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Race and Yoga

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Choreographing Tolerance: Narendra Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and International Yoga Day

  • Author(s): Lakshmi, Anusha
  • et al.

This essay considers the significance of Narendra Modi’s yoga agenda against the backdrop of increasingly violent right-wing Hindu nationalist policies and interventions under his administration. One of Modi’s first official acts after being elected Prime Minister of India in 2014 was to urge the United Nations member states to declare June 21st International Yoga Day. In his speech, he argued that yoga has the capacity to unite both the self and the world. Though Modi espouses unity through yoga, he has arguably been one of the most divisive Indian leaders in recent memory. How do we reconcile the contradiction between “Modi the yogi” who proposes to unify the country and “Modi the Hindu nationalist” who has been actively responsible for dividing it along sectarian lines? What is the function of International Yoga Day within the broader context of Modi’s anti-Muslim politics, both past and present? Why has yoga, in particular, become a central tenet of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda? Drawing on Wendy Brown’s (2006) theorization of “tolerance,” I consider how Modi’s yoga agenda has further entrenched the binary of the tolerant, “civilized” Hindu and the intolerant, “irrational” Muslim Other within the Indian national imaginary. In contrast to the notion of Muslims as militant, ideologically rigid, and intolerant (of difference), yoga performs the Hindu nation as flexible, yielding, open, and tolerant. With its benign, benevolent associations with health and well-being, mind-body harmony, and peace, Modi has mobilized yoga to obfuscate the increasing violence, inflexibility, and intolerance of difference under his administration. This essay concludes by thinking about the complicity of the liberal Hindu citizen in the rise of Hindu nationalism and the Hindu supremacist state.

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