A Yogi has been made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state with the largest population in the country. The political significance of the state transcends its geographical boundary.
Staying true to his title, the freshly minted chief minister has spared no time in making declarations about Yoga, a health and relaxation activity with its spiritual roots in Hinduism. Comparing ‘Surya Namaskar,’ or sun salutation, a widely practised yoga routine to the Islamic ritual of namaz, Yogi Adityanath has stirred the hornet’s nest. Yet again.
Earlier, he committed the crime of mistaking Shakespeare’s poor lovelorn Romeo for a roadside sexual offender while constituting the Anti-Romeo Squad. We, who suffer from the hangover of the Macaulay Martini, don’t like literary mix-ups. If we MUST use a ‘videshi’ name for our home-grown brand of the testosterone driven street harasser, let it be Zeus. No, don’t even think of calling him Majnu.
If we MUST use a ‘videshi’ name for our home-grown brand of the testosterone driven street harasser, let it be Zeus.
But let’s stick to yoga and its many definitions. The word ‘yoga’ before turning yuppie was ‘yog’ meaning addition or sum total. Similarly, the practise, before the West intervened with its fad for rigid watertight categories, was a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon, aiming at the holistic well-being of its practitioners. Before you cry ‘traahimaam!’ and claim that ‘yog-a’ is Hinduism’s preserve, head towards an online library (we are Digital India, yo!) and read up on it. And while you are at it, pick up some Shakespeare. “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”
By comparing yoga with namaz, the ascetic CM has managed to offend the custodians of both the Hindu and the Muslim cultures. Is this his masterstroke? Is this how he stays true to his title: by doing the 'yog' of these continually feuding communities? Remember, how consternation over a few hours of Tunday Kababi’s running out of ‘raw material’ united both its Hindu and Muslim patrons in slamming the government not just in Lucknow but also, even more vociferously, in Delhi? What a delight it is to see the unfolding of a ‘Ganga-Jamuna’ variety of criticism!
Since the dreaded word ‘criticism’ has been uttered, let’s get scholarly. In their latest book Roots of Yoga, scholars Mark Singleton and James Mallinson piece together a story that has, anachronistically speaking, a post-modernist disdain for definitive narratives. It flits across many eras, cultures, texts and religions- including Islam. Incidentally, one of the authors of this book, James Mallinson is also a ‘mahant,’ similar to the chief minister in question.
Charges of cultural appropriation and manipulation are routinely levelled against yoga practitioners if they do not fit the cultural narrative around it.
The story of yoga has developed along variant trajectories, told in a variety of languages and dialects. It continues to evolve and be told. This is where the beauty of this practice is concentrated. Charges of cultural appropriation and manipulation are routinely levelled against yoga practitioners if they do not fit the cultural narrative around it. No wonder, speaking of namaz and Surya Namaskar in the same breath irks many. While the Hindus don’t want yoga to be divested of its religious connotations, the Muslims shun it for the very same reasons. A lose all situation.
In his speech, Yogi Adityanath pointed towards the similarities between some yogic postures and the namaz routine. This immediately took me to my student years in Aligarh Muslim University, where I shared my hostel room with some practicing Muslims who always insisted that offering namaz five times a day was doing a great service to their bodies. I used to follow them sometimes till my abs hurt. I taught them ‘chakrasan’ in return. For most sixteen-year-olds, the body is bigger than every other consideration in the world.
The human body is regarded as the temple in most traditions. It is perplexing how in the name of concrete temples, many of us still show utter disregard for it. Yoga, too, aims at harmonising mind, body, and soul. Hierarchies in this regard can be seen as only tenuous, a subject that has interested everybody from Arjun in Bhagvadgita to Leonardo Da Vinci and his Vitruvian Man.
In his news-making yoga-namaz speech, the CM said that no one tried to unite them as most were interested in 'Bhoga' (materialist indulgences) and not yoga. Perhaps he’s right. But how about appropriating bhoga to serve the cause of yoga? Let’s all go bootylicious and get those washboard abs doing yoga or namaz. Or both. And those with a problem with the holy chants can buy themselves expensive earbuds and listen to illegally downloaded Justin Bieber instead.