History and Politics of Yoga course at Nalanda University

The government in India has been actively promoting yoga as a national treasure but some would like to see it taught as only asana rather than delve into the history and politics of yoga. Many schools, not only in India but around the world as well, have been introducing yoga and meditation into the school curriculum.

Although the birthplace of yoga, some see the mixing of the politics and yoga as a university course taking it too far, while others accuse the government using yoga as a tool to further the saffronisation of education and meddling in academic affairs.

Nalanda University is an international university in Rajgir, near Bihar, India was offering a course on the “History and Politics of Yoga” from January through May 2016. Ten students were enrolled in the course.

Part of the criticism by the new governing board of the university, which was appointed by the Narendra Modi government, was that the course was being taught by a foreigner – Patricia Sauthoff who is an American doctoral scholar doing her PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Part of the 15-week course was a discussion and in-class debate on cultural appropriation and the implications of a white woman teaching yoga to Asians.

In a report by The Telegraph critics of the course said that yoga should not be mixed with politics.

Current Vice Chancellor at Nalanda University, Sunaina Singh, said, “The very title of the course is problematic,” Singh said. “Why do you inject politics into it? Why are we allowing a foreigner to teach the politics of yoga?”

However, supporters of Sauthoff’s course said that in India, politics and yoga have already been mixed.

The course also included discussions of when yogi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, took office, and the current Modi government’s political use of yoga – the alleged saffronization of education in India and the UN declared International Day of Yoga.

Andrea Jain, a professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University, who had seen the course content said that Saufhoff was correct. “It’s a really sad thing that the course has been struck down. The BJP and the RSS – and Modi is a part of that – have used yoga as a political tool to further their idea of Hinduism, which is narrow. That’s what this is about,” she said.

Others have also voiced that the halting of the History and Politics of Yoga course is another indication of the governments increasing meddling in the university’s affairs.

Nalanda International University is largely funded by the government, however, it also received support through international funding – five major foreign contributors are represented on the university’s board.

Former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo had been the university’s chancellor following the resignation of Amartya Sen. However, Yeo resigned in November last year. Both Sen and Yeo left with accusations of interference by the government in the university which is putting a stain on Nalanda’s reputation for academic independence.

Sauthoff herself also expressed her concerns over academic freedom at Nalanda University. “I think this is an example of how the academic atmosphere at Nalanda is dissipating. It’s worrying,” she said.

Modi’s personal yoga guru, H.R. Nagendra, also told The Telegraph that government regulators should be allowed to determine university courses – even those on yoga.

Hansaji Yogendra, a Mumbai-based yoga teacher said yoga courses should only focus on practical training and not history and politics of yoga.


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