By Kaif Mahmood
June 15, 2015
As a Muslim, a student of Comparative Religion and a practitioner of yoga for over a decade, I believe that both those Muslims who object to the practice of yoga on religious grounds and those others who force the practice on the unwilling, trivialise their own traditions in the service of power and identity politics. Neither is Islam an inane system of punishments and rewards, nor is yoga an ancient version of a modern gym. Both groups are a parody of what their traditions were meant to be, and pose to us the question of how to be culturally rooted without assuming an isolationist, chest thumping fanaticism of the religious kind on the one hand, and of a culturally deracinated, materialistic kind on the other – two sides of the same coin. I attempt here a reading of both the religious traditions involved in a manner that is both philosophical and personal.
The recent objections by certain Muslims over compulsory yoga in schools brings to mind a scene from Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi.
A group of RSS workers, waving black flags, stop Gandhi’s car and request him to not meet with Jinnah. Gandhi replies with a sorrowful agitation: “What do you want me not to do? Not to meet with Mr. Jinnah? I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want. Stop it, for god’s sake, stop it.” The car moves on, leaving the protestors, including Nathuram Godse, in anger and incomprehension.
The difference between one who breaks down walls of separation and one who creates them could not have been clearer. In the controversy about Muslims practising yoga, the destruction and creation of the same walls is at the heart of the issue. I am a Muslim who has practised yoga for 11 years, and this practice is one of the most important aspects of my life. I have no problems doing the surya namaskar or reciting a mantra. From this position, I offer some reflections on the topic.
First, in the worldview of those Muslims who object to practising yoga, god appears to be a being whose chief concern is which way your torso bends, rather than what lies in your heart when you perform that action, or any other action. If god is such, I would rather not worship such a petty god. Such a worldview is the trivialisation of a profound idea regarding the nature of reality – namely, the absolute uniqueness of the divine principle.
Those who object to the practice of yoga – and to chanting mantras, singing vande mataram, attending temple services, or even saying namaste – seem to be utterly unfamiliar with the idea that a human being has a conscience which is solely her own. For those of us who are religious, the judge of that conscience is ultimately not a self-appointed religious authority but god. The spiritual and intellectual poverty of fanaticism makes it unable to comprehend that religion is primarily a way of cultivating an inner life rather than fighting battles of identity. The transition of religion from a matter of the inner life to an ideological construct played to strengthen identity and power in the last four centuries is now a well-documented phenomenon in the academic study of religion.
Second, I am yet to meet anyone – Hindu, Muslim, atheist or of any other persuasion – who does the surya namaskar thinking that the sun is the religious absolute, or god in the sense of the Abrahamic religions. Anyone with even the smallest capacity for reflection knows that the deities of what we today call Hinduism are not the same category of beings as god in the Abrahamic religions. Most of us who perform the surya namaskar do it just as any other asana. The few who may have any philosophical thoughts while performing this asana think of the sun as an astounding element of nature, terrible in its beauty, a spectacle of fire worthy of our awe and reverence. This attitude is profoundly Islamic. One of the most palpable features of the Quran is its immense reverence for nature and its stirring, poetic descriptions of the vast skies that envelop the solitary traveler in the desert, the alteration of night and day, of the cooling rains and the blazing heat, and of the sun and the moon – all as signs meant to make us reflect on the nature of our existence. Unfortunately, for the objectors to yoga, the core of their religion seems to lie not in its openness of being and inclination towards reflection, but in the norms of blasphemy and punishment that may be derived from it to make us feel better about our own self-esteem.
Third, those who make yoga compulsory for school children, such as those running the government of Rajasthan, only trivialise their own tradition. Nobody who holds something precious and close to her heart would force it upon another. This trivialisation comes primarily from a moral bankruptcy, but also from an intellectual ignorance of one’s own tradition. For Patanjali, the ancient codifier of yoga from c. 200 CE, ahimsa is the first and absolutely fundamental precondition for anyone wanting to practise yoga. In the Yoga Sutras (2:35), Patanjali says, “In the presence of one rooted in ahimsa, all others abandon their hostility.” Forcing people to practise yoga, or telling those who do not want to practise it to drown in the ocean – a new alternative to migration to Pakistan – is anything but ahimsa and quite unbecoming of one who prefaces his name with the title ‘yogi’.
