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From Calm To Controversy: International Yoga Day Is Getting Uncomfortable

in Events, World News, YD News
'Shripad Naik, India's first minister overseeing yoga and traditional medicine, practicing yoga in the garden at his residence.' | photo: Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

‘Shripad Naik, India’s first minister overseeing yoga and traditional medicine, practicing yoga in the garden at his residence.’ | photo: Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

International Yoga Day sounded like it could be all happy one-love, but it is just not sitting well with everyone. The Indian government has been putting out fires ever since the UN declared June 21st International Yoga Day. Are they promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda? Are sun salutations religious? Does yoga amount to worship? All of these questions sit simmering on the horizon ready to flare up like a supernova as June 21 rapidly approaches.

We posted earlier about the major issue sun salutations have caused for practicing Muslims, especially in India, where they argue saluting, or bowing to, the sun can be interpreted as worshipping which is against their religion and should not be a part of the country’s Yoga Day celebrations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered government officials (many of which haven’t practiced asana in decades or ever) to be a part of the massive yoga event that will include a 35-minute public demonstration of poses by more than 35,000 people including government employees, students and other citizens that will likely reach world record status (Modi has invited Guinness Book officials).

The Indian government has backed off from including Surya Namaskar as part of the day’s program, but the unease remains. Is International Yoga Day encroaching on religious rights? And is it causing more unrest than peace?

Via NPR‘s Morning Edition:

In India, the government has blanketed schools with circulars urging children to participate. Potbellied senior bureaucrats are hovering over mats in cram sessions, hoping to master “downward facing dog” before Sunday’s celebrations, where their attendance is required. Modi has invited the Guinness World Records to document what would be the largest single yoga class in one venue: 35,000 people assembling in New Delhi at 7 a.m. for a 35-minute yoga exercise. (Although at a news conference, Swaraj announced that Modi will lead the event but will not actually take to the mat.)

But certain clerics in India’s minority Muslim community aren’t supporters of this event. They’ve said the government’s push to promote yoga is a bid to promote the Hindu religion that the majority of Indians practice.

These critical clerics say the yoga pose known as the “Surya Namaskar” — the sun salutation — violates Islam because it means genuflecting to an entity other than Allah, namely the sun. In the pose, yogis stand up, hold their arms to the sky and bend backward a bit.

Historian Rizwan Qaiser, former director of the Center for Comparative Religions and Civilizations at Jamia Millia Islamia University, laughs as he says, “In Islam there is only one god, and no other god — including [the] sun god.”

The yoga tensions had been exacerbated by earlier events. Over the past several months, Hindu fundamentalists had issued a stream of bigoted remarks — how Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to vote, for example — and waged campaigns to rewrite school textbooks in ways that elevate Hindu achievements.

Novelist and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi, who is a Muslim, shares the concerns about the anti-minority remarks from the Hindu right but doesn’t have a problem with sun salutations: “Yoga is universal. This is a very good method of cleaning up your body and toning up your body. ”

“If you don’t like ‘Om,’ chant, ‘Allah,’ ” he says.

Outspoken defenders and advocates of yoga say it is universal and has no religious agenda. In fact, an Indian government spokesperson, Shripad Naik, Minister of State for AYUSH, and the coordinating ministry for the Yoga Day events came right out and said, “It is yoga and has nothing to do with religion.”

International Yoga Day is this coming Sunday, and with 192 countries set to participate in some way, there’s no denying yoga is an international phenomenon. It also helps that June 21 is the Summer Solstice and many groups were already planning to celebrate with yoga, like the annual celebrations in Times Square. Out of the participants, “Forty-seven Muslim countries are co-sponsoring World Yoga Day,” says foreign minister Sushma Swaraj which is intended to point out yoga’s universal appeal.

“Yoga is the best soft power India has to bring the world together and end the increasing trend of violence,” he says.

Let’s hope he’s right. Yoga is great, but yoga and politics is turning out to be a real ugly union. One thing seems clear, this is not your ancient guru’s yoga anymore. Not even in India.

This recent New York Times piece takes another look at the brewing controversy and Prime Minister Modi, the “Benjamin Franklin of India” said to be “looking for a new kind of cultural revolution.”



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