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Modi’s warrior pose | Narendra Modi’s dominance of Indian politics is built on a knowing appeal to traditional Indian values: Hindu values. He has turned yoga into an unlikely but powerful weapon in his campaign.

Modi’s warrior pose

Modi’s warrior pose

Narendra Modi’s dominance of Indian politics is built on a knowing appeal to traditional Indian values: Hindu values. He has turned yoga into an unlikely but powerful weapon in his campaign

Why this story?

Almost immediately after he was elected, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, lobbied the UN for an International Yoga Day, with startling success. A record number of countries supported the proposal and the day was agreed in record time. Yoga was “India’s gift to the world” – and who could argue with celebrating an ancient spiritual practice which has become a cornerstone of modern wellness? But the world was naive about Modi’s deeper agenda; more subtle and less benign than it appeared.

Yoga is being claimed not by India but by Hindu India: Modi’s India. A determined effort is underway to write yoga into India’s history as one of its ancient traditions and, along the way, to remove other religions and communities from the story. In the path of this juggernaut stands an academic from London, Jim Mallinson, one of the world’s great students of the history of yoga. His discoveries about the origins of physical yoga – the kind done in exercise classes the world over – ought to fatally undermine Narendra Modi’s narrative. In reality, they may not. As in Xi Jinping’s China, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the rewriting of history can be the first shot fired in a populist cultural campaign – and to those who are eager to sign up to that campaign, the truth is usually much less important than the story. Ceri Thomas, Editor

Transcript

Angie Tiwari: Close your eyes. Just come and bring all your awareness to the breath. Take a deep breath in with me, exhale through the mouth. Just let it go.  

Claudia Williams, narrating: Relaxation… 

Angie Tiwari: Breathing in. Exhale through the mouth. One more like that.

Claudia, narrating: …meditation… stretching… strength. 

[Sounds of breathing]

Claudia, narrating: That’s really what comes to mind when I think of yoga. Something personal. Benign. Uncontroversial. 

Something my housemate does before work and I keep meaning to do more of…

Angie Tiwari: Good keep the eyes closed… turn the hands up to face the sky. 

Claudia, narrating: And it is all of those things. But it’s also a whole lot more.  

[Clip: International Day of Yoga]

Claudia, narrating: There’s a video I keep coming back to while working on this story. 

It’s taken on 21 June 2015 – the first ever International Day of Yoga. 

35,000 people descended on the Indian capital New Delhi to mark the moment. 

And what I’m watching is essentially a mass yoga class. 

[Clip: International Day of Yoga]

After addressing the crowd the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks to the front – he’s wearing all white. 

Behind him is a sea of people stretching back into the distance – all the way down the historic boulevard known as the Rajpath – all wearing white t-shirts and blue trousers and sitting on red and green yoga mats. 

[Clip: International Day of Yoga]

Claudia, narrating: Over a loudspeaker a voice guides them all through a series of poses or asana

And although lots of the individual movements are familiar… watching so many people stretch at the same time… move as one… it looks more like a static military parade.

Knowing what I do now… that feels kind of apt. 

When I started working on this podcast I thought it would be about the origins of yoga. How the yoga you see in studios around the world might not actually be as ancient – or even as strictly Indian – as some people think…

Andrea Jain: Historical work on yoga’s ancient origins or the first forms of yoga are important to disrupting not just the narrative or mythologizing practises of people like Modi. But also to yoga consumers at large, who have a sort of other kind of simplistic origin story around yoga. 

Claudia, narrating: But it’s actually a story about how yoga is being used

Angie Tiwari: … bringing all your awareness to the points of contact between those two hands….

Claudia, narrating: How it has been turned into a weapon on a political battlefield. 

Angie Tiwari: Really aware of the hasta mudra, the hand gesture that we’re making…

I’m Claudia Williams and in this week’s Slow Newcast I’m going to take you on a journey through yoga’s explosion in the west… to billion-dollar gurus and mass yoga festivals… 

And to how yoga – so associated with peace and calm and relaxation – is being used by India’s government to subtly push a nationalist agenda and drive communities apart.

***

James Mallinson: I hadn’t had a haircut for 32 years, so it was down, abit past my bum and in dreadlocks. So I hadn’t brushed it or cut it in 32 years…

This is James Mallinson.

James Mallinson: The reason I cut my hair is because my guru died in 2019.

Claudia, narrating: James is an academic who specialises in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Studies. 

