Public Diplomacy

Intangible aspects of India’s spiritual and religious heritage : Case study Yoga

December 09, 2014

*By Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee


  • India’s intangible cultural heritage flows from her 5000 year old culture and civilisation. Dr. A.L. Basham, in his authoritative "Cultural History of India”, has noted that "While there are four main cradles of civilisation which, moving from East to West, are China, India, the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean, specially Greece and Italy, India deserves a larger share of credit because she has deeply affected the religious life of most of Asia. She has also extended her influence, directly and indirectly, to other parts of the World.”
  • images/oxford1.jpgBuddha Carving from 3rd Century Gandhara (Currently Pakistan)​ It is also important to recall that the civilisation that developed in the Valleys of our two great river systems, the Indus and the Ganges, although in a sharply demarcated geographical region due to the Himalayas, was never an isolated civilisation. The notion that before the impact of European learning, science and technology, the ‘East’ changed little if at all, over the centuries can and should be rejected. Indian civilisation has always been dynamic, not static. Settlers and traders came to India from the land and sea routes. India’s isolation was never complete, from the most ancient times. This resulted in the development of a complex pattern of civilisation, demonstrated so clearly in the intangible art and cultural traditions, whether in the dancing Buddhas of the Gandharva school of art which was strongly influenced by the Greeks, to the great tangible heritage seen in the temples of North and South India. Symbolic of this great religious and spiritual heritage was the development of Yoga which existed from the most ancient times and is also known as part of India’s tantric civilisation. Evidence of the practice of Yoga has been found in pre-Vedic times at Harappan and Mahenjadero and across Northern India. According to mythological traditions, Shiva is said to be the founder of Yoga and Parvati, his first disciple.
  • Thus, Intangible Cultural Heritage such as the Indian example, is difficult to explain or interpret, because of its complexity. Tangible heritage on the other hand, being more visible is much better understood. The best definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage is contained in the 2003 UNESCO Convention on ICH which defines it in a manner broad enough to include diverse experiences and expressions across the globe such as "the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognised as part of their cultural heritage”. This is an excellent definition of India’s great religious, intangible cultural heritage.
  • The significant influence of this intangible aspect of India’s religious and spiritual heritage provides a profound insight into India’s own history, culture and civilisation. The case study here is the iconic example of Yoga.

    Definition of ICH

  • What is Intangible Cultural Heritage? Heritage, let us remind ourselves, does not end at monuments or collection of objects of arts. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendents, such as oral traditions, performing arts, religious and cultural festivals and traditional crafts. This Intangible Cultural Heritage, by its very nature, is fragile and needs protection and understanding since it is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation. Developing understanding of the ICH helps the process of an international, inter-cultural dialogue and promotes, in the long run, international peace and security.
  • ICH is best defined as:
    • Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time, since it is a dynamic process;
    • Inclusive since it contributes to social cohesion, encourages a sense of identity and helps to preserve communities and community life;
    • Representative since it prospers on oral skills passed on from generation to generation;
    • Community based since it can be defined as heritage only when it is recognised as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it.
    ICH therefore, based on the above definition, is important not as a cultural manifestation as such but rather on the wealth of knowledge and skill that are transmitted through it from one generation to another.

