April 14, 2024

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Is India a ‘spiritual’ democracy?

6 min read

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world, with its own mystical dimensions. For centuries, India has been a home to famous yogis, gurus, and spiritual masters.

The modern Indian yogi Sadhguru is one of the 100 most spiritually influential persons. Modern India’s spiritual culture and traditions can be seen its full vigor in the city of Varanasi. Also known as Kashi or Benaras, this city is called “the spiritual heart of India,” and its legacy dates more than a thousand years back.

These traditions came more into light with the premiership of Narendra Modi. It seems that under his leadership, the modern “Bharat” is reconnecting with its ancient Hindu roots.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) intends to reconnect with its ancient Sanskrit roots. Sanskrit is a primary sacred language of Hinduism. The sacred books of Hindus, Bhagvad Geeta and Mahabharat, were written in it. As proclaimed in its elections manifesto in 2014, the BJP also wants to revive the old glory of Hindu nation. It wants to regain the lost Hindu identity.

The BJP leaders also believe that British and Mughal rule did great harm to their civilizational identity. Hence they are correcting the past mistakes and rewriting history.

But is it really a spiritual endeavor? Or is it just a political stint of a populist party?

The question warrants a deep analysis. Nonetheless, Modi’s foreign policy makes it evident that India’s ancient spiritual identity, that too at state level, is being revived.

International yoga campaign

It was Narendra Modi who first introduced the proposal of recognizing and celebrating yoga as an international day at United Nations. While emphasizing India’s spiritualism, he stated in a speech at the UN that yoga is a part of India’s ancient spiritual traditions. He further explained that it is not just a set of exercises but the way of connecting with the higher consciousness and becoming one with all.

From this perspective, Modi appeared to be an enlightened leader who introduced the spiritual traditions of his country at national and international levels.

In his other speeches at International Yoga Day, he can been seen enlightening the audience on the purpose of yoga as a way of uniting nations, connecting with Mother Nature, and finding inner peace. Certainly, he appeared as a state leader who wished to unite the nations through India’s spiritualism and, practically too, as proposing and celebrating International Yoga Day appeared to a part of one such effort.

India’s SCO presidency

Not only at UN, the Modi-led Indian government projects India’s spiritualism at other multilateral forums as well. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is one such example. During its SCO presidency for year 2022-2023, India made spiritualism an essential part of its SCO vision.

It was first time since the inception of the SCO that a member state designated a holy city as its tourist and cultural capital. Not only this, many SCO meetings and events were held in Kashi as an effort of the state to make its spiritual traditions global.

Other than this, another ancient spiritual tradition was also showcased in SCO forums: Ayurveda. According to an associate fellow of the Vivekananda International Foundation, Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Ayurveda is a part of ancient Hindu history that dates back more than 5,000 years.

According to him, Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that means the “science of life” that uses meditation, yoga, herbs, oils, and color therapy. It is a means to inducing well-being of all kinds in an ailing individual.

It was the first time that a member state had used its traditional spiritual method of treatment and healing at SCO platforms. The first SCO B2B Conference and Expo on Traditional Medicine was held by the Indian Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Natrotherapy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) in March.

G20 and oneness

In the Group of Twenty too, India’s presidency was dyed with the colors of its ancient spiritual traditions. Modi stated that India’s G20 presidency was aimed at promoting the universal sense of “oneness.”

This, again, raises many questions as oneness is a notion that touches every aspect of life. From the biological realm to all the layers of consciousness and including religions and spiritualism as well, it is applicable everywhere. If a state leader uses a broad term like oneness, he must be aware of what actually it means.

Rationality pre-supposes that Modi must have used “oneness” in its all comprehensive terms. For India’s G20 presidency, he chose “One Earth, One Family, One Future,” which is inspired by India’s ancient spiritual roots. This theme in itself has very broad implications conveying that humankind is one family and India, as a state, intends to reconnect and rejuvenate these linkages.

By utilizing India’s spiritual connections with other nations, Modi does connect with other religions. Buddhism comes first. Yet there seems to be a problem with Christianity and Islam as, according to American-based think-tank Hindutva Watch, violence against religious minorities has increased since 2014, after assumption of Modi’s rule.

At a crossroads?

Yoga is, in fact, a discipline of spiritual sciences. It originates from the arts and sciences of mental concentration, which is commonly known as meditation. Its different poses and asanas are a means to concentrate mind and align consciousness – physical and spiritual – to gain gnosis.

Meditation is much more than its commonly perceived notion. It is not just a set of physical and breathing exercises. It is the way of life. It is the pattern of thinking. It is that form of acquiring higher levels of mental concentration, which opens up the windows to inner wisdom. More specifically and importantly, it is the way of oneness. The same applies to yoga – the art and science of meditation.

Much reiterated in Modi’s speeches, the concept of oneness has little been implemented in its true letter and spirit.  

It seems that instead of using Hindu spirituality as a means to unite people – at home and abroad – the Modi-led government uses it for securing its narrowly defined political interests.

A Philadelphia-based sociologist and yoga teacher, Sheena Sood, writes that Modi’s spiritual forays are a means to “mask the agenda of ethno-nationalist state violence.” Ria Chakrabarti, the policy director at Hindus for Human Rights, criticized the PM for using a spiritual practice like yoga as “om-washing.”

A famous Indian politician and intellectual, Shashi Tharor, commented that Modi used the G20 presidency as a political tool for raising the BJP’s stakes. Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said the BJP excluded other parties and, in this way, severely undermined the spirit of democracy.  

Had the BJP been employing the ages-old spiritual wisdom of India, running deep in Hindu culture and traditions, the implications would have been different. India’s troubles with its two immediate neighbors, Pakistan and China, continue.

It also failed to utilize these ancient spiritual traditions as a common factor in international arena. The Ukraine issue was shelved under India’s G20 presidency and the UN call for a ceasefire in Gaza was blocked by Modi’s government.

While reconnecting to its ancient spiritual roots, India can easily mark itself as a spiritual democracy.

Yet one question still awaits an answer.

The question was raised by the Modi himself. In his address to the 69th UN General Assembly in 2014, he asked the international audience, “While we speak of an interdependent world, have we become more united as nations?”

The answer is clear: It’s hardly in affirmation. Yet another question awaits an answer: how India can instill its spiritual traditions and the concept of oneness for uniting the nations. If the spiritual heritage and traditions are not understood and applied rightly, they will only serve as a handy instrument of ethno-nationalist state violence.


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