Is secular practise of yoga too much of a stretch for India?

Supreme court asked to make yoga in schools compulsory, but must first decide whether it is religious or simply exercise.

Students in Ahmedabad practise yoga ahead of International Day of Yoga on June 17, 2015. India’s supreme court on November 8, 2016 began hearing a plea to make the practice of yoga compulsory in all state schools. Amit Dave / Reuters
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Is yoga a practice of Hinduism, or is it a secular system of physical and mental discipline? India’s supreme court is debating this fundamental question as it hears a petition to make yoga compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 13 studying in state schools.

At the heart of the case is an assessment of yoga itself. If yoga is intrinsically Hindu, to incorporate it into the curriculum would be to force a religious ritual on schools that are meant to be secular.

The petition, filed in the public interest by a lawyer, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, also asks the court to instruct the government to draw up a national yoga policy and provide yoga textbooks to students to improve their health.

“The state has an obligation to provide health facilities to all the citizens, especially to children and adolescents,” the petition says. “In a welfare state, it is the obligation of the state to ensure the creation and sustaining of conditions congenial to good health.”

Mr Upadhyay is also a spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

Over the coming weeks, government bodies in charge of education will provide testimony to a three-judge bench.

Since its rise to power in 2014, Mr Modi’s government has been pushing yoga as an instrument of soft power. In June this year, on the occasion of the second International Yoga Day, Mr Modi himself led a mass yoga session in the city of Chandigarh.

“It is not a religious activity,” he told the 30,000 people who attended.

He said Hindus as well as non-believers could practise it, so there was no cause for controversy. “It helps in getting salvation from health issues.”

But the distinction is not easy to make.

Jaya Chakravarty, founder of The Practice Room yoga centre in Bengaluru, said that yoga absorbed influences from Buddhism, Jainism and other faiths in addition to Hinduism.

She said yoga could be seen as a system of philosophy, or just a physical activity made up of a set of “asanas” – or postures.

Her classes begin with a Sanskrit invocation to the sage Patanjali, who is claimed to have authored the definitive text on yogic philosophy at some time between the second and fourth centuries.

“We tell our students what the words mean,” she said. “We tell them that if they have an objection to say the invocation, they can either sit quietly or focus on any other force who is benevolent in their lives. I see nothing religious about the invocation.”

Even if yoga is not essentially Hindu, its introduction into schools by a Hindu nationalist government is suspicious, said Andrew Nicholson, a professor of Indian philosophy and religious history at Stony Brook University in New York.

“In theory, it should be possible to have a secular form of yoga, shorn of all religious significance, in a school,” Mr Nicholson said. “I suspect that there are ulterior motives when BJP politicians attempt to establish yoga in public schools.”

A similar debate played out in the US last year, when a California court ruled that yoga was “devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings” and could be taught in schools. The verdict went against a Christian legal foundation that argued that practising yoga in schools went against the grain of a secular education.

At the same time, Hindu groups in the US – such as the Hindu American Foundation – have launched campaigns to “take back yoga” and rescue it from commercialisation and revive its religious spirit.

This is at odds with the BJP’s stance in India, Dr Nicholson said.

“I was initially surprised last year when I heard BJP politicians arguing that yoga is a secular practice … Religious people, politicians, and supreme court justices often seem to abandon their deep-seated principles when expediency requires it.”

Ms Chakravarty supported the introduction of asanas in schools, calling them “the most complete set of conditioning for the body”.

“Asanas are completely secular and appropriate for children,” she said.

The larger system of yoga itself, however, should stay out of schools, Ms Chakravarty said.

“It is neither appropriate nor relevant for children. Philosophy is an adult pursuit.”