Much Ado About Yoga
Satya Pal Singh. Editorial.VI.XXIII.XVI
BODY, MIND & SOUL
By Staya Pal Singh
I am amazed to see a few of our enlightened people generating pointless controversy over the International Yoga Day which was celebrated all over the world with much eclat and enthusiasm yesterday. It was an invigorating experience to have watched over 200 million people across the globe performing yoga to mark the day which was championed by India following an epoch-making initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had petitioned the UN to make the event an international affair. And the massive response internationally sent the event into the Guinness World Records. So, it's time to celebrate re-emergence of yoga that originated in India and first appeared in Hindu texts in the fifth century BC. What a glorious moment for the nation as a whole!
To encourage people to adopt yoga, "that unites the body, mind and soul", into their daily routine, the PM broke the security cordon and mingled with the 40,000-strong mass of people who did yoga at Rajpath making it the largest yoga session ever. There was massive response from officials, soldiers, students and common folk, though there was no roll-call. If Modi took a giant stride that brought so much glory and honor to the country, why should our non-Hindu intellectuals, "nationalist" Congress leaders and other Hindi baiters feel bad and unwittingly push the event into the oft-resorted communal spin with the intent to create further chasm in a society that is already sitting precariously on the precipice. I am surprised why something noble is being made India’s latest political fault-line, especially as the causative factors are all non-issues, growing out of sheer religious bigotry and hatred. Yoga's reach transcends religious and linguistic boundaries. It’s a common sight in India to see people from all religions performing yoga every morning in public parks. I have seen two of my Muslim neighbors doing yoga for years.
After the UN go-ahead, 200 countries, including 47 Muslim nationalities, supported the move to have a special Yoga Day. As a result, exceptional response came on Sunday which has slipped into history as a rare event of mass global participation. People in cities across the world from Washington to Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, London, Paris to hundreds of other cities took part in mass sessions. Fortyseven Islamic countries took part in the event, even as Modi-baiters kept on howling back in India. Afghanistan, Bangladesh,Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman, among others, participated in the event. Non-participants included Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Brunei, Mauritiana, Cameroon, Libya and Burkina Faso. In all, 193 countries celebrated the Yoga Day.
Irfan Salmani Dehalvi, president of All-India Jamaat-e-Salmani, who joined the yoga mass at Rajpath, said most Muslims had no reservations about yoga and 'surya namaskar' and the issue had been blown out of proportion. Many Muslim youth accompanying him participated in the event. Abbas Ali Bohra from Bengaluru, who sat with BJP leaders Ram Madhav and Vijay Goyal, MP, felt honored to be there and even said,"namaz is close to yoga." Alongside, there are critics, who see danger bells in everything. Clearly, they refuse to go deeper into the nuances of Hindu ethos and insistently talk in divisive tones even on a noble cause that has come down to this day for the good of humanity. They say "Modi’s Yoga Day is part of the larger project to Hinduize India’s diversity and promote centralized uniformity in beliefs and practices. There is an attempt to link yoga with national pride as part of India’s ancient legacy. Any opposition to the practice is branded as anti-national...yoga is a Hindu practice which goes against Islamic teaching."
Muslim Personal Law Board member Kamal Farooqui alleges that by promoting yoga, the Modi govt is trying to push its Hindu agenda. Muslim scholar Zafarul Islam Khan says, "India’s religious minorities do not have any opposition to yoga, but the problem is “bringing religion into it." Historian Dilip Simeon says the entire debate is a “manufactured controversy” by Hindu politicians trying to spread Hindu culture as a dominant belief in the region.
In his brief address to the nation from Rajpath, Modi reminded that yoga had played a significant role in bringing the whole world together, cutting across differences of color, class and creed. He rightly warned against "commoditization" of yoga which he termed as "our collective gift to humanity." I take this particular phrase of PM to mean "a gift to humanity from every Indian."
In the Western world, growing popularity of yoga has raised a very curious question: Can Christians practise yoga ? There may be thousands who have been passionately following Christ and simultaneously doing yoga. But when Pastors insist, "Christians should stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots," people get confused. Why demonic? Because of its Hindu background and traditions? Pastor Mark Driscoll argues practising yoga is simply too dangerous and not worth the risk? Get close to his logic: "All meditation is opening to demonism.” What, then, he thinks can be pleasing to God?
The problem is yoga is considered pagan worship. Then, why have things that were once pagon been co-opted by Christians and used for worship ? Christmas and Easter may be cited as clear examples. What is the issue even if pantheists (believers in nature) perform yoga ? Here, someone may raise a question that will confuse any sane person : If Jesus was born in September, why did Pope Julius I declare in A.D. 350 that his birth would be celebrated on December 25 ? Was that to make it easier for the pagan Romans to convert to Christianity ?
Jesus tells us that when we pray, we should do it in solitude and with few words. That was the reason why during His ministry, Christ often withdrew from His disciples for hours to be alone with God. He used to go for hours, but praying with few words. What Christ ordains is finally the best form of worship of God. But when a yoga practitioner does the same, by way of deep meditation, that becomes 'demonic'. Perhaps, we will have to tune in to a different world to get to the core of this strange reasoning.
Leaving the issue of logicality here, let's go back to the concept of yoga that originated in Hinduism, but over the years it travelled far beyond the Hindu texts. Hinduism may involve yoga, but all yoga is not Hinduism. Yoga Sutras, composed of 196 Indian sutras, were compiled by Patañjali, incorporating materials about yoga from older traditions, along with his commentary. Those from minority communities need to know that Patanjali's Yoga Sutras was first translated in Arabic by renowned scholar Al-Beruni and commissioned by Mahmud of Ghazni as 'Kitab Patanjali'. I don't think the PM has ever attempted to link it to the Hindu ethos. He has called it creed, gender neutral discipline.
Last few thousand years have brought a lot of changes and most yoga that is being currently practised in America and rest of the Western countries only slightly resembles the original practice. It's now reduced almost to 'asanas', or at the most, to 'pranayama' (breathing exercises) for the reason of maintaining good health. They know Yoga gives mental strength, calms mind, helps better sleep and master breathing, boosts immunity and sexual power, improves posture and flexibility, helps reduce weight and allows total body workout. Stretching muscles enables one to have steely abs, strong arms, toned buttocks, a strong back and legs. Workouts can be done easily at one's own pace. What else an individual needs? Come on, dear Muslim, Christian friends, take this precious gift from your Hindu brethren!