Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Yoga and intolerance

Following the fatwa issued by a Muslim cleric and the complaints by Christian groups against the mass performance of Suryanamaskar by students in Madhya Pradesh this Thursday, I am wondering how long before I will be forbidden from eating bread by Hindu fundamentalists.

Isn’t bread, after all, the body of Christ?

How long before words — allegorical, symbolic and metaphorical words written in ancient times by poets, saints, visionaries and dreamers — become the weapons for distrust, hatred and intolerance?

For those who came in late, last week, in an attempt to put itself on the map, the Madhya Pradesh government planned a Guiness record-breaking mass yoga demonstration which attracted the ire of minority religious leaders on the grounds that it was forcing a Hindu practice on its subjects.

Some of the most beautiful texts I have read are in the Bible, Gita and Koran.

But that’s what they are — words — often written with flights of imagination and much poetic licence. Whoever thought they would be interpreted with such narrow minds and such meanness of spirit?

I have been an occasional practitioner of yoga for many years now. It does not take more than a few sessions to realise its profound benefits.

Can’t sleep? Yoga Nidra. Stressed? Shava Asan. Need to focus? Pranayama. Low energy? Suryanamakskar.

And this is just the kindergarten version.

True yogis know that it is reductionist to even think that yoga is only a form of physical exercise: in its complete form, as propounded by Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Munger in Bihar, it addresses the mind, heart, spirit and soul of the yogi.

Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today and the culture of tomorrow,” he says in the introduction to his book, widely regarded as one of the most important tomes on the subject.

Of course, as all things become controversial in the other India that stands in the shadow of the one that’s supposedly shining, the brouhaha is as much about yoga as about communalism, interest groups, grandstanding and vote bank politics.

I once spent a fortnight in Madhya Pradesh researching a story on a threat to missionaries from the BJP government. Visiting them in far flung schools, in areas beyond civilisation’s outer reaches, I saw the exemplary work they were doing for people abandoned by their own governments and religious heads.

Of course, conversion was on their minds and the Church’s agenda. But in those pitiful circumstances when a leper had no bandages to wrap his bleeding stubs with or a severely disturbed teenage girl had no bed to sleep on — I wondered if conversion was the big deal it was made out to be.

I am not na├»ve to imagine that the recent objections to the practice of mass yoga this week is unrelated to Madhya Pradesh’s long history. Or that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who joined RSS in 1972, did not have an agenda to fulfill by demonstrating that 7 million students performed yoga in his state.

Intolerance begets intolerance; when the atmosphere is corroded with distrust, suspicion and hatred, things have their own momentum. And even the most peaceful and beneficial practices like yoga become issues of contention.

My advice to Christian and Muslim students confused between what their school authorities and religious leaders, parents and state officials are ordering them to do — Take an hour off, sit under a tree, close your eyes and go deep within for the answers.

Of course, some may say that’s practising yoga!

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