Despite much solemnity, last year’s International Yoga Day had its hilarious moments: Made-in-China mats, tubby ministers wheezing to impress their older and fitter boss, religious minorities outraging at “Om”, as though it were an unmentionable expletive and the “Hindu” Sun salutation (absurdly bestowing a rival faith upon the fountainhead of all life), the peeved Congress muttering about “personality cults” under a certain Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India.
This year and well before millions go into synchronised contortions, the Modi government has announced that the “Suryanamaskar” will not be part of the Yoga Day “directive”. “Om” will be “voluntary”, not compulsory.
Like the monsoon, the raga, the Bengal tiger and the peacock — of course yoga is ours and it is high time we brought it out of the dimly-lit halls of oily, dogmatised ashrams and gave it an international airing and its rightful place as the oldest and most beneficial mind and body workout in the world. Undoubtedly and whether for 10 minutes or more, yoga both calms the mind and strengthens the body like few other regimens can.
So full marks then, to Mr Modi and his enviable Gujarati canniness, that yoga has emerged as India’s most popular global “soft power” initiative (our “Compleat Traveller” has hardly a country left on his to-do list) and within but two years, already yielded multiple returns.
The UN has declared June 21 as International Yoga Day. This year, and motivated perhaps by its keenness to push a stalled trade agreement with India, the European Union in Brussels too, will send hundreds into downward dogs in our honour. The World Health Organisation, which in the past chiefly issued advisories against diseased India, is now to “recognise” yoga and ayurveda.
Pardon the analogy, but it does seem as though the world and its uncle are bending over backwards just to please us. And to someone who grew up in the decades when India was considered a filthy, sinister cliché, this is sweet, very sweet.
But as youth in the ’60s and ’70s, we, too, thirsted to be addressed in our language, not that of doddering politicians with cobwebbed ideologies. The world is even younger today. More than 365 million Indians in the 10-24 age group give us the world’s largest youth population. And it requires no degree in demographics to know that in any country where Mr Modi has woven his yoga initiative into more serious business: the young are the future.
Therefore it is they, not sadhus, maulvis, bishops and various religious votebanks, whom India’s worldwide yoga campaign must stay focused on. Mr Modi is now a world citizen who needs world-class planners. No longer must such global strides be left to the amateur designer-wives of his ministers and bureaucrats; nor to his own two in-house yogis and mascots, Baba Ramdev and the BJP’s “secular badge” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, both of whose stars — and turnovers — have seen a steady rise in the past two years.
Many excellent initiatives have been put in place to protect ayurveda and yoga, even under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during whose tenure in 2007 a digital library of India’s ancient intellectual possessions including 1,500 to date of a presumed 10,000 yoga postures, was set up and shared with worldwide patent offices. A ministry dedicated to ayurveda has been established by the Modi government.
And yet, no ruling party to date (except to an extent, the AAP), has been able to understand and appeal to the young and restless mind, which, even if religiously-inclined, is never closed to innovation and free interpretation.
This year’s Yoga Day has already got Modi-bashers and all of India’s pseudo-liberal social media “warriors” working overtime again. Maulvis and bishops are dutifully raising red flags.
But this knee-jerk reaction is partly also due to the BJP’s most frustrating flaw, its wooden intransigence born of majority confidence in the Lok Sabha. For instance, where was the need for minister of state for Ayush Shripad Naik to spoil the assurances on the Suryanamaskar by adding a not-so-subtle corollary that it was not intended to please India’s minorities, but only because the exercise was too complicated for everyone to handle? Or to ask the administration of Chandigarh, where the flagship event will be held soon, to smother the city with lotuses (which, just by the way, happen to be the BJP’s party symbol)?
There is nothing wrong with offering yoga or Sanskrit in schools. It is the accompanying chirps from the BJP’s hangers-on claiming both as Hindu/party property and attempts to make them compulsory subjects that act as the spoilers.
Yoga is an ancient Indian idea, not an invention like Marconi’s radio, which is why it cannot be awarded a patent under the IPR regime. Logic and history tell us that the majority religion thousands of years ago when yoga evolved was — as today — Hinduism and the language used was Sanskrit. So of course it must have been a Hindu who thought up yoga and penned down its rules in Sanskrit. Over millenia, various practitioners lent that blueprint their own top-spin by adding or taking away shlokas. Does that mean yoga today is thus the intellectual property of Hindus, or worse — of a single political party? And given the nature of today’s cyber-global-village where the world’s young hang out around the clock, will marketing yoga as a “Hindu product” guarantee success?
Like all successful fitness entrepreneurs, Mr Modi must urgently consider new templates. Let there be a Yoga 1.0, the traditional Hindu version. But let there also be versions 1.1, 1.2 and so on, allowing a fitness-loving Christian to pick the one for practice after Sunday mass, a Muslim, another for in between namaz and an atheist a healthy alternative to hugging trees. If all these templates were “Made in India” by professionals with global marketing experience, the crux of the initiative would be fulfilled to perfection. It would ensure the world embraces yoga and identifies it not with Hinduism or any faith, but with Brand India alone.
The writer is the former South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel and a senior foreign correspondent