Towards ‘Flexible’ Power: Yoga as a Tool of Indian Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy, and Soft Power

Written by Anvesh Jain BA. International Relations, University of Toronto, Canada


Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.


On September 27th, 2014, mere months after his party’s landslide victory in the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections, newly minted Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, staking India’s place in a rapidly changing world order. Harkening back to India’s natural position as the ancient connecting point between East and West, Modi affirms his country’s “unwavering belief in multilateralism” in an international atmosphere marked not by the presence of major wars, but by the “absence of real peace” (Modi, 2014). His solution to these worldly ills lies in the return to traditional wisdom and traditional forms, manifest in his urging of the assembly towards “adopting an International Yoga Day” (Modi, 2014). This advocacy of Yogic practice at the United Nations signaled the beginnings of a new, indigenous diplomatic initiative, of a kind unheralded in the annals of Indian external relations history.

Modi’s adoption of Yoga in the cause of Indian foreign policy reflects how the Prime Minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) view India and India’s strategic place in the world. It forms part of a broader stratagem to reconstitute India as a civilization-state with an emphasis on its religion, culture, spirituality, tradition, and heritage as not the sidepiece or secondary consideration, but rather the critical component in the formulation of its exogenous overtures. The use of Yoga to this end ties into other initiatives on fronts such as a new engagement with religious diplomacy and the recultivation of ancient civilizational ties across the Asia-Pacific region.

The yogic body, as evidenced by the state’s evolving role in the co-opting of organic yogic practices, has become inseparable from the political body in modern India - a trend that has been deftly manipulated and accelerated under the Modi government.

A Brief History of Yoga and National Evolution

The Prime Minister’s official and rather enthusiastic endorsement of yoga on the world stage belies a deeper and more complicated history between state patronage of the art and the development and popularization of the doctrine throughout the 20th century. Modi, in the vein of scholars such as Vivian Worthington, prefers to frame yoga as “very ancient, certainly much older than the archeological record,” and in doing so perpetuate a pre-Vedic, pre-Aryan, proto-Indian construction of the practice as truly autochthonous to the subcontinent (Worthington, 1982).

This attempt to portray yoga as timeless and contiguous taps into a larger effort to reclaim and re-authenticate the history of India, pushing back against orientalist studies of a place and its people in the effort to re-colonize Indology itself. In reality, the true lineage of yoga is unfathomably complex. There is evidence of yoga existing as a prehistoric practice, and definite codification comes later on in the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita, but it would be difficult to directly trace the yoga of the Gita or even of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to the asanas and postures adopted by millions of practitioners in brightly lit yoga studios around the world today.

The modern introduction of postural yoga as an institutionalized and professionalized undertaking grounded in spiritual theory can be attributed to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda in the late 1800s. It is from his idea of Raja-Yoga, the “kingly yoga… also known as Classical Yoga,” that a lineage of authority and thought can be derived, culminating in the formalization of the state’s governance over yogic methodology and research in the mid-to-late 1990s (Strauss, 2008).

From Swami Vivekananda’s seminal address at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions in 1893, a host of private actors and local spiritual leaders began to enshrine new forms of yogic practice, combining the intellectual rigour of Vivekananda’s mental prescriptions with the physical gymnastics most popular today. In the age of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, founding fathers such as B.K.S Iyengar tied ideals of national liberation to the physical emancipation offered by devotion to yoga (Alter, 2004). This era also precipitated attempts by figures such as Swami Kuvalayananda to medicalize yoga and ground it within modern experimentation and scientific analysis as a means of ameliorating the contemporary problems associated with Western contact (Strauss, 2008).

Upon Independence, a new breed of Neo-Hindu yogis, including Swami Sivananda and his disciple Swami Chidananda gained prominence, blaming the state of Indian society on the “alienation of the educated classes from traditional values” (Strauss, 2008). Their yoga institute in Rishikesh, the Divine Life Society, maintained the centrality of good health and spiritual nourishment as integral to the advancement of true civic duty (Strauss, 2008). From Vivekananda to Iyengar, Kuvalayananda, Sivananda, and Chidananda, yoga was brought into the 20th century, into a more recognizable incarnation.

The efforts of these private pioneers all bore their influence on the development and popularization of yogic practice, notably in its rapid spread to the west by the 1960s. By 1986, figures such as Vivekananda and Sivananda were canonized in a series of official postage stamps, and in the 1990s, a Central Council for Research on Yoga and Naturopathy (CCRYN) was established (Strauss, 2008). Through a series of departmental shifts, consolidations, and recategorizations, the CCRYN was incorporated under the new Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH) after the 2014 General Elections (Alter, 2018).

This evolution over the past thirty years demonstrates an increased interest from the federal government of India to establish sovereignty over Indic practices and to take responsibility for their ultimate promotion and general advocacy. From the “masculinized spiritualism” of Vivekananda’s Hinduism to Sivananda to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindutva, a lineage of religious and yogic authorities has been consolidated in the eyes of the state that now places the well-being of postural yoga and its defense in the hands of the union government (Alter, 2004). This forms the basis of legitimacy for Modi’s new activation of yoga as a tool in his diplomatic and political repertoire.

