Nalanda axes yoga course

BJP leader wrongly links lessons to Amartya

By Basant Kumar Mohanty and Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 10.09.17
Amartya Sen

New Delhi, Sept. 9: Nalanda University has scrapped a course on the "history and politics of yoga" that a senior BJP politician today wrongly blamed on former chancellor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's team, sparking worries about academic censorship at India's marquee education diplomacy institute.

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav tweeted this morning that he had been "stunned to hear" that "Amartya Sen's" Nalanda dispensation "had a course on 'politics of yoga' taught by a foreigner". He added that the course had now been "abolished".

But Nalanda officials and faculty confirmed to The Telegraph that the course, on the broader subject of the "history and politics" of yoga, had been taught only from January to May this year, more than a year after Sen's term as chairman of the university board had ended.

Former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, who had taken over as chancellor after Sen, too quit last November accusing the Narendra Modi government of interfering in the university's functioning.

A new governing board appointed by the Modi government - without any member from Sen's erstwhile team - was in office by the time the course Madhav criticised had been introduced in the university's classes.

Madhav, an influential foreign policy expert, did not respond to a text message. A close aide of Madhav's told this newspaper that he would be available only on September 12.

Some among India's best-known yoga experts dismissed Madhav's criticism of a "foreigner" - Patricia Sauthoff, an American doctoral scholar doing her PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London - teaching the course.

Sauthoff said that Madhav's accusations merely reinforced the need for such a course to correctly understand the themes of cultural appropriation, including that of yoga by some in the West. She also highlighted deeper concerns about academic freedom.

"I think this is an example of how the academic atmosphere at Nalanda is dissipating," Sauthoff told The Telegraph over the phone from Denver, Colorado, where she had woken up to a Twitter debate and abusive online comments after Madhav's post.

"It's worrying," she said.

Both Sen and Yeo had during their tenures publicly aired concerns about the depleting academic freedom at Nalanda University, an institution India has for the past 11 years pursued as a key pillar of its cultural diplomacy.

Advertised as the revival of the ancient Buddhist seat of learning, the Nalanda project was conceived in the second half of the 2000s as a collaborative effort between India and the countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia and, later, the broader Pacific region.

Although India overwhelmingly funds the university, its board includes representatives from the five foreign countries that have contributed the most in aid to the project.

In recent months, though, Nalanda's reputation for academic independence has taken a beating, multiple officials, teachers and former staff conceded. The exit of Sen and Yeo were merely the most visible symptoms of the malaise, they said.

Nalanda begins its academic year in August. In just over a month this year, at least two teachers have quit the university, which is abuzz with speculation that more may follow.

Current vice-chancellor Sunaina Singh said the university's concerns over Sauthoff's course stemmed from its very idea - of linking yoga to politics.

"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?"

But the politics of yoga - that is, cultural or political appropriation of the practice with a view to defining it narrowly - is a regular subject of scholarship among yoga researchers, said Andrea Jain, professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University.

Sauthoff had included, in her 15-week course, discussions on the implications of a white woman teaching Asians about yoga as part of the class debate on cultural appropriation.

When a yogi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, took office, the class of less than 10 students discussed the significance of his rise. In the final week of her course, Sauthoff discussed the political use of yoga by the Modi government, for instance, through the International Day of Yoga.

"The instructor was right in this case, and it's a really sad thing that the course has been struck down," Jain, who has seen the syllabus, told this newspaper over the phone from Indianapolis.

"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."

H.R. Nagendra, Modi's yoga guru and chancellor of S- Vyasa, a Bangalore-based yoga institute, told this newspaper that universities should allow regulators to determine their courses, even on yoga.

He added that an organisation of Indian yoga gurus, called the Indian Yoga Association, too was competent to decide on yoga courses at universities.

Mumbai-based yoga teacher Hansaji Yogendra, who had shared the dais with Modi at the 2015 International Day of Yoga celebrations in Delhi, argued that yoga courses should focus more on practical training than on history and politics. She too questioned any linking of yoga and politics.

But she disagreed with Madhav's contention that a foreigner was less qualified than an Indian to teach any element of yoga.

"Yoga is for everyone," Yogendra said. "I get many foreign students, who go back to their countries and teach. And let me tell you, many are better yogis than Indians."