The Hindu Nationalist Campaign to Promote Yoga

The Hindu Nationalist Campaign to Promote Yoga

The Hindu Nationalist Campaign to Promote Yoga

An organization with ties to India’s RSS uses seemingly benign cultural tactics to spread its ideology—including the annual “Yogathon.”

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On the sunny winter morning of January 29, a group of Indian Americans dressed in white polo shirts and black trousers gathered at a softball field in Scottsdale, Ariz., to practice yoga. On blue tarpaulin sheets and yoga mats, the group of 40-odd people, including men, women, and children, performed 108 Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations, in the next three hours.

The participants were there on invitation for the annual “Health for Humanity Yogathon,” a 16-day event organized every year by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu Volunteer Association, or HSS) since 2007. The event’s promotional materials describe it as a way of creating “awareness” about yoga and its health benefits. The organization claims that the event is attended by thousands of people from all over the nation, with the participation of 13,392 people this year alone.

Registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the HSS presents itself as a benign social, educational, and cultural organization. But its public face carefully masks connections with its ideological parent group in India: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Association, or RSS), a Hindu supremacist group.

On its website, buried in the FAQ section, the HSS mentions the RSS as one of its inspirations. But according to literature from Suruchi Prakashan, the main publishing house of the RSS, based in New Delhi, the HSS operates as an RSS affiliate in more than 40 countries, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The RSS is not only present in India but is “successfully working abroad as well” as the HSS, wrote RSS authors Suresh Chandra Bajpai and Harish Chandra Barthawal in the book RSS At a Glance in 2001. Currently, longtime RSS leader Saumitra Gokhale, who is based in the United States, serves as global coordinator for HSS.

Founded in 1925 and inspired by the European fascist movements of 1930s, the RSS is the largest paramilitary group of the Hindu nationalist movement known as Hindutva, the longest-running fascist movement in the world. The Hindutva ideology advocates turning India into a Hindu nation, where religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, must either accept complete assimilation or be reduced to second-class citizens, devoid of any rights and subject to extreme violence. In 1939, M.S. Golwalkar, the second supreme head of the RSS, published the book We or Our Nationhood Defined, in which he shared his admiration for the Nazi genocide of Jews and called it a “good lesson for us in Hindusthan [India] to learn and profit by.” In 2021, Mohan Bhagwat, the current head of the RSS, called for Hindu mobilization to bring about the “ghar wapsi,” or “reconversion,” of all religious minorities to Hinduism.

Over the nearly 100 years since the RSS’s founding, its members or affiliates have been accused of orchestrating large-scale violence against minorities. Between 2000 and 2007, the CIA designated the RSS as a religious “militant/chauvinistic” organization in its annual World Factbook. Last year, RSS worker Yashwant Shinde blew the whistle on the group’s training some of its members in bomb-making and targeting Muslims and their places of worship around the mid-2000s.

The RSS wields extraordinary influence both in India and abroad through hundreds of directly and indirectly affiliated organizations tied together by the bond of Hindu nationalist ideology. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government is the RSS’s political arm, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a longtime member.

The RSS spreads its Hindu nationalist agenda through a network of HSS affiliates around the world, with the first established in Kenya and Myanmar in 1947. But the US wing of the HSS, started in the 1960s and registered as a nonprofit in 1989, is particularly powerful compared to HSS wings in other countries, thanks to the wealthy Indian diaspora. According to the 990 tax documents that the tax-exempt organization files with the IRS, HSS USA, which claims to have 230 chapters, has raised and spent over $13 million over the past decade.

For much of its existence, one of the central outreach tools used by the HSS to woo Americans has been yoga. In India, Hindu supremacists have long repurposed the ancient practice as a vehicle of Hindu nationalism. One of Modi’s first official acts upon assuming office in 2014 was convincing United Nations member states to name June 21 as International Yoga Day. RSS head Mohan Bhagwat claimed that because other countries in the world are trying to “patent yoga,” it is necessary for Indians to come forward and claim yoga as their own.

Yoga has become particularly popular in the United States over the past decade, with over 36 million Americans practicing yoga daily. Yet the history of yoga in the US dates back to the 1920s, when Hindu Guru Paramahansa Yogananda immigrated there and claimed that he was sent by his teacher to “spread the message of kriya yoga to the West.”

Yoga has been regularly practiced and taught at HSS branches nationwide, including in Balagokulam, a project that operates weekly schools for children.

