not the believer start wondering why this is so? Might he not then start believing that Eastern mysticism is superior to Judaic faiths? As segregationists in the US feared, if children are exposed to other races early on in life, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to falling in love and marrying someone of the ‘wrong’ colour.