He’s telling me this in his new office on campus, surrounded by books and pictures waiting to be hung – and a kettle he’s worried might be a little mouldy. 

James Mallinson: Someone left that in here, I dread to think what’s in it actually…

Claudia, narrating: James leads the yoga department at SOAS university in London. He’s a world expert on the tradition of hatha yoga. (That’s broadly the type of physical practice you probably think of when you picture yoga, like sun salutations.) 

He practises regularly, of course…

James Mallinson: I start off by doing a stomach churning exercise. There are these sort of cleansing practises that are quite kind of energising. I’ll finish off with the peacock pose, which is when you sort of lift your body so that it’s parallel to the ground on your, on your two hands. 

Claudia, narrating: But off the yoga mat James’s main focus is studying manuscripts to try to understand the roots of yoga. 

What might seem like a fairly niche academic area is actually part of a hotly contested global conversation: who owns yoga? 

It wasn’t necessarily his intention but James’s work disrupts a narrative that is spreading in yoga studios across the world… of an ancient, unchanging practice… a concept that’s now also being pushed by hardline Hindu nationalists… 

But more on that later. 

James Mallinson is interested in the point at which yoga became more physical. That peacock pose he mentioned:

James Mallinson: … is the oldest known balancing pose. That first appears in Sanskrit texts about a thousand years ago. And that’s the first time we read about any yoga poses which are anything other than seated postures for meditation. It’s a pose that feels quite dangerous and scary when you first try it, but actually once you’ve mastered it, it’s not too tricky. I’ve been doing it regularly for 30 to 30 years.

Claudia: How long did it take you to master it?

James Mallinson: Not, not very long. Headstand took longer, actually. Balancing on your head. Now it feels pretty easy and I can do it for as long as I want but that was harder to learn, I think, cause it’s a bit more scary when you fall over. In fact, I still have a scar on my shin from when I was teaching myself the headstand in my tiny room in Oxford when I was at Sanskrit undergrad, and I fell over and scraped my shin along a little chest in the room.

Claudia, narrating: James’s story starts before that tiny room in Oxford and the failed headstand. 

Back in 1988 – before he became an expert in yoga and holy men – James did something that he admits was at the time very typical behaviour for a public school teenager like him. He went off on a gap year to India.

James Mallinson: At the end of the first trip, I ended up in Kashmir because I wanted to go and see this huge ice lingam. So the symbol of Shiva. It’s in a cave 4,000 metres up in the Himalayas, but my visa was running out. So I didn’t have time to do the actual trek up there, but I ended up hanging out in the village where the trek begins with this group of holy men who were camped there waiting to go out themselves. And I think that was when I first really sort of got the big, got inspired by Indian holy men. And it is mainly men, it’s a pretty patriarchal system. They were just a bunch of charismatic rogues. They’re worshipped by the people, even though they’re, they’ve got this sort of quiet nihilistic attitude, they sort of represent some kind of anti society. They they’ve turned their backs on the normal, normal ways of life.

Claudia, narrating: Those roguish holy men – as he calls them – sent him down a path of academic research.

James Mallinson: The reason that I ended up studying yoga texts is because I was looking for any kinds of texts that were anything to do with the living tradition of holy men that I’d spent so much time with in India.

Claudia, narrating: Pandemic aside… James has been back to India every year since that trip in 1988 to live with yogis and holy men. On a trip in 1992 he met his guru and the pair spent years wandering around together. That’s how James learned yoga. 

He studied for a PhD in hatha yoga… and then worked translating Sanskrit poems. Back in the 90s, in the UK, it was a pretty new area.

But it’s an academic field that has coincided with a boom in interest in yoga.

And for James… that brought recognition, a position at SOAS and crucially, huge funding… for a project that would challenge what he thought he knew about the origins of physical yoga.

Just as the Hindu nationalist yoga movement was pointing in one direction… James’s research was pointing to another. 

***

Andrea Jain: I’m Andrea Jain, professor of religious studies at Indiana university, Indianapolis. And I’m the author of two books on yoga: Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture and Peace, Love, Yoga: The Politics of Global Spirituality.

Claudia, narrating: The politics of global spirituality… that’s what drew me to Andrea. And because I wanted to get my head around yoga’s recent history. To try to understand how yoga and politics have become increasingly tangled… 

Andrea Jain: So by the 1960s, yoga was highly visible around the world. In Western Europe and North America, for example, you had people who were highly aware of yoga. It was in the popular media.

