STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next Sunday is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Sunday is also something else - International Yoga Day, an event to promote harmony, which has been thrown off balance in India. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: With enthusiasts around the world, yoga is celebrated as the holistic route to well-being - exalted as India's gift, says historian Rizwan Qaiser.
RIZWAN QAISER: Yoga is seen as one of the oldest accomplishments of gurus, and it is supposed to harmonize body and mind.
MCCARTHY: India hopes to harmonize much more on June 21, the day the U.N. has sanctioned as International Yoga Day at the suggestion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj says India is organizing yoga sessions in 192 countries to help lead a strife-torn world on a path of peace.
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FOREIGN MINISTER SUSHMA SWARAJ: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "Yoga is the best soft power India has," she says, "to bring the world together and end the increasing trend of violence." But certain clerics in India's minority Muslim community have called the government's push to promote yoga a bid to promote majority Hinduism. They say a particular yoga pose known as the Surya Namaskar violates Islam because it means genuflecting to an entity other than Allah, namely the sun. But Prathiba Agrawal, who directs a school of yoga in Hyderabad, says calling the pose sun worship is a stretch.
PRATHIBA AGRAWAL: Surya Namaskar is done facing the sun at dawn because the sun's rays are very good for the human body. And all the practices of yoga, those are just the tools to bring us to a state of yoga; in other words, a state of harmony.
MCCARTHY: The government has removed the offending pose from the yoga program, saying it was difficult for people with bad backs. The government was forced into more damage control after one parliamentarian from Modi's party said those who opposed the Surya Namaskar should drown in the sea. Foreign Minister Swaraj disowned the remark and denied the government is using yoga to impose Hinduism.
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SWARAJ: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: "Forty-seven" Muslim countries," she said, "are co-sponsoring World Yoga Day. That could only mean that yoga was not associated with one particular religion." But a stream of bigoted remarks over months by Hindu fundamentalists and efforts to rewrite school textbooks to trumpet Hindu achievements raise suspicions about the government's intentions. Writer-filmmaker Suhail Hashmi, a Muslim, shares the concern, but says yoga is universal. He says if you don't like om, chant Allah.
SUHAIL HASHMI: Don't do Surya Namaskar. Do all the other exercises because this is a very good method of cleaning up your body and toning up your body. It's a very good thing.
MCCARTHY: Like other projects piloted by Modi, this one screams spectacle. Thirty-five-thousand people are due to assemble on New Delhi's central mall to perform the 35-minute yoga exercise. Master-showman Modi has invited Guinness World Records to document what would be the largest single yoga class, a move Hashmi says treats yoga like vaudeville.
HASHMI: I really wonder, are we behaving like a mature nation?
MCCARTHY: For novelist and yoga practitioner Shobhaa De, people may be seeing a Hindu agenda where there is none. She appreciates the debate, but says there is nothing subversive in an International Yoga Day.
SHOBHAA DE: We shouldn't look for too much meaning into something that could actually be pretty good for everybody.
MCCARTHY: In other words, there's been too much stress over something meant to de-stress. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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