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Yoga: India's new cultural tool of global dominance

Taking cognisance of the momentum building up around Yoga, India is all poised to use it in the international arena both as a tool of soft diplomacy and to claim cultural leadership. Photograph: (Others)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Jun 21, 2017, 09.33 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

Yoga is back, and it is considered cool. The whole world, particularly, the West embraces it with open arms.

Taking cognisance of the momentum building up around yoga, India is all poised to use it in the international arena both as a soft tool of diplomacy and to claim cultural leadership. With news pouring in from all over the world on the grand scale at which yoga is being celebrated, it is clear that the Indian state has been successful in making yoga the new face of India. The country has strike back with a new image of its own that, hopefully, will replace the earlier ones of poverty and hunger. 

Yoga's multifarious use in recent times ensured that it is now a commodity. Yoga has its own Day, unofficial but hugely popular brand ambassadors, such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev and Shilpa Shetty, it has logos, mats and spas to serve a growing clientele across the globe. The commodification of yoga has made it very different from its "classical" usages when it was, primarily, showcased as a technique to achieve "inner" spiritual and "outer" physical ascent. No matter how strongly the proponents of yoga like to articulate to the world the uninterrupted lineage that yoga enjoyed through the ages, in reality, however, neither the meaning nor the practices of yoga have been consistent across space and time. 

It is only very recently, under the tutelage of the Indian government that there has been a consistent effort to codify, localise and placate yoga as an "Indian" contribution to the world. Yoga is fast emerging as India's soft tool of diplomacy to garner a prominent place in international affairs. This came out clearly when India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech to the UN, successfully persuaded the international body to adopt a day as the International Day of Yoga when there was already a World Day of Yoga in existence. This was like pouring old wine into a new bottle. But the announcement served few very important purposes: it made sure that world knew that yoga belongs to India - it is India's gift to the world; it also made sure that yoga gets the attention of nation-states, and does not remain restricted to the confines of spas run by health enthusiasts or practised by culturally fringe elements like the hippies.

Now, yoga opens up an entire plethora of opportunity for the Indian state to give to the rest of the world a template on how to live harmoniously, embracing a healthier life choice
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Endorsing Prime Minister Modi's global vision about yoga, even Ban-Ki-moon, the then UN General Secretary made a public statement endorsing the crucial role of yoga in the well-being of the world population. He was categorical in his statement that through the celebration of the International Yoga Day, the world will be a "healthier" place and, more importantly, it will facilitate a more unified existence where people can live in harmony irrespective of their ethnicity, faith, age, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

In the course of modern history, it has been the West which had been providing to the rest of the world with a civilisational standard and a model of development. Now, yoga opens up an entire plethora of opportunity for the Indian state to give to the rest of the world a template on how to live harmoniously, embracing a healthier life choice. Imperceptively but very effectively yoga is shifting the locus of cultural authority in favour of India. And the Indian government is well aware of the political benefits of this shift. Hence, the resources devoted to celebrating the Day knows no bound.

Yoga's aggressive cultural promotion both within and outside India syncs all too well with the global aspiration of the country's growing middle-class. With rising affluence, this section of the Indian population is increasingly tired of India's image of a poverty-ridden, hunger-stricken country. Globalisation has benefitted Indian middle-class the most and now they want to see India as a global power, both economically and culturally. Yoga provides them with an alternative image of India with which it can identify. Yoga practises come laden with messages of power, discipline, masculinity and specialised knowledge. Speaking metaphorically, the asanas have been indeed therapeutic for the Indian middle-class.

Yoga practises come laden with messages of power, discipline, masculinity and specialised knowledge.
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The myriad benefits that Indians are set to receive from yoga getting influential are so huge that they have aggressively come out against any commercial appropriation of yoga by any private individuals. All yogic asanas and formulations are now getting codified within the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) that the government has set up with an unflinching wellness message attached to it. This categoric effort to indigenise yoga as an Indian invention can be seen as part of Modi's broader agenda to promote the "Make in India" goal. 

 Under the new system, yoga is no more the fluid set of ideas open to interpretation and appropriation by anyone who takes interest in it but more of a coda of "traditional" knowledge that is protected by law from foreign and illegal infringement. The Government of India has placed TKDL under the supervision of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research which implies that officially the spiritual aspect of yoga is about to get downplayed while it gains in stature as a set of scientific-medical practise. As an officially recognised healing tool for the body, yoga now shares same legal protection as any medicine or scientific invention. Consequently, TKDL codification will be allowing the Indian government to have a bigger say on how yoga is used, who uses it and for what purposes.

What was purely an individual pursuit learned from the "gurus", courtesy Yoga's newly emerging clinical nature, it is turning into more of a nationalist project which is under the control of the nation-state. This makes yoga very much politicised. As the government is responsible for the physical well-being of the citizen, yoga, in contributing to that scheme of wellness, becomes very much a political subject too. 

Operating between the twilight zone between the secular appeal of yoga and its religious roots, the Indian government is all set to seize the opportunity to revitalise India as a "Vishwa Guru", or guru of the world
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While it is easier to comprehend why patenting yogic asanas by any individual party should be forbidden, the Indian government's political cooptation of the traditional knowledge has also raised serious controversy in recent times. Prime Minister Modi in trying to reclaim yoga as an Indian art form is taking the help of Hindu spiritual leaders, such as Ravishankar and Ramdev. Historically, this would mean discounting the important role yoga played in Buddhism and Jainism but, more importantly, such associations make yoga so much less a pan-Indian thing. Other religious communities in India and abroad have raised serious concern about yoga being used as a Hindutva tool. 

Operating between the twilight zone between the secular appeal of yoga and its religious roots, the Indian government is all set to seize the opportunity to revitalise India as a "Vishwa Guru", or guru of the world. Modi believes that “We have to emerge as vishwa guru, not only to give new direction to the world, but also to protect our own heritage.” Through the reclamation of yoga, Modi is attempting to rebrand India’s international image by emphasising the bond between its ancient and contemporary cultures. But building a "national" culture is a contentious issue and in a sociologically diversified country like India, it can create the perception that the majority community is culturally imposing yoga on the others. 

Thus, as we celebrate the International Yoga Day, Indians, as well as the Indian nation-state, need to realise that yogic practises can keep the citizens healthy but when used as a political theology it can be a disruptive force.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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