More than samosas and saffron

India's yoga guru Swami Ramdev speaks during a yoga camp in Haridwar

Did you read this Sunday New York Times story about Swami Ramdev headlined "Indian Who Built Yoga Empire Works on Politics"? I don't know if it was worse as a religion news story or as a political news story but it really failed to even begin to adequately explain either the religious or political situation in India. A veteran religion reporter submitted the story as a particularly bad example of reporting that plagues Hinduism. Of all the world's major religions, none are so diversified in character as Hinduism. There are tons of schools of philosophy and theology and even in those there are offshoots, sects and local cults. Hinduism's pantheon is fairly unrivaled, with avatars and devas and countless deities symbolizing the many attributes of a single god.

But the Times doesn't explain that Hinduism is diverse, much less anything about where the subject of the story fits in with the religion.

Here's an explanation of some of Swami Ramdev's politics:

"What the people need is honest, brave and responsible leadership," he said in an interview at the sprawling campus of his rapidly expanding yoga, natural foods and medicine empire in northern India. The country's political system is riddled with corruption and riven by the deep divisions of religion and caste, he said. Tapping into the ancient Indian wisdom that gave birth to yoga, and the holy texts like the Vedas and Upanishads, is the only way to excise those cancers, he contended.

Oh, he's tapping into the Vedas and Upanishads? That's like running a story that says "(fill in the random politician's name) says he's inspired by the Bible." It means almost nothing.

And here's how the subject of the story is described:

In some ways Swami Ramdev harks back to India's earliest leaders with a message of self-reliance, national pride and traditional Indian values. But with his vast yoga empire and legions of followers on television and the Web, he is also a product and symbol of the New India, a yogic fusion of Richard Simmons, Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey, irrepressible and bursting with Vedic wisdom.

A yogic fusion of Richard Simmons, Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey? This "description," if it can be called that, does little other than dismiss the swami as a silly pop culture reference point. And a meaningless Western pop culture reference point at that. It frames the entire story in a manner that makes the religious views of the swami seem false and ridiculous.

The reader who submitted the story had a few other criticisms:

To start with, there's no explanation of what yoga means (remember, most Western readers regard yoga as little more than a physical exercise), no explanation of what the title swami means (again, its a term most Westerners have absolutely no understanding of, no knowledge that it means he is a monk in some lineage with a history all its own) or the esteem it carries in traditional Hindu society.

The story treats Hinduism, yoga, the swami and the Indian religious and political culture in a confusingly superficial manner:

Swami Ramdev plans to do for the body politic what he has already done to the country's creaky physiques: whip it into shape. He announced last month that he would found a political party that would field candidates for each of the 543 parliamentary seats in India's next general election in 2014.

But beyond the silly phrasing, the story gives the impression that the swami's politics are either overtly Hindu Nationalist or at least in less conflict with Hindu nationalism than some other prominent politicians. But we need to know more about the specifics.

Perhaps instead of namedropping Oprah and Richard Simmons, we could get some decent analysis that explains where Swami Ramdev's religious views and politics fit in relation to other prominent Indian leaders of past and present.

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