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Cultural Globalization
Is 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.

Published on: May 28, 2014
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  • carvak

    interesting .

    just few minor points –

    1. “aryan invasion” probably was an incorrect term, historically speaking.

    2. if yoga is not a religion (did you mean part of a religion?) because “it is too diffuse and under-organized” then arguably neither is hinduism a religion.

    3. which may be an accurate description because there is no word “religion” in indian languages. the word “dharma” that is often used means duty. my point is while you are clearly addressing the followers of abrahmic religions , it is good to keep in mind that traditional concept of religion is very different in “beneras” . contemporary thinking of course changed due to influence of “jerusalem”.

  • Boritz

    Regular readers now have to grapple with all of these questions:

    Is it okay to pray while practicing yoga?
    Is it okay to smoke while practicing yoga?
    Is it okay to practice yoga while praying?
    Is it okay to smoke while praying?
    Is it okay to practice yoga while smoking?
    Is it okay to pray while smoking?

  • johngbarker

    William James also discussed and energetically investigated faith healing, premonitions, telepathy and the survival of the human personality after bodily death. For a brief moment, in the late 19th century, such investigations were almost but not quite respectable and were quickly and effectively buried by the great success of materialistic science and technology. Even now mainstream intellectual life is haunted by powerful ideas of Darwin, Freud and Marx. Information technology has created a new clerisy who are gaining control of our institutions and defining the nature of knowledge that may be used in decision making. I am hopeful that the West’s encounter with Eastern thought will stimulate renewed interest in the neglected powers of the mind.

  • Anthony

    “Given its undoubted roots in a Hindu worldview, is yoga intrinsically antagonistic to the worldview of Abrahamic religions?”

    Can one separate the physical and spiritual and the ongoing attempt to do so jumps out at me from Peter Berger’s essay. Yoga (inside embedding of the one) and external objectification (transcendence of self) to me illustrates mankind’s continuous effort to come to grips with our existence (the whys, wherefores, wonder, and existential awe of life’s progression). “The real world is always more complicated.”

  • Gary Novak

    Is yoga a religion? Berger’s answer, though nuanced, is quite clear and requires no supplementary exposition. Yoga is not necessarily a religion but does have an elective affinity for Eastern religions which unify self and divinity. By contrast, the Abrahamic religions are not “metaphysically monist” but monotheistic. At one point, Berger says that Christian faith looks outside the human individual for God’s revelation, while yoga looks inside the individual’s consciousness to find the ultimate reality of the self and the world. But do we really understand the significance of this inside/outside distinction?

    I was recently reading M. Owen Lee’s “Wagner’s Ring” and came across this line: “Wagner himself only gradually came to see that his intuitive musical myth was describing, not a social and