The Indian state’s assertion of its dominion into the world of yoga has had influences and consequences on the nexus of practice and praxis within Indian society, growing in prominence in recent decades. Governance on Indian systems of medicine, mirroring the command structure of the national economy, was conducted via five-year planning processes since 1951 (Samal, 2015). By the 11th Five-Year plan, the government explicitly pushed for the global acceptance and promulgation of ethnic medicinal and traditional practices, including yoga (Samal, 2015).

Modi’s political application of yoga promotion serves the nationalist narrative of cultural expansion and rejuvenation, seeking to validate Indian tradition around the world. The BJP’s 2014 electoral pledge to “increase the public investment to promote Yoga, AYUSH, [and] Ayurgenomics” serves as an attestation of this will to medicalize alternative practices and place them on equal terms with Western methods (Bharatiya Janata Party, 2014). By 2019, the manifesto was updated to include “rapid expansion of Yoga health hubs, Yoga tourism, and research in Yoga” (Bharatiya Janata Party, 2019).

Modi’s government has developed the relationship between the Indian state and the stewardship of Indian yoga, in a bid to reclaim yoga as authentically Indian, and within the purview of India’s civilizational heritage. In the Prime Minister’s worldview, a nation’s “cultural property” must be protected and shepherded to absolve it of corrupting influences or competing claims of ownership (The Week, 2019). It is from this historical evolution that he situates his desire to wrest control of yoga back from the commodification and deculturation of the west, in the process pushing for postural yoga to become part of a multi-pronged strategy designed to advance India’s soft power capabilities abroad.

Yoga as ‘Flexible’ Power

Until recently, successive administrations have largely failed to orchestrate a syncretistic initiative to marshal the disparate realms of India’s vast cultural deposits. These untapped reserves form the basis of the country’s potential ‘soft power’, a notion coined by American scholar Joseph Nye Jr. to describe a new method of statecraft in the post-Cold War moment.

Put simply, soft power is the “ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye, 1990).

This displaces the traditional emphasis within international affairs that assumes a state’s military or economic coercive capacity as the root of generating and sustaining relations and discourses of power. Moreover, the intangibilities of soft power reflect the growing infeasibility and undesirability of abusing ‘hard power’ options in an increasingly globalized world, one in which international cooperation and liberal institutionalism have become the norm.

Soft power, when utilized meaningfully and to the ends of achieving the goals of the state and its policies, can subtly influence and benefit a state’s image, creating the conditions in which objectives might be easier accomplished.

In the Indian context, yoga can be used as a metaphor for India’s flexibility and willingness to engage with the international community on multilateral issues, such as terrorism and climate change (Mazumdar, 2018).

A positive image of India amongst a foreign population, through exports such as yoga, cuisine, sport, democracy, or diaspora, might make other states more hesitant to take negative action towards India in future dealings.

To this end, Modi’s call for an International Day of Yoga at the United Nations marked a resounding success for Indian soft power, with the UNGA voting uncontested to recognize June 21st, 2015, as the date for the inaugural commemoration of a thenceforth annual celebration in honour of yoga. This provided the Indian administration an opportunity to take the global lead in promoting the event, giving them a “specific day during which they may talk about India’s soft power assets, including Yoga, to the rest of the world” (Mazumdar, 2018). In the time since these promotional efforts have only intensified as multiple government ministries coordinate to maximize the day’s utility each year.

Postural yoga has become one of the most widely practiced disciplines in the world, fuelling subsidiary industries and developing an entire subeconomy of its own.

The International Day of Yoga allows India to connect with the estimated 125 million people who engage with yogic practice internationally (Mahapatra, 2016). A translation of this connection can be used to further domestic and international policy prerogatives, such as engendering increased interest in ancient Indian scriptures and creating a renewed emphasis on the spiritual component of yoga (Mazumdar, 2018). As the yoga industry is still very much dominated by Indian voices, and authentic instruction in yoga is still perceived to be found only in India, the government can use interest in yoga to disseminate “India’s history and cultural ideas,” as well as to “encourage travel by foreign scholars and practitioners of Yoga to India” (Mazumdar, 2018).

The beneficial impacts towards India’s global image are evident, but soft power alone cannot realize core policy objectives in and of itself. Scholars point to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s implementation of Gandhian principles in the early construction of India’s public agenda, including the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Panchsheel [Five Virtues] that guided the organization (Mahapatra, 2016). Yet the ethos of this approach was dashed by India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 Indo-China War. The Modi government, in its promotion of Indian cultural diplomacy, will look to ensure that the evolution of its soft power can work towards the acquisition or enfranchisement of Indian hard power as well.