“Far from the noise and pace of city life, in the cool clear air of Rishikesh, north India, Pathe News reports from the meditation retreat of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who through transcendental meditation is currently bringing peace of mind to the Beatles. Ringo enjoyed…”

Clip from British Pathé

Andrea Jain: The Beatles for example, were experimenting with yoga… But most people weren’t actually doing yoga or buying yoga products. It wasn’t until the eighties, and then really the nineties, that yoga becomes a part of pop culture – in the sense that it’s marketed to the masses and made readily available to yoga consumers.

Claudia, narrating: In the west yoga blossoms from a relatively unknown, hippy-ish practice to the fitness obsession of celebrities like Madonna and Sting. It’s taught in church halls… at schools… and private yoga studios start popping up. 

In the 00s it really explodes around the world. By 2008 over 15 million people in the US practise yoga. 

It becomes a multi-billion dollar industry – after all, those people need kit and classes. By 2011 LuluLemon, the leisure company known for yoga mats and outfits, is one of the fastest growing companies in America.

Nowadays the term yoga encompasses a whole range of practises…

Andrea Jain: You’ve got everything ranging from very rigorous athletically demanding forms of yoga to very gentle forms of yoga. You have yoga that’s marketed to the elderly and yoga for babies. You’ve got yoga that incorporates non-human animals, like goat yoga and doga – or dog yoga. And you’ve got beer yoga – yoga that is really about socialising and spending time with others in a really casual and non-demanding environment. 

Claudia, narrating: Yoga has always been varied – never static. It’s been influenced and changed by different religions and cultures around South Asia and beyond. 

And for lots of people the global boom in yoga in the late 20th century was a good thing. Some were getting fit. Others were making money. 

But not for everyone.

Angie Tiwari: Then take an inhale, stretch your arms up, gaze up towards the sky. 

Claudia, narrating: I’m in Angie Tiwari’s south London yoga studio. 

Angie Tiwari: Exhale. Think about reaching forwards and down, forward and down, as opposed to directly down… and go and holding whatever you can. It might be your shins. It might be your ankles. It might be the sides of your feet. It might be your toes. It doesn’t matter how far you are…

Claudia, narrating: Angie is a yoga, meditation and breathwork teacher and she’s taking me through various poses and breathing exercises. 

She’s doing a really good job of trying to make me feel comfortable… to think only about what I’m doing rather than comparing myself to her… although I will admit that I keep opening my eyes to check I’m actually doing it right.  

Angie Tiwari: So we could slow it right down. 

I’m new to this. But for Angie… yoga has always been there, in the background: 

Angie Tiwari: It’s always been in my life through the breathing technique we just did, kapalabhati. My mom would teach my sister and I how to do that when we were growing up. And padmasana, which is lotus pose. Like, I think I can only do this because my mum taught to us when we were kids. So there were certain poses that she taught us, breathing techniques she taught us, but not like we’re going to do yoga now. It wasn’t like that because it was just so ingrained in our culture.

Claudia, narrating: But physical yoga practice… she only started doing that in her 20s. 

Angie Tiwari: And I hated it by the way. Oh, I hated it. How can she do that pose when I can’t? I’m so bored at the end. This is too slow for me. How else I felt uncomfortable was that I never saw anyone that looked like me. I’d walk into a yoga practice and I would very rarely see people of colour leading the class. I very rarely see people of colour within the practice.

Claudia, narrating: Slowly she was drawn in and started reading up on yoga’s history… before going to India to train to be a yoga teacher.

Angie Tiwari: And then I came back and I was teaching just like ad hoc in gyms, but I was teaching what I thought people wanted to, to practice as opposed to what I wanted to teach. 

Claudia: What was the difference between what they wanted and what you wanted? 

Angie Tiwari: I think I didn’t realise what I wanted because I was so led by what they wanted, but I could see what they wanted was a workout, like a fast, relatively fast pace. You know, would you like a bit of meditation at the beginning, then we’ll get straight into the poses because that’s what people want. LIke I wouldn’t dare chant – which is really sad because that’s part of me, it’s part of my culture, 

Claudia, narrating: Angie now runs a course called Honouring the Roots of Yoga. 

Angie Tiwari: Over the last two and a half years or two years I guess I found my voice a bit more. Like I’ve just spoken my truth more and I’ve just been like, I think it’s important that people see what yoga actually is – so that they’re not culturally appropriating. But also so that they’re seeing this magic part of it and they’re experiencing these other realms of it

Claudia, narrating: Angie’s own story shows that the explosive interest in yoga… well, it’s come at a cost.

