On the 21st of June around the world people celebrated yoga. Foremost amongst these events and happenings was that in Delhi where 7 000 people rolled out their mats on the grass around India Gate. Ironically (the first irony of many surrounding this very recently declared UN ‘International Yoga Day’), India Gate is a monument to ‘glorious heroism’ in war and a memorial for the death of 82, 000 Indian subjects who were roped into fighting for the British army in the First World War. The construction of the monument was mostly the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the design for the monument was commissioned by David Lloyd George, post WWI British Prime-minister. India Gate is a physical instantiation of British Imperial might, Indian servitude, suffering and needless death, and patriarchy.
Smiling like a cheesier cat in the front line of the mass yoga happening was current India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a self-professed yoga enthusiast. Indeed, awkward historical contextualisation for his choice of stage aside, he has reason to look chuffed. This UN sanctioned day of yoga was his brain child. His supporters would argue that this is yet another indication of his successes as PM in international diplomatic and business arenas. It has been reported that 192 countries participated by hosting public yoga events around the world on this day.
Concurrently, media advocates have been raving about the health advantages of yoga practice and peaceful universal message it has ‘gifted’ humanity. Modi has been quoted widely for his persuasive descriptions of the roughly 5000 year old discipline as, “not about exercise but discovering the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature”. In his UN speech he went so far as to argue that yoga could assist in tackling climate change. Modi’s speech and much of the fanfare that has ensued around ‘his’ day is characteristically bold, glitzy, and pious.
What is most troubling, but not unsurprising, about this Yoga Day is the lack of critical engagement with the poisonous ideological wellspring in which Modi dabbles in order to bring forth such ‘proudly India’ offerings. Yoga Day emerges from his Hindu-right nationalist agenda that author Pankaj Mishra has described in a New York Times op-ed as a ‘retrograde 1920s-style nationalist dogma’.
When Modi was voted in as prime minister in 2014, the rhetoric that lifted him to the victors’ podium was largely a fusion of trailblazing economic reform and firebrand religio-ethnic-linguistic revivalism. This combination has, as Mishra astutely points out, historical similitude with the ‘age of totalitarianism’ when Facism was the flavour de jour. It was not entirely clear at this stage whether Modi was a Hindu zealot disguised as an economic revisionist, or the other way around. Both ‘tickets’ - as Trump has so infamously demonstrated - conveniently synergise and, with enough media support, create a tremendous pulse of populist power. This power tends to be based more on human energy re-directed into convenient channels of hatred, than ascertainable policy and foresight.
Reports indicate that Modi has presided over an impressive acceleration in economic growth (from 6.4% in 2013 to a high of 7.9% in 2015). However, in a recent study, The Economist argues that these macro growth indicators are deceiving. It would seem as though Modi’s reforms are not penetrating and systematic enough. His cabinet has been neglecting the nuts and bolts of structural decay and abjection whilst working on a shiny armour for a vision of Hindu past glory - or ‘golden bird’ in Modi’s words - that will ‘rise again’ with the help of neoliberal elites in equally shiny suits. Notably, these partners in economic Modi-reform are all too often simultaneously espousing the militant and chauvinist principles of Hindu nationalism.
One such glaring example is his appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath is a hardline Hindu rabble-rouser and he now presides over a region in India with around 200 million Muslims (the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think-tank has called this appointment “stunning”). Muslims in general are the most significant minority in India, which is a kaleidoscope of different cultures and religions in spite of the ill-fitting modern political conceptualisation of a Hindu-‘rashtra’ (nation). Adityanath is currently being investigated for inciting racial hatred and his rhetoric is nothing short of extremist: “If [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.” The vegetarian, temple worshiping, saffron-robed chief minister is also openly supportive of Hindu nationalist vigilante groups that are known to terrorise cross-cultural couples and ‘undesirables’. He has labeled this rouge moral police his ‘private army’. Adityanath has driven a stake through the heart of religious violence in a manner that chillingly reminds of Modi’s involvement in Gujarat state in 2002.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first propelled itself into government in the 1990s through stirring up communal tensions, and by 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat State, he had facilitated the ‘perfect storm’; an enabling environment in which hate crimes and religious rioting resulted in the killing of at least 1000 people, most of them Muslims. Modi has never categorically condemned the massacre or apologised for failing to prevent it. Moreover, in his term as prime minister he has overseen the ‘beef ban’ which is not only smacks of cultural intolerance, but has resulted in the unemployment and destitution of thousands of Muslims. The greatest irony here is that India’s substantial beef-export industry is built on buffalo meat, not that of cows, a holy animal by Hindu lore.
