India will awake to a spectacular show on June 21, which the United Nations has declared to be the International Day of Yoga. On that day Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lead a mass yoga session at Delhi’s India Gate, striking physical poses, or asanas, and doing breathing exercises, which are supposed to bring about the unity of body and mind.

As is true of most of Bharatiya Janata Party’s pet projects, the observance of the International Day of Yoga will combine elements of cultural nationalism, commercialisation of the ancient India physical exercises and subtle coercion. Underlying it is the hope of bringing into the BJP tent the modern-day gurus and their teeming followers who largely constitute the urban middle classes.

We have been told – and which will be undoubtedly reiterated forcefully closer to June 21 – that yoga belongs to one and all and its practice is in no way linked to Hinduism. This is perhaps true of Hatha yoga, over which the prime minister is said to have acquired tremendous proficiency, but it is not so of other schools.

Nevertheless, the story of yoga is linked to Hindu religious myths. In fact, the choice of June 21 in the Modi government’s proposal to the UN to have it observed as International Day of Yoga is connected to one such myth.

Provenance of yoga

On June 21 occurs the Summer Solstice, which in the yogic transition marks the transition to Dakshinayana, or the shifting of the sun from the northern to southern run. It was on this day Lord Shiva is said to have become Adiyogi, or the first yogi, his transformation marked by a mood of ecstasy and then frenetic dancing, unfathomable to those who witnessed it.

However, Shiva danced for a period so inordinately long that the audience gradually dispersed but for a group of seven. When Shiva emerged out of the trance, the seven beseeched him to teach them what he knew. In a 2012 piece in the Times of India, Jaggi Vasudev Sadhguru wrote, “Shiva dismissed them, ‘The way you are, you are not going to know, ever. You need to prepare. Tremendous amount of preparation is needed for this. This is not entertainment.’"

The group of seven prepared for years to receive the esoteric knowledge known to Shiva. One full moon day, after 84 years of sadhana, when the sun was shifting from the northern to southern run, Shiva noticed the preparation of the group of seven was complete. He observed them for another 28 days, and on the next full moon day – called Guru Purnima – he consented to become their guru.

From this perspective, both the provenance of yoga and the Modi government’s proposal to observe June 21 as International Day of Yoga are undeniably linked to the enchanting myths and stories from Hinduism. The practice of yoga indeed cuts across religious divides, largely because of the secularisation process it has undergone. But in linking the International Day of Yoga to June 21 there is a conscious attempt to reclaim for yoga its Hindu provenance.

This process seeks to imbibe in people pride in the wisdom of ancient Indian sages, in much the way many, including Modi, have been inspired to claim modern technological discoveries, such as the harnessing of nuclear explosions, plastic surgery, aeroplane, for India. This self-conscious drive to take pride, psychologists would tell you, often arises from a sense of incompleteness and inferiority complex.

Reduced public health expenditure

It is possible to regard such complexes harmless. However, a people made to become extremely self-conscious of their culture often draw boundaries around it and seek to claim ownership of knowledge exclusively for one religious group. This acute self-consciousness could prompt people of other faiths to perceive yoga from the perspective of religion.

Indira Gandhi was among many Indian leaders who too practiced yoga. Yet we never heard her extol its virtues as Modi does, nor self-consciously seek to link it to the Hindu religious tradition.

Politics seems to have also determined the choice of June 21 for observing the International Day of Yoga. The idea of persuading the United Nations to have such an international day was made some 10 years ago. However, the advocacy of it gathered tremendous momentum at a conference held in Bengaluru on December 4 and 5, 2011. A clutch of yoga gurus, including BKS Iyengar and Baba Ramdev, under the aegis of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, signed a proclamation asking the UN to observe, yes, June 21 as World Yoga Day.

During the Bengaluru conference, newspapers quoted Shankar saying, “There is World Toilet Day, but no World Yoga Day.” He was presumably making the larger point that just as sanitation is vital for health, so is yoga. This was also harped upon in several presentations at the conference, particularly upon the fact that yoga, as the prime minister too has claimed in the recent past, is a stress-buster for people grappling with the pressures of modern existence.

Anecdotal accounts suggest this is perhaps true. Yet the government which has sought to propagate yoga for the reasons of good health is also the one which slashed expenditure on public health. Lately, though, this cut has been rationalised on the grounds that states now have a greater share in the revenue generated from taxes. Regardless of this debate, we can certainly say the Modi government hasn’t enhanced expenditure on public health. For it now to advocate yoga for medical reasons seems akin to tackling agrarian distress with the land ordinance.

Imposition of choices

The government’s endorsement of the Bengaluru proposal of Shankar and other gurus has a quid pro quo built into it. During the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the Sangh Parivar enhanced its clout manifold by drawing the support of innumerable akharas run by sadhus. Likewise, the BJP can now hope to lure the urban middle class followers of yoga gurus. No doubt, they voted in large numbers for Modi’s BJP in 2014, but they are also notoriously fickle and tend to shift their votes to a significant degree every election.

The BJP’s support to the yoga gurus on their International Day of Yoga demand could have the latter stabilise the urban middle class support for the saffron brigade. Followers of yoga gurus tend to be mesmerised by them and are often influential and wealthy. Shankar, for instance, is a veritable cult figure – his showing preference for, say, the BJP could help enhance its financial and vote-kitty.

In return for the BJP government’s endorsement, the yoga gurus can hope to open up new markets, or expand existing ones, including in India, through the International Day of Yoga. In the USA, according to Carolyne Gregoire of the Huffington Post, the yoga market there was already worth $27 billion in 2013. Yoga is also an element of alternative medicine, which is estimated to be a $100 billion global market. The IDY could enable the Indian gurus laugh all their way to the bank.

Whether or not it is morally reprehensible to commercialise yoga, or deploy the IDY as a marketing strategy, is open to debate. But what is not is the subtle coercion built into observing the International Day of Yoga. Maharashtra has already issued a diktat for schools to remain open on June 21, a Sunday. Good Governance Day was observed on Christmas; the Swachh Bharat on October 2 – and officials were ordered to report to work. Similarly, there will be instructions, direct or otherwise, for bureaucrats to present themselves at the yoga session Modi will lead at India Gate.

Indeed, imposition of its own choices and preferences on people has become typically the BJP’s style. The ban on slaughter of cows has been widened to include bullocks and oxen; the Madhya Pradesh government has refused to include eggs, universally regarded as a rich source of protein, on a pilot basis in the anganwadis of three tribal districts.

But nothing can quite beat the office memorandum that the Union government’s department of personnel and training issued in March this year. It suggested the inclusion of the popular Gujarati snacks dhokla and khakhra in the 2008 “illustrative list of vegetarian food items” government canteens could serve. Yoga, too, seems to be going the dhokla and khakhra way.

Indeed, June 21, 2015 will be remembered not only as the first International Day of Yoga, but also as the day on which coercive cultural nationalism was hitched to global market.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.