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Is yoga religious? An Indian court mulls mandatory school exercises

Private yoga instructor Shailendra Singh (far right) leads a group of young professionals at The Yoga Guru club in Noida in Delhi's suburbs on Oct. 25, 2013. Photo by Vishal Arora
Private yoga instructor Shailendra Singh (far right) leads a group of young professionals at The Yoga Guru club in Noida in Delhi's suburbs on Oct. 25, 2013. Photo by Vishal Arora

Private yoga instructor Shailendra Singh (far right) leads a group of young professionals at The Yoga Guru club in Noida in Delhi’s suburbs on Oct. 25, 2013. Photo by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI (RNS) The Supreme Court of India is weighing whether yoga has a religious element, as it decides if public schools may teach the ancient discipline in the country where it originated.

India’s school policy considers yoga an integral component of physical education. But the court has expressed caution, and is considering arguments that yoga has a religious component. The issue is complicated because India is a secular democracy but has pockets of Hindu nationals who would like to force their way of life on others.

“Can we be asking all the schools to have one period for yoga classes every day when certain minority institutions may have reservations against it?” the court asked Oct. 18, referring to Christian and Muslim groups.

The issue is affecting other countries too. In July, a California judge ruled that the teaching of yoga in public schools does not establish a government interest in religion. The decision came after parents sued the Encinitas Union School District to stop yoga classes introduced to elementary schoolchildren in the upscale suburb just north of San Diego.

READ: San Diego judge says public school’s yoga instruction not religious

India’s two petitioners want the court to direct all schools run or funded by the federal government to include yoga as a subject in the first through eighth grades. They cite the 2005 National Curriculum Framework, which says yoga is vital for health and physical education.

“Yoga is man-making and character building education, which is so essential in modern materialistic age,” said Jagdish Chander Seth, a lawyer who is one of the petitioners.

Seth explained that the word “yoga” literally means “union with God,” and the discipline was developed “with intense effort of Great Rishis (spiritual leaders) since time immemorial.”

But he added that yoga had no connection with any particular religion. “(Yoga) is a path for spiritualism through healthy body and mind,” and schools should teach it as “science of breathing and physical postures,” he said.

Sanskrit words like “pranayama” and “Om” could be substituted with other words, he suggested.

Pranayama are breathing exercises, some of which involve chanting of “Om,” a mystical Sanskrit sound considered sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

But some Christian and Muslim leaders oppose the move.

“Yoga, as it is currently practiced in India, is not merely a physical exercise. It has a strong component of faith to it,” said John Dayal, a Christian leader and member of the National Monitoring Committee for Minority Education.

“Some of the exercises, such as surya namaskar (sun salutation), have a strong religious overtone. … It is not possible to purge religious tones from yoga,” he said.

Mohammad Salim, national secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a Sunni Muslim organization in India, said most Muslims will not accept yoga as a compulsory subject.

“Some forces are using yoga to strengthen their agenda of cultural nationalism,” he said. “Yoga can’t be made compulsory in India, which is a secular democracy.”

However, Umer Ahmed Iyasi, the chief imam of the All India Organization of Imams of Mosques, believes yoga is just physical exercise, and part of India’s rich heritage and culture.

India’s most popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev is accused of promoting Hindu nationalism alongside yoga.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 80 percent are Hindu, 13 percent are Muslim and 2 percent are Christian. The Indian Constitution guarantees a certain autonomy to minorities to administer their institutions. Many students from minority communities go to schools run or aided by the government, which account for about 80 percent of all schools in the country.


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Vishal Arora

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Anuradha Sharma


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  • Problem is not Yoga but the “Organised Religions”. Is science Christian? Just because it is advanced from Western (Christian) Countries, it can’t be assumed to be Christian, despite some leanings towards Christian beliefs at places due to the books written are by Westerners…

  • Even before Yoga was popularized in the West by selfish gurus, the medieval monks of Europe had specialized in genuine meditation. They left the gaudy life in medieval towns and retired in the monasteries and spent their time in meditation and hard labor in farms. They equated sanctity with escape from the contamination of the world. Thousands of monks like Anthony, Benedict and others lived alone in small groups, spending their time in meditation and solitude. Disciplined concentration, balanced posture while reciting prayers helped the medieval monks of monasteries perform miracles. On the other hand, Yogis attract western clients with the false claim that they could transform themselves into soaring birds, leaping beasts and invisible spirits. They also attract clients by claiming that ‘mind- spirits’ are capable of instant transmission from planet earth to remote planetary bodies throughout the universe. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi cheated the world by advertising in the papers that Yoga would help people fly in the air. Why Yoga guru flying in the air has not been photographed till now? Why there is no video evidence for such feats? It is all to fool people by high sounding phrases like mind power, soul power, quantum physics and all such nonsense are advertised by yoga gurus. If yoga can arrest aging, as claimed by gurus, why the average age of Indians is shorter than Americans? Yoga is a religious feat in Hinduism, to meditate in different postures (asanas) their mythological gods and goddesses. It is not secular.

  • First Of All there is no religion called Hindu.Its just religion created for the original Indians by the British. In that case which religion will you attribute Yoga to?

  • Come on, use some discrimination Vivek. Look in any book on comparative religions and you will find the religion of Hinduism and its various Yogas.

  • The new-age cliché “spiritual but not religious” makes no sense. “Spiritual” means “incorporeal.” The various religions provide the specific links (“religio”) to find one’s Spirit or Soul which is beyond the body. All religions, like the Hindu/Yogic religion, are lifestyles. Hinduism is not Christianity, for example, so Susan’s second sentence is more than ridiculous.