From the very beginning I knew that government interference into the curriculum at Nalanda University was a very real possibility. Nearly a year before I moved to Bihar to teach a course in the History and Politics of Yoga at the university’s School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions, its founding chancellor, Amartya Sen, published a piece in the New York Review of Books describing his resignation as chancellor amid government interference of academic leadership throughout India.
However, by the time I arrived at Nalanda in late July 2016, George Yeo of Singapore had been named as chancellor, which led me to believe that the spirit of academic independence would remain strong and that the university would thrive to be an academic powerhouse in Asia.
Challenges at Nalanda
The challenges of starting a new university in a poor and rural part of India with inadequate transportation links was clear from the outset. Healthcare was non-existent, food quality poor, and living conditions for faculty and students unhealthy due to mould and damp, as well as the lack of basics such as access to cooking facilities.
Students were asked to persevere, and they and the faculty worked together to try to bring these issues to the attention of the administration and offer solutions. We expected these growing pains and tolerated them because we had academic freedom and believed in what we were doing. We were told that we had autonomy.
Last November, at the end of my first term at the university, the government chose not to extend Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal’s contract and dissolved the governing board, which led to the resignation of Yeo, who accused the government of failing to maintain the autonomy he was promised. It appeared Hindutva was about to knock at my own front door. I believed there would be no better time to discuss the history of yoga with my students than this one.
The 15-week History and Politics of Yoga course began as many yoga studies do, with the Yoga Sutras. I believe it is important to read the source material for oneself as well as to examine the various contexts in which such materials are interpreted over time. David Gordon White’s biography of the text demonstrates that even today, academics and yoga practitioners read the text in very different ways. Through this lens my class was able to discuss the text in terms of its influence on Indian philosophy, the response of British colonial translators, and the teachings of thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda.
Already we began to find politics. British translations helped to spread yogic knowledge throughout the West. These translators, able to access yoga teachings because of British rule, helped to shape yoga going forward. For example, in the documentary West Meets East (or Mystical Journey: Kumbh Mela as it was called in America), Sanskrit and yoga scholar Sir James Mallinson (note: Mallinson is one of my academic supervisors) states that the British were wary of gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela because of the risk of the spread of disease, and because such gatherings were often a platform for insurrection and nationalist propaganda. Its practitioners responded by developing the myth of the four kumbhs, which reinterpreted and expanded upon an ancient myth, to protect the mela.
Though the myth is now taken as ancient it does not appear in any pre-colonial texts. Learning this history does not undermine the belief in the story but merely adds context to how beliefs develop over time.
Media outlets around the world, from Foreign Affairs and Forbes in the United States, Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and The Indian Express have described Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to spread yoga throughout the world as “yoga diplomacy”. Events such as International Yoga Day (June 21) are a prime example of the use of soft power to influence the behaviour and beliefs of others. By projecting yoga as, in the words of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev to the United Nations, “India’s gift to the world,” yoga is defined as Indian first but accessible to all. This gives the impression that yoga is open to interpretation and leads the way for such innovation as Christian yoga, aerial yoga, nude yoga, and so on. I asked my students to think about these forms of yoga, how they grew from yoga practice in India and whether we could define them as authentic experiences of yoga. We also discussed the implications of myself, an American of non-Indian descent, teaching such a course.
That politicians such as Modi work to encourage the spread of yoga outside of India makes it inherently political. Further, during the course of the semester Modi appointed Yogi Adityanath, the chief priest of the Gorakhnath temple, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Adityanath’s appointment ties yoga and politics together in no uncertain terms. His asceticism is as much a part of his image as his politics. Though academia often takes time to keep up with current events, we acknowledged Adityanath’s rise in my class and discussed how his role as a priest as well as a politician might have an impact on his tenure as chief minister. For instance, as soon as he took charge he shut down slaughterhouses, a major source of income for Muslims in the state. His past rhetoric, which we did not discuss in class, has included statements saying that Hindu idols should be installed in every mosque in India, that anyone who opposed surya namaskar (the sun salutation, a yoga sequence) should drown themselves in the sea, and that those who wish to avoid yoga can “leave Hindustan”.
Not only does it seem that yoga is for everyone who wants it but also, at least within India, those who might not. I cannot help but wonder if those critical of my discussion of yoga and politics would cheer if instead I had taught a course on the History and Politics of Islam during the Mughal empire.
Similarly, one of India’s most prominent yogis, Baba Ramdev, involves himself in politics regularly, appearing frequently onstage with Modi. Ramdev not only supported Modi’s decision to demonetise old high-denomination currency notes overnight in November, he claims he had himself been calling for such a move for years. As a businessman, he has been hugely effective. He owns the Patanjali brand and his face is ubiquitous in much of North India.
Of course, the history of yoga is also the development of practice, innovation in the understandings of supernatural powers, new medical regimes, and a rich textual and visual tradition that reinterprets the tenets of beliefs and explanations of the world. While these often have political implications, to only focus on that would have been a disservice to my students and insulting to the rich ideas practitioners of yoga have developed over the course of hundreds of years. Much more of our time was spent discussing the fine points of kaivalya (perfect isolation or absolute unity), various meditative practices, and how texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came into being.
Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding my course ignores the history part of the syllabus and focuses only on the political. That I am a foreigner adds fuel to the fire as this allows those who object to the course to let their imaginations regarding my background and intentions run wild. However, the biggest issue is not that I, a non-Indian, taught Sanskrit and Yoga at Nalanda. It is that the academic freedom of the institution has been trampled. Nalanda’s current vice-chancellor Sunaina Singh told The Telegraph newspaper that, “the very title of the course is problematic”.
But no one ever discussed any problems with the course with me before, during, or after I taught it. The course began in January, after Yeo’s resignation and ran till the end of the academic year in May. When I left Rajgir at the end of the term, my contract was set to expire in July. In mid-June I received a letter from the university inquiring about my intention to continue. A week later another letter arrived, rescinding the previous letter, thanking me for my service to the university, and assuring me that I would be paid through the end of my contract.
To say that the course had been “abolished”, as BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav claimed in a tweet last week that went viral, is an assault against not only intellectual freedom but puts my students and colleagues in danger. Some of the replies to Madhav’s tweet called for a purge of all foreigners from Indian universities, sexually degrading remarks about me, and calls for investigations into ideas at universities across the country. Recent threats and acts of violence against academics and journalists in India indicate that people are willing to take action against those with whom they disagree. It is not difficult to spot members of the university in Rajgir and I fear Madhav’s tweet could make those in the Nalanda community targets.
Finally, I also wonder what is to become of my students, who have paid tens of thousands of rupees after being promised a world class education, and who instead find their instructors fleeing due to academic interference, and their programme a shell of what it once was?