International Yoga Day may seem exciting for the world, but it’s not making everyone happy, especially in India. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it his mission to lead yoga’s cultural rebirth, or at least reclaim its roots, there have been some critics on the sidelines questioning his methods and intentions. For the Muslim population, it’s less about cheering the benefits of yoga practice and more about concern for religious rights and freedoms.
India is gearing up for quite a yoga extravaganza, including a public yoga appearance from Modi himself. As part of the June 21, International Day of Yoga celebrations, Modi called for all children to do yoga in school, including saluting the sun in Surya Namaskar. This immediately drew protests from Muslims and members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) claiming that the compulsory festivities for Yoga Day were “Hindu religious practices.”
Which brings us back to the question of the century, is yoga religious? It’s been up for debate, and has been seen in court, most recently in California where a judge ruled yoga in school was “devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings.” And now even the leaders of India, AKA yoga’s birthplace, are saying there is no religious connection.
Shripad Naik, Minister of State for AYUSH, and the coordinating ministry for the Yoga Day events, responded to AIMPLB saying,“It is yoga and has nothing to do with religion. The event is not a compulsory one and it has no connection with religion. We have not made anything mandatory. We request everyone… It is an opportunity for everyone in the country to showcase before the world our ancient legacy. This initiative has nothing to do with any party. This will help us bring pride to the country. If one doesn’t want to do a certain part, then don’t do it. If you don’t want to say ‘Om’ while practicing yoga, then don’t do it. At least one can perform yoga.”
This might be news to some (and possibly confusing and frustrating to others).
Many still don’t buy it. Even Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim member of parliament. “Many Muslim scholars say that yoga is against the fundamental tenets of Islam – to pray to the sun, for example,” he said. “Why make this a nationalist issue? Just because I do not want to do yoga does not mean I am not a patriot.”
Novelist Ajaz Ashraf wrote via Scroll: “Underlying it is the hope of bringing into the BJP tent the modern-day gurus and their teeming followers, who largely constitute the urban middle classes.”
The Indian government maintains there is no religious or political agenda behind their increased focus on yoga, with supporters now drawing comparisons to cultural contributions such as customary practices or certain sports from other countries throughout time.
Suneel Singh, a guru in south Delhi, echoes the sentiment that yoga does belong to any one religion: “Is t’ai chi just Chinese? Is soccer just English? Same is with yoga. It is [a] complete package for everybody’s body and the cheap way for keeping you hale and hearty.”
Says Amish Tripathi, author of best-selling novels based on stories of Hindu mythology, “In ancient India it was part of daily life, both the physical and the mental aspects. Every culture has gifted something to the world, and this is our gift.”
And there you have it, everyone. Though we have a feeling it’s not going to be that simple.
By the way, bending to pressures and protests from the Muslim group, the Indian government has removed the sun salutations from the scheduled school yoga practice. But there will be plenty of sun saluting in Times Square, and around the world, if Modi’s plan works out.
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