She is one of several yogis who would like to see yoga decolonised. 

It’s not just mindful stretching. Yoga has always been political. Under British rule in India it was both banned and used as a form of resistance to colonisation. 

That’s a legacy that isn’t wiped away by a sudden burst in popularity in the west. In fact it’s one that smarts even more. 

To my mind the push to emphasise authenticity in yoga is totally understandable. 

And it’s also a really important context to make sense of how yoga has become such a contested part of modern-day politics in India. 

Why Prime Minister Modi might make public – global – efforts to reclaim it. 

But the thing is… some people argue that’s not just what Prime Minister Modi is doing. 

Dibyesh Anand: So decolonial is not always good. Decolonial is not always about de-colonising. It can sometimes be used by movements such as Hindu nationalists and in the Indian context, there are a growing number of intellectuals who are using decolonial to essentially say that India should be decolonised. And how do we decolonise India? Not by reducing Western influence, but by reducing Muslim influence. 

Claudia, narrating: This is Professor Dibyesh Anand – we’ll hear more from him shortly.

Dibyesh Anand: So they are taking decolonial as reducing both Muslim and Christian influences and secular influences, and take it back to ancient Hindu culture. And again, we know that’s very much a Hindu nationalist project.

***

Claudia, narrating: It’s January 2014. India, the world’s largest democracy, is in the throes of a hotly contested general election. 

The main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, is challenging 10 years of rule by the Indian National Congress – a party dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The BJP candidate is Narendra Modi. He’s a Hindu nationalist politician and the chief minister of Gujarat. 

And he’s a controversial figure – marred by allegations that in 2002 he condoned – or even allowed – anti-Muslim riots in his state that killed over 1,000 people. He’s always denied any wrongdoing. 

Modi is standing on stage in Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium. 

Next to him is a man with a black beard, long hair, dressed in orange. 

His name is Baba Ramdev. 

And Baba Ramdev is quite a character. He’s a celebrity guru famous for reviving the popularity of yoga within India – since the early 00s his classes have been broadcast on TV. He’s charismatic… not far from the type of Christian tele-evangelist you might see in the US. 

He has built a huge business empire selling ancient Hindu remedies and “made in India” products. 

So make no mistake, the crowd watching that stage in Delhi is there for Baba Ramdev – not Modi. 

“An event to celebrate the anniversary of yoga guru Ramdev’s trust. But clearly also an opportunity to make political statements from both sides.”

News clip

Claudia, narrating: But it becomes Narendra Modi’s first public rally in the capital. 

“The BJP is clearly in election mode, wasting no time to pick up endorsements and support.”

News clip

Claudia, narrating: As the two men hug on stage the crowd cheers. 

Baba Ramdev is a modern blend of spiritual authority and business-savvy billionaire. And initially it looks like he’s going to make his own political run during the 2014 election… but he ends up lending his celebrity to Modi instead. 

He holds mass yoga festivals across India in support of him… 

Claudia, narrating: And in May 2014… Modi wins power in a landslide victory. The biggest win in three decades.

[Clip: Modi speech to the UN]

Claudia: And one of the first things he does is. He goes to the UN and makes a speech calling for an international yoga day. 

[Clip: Modi speech to the UN]

Claudia: Can you tell me about that speech, why it was important?

Dibyesh Anand: So what he does is he goes to the UN, but he also goes to other parts of the world to present himself as a leader of world’s largest democracy and presents a benign picture of India. 

Claudia, narrating: Dibyesh Anand is Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster and the author of “Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear”. 

Dibyesh Anand: And yoga becomes very useful for it because yoga, as you know, is quite popular in different parts of the world. Yoga is seen as essentially something good for your wellbeing. Good for your health, but there’s also almost an association of yoga with ancient Hinduism – not present day Hinduism. So Modi is presenting himself and India as the land of the yoga, what he does is he uses yoga for soft power, not India, but Hindu nationalist India. 

Claudia, narrating: In the speech Modi calls yoga “an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition”. It’s a clever pitch… everyone likes presents, right? 

But the second part of this short sentence is just as interesting – and we’ll come back to it later. Ancient tradition. For some Hindu nationalists… that ancient tradition means Hindu. 

Anyway… at the UN Modi calls for an international day of yoga. 

