Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent weeks — and millions — prepping for International Yoga Day, which promoted health, peace and goodwill. But some of the nation’s Muslims see the yoga craze as a threat to secularism.
NEW DELHI — It was a rare sight — after a brief speech to inaugurate International Yoga Day on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi descended from a huge stage in front of the presidential palace and took off his glasses and his shoes. He quietly took his place before a sea of schoolchildren and others, mats neatly arranged in a checkerboard as far as the eye could see, to begin what was billed as the largest yoga demonstration in a single venue in history.
Reporters pounced, and a camera lens shattered on the ground. Muscular men wearing International Yoga Day T-shirts held back the crowd. Some volunteers formed a chain around onlookers.
To this, Modi appeared impervious, lost deep in his practice. After bending and twisting through most of a 35-minute session in unison with an army of more than 35,000 participants, many in identical white T-shirts, he delved into the crowd of children who touched his feet reverently. When he beckoned, and not a moment before, they rushed to him, touching the scarf he had used to wipe his brow.
“When he touched my hand, it was like nothing I’ve ever felt before,” said Shubhangi Tiwari, amid a gaggle of students afterward.
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It was the culmination of a holiday hyped for weeks by the government, and one for which Modi lobbied the United Nations to recognize in a visit to New York last year. It was not the first time state machinery has been mobilized behind one of his government’s projects, nor the first time he has appeared to project himself as a uniter of a diverse and fragmented nation, but it may have been one of the least conventional.
“I believe that from the 21st of June, through the International Day of Yoga, it is not just the beginning of a day but the beginning of a new age through which we will achieve greater heights of peace, goodwill and train the human spirit,” Modi said in his speech.
Through Sunday’s spectacle and Modi’s place at its head, the government attempted to give fresh life to the idea that yoga can help restore national pride and a return to ancient values in an age of tarnished virtue and rising illness. Some groups representing Muslims, the country’s largest minority, have bristled against that message, calling it a threat to secularism, or saying that they should not be compelled to perform sun salutations or chant “Om,” a sound sacred in Hinduism.
The central government decided not to include sun salutations in the routine, and said the event was voluntary, though some government employees reported feeling some pressure to attend.
The government made no effort to play down its message of the healing power of yoga. In an event later Sunday, Modi mentioned diseases like diabetes and hypertension, and drug addiction in India, adding that “practicing yoga helps combat stress and chronic conditions.”
The message, despite the criticism, caught on with the apparently adoring participants, who included some of the most flexible schoolchildren in Delhi and apparently inflexible bureaucrats.
“Since ancient times India was the guru of the world,” said Vikash Chandra, a lawyer who has been practicing yoga since 1992. Yoga Day in Delhi, which was captured by more than 24 state-run TV cameras and broadcast all over the nation, would help them reclaim it, he said.
Senior ministers from Modi’s Cabinet took part in yoga events in Chennai, Kolkata, Lucknow and Shimla. The army released photos of servicemen practicing near the icy Himalayas and in the desert.
There were also Yoga Day demonstrations across the world, including in Paris; Beijing; Osaka, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; and New York.
In India, an official from the ministry of yoga and traditional medicine, which coordinated the event, said he did not yet know the expense, but local news media reported it at anywhere from nearly $5 million to more than $15 million. An advertising campaign was started, fiber cables and security cameras were installed, giant projectors displayed, and schools and nongovernmental groups were granted funds for training camps.
Though government critics have questioned the expense, the army of participants on Sunday defended it.
Pavan Kumar Dubey, a 55-year-old inspector general with the Border Security Force, said he believed yoga could bring peace worldwide.
“How much money will be saved when the defenses between the countries come down?” he asked. Of his own job, he said: “We’ll find something else to do.”
Chandra, a member of the Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga, said yoga had brought his father relief from his arthritis and his mother energy after her cancer treatment. As for himself, his two-hour daily practice of meditation and yoga had brought him strength, he said.
“I’m approaching 56, and I can work from 4 in the morning till midnight,” he said. “I want to not be suffering from any ailment.”
After Modi departed, and the barricades came down, two 26-year-old engineering graduates who had failed to obtain tickets to the event lingered near a signboard made from marigolds. One of them, Baishakh Charavorty, said the event was necessary, and the government should go further and teach yoga and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text, in schools.
“It will increase the self confidence that we are not a third-world country, a poor country,” he said. “We can be No. 1.”