India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of the nationalist BJP party (one of India’s two major political parties) is a vegetarian and a proud practitioner of yoga. In fact yoga, and traditional medicine have their place in the BJP election platform: “Yoga and Ayurveda are the gifts of ancient Indian civilization to humanity and we will increase the public investment to promote Yoga and AYUSH. We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics. We will set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine.”
Around a year ago he asked the UN to start a World Yoga day. A few weeks ago he shuffled former tourism minister Shripad Yesso Naik to the newly created position of ‘Minister of Yoga’.
Yoga, Mother India, meditation, what could be healthier, more progressive, more enlightened? Just about anything really if these are just symbols of a Hindu nationalism that corresponds to other similar xenophobic, neo-puritan, positions that we find spreading in every culture and every corner of our poor little planet.
If that’s what it’s about I suspect that like most individuals, movements, parties and ideologies with a deep fear of contamination — whether of their blood, their volk, or their culture — they will have to maintain their belief in the fiction of purity, even if it means denying or ignoring historical and scientific evidence. These are the ones who identify themselves as the only true citizens, the pure lain (as they say in the province of Quebec here in Canada), or “dyed in the wool” as we might loosely translate into English.
Of course their fear of contamination is a fear of loosing something they never possessed, or ever could possess. Purity of biological blood lines, so important for traditional racists, make no sense unless you are willing to reject everything that modern genetics seems to tell us, from the mixed bloodlines revealed by genetic analysis to the admixture of Cro-magnons and Neanderthals. Or if you like start much earlier in the story of our common ancestry with our first mother long ago in Africa or why not the last common ancestor of all life on Earth (LUCA). Hell, start with the exploding stars whose dust makes up all our bodies and everything else heavier than helium.
Of course with the failure of biological racism they can always choose to make the demarcation follow the fissures of culture as if these were separate and distinct. But the roots of Europe, Asia, and Africa were tangled from the beginning of humanity’s story. The new world and the old world, East and West, all these obvious and eternal distinctions, were neither. They were and are largely arbitrary (though sometimes useful) constructs. Like the notion of the functional differences of our brains’ hemispheres.
Look again, there’s a giant cable of nerves connecting those separate hemispheres, just as, even before we had settlements, writing, or even ceramics, we had the beginning of trade routes that would come to cross continents, guaranteeing that raw materials, trade goods, artifacts, art and ideas circulated from one end of the Earth to the other. The famous science and philosophy of Greece? Believe what the ancient Greeks said and look further East to Mesopotamia (long in contact with India).
The ancient asanas of the yogis? Really another 19th Century inter-cultural hybrid. With the help of institutions as unlikely as the YMCA, Indian traditions and health trends imported from Northern Europe become mutually fertilized. Voila, modern asana based yoga.
So maybe it makes sense to slap trade designations on products like Champagne, or Cheddar but what culture can lay claim to the downward dog?