I myself am a vegetarian yoga enthusiast, and the beef industry is undoubtably not something I champion as a matter of principle given what we now know about climate change and the bloated green house gas contributor this is. Nevertheless, the Hindu nationalist thugs that have inculcated and upheld this beef ban are part of system of ideology, rampant PR mobilisation and crude xenophobia. Author Salman Rushdie has comically called them ‘Modi Toadies’; they have carried their leader on their shoulders through the throngs of India’s impoverished to establish a “Syncophantic personality cult”. Media is being whipped into line, issues such as the Indian military occupation of predominately Muslim Kashmir continue to be silenced, and bill-boards famous for India’s cricketing gods’ endorsement deals are being replaced by Modi and his ‘Hindu-revivalism’ (during the 2015 election campaign state sponsored projects accounted for 3 out of 5 brands advertised on TV).
Do not be mistaken, hatha yoga promotion on an Indian state level is part of this project. In 2016 Modi called on Baba Ramdev to inaugurate his international yoga day. Ramdev is a yoga master and conveniently heads up a Hindu lifestyle brand that is estimated to have made a total revenue in 2016 of over 600 million US$. They sell amongst other things, a herbal body wash, a 24 hour yoga channel, instant noodles and Putrajeevak Beej, a product which claims to improve women’s fertility and help couples to conceive of sons instead of daughters. This is the kind of vacuous chauvinist claptrap that Modi has chosen - expediently, given Ramdev’s market share - to build the brand of his International Yoga Day.
A further irony for Modi and his project of “glorifying our priceless heritage”, is that the appropriation of yoga and all its varying expressions in dominant culture is everything but ‘pure’. I saw an instagram post by an American yoga celebrity who has enormous social media reach on 21 June that featured herself in an impressive yoga pose and some text on the ‘beyond culture, language, creed, gender beauty of yoga’. She was entirely nude for a string of mala (Hindu prayer) beads strung around her neck and tantalisingly falling over one nipple. Her long blonde hair delicately brushed the round curve of her buttocks and the soft morning light in her Malibu home was impeccable. I wonder if the vigilantes in Uttar Pradesh knew of this post - the yoga day tribute? In a messy and complex chain, this Hindu revivalism has only emboldened and financially fuelled rampant cultural misappropriation. I have no clue how to untangle this chain whilst respecting the undeniable integrity and importance of yoga as a practical tool for health and mental wellbeing. It is clear, however, that the combination of firebrand nationalism and commercialised insensitive appropriation is corrupting.
Just because yoga is commonly perceived to represent universal and transcendent values of peace, non-violence and unity does not mean that it is above or can be consumed in isolation of politics. The ancient practice of Yoga has in the past century in particular been adopted and fused into people’s lives, health routines and spiritual journeys in a myriad of differing ways that has little resemblance to traditional sanskrit teachings and saffron robed rituals. This process of cultural appropriation and transformation is an inevitable cadence of culture over time, of globalisation, and is a tenuous social interplay that raises complex political questions. I am not saying that Hatha yoga should not be celebrated, but this particular celebration - concocted by Modi as part of his ‘brand India’ nationalist agenda and endorsed by a political body such as the UN - is something to be wary of. It should be scrutinised and debated more vigorously than it currently is. By enjoying the fanfare of Yoga Day and choosing not to interrogate the political agenda implicated therein is a form of silent endorsement of the problematic partisan politics of Modi.
The inconvenient truth for Modi is that Hinduism is a poor soil for fundamentalists to sew their seed and flourish. Hindu espouses no concept of a Pope, no mandatory scripture, and has no evangelical impulse - all expedient tools in the sustained reign of corrupt spiritual power. Furthermore, the reprehensible Hindu caste system has entrenched deep divisions into its genetic fibre. In spite of right-wing nationalist interpretations across Asia, wherever Hinduism has flourished it has fused with, emulated and vibrated to the tune of local cultures. Scholar Sunil Khilnani has termed this a “bewildering internal pluralism” of Hinduism. Surely its most powerful ‘gift’ is not so much a lesson of yoga postures and breathing techniques but synergy, diversity and transformation. This should be celebrated with cultural respect, integrity and care to ward off Modi and his business tycoon Yogis, whether they be from Uttar Pradesh, Malibu or Ramdev TV.