Last year, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his maiden speech before the United Nations, he spoke of one of his country’s best known cultural exports in lofty terms. “Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition," he said. "It is not about exercise but to discover oneness within yourself, the world and nature.” He used the occasion to propose an International Yoga Day, eventually supported by 177 countries and ratified by the United Nations last year. It's all part of Modi's hope to rebrand India's yoga to the world.
On Sunday, June 21, the first International Yoga Day, Modi will share his “oneness” experience with 35,000 government employees, students and citizens on the ceremonial Rajpath boulevard in the Indian capital, as thousands more follow along with the yoga routines — beamed from New Delhi on big screens — in more than 100 countries around the world. The United Nations celebration of the event will be shown in New York's Times Square, where 30,000 people are expected to attend.
India’s Ministry of Yoga and Traditional Medicines also hopes to set a Guinness world record in the “largest yoga demonstration/class at a single venue” category, according to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
But the grand project has caused a stink at home for the yoga-loving prime minister, who rises every day around 5 a.m. for stretches and deep-breathing exercises and credits his practice as key to his workaholic lifestyle.
First, Muslim groups objected to the inclusion of “Surya Namaskar,” otherwise known as Sun Salutation, so the drill was dropped from the program, according to the Times of India. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board said that the practice "is against our religious beliefs and should not be forced on our children."
Then, a firebrand member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Yogi Adityanath, suggested that all those objecting to sun salutes should be drowned at sea.
“Sun is the source of life-giving energy,” the member of parliament from Uttar Pradesh state said at a religious event this week. “Whoever thinks sun is communal, I would like to humbly request them to drown themselves in the sea or they should stay in a dark cell."
Modi’s administration has tried to distance itself from the controversy, saying the event is not a religious one, despite the tradition's deep roots in the Hindu faith.
"It is yoga and has nothing to do with religion,” Shripad Naik, India’s yoga minister, told the Press Trust of India. “The event is not a compulsory one, and it has no connection with religion. We have not made anything mandatory. … It is an opportunity for everyone in the country to showcase before the world our ancient legacy.”
Naturally, social media weighed in.
Narrow-minded opposition to Yoga & crazy defenders using it as test of nationalism both banal & annoying. California must be laughing !
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) June 9, 2015
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on June 9.