Until relatively recently, there were two prevailing stereotypes of India in the wider world but particularly in the West. The first, and by far the most unflattering image was that of a country where suffering, starvation, disease and butchery were the defining features of existence. The second was the picture of India as an exotic haven – where sadhus, mendicants, snake charmers, tigers, elephants and jewelled maharajas were in abundance. This was also the India of the mythical Indian rope trick and, of course, the mysterious art of yoga.
To encapsulate the celebration of exoticism as ‘soft power’ would be a misnomer. Although Indian leaders harked back incessantly to the 5,000 years of antiquity, it carried little credibility, except to the small handful of those who made the heady trek to Varanasi and Kathmandu from the late-1960s. But that discovery of an alternative lifestyle had more to do with a momentary crisis of post-War Western civilisation than a conscious recognition of India’s soft power. In the ultimate analysis, the rules of international politics deemed that soft power could only be an appendage to ‘hard’ power-once military but now economic. Tragically, this is where India faltered.
Soft power, by which we imply a curious mix of everything from Bollywood and Buddhism to cricket and yoga, vipassana and even transcendental meditation, became soft power only after India acquired economic muscle and Indians started making it big in spheres that were moulded by the capitalist ethos. When he travelled to England for the second Round Table Conference in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi was regarded as a curious mixture of a wily politician, a saint and a crank. He attracted the respect of all but his dedicated disciples were drawn by his asceticism, vegetarianism and even his travelling goat. The mainstream viewed him as a curious oddity.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the United States in October last year, he was in the middle of his punishing Navratra fast. Yes, this did cause some bewilderment over diplomatic banquet arrangements but it wasn’t accompanied by sniggers and mirth. The Modi fans that trooped into Madison Square Garden for the boisterous public rally were very different from the fans that Gandhi attracted to his temporary abode in London’s East End 83 years before. One difference was that Gandhi spoke for a subject while Modi represented an assertive, rising power. In Gandhi’s case, his personal lifestyle was thought to be distinctly odd and quirky; in Modi’s case it was seen as India’s ability to blend modernity with traditional customs – and this included yoga.
Yoga has become a byword for India’s soft power. It is today an international phenomenon that has successfully blended with a global concern for healthy body and a stress-free mind. Modi didn’t make yoga popular throughout the world. In seeking international recognition for yoga from the United Nations, he was aiming for two things: an institutionalisation of Indian soft power and, more important, highlighting the importance of heritage to an India that is prone to taking these things a bit too casually. International Yoga Day is not merely a diplomatic initiative, it also involves projecting India to itself.
It was entirely predictable that yoga is still greeted with a measure of scepticism in some international quarters. Apart from being associated with a fashionable, new age lifestyle, it has drawn the ire of some religious figures who associate it with Hindu philosophy and ascetic practices. In its 1989 document Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI), the Catholic Church warned of the risks of yogic postures being mistaken for spiritual effects: “To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life.
Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.” Likewise, some Islamic theologians have described yoga as un-Islamic and questioned the practice of the surya namaskar.
That yoga owes its ancestry and its evolution to the practitioners of the sanatan dharma isn’t in any serious doubt. Nor can it be denied that the goal of oneness with the divine is at variance with the tradition of worship. However, opposing government involvement in Yoga Day because there is opposition from a section that doesn’t believe in the cross-fertilisation of different faiths is ridiculous.
The cultural underpinnings of India are to a very large extent defined by a Hindu ancestry. This can neither be wished away nor artificially secularised (or even baptised). Yoga is a national heritage that cannot and should not be confined to a religious compartment. Nor must encouragement be given to those sections who reach for the gun at the mere mention of the term Hindu. If that happens, India runs the risk of repudiating its music, dance, literature and art. Most important, it runs the real danger of dislocating history from nationhood.