Greetings and salutations

In India an interesting debate has broken out over what exactly is secular and what is religious. In particular, can the government promote yoga?

At issue is a measure by the Hindu nationalist-led government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, that required public school students to practice the sun salutation and recite certain chants in Sanskrit during a statewide function on Thursday. The state government, controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., said that it complied with a central government policy to encourage yoga in schools [Link]

The Chief Minister (pictured right) defended this as part of a broader a health initiative:

‘The government was committed to creating awareness about yoga, which helps to keep the body and mind in good health,’ …The yoga policy envisages constitution of a council for practising yoga in the state, provision of facilities required for setting up yoga centres, selection and appointment of yoga teachers. [Link]

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p>However, minority groups did not see this as innocuous:

The “Suryanamaskar” programme came under attack from minority communities and opposition parties who had dubbed it as “an effort to saffronise education.” The ruling BJP was trying to “incite religious passion under the garb of yoga” among school children, a spokesman of the Catholic Church of Madhya Pradesh said. [Link]

In particular, they took issue with the use of Hindu mantras:

Muslim and Christian groups in the state took issue not so much with the yoga exercise, but with the chants, which they said were essentially Hindu and in worship of the sun. They argued in court on Wednesday that it violated the Indian constitutional provision to separate religion and state. [Link]

What time is it? It’s yoga time!

On Wednesday, the court agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that “neither the chants nor the sun salutation could be forced on students. [Link]” The MP government has responded by saying that the whole event was voluntary in the first place, but even this remains problematic as it would create a major public event from which non-Hindus would be discouraged from attending.

We’ve blogged before about how Christians in the US are concerned about Yoga, but this story reminds me more about the “War over Christmas” than anything else. It feels like the kinds of debates we have in the US about the suitability of Christmas carols for public events, or for Christmas trees for public spaces. Even in India, certain aspects of Yoga occupy a space between public and parochial.

While I do believe that Yoga can promote health, I think that the impact of doing a quick Surya Namaskar is pretty miniscule. This means that the state is either being transparently cynical, or various ministers believe in the almost mystical powers of yoga to produce health over and above the component physical movements. If it’s the latter, perhaps the opponents of this program ought to respond with some laughing yoga instead .

113 thoughts on “Greetings and salutations

  1. Ponniyin Selvan at #100, please don’t engage in sophistry. It doesn’t need more than 50% of a population to engage in shunning the others to declare that ostracism exists in that population! If a non-vegetarian person X is compelled to belong on the side of the partition where the meat-eating 90% belongs because, in certain social interactions, the other 10% is disposed to be uncivil to X owing to her diet, then X’s choices have been curtailed. To what “social interactions” is the word word “ostracism” applicable ? Example: home-rental choice (significantly more than 10% of home-owners in South India are vegetarian). I’m not making a value judgement about whether this is right or wrong here; just amplifying my point that no faith has a monopoly on biases.

  2. GB -

    There are people and communities who traditionally place certain restrictions on their lifestyle. Meat eating is one big example of this. Naturally, those who place no restrictions on what they eat will be comfortable everywhere. On the other hand, those who are finicky about things like meat, cigarettes, porn, gambling etc. will be uncomfortable in places where these things occur. According to what you are suggesting, you would like to see vegetarians openly embrace carnivores, and to further this line of reasoning, allow smokers within close quarters, tell their kids to tolerate porn in their neighborhoods and to show loving acceptance of gambling. Now, none of the above needs to be banned from society, but if you do not see a legitimate need for restriction of these things, then at the very least, you are privileging the indulgent section of society over the ones who prefer to lead a more restrained life. This is where secular normative thinking has gotten us. No matter what one’s personal convictions, we are forced to pretend that everything is equally valuable and must be treated as such. Any behavior to the contrary is deemed racist, casteist, phobic, whatever. Meanwhile, it is hard to figure out what exactly you stand for. Are you fighting for non-veg rights here? What about the rights of vegetarians to shut out the foul meat eaters? Remember, pigs can wallow anywhere while other animals have standards so your equality hypotheis cannot sustain your argument.

  3. Divya,

    …you do not see a legitimate need for restriction of these things, then at the very least, you are privileging the indulgent section of society over the ones who prefer to lead a more restrained life.

    I’m not :-) Refer to this in my comment at #101:

    I’m not making a value judgement about whether this is right or wrong here; just amplifying my point that no faith has a monopoly on biases.

    (By the way, don’t read anything into the word “biases”. Biases can be positive, negative, or value-neutral.) Oh, and P.S., your implied equivalence — meat-eating = porn-watching — has shades of a straw-man argument.

    Meanwhile, it is hard to figure out what exactly you stand for. Are you fighting for non-veg rights here?

    No, I’m not. About your hard-to-figure bit: my apologies that I don’t have sufficient time today to elaborate my stand on all this (it’s 9:04 p.m. here right now).

  4. To what “social interactions” is the word word “ostracism” applicable ? Example: home-rental choice (significantly more than 10% of home-owners in South India are vegetarian). I’m not making a value judgement about whether this is right or wrong here; just amplifying my point that no faith has a monopoly on biases.

    GB,

    Who is engaged in sophistry here?.. The topic here is about the government trying to revive / educate kids (I guess, almost all who have joined government schools because they do not have the means or resources to go to private schools) about an ancient art for health reasons. Your example of south indians (though a miniscule percentage) objecting to meat-eaters does not fit the context. I have not seen them complain to the government allowing non-vegetarian food to be sold in government controlled buildings (like bus / railway stations etc..).

    I went back and re-read your comments.. You seem to think the complaint is about surya-namaskar or chanting of mantras. I have read the government’s response to the court is that the programme is voluntary. Kids/Parents who do not like have the option of not joining the programme.

    As I said in my earlier comment, what Ambedkar said fits the context. Minority groups need to be given safeguards but not veto power.

    1. Using open source software gives you the right to modify and redistribute it – given you dont violate GPL terms and conditions and you dont remove references! Similarly, if someone is using Yogasanas to promote health or anything else, should not remove references of its founders.

    2. Madarassas and Churches are actively funded in many states across India – Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, AP – is anyone even aware about this?

  5. Amrita, it sounds disingenuous when you say this: GB, the chanting is not baggage, it’s breathing discipline, which affects your heartbeat– in fact your entire cardio-vascular. Try saying/singng the GayatriMantra even once a day… You very well know why I use the words “religious” and “baggage”. If the Suryanamaskara has anything that amounts to the invocation of a deity, it will meet with a visceral reaction from some Muslims when told that this is so. Don’t ask me why some Muslims will feel that way… but to remain, in a pluralistic world, wilfully innocent of the fact that things like these will happen is not conducive to harmony. As for visceral reactions, don’t tell me that Muslims have a monopoly on this. One common example: the ostracisation, in South India, of meat-eaters in some spheres of communal life.

    GB, Thanks for the w-p from the Indian Academy of Sciences — I shall read it slowly and with pleasure. Why disingenuous? I mean that the mantra is an integral part of the exercise. I never said Muslims have a monopoly on visceral reactions– or rage— but I don’t think doing Surya Namaskar Marcel-Marceau-style would be fooling any Muslims. in fact, I think this is an excellent starting point for some rational discourse about whether it is in fact prayer in the same sense as doing namaz. I mean, who will deny the sun, you know? Divya and I were talking about it not being so clear that the content of the mantra is religious in the Abrahamic sense, i.e., first of all, is the sun a deity or is sunrise simply a clear sign that the planets are humming along, and worth celebrating for that reason? As I mentioned, I have trouble being awake for sunrise unless I was up all night, and if I were a child at a achool that offered suryanamaskar, that would be my objection. Otherwise I think it’s an excellent idea, and I hope they win at court.

  6. FYI: In the different Yoga classes I’ve done in the US, I’ve neither done the Surya Namaskar with a mantar, nor seen it done. And these have been classes where they’ve used mantras at other parts of the class.

  7. This is funny.. I read this newsitem in MSNBC, I thought if they are referring to the issue in India..

    Yoga causes controversy in public schools Some parents say it violates the separation of church and state Tara Guber and her staff SAN FRANCISCO – In Tara Guber’s ideal world, American children would meditate in the lotus position and chant in Sanskrit before taking stressful standardized tests. But when she asked a public elementary school in Aspen, Colo., to teach yoga in 2002, Christian fundamentalists and even some secular parents lobbied the school board. They argued that yoga’s Hindu roots conflicted with Christian teachings and that using it in school might violate the separation of church and state.

    link

  8. Ennis, Re: Mantra + Namaskar

    ItÂ’s called Samantrak Namaskar. It goes something like this. You chant 12 names of Surya (not 100 or 1,000 as I claimed earlier) before each Namaskar. The mantra gets progressively complicated w/ each Namaskar. Papa Shodan totally rocked the mic earlier this morning. Supreme breath control, mad flow etc. etc.

  9. FYI: In the different Yoga classes I’ve done in the US, I’ve neither done the Surya Namaskar with a mantar, nor seen it done. And these have been classes where they’ve used mantras at other parts of the class.

    I was under the impression only brahmins know of surya namaskar. And they are not too eager to teach anyone else the mantras. Not that it matters. But.

  10. Not such a big secret any more. Check this site

    There’s a short version, but you still have to say om and then all the vowel sounds in succession, so you can’t just say vroom vroom.

  11. can anyone tell me the history of the Suryanamaskar? Please. Is it ancient as per Mahabharat or created in the last century as per wiki? Is the ancient version of Namaskar different to todays?

    I really need help on this. Thank you.

  12. we are Indians are facing serious problem of ” Spoiling our young generation “. All are knowing it verywell but this issue is not yet taken that seriously. Like me, there are number of peoples who want to do something through YOGA i.e. Aasanas, Pranayama and Meditation , But helpless because of shortage of funds. If Govt. try to attack the basic rout, It will definitely improve our cominng generation and also reduces the HEAVY Govt. expences on Health. The YOGA automatically improves the Physical as well as Mental health. I myself is conducting Yoga classes since last 28 years and most of the classes are free. mainly for poor students, Backward class students, Old aged mens & womens. Presioners ( In Harsul, A’bad. central jail) etc.