International Yoga Day – (Sunday 21 June) - is one of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more impressive political achievements. It is also a source of controversy.
Yoga enthusiasts across the world are preparing to celebrate the first International Yoga Day on 21 June, re-opening the old sore on the religious nature of this ancient tradition.
But surprisingly the debate is not a simplistic tussle between Hindus and non-Hindus, but among Hindus themselves.
In India, controversy was reignited after senior Muslim leaders objected to local and national government attempts to make yoga compulsory in schools, regardless of creed or ideology.
Abdul Rahim Qureshi, spokesperson of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), told the Press Trust of India: ‘Yoga if practised in its right form, which will essentially be done in schools, will be like placing other things on par with Allah and this will be a big sin . . . the board has objections over this issue.’
Some Muslim leaders are especially disturbed by the usage of the word Om, a sacred word for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, and by the practice of Surya Namaskar or the Salutation to the Sun – both very common while doing Yoga – which they claim would be un-Islamic.
Given these concerns, and in a bid to make International Yoga Day a success, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), charged with promoting Yoga, have omitted Om and Surya Namaskar from the Common Yoga Protocol.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which has sought to promote yoga locally and internationally, has fallen between two stools.
It has attempted to define the physical ‘hatha yoga’ regime as an ‘invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition’, while maintaining the regime is purely secular.
This decision to promote yoga as a religion-neutral physical exercise has also sparked a debate within the larger Sangh parivar, an umbrella term for the family of Hindu nationalist organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
On 15 June, Praveen Tagodia, VHP’s International Working President, declared that ‘the use of the word Allah during yoga would be an insult to Lord Shiva.’
He added, ‘Those who are allergic to Om and surya namaskar should live with diseases,’ while BJP MP Yogi Adiyanath -- known for his acerbic comments -- said that those who seek religious disharmony over the reverence of the Sun should go and drown in the sea.
Previously, Dr Ramesh Rao of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) had written that savvy marketeers were making a deliberate attempt to promote yoga free of any acknowledgment of its Hindu past, to ‘calm committed Christians who want to hang on to Jesus while doing the surya namaskara.’
These comments contrast with the views recently expressed by the highly influential RSS and the BJP.
An editorial in the RSS English weekly, Organiser, under-played yoga’s linkages with religion: ‘If leading a healthy life is a human right, then it should be available to all human beings, irrespective of religion.’
On 17 June the Union AYUSH ministry, released a book called Yoga and Islam, published by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an initiative by the RSS, to pacify the concerns and fears of India’s Muslim community.
The book suggests that some yoga exercises are similar to namaaz (Muslim prayers), adding that ‘namaaz is one sort of yoga asana [pose].’
The editorial praised how the Deobandi (Islamic) religious and educational institution, Darul Uloom, had delinked yoga from religion, and supported International Yoga Day, adding the hope that ‘other members of the 'secular brigade' recognise the spiritual significance of yoga.’
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who in 2009 became popular for performing yoga poses at the largest gathering of Muslim clerics in India, recently told NDTV that the chanting of mantras or Sanskrit prayers was unnecessary during the sun salutation.
He added by contrast that chanting Om generated energy, and chanting it should not be made an issue of controversy.
Influential Muslim clerics and leaders too are divided in their opinions about yoga.
While most have extended their support, they have done so while suggesting the government should not mix yoga with religion, and not make it compulsory.
Sunni cleric Khalid Rashid Firangimahli said he welcomed plans to hold yoga sessions throughout the country, noting ‘all we want from the government is to keep it away from religiosity.’
Modi’s achievement in persuading the UN to hold International Yoga Day each year is impressive.
UNGA Resolution A/69/L.17, recognises ‘that the wider dissemination of information about the benefits of practising yoga would be beneficial for the health of the world population.’
Besides promoting yoga to the world as a cultural export from India, Modi’s emphasis on indigenous practices such as yoga and Ayurveda, is part of his proclaimed ambition to showcase India as a world leader, while also reviving its ‘under-appreciated but glorious past’.
In an interview with Lapido Media, Vijay Jolly, BJP Central Committee member and convenor of BJP Overseas Affairs (OFBJP), said that this overwhelming international support spoke volumes.
It demonstrated the acceptance of yoga as a means to improve the quality of basic health worldwide.
He adds, ‘Yoga is India’s and Hinduism’s gift to mankind.’
This perception of India’s role as a culture exporter rather than an importer is shared by many.
In a Reuters article, RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya is quoted as saying: ‘By celebrating yoga on a mass scale we are validating our glorious past.’
The Indian government has put its back into making the International Yoga Day a success.
It has already instructed state and private broadcasters to ensure that yoga gets its due coverage.
On 21 June, over 35,000 people are expected to attend a mass yoga session led by Modi, with similar sessions planned across India and the world.