“[Yoga] is considered pretty important. We used to have 20-to-30 minute yoga sessions in each class. Then they would start us off with basic asanas [postures] of yoga and then have us do Surya Namaskar,” recalls a former participant from Boston, who attended Balagokulam in 2004 and 2005, when she was 11 years old. “But overall, my parents didn’t like Balagokulam, and made us drop out. They thought it was too militant, because they weren’t teaching much about Hinduism or teaching shlokas [verses from Hindu holy books], but focused more on RSS leaders and ideology,” she said.

“Hindu nationalists weaponize yoga, using it to appear benevolent, modern, and to disguise their political mission and global ambition,” says Angana Chatterji, a human rights activist and scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively on Hindu nationalism. “They reduce yoga’s complex formative history to promote the ideals of Brahminical Hinduism, appropriating and erasing yoga’s connections to Buddhist, Sufi, Jain, and Tantric traditions in South Asia.”

In the United States, the HSS uses yoga to gain legitimacy in not just the cultural sphere but in the political arena as well. The organization has drafted proclamations signed by various unsuspecting elected officials, including members of Congress, governors, state representatives, and mayors.

Although the HSS has received proclamations for various reasons, the vast majority are for its Yogathon events. For the last four consecutive annual Yogathons, the HSS has received 439 proclamations.

“Yoga is low-hanging fruit,” said Rohit Chopra, a communications professor at Santa Clara University and author of The Virtual Hindu Nation: Saffron Nationalism and New Media. “It is associated with India, as part of the mainstream American imagination, often in stereotypical and Orientalist ways. The HSS is strategically cashing in on this, by pandering to and exploiting these stereotypical perceptions to promote itself and its politics.”

City proclamations are ceremonial documents recognizing an issue, cause, milestone, or event, which are often read during city council meetings and presented as certificates to members of the honored organization. Most of the Yogathon proclamations use almost identical language in their description of the HSS, calling it a “cultural, social and charitable organization” involved in “activities such as food drives, providing hot meals to shelters and other sewa [service] activities.”

Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University who has studied Hindu far-right groups in the US, says the HSS secures proclamations across the US by misrepresenting itself as a cultural group.

“HSS promotes a far-right ideology of violence, hate, and oppression of religious minorities. That agenda is not welcomed by many Americans, and I imagine the HSS wants to whitewash its image as a cover for its nefarious activities,” Truschke says.

The Nation reached out to more than 80 congresspersons, state representatives, and mayors, speaking with 15, and found that in most cases, proclamations are awarded to the HSS without a background check, and that the group itself drafted the text of the proclamation. None of the elected officials with whom we corresponded were aware of HSS connections with the RSS. Offices of the elected officials also did emphasize that the proclamations are explicitly awarded for Yogathon and not the organization. Yet most of the proclamations include a sentence in praise of the HSS.

“Our proclamation was meant to promote health and yoga and did not have anything to do with promoting the political interests of the group HSS,” Justin Berns, mayor of Beachwood city in Ohio, told The Nation in an e-mail. His office issued the HSS a proclamation for its annual Health for Humanity Yogathon in January 2022 . “The City of Beachwood does not generally do background checks and is not aware of the political interests of the HSS,” Berns added.

However, some towns and cities, upon learning about the HSS’s Hindu nationalist beliefs and ties to the RSS, have rescinded proclamations. In August 2022, the city council of Manteca, Calif., unanimously voted to revoke a proclamation given to the HSS after constituents informed the officials of the group’s Hindu nationalist agenda. In the same month, Elk Grove and Lathrop, Calif., also privately rescinded proclamations issued to the HSS. “I am not in a place to support proclamations that may be deemed controversial or may have ties to political organizations,” Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal of Lathrop wrote in a letter to the HSS.

This January, multiple proclamations that had been issued to the HSS over the years in Novi, Mich., were also quietly repealed. “After the city council was educated about HSS, they canceled all the proclamations and promised not to issue any ceremonial documents to HSS in the future,” a local resident said on condition of anonymity.

But activists and academics fear these proclamations and praise could further the cause of Hindu nationalism and lend credibility to Hindu nationalist groups.

“Such recognitions help mask the political intent of Hindu nationalists in the diaspora as they seek to influence US policies in support of the Hindu nationalist government in India, its casteism and Islamophobia, and the subjugation and destruction of difference and democracy,” Chatterji said.

The HSS continues to expand its activities. Recently, the group started organizing Darshana, a nationwide traveling exhibition, which it claims showcases Hindu civilizations, with yoga being a dominant topic. Last month, the exhibition was presented at the Ohio statehouse, followed by praise from an elected official on the floor of the state Senate.

With little or no background checks, the HSS’s political outreach continues to yield results. Most of proclamations it has received over the past decade remain in place.

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