On a sticky morning last week, Deputy Commissioner Chandra Shekhar Sahukar of India’s Agriculture Ministry (animal husbandry department, small ruminant section) found himself in a yoga class for the first time in his 57 years, miserably grasping his ankle.
In his bag he carried a photocopy of a memorandum advising senior officials to familiarize themselves with certain postures ahead of International Yoga Day this Sunday, when they will take part in a mass outdoor yoga session scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. The session is intended to qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records, the memo says, warning, “If some officials turn up without practice, there will be risk of the record claim being affected.”
At the front of the room, the instructor was folding and unfolding himself like a pocketknife, and pointedly reminding members of the class that they would soon be performing under the scrutiny of “Modi-saab.” When he asked the students to press their faces to their knees, Mr. Sahukar — whose professional duties, he noted later, include “a lot of sitting” — could keep silent no longer.
“It’s not touching!” he exclaimed. “I can’t bend anymore!”
Of the major initiatives that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced since taking office, few have generated as much static as Yoga Day, which will feature a 35-minute public demonstration of poses by more than 35,000 government employees, students and other citizens. Though the Western world regards yoga primarily as physical exercise, Indians are more apt to see its postures and Sanskrit chants as freighted with ideological or religious meaning.
Preparations for the event set off a chorus of criticism, mostly from a handful of Muslim activist groups that say they should not be compelled to chant “Om,” a sound sacred in Hinduism, or perform the sun salutation, which they say violates the monotheistic nature of Islam.
Mr. Modi’s officials have hurried to address those complaints, assuring the public that participation in Yoga Day is optional and that it focuses exclusively on health, not religion. “Om” is not part of the Yoga Day protocol, nor is the sun salutation. The debate so incensed one right-wing member of Parliament that he suggested that those displeased by the sun salutation “drown in the sea.”
Behind the headlines, there is little doubt that the yoga campaign amounts to a cultural challenge, in a capital city powerfully shaped by its British and Mughal past. New Delhi’s elites are mostly Anglophiles, fond of their whisky and butter chicken; its clerks spend their days in dim warrens of paper files, tensed against the next supervisory tongue-lashing. Many rank-and-file civil servants have bellies like first-floor balconies. Continue reading >>
New York Times