NEW DELHI • Muslim groups yesterday slammed a directive from India's Hindu nationalist government for participants in International Yoga Day to chant "Om", citing religious bias.
The mass outdoor yoga session, to be held in June for its second year, is an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking to reclaim the practice as an historic part of Indian culture.
"Yogic practice shall start with a prayer or prayerful mood to enhance benefits of the practice," read a note issued by Ayush ministry, which works for the promotion of yoga, as shown by television networks.
The ministry said participants should chant the sacred sound "Om" and Hindu vedic hymns at the start and end of the 45-minute event on June 21.
Muslim groups reacted with anger, saying such chants were against their faith and accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of seeking to impose a hardline Hindu agenda.
"We are not against yoga but India is a secular country and the state has no religion," Mr Zafaryab Jilani, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, told Agence France-Presse.
"If they are imposing a Hindu religious practice on the rest of us, it is unconstitutional."
The government waded into a similar controversy last year after it made the surya namaskar pose (sun salutation) part of the event.
Muslim groups say certain yoga poses and chants have clear Hindu overtones and are against Islam.
"They are again and again trying to impose a Hindutva ('Hinduness') agenda. This order should be cancelled immediately," Muslim cleric Khalid Rashid Firangi Mahali said.
The opposition also weighed in, accusing the government of seeking to impose a narrow vision on the ancient tradition, which commands huge global popularity.
"Yoga has achieved the status of an international art form and by imposing such conditions the government is killing its essence," Mr Manish Tewari, a leader of the main opposition Congress party, said.
"People from different religions do it and the practitioner should decide what to chant."
Following the outcry, the Ayush ministry issued a clarification saying the directive was not compulsory.