The Yoga initiative, starting with International Yoga Day, is a welcome break from India’s prior cultural lethargy.
It is imperative that India expands its yogic culture as its civilisational strength.
India has a tremendous cultural power or civilisational shakti that has maintained a profound impact on the world for thousands of years. This is represented by India’s great gurus, rishis and dharmic traditions at an inner level, along with a sophisticated artistic and material culture outwardly.
India’s many-sided civilisation spread to Indochina and Indonesia during their formative periods, and had a lasting influence on China, Japan and East Asia. It also had significant effects on Central Asia, extending into West Asia. India’s civilisation was honoured in ancient Greece and Rome, and India had regular trade contacts with Mesopotamia and Sumeria, going back to the third millennium BC. Ancient Indo-European traditions like the Persians, Scythians, Celts, Germans and Slavs had much in common with India’s Vedic culture.
Yet, while India’s civilisation influence declined during the Islamic and colonial eras, it did persist. India’s science and medicine reached the Islamic world, like the Arab adaptation of India’s decimal system. Starting in the eighteenth century, many western thinkers came into contact with Hindu and Buddhist thought. One can mention such notable figures as Voltaire, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau among those who expressed their admiration for it.
Modern Yoga and India’s Independence
Swami Vivekananda’s travels to the West, starting in 1893, ignited a major resurgence of Indic thought throughout the world, led by a global adaptation of Yoga teachings and practices. Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis on universal consciousness and self-realisation paralleled the later work of Einstein, breaking down time and space barriers and ushering in a new vision of the cosmos.
Vivekananda spoke as a Hindu monk, introducing Vedanta’s philosophy of karma and rebirth, describing true spirituality as an individual practice. He made known Hindu deities like Krishna, Shiva and Kali. He followed the inspiration of his guru Paramahansa Ramakrishna, who became regarded as the avatar of a new universal religion that reflected Hindu ideas and practices. Yet, it was the Yoga word that stuck in the minds of people as representing the new global spiritual awakening.
Vivekananda was also one of the primary inspirations in India’s national awakening that motivated India’s Independence Movement. His work in spreading Yoga to the West was complemented by his restoring respect within the country for its own dharmic traditions, which were dismissed as regressive under foreign rule.
The Global Yoga and Dharma Movement
The world Yoga movement continued to expand exponentially through the twentieth century. A major upsurge of interest in Yoga and meditation occurred as part of western countercultures in the 1960s, with a steady growth since. Along with Yoga practices, numerous Indian gurus travelled throughout the world, teaching Yoga, meditation, and dharmic traditions, with Tibetan teachers often joining them.
Today, perhaps a hundred million people in the world practise some form of Yoga.
Though asanas remain the main focus, pranayama, mantra and meditation are included. Yoga teacher training programmes routinely examine traditional Yoga texts like the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita.
Many Yoga students have become disciples of spiritual gurus and lineages from India and often take on Sanskrit names. Great gurus like Paramahansa Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and many others have become recognisable names in numerous countries. For their students, Yoga is more a spiritual path than a physical exercise.
Yoga has brought along with it important aspects of Indian culture, including Sanskrit mantra, Hindu kirtans, Indian music and dance, pujas and yajnas, and a new orientation towards Vedic sciences. Remarkably, ancient Ayurveda has emerged as one of the cutting-edge forms of mind-body medicine today.
Independent India’s Failure to Develop its Soft Power
Yet, during this extraordinary spread of India’s spiritual and cultural traditions, India’s government and academia did little to encourage, protect or to benefit from it. Perhaps no other country in recent times has so ignored the potential value of its soft power. Even China, whose culture the Communist Cultural Revolution tried to eradicate, is now happy to promote its traditional medicine and support Confucian schools.
India’s leftist academia has been happier denigrating Hindu and Buddhist thought than producing any deeper scholarship that Yoga students can appreciate. India’s predominant Congress rule showed some respect for Yoga, particularly under Indira Gandhi, but did little to actually support Yoga nationally or internationally.
New India and its New Vision of Yoga
The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is the first to truly honour India’s soft power and proudly share it. Narendra Modi’s government has emphasised India’s cultural gifts to the world, and aimed to strengthen their connections, particularly, with the countries of Asia most influenced by India in the past. Cultural power is perhaps the main diplomatic power in this era of global travel and the global economy. It must form an integral part of any realistic foreign policy.
Narendra Modi’s new Yoga initiative, starting with International Yoga Day, is a welcome break from India’s prior cultural lethargy. It marks a new era, a new India that honours its millennial civilisation and strives to share it. His government is introducing Yoga training into the schools at all levels, not limiting Yoga to exercise, but including pranayama and meditation. Modi’s new India is a rebirth of yogic India from its classical era of world influence.
True education does not consist merely of imparting data, but requires awakening a higher intelligence that can use the information properly. This is where the Indic model of education as developing awareness, focus and concentration remains important.
Continuing Challenges to Overcome
Today, there is a cultural battle occurring in the media and academia, in which India’s civilisational views are poorly represented. India’s yogic culture is under siege, in India itself, with campaigns against Hindu practices and festivals, a neglect of temples, and a demeaning of Hindu symbols and deities. This extends to attacks on vegetarianism and denigrating Yoga practices, particularly by the left in Kerala and West Bengal.
It is imperative that India expands its yogic culture as its soft power and civilisational strength, both for national unity and to gain the proper place in the world for its magnificent heritage. India needs to develop according to its own cultural ethos, which is not merely to become another nation like those of the West or the Middle East.
India’s soul is yogic and its awakening can motivate humanity to a higher consciousness, not simply to a better technology or commercial expertise. This new yogic India is arising today and the time is ripe to take it to a new level of empowerment. Expanding yogic teachings and values into education and into the media remains crucial to the process.
India’s enduring civilisational shakti holds many untapped transformational forces. As it spreads once more, this Yoga shakti can make the entire world more enlightened and more deeply cognisant of the whole of life.
— Vedacharya Dr David Frawley, an American with Indian mind and soul, has helped empower people through his studies, translations and interpretations of the Vedas. He has published nearly 30 books in 20 languages on Dharma, Yoga, Ayurveda, and Vedic Studies. Founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, Dr Frawley has studied Veda, Ayurveda, Jotisha, Tantra and Sanskrit.