As far as its outer expression goes, the sixth International Yoga Day is a consolidation of one aspect, arguably the greatest, of India’s soft power. If democracy is the US’s greatest soft power export that organises nations through the currency of vote into a cohesive collective powered by individuals, Yoga does the same for India, initially at an individual level and invisibly at the national – the former is visible, the latter concealed.
An idea of Indian origin, Yoga is an open source, free to use technology by all, with no exclusions – an extension of the system of knowledge creation in ancient India. The first International Yoga Day on 21 June 2014, born after a concerted push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, brought a global legitimacy to this technology. Already a global transformative force, Yoga has now become India’s most impactful public good.
In economic terms, Yoga is non-rival (one soul’s consumption does not affect another soul’s opportunity), and it is non-excludable (one soul cannot deny another soul the opportunity to consume it). The word ‘consume’ is as much a stretch for Indians as the word ‘soul’ for those not conversant with Sanatana Dharma. The idea of a ‘soul’ makes Yoga uniquely Indian, as the practice of Yoga is not limited to bodily asanas, movements or breathing; these are tools for a deep dive within. That ‘within’ is the soul.
On its sixth anniversary, India must once again take charge of the narrative around the International Yoga Day. The physical consolidation now cast in stone, the psychological consolidation of soft power needs action. India must take forward the United Nation’s Resolution 69/131
, whose underlying reasons include individuals and populations making healthier choices following lifestyle patterns that foster good health, closer cooperation among nations for better individual lifestyles, and a holistic approach to health and well-being.
Looking at the pictures streaming in on social media from across six continents, the fact that India has been able to persuade the world about the idea of Yoga as a means to health is now beyond doubt. That is soft power – the ability to influence without a coercive force. New Delhi’s soft power achievement around Yoga has been to reclaim it as an Indian idea – there are hundreds of copyrights around Yoga globally, several trademarks that were born in India are now owned by outsiders, ironically on an idea that is free – through the International Yoga Day.
If we map the first five years of International Yoga Day with Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, we find that the idea has taken root and been embraced across democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. In his next five-year term, Modi needs to create an ecosystem that takes the physical benefits of the first five years as a starting point to deliver the Truth of Yoga: the unification of the inner soul with the outer being. Here, apart from the primary authors such as the rishis who envisioned the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and, of course, Patanjali, we have several modern teachers that include Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and Sri Aurobindo – who have taken Indian scriptures forward, adapted and contexted them for the modern mind.
What the world knows about Yoga today is a few postures of Hata Yoga. This is the tip of the Yogic iceberg. The complexity of the idea of the union of the soul with the spirit is out of reach for most civilisations – it is as easy as merging consciousness with artificial intelligence or nanotechnology with neurosciences. Making matters worse is the instant and hostile opposition to Yoga by devaluing it as ‘religion’ and hence not kosher. To overcome this psychological wall, the International Yoga Day needs to build upon the physical well-being and expand it into an integral well-being. The former can be felt, the latter is fuzzy until experienced – the relationship of cancer patients with healing, for instance.
For this aspect of India’s soft power, Modi needs to catalyse the creation of Yoga entrepreneurs and institutions. In different ways some are already doing their bit – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar gives discourses on music and meditation
, Sadhguru runs Yoga and meditation programmes
physically and virtually, Baba Ramdev has singlehandedly turned average parks across cities into daily yogic conclaves, in addition to 21 yoga centres, schools and ashrams across India
. Their reverberations are being felt across the world, directly, through their disciples or in the media, both traditional and social. Individually, they are all in mission modes of their own; together they are building engaging conversations around the soft power of Yoga.
As far as domestic politics and its tributaries of non-believers go, the International Yoga Day has not found much resonance among the usual suspects. One reason is that it has been initiated by Modi. But it is couched as a homogenisation of Indian culture by the right wing. But first, that’s like saying it is wrong to teach mathematical tables because they homogenise numbers. The asanas that form the physical aspects of Yoga contain in them more than 5,000 years of peer-reviewed and experiential benefits. They apply to all bodies, irrespective of ideological, political or religious slants. Second, within Yoga and its aspiration to unify body, mind and soul, there are several paths – Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Gyan Yoga and of course, Hata Yoga.
The Indian tradition is as vast as it is deep and has several offerings. Each unique individual can choose from a combination of these tools and find the Self. Of course, using the US’s greatest soft power, democracy, they are free to opt out of India’s greatest soft power, Yoga – while it is a public good, it is not mandatory. But to say that Yoga is fine as long as it is for physical exercise but not if it is for spiritual well-being
misses the point that Yoga is not religious at all – it is an integral system of body-mind-spirit equilibrium. Yoga is a science that science is in the process of discovering. As the creator of this system, and as part of its soft power consolidation, India needs to take charge in facilitating this discovery.
In a world that’s getting increasingly individualistic, sectarian, communal, extremist, and isolationist, if there is one idea that can bridge political, religious and social divides, heal bleeding minds, and bring inner peace to 7 billion and counting mass of humanity, it is the unification of body with mind, mind with soul and soul with spirit. Or Yoga. As an intensification of India’s soft power drive, Modi in Season 2 needs to use the next five years to create institutional foundations of this future-ready idea. These include funding global scholarships around various aspects of Yoga, bringing thinkers and practitioners together for synergies, enabling systems that harness this knowledge and makes it available to the world.
If the past five years laid out the alphabet of Yoga for India’s soft power kindergarten classes, the next five years should see conversations around individuals being able to use the inner grammar of Yoga. This will complete this cycle of India’s soft power, a power deep, a power vast and a power unique.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.