    Case Study Yoga

  • An eminent practitioner of Yoga, Swami Satyanand Saraswati, in his ‘Asana Pranayama’ stated: "Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today and the culture of tomorrow.” Yoga is the science of right living and is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ which means unity. It establishes integration and harmony between thought, feeling and deed. Over the centuries, many branches of Yoga have developed but there is general agreement that it developed at the beginning of human civilisation, in pre-Vedic times in India. Today it is more relevant than ever before and is one of the most iconic elements of India’s spiritual heritage.images/oxford3.jpgSeals have been found at Mohenjo-daro depicting a figure standing on its head, and one sitting cross-legged(above); perhaps the earliest indication of the practice of yoga​
  • India is developing a substantive case to ensure that yoga is inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO by 2016. In that event, Yoga would become the 31st intangible cultural heritage that has been listed from India so far with UNESCO. Ayush Department of the Health Ministry has been asked to prepare a nomination dossier. The documentation process is in a nascent stage. A decision will be made to decide on which branches and streams of yoga would be included, through brain storming sessions to deliberate on including which type of practice and parparmpara (traditions) in the dossier. Inclusion of Yoga in the inscription list with the UNESCO would provide better visibility for it, help improve its significance besides offering international assistance for its promotion and preservation.
  • The inscription process is complicated. To get yoga inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, India would need to justify it is an Intangible Cultural Heritage in accordance with UNESCO’s criteria. We would also have to demonstrate that yoga is in urgent need of safeguarding because its viability is at risk despite the efforts of the community, group, individuals and the Government. The case would be presented through the Ministries of Culture and External Affairs by our Permanent Delegation to UNESCO, Paris.
  • Though Yoga has originated in India, it is now internationally practiced. India’s efforts to protect yoga as part of our spiritual heritage was strengthened last year when the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated Delhi-based Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga as its collaborating centre (CC) for developing research guidelines for yoga studies.

    images/oxford4.jpgMorarji Desai National Institute of Yoga in New Delhi​ Some Concluding Reflections : Yoga as a mechanism for enhanced inter-cultural dialogue

  • In India, we are the repository of an astounding wealth of living patterns and modes of heritage. With about 1400 dialects and 18 officially recognized languages, several religions, various styles of art, architecture, literature, music and dance, and several lifestyle patterns, India represents the largest democracy with a seamless picture of diversity in unity, perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the world.
  • The diversity of our great spiritual and religious heritage demonstrates that cultures are not self-enclosed or static entities. One of the fundamental obstacles to inter-cultural dialogue is the notion that cultures are fixed, as if fault lines separate them. Through a history of changing settlements and political power, India’s living cultural heritage was shaped by centuries of adaptation, re-creation and co-existence. The intangible cultural heritage of India finds expression in the ideas, practices, beliefs and values shared by communities across long stretches of time, and form part of the collective memory of the nation. India’s physical, ethnic and linguistic variety is as staggering as its cultural pluralism, which exists in a framework of interconnectedness. In some instances, its cultural heritage is expressed as pan-Indian traditions not confined to a particular locality, genre or category, but as multiple forms, levels and versions inter-linked yet independent from one another. Underlying the diversity of India’s heritage is the continuity of its civilization from the earliest times to the present and of the later additions by different influences. Yoga demonstrates the continuity of that civilisation.
  • This living religious heritage of India needs to be widely disseminated to the international community. There is increasing acknowledgment and recognition that such ICH helps to maintain a cultural and civilizational dialogue between peoples and societies and cultures. This in its turn becomes a powerful lever for renewing the international community’s strategy towards development and peace.images/oxford5.jpgPrime Minister addressing the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. It was in this address that Prime Minister suggested that United Nations should celebrate 21st June as World Yoga Day​
  • Our efforts for international recognition of Yoga as India’s oldest spiritual heritage have been led by our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi who suggested to the United Nations General Assembly this year that the United Nations should celebrate an International Yoga Day. It is expected that the General Assembly would endorse and approve Prime Minister’s suggestion on 11th December, 2014 and designate 21st June as the International Yoga Day.This would also strengthen India’s case for recognition and inclusion of Yoga in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
  • In concluding, it may be pertinent to recall that Swami Vivekananda had said :

    "We believe that every being is divine, is God.

    Every soul is a sun covered over with clouds of ignorance;

    The difference between soul and soul is owing to the difference in density of these layers of clouds.”

Yoga is a mechanism to build international confidence, inter cultural dialogue and peace through the removal of these clouds of ignorance. It is India’s heritage to the world.

images/oxford7.jpg*[The author, a former diplomat was Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO (2004-2010). This article has been written exclusively for ‘In Focus” section of Ministry of External Affairs website,]


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