And that’s something James Mallinson… our yogi at SOAS… can’t help but notice. 

Weeks later on 11th December 2014 he arrives in Brussels to make his own pitch… to the grant committee of the European Research Council. It’s the pinnacle of academic funding in the EU; a real kitemark on your studies, if you can get it.

He’s hoping to get funding for the project of a lifetime. A team of 6 people – four in Europe, two in India – to study the roots of hatha yoga. 

And the timing of Modi’s resolution works out pretty nicely for James. 

James Mallinson: So I was able to go into this quite intimidating interview in Brussels and at the end of my pitch say, and you really… I think you should support this project because look, it’s, you know, right now they’re voting on it and they’re bound to ratify it in the UN with the most popular proposal ever.

Claudia, narrating: His pitch is the same day that the UN votes to launch a worldwide yoga day without a single objection. In fact, it breaks records for popularity and speed. 177 countries co-sponsor it, and it’s ratified within 75 days. 

James Mallinson: And, uh, yeah, so sure enough, I got lucky and got the grant. 

Claudia, narrating: In the end the meeting wasn’t as intimidating as he thought it might be. Yes there were 25 imposing academics round a large table… but they all just seemed to be interested in yoga. 

James had seemingly tapped into something that by 2014 appealed to everyone. 

He was realising the capital in that appeal of yoga – and he walked away with €1.8m of funding for his research. 

Back in India, Narendra Modi was realising its political capital… 

In the months following his election he appoints a minister of yoga. He makes the government department devoted to traditional systems of healthcare – including yoga – a ministry in its own right. 

The Ministry of Finance changes the definition of yoga to make it a “charitable purpose” which reduces the associated taxes. (This, and the focus on ancient healthcare, conveniently benefits the guru Baba Ramdev, whose businesses and finances have bloomed since the 2014 election.)

And it’s reported that Modi’s government is interested in pushing for a geographical indication – like Champagne – that would tie the practice to India. 

These moves play out on the global stage, yes – but they, of course, have an all-important internal audience in India. 

And it all fits nicely with the “make in India” agenda he’s announced. It’s a type of rebellion against the western monopolisation of yoga. Reclaiming India’s stake in this new multi-billion dollar industry. A rejection of cultural appropriation and “beer yoga”.

“It was at PM Narendra Modi’s behest that the UN decided to declare the 21st June as International Yoga Day. And today India will lead 191 countries in these celebrations…”

News clip

Claudia, narrating: That idea of yoga being India’s gift to the world is one that comes up again and again. 

“It’s our gift to the world.”

“The very fact that UN has declared an international yoga day means India has gifted it to the world.”

Montage of news clips

Claudia, narrating: And it plays well abroad. Yoga is seen as a symbol of health and of peace. It’s a smart piece of soft power – something that all governments and countries do. 

But back at home in India that simple message can be read in other ways. 

Modi is careful to frame yoga as India’s gift to the world… but Professor Dibyesh Anand is clear what that actually means…

Dibyesh Anand: Modi’s ideology comes from the fact that since his childhood, he has been an activist of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. So RSS is essentially a Hindu right-wing paramilitary organisation that was formed in 1920s. 

Claudia, narrating: The RSS doesn’t get involved in politics directly but it has close ideological ties to India’s ruling party, the BJP. 

Dibyesh Anand: So what they would say is we are Indians, but India essentially Hindu. Therefore, if you’re Muslim or Christian, you’re a suspect because while your homeland might be India, your holy land is outside India. They will always be suspects. Now that’s the ideology that they have and that’s the ideology of Narendra Modi. So when, for instance, he speaks of yoga is Indian. That doesn’t mean he says it’s an India that includes Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and many others where everyone is equal. Essentially what it means is it’s an India that’s Hindu India. Now that’s for the outside audience, but if you hear him speak in India, he’s very clear that India yoga is about our ancient culture and ancient culture in Indian context is always a dog whistle politics. It refers to a pre-Muslim pre-Christian India. 

Claudia, narrating: Narendra Modi generally stays clear of explicit, religiously charged statements. But his government has strongly appealed to – and emboldened – Hindu nationalists who believe in the supremacy of Hindus in India. 

That includes Baba Ramdev. The guru I told you about earlier is not just a yoga fanatic… he’s also one of the faces of a new wave of Hindu nationalism. 

In this context it’s understandable why some religious minorities in India have found the push for yoga troubling. 

