On his first year as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi successfully lobbied the United Nations to designate the 21st of June as International Yoga Day, a proposal unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly. This day is not chosen at random; it is the longest day of the year and the first of the summer, a day of joy and celebration.
Yoga is India’s most successful cultural export to the world, with millions practising worldwide and in recent decades it has wildly increased in popularity in the West. I will never forget talking to a woman on a train from Thessaloniki to Belgrade who told me that during the Kosovo war, she sent her children to stay with her ‘Yoga sisters’ in Greece to be safe. She would travel every year to Greece in order to practise Yoga, creating such strong bonds with her co-practitioners that one would normally find in a religious community.
On International Yoga in 2019, Prime Minister Modi joined a crowd of 40,000 people in practising Yoga exercises in the state of Jharkhand, At the same time, all around the world similar events were taking place, a testament to India’s soft power. Prior to the event he declared “let our motto be yoga for peace, harmony and progress”. The implication of this type of cultural diplomacy is for India as a nation to be associated with the values of Yoga as encapsulated in these three words.
In Athens on the same day the Indian Embassy organised an event to celebrate International Yoga Day. It comprised of free lessons and traditional Indian dancing, in collaboration with local Greek Yoga clubs and associated businesses. The eager participation of the Greek public in this event was a great example of a dialogue of civilisations, which is what successful cultural diplomacy is all about.