Yogic exercises are for healthy mind and body
Yoga is world heritage. It has nothing to do with religion.
Thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative, last year the UN General Assembly accepted that every year June 21 should be observed as International Yoga Day.
Last year in India a number of pseudo-secular politicians openly and strongly criticised Modi for observing Yoga Day on the ground that it is associated with ‘Hindu’ religious rituals. In fact, it is a common characteristic of all politicians that they get excited whenever they find that they can exploit the words and deeds of their adversaries to expand their support base. The religious leaders anxious to keep themselves relevant and expand their support base share this characteristic with politicians. Instead of guiding their followers to march with time, they invoke orthodox beliefs and prejudices. They exploited observance of the Yoga Day as an opportunity to associate yoga with Hindu religion. They targeted ‘Surya Namaskar’, one of the popular yogic exercises, and use of the word ‘OM’. Maulana Mustaqueem Azmi, President of Jamiatul Ulemae-Hind of Maharashtra said: “we have nothing against those who worship the sun, the moon, the seas or mountains. But Muslims believe that all these things are creations of Allah, who alone deserves worship.” The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has declared that “Surya Namaskar should not be made mandatory in government schools” because Muslims bow only before ‘Allah’. A Board member, Kamaal Farooqui, says that that it is against Islam to salute the Sun. The clerics are against the use of word ‘OM’ because it is associated with Hindu religion.
Ever in search of flimsiest ground to have a dig at Modi, politicians like Seetaram Yechury and Nitish Kumar had declared ‘International Yoga Day’ as a publicity stunt and an attack on India’s secular character. Mercifully, they did not level the same charge against the UN General assembly.
Nitish Kumar refused to observe Yoga Day. For him Muslims’ vote is more important than their health
When the so called secularists were beating their chest, how could their Hindu counterparts be lagging behind when such a golden opportunity was available? Self-proclaimed guardian of Hindus and Hindu religion, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath asked the opponents of ‘Surya Namaskar’ to “drown in the sea.” Mercifully, his constituency is small. Most of the Hindus don’t bother what he and likes of him say. Later Shankaracharya of Sharda and Dwarika Peeth too jumped in the fray to protest against exclusion of ‘Surya Namaskar’ because of protests.
The government of India yielded to the pressure of the Muslim leaders. Neither ‘Om’ nor ‘Surya Namaskar’ was be part of public functions on June 21, 2015.
This year, so far there is no loud protest except by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who thinks that yoga is not good for his political health. He has decided not to celebrate International Yoga Day in Bihar. It does not matter to him that 192 countries of the World including 40 Muslim countries have recognised benefits of yoga and are participating in the awareness programme International Yoga Day. In India several Muslim organisations and educational institutions are participating. In Dubai, Baba Ramdev convinced Muslims that neither Surya Namaskar nor chanting of ‘OM’ makes one less Muslim. In most of the Christian dominated western countries yoga has been popular for a long time and no one treats it as part of Hindu religious rituals. (Perhaps, to avoid any controversy ‘OM’ and Surya Namaskar would not be part of official programme even this year.)
If there is still any doubt, the issues needs to be dealt with in a rational manner. Why should anyone, Hindu or Muslim or believer in any faith, associate yoga with Hindu religion? Why should ‘Surya Namaskar’ or saying ‘OM’ before or after yoga exercises be associated with religion?
Every educated person knows that the term ‘Hindu’ is not found in any ancient scripture of India. The term, derived from the word Sindhu, was coined by the Arabs and perhaps used for the first time in the 15thcentury to distinguish the people of this subcontinent from others. There is nothing like ‘Hindu religion’ in the sense Islam or Christianity is a religion. The Supreme Court of India has ruled that Hindu dharma is not a religion but a way of life. In fact it is a collection of different ways of life developed and practised over thousands of years in different parts of the subcontinent. There is no single rule or ritual which must be followed if one is to be called ‘Hindu’. A Hindu may believe in one God or in multitude of gods or be an atheist. One may worship idols or, like followers of Arya Samaj, openly oppose idol worship and yet be a Hindu. I personally do not like idol worship, do not like to practice any ritual associated with ‘Hinduism’ but I remain a Hindu. If one treats ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, he/she should remember that it is very flexible and tolerant.
The word ‘Dharma’ is discussed in the Geeta but it is not used in the sense of religion as understood today. In the Geeta ‘Dharma’ actually means righteousness. Krishna says that Dharma’s purpose is man’s perfection, adharma is recklessness of conduct, not working in conformity with nature. Krishna does not approve of rituals and sacrifices made to the Vedic gods. He describes them as lesser gods whom people worship for material gains. He says there is only one Supreme God, the creator of the universe and asks the people to worship the Supreme God for ultimate salvation. Even if one associates ‘religion’ or ‘Dharma’ with and the ancient Indian scriptures, it has nothing to do with rituals like ‘Surya Namaskar’. Unfortunately, some Hindu zealots take pleasure in associating yoga with Hindu religion.
“Yoga” is not a religious word. Its literal meaning is “to join” or “to yoke”. It is practised to harmonise development of body, mind, and spirit.
