Saffronization, Yoga and the Kerala Left: CP Geevan

Guest post by CP GEEVAN

There are many ways in which ‘saffronization’ is being carried out at various levels. It takes the form of virulent battles at one extreme and persistent soft-campaigns at the other. It really does not require deep skills in socio-political analysis to see this entire spectrum of insidious divisive politics – all of that are in the clearly visible band. Surprisingly, the CPI(M) seems to have taken the attitude of a friendly match when it comes to certain variants of soft-saffronization, pretending not to see what is going on behind often innocuous-sounding things like Yoga – the latest weapon being deployed in the saffronization campaign. Instead of questioning the premises of this misplaced ‘national celebration’ and its belligerent imposition that defines the Modi government move, the party has chosen to play a friendly match by wholeheartedly joining the soft-saffronization race.

Pinarayi Vijayan at CPI-MK's Yoga event
Pinarayi Vijayan at CPI-MK’s Yoga event

The CPI(M, Kerala syndicate) has, in many ways, outperformed the RSS in Kerala so much so that the hyper-active media in Kerala had very little to report on how BJP and RSS celebrated yoga day in God’s Own Country. It seemed the Sanghis were pleasantly surprised at the saffronization of the CPI(M) itself! May be, the CPI(M) is gloating over how it out-smarted the Sanghis at their own game but that is not how it works in the world of everyday politics. For their part, the Sanghis could find nothing to object to in the way the new government in Kerala celebrated yoga. It seemed the Gods came to the CPI(M) party headquarters to pay obeisance to the newly enthroned in their glorious new clothes, new language, new style, new gait, new approach, and, of course, some inklings of a new, disquieting politics.

The celebration of International Yoga Day was, in part, a grand performance by the newly installed state government eager to be in the good books of the central government. It was eager to demonstrate its flexibility and even get some accolades from the Prime Minister for the government’s ‘constructive’ approach. After all, Pinarayi Vijayan, now  chief minister, had already followed in Modi’s footsteps by bringing out full page advertisements of himself in virtually all newspapers, on the eve of his swearing in. There was little doubt that they are attempting to prove to the PM that the new state government is, indeed, a different animal. The CPI(M) party on its own organized yoga celebrations in truly spectacular ways, as if it was waiting for such an opportunity. The party’s mouthpiece, Deshabhimani, covered the celebrations as if was a revolutionary event of sorts, after failing to show any such fervour to celebrate its own great moments from history of its class struggles. There were articles and stories in the party-controlled media glorifying yoga of the kind that one usually expects in the saffron press. Summarised below is one such report in Deshabhimani – the party newspaper.

The article with the misleading title “Yoga: A secular perspective” by one K.T.Krishnadas in the newspaper of 21-Jun 2016 lavishes praise ad nauseam on yoga. It presents a rather long list of statements attributed to old texts such as the samhitas to ‘prove’ the greatness of yoga. The approach in the story implies that mere mention of anything in an ancient text is proof enough of its greatness. None of the stories put out by the party’s official paper make any attempt to show what is secular in yoga as an integrated system rooted firmly in a certain kind of belief system and the associated spirituality. But the secularity or otherwise of the Veda is not quite the issue, given that fact that it is in all probability, a pre-Vedic and therefore, pre-Hindu tradition that was later incorporated into the Hindu fold. If as a way of bodily practices and disciplines, Yoga has practical benefits, surely that should be a matter of choice and every individual should have the option of adopting yoga or any other system with or without its religiosity, spirituality, or its framework of values. Even when such events are celebrated officially, individuals – whether they are children in schools or adults working in government – should not be coerced to accept it. They must have the right to be involved or not, in the way they wish – either as disinterested persons taking part in a limited, formal role or as enthusiasts. Somewhere in all this valorization of Yoga’s ancient glory, the question of the individual’s right to make a choice has been completely disregarded – not to speak of the fact that its propagation at this historical juncture, is hugely oppressive of minorities who might not see its spirituality as separate from its bodily practices.

In the case of yoga, there is clearly a need for an incisive debate on the pros and cons of its various aspects, as well as the validity of promoting such systems officially. Instead of squandering scarce public funds in promoting yoga or any other such system, those who swear by the market should leave such things either to the market or individual preferences. There is no justification whatever for going overboard with such celebrations by a party that still chooses to call itself communist and Marxist and also make claims to the legacies of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh.

The article in CPI(M)’s newspaper begins with the statement that it is only now that our society has started to recognize that the “very life of our culture is in yoga”. This clearly implies that such a change has come about after the present central government started to promote yoga. It claims that while there are philosophical and theoretical aspects to yoga, it is essentially a holistic approach to improve health. It claims that yoga promotes social cohesion and prevents conflicts. It calls for nurturing yoga as a cultural ‘movement’ and calls or a “democratic intervention” to achieve that. Deshabhimani chose to publish such an article,which makes astounding claims glorifying yoga, instead of a rational engagement or critique, which is what many among the left would expect from such a party and its mouthpiece.

