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Turning yoga into a political weapon

Narendra Modi on International Yoga Day 2018. Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty

Yoga is typically “associated with peace”, says Claudia Williams in Modi’s Warrior Pose. But for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi it’s a “weapon” to advance his aggressive form of Hindu nationalism. Modi’s rise to power in 2014 was in no small part thanks to Baba Ramdev, a billionaire “celebrity guru” and fellow Hindu nationalist, who used mass yoga festivals to drum up political support. Soon after his landslide victory, Modi appointed a minister for yoga and convinced the UN to launch an international yoga day. It was “a smart piece of soft power” that cemented India’s place at the heart of the multibillion-dollar global yoga industry.

Modi’s love of yoga might have caught the zeitgeist in the West, but it seriously worries religious minorities back home. There have been fears Muslim and Christian children would be forced to worship the Hindu sun god in mandatory school yoga classes. Modi is also dead wrong to insist, as he does, that yoga is a 5,000-year-old Hindu practice predating the arrival of other religions in India. The first Indians to write about yoga were actually the Buddhists, and they didn’t get around to it until the 11th century. But that, of course, wouldn’t fit the warped “Hindu first” version of Indian history that Modi uses to oppress minorities.

Listen to the full episode here.