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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yoga Modified: From soft power to nationhood

By Swapan Dasgupta


There is always a danger in trying to anticipate the manner in which an event that seems terribly significant today comes to be viewed by posterity. Matters are further complicated by a made-in-media society that is often inclined to attach more breathless significance to a 140-character tweet than it did to the abolition of the Planning Commission. 


The significance of last Sunday’s World Yoga Day was to a large extent overshadowed in India by the lavish media attention showered on the controversies surrounding the help given by two important politicians to Lalit Modi, the cricket impresario now embroiled in controversy. While this controversy has an undeniable significance in terms of its possible impact on public perceptions of the Narendra Modi government, its historical significance may well prove to be more short-lived than the yogic callisthenics on Rajpath. However, this in turn is again dependant on two factors: first, the ability of governments to endure energetically with the occasion and, secondly, the social penetration of yoga as a national virtue. 


Even if the media was rather casual in recognising the potential significance of the Yoga Day—now sanctified as an annual summer solstice event by the UN—the same can hardly be said of those who spiritedly opposed participation for a number of reasons. 


There was, first, the religious objection of a number of Christian churches and the Muslim Personal Law Board. This objection was grounded in apparently theological reasons. Since the ultimate objective of yoga is to strive for the oneness of the mind and body of an individual with the Supreme Being—by whichever name it is described—it was seen as obliteration the distinction between man and God. It was debunked as a possible invitation to what Marxists call ‘false consciousness.’ Secondly, there were misgivings over the implied sun worship that was met by dropping the surya namaskar from the official event. 


Far more commonplace were, however, the secular objections, including those raised by individuals claiming to be yoga practitioners. Their argument ran something like this: yoga has been around for thousands of years and being a deeply personal endeavour, doesn’t warrant state sponsorship. This disdain for congregational yoga was complemented by the hostility of those who detected an underlying Hindu agenda in the proceedings. Yoga’s historical association with a larger Hindu inheritance could well be one reason why there was a de-facto boycott of the June 21 events by the Congress Party. Presumably, Yoga Day ran counter to its “idea of India.” 


The issue isn’t frivolous. Since the later part of the 20th century, there is a multicultural view of nationality that has gained currency. According to this view, India is akin to a vast supermarket where an array of goods is on display and it is up to both individuals and communities to pick and choose what they want. Everyone does his or her own thing, regardless of the larger consequences. 


This view runs counter to the nation as an historical community that is bound both by inheritance and a shared public culture. India, most of us agree, is by no means homogeneous. And neither should it be. It is defined by a multilingualism that is not confined to languages alone. There is one language we speak when addressing the largest community we call the nation, another which we address as members of smaller communities—be it of regions, communities, faiths or even people of shared background, and yet another we reserve for a global interaction that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. For nationhood to endure it needs constant renewal and the creation of symbols that most people can identify with. These can be modern as, say, cricket, or grounded in both history and modernity—a role performed admirably by yoga, a discipline whose origins are historical but whose growing popularity is grounded in contemporary lifestyles. 


The importance of yoga as a symbol of India’s soft power—along with Bollywood and curry—has long been recognised. Modi has deftly tried to link it to our sense of Indian nationhood—another thread that binds people together. Yes, it is an invented symbol. But so for that matter are the Ashokan lions, the tricolour and Jana Gana Mana—all ‘inventions’ of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. 

Sunday Times of India, June 28, 2015

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