Debate in India: Is Rule on Yoga Constitutional?

New Delhi, India - Hollywood celebrities swear by it. Yuppies the world over have fallen on their knees to embrace it. Now, the question of whether public school students in India should be required to take up the sun salutation, or “surya namaskar” as the common yoga exercise is known in Sanskrit, has engendered a legal and political row in this country, revealing lingering questions about how secularism is practiced and challenged in Indian politics.

At issue is a measure by the Hindu nationalist-led government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, that required public school students to practice the sun salutation and recite certain chants in Sanskrit during a statewide function on Thursday. The state government, controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., said that it complied with a central government policy to encourage yoga in schools and that it was inspired by a recent visit from a popular Hindu spiritual leader.

Muslim and Christian groups in the state took issue not so much with the yoga exercise, but with the chants, which they said were essentially Hindu and in worship of the sun. They argued in court on Wednesday that it violated the Indian constitutional provision to separate religion and state.

A state court ruled Wednesday that neither the chants nor the sun salutation could be forced on students. A state education official said by telephone that five million children in Madhya Pradesh voluntarily took part in the program on Thursday, when the state government also announced that it would incorporate lessons on the importance of yoga into textbooks.

In a country that contains all of the world’s major religions (and several minor ones), questions over the divide between state and religion have come up from time to time, and just as frequently have been obfuscated or at least delicately massaged. The official list of Indian holidays reflects a careful balance of holy days of all the major religious groups; there are 15 religious holidays in all, along with 28 others that Indians can opt to take, depending on their faith.

Whether yoga is religious practice is, like everything in this country, a matter of debate. Some people note that its recitations sometimes invoke Hindu gods, but others argue that its physical exercises have nothing to do with Hindu ritual. It is hardly uncommon for non-Hindus to practice yoga. The Indian health minister, Ambubani Ramadoss, last month floated the idea of compulsory yoga in all government schools, as one among several measures to combat childhood obesity.

Some Indian social scientists saw the Madhya Pradesh measure — and particularly the proposal to chant — as an effort by the B.J.P. to inject Hindu nationalist ideology into public education and, in turn, provoke public opinion for and against the measure. “This is the way they can keep the pot boiling — create public sentiments on issues such as these,” said Ashis Nandy, one of India’s most prominent sociologists.