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The re-invention of yoga tradition

Published on 24 June 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

The UN General Assembly on 11 December 2014 adopted without a vote a resolution commemorating 21 June as the International Day of Yoga.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2014, the Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi had said: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

On 21st June 2015 the first International Day of Yoga was celebrated in India, and abroad. India’s PM, Narendra Modi, led over 37,000 adepts in performing yoga asanas on Delhi’s Rajpath (thereby gleefully making it into the Guinness Book of Records).


India’s collective selfie to the world

Swami Vivekananda first presented yoga at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. Yoga is “part of the cultural and religious heritage of India – which is rooted in the concept of vasudaiva kudumbakan, i.e. the whole world is one family.”[1] Indeed, the Indian religious tradition is one of inclusive monotheism.[2] This religious view holds that all religions are manifestations of the same underlying cosmic reality.

A glance at the Wikipedia entry for yoga[3] shows that the umbrella term yoga includes religion, philosophy as well as physical practices. The articles in the Indian press stress either the physical value of the exercises, their role for the emotional well-being or the “spiritual” (or cosmic) goal that a yogi can achieve through the practices.[4]

The overall tone on yoga is benign. As William Dalrymple shows, however:[5]there has always been a clear duality visible in the objectives of the yogis. Some were focused entirely on the interior: on breathing exercises and mastery of the body as a route to self-understanding and spiritual liberation. Others, however, were clearly searching for the magical tantric powers that they believed yoga could unleash (…) moving across a line from the search for spiritual liberation to a quest for dark and possibly demonic powers for use in this material world.”


Yogini’; sandstone statue, Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, first half of the eleventh century.

Medieval yogis were primarily interested in occult techniques to project the self outward to overcome death, enter other bodies, and effect all manner of sinister wizardry. Later, as the Mughals declined, yogis may have become warriors (or bandits), and created armies. Indeed in 1803 the last act: “was to enable the Maratha defeat at the hands of the British…and, thereby, the British capture of Delhi, an event that catapulted the Hon’ble [East India] Company into the role of paramount power in southern Asia—and ultimately the world.[6]

If this brief sketch of the history of yoga proves anything, it is that ideas hardly follow a “genealogy,” as many historians of ideas would like us to believe. Ideas are not “memes:”[7]an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.”[8] Ideas are infinitely plastic. With each transmission, recipients work and rework them in an endless game of Chinese whispers.

What PM Modi has been doing is an exercise in the “re-invention of tradition”[9] – for political reasons. The fact that any form yoga so far has been a personal rather than collective endeavor underscores the difference between today and the past, and the PM’s underlying manipulation.

Is at least this re-invention benign? At the surface, it would seem so. Inclusiveness is the flavor of the day and set against religiously motivated exclusiveness. Having come to power as a “Hinduist” party, the PM is signaling his readiness to be a PM for “all people.”

Inclusiveness, however, may be an implicit invitation to Gleichschaltung [10]– a term the Nazi made odious (it implied that willing or by force everyone has to conform). Non-conformists are (silently) stigmatized as “poor team-players” or being “clubbish” and “separationists.”[11] The scant presence of “scull-caps” at the Rajpath event has been duly noted in the press.

What is the name for this: dog-whistle politics? _____________

[1] Yoga catapults India as world’s spiritual capital. Indian Express, 22 June 2015, pg. 8

[2] Jan ASSMANN (2006): Monotheismus und die Sprache der Gwealt. Picus Verlag, Wien.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Yoga

[4] “Yoga is a discipline which brings about the union of the physical, mental and spiritual through mental concentration and physical power.” The Sunday Express, 21st June 2015.A quote from Vivekananda flows: “They say that nature is the enjoyed; the soul is the enjoyer. All misery and happiness, where is it? In the senses. It is the touch of the sense that causes pleasure and pain, heat and cold. If we can control the senses and order what they shall feel – not let them order us about as they are doing now – if they can obey our commands, become our servants, the problem is solved at once. We are bound by the senses; they play upon us, make fools of us all the time.”

[5] William DALRYMPLE (2014): Under the spell of yoga. New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books, March 6.

[6] William PI(NCH (2006): Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires.

[7] Richard DAWKINS (1976): The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

[9] See : Eric J. HOBSBAWM – Terence RANGER (1992): The invention of tradition. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Gleichschaltung [11] Sadgvi Prachi of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) commented: “They should connect themselves with the traditions of India, the culture of India… there is no need for any objection. If they are objecting, then they should go to Pakistan. People who are objecting have no right to reside in India.” Times of India: “Muslim body, CHP engage in slanging match over yoga day. June 24, pg. 11

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Gleichschaltung

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