PM Modi’s initiative to make 21st June, International Yoga Day was welcome with open arms and Surya Namaskars. During his speech on the 4th International Yoga Day, Modi quotes the Bhagavad Gita to further elaborate on “the most precious gift given by ancient Indian sages” and says “Yoga is a state of equilibrium and equanimity. Yoga is not just a set of exercises that keeps the body fit, it is a passport to health insurance.”
And just like that, millions of individuals all over the world once again came out to do yoga, to find harmony between their body and mind along with spreading the ancient message of India. The land of yoga, was now being recognised everywhere. Modi was helping the entire world to get some relief from a materialistic, fast paced, capitalist lifestyle through yoga. And yoga just so happened to also be rooted in Hindu traditions. It also just so happened to be antithetical to Islam. And just so happened to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
Yoga has become a common way to find your inner self, and numerous individuals from first world countries often visit India to do exactly that. The spiritual spots of India like Rishikesh and Goa neatly package yoga courses into 200 or 500 hour certificate courses with a “spiritual” fee ranging between 3000 dollars and 5000 dollars. Freedom from materialism is found in luxurious resorts with glass walls, infinity pools and air conditioned yoga rooms showcasing statues of Hindu gods like Ganesha.
With a 22% growth rate, India is the fastest developing wellness travel destination. Money flows in as wellness, which includes yoga, Ayurveda and alternative medicine, a separate sector in which 100% foreign direct investment is allowed. With a profit estimated at $10 billion a year in the United States alone, yoga – the path to spirituality and freedom from materialism – proves to be a rather lucrative industry.
Yoga just so happened to also be rooted in Hindu traditions. It just so happened to be antithetical to Islam. It just so happened to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
As “Yoga Tourism” increases, the boundary between spiritualism, yoga and Hinduism blur – giving birth to a falsely secular narrative of yoga, untouched by the evils of capitalism. The word itself, linguistically related to “yoke,” first appears in the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text from around the 15th century B.C., to describe a chariot yoked to horses, in which a felled war hero might ascend to the sun.
While yoga is often presented as a secular activity, scripts from Bhagavad Gita are often recited in yoga classes and statues of Ganesh adorn the walls of yoga studios. The thin veil of secularity surrounding yoga is lifted when quotes from the Manusmriti slide their way into yoga classes and even festivals. Yoga is established as a Hindu and hence, Indian practice. For example, Tymi Howard, in a speech she gave at the International Sedona festival for Yoga quotes the Manusmriti, blending Yoga and Hinduism to be one.
The line between Hinduism and yoga is further blurred with Modi’s campaign to institutionalize Yoga under the guise of “well being”. Numerous Muslim activists and politicians protest the move towards making Yoga a mandatory requirement on its International Day in numerous schools. Many Muslim scholars say that yoga is against the fundamental tenets of Islam. Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim member of parliament said “Why make this a nationalist issue? Just because I do not want to do yoga does not mean I am not a patriot.” Yet Modi continues to associate the name of India with Yoga, making it a land of spirituality and using it as cultural capital to expand Hindutva power. Another example of this is Yogi Adityanath, who in a speech said “Those who abstain from the Sun God should drown themselves in the ocean or live in a darkened room for the rest of their life”.”
The politicisation of spirituality attached to India does not just come with Yoga but is a rather dated concept that truly took shape during the Indian nationalist movement. As the influence of the West progressed, Hindu culture felt the need to become more consistent with Western notions of humanitarianism and liberalism. The West became the materialistic “Outsider” and India became the spiritual world that had to be protected from the evil influence of the West.
This rhetoric was monopolised by Gandhi who promoted an unmaterialistic spiritualism through the ideology of Satyagraha which was significantly shaped by the notion of physical and spiritual progress through practicing non-violence, self sacrifice/suffering and non-cooperation. Gandhi then not only became a revolutionary but a spiritual leader, that while moving India towards independence, also reified the West’s civilising mission of the West that eased their conscious by seeing the colonised as incapable of handling the “materialistic” tasks of governance.
While yoga is often presented as a secular activity, scripts from Bhagavad Gita are often recited in yoga classes and statues of Ganesh adorn the walls of yoga studios.
This idea of the “spiritual” inner world also allows Hindu men to protect Indian (Hindu) patriarchal traditions while still appeasing to rising liberal notions in the West. The Indian woman was made the guardian of this spiritual domain and the creation of the “new woman” took place. She was educated yet still responsible for familial responsibilities; She was liberated yet still subjugated under male dominance. Women needed to occupy domestic realms and uphold Indian spirituality through motherhood, wifehood and overall domesticity.
So what does Yoga have to do with this? Yoga becomes the vehicle through which the very same patriarchal spiritualisation of India can be carried forward. For example, the health advisory published by the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) advised “pregnant women to eschew the crucial protein from meat, not have “lustful thoughts” or sex.”
Another example of the same ideology being propagated is Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of RSS, who claimed that rape occured in India not in Bharat. Bharat here is the spiritual inner world that, unlike India, has not been contaminated by Western influence. Bharat is pure, traditional and holds on to “core” Indian (Hindu) values. The underlying belief here then, is that the corrupting influence of the West is what leads to assault as women start to stray away from ideas of spiritual domesticity, leaving men no choice, a deeply flawed and lethargic outlook on sexual assault.
This claim by Bhagwat becomes even more ironic when put in the context of the numerous pending cases against different spiritual leaders of pure “Bharat” like Asaram Bapu, a yoga and meditation guru with 400 ashrams all over the country. In 2013, Asaram was accused (and later convicted) of rape by a young woman who was also his devotee. The list of “Yoga ambassadors” accused of sexual assault is rather long-ranging from Hot Yoga pioneer Bikram Choudhary to Satchidananda. Thus, the institutionalisation and politics of spirituality also allows the female body to be controlled, uniformed and disciplined.
Three centuries of sustained colonialism and the fight for independence it ensued don’t just vanish, but create ideologies that stem from the very same colonialism. Making India the land of spirituality allows numerous insidious power dynamics to be created that not only exotify India but also further the goals of Hindutva that eradicates India of its dynamic, multicultural facets that truly make it incredible. Modi’s politics of yoga is a clear example of gaslighting, allowing him to invisibilise the functioning of oppressive structures in a way that calling yoga a form of cultural capital for the Hindutva movement seems like a “stretch.”
Featured Image Source: Midday India