The article in Deshabhimani goes as far as to claim that some of the ancient yoga texts are about 8000 years old. It makes all sorts of hyperbolic claims about the virtues of yoga. More or less, it says that yoga is the ultimate system for managing health, ensuring happiness, and living a virtuous life. There is no limit on how it extols the virtues of yoga. And along with this uncritical praise of yoga, it makes even greater glorification of the ancient Samhita texts, as if they are sources of pure wisdom. In effect, the article claims that yoga helps the individual to take full control over of mind, body and even beyond. After eulogizing some of the ancient contributors to yoga such as Swanmaru, Patanjali, Charaka and others, the article continues with endless glorification of yoga, mixed with claims about statements present in Samhita texts. The article, of course, ends with the statement that the time is long overdue for the democratisation of yoga -acknowledging at least by implication that its practices had at some stage become embedded in dominant Hindu practices.

On  22 June, Deshabhimani also carried a story about the Chief Minister inaugurating the yoga event organized by a CPI(M) outfit. In his speech, the CM announced that the government will take steps to provide facilities for yoga training in schools. The CPI(M) leaders portrayed yoga as a system to manage wellness and fitness. They warned that some sections (without naming anyone) are maliciously attempting to link yoga with spirituality. In their well-considered view, such an approach will, in effect, deny the benefits of yoga to those from other faiths. The CPI(M) leaders also cautioned those who see yoga as part of another religious system to change their attitude, as those who do that stand to  lose the benefits they can get from yoga as a form of exercise. They argued that given the stressful modern life, yoga, perhaps is one among many ways to a healthy mind and body. On the whole, the CPI(M) leaders talked about yoga shorn of its history dismissing its close links to spirituality. They were attempting to appropriate it by avoiding any critical evaluation and analysis by making a questionable claim that yoga has no links with the any belief system or the social framework from which it emerged.

The statements of party leaders and the type of articles published in the party’s mouthpiece are almost comical. There cannot be more non-Marxist and ahistorical ways to discuss as important and ancient a system as yoga. Given the fact that yoga thrives even now, it calls for a more incisive discussion, at least to maintain some honesty in analysis, if not anything else. A critical discussion cannot evade issues like use of yoga as a political tool in the process of saffronization and the validity of the hyperbolic claims made about its capacity to control both the mind (a non-physiological entity) and body and bring harmony in society. One does not have to be a Marxist to say this.

CP Geevan is an environmental scientist based in Ahmedabad

4 thoughts on “Saffronization, Yoga and the Kerala Left: CP Geevan”

  1. While it is true that both mainstream communists and RSS / BJP fanatics are trying to promote ‘ yoga’ in their opportunistic ways to woo people, one wonders what is the reason behind such attempts. At first thought, ascribing a ‘ day’ for yoga in itself is a tragic view of one of the most important aspects of daily life.
    ‘Yoga’ or, simply put, ‘ exercise’ should be an integral part of one’s life. It is not the ‘ discovery’ is not the privilege of either BJP/ RSS or communists. Nor is it a vedic or biblical thought. But exercise (or ‘vyayama’ in Sanskrit) has been practiced over millions of years in one form or the other. The menial lower caste people ‘exercise’ daily by their ‘unskilled’ work in factories, households, sweeping, cleaning drainage, construction sites, etc. In other words, they exercise daily.
    A special regimen of ‘yoga’ is required for upper brahminical castes because they have little or no physical exertion. They need gyms, play grounds, exercise tools, etc., for fitness. This effort of BJP (and communists ) is to saffronisation of a daily activity in a religious garb. The main intention is to ‘festivalise’ exercise and show political power.
    Exercise (or ‘yoga’ in Hindu fanatics words) should not be confined to a one day showbiz but it should be used to upper castes with lower castes. The upper caste , especially brahmins’ and non- workers, must compulsorily work in fields, drainage works, construction sites as labourers or other physical exertion tasks.
    Exercise daily is healthy. Physical exercise is required for every human being. The myth of yoga should be cleared and awareness of good healthy habits by physical exercises should be spread to every human being instead of ‘ celebrating’ it as selective people’s prerogative . A holistic approach is necessary.

  2. “given that fact that it is in all probability, a pre-Vedic and therefore, pre-Hindu tradition that was later incorporated into the Hindu fold”. This is a controversial and (probably unnecessary for the purposes of this article) remark. It has been argued that many practices in today’s Hinduism go back to the Indus Valley civilization and may not be related to the Vedas.
    This comment has no direct bearing on the thesis of this article though.

  3. There must be an automatic hearkening to defend/assert it in the idiom of the freedom movement, whenever someone speaks of it, which gives it a ‘baggage’ that could easily be jettisoned if all we wanted was good health. Rather, nationalist association invariably must come to the fore, yea-saying in the age of neoliberalism

  4. It is without doubt that fanfare associated with so called ‘ yoga day ‘ and the way it is promoted is soft core Hindutva promotion. It is somewhat like the drill or uniform associated with a group , which is done to give it a special identity vis-a-vis others, though apparently it is to instill a sense of discipline . This is all over the world where special groups are always having some kind of identification associated with them, be it underground or overground.

    Yoga , surely , has Indian origin and have immense beneficial effects on body . But , the moment a huge political patronage is provided almost to the point of appropriation of the same by the government (or political party in power) , it acquires obvious political overtones.This is where motives are attributed and the whole exercise is questioned. And the whole thing becomes just a publicity exercise for political intent rather than a serious marketing one for health benefits

    There are better and serious ways of promoting it, like introducing yoga through Health Ministry publicity, through PHCs or maybe engaging film stars as Yoga ambassadors etc.
    Such campaigns can be sustained and need not suffer a backlash once a government changes .

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