Religion scholars use the term “hybrids” for groups that put together their faith and practice by taking bits and pieces from previous religious traditions. If one wants a suggestive picture, think of a child assembling a little house by taking Lego pieces from several boxes. A synonym for “hybridization” is “syncretism,” though that term has a pejorative undertone, as when theologians deplore the pollution of the allegedly pure faith by alien accretions. Hybrids have existed throughout history, but where today religious pluralism coincides with religious freedom all sorts of hybrids emerge. Yoga provides many examples of this phenomenon. It is a very ancient practice that originated in India from the Indus river civilization that preceded the Aryan invasions. Archaeologists have found depictions of individuals in the characteristic lotus position dating from that period. Yoga practice is a combination of physical postures, controlled breathing, and techniques of consciousness. In the development of the religion we now know as Hinduism yoga has been one of the means to attain samadhi, the condition in which an individual may obtain release from the endless wheel of incarnations, deaths, and reincarnations. By way of Buddhism beliefs and practices similar to yoga have spread throughout eastern Asia. In the contemporary West yoga has been part of what has been called “Easternization,” some of it detached from anything linked to a particular religious tradition. Thus we have “yoga for health,” yoga for losing weight, even yoga as a management technique. Not surprisingly serious adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism have seen this secularized yoga as an objectionable trivialization.
Yoga is also a political issue, especially in India, where it originally came from. On May 20, 2016, Law and Religion Headlines, the online publication from Emory University’s Law School, published a story about Muslims protesting the Indian government-sponsored International Yoga Day, to take place for the second time this coming June. Its climax is a huge gathering of people doing yoga, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is closely identified with Hindu nationalism. Its ideology is called hindutva, which asserts that Hinduism is not just one religion among others but the very core of Indian civilization to which all inhabitants of the subcontinent “naturally” belong. Modi, whose entire political career has been close to this ideology, has made conciliatory gestures toward Muslims and other religious minorities. But under the BJP government there has been a notable increase in incidents of violence against Muslims and Christians, measures to protect cows (sacred to Hindus), to promote “reconversions” (“homecomings”) of non-Hindus, and measures against Christian evangelism. There is a government ministry for the promotion of yoga. It has been issuing instructions for the celebration of the coming Yoga Day, featuring the chanting of the sacred sound “Om” and the singing of hymns from the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures. Leading Muslim and Christian leaders have protested against all of this as a violation of religious freedom, and the opposition Congress Party has reminded the government that the constitution defines India as a secular republic. The yoga ministry has replied that it only makes suggestions, which are not compulsory. (In other words, thousands from Modi on down will do Sanskrit chanting, but it’s okay if you don’t join in and just hold your breath to lose weight.)
If there is a Father of all Hybrids, it is the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). He came to Macau, then a Portuguese outpost, to start training as a missionary to China. He made a thorough study of Chinese language and culture. He was already trained as an astronomer and map-maker. He subsequently lived in a number of Chinese cities, finally in the Forbidden City in Beijing, as an adviser of the Emperor. He successfully predicted an eclipse of the sun. Among other things he drew a map of the world with Chinese inscriptions, he wrote a Chinese dictionary and translated Chinese classics. Most impotant, he dressed and lived like a Confucian scholar, had access to elite circles in the imperial capital. He also made a number of converts, mostly in those circles (his missionary strategy, common among Jesuits, was to start at the top and trust in a cultural trickle-down effect). This strategy and its success were resented by Dominicans and Franciscans, who operated out of Spanish-ruled Manila and evangelized among the lower classes. Although the Treaty of Tordesillas, with the authority of the Pope, had divided the world between the Catholic empires of Spain and Portugal, there continued to be rivalry between Manila and Macau, and I think that this affected Ricci’s work in China. His most successful hybrid was also the cause of his downfall: his move to allow Chinese converts to continue the practice of ancestor worship. The Dominicans (who, by the way, ran the Inquisition out of Rome) denounced the Ricci innovation as heretical idolatry. He defended the practice as mere respect for one’s family (today he would presumably use the term of “enculturation,” very favored in Rome nowadays). In the end the Pope ruled against Ricci. The maxim then still held—Roma locuta, causa finita—“Rome has spoken, the matter is ended.”