The International Day of Yoga

The deployment of soft power resources can be critical, and most importantly, cheap, for a nation with a relatively “small and weak” foreign service, allowing it to forsake more expensive mechanisms of public engagement (Martin, 2015). Modi’s yoga messaging not only burnishes his credential on the world stage, but the efforts of his government can then be turned around and repurposed for political gains at home. Successive yoga day demonstrations showcase this political craftsmanship, as well as the encroachment of government ministries over the coordination of yogic practice.

During the 2015 celebrations, organized by the aforementioned Ministry of AYUSH, Prime Minister Modi led 36,000 practitioners through several asanas at Rajpath, New Delhi, breaking several world records in the process (Mazumdar, 2018). In 2016, he moved his ceremony to Chandigarh, Punjab, emphasizing his commitment to making yoga popular around the world while announcing two international and national level awards for good work in the field of yoga (Mahapatra, 2016).

By the time of the 2019 commemoration, the Prime Minister’s annual address before leading the public in practice had taken on the ritual ordinance. BJP union ministers, including influential figures such as Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh, were entrusted to lead events of their own, and in his 2019 address, Modi expressed his desire to “take yoga to all sections of society” (The Economic Times, 2019). The Ministry of AYUSH, meanwhile, has released a Common Yoga Protocol featuring a recommended series of asanas that have been used at the Prime Minister’s functions, suggesting a turn towards standardization of yogic procedure under state oversight (Ministry of AYUSH, 2017). The performative nature of Modi’s annual posturing carries inherent symbolic relevance in his bid to configure himself as a spiritual leader and devout Hindu guru of the shifting, breathing masses.

The Prime Minister has followed up on his domestic exploits with regards to yoga proliferation, and continuously expands the international front beyond the International Day of Yoga. When conversing with other heads of state, or diaspora populations abroad, the subjects of buttressing yoga and other aspects of Indian culture is never too far off from the conversation at hand. The diktats of culture, strategy, and ideology are skillfully welded to both national and personal political benefits in the hands of Prime Minister Modi.

On a 2015 trip to Turkmenistan on the Central Asian circuit, Modi was invited to inaugurate a traditional medicine and yoga center in the capital of Ashgabat, where a bust of Mahatma Gandhi was also unveiled (Prime Minister of India, 2015). Modi commented on the occasion, stressing that moments like these were only a “small beginning towards his vision of a world-class Yoga Centre, which would demonstrate the effects of Yoga to people” (Prime Minister of India, 2015).

The Indian leader’s diplomatic prowess in the exogeny has not gone unnoticed, and the patronage of yoga has invited positive commentary from influential figures at home.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a popular guru in India, released a statement on his website congratulating Prime Minister Modi on his success at the UN, opining that “yoga has existed so far almost like an orphan”, surviving without the aid of the state (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, 2019).

In the eyes of Guru Shankar, and certainly others within the Indian domestic audience, “official recognition by the UN would further spread the benefit of yoga to the entire world” (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, 2019). At the heart of yoga philosophy is the drive for personal reform and a desire to strengthen the soul and body in yogic practice. To that end, Modi has also deemed yoga as more than an Indian cultural export, but an actual solution to major global health problems.

Conclusion: Yoga and Civilizational Well-Being

The final, and lasting dimension of Modi’s adoption of yoga on the international stage is the way in which it can be derived to satisfy new challenges and exigencies in modern life. When introduced at the United Nations General Assembly, the International Day of Yoga was tabled as a proposal under the already adopted ‘global health and foreign policy’ agenda, pursuant with Prime Minister Modi’s coupling of yoga to concepts of health and sustainable living (Mazumdar, 2018). In 2016, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, “announced that this year’s observation would link the practice of yoga to the Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted by the UN member states last year” (McCarthy, 2016).

To the moral and cultural framework within which Modi’s BJP sees the world, yoga can serve as an attenuating force to combat the woes of environmental degradation, mass consumerism, and climate change. The promotion of healthy lifestyles and the adoption of a yoga mindset that emphasizes the oneness and unity of humanity embodies India’s civilizational epistle to the world. Cultural diplomacy, and the soft power benefits accrued from it, are then not simply a means to attaining an end, but rather a way of facilitating wholesale change and a revolution in global thinking through Indic principles.

Modi’s potent combination of Indian culture and Indian statecraft, manifest in the International Day of Yoga, represents a new direction in the country’s foreign policy and a method of indigenizing Western diplomatic norms.

It served multiple purposes: to honor yoga as a continuous factor in the Indic tradition, to popularize the practice as a native Indian form of promoting global health and wellness, and to consolidate the Indian state’s patronage of yoga as a discipline and as a cultural message. In any case, it was an assertion and reclamation of India’s cultural property and marked the development of a truly Indian diplomatic initiative - a sustained global campaign to cultivate yoga as a cultural, spiritual, physical, and national practice with transnational scope. The dedicated focus on the image and practice of yoga in Modi’s ‘New India’ forms but one part of a wider paradigm shift in India’s grand strategy.


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