Because it’s not just about encouraging voluntary yoga practice. Modi’s government has tried to make yoga mandatory in schools. 

Dibyesh Anand: This whole thing of surya namaskar… so you pay respect to the sun. Debate will start about why are Muslims not offering respect to the sun god?

Claudia, narrating: Dibyesh is talking here about sun salutations. 

Dibyesh: In one sense you could say it’s part of yoga, but not that crucial part, but the debate will start that. Now Muslims might not – or Christians might not… they might like the sun, but they might not pay respect to sun as a holy entity. But you see in Hindu context, surya namaskar is connected to that. Yoga encourages it. Parts of yoga encourage it, Modi encourages it. And then if religious institutions and schools and colleges and other places are in a way forced to adhere to that part, essentially they are either going against their own faith or their own belief, which is that you treat the sun… in this case the sun you know, you can’t treat it as a sacred object. And if they don’t adhere to that, then they are called anti-nationalist.

Claudia, narrating: Controversies over doing yoga in schools is not a new battle in India or elsewhere. There was actually a court case in the US about whether yoga in schools violated religious freedoms. 

It’s a debate which has been going on for several years. Should schools be allowed to offer yoga class?”

News clip

Claudia, narrating: Prime Minister Modi has said publicly that yoga is not religious. 

“And today a court said yes.” 

News clips

And that court in the US found the same.

So why are so many of the people I’ve spoken to worried about how yoga is being used in India?

They say that although Modi is careful with his language they’re worried about the political environment he is fostering. 

When minority groups raised concerns about international yoga day a prominent BJP politician – who’s both a yogi and a Hindu monk – told them to drown themselves or leave the country.  

There are fears that yoga is being used as a form of cultural nationalism… part of a wider project to make India a less secular country.

To Dibyesh… yoga is being used as a Trojan horse. 

Claudia: Do you think yoga has been weaponized? 

Dibyesh: It’s very being actively weaponised by Hindu nationalists in India and outside. It’s being weaponised to transform and in a way blunt the criticism that Modi might be getting. 

***

Claudia, narrating: It’s 2016 and Narendra Modi is overwhelmingly popular in India. He’s often referred to as a divisive figure in the global press but at home… he’s actually seen as a prime minister who brings people together. 

Yoga remains central to his personal image as well as his government’s ethos. 

James Mallison meanwhile is busy with his EU funded Hatha Yoga Project, looking for the origins of the physical yoga that is now so recognisable around the world. He’s in India doing fieldwork…

James Mallinson: I’d read about this gate, this decorated archway in an old city in Gujarat and it was an obscure 1950s article written in Hindi about all these 12 statues of ancient, famous yogis – where ancient is sort of thousand year old, the first ones are recorded. We were heading up in my old Jeep. So we were trundling along in that. And just, I’d looked at the map and thought, hey, this, this town’s on the way. Let’s go and have a look.    

Claudia, narrating: So he and his colleague Daniela Bevilacqua took a detour to the Mahudi Gate in Dabhoi. 

James Mallinson: And so we got there and sure enough, these were great, wonderful statues of these 12 yogis. But then Daniella was looked up. She was the first one to spot it in the eaves or whatever you call it of a stone gateway. There were 84 yogis of, of which about a dozen were doing complex, balancing postures, headstands, and so forth.

Claudia, narrating: They had just found clear evidence of hatha yoga; the physical poses we might recognise today carved into an ornate but largely ignored historic gateway, in the middle of a noisy road. 

James Mallinson: So we were just bowled over by this. It was a super exciting discovery.

Claudia, narrating: The statues are vital pieces of a jigsaw which James was putting together… and which challenges the direct link drawn by some between a form of yoga practised in ancient India and the postural yoga that’s popular today…

James Mallinson: And they’re much the oldest by probably nearly 300 years, the oldest such depictions of complex yoga postures.

Claudia, narrating: There’s a video James filmed when he returned to Dabhoi the following year… 

“We’re very happy to be here today. We’re very excited.”

Clip from James Mallinson 

Claudia, narrating: …and it’s amazing to see. It’s a relatively narrow gateway, thought to have been built in 1230. There are scooters, bicycles and rickshaws flowing through, a goat wanders past, and above all of this is a set of figures, or yogis, carved out of stone almost 800 years ago. 