Yoga has preceded what is now called Hindu religion. Patanjali compiled his famous book ‘Yoga Sutras’ in 400 BC, not as a discourse on religion but to tell humans how to keep their body and mind fit. Yoga is a collection of several exercises. No one can do all the exercises. One selects postures depending on his needs, physical conditions and preferences. “Surya Namaskar’ is only one of the hundreds of exercises. It is not an essential part of yoga exercises. Nor is ‘OM’ an essential part of yoga as we practice every day. I have been practising yoga for a long time. I never say ‘OM’ nor do I perform ‘Surya Namaskar’.
The clerics try to create confusion by interpreting ‘Namaskar’ as worship. ‘Namaskar’ is not the Hindi word for worship. It is Hindi word for greeting or salutation. ‘Namaskar’, ‘Salaam’ or bowing before someone is a way of paying respect which is different from worship. Muslims bow, even prostrate, when they visit a ‘dargah’. Does it amount to showing less respect to Allah? Hindus too worship at ‘dargah’. Does it mean that they are insulting their own religion? Muslims and many Hindus say ‘Salaam’ to show respect. Can the clerics tell their followers not to salute the national flag or their seniors in the Army or police? Do the Muslims of India not sing the national anthem ? It ends as follows:
“They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.”
Perhaps the name ‘Surya Namaskar’ has been given because the yogic exercise associated with the name is advised to be done in the open, in the early hours of morning, facing the sun. Raising of two arms and folding hands improve flexibility of muscles. Some people do it with one leg raised. Doing it in the open facing the sun has two added advantages without any extra effort or cost: breathing fresh air and getting vitamin D from the best source, the morning sun. It has nothing to do with religion. Those who worship the sun do it differently. They recite mantras, raise their both arms and pour water in front of the sun. Raising both arms with folded hands, with or without raising one leg, is part of many other yoga exercises. If one still someone feels that doing the way it is advised amounts to sun worship, he can do this exercise with his/her back to the sun. The sun would not deny vitamin D to such a person. All that the sun requires is that a part of body should be exposed to receive the rays.
What is there in the name? Many names and surnames like Chowdhary, Khan, Kaskar are common to both Hindus and Muslims. My name Devendra does not mean that I am king of gods.
‘OM’ is a Sanskrit word. The language, Sanskrit, is older than the yoga exercises suggested by Patanjali. Many yoga practitioners use the word as starter and at the end. The purpose is to calm the body and mind and to prepare oneself for the exercise. The practice of doing something auspicious before starting a work is quite common. For example, after entering his shop, a shopkeeper may first pray before the image or idol of his favourite deity. Muslims may have their own way of offering prayer before starting their work. If a Hindu says ‘OM’ before or after yogic exercises, it does not mean that a Muslim has also to do that. You may see a Hindu visiting a temple to get divine blessings for his new vehicle. It does not mean that in India no Muslim should buy a vehicle because he will have to go to a temple before he drives it regularly. If a Muslim feels that saying ‘OM’ before starting or ending yogic exercises has religious connotation, he may say ‘Allah’. It would make no difference to the effect of yoga exercises. Millions of Christians and Muslims practise yoga all over the world. I am sure they manage without using the word ‘OM’.
Remember, everything that originated in ancient Indian subcontinent cannot be associated with Hindu religion. A yoga teacher of Pakistan says that Patanjali belongs to Pakistan because he was born in Multan, part of present day Pakistan though some historians believe that he was native to Kashmir. Criticising those who associate ‘Surya Namaskar’ with religion, Baba Ramdev has rightly said that the modern science came from the West but we do not associated with Christianity. Most of the gadgets, most of the means of transport and communication and so many other things we use every day were invented or developed by the Christians in the West. Does it mean that use of such gadgets or instruments is against other religions? Christians of the West gave suit and tie to the world. Does it mean that everyone who wears suit and tie becomes christian?
According to the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) 2013, more than 95% of the world has health problems and about one third of the world population is suffering from more than five ailments. Yoga exercises have been widely accepted as cure for several mental and physical ailments. The zealots and diehards whose survival depends on controversies and conflicts suffer from some more diseases. Yoga experts should suggest suitable postures to cure them of their diseases.
Will such clarifications put an end to controversy? I am reminded of an old joke I had heard in my village decades ago. There was a ‘wise’ man in the village. He claimed to be the last word on everything. One day he said that if somebody could prove that ‘2+2 are equal to 4’, he would give his entire property to that person. His wife got nervous and told him that even a child could prove that. The ‘wise’ man was ready with the answer: ‘No one can prove that because I will never accept the proof.’
The Muslim leaders would serve their community better by encouraging people to practise yoga that improves health of mind and body. The ‘Hindu’ religious leaders and politicians like Nitish Kumar who are associating yoga with Hindu religion and discoursing people of other religions to take advantage of yogic exercises which have been proved to be very scientific are bringing bad name to their own religion which is supposed to be very tolerant and flexible. They do not want people to be healthy. Yoga will remain effective even without ‘Surya Namaskar’, one of the several yoga postures, but insistence on treating Yoga a part of Hindu religion will definitely harm the latter.
Yoga is religion neutral. Let it remain so. Treat it as World Heritage. Those like Bihar CM Nitish Kumar who associate yoga with Hindu religion do not understand either yoga or religion. Their main concern is personal power. They do not want people to be healthy.
July 31, 2016
(Photos and cartoon downloaded from internet.
An updated version of the articles written last year on June 10, 2015.