Well, not quite. Ricci’s method of hypbridization continued to influence Catholic practice in Japan, the Silk Road (a luxuriant emporium of Hellenistic, Christian, Manichean, Buddhist, and Confucian hybrids), and throughout the Americas. Sometimes history does repeat itself, in odd ways. Two imperial cults—in the late Roman empire, and in Japan in the middle of the 17th century CE. The early Christians were brutally persecuted periodically by the Roman authorities. The authorities were not much interested in what the Christians were preaching—about some obscure Jewish prophet, who was executed and then was claimed to have come back to life. They knew that the Jews were a potentially rebellious people, and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate must have had a good reason for crucifying Jesus. Now the Christians, or some of them, refused to worship at the shrines of the imperial cult, which was demanded of all subjects of the empire. Any person arrested on suspicion of being a Christian was immediately released if he or she could produce a token given after worship at an imperial shrine. Of course Christian refuseniks saw such tokens as proof of apostasy. Several centuries later the Tokugawa rulers of Japan became suspicious of Christians as potential agents of European great powers (not without reason, I might add). Finally the Tokugawa government issued a decree banning Christianity—all foreign missionaries were to be expelled and all Japanese converts executed, unless they could prove that they were not Christians. At first this could be done by producing a receipt for the purchase of ritual paraphernalia at a Buddhist temple (Buddhism, though it had been imported from China and Korea, was no longer considered foreign). Later a more sadistic method was used: The suspect was asked to trample on a funi-e—a large medallion bearing an image of Jesus or the Virgin. The modern Japanese poet Shusako Endo has written a great novel about this, Silence (1966, English translation 1969). (What would Father Matteo Riccci, SJ, have thought about political “enculturation” under either imperial regime?)
I will conclude with three examples of religious hybrids; I haven’t encountered them personally, but I am acquainted with individuals who have made serious studies of the groups in question: Christal Whelan, whom I met while she was studying anthropology at Boston University, lived in Japan for several years. She made a film in 1997 about a few Kakuree Kirishtan (“Hidden Christians”), who survived in hiding during the Tokugawa persecution and could still be found in the 1990s on some islands off the coast, and she also translated their sacred book, The Beginning of Heaven and Earth (1996). The film, with a very sensitive commentary by Christal, is a moving portrait of what were probably the last living survivors of this group. After the restoration of public Christian worship in the late 19th century, a group of “Hidden Christians” did not want to affiliate with the official Roman Catholic Church, preferring to continue with their long secret hybrid faith. One item in the film that stuck in my memory: Only two priests still lived in the small community, both frail old men; they were not on speaking terms. Their “Bible” gives a good picture of the faith, an imaginative hybrid of traditional Japanese religious ideas and what the Christians correctly or incorrectly remembered from the teachings of the departed Portuguese missionaries. (All Christian literature had been destroyed during the persecution.) Item: They did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. God split into two divine persons: Father and Son. Before that God discussed with his angelic advisors the human need for salvation. Mary is also very important for giving birth to the Son (which is why the film’s focus is on Christmas).
Maya Deren (1917–65), an immigrant from Russia, was a dancer, film-maker, and author. I met her toward the end of her life, when she lived in Greenwich Village with Teiji Ito, her third husband, and was something of a cult figure. She “held court” (no other term will do) in a small apartment with walls painted starkly in black and red (as explained by Teiji, “death bearing down on lust”). Maya marched around barefoot, a self-confident earth mother. I had recently witnessed my first bullfight and said something positive about the experience. She yelled at me: “Yes, I admire the courage and grace of the matador—but I despise the fat businessman who sits in the shade (la sombra) and enjoys the spectacle.” (I think I protested that I was not a businessman and had sat on a cheap seat in the sun (el sol.) She had gone to Haiti and made a film about Voudun (aka as “voodoo”). While dancing with the devotees at a Voudun ritual, she experienced possession by a Voudun divinity. I have not seen her film, but I have read the book she wrote about the experience—Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953, republished in 1998). The account of her possession is one of the most precise descriptions of an experience understood as supernatural—sudden physical paralysis, a feeling of immediate threat, then the terrifying feeling of one’s mind being invaded by another much more powerful mind (in Creole this is called “doubling”, doublement), then loss of consciousness. Maya woke up several hours later was told that she (as a “horse”) had been possessed (“ridden”) by Erzulie, a sort of black Aphrodite—flirtatious, seductive, but also “full of grace.” Note: Voudun is a particularly famous hybrid among many in the Caribbean—mixing African and Indio (indigeno) elements under a veneer of Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church in the Americas was generally tolerant of such hybridization (originally Indios were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition).
Lidia Tonoyan did an M.A. thesis with me at Baylor University about a study she made in her native Ukraine about a group calling itself Messianic Jews (a report was published in the Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, University of Minnesota, 2014–15). When she first told me about this group, I associated it with Jews for Jesus, who are American Jews who converted to Evangelical Protestantism, but who adhere to some Orthodox Jewish practices in worship and everyday observance. Actually the Messianic Jews have travelled in the opposite direction: Jews for Jesus were originally Jewish but became Christian; Messianic Jews, were Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. The hybrid mix is rather similar, but the latter is further enhanced by the fact that Messianic Jews are also charismatic, their first pastor in Kiev having been a Pentecostal preacher. What could be more hybrid than men carrying Torah scrolls and “speaking in tongues”? The latter group is also more “transgressive”—Gentiles turning into Jews—in a country notorious for traditional anti-Semitism (old joke: What is a Ukrainian philo-Semite? An anti-Semite who likes Jews).
As I have often told my students: No matter what your faith or lack of faith, the study of religion is an intellectually fascinating project.