My father-in-law, Joseph John, son of a high priest in the Syrian Christian church, was a gentle person with a smile that mirrored a warm heart. He had but two passions. One was environment. He started Friends of Trees in Mumbai, where he spent his professional life, at a time when destroying trees was a casual habit of both builders and the municipality. His significant contribution to the nation’s ecology was saving Kerala’s Silent Valley from encroachment and destruction, a service he continued to serve during retirement at his ancestral village in Kottayam. If those forests are still pristine it is at least partly due to Joseph John.
His second passion was yoga. Every morning, without fail, he did the surya namaskar, and remained in exemplary health even after time had turned his physique frail. Yoga was still something of a cult reality then, associated with mystics and yogis, and hardly the international phenomenon that it has now become. But it would never have occurred to Babu, our affectionate term for my father-in-law, that yoga somehow interfered with his belief in Christianity. My wife continues to do yoga, and it has stood her in excellent stead. A few weeks ago I went to visit my young niece, who like me is a Muslim, and discovered that she was on her way to becoming a yoga instructor. No one sees any conflict between an ancient Indian wisdom and personal commitment to a preferred faith. They do not recite a particular verse if they do not want to. They recognise yoga as a marvellous passport to health and serenity.
Is Congress, once again, merely pandering to extremists among minorities who get more support from media vehicles eager for provocative sound-bites than they get from their community?
The Congress decision to boycott a global celebration of India’s genius on Yoga Day is, therefore, puzzling at the very least. Is it a touch of bile in the brain? Or is the problem elsewhere? Has Congress under Rahul Gandhi got Anglicized in the 19th century sense, where “native” knowledge is considered regression? Or is Congress, once again, merely pandering to extremists among minorities who get more support from media vehicles eager for provocative sound-bites than they get from their community? I hope one is not mixing metaphors when one notes that Congress leaders are getting into all kinds of contortions in their effort to explain the inexplicable and defend the indefensible.
Communists share this sneering attitude towards Yoga Day, but then they would deride anything that Karl Marx forgot to mention. An Indian Mao Zedong, however, might have understood the need to correlate Marxist thought with Indian culture.
Political parties, in any case, should have the sense to keep a sharp eye on public opinion. Indians, across the board, have supported Yoga Day with enthusiasm. Mamata Banerjee, who gets a larger share of the Muslim vote in Bengal than Congress has got in five decades, is joining the celebration. Mayawati, who needs Muslim votes in UP in order to get seats, has welcomed the event, albeit with an acerbic comment about BJP in the codicil. Kerala’s Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is a clever politician who wants to satisfy public opinion and appease his leader Rahul Gandhi; his state is on board, but he has taken the day off. Even the vituperative Azam Khan, in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party, has moderated his stance. Learned scholars from Deoband have found nothing wrong with yoga, as long as Muslims do not repeat “Om”. Fair enough. There should never be compulsion.
The issue is not religion but syncretism, an indelible part of India’s composite culture. We all gain by offering that which can be shared; together we create an Indian bouquet of flowers from different gardens of the same land. This creative harmony blossoms in philosophy, poetry, art, attitudes, fashion, food. There is nothing new about this. Muslim rulers of the Delhi Sultanate bathed in water from the Ganges, which was transported by ox-cart: this did not make them irreligious or non-Muslims. Hindus bow at the shrines of Sufi saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer: this does not make them non-Hindus. Every male Prime Minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, with the exception of Narasimha Rao and Deve Gowda, has worn churidar pyjamas: where did the churidar come from? Equally, we do not consider Rao or Gowda to be any less Indian because they preferred a dhoti, worn in different styles. The evolution of India is a creative marvel rooted in the hearts of the people.
Indians reject one thing, and have done so through the thousands of years of our recorded civilisation: the closed mind. There have been phases during which the closed mind has prevailed, particularly in our social behaviour, but the correction has always been internal, through reform led by savants whose head was high and mind was free.
India found space for every faith, and every faith found space for India. Let us offer a namashkar and a salaam to this unique harmony.