James Mallinson: What I used to think that the physical practises of yoga, the sort of things that now globally recognised as being yoga practice. So the sort of balancing postures and headstands and so forth. I used to think they were probably two, two and a half thousand years old. And then for some reason started getting written down about a thousand years ago. But now the weight of evidence is such that I think something new happened a thousand years ago in India.

Claudia, narrating: Because up until that point there’s only evidence of people sitting to meditate – or what’s called mortifying the body – which might mean lying on a bed of nails or holding an arm in the air for years on end. 

The carvings provided one form of evidence of the emergence of physical yoga. 

But that’s not all the team found. They were also looking at manuscripts…

James Mallinson: So microfilm copies of the manuscript were obtained by a professor from Harvard in the nineties, and the manuscript has now disappeared. Probably gone back to Tibet. So very lucky to get those copies at all. It took me a few years of pestering him as well to get him to send me the scans. I was very pleased to get hold of them in the end.

Claudia, narrating: Not least because he had uncovered the first text to teach physical yoga… and not only that… 

James Mallinson: There’s a text called the Amṛtasiddhi, which we have just published, that was written by Buddhists, which was a real surprise. Really didn’t see that one coming at all. The opening verse is in praise of this goddess, who during that period was only worshipped by Buddhists. So that’s kind of the absolute clear dead giveaway that the text was written by Buddhists.          

Claudia, narrating: So the first textual evidence of physical yoga is contained in a Buddhist text. Not a Hindu one.

James Mallinson: So when we say that this text, this Amṛtasiddhi text written probably early 11th century by Buddhists, was the first text of physical yoga practice. That doesn’t mean that only Buddhists were doing physical yoga practice. But they were the first to codify it. They were the first to write it down. And they use certain quite esoteric terminology and so forth to describe it that were then used in all the subsequent non-Buddhist texts, Hindu texts.

Claudia: How did that feel when you found that out? What was that like to realise that?

James Mallinson: It’s one of the most enjoyable things I think in research and scholarship is suddenly having to change your mind hugely, and then everything falls apart and has to come back together again. And now that’s hugely exciting.

Claudia, narrating: For an academic, having to change the way you think about a centuries old practice is undeniably exciting.

But what James discovered within the text runs counter to the narrative being promoted by Modi’s government. 

Modi’s government wants to tell a story of yoga that doesn’t change – that predates Muslims or Christians – or the influence of any other nations – and is largely Indian or Hindu.

Even if the evidence says otherwise. Even if it means rewriting history

***

James Mallinson: There’s a thing called the common yoga protocol, which is a document they put out to go with the international day of yoga, which at the beginning says exactly that… you know, yoga is India’s gift to the world. 

Claudia, narrating: So far so benign. But the document doesn’t just say that. It frames where yoga comes from… 

James Mallinson: It’s come straight from the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, okay, which is what they call the, what the Hindu nationalists called the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished 2,600-1900 BC.

Claudia, narrating: And here’s where it gets political…

James Mallinson: The fact that they put Saraswati in there, it means that they’re trying to say that one of the rivers – that the Indus river was the Saraswati river. Or there’s a more complicated argument there, but that they want to identify that culture as Hindu, which scholarly consensus is totally against. You know, there’s no, no proof of that whatsoever. And at the same time in the same few paragraphs of this protocol, they’re portraying yoga as this, this tool of great therapeutic benefits. So effectively they’re saying it’s a 5,000 year old method of making yourself healthy – presented by Hinduism to the world.

Andrea Jain: And the reason it’s important, possibly problematic, is that whoever writes the yoga protocol is writing. What is yoga? What is right yoga? What should yoga look like? What should it not look like? So it provides a sort of centralised, simplistic rendition of yoga and story of yoga. Sometimes quoting texts that are oftentimes thought of as Hindu or using language that could be perceived by religious minorities as particularly Hindu. This is yoga as standardised across the Indian state. And it’s perceived as being Hindu. Then that’s a problem.

Claudia, narrating: An investigation by the international news organisation Reuters found that after the 2014 election Modi’s culture minister appointed a committee of Indian scholars.

Supposedly with the aim of rewriting Indian history and updating school curriculums along the lines of what James just mentioned: that Hindus are descended from India’s first inhabitants. 

In that context ancient India becomes a knowledge source for the world: discovering scientific marvels such as plastic surgery thousands of years before they arrived in the west. 

Reports of this “Hindu first” version of history caused controversy – and the government denied they were seeking to rewrite history. 

