Saturday, December 12, 2015

Yoga’s revival in India tied in to its growth in the West

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on the occasion of International Day of Yoga celebrations, New Delhi, India

By Mohan Ashtakala

When the United Nations, under the guidance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, declared June 21 to be the International day of yoga, it marked a remarkable turnaround for the ancient spiritual practice in its home country. Modi’s request at the United Nations received overwhelming support from 177 countries.
But strangely, in its home country of India, yoga was not valued even till a few decades ago. “In the 1930s, under the British, yoga was not respected”, B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the giants of modern yoga narrated. “I feel that only after yoga took roots in the west, Indians also opened up it,” he added.
One of the overarching goals of British colonialism was to replace traditional Indian knowledge with an English one. The two main reasons for this: one, to generate leaders and administrators who would be more capable administrators of the Empire and secondly, to create a more subservient nation which would not value its own culture and adopt the British one, and thus prolong colonial rule. An English education would become a prerequisite for entry into the powerful and lucrative government services, as well as the lingua-franca of mobility in the Empire.
One of the more important decisions taken by the colonial administration was to replace Sanskrit education with an English one. In this, they were extraordinarily successful. Sanskrit education, once remarkably widespread throughout India, served as the conduit for Indian traditions such as Yoga, Ayurveda and Hindu philosophical systems, but is, currently, practically dead. Furthermore, the governments that followed Indian independence, which inherited the colonialist administration system, viewed with suspicion most forms of Indian traditional systems of knowledge.
Swami Prabhupada
While Iyengar or Pattabhi Jois and others may get intellectual support for their work in popularizing yoga in the West, the main proponents of yoga must be the “gurus” of the sixties and the seventies, such as Yogananda, Swami Vishnu Devananda, Yogi Bhajan, and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who introduced Bhakti yoga to the west. These teachers moved to America, set up ashrams and schools and worked at the ground level with their American students and followers. Their work, along with others such as Neem Karoli Baba, Swami Radha, Amritananda Mayi and others, have been, and continue to be, much more important in yoga’s spread.
But even more important are the thousands of individual Western teachers, mostly women, who invested their own money to open up of yoga studios and train teachers around the world. Organizations such as the Yoga Alliance, among others, have been the backbone by which this effort succeeded.
Swami Ramdev
And the ripple effects of this explosion can now be felt in India. The work of Swami Ramdev, from the mid nineteen-nineties, has been seminal. In Haridwar, India, he has established the world’s largest center for Yoga and Ayurveda, called Patanjali Yogpeeth. It includes a Yoga University, an Ayurvedic hospital, a yoga hall of 25,000 square meters, a thousand apartments for guests, conference halls, cafeterias, and several apartment blocks for permanent residents.
India has now embraced yoga. Examples abound: the Indian Railways, the country’s largest employer, has made yoga compulsory for its employees; it is now being taught in all government schools; thousands daily attend yoga camps, and even the Indian army practices yoga. And under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, India’s trend of reclaiming her cultural and historical heritage is now gathering momentum.

Mohan Ashtakala is the author of "The Yoga Zapper - A Novel."