Yoga is Part of the Civilisational Commons

Creating an event like International Yoga Day was brilliant, institutionalising it would be disastrous

Festivals and anniversaries generate their own forms of celebrations and politics. A politics of anniversaries creates its own blend of nostalgia, aspiration, memory which can be central to the identity of a nation. International Yoga Day showed that not only was India a coalition of aspiring classes, but India itself had become an aspiring nation, determined to be more mobile, more successful and more determined to project its sense of achievement and originality. Brand India had to dig deep into its civilisational self to reclaim Buddha, Gandhi and yoga. By persuading the UN to declare June 21 as international Day, Narendra Modi achieved a political coup, a recognition of India as the home of yoga. Many Indians felt yoga was India’s gift to the world. It had traversed the globe and June 21 had become a ritual of homecoming, a recognition that yoga was a “Make in India”.

Against the majestic monumentality of Lutyens’ Delhi, Modi managed to inscribe a brilliant spectacle of 37000 people performing yoga. The PM led by example performing his exercises like an adept. Watching from a distance one sighted gurus like Ramdev and the head of the Ramakrishna Mission. The collage of bodies against a mosaic of colorful carpets created a mass scale event even the Chinese would have envied. The government was clear it was aiming for the Guinness book of records, creating a mundane marker to the otherwise spiritual event. In fact, the commentaries accompanying the event shows that such spectacles create their own politics, an efflorescence of debates which, while revealing, are not always fruitful.

An event like Yoga Day needs a context but the trouble was that critics used a different set of lenses to look at it. Few followed Swami Jaggi Vasudev’s advice to celebrate it without politics. For many, the politics was the celebration and thus the source of angst.

The BJP regime itself added confusion and bite to the event. Ram Madhav turned yoga into an act of citizenship, blasting Vice President Hamid Ansari for his absence. It was ironic that Ansari needed a certificate of citizenship from an RSS ideologue.

A pluralistic idea

The confusion was in the category of analysis. Is yoga a vehicle of the nation-state or a gift of a civilisation? Viewed civilisationally, one goes back to Patanjali who saw yoga as an individual search for spirituality, a trial-and-error search for meaning. Patanjali was plural enough to say that if yoga did not work, the individual could try other things.

The original idea of yoga was plural, voluntary, open-ended and it required the guidance of a guru. The yoga emphasised by the nation-state is a mass activity, a part of its health programmes; as BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra put it, yoga is like a pulse polio programme, a vector for health. This confuses a technology mission a la Sam Pitroda with a movement for “inner meaning”. To be fair, Narendra Modi was clear in emphasising that Yoga Day was neither a circus nor a mass exercise in calisthenics reminiscent of Fascist cults of the body. The sadness was that some of his more enthusiastic followers did not read his lips.

The opposition to Yoga Day as articulated by the Congress and some secular intellectuals was illiterate. Congress critics dismissed it as a middle-class exercise claiming that farmers and labourers did not need yoga. It was for the middle-class couch potato. Asaduddin Owaisi of the MIM and some Muslim clerics went berserk in claiming Yoga was anti-Muslim. Responding to their objections, the government removed the surya namaskar from the rituals of the official event. Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh lashed out, claiming Yoga Day was sheer propaganda for the regime and Modi’s ego. Present in the superficiality of the controversy was a reduction of Yoga Day to an event like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day without conveying the syncretic and pluralistic ethos of yoga. What supporters and critics alike forgot to remember is that yoga is part of a civilisational commons. One cannot patent it or express ownership of it. It is not intellectual property. It is part of a civilisational heritage.

The historian A L Basham put it brilliantly when he said that the dialogue of medical systems was a critical part of the dialogue of civilisations and that medicine was never communalistic. Yoga is plural by definition, as much as Hinduism is syncretic. The point that critics and advocates missed out was that International Yoga Day as a UN event was a beginning, a recovery. Eventually, yoga would be a personal and experimental search for meaning. A search for well-being cannot be measured through productivity statistics and attendance records.

Ashram vs shakha, Hinduism vs Hindutva

The BJP’s Sambit Patra, usually very reasoned, compared Narendra Modi with another Narendra, Vivekananda. He claimed every man had a right to his own comparisions but in that moment he blurred the ashram and the shakha, institutions which are classically separate. The monk and the guru have a different kind of role in Indian civilisation. They set the norms of spirituality by practicing an ascetic style. They are custodians and trustees of the spiritual. This Swami Vasudev upheld and it is this laughing, playful sense of spirituality we must seek. The Swami was clear that yoga cannot be a dismal science.

International Yoga Day in fact raises in a profound way the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. Yoga is not a vehicle for RSS ideologues. As a spiritual search it will always raise the unexpected. Yoga is not an ideological technique or vector, an intellectual patent. It is a search for truth and spirituality. As India globalises, it has to differentiate between a civilisation which is plural, experimental, and a nation-state which seeks boundaries, certainty and uniformity. Sites like Yoga Day now becomes global theatres for the drama of choice. Deeply and fundamentally, yoga has to combine swadeshi as locality, dialect, vernacular with swaraj – the global, the cosmopolitan, the planetary. Gandhi’s concept of oceanic circles is an apt metaphor for yoga.

On a more everyday level, Yoga Day was a remarkable event, disciplined, unpretentious in commentary, with diplomats, pracharaks, NCC cadets and schools kids mingling easily. It was choreographed aesthetically and orchestrated brilliantly. It articulated an India beyond spelling bee and IT, an open-ended invitation to the world to join one of the oldest spiritual journeys. It allowed a younger generation to feel the depth of a culture, to realize the link between health, lifestyle and well-being. At that level, Modi’s serendipity in persuading the UN to adopt June 21 as Yoga Day was brilliant. It was an idea that worked and even dissent added the right chorus of plurality to it.

All that remains is to sustain the spirit of yoga, the search for inner meaning. For the Westphalian nation-state on which the UN is based, such a move can be unprecedented. It can set the basis of a search for peace which thinks beyond war. It can show that yoga is not just a set of techniques but an experiment in meaning and non-violence which can temper the harshness of security initiatives with the many-sidedness of the spiritual. It might set the stage to steer us between the cynicism of power and the instrumentalism of technology.

Modi must also be clear that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the clean Ganga programme, the yoga mission speak different governance patterns and different time lines. To lump them all together would violate their integrity and diversity. An institutionalisation of these experiments without the appropriate imagination would invite both irony and disaster.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad