In its issue of May 17-23, 2014, The Economist carried a brief story on yoga in Iran. I’m not clear why this publication (in my opinion the best general news magazine in the world) found this piece worthy of attention (perhaps as an interruption of the endless stream of bad news from the Middle East). The story is about a yoga center in Iran, located in Qom, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam. The center, which specializes in teaching women the relevant techniques, has provoked opposition from the conservative Islamic establishment. The head of something called the Spiritual Health Institute, also located in Qom, has denounced yoga for advocating a “spirituality” antagonistic to Islam and urged that the center should be “carefully watched”; given the policies of the Iranian regime toward religious minorities and dissidents, being “carefully watched” is not a reassuring phrase. I have no knowledge as to whether more robust measures have been initiated. The woman in charge of the yoga center rejected the criticism, saying pithily that the Islamic Revolution will not be reversed by a headstand. In any case, according to the aforementioned story, the Qom case represents a considerably larger phenomenon: Supposedly there are 200 yoga centers in Iran, the biggest number located in Tehran.I am not concerned here with the Iranian context of the story. Do women teaching women to stand on their heads threaten the Islamic character of the state? Would the state allowing it be a sign of the sort of liberalization that outside observers, especially in the US, have been anxiously looking for ever since the hostage crisis? Rather, I want to ask a more general question: Given its undoubted roots in a Hindu worldview, is yoga intrinsically antagonistic to the worldview of the “Abrahamic” religions? If so, does the spiritual hygienist in Qom, however objectionable may be his beliefs on other matters, have a point when it comes to yoga? The yoga teacher around the corner from him will say that the discipline she teaches is simply a practice conducive to good health, and is no more anti-Islamic than brushing one’s teeth and controlling one’s weight. It is clear that many practitioners of yoga anywhere in the world think of it in just this way, and go on being good Christians, Jews, Muslims—or, for that matter, good atheists.However, the practice is rooted in basic conceptions that fit more easily into a Hindu than a Biblical understanding of human nature and destiny. Take an obvious point: Christian faith (just like rabbinical Judaism or mainline Islam) looks outside the human individual for God’s revelation (be it in the Bible or the Quran); yoga looks inside the individual’s consciousness to find the ultimate reality of the self and the world.Conservative Christians understand this better than their more liberal coreligionists. In 2010 Albert Mohler, a prominent Evangelical theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, created a stir by strongly denouncing yoga as conveying a basically Hindu spirituality incompatible with the Gospel. He does have a point (though I would replace his “incompatible with” by saying “in tension with”). Could one say the Lord’s Prayer while sitting in the lotus position? Conversely, could one seek “emptiness” while receiving communion? The short answer is: One could, but it would be awkward.What I have just done is suggesting a basic polarity in world religions, between the traditions originating in, respectively, west and south Asia—if you will, between Jerusalem and Benares. These are what Max Weber called “ideal types”; the real world is always more complicated. There are mystical traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam which carry “Benares” motifs into “Jerusalem” (and which may actually derive from south Asia historically). The great mystical schools of Sufis have for centuries introduced ideas and experiences with a Hindu flavor into the Muslim world. The ultimate unity of self and divinity is a core motif of Indian spirituality; when this motif invades a Muslim region, the guardians of tradition (like our friend in Qom) react vehemently.Mansur al Hallaj (858-922), one of the great Sufi saints, ran in ecstasy through the streets of Baghdad, shouting “I am God”; he was duly tried for blasphemy and executed. The famous Kabbalist Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), corresponded with kindred individuals all over the Jewish world from his obscure locale in Ukraine. He replicated Hallaj in his view that “everything is God”, an idea obviously blasphemous in Jewish law. He wrote this sentence in one of his letters, but he did not dare to write it in Hebrew, the sacred language of Torah—so he wrote that one sentence in Yiddish. There are many Christian analogues to this supposed merging of self and divinity. Conversely, Hinduism and Buddhism, its universal offspring, have been invaded by monotheistic ideas and piety, in the very personal devotion to specific gods or Buddhas. There is also a long tradition in Europe of looking to the East, and especially to India, for superior spiritual wisdom. The late Roman Empire was inundated with mystical cults and movements coming from the East; as seen by a person with classical education they were mostly superstitions at odds with Graeco-Roman reason; Christianity ended as the most successful.This theme of expecting “wisdom from the East” has persisted into modern times. There is no doubt that yoga originated in India, from which its core idea, the unity of self and divinity, and the related bodily techniques spread to other parts of the world. Archaeologists have found the depiction of a man sitting in the lotus position dating from the so-called Indus civilization, which predated the Aryan invasion of India. The core idea can be found in the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism; it found its most eloquent expression in the Upanishads and its most sophisticated theoretical elaboration in Vedanta philosophy. The most succinct contradiction of this approach to reality is already found in the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible, about the God who created the universe (including the human self), and who cannot be discovered in the putative depths of that self.The year 1893 was pivotal for the arrival of yoga in America. That was the date of the World Parliament of Religion, which met within the program of the Chicago World Exhibition. A key figure at this event was an Indian holy man, who had adopted the name Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) and who was probably first to introduce yoga to America. He must have been a very scintillating personality. He was born in Calcutta into a Bengali aristocratic family as Narendra Datta. Calcutta was at that time at the center of a Hindu revival movement, which sought to strip Hinduism of its “superstitious” elements so as to make it an inspiration for a modern morality and a political project to free India from colonial rule. One of the best known luminaries of this Hindu revival was Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature. In addition to acquiring traditional Sanskrit learning, Vivekananda attended two Western elite colleges, Presidency College and the General Assembly Institution, both in Calcutta. He came under the influence of Ramakrishna, a traditional guru and devotee of the goddess Kali, who was reputed to perform miracles and represented just the sort of Hinduism rejected by the reformist movements favored by the Bengali upper class from which Vivekananda came. He was first critical of Ramakrishna’s “superstitions”, but then changed his mind and saw the possibility of blending tradition and modernity in a version of Hinduism that would speak to the West. After Ramakrishna died in 1886, Vivekananda became head of the former’s order of monks and claimed to have experienced samadhi/redemptive enlightenment. He travelled throughout India, teaching and gathering disciples, then came to America via Japan. He was a major speaker at the Chicago event, claiming to represent “the most ancient order of masters in the world, the Vedic order of Sanyasins” (the term for those who have attained enlightenment). He was introduced as representing “India, the Mother of Religions”.He addressed the audience as “sisters and brothers of America” and assured them he did not want to convert them to Hinduism, only wanted them to become better Christians, Muslims and so forth. This message went over very well: The Chicago audience greeted his address with wild applause. Subsequently Vivekananda travelled widely in America and Europe. He founded the Vedanta Society, which provided a philosophical rationale for the mental and physical exercises of yoga. Thus yoga was understood as realizing in experience the Vedanta proposition that “each soul is potentially divine”. This message derived from Asian spirituality was propagated by many other movements that spread through the West around the 1890s and since—various schools of Buddhism, New Thought, Theosophy, Baha’ism (also first presented in Chicago). On the level of ideas there is the diffusion of notions of karma and reincarnation, on the level of practice multiple schools of meditation, Indian and Chinese healing methods, martial arts. More recently medical researchers have studied the location of spiritual experiences in the brain: The Dalai Lama approved, and some Christian theologians have even thought that faith might be legitimated if shown to be a neurological function (an expectation sure to be disappointed). This message of “ex oriente lux” was reinforced by the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s—a perfect image of this: Allen Ginsberg chanting what sounded like a Sanskrit hymn in response to critical questions on Bill Buckley’s television show “Firing Line” (the only time I ever saw Buckley at a loss for words).The British sociologist Colin Campbell has given a rather full description of these developments in his book The Easternization of the West (2007). It is a very useful book (tough not quite value-free social science, because clearly Campbell does not like what he writes about, rather sees it as an expression of decadence). Without making value-judgments (decadence or creative synthesis?) one can see the phenomenon as one of cultural globalization. This has been mainly understood as a process of Westernization: “neo-colonialism”, “airport culture”, “Macworld”, “Davos man”. Value-judgments aside, these terms point to empirical facts: Western and especially American culture has a powerful impact throughout the world. But the East is pushing back in many ways, also in terms of religion. Protestant missionaries have successes among Indian hill tribes, but devotees of Krishna dance in front of European cathedrals.Back to the question in the title of this post: Is yoga a religion? It is a matter of definition of “a religion”—yoga is probably not; it is too diffuse and under-organized to fit under this concept. Still, it originated in a specifically religious context in India, and it continues to carry religious themes derived from that context. Unless one wants to reiterate that yoga merits the protections of religious freedom (of course it does), one can ask a more nuanced question: Can the religious themes be separated from the practice? I think the answer is both yes and no, depending on how the practice is defined. Yes: People do yoga for different reasons—to stay fit, to lose weight, to overcome writer’s block (I knew one such case, a successful one). There is no reason why any of them should engage with the great questions of Vedanta. For comparison: Many non-Christians celebrate Christmas without giving any thought to the birth of Christ let alone the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christmas has become very popular in Japan, with all the traditional American trappings—if anything as a celebration of consumer plenty. Christians who don’t like work with the slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas”. Similarly, about the same time as Albert Mohler denounced the secularization of yoga in the name of Christianity, a Hindu spokesman completely agreed with him, in the name of authentic Hinduism—he did not but might have used the slogan “Keep Krishna in yoga”. And no: People do yoga for more transcendent reasons than family merriment or the joys of consumption—to discover their true self, to experience the unity of all beings, to overcome the “atomized individualism” of modern man—in sum to have what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, aptly called “the oceanic feeling”. Here yoga does bring with it ideas and experiences that connect with the religious traditions that came out of India (and which, mainly through Buddhism, decisively helped shape the cultures of eastern Asia). Campbell used the term “metaphysical monism” to describe this—and that is indeed in tension with the religious traditions that came out of western Asia.
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Published on: May 28, 2014
Cultural GlobalizationIs Yoga a Religion?
Yoga probably is not a religion—it is too diffuse and under-organized to fit under this concept. But a more important question is, can religious themes be separated from practice? The answer is less clear-cut.