Saturday, 6 December 2014

Yoga Editorial From Cults to Culture

The last month was filled with very interesting and exciting developments. Even as this editorial is being written European Union has backed Indian Prime Minister’s call to observe International Yoga Day. "EU supports your initiative for a Yoga Day," the EU President Herman Von Rompuy told the Prime Minister during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. About 130 countries, including the US, Canada and China, have signed for a co-sponsorship of a draft resolution which India's UN mission is preparing for declaring June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.

Interestingly the November 2014 issue of ‘Scientific American’ has the benefits of meditation as its cover story. Written by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and neuroscientists Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson, the cover story in the premier American science magazine shows how meditation creates changes in the brain to improve focus and reduce stress. For long the West has been fascinated with Yoga and meditation as health techniques to be integrated with the fast life culture of the consumerist society. Reduction in stress to increase in attention to many correlated physiological and psychological benefits, Yoga and meditation have been viewed as treasures obtained from the exotic West. Curiously except for the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta school and the school of Buddhism many Indian Gurus of Yogic techniques have often used these benefits to ‘market’ Yoga and build their own personality based cults. The result has been that Yoga has been reduced to a specific set of practices for inner wellbeing in a fast moving consumerist society.

It is in such a context that the voice of Indian Prime Minister becomes very important.  The context in which Prime Minister referred to Yoga was when he was talking about climate change and going back to basics.  As a person inspired by Swami Vivekananda our Prime Minister rightly pointed out that Yoga is not just about fitness or exercise, it is about changing one's lifestyle. Moving away from consumerist lifestyle towards a green eco-friendly earth-friendly lifestyle is what is needed and Yoga should become an instrument towards achieving that. The only other person who has been advocating such a connection between the inner and outer culture through contemplation is His Holiness Dalai Lama the venerable Buddist leader. Both Vedanta and Buddhist meditation traditions emphasis that the quieted mind becomes peaceful and hence non-predatory. When a civilization is built on such a cultivation of mind then that civilization becomes non-expansionist and non-exploitative either of the fellow human beings or of the nature around us.

This has been dramatically brought about by the recent findings of National Geographic magazine. In its study of the planetary friendly consumer behavior of ordinary people from the world nations, which the magazine team conducted during 2008-2014 it consistently found the Indians performing well. India with a score of 61.4 tops the world. As the study says: “Indians' Greendex score has increased very considerably since 2012 and they remain in 1st place overall. Their Housing score has increased greatly, and their Food score has also increased. Their Transportation score has also seen a modest increase.” In the vital area of food consumption the six years based study reveals the following:

·        Indians are among the least frequent consumers of imported foods, and consumption of such foods has decreased since 2009. They are among of the most frequent consumers of self-grown food.
·        They are much less likely to consume beef or pork than are consumers in the other countries surveyed.
·        Indians are among the most frequent consumers of fruits and vegetables. 

It is clearly the cultural impact of Indian life that has led to the eco-friendly food habits of the Indians. This in turn has to be related to the core yoga values that form the Indian cultural and social life – namely moderation in consumption and self-reliance rather than looking for external sources. So when the Prime Minister wanted an International Yoga Day he wanted not just a symbolic act of enacting a mental and physical exercise.

The assertion of Indic roots of Yoga even as we take it globally is very much important for another reason as well. Because there is a two way attack on Yoga – one is deconstruction and another is appropriation. Anti-Hindu academics like Meera Nanda had argued that Yoga itself was only created in recent times based on certain western exercises. Laughable as it is this kind of assertion merely stems from a deeply enslaved mind. Another danger is the appropriation of Yoga by straight jacketing it into a religious theology that is alien to the heart of Yogic culture and spirituality. Thus Yoga is reduced here to mere mental and physical exercises and the sublime spiritual essence is replaced by a monotheistic deity. Such appropriation of Yoga by proselytizing religions has not been adequately challenged even by most of the so-called ‘New age’ Gurus who see this as merely expansion of their market. In such a situation, an enlightened government in India speaking for Yoga as an Indic gift to world humanity is a very welcome sign. Moving beyond individual personality cults Yoga then can be taken as the flag bearer of Indian culture and spirituality. That on the 151st year of Swami Vivekananda a Prime Minister also named Narendra should make a clarion call for such a process is heartwarming and inspiring.

May Yoga bring the planet the peace and harmony.        

Aravindan Neelakandan