If you join the dots in Narendra Modi’s first year in power, a picture emerges of a man on a mission. In September 2014, Modi made a strong pitch for an international yoga day in the UN, and was supported by 50 countries, including China. Thus he made a splash to rival that of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech in Hindi (for the first time! take that, anglophiles) at the General Assembly in September 2002. During the cabinet expansion in November, he pulled the department of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) out of the health ministry and anointed Shripad Yesso Naik minister of state with independent charge. Since ministers are not allowed to promote a personality cult by publishing their picture, after Modi’s recent visit to Beijing, he has had to tweet pictures of himself striking a different posture every day on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social media site.
The climax of all these moves will be achieved on 21 June this year, when a video of a ‘Common Yoga Protocol’ is being prepared to be aired at Indian missions and cultural centres all over the world. That’s perhaps more important in the PM’s scheme of world conquest than the gathering of 45,000 practitioners planned for Delhi. Though it is a Sunday, the Maharashtra government is promoting the cause by ordering schools to remain open. Naturally, public commentators are unhappy, worrying that exposure to yoga might enhance students’ life force. Why deprive children of a holiday when they could spend the morning fooling around with video games?
You would expect at least the Hindu Right to be pleased with all the efforts their PM is making in the larger interests of spreading the asana word throughout the world. Not so. Writing in Swarajya magazine, Nithin Sridhar calls this process ‘de-Hinduisation’ and an ‘uprooting’, warning that this dilution will, in the long run, kill it. “Taking away the dharmic elements, the elements that define what yoga is and what yoga is not, will reduce yoga into a physical fitness regimen without any spiritual value in it,” he writes.
But in an age where people have little time for a fitness regimen, let alone meditation, the purists with their ‘back-to-the-golden past’ nostalgia are skating on thin ice. It’s the old paradox that emerged even in the Chipko (hug the trees) movement in Garhwal, where Chandi Prasad Bhatt questioned old man Sunderlal Bahuguna’s desire to keep the forests in pristine condition, disregarding the hill folks’ need for firewood, fruit, timber and a livelihood. The Himalayan forests, remember, is where sages went to meditate. Now tourists go there to enjoy some free air-conditioning.
Non-Hindus also face the spectre of Sanskrit revanchism, with tongue-twister names for asanas in peril of becoming incorporated into English — or worse, the lingua franca. It was no doubt that to skirt such dangers, a decade ago, the government’s Kendriya Vidyalayas decided to teach German instead of Sanskrit. Then resurgent nationalism won the elections and let a new education minister rap schoolmasters on the knuckles for this apostasy.
Of course, all religious fundamentalists think any modernisation, any layman’s interpretation of ancient texts, is blasphemy. Rationalists would no doubt tell them to chill and accept that the world today is no longer what it was thousands of years ago. For instance, there was no predatory medical system then that has now made a hospital visit akin to a mugging in a dark alley. If the said citizen decides to use stretch exercises as a low-cost or no-cost way out of repeated slipped discs, digestive diseases, depression and such-like, he will turn to Baba Ramdev and one of the gods in his home shrine to escape from the endless cycle of diagnostics, tests and surgeries. That’s modern moksha via yoga. The next life can wait.
The ‘sense of calm’ that yoga brings is of course absent in those who want to stir up trouble (a book is punningly called Calmer Sutra). Rahul Gandhi in his postvacation hoarse voice has been quick to beat one bird with two stones when he says, “One year has passed by, now the jawans are saying please tell us the date by when it [one rank one pension] will be implemented, but Modiji is saying he is busy doing yoga.” Ouch, and unfair, since only Modi starts his mornings with yoga and then works all day to right the Leftist wrongs of the past.
Clearly, then, there’s a lot to be feared from the yoga cult. Not least is the aura of moral superiority exuded by those who do practise yoga early in the morning. The ‘life of the party’ these days is not the person who can drink the most but one who tells a story about how knifeless techniques cured her chronic illnesses.
So if you fear your children are going to be exposed to some mumbojumbo that might lead them down the dangerous path of ghar wapasi, do protest. But first, take a deep breath and exhale all your angst…