In the winter of 2014, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously voted to declare June 21st the International Day of Yoga. The International Day of Yoga was conceived of by the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narenda Modi, who visited New York to pitch the international celebration as a way to honor and promote yoga for its lifestyle benefits. The resolution was adopted in 2015, after gaining the support of 175 countries.
The magnitude of the International Day of Yoga cannot be exaggerated. Major international cities like London, Paris, New York City, and Tokyo all feature voluntary celebrations of their own every year. In India, the birthplace of yoga, public school students of all ages and government workers are summoned to perform a compulsory yoga practice with a prescribed set of poses (Suri, 2015). In 2015, Modi led a group of over 35,000 people through a yoga practice (pictured right) that was broadcasted throughout India and broke two Guinness world records.
For those of us who most closely associate yoga practitioners with wealthy, white, suburban mothers, a day devoted to celebrating yoga and its physical and mental health benefits seems devoid of a larger, religious agenda. But for Indian Muslims, the International Day of Yoga is not without controversy and fear. The compulsory nature of the International Day of Yoga in India, and the intensifying oppression of Muslims under Modi’s leadership lead many Indian Muslims to view the International Day of Yoga as a Hindu nationalist scheme.
The evolution of yoga in India has been intimately linked to the development of Hinduism (Suri, 2015). Om is the Hindu word for God, and the sun salutation is a prayer to the Hindu sun god. As a result, some Muslims in India see the International Day of Yoga as a compulsory practice of Hinduism and a threat to Muslims’ religious freedom (Najar, 2015).
Furthermore, Indian Muslims are suspicious of the true intentions behind Prime Minister Modi’s International Day of Yoga brainchild. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a Hindu nationalist party, and maintains that India is a Hindu country with “no obligation to embrace the plurality of ethnicities, religions, and cultures present on the subcontinent” (Corbo, 2017). Tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority have long plagued the subcontinent, and have only worsened under Modi’s leadership. In recent years, there have been many incidences of anti-Muslim violence, demands from the BJP to hand over Islamic shrines and mosques to Hindus, and punishments for Muslims who possess beef in their homes (Ashraf, 2017).
With that said, Modi and the BJP have worked since the inception of the International Day of Yoga to emphasize the health and well-being benefits of yoga practice, obscuring the activity’s religious association with Hinduism. In Modi’s original United Nations address, he characterized yoga as an “Indian” tradition, without mentioning its religious roots (Suri, 2015). To deflect Indian Muslim concerns, the BJP is also quick to point out that 47 Muslim nations supported the resolution declaring International Day of Yoga. The BJP has since dropped the requirement to chant or perform the sun worship pose– both of which can be seen as un-Islamic – during compulsory yoga practice (Suri, 2015).
But could the International Day of Yoga still be a BJP scheme to advance the Hindu religious nationalism and fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiments that already exist within Indian society? Indian Muslims who view yoga as a Hindu religious practice believe so. Scholar Peter Van Ness (1999) encourages those of us who might not associate yoga with Hinduism to also consider the physical practice as a religious one. Van Ness (1999) argues, “The goal of traditional yoga practice is to acknowledge God in all things” (Van Ness, 1999). Regardless of our Western notions of yoga and the BJP’s efforts to obscure the religiosity behind the practice, in order to understand Indian Muslim’s aversion to International Day of Yoga, we must consider yoga as Indians do: a religious act.
Journalist Manil Suri (2015) explains, “A practice with Vedic origins that has nevertheless attained such secular popularity is the perfect vehicle to create a shared national consciousness.” And if we place yoga in a Hindu religious context, I argue that International Day of Yoga can be seen as strategic attempt to create a Hindu national consciousness. The concern of Indian Muslims is valid, for the stronger the religious influence is on a national movement, the greater the likelihood that discrimination against the religious minority will occur (Rieffer, 2003).
The relationship between nationalism and religion is one that consumers of international news must increasingly consider. From the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Rohingya Muslim genocide in Myanmar, religion is frequently used to create loyalty to a national movement. Although yoga in the United States is frequently stripped of its religious background and associations, we must consider the activity’s religiosity within an Indian context. For Indian Muslims, Modi’s International Day of Yoga can be seen a demonstration of religious nationalism, and consequently a threat to their freedom to practice Islam in India. While the rest of the world practices downward dogs and lotus positions in the name of bettering global health, Indian Muslims face increasing oppression as Hindu nationalist sentiments increase, one International Day of Yoga at a time.
Ashraf, A. (2017, August 17). India’s Muslims and the Price of Partition. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/opinion/india-muslims-hindus-partition.html?mtrref=www.google.com&assetType=opinion.
Corbo, I. (2017, July 19). Modi Gets a Boost as India Elects a Hindu Nationalist as President. Vice News. Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/8xmeb5/modi-gets-a-boost-as-india-elects-a-hindu-nationalist-as-president.
Najar, N. (2015, June 21). International Yoga Day Finally Arrives in India, Amid Cheers and Skepticism. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/world/asia/india-narendra-modi-international-yoga-day.html.
Rieffer, B. (2003). Religion and nationalism: Understanding the consequences of a complex relationship. Ethnicities, 3(2), 215-242. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23890294.
Suri, M. (2015, June 19). India and the Politics of Yoga. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/opinion/india-and-the-politics-of-yoga.html.
Van Ness, P. (1999). Yoga as Spiritual but Not Religious: A Pragmatic Perspective. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, 20(1), 15-30. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27944075.