A 'Yoga Day' amid controversy, protests

At a time when 192 out of 193 United Nations member countries are set to organise mass yoga demonstrations to mark the International Yoga Day on June 21, the age old Indian practice undertaken by people of different cultural and religious background for a healthy living is struggling to make its way through the usual politics of religion in India.

The political debate over the Narendra Modi government’s plan to organise yoga events, specifically in India to mark the occasion, is deteriorating day by day since BJP MP Yogi Adityanath sunk it to a new low by saying that those opposing it should either “drown themselves in sea or quit the country.”

Azam Khan, a Samajwadi Party leader and minister in Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, retaliated and asked the BJP leader to offer namaz to put his mind on the “right track”, even as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj dismissed Adityanath’s remarks on the very day it came, describing it “unfortunate”.

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) issued a statement and appealed to the Muslims in UP to offer namaz on the International Yoga Day, as a mark of protest against what it described as the NDA government’s plan to “promote saffron agenda in the name of yoga”. Amid the ongoing political slugfest, Rajasthan’s School Education Minister Vasudev Devnani added fuel to fire. He said Muslims should not oppose ‘Surya Namaskar’ “as it included most of the positions used in offering namaz”. 

Devnani’s remarks came after yoga guru Ramdev appealed to the Muslims to join yoga day events on June 21, equating yoga postures with that of namaz. “When one does Namaz, isn’t that exactly like Vajrasana?” he told a news channel in Haridwar.

He was supported by Sushma Swaraj as she said Ramdev only tried to suggest that yoga had nothing to do with any religion. The minister also pointed out that 47 Muslim countries including UAE were co-sponsoring International Yoga Day which only showed that yoga was not associated with any religion.

A section of Christian groups, meanwhile, also joined the fireworks against government’s plans for the yoga day. Though the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) did not raise any objection to the practice of yoga, it expressed displeasure over organising the events on June 21, saying Sundays were a “sacred day” for Christians.

Indian yoga, which is revered world over for mental and health benefits ascribed to it, had never been so controversial. Across the globe, it has been seen as a potent alternate method to strengthen body and mind as well as fighting many diseases.
Millions of people are stretching, squatting and focusing on their breath abroad since eminent yoga guru B K S Iyengar, who passed away at the age of 95 last year, introduced yoga to the West, visiting as many as 60 countries. Over the years, yoga’s popularity has grown so much so that it is a whopping $27 billion industry today in the US alone, according to a recent media report.

Test of time
But, back in India, yoga is facing the test of time today, months after the UN declared June 21 as International Yoga Day with 177 member countries endorsing the proposal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. ‘Surya Namaskar’ (salutation to the sun) became the main bone of contention, even as some Muslim groups including top Islamic seminary Darul Uloom came out in support of the Yoga Day, suggesting that practice of yoga should not be linked with any religion.

“The whole world knows that Surya Namaskar is against basic ethos of Islam. You offer prayer to Sun in Surya Namskar while we only pray to Allah. It is violation of my fundamental rights to religion,” AIMIM chief and MP Asaduddin Owaisi opined.

In the first inter-ministerial committee meeting, according to official sources, there was “near unanimity” on a suggestion that only those asanas of yoga should be planned for the day which are acceptable to everyone. The suggestion was made at the meeting, presided over by Minister for Ayush Shripad Naik, primarily to avoid any controversy.

However, the performance of ‘Surya Namaskar’ with chanting of ‘shlokas’ in Sanskrit found its place in the list of asananas as plans for official events were given a final shape. As a section of Muslims protested the ‘Surya Namaskar’, the government dropped it from the list of asanas, saying it did not want any controversy. The question, however, unanswered why ‘Surya Namaskar’ was made part of the official events in the first place.

In a damage control exercise, Shripad Naik later suggested Muslims could chant ‘Allah’ instead of ‘Om’ while performing yoga. But Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Praveen Togadiya played a spoil sport and embarrassed the Modi government on Sunday as he said that use of word Allah during yoga would be an “insult to Lord Shiva”.

Perhaps, no body knew yoga would be so stressful in India when Modi talked about its health benefits and urged the world leaders to think about an International Yoga Day while giving his maiden speech at UN general assembly in September last year.
Apart from strains in political circle, yoga has created great anxiety among ministry officials too. “Its only on Sundays that we normally relax. That too will go this week in attending yoga event on Rajpath,” rued a senior government official.

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