But Narendra Modi – who was re-elected with a thumping majority in 2019 – wouldn’t be the first leader to try it. It’s basically page 1 in the nationalists – or populists – playbook. 

What’s the George Orwell quote? Whoever controls the present controls the past.

Take Xi Jinping. Rewriting China’s history – and his role in it – has become a crucial part of his ideological and political framework for China’s future. 

In Hungary Viktor Orban is busy replacing statues of anti-Soviet heroes as he grows closer to Vladimir Putin. 

In India yoga poses are being filmed and codified. 

[Clip from India’s ministry of yoga]

On India’s Ministry of Yoga website I can learn how to do key poses…

[Clip from India’s ministry of yoga]

Claudia, narrating: To be honest the videos are good. I’m tempted to return to improve my poses. 

So I still find myself thinking… it’s just yoga right?

We’re talking about a prime minister who is encouraging people to take part in 20 minutes of physical poses, meditation and breathing exercises. 

Shaina NC: Hi, this is Shaina Nana Chudasama, popularly known as Shina NC, I am the national spokesperson for the BJP party, a fashion designer by profession, a politician because of my passion. And a yoga freak because of my obsession with yoga

Claudia, narrating: That’s Shina NC, spokesperson for India’s ruling BJP party. She’s speaking to me on the phone from the campaign trail in Goa… one of five states heading to the polls this month in local elections that are expected to test the strength Modi’s popularity. 

When I put it to her that there may be a darker side to Modi’s framing of yoga – the response was… upbeat. 

Shaina NC: So yoga, I think is India’s contribution to the world. I think yoga should be a part of every curriculum because it helps you mentally, physically, and just gives you the balance that you require in this fast-paced life.

Claudia, narrating: Narendra Modi’s approach to yoga was, she said, an example to us all.

Shaina NC: Well, I think he’s a living example of somebody who, being extremely busy, despite that, takes out his one hour every single morning for yoga. And he’s always propagated that yoga for wellness has raised the morale of the people. I don’t think yoga is Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian… Yoga is practice, and yoga is commitment. If you just take our prime minister, as an example of somebody who’s been practising yoga, you won’t view yoga as Hindu, you will view it as inclusive.

Claudia: Do you think it’s understandable why some people might think that it’s being presented as kind of a religious.practice and that they might feel uncomfortable doing that because they are say Muslim or Christian?

Shaina NC: No, I don’t think yoga can be aligned to any caste, creed or community. It’s documented that yoga was developed by the rishis, the sages who documented it in practice. And every segment and section of society has availed of the positives of yoga. So let’s not make this some kind of a religious or political movement because it’s not.

Claudia, narrating: It’s hard to argue against, isn’t it? But I’m going to try.

Because I think, like me, you’ll probably recognise something in Shina NC’s responses and Modi’s subtle nods. 

Dog-whistles. 

They understand how this will be heard. How it plays out in the broader context of India’s political situation.

This is a country where the government has introduced a bill that offers fast track citizenship for migrants from neighbouring countries but not if they are Muslim… where, as I’m writing this, violent clashes are breaking out between Muslim and Hindu students over a ban on hijabs in schools… 

The concept of who – and what – counts as Indian is clearly fraught. 

Angie Tiwari: …and just feel the weight of your body on the ground underneath you…

Claudia, narrating: James Malinson’s discovery that physical yoga first appears in India about a thousand years ago and is first taught in a Buddhist text… should challenge the narrative that yoga is an ancient gift to the world practised by Hindu sages for 5000 years.

But it probably won’t. 

The facts won’t get in the way. 

Angie Tiwari: ….take the palms…

Claudia, narrating: And in the grand scheme of things – as Kashmir and Assam state are added to the watch-list of NGO Genocide Watch – yoga might not seem so important.

Angie Tiwari: … exhale through the mouth…

It’s a nuanced point – once I’ve struggled to get my head around and make sense of – but it’s about the power of the stories and the myths nations tell about themselves 

How they seep into the broader conversation.

Angie Tiwari: … and let your breath come back to being steady and slow. 

[Chanting om] 

Claudia, narrating: Modi has tried to use yoga to present himself as a symbol of peace and unity on a global stage. It masks the fact that he’s using the same mechanism to spread division at home. 

Angie Tiwari: And then slowly open the eyes.

This episode was written and reported by me, Claudia Williams, and by Katie Gunning, who’s also the producer. The sound design is by Karla Patella. The executive producer is Ceri Thomas. Additional fact checking by Xavier Greenwood.