Opinion

Yes, we should celebrate yoga – but not for the reason Modi and his admirers want us to

Yoga didn’t emerge from a homogenous Hindu culture, nor did it ever have fixed metaphysical goals.

In September 2014, fresh after his win in the Indian general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood before the UN General Assembly and made an impassioned call for a day to celebrate yoga globally. The request was answered, with broad support. In December, June 21 was declared International Day of Yoga, and since, several elaborate yoga day events have been held in close to 200 countries.

Many saw the UN declaration as a move by a Hindu nationalist leader to deploy yoga on the world stage as part of a strategy to promote a cultural mono-narrative favouring a Hindu supremacist agenda. In India, the critics believed, participation would be seen as a yardstick of patriotism, and any opposition deemed anti-national.

Subsequent pronouncements by Modi’s allies or appointees have seemed to confirm the suspicions. Yogi Adityanath, now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said that those who refuse to perform the sun salutations known as Surya Namaskar are traitors who ought to drown themselves in the ocean or leave the country. Baba Ramdev, a popular yoga teacher and businessman with a following in the tens of millions, repeated his claim that yoga can be used to cure homosexuality. And what is one to make of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s statement in April that regular yoga practice could prevent debt-ridden Indian farmers from committing suicide?

Both Ramdev and Ravi Shankar are featured on an Indian website dedicated to the International Day of Yoga as paragons of yogic virtue. The site also informs us that Patanjali, the “father of yoga”, defines it “as Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha – yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations. Hence, yoga can be defined as a state of complete stillness of mind. To achieve this goal, Patanjali prescribes the eight limbs or stages every practitioner must master”.

This is the popular view propagated of yoga. Contrary to it, Patanjali has not been the gold standard or the definitive guide for yogis down the ages.

Sankara’s Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣadbhāṣya (a commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad by Adi Shankaracharya) says, “Pātañjala yoga is not a means to liberation: And so should suppression of the fluctuations of the mind be practiced?… No, because it is not considered a means to liberation.”

In the 18th century text Haṃsavilāsa, Haṃsamiṭṭhu tells his wife and Yogini Haṃsi: “Dear lady, Patañjali’s teaching is nonsense, because there is nothing agreeable in anything achieved by force.” The text continues: “The glorious rājayoga is attained by the vital principle spontaneously, without forceful methods. There is no point in these extreme exertions…. As a result the teachings of Patañjali are not included among true teachings.”

Yoga scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton have translated a number of rare texts tracing yoga back to its roots in hoary antiquity. Their findings, recently published in the Roots of Yoga, upend many commonly held views on the origins and philosophy of yoga. It confirms that the glorious Indian tradition of argumentation and dissent was alive and well, most notably in matters of religion. No doctrine was too sacred and no master beyond critique. There were many who thought Hatha Yoga was a waste of time or simply avoidable.

Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.
Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.

Case in point is the Mahākālasaṃhitā Guhyakālīkhaṇḍa, a medieval text which was explicit about its disenchantment with conventional yogic wisdom. It said: “Many Brahman sages of old died through haṭhayoga, so nowadays one should never practise haṭhayoga. Many diseases arise through the retention and inhalation of air, my dear. People die suddenly from them, so one should shun haṭhayoga.”

The 12th century Amanaska treatise tells us not to waste our time with elaborate mantras, complicated breathing techniques, visualising chakras or bodily contortions since they are all constructs of the mind which must be discarded to arrive at “no-mind”. “Some are intent upon mantrayoga, some deluded by meditation, [and] some torment themselves with [the practice of] haṭha… All the various locks and seals of [haṭha] practice produce only the yoga of ignorance. Meditation on the bodily centres, the channels and the six supports (ādhāra) is delusion of the mind. Therefore you must abandon all that, which is created by the mind, and embrace the no-mind [state] (amanaska).”

There is a conspicuous absence of women practitioners from premodern yoga texts, which were all authored by men. Medieval hatha texts commonly insist that male yogis should avoid the company of women, offering the rationale that close contact with the opposite sex could result in the loss of bindu or semen, a precious fluid that needs to be preserved at all costs for its vital role in attaining elevated states of consciousness. However, women were to be sought out for their menstrual fluid used in certain rites.

The misogynistic pronouncements made in these texts are echoed by Yogi Adityanath, who thinks the primary role of a woman is to be a wife or a mother, and is firmly against “western feminism” because it will “hamper the creation and stability of the home and the family. These regressive sentiments are not likely to find favour with contemporary transnational yoga culture, dominated as it is by independent women, staunchly opposed to oppressive patriarchal systems.

A few years prior to the UN declaration, the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the US, launched their Take Back Yoga campaign, a phrase that might seem self-explanatory to some and puzzling to others.

The HAF laments that the yoga taught at modern studios had been disconnected “from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity”, the lifelong practice of which, in HAF’s view, led one to moksha, or union with Brahman. Its co-founder, Aseem Shukla, told The New York Times, “Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.”

Andrea Jain is a scholar of South Asian religious traditions, who has explored the phenomenon of transnational yoga in her book Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. In an email exchange, she disputed the HAF’s definition of yoga: “The HAF offers just one more inaccurate, homogenising vision of yoga and Hinduism based on revisionist historical accounts. Representatives of the HAF argue that authentic yoga is raja yoga as found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with its eight limbs, of which posture is only one…

“Yet, as noted in Selling Yoga and many other recent historical studies, for at least two thousand years in South Asia, people from various ideological and practical religious cultures invented and reinvented yoga in their own images. Furthermore, the interreligious and intercultural exchanges – primarily among Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions – throughout the history of yoga in South Asia problematise the identification of yoga as Hindu.”

International Day of Yoga is certainly a boost for the popularity of this ancient and effective practice, which is of tremendous benefit to millions of practitioners the world over. But it is necessary to acknowledge that it has not emerged from a homogenous culture with fixed metaphysical goals, and does not have an overarching narrative common to all its practitioners down the ages. Yoga evolves and adapts to the socio-political and cultural context in which it finds itself. It has always been, and remains, a personal and individualistic practice, the meaning and benefits of which can only be determined by the practitioner as she progresses along the path.

Which is surely more than enough reason to celebrate it.

Vikram Zutshi is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker. His Twitter handle is @getafix2012.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.