Fourth, yoga as a matter of physical exercise would be unrecognisable to the ancient writers on yoga. Nobody in the Upanishads or in the Yoga Sutras and their ancient and medieval commentaries thought of yoga as physical exercise. Yoga – as far as it has a bodily aspect, which incidentally, is not its most important aspect – is, and always was, a method of knowing oneself through a subtle, experiential, intimate awareness of one’s musculature, breath and emotions, and the links between them. Other religions have developed tai chi and qigong for similar purposes. By its very nature, yoga cannot be taught to one uninterested in it, and certainly not to hundreds of people over a loudspeaker or television. Patanjali’s text is so terse that, for the most part, it remains incomprehensible without the aid of an oral explanation by a teacher rooted in a living tradition. The reason for this is not primarily the lack of writing technology in Patanjali’s time, but the fact that yoga is a personal experience meant to be handed from one human being to another. To make it a compulsory form of physical exercise for masses of people is to rob it of all it has meant over the ages. The notion that our ancients used yoga for physical fitness and taught it en masse has as much historical evidence to support it as the notion that they flew around in pushpak vimanas. The use of yoga for physical fitness is largely inspired by modern western ideas in the last two centuries, like much in Hindutva – from its dress codes to its ideas of nationhood. Of course, the true roots of these traditions are lost – like much else in Hinduism – to those for who it becomes an instrument of chest-thumping nationalism.
Fifth, coming back to the Muslims protesting against their children being made to perform yoga, what impact is this going to have on those children for whose sake this battle is purportedly being fought? Is it going deepen their faith, to enhance their capacity for compassion, creativity, understanding and reflection? It is difficult to see how it would ever have such a result. It is easy, however, to see that these protests will give the children a particular image to grow up with and for the adolescents to base their identities around – the image of the other who is not just different from us, but also ignorant and dangerous. It will tell the children that we are swamped, in small numbers, in the midst of hordes of this dangerous other, we must continuously be afraid and alert, and build walls to keep the other and his traditions out of our lives. A good Muslim is one who stays away from all things Hindu.
Sixth, the Quran (25:1) calls itself al-Furqan, that is, “the Criterion”. Like a sword of gnosis, it cuts through the mass of people who receive it and makes clear the distinction between those with a good heart and those without it. Hence, what one takes from it is more a reflection of one’s own consciousness than of the scripture itself. Like many scriptures, one can interpret the Quran to live a life permeated with compassion, and one can also interpret it to become a mass murderer. Clearly, there are examples of both. The Bhagavad Gita has been interpreted in the same way. Godse cited the Gita as his inspiration to murder the man who lived by the Gita all his years a life of nonviolence. The interpretations of their scripture and their religion by those who object to yoga are only one kind of interpretation and they tell us much about the inner lives of those who make it. The interpreters remain unaware of the riches their own tradition holds in showing a path of openness and engagement with the other. The Quran (49: 13) says, “O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The entire purpose of diversity, from this perspective, is its appreciation. In a hadith qudsi, God speaks, “I was a hidden treasure, and I wished to be known. Hence, I created the world.” To know, in the Quranic understanding, also means to appreciate, understand, and indeed, to become the other. The Sufi mystics were in agreement with Plato that ultimately, to know means to be one with the known. For the creators of walls, these words mean little, if anything at all. The words of reward and punishment mean everything.
The Quran also has much to say about those who call themselves Muslims for social and political reasons, but their hearts are empty of faith. Islamic scholars have written with passion and insight that the central characteristic of Muslim fanaticism is that it entirely misses the inward element of this spiritual tradition and that its hearts are empty. With silly quarrels like the one over yoga, we are likely to become such Muslims, if we haven’t already. We are becoming Muslim versions of Godse who from all authentic purposes was Hindu only for social and political reasons, like his mentor and inspirer for the murder, Vinayak Savarkar who many now seem to regard as ‘Hindu hero’. That the two fanaticisms are mirror images of each other in more ways than one is no surprise to anyone who has studied them.
Finally, the controversy about yoga makes us ask if it is possible that we may understand our indigenous traditions without falling into the two usual traps. One of demeaning them by making them instruments of power and identity politics, and the other, of ridiculing them as idiocies, which is often the inclination of the culturally deracinated intellectual. Both sides feed on each other, providing each other the fuel of antagonism to live on in a never-ending battle. Several among us today attribute the rise of Hindutva partly to the shunning of our traditions as backward superstition by the intellectual elite.
Perhaps there is a way to be rooted in our cultures without being a fanatic, either of the religious or the modernist kind. This article and the film scene cited at the beginning of it offer some possible paths.
Kaif Mahmood teaches at the Centre for Study of Comparative Religion and Civilisations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of study are the psychology of religion and the comparative study of religion.