New Delhi: The glittering World Cultural Festival, organized by Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) organization in New Delhi this month, had the country agog for days. The colorful three-day extravaganza, featuring yoga and meditation sessions, peace prayers and cultural performances by Indian and foreign artists, also boasted a VIP audience in attendance: top Indian politicos including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, corporate honchos and guests from across the world.
From a seven-acre stage set up for more than 35,000 artistes and visitors from 150 countries to a slew of temporary bridges, ramps, mobile towers and parking areas built over a 1,000-acre area on the banks of the holy river Yamuna, the festival had it all. Modi’s ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party government also pitched in with exclusive military services to help AOL build two pontoon bridges on the river for the function.
AOL was also given prompt clearances to host the jamboree by the environmental body – the National Green Tribunal – despite the latter noting in its report that the “flood plains have been drastically tampered with, the natural flow of the river has been destroyed and reeds, grasses and natural vegetation on the river bed have been removed.”
Such was the hype around the event, that a strident chorus from environmentalists and activists over the ecological harm caused to the Yamuna by the event, was ignored by the government. As were the Opposition parties’ objections to the government actively promoting such events and supporting Sri Sri Ravishankar. An environmental damage penalty of Rs 50 million ($750,000), imposed on AOL for ravaging an ecologically fragile region, had Sri Sri declaring defiantly “We’ll go to jail but not pay the fine. We have done nothing wrong.” The matter was ultimately settled after much hullabaloo with AOL coughing up a tiny fraction of the imposed fine.
Nor was this the first episode of the BJP government propping up a spiritual guru. The government’s support for yoga teacher Baba Ramdev, who is credited with popularizing yoga on a mass scale, has been fodder for the critics’ mill for years. From quick land clearances to expand the pan-India footprint of Ramdev’s organization Patanjali Yogpeeth – which hawks everything from herbal medicines to toothpastes to condominiums – to allotting prime space in government retail shops for displaying Patanjali’s consumer goods for sale, Ramdev has always enjoyed state support.
Observers brand this new and emerging trend of increasing state support for gurus as “crony spiritualism.” This phenomenon, the claim, involves the enmeshing of political, business and spiritual interests to further narrow political and business interests. Academics analyze the nascent phenomenon similarly. Speaking with The Diplomat, Dr. Amitabh Jahgirdar, assistant professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, explained, “Most popular gurus have a huge fan following across the spectrum – from the masses to the upper elite class. So it works well for the political class to leverage this large demographic as a vote-bank by supporting them. The World Cultural Festival by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar best demonstrates the rise of this phenomenon.”
Yet not long ago, when Modi took over the top job in 2014, his effusive endorsement of yoga and spirituality – as a physical exercise and well-being regimen – found a great resonance with the nation. The prime minister threw his weight behind yoga, and India’s traditional systems of medicine by making the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) a full-fledged ministry and showcasing it as the focal point of his health campaigns. Among the ministry’s stated goals was “promotion of the rich, centuries-old Indian heritage of medical and health sciences.”
Modi, 65, also persuaded the United Nations to declare June 21 International Day of Yoga – the first of which was celebrated last year in New Delhi with a mega yoga event. On an overcast Sunday, over 35,000 men, women – many drawn from the Army and national cadet corps – and children practiced a series of 21 yoga asanas (or postures), on a 2.4 km stretch of boulevard and lawns in central Delhi.
So far so good. Soon after, however, the narrative began to change from an emphasis on promoting yogic disciplines among the masses to regressive measures like state support for gurus and the Modi government’s directives to make yoga compulsory in schools and other academic institutes. For many, especially religious minorities, these measures were hard to accept.
While the BJP government’s efforts to seize on yoga has the chests of Hindu nationalists swelling with pride, others are clearly discomfited at these new developments. Muslim organizations in particular have objected to the Surya Namaskar (a set of yoga exercises), which requires a person to bow to the Sun God. Points out Amina Begum, a mother of two school-going girls based in New Delhi, “Islam being a monotheistic religion doesn’t allow followers to bow before anyone except Allah. We don’t like our kids following this routine in their schools. Surely, there are other neutral forms of exercises which can benefit children?”
Many others feel that the imposition is tantamount to curbing personal freedoms. “Instead of making yoga compulsory, the decision should be left to individual school managements, parents and individuals about what form of exercise they’d like to adhere to. This should be a matter of personal choice, not State imposition,” Dr. Pradeep Katkate, former principal of a government-run school in New Delhi, told The Diplomat.
Each time the issue crops up, however, the BJP government is quick to point to the fact that 47 Muslim nations supported Modi’s United Nations resolution to make yoga global. So why should the minorities object to its promotion back home? “In his United Nations address last year, even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that yoga promotes physical and spiritual health and well-being. He described it as an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition, rather than “Hindu” tradition,” explained a senior BJP functionary. “So what’s the fuss all about?”
Several schools across India already offer voluntary yoga sessions to kids in primary and secondary schools. However, the inclusion of the exercise in the curriculum leaves no choice for all schools but to follow suit. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat have already announced their plans to add yoga to school curricula. Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh followed soon after. The southern state of Andhra Pradesh has also announced a grant of about $4.5 million for regular yoga events.
India’s Opposition parties have also objected to the alleged “sheer hollowness” of the government’s claim that is promoting yoga for its health benefits, while questioning the slashing of the health budget by 17 percent and reducing the budget allocation for yoga from about $200 million in 2013-14 to a meager $50 million in the Ministry of AYUSH (the government body charged with developing ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy) this year.
However, Modi’s supporters emphasize that his efforts to promote yoga and its renowned practitioners, needs to be seen from the perspective of the prime minister emphasizing India’s role on the world stage from a more cultural standpoint. Says an article in the Washington University Political Review, “India does not have the same global cachet within foreign affairs as other countries, and so Modi has been utilizing India’s soft power potential to make up for a relatively small arsenal diplomatic firepower. Yoga offers the opportunity for Modi to revitalize India as a vishwa guru, or guru of the world…” The article concludes that “Modi’s creative use of India’s cultural heritage should be applauded for the unprecedented way in which it fortifies a relationship between soft power potential and foreign policy.”
Be that as it may, there’s no denying that the ancient discipline of yoga, practiced by seers and sages for millennia across India, has worked as a double-edged sword for Modi. While it has won him some points abroad, at home the initiative remains fraught, one that has alienated a segment of people who object to “Hindu traditions” being foisted on them. Such developments clearly sit uneasily with the secular and liberal credentials of the world’s largest democracy.
Neeta Lal is New Delhi-based senior journalist and editor.