By Javed Anand
Jun 17, 2015
In December 2014, 170 member nations, including 37 Muslim countries, endorsed the UN proposal to observe June 21 every year as World Yoga Day. Some days from now, when millions across the globe stretch, bend or stand upside down in unison for the first time cutting across race, religion and culture, it should be a moment of joy and pride for all Indians. Ours is the country where this unique art of rejuvenating body and soul, simultaneously, was born and bred. Instead, we find ourselves embroiled in a fresh controversy. On June 21, we may end up painting a sorry picture of ourselves before the world. Not because being argumentative is part of our DNA; simply an indicator of how communal secular India has now become.
More often than not, what is said is so self-evident or so universally acceptable that it doesn’t really matter who said it. You can’t argue even with a tyrant or a dictator when he says the sun rises in the east or that two plus two equals four. But there are occasions and contexts when who says or does what is no less important than what is said or done. The coming World Yoga Day looks like one such occasion.
Who could find much fault with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address before the UN General Assembly in October 2014, where he made his big pitch for yoga: “It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature”? Who would quarrel with the UN for proposing and 170 member nations adopting the idea of an annual, global yoga day?
But when an idea that fires the world’s imagination becomes a cause for social friction in yoga’s very own janmabhoomi, it’s time to pay attention not only to “what is being said” but also to “who is saying what”.
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi (MIM), Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan et al are threatening countrywide protest against this alleged attempt to impose an un-Islamic Hindu practice on Indian Muslims. Their objection, they claim, is not to yoga per se but to surya namaskar (sun salutation in English but could be interpreted as sun worship) and the chanting of “Om” and other Sanskrit shlokas. A Muslim, it is argued, is prohibited from bowing before anyone except Allah; doing surya namaskar is a “big sin”.
Meanwhile, though they seem few and far between, there are contrary Muslim voices professing that the postures assumed during namaz are similar to asanas in yoga. Ashraf F. Nizami, a practising Indian Muslim has published an entire book titled, Namaz: the Yoga of Islam.
A Muslim friend of mine from Mumbai is quite worried that on June 21 “we will make a spectacle of ourselves yet again”. “What picture of ourselves are we projecting before the world with such a ridiculous objection? What does yoga have to do with religion?” he argues, stressing the fact that while the majority of the members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) had no issues with yoga; it was only a few countries such as the theologically rigid Saudi Arabia and those with a jihadi mindset in Pakistan who had given a thumbs down to the UN proposal.
My friend has spoken to a number of prominent, practising Muslims from Mumbai who readily admitted that they are regular practitioners of yoga minus the shlokas and surya namaskar. They find it benefits them and believe it does not conflict with their idea of Islam. The problem, however, is: what they admit in private is not something they are prepared to say in public. Why? Because that would mean contradicting the ulema which, in turn, could invite the wrath of the community’s internal moral police.
Interestingly, if yoga is faced with an Islamic objection in India, in the US it had run into a secular hurdle three years ago. Some parents sued a school teaching yoga claiming that it was “a Hindu religious exercise or practice that is simultaneously physical and religious” which violates the American Constitution’s stipulation of a strict separation between state and religion. But a California appeals court ruled two months ago that the school was free to include yoga as part of its physical education. A lower court had earlier observed that the yoga practised in the school was “devoid of religious, mystical or spiritual trappings”.
That’s the story from California. However, in India, we might be faced with a different scenario. If for the ulema and Muslim political leaders yoga is a religious wrong, saying no to it is a constitutional right, argues Tahir Mahmood, jurist and former member of the Law Commission of India.
Faced with an embarrassing prospect, leaders of the BJP are now bending backwards, proclaiming that namaz and yoga have much in common, belatedly declaring that surya namaskar is being dropped from the D-day’s programme, announcing that Muslim students may chant “Allah” while their Hindu classmates recite Sanskrit shlokas.
Any wonder then, if the upcoming observance of Global Yoga Day in India looks like yet another part of Hindutva’s nearly century-old agenda of Hindu hegemony, being pushed aggressively under the current political dispensation. I say a definite “yes” to yoga, an emphatic “no” to Yogi Adityanath and his Muslim counterparts.
Javed Anand is co-editor of Communalism Combat and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy