Over the past month, and ever since the Union Government took energetic steps to make the observance of World Yoga Day on June 21 as widespread as possible, a furious controversy has erupted over the appropriateness of the move. As a rule, debates and controversies are often decried in India for two reasons: the shrillness of the exchanges (particularly when TV channels get into the act) and the social schisms that often ensue.
Yet, not all bouts of fractiousness are necessarily counter-productive. I would hazard the opinion that, despite its unfortunate sectarian underpinnings, the impact of the verbal gunfire over World Yoga Day has been largely positive. More than anything else it has clearly exposed the sharp divide over approaches to Indian culture and traditional knowledge systems. This could even have a bearing on future policy initiatives.
Contemporary debates are often replays of earlier disputes, and it would be instructive to look at some of these.In 1824, the British Government in India established a Sanskrit College in Kolkata. Unlike the only other Government-funded Sanskrit College in Varanasi that was aimed at instructing both East India Company and Crown officials, Kolkata’s Sanskrit College was for the benefit of Indian students. Actually, ‘Indian students’ (or “Bengali” students as the official notings would have it) was a misnomer. In deference to what the administration perceived as prevailing local sensibilities, admission was limited to Hindu students of the Brahmin and Vaidya castes.
In 1851, in response to a wider bhadralok pressure, the Government contemplated widening the admissions net to include Kayastha students. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Principal of the College, was asked his opinion. In his reply to the Council of Education, Vidyasagar stated that he had “no objection to the admission of other castes than Brahmanas and Vaidyas or in other words, different orders of Shudras, to the Sanskrit College.” Contesting the Manusmriti, Vidyasagar cited the Bhagvata Puran — “acknowledged to be a divine Revelation and to be the essence of all the Upanishads, the most sacred portion of the Vedas” — to show that there was “no direct prohibition in the Shastras against the Shudras studying Sanskrit literature.”
An enlightened conservative who was in the forefront of moves to secure widow remarriage and combining Sanskrit learning with instruction in English, Vidyasagar, however, balked at the prospect of opening the Sanskrit College to all Hindus. The reason he cited was not theological but “expediency”. The admission of those castes “wanting in respectability” and “lower in the scale of social considerations” would, he feared, “prejudice the interests of the Institution”. In a subsequent letter in 1855, while turning down a Suvarnabanik (Vaishya) student, Vidyasagar regretted that “Admissions from that class will I am sure not only shock the prejudice of the orthodox Pundits of the Institution but materially injure …its popularity as well as respectability.”
Despite his better judgement, Vidyasagar was compelled to succumb to an insidious phenomenon that has plagued both Hindu society and India: the belief that access to traditional knowledge systems — and, indeed, knowledge itself — must be seriously limited. This was by no means an Indian phenomenon alone. In many parts of pre-Reformation Europe, access to classical learning was limited to the monastic orders. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is a gripping tale of the devious prohibitions on inherited wisdom in Christendom.
This exclusivist view of religion and culture is often marked by a certain measure of arrogance and loftiness, and all in the name of purity. The belief that there is one faith for the riff-raff and another for those who have earned the right to enlightenment — the tragic tale of Eklavya in the Mahabharata is an example — has been a source of national weakness. For a very long time — and maybe as a defensive response to unending foreign invasions — there has been attempts to curtail the public and congregational aspects of worship.
The struggle against this Guild Hinduism has been long and arduous. It was only in the mid-19th century that community Durga Pujas came to be celebrated in Bengal. The earlier practice had limited the worship of the Goddess of Shakti to the private homes of the well-off. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that lokmanya Tilak popularised the community Ganapati festivals in the Bombay Presidency. He had to encounter the disdain of those who felt that worship was an exclusive affair. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi initiated the temple-entry movement that threw open worship to all Hindus.
The World Yoga Day may well seem a tamasha to those who believe that its practice is private and personal. What this aloofness from anything congregational conveniently sidesteps is that for historical reasons, yoga has not permeated deep into the entire society. It has been cherished and nurtured as a special preserve of those who had the luxury of access. A handful of them now express aesthetic outrage that yoga awareness will throw open its doors to those who were hitherto outside the physical fitness ecosystem. It is so reminiscent of the indignation of the pedigreed few at the open access to the Gayatri Mantra as a result of technology. Just as the Gayatri Mantra was patented and handed down to only a few, they would rather sharp practitioners patented the yoga asanas and confined its reach to only a very few.
Over the years India has witnessed many social revolutions that have broken down a series of artificial walls to the dissemination of our traditional knowledge systems. Sanskrit is no longer the preserve of the so-called “respectable castes”, as they were in Vidyasagar’s time; in many temples, priesthood is no longer denied to non-Brahmins; and, with time, yoga will become a truly Indian heritage cutting across faiths and communities.Maybe that’s want the sceptics don’t want: for a wide swathe of Indians to embrace an inheritance that had been kept under lock and key for centuries.