Mumbai order on Surya Namaskar is interfaith discrimination and curtailment of fundamental rights

Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood for

The municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC) has made Surya Namaskar mandatory for all students in its 1200 schools. A petition challenging the order is now pending before the Bombay High Court whose division bench has, however, refused to stay its operation saying ‘don’t go on the name, it is just an exercise which is good for the body’. Even at the introduction stage the High Court had asked ‘what’s the harm if the BMC has made Surya Namaskar compulsory?’ Let us analyse the merits of this judicial stand.

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Rig Veda

According to the website of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers spread over Uttarkashi, Madurai, Thiruvananthapuram, USA, Europe, China, Japan, Argentina, Vietnam and Cambodia, “In Hindu mythology, the sun god is worshipped as a symbol of health and immortal life. The Rig Veda declares that Surya is the Soul, both of the moving and unmoving beings. The Sun Salutation originated as a series of prostrations to the sun. Traditionally, it is performed at dawn, facing the rising sun. In time, each of the twelve positions came to have its own mantra, celebrating aspects of the sun’s divinity”.

Puranic Origins

Master Murugan Chillayah in his treatise ‘Surya Namaskar: Puranic origins of Valmiki Ramayana’ says “Aditya Hridayam is another ancient practice which involves a variation of Sūrya Namaskāra. It is a procedure of saluting The Sun, taught to Rama by Sage Agastya, before his fight with Ravana. It is described in the ‘Yuddha Kaanda’ Canto 107 of Ramayana. There are in total 124 names praising the Sun in the whole procedure.

In verses 15 – 20, salutations to Sun are described. An example from the 15th verse is: “He is the lord of stars, planets and all constellations. He is the origin of everything in the universe and is the cause of the lustre of even the brilliant ones. Salutations to Thee who is the One being manifest in the twelve forms of the Sun”.

The twelve asanas of Surya Namaskar depict the twelve forms of the Sun.

First Asana: Pranamasana

Times Music has made out a Surya Namaskar app in whose introduction it is written that ‘Surya Namaskar is best performed facing east, the direction of the rising sun in the early hours of the morning’. On a popular yoga website, it is written that the first aasan of Surya Namaskar is known as Pranamasana, that is, salutation to the sun for which the performer has to stand in a prayerful attitude while, in the website of Sri Krishna Pranami Sampradaya of USA and Canada it is written that pranam means, ‘I bow to the Lord Supreme in you’.

Sixth Asana: Ashtanga Namaskara

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living website says that Surya Namaskar “provides an opportunity to express gratitude to the sun for sustaining life on this planet”. In its video and photo of the sixth aasan known as Ashtanga Namaskara the devotee lies upside down where two hands, two feet, two knees, chest and the chin touch the ground; this has been described as ‘Salute with eight body parts or points’. So the spiritual purpose of Surya Namaskar is that the performer has faith that the sun itself sustains life on earth.

As per another website, “Surya Namaskar is an ancient yogic tradition of worshiping the rising or setting of the sun (surya)”. In whole of India one can see Hindu men and women standing in early morning facing and worshipping the sun.

Quran loudly recapitulates Abraham’s denial to accept sun’s divinity.

On the other hand, the Quran recapitulates (6.75-80) that Prophet Abraham did not accept that there is any divinity in the sun, moon or stars and rather acknowledged the formless and invisible God as the creator and sustainer of the entire cosmos including the sun. In 16.12 God has further clarified that “He has subjected for the human beings the night and day and the sun and moon, and the stars.”

The Quran says sun will be folded up & darkened.

In 31.29 the Quran reiterates, “Do you not see that God causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running its course for a specified term?” Sun ‘runs its course for a period determined by God’ (36.38) ‘in accordance with divinely ordained laws’ (7.54). In 81.1 God exhorts the humanity to prepare for the day of judgement “when the sun will be folded up and darkened …”.

The Quran says sun is amenable to human control

At many more places God has mentioned in Quran this basic strand of Islamic faith that sun, moon, stars and the entire cosmos have been subjected by God to human control and that these are God’s creatures with limited life.

Prophet’s visit to heaven

Quran also describes in detail how God caused Prophet Mohammad lifted to the heavens where God spoke to him and this dialogue is repeated by Muslims as part of their daily five times prayers. This is another divine act through which the message was given that humanity is superior to the whole cosmos including the sun. After such rendezvous the prophet came back to earth and resumed his normal human life. Dr Sir Iqbal, the composer of ‘Saare jahaan se achha Hindustaan hamara’ has described this prophetic journey (known in Arabic as meraaj: high flight):

Sabaq mila hai ye meraaj-e Mustafa se mujhe
Ki aalam-e bashariyyat ki zad mein hai gardoon

‘From the prophet’s visit to the heavens I got to learn that the skies and the entire cosmos are available for human control’.

Namaz too is a beneficial bodily exercise. Another interesting phenomenon is that Namaz is also an excellent exercise for the human body even having some postures common with yoga. It begins with the worshipper standing straight lifting both hands upto the ear lobes and then holding the hands between chest and stomach, the right cupping the left, with eyes down, realising as standing in the presence of the invisible Creator and Sustainer of the worlds whose praises are recited followed by another small portion from Quran. Then, bending in front by ninety degrees keeping the hands on the knees saying thrice ‘I praise the Creator & Sustainer of the worlds who is the greatest’, standing again with hands down, then slowly going into prostration twice again praising God similarly and at the end of the second such process bending the knees 180 degrees and sitting on toes, heels and knees reciting the above mentioned dialogue which God had with prophet – praying for general human welfare – and so on.

Thus, as a daily five times bodily exercise, Namaz can also be adopted by anybody across the religious spectrum and, as per the observation of the honourable Bombay High Court, one need not go on the name and must mind that it is a good exercise for maintaining the human body.

Quran declares sun as God’s creature

In Islam the early morning Namaz must finish before the sunrise and the evening prayer cannot be performed before the sunset thus ensuring that the object of worship is not the sun but God who has created the sun.

The learned judges would kindly appreciate that the vital difference between Surya Namaskar and Yoga is that in the former the performer worships the sun while in the latter it is the sun’s Creator and Sustainer who is worshipped.

State violation of fundamental rights

This is where articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Indian Constitution magnanimously and strongly intervene according to which (a) the State shall not deny to any person equality before law and equal protection of law; (b) the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion; and (c) all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.

Thus, the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s order making Surya Namaskar compulsory in all the schools run by it as well as the High Court’s refusal to stay this order explicitly violate these unambiguous constitutional injunctions. Issue of this order and not staying its operation tantamount to State discrimination against a section of the citizens on ground of religion and curtailment of the right of some persons to freely profess and practice their faith.

Besides, Article 28(i) prohibits provision of any religious instruction in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds and says that (ii) no person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or (iii) to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto. The orders of the BMC as well as the Court violate these provisions of Article 28. Surely the Supreme Court would kindly consider this vital matter, intervene under article 32 and enforce the rights conferred by articles 14, 15 and 25 and 28.

The author is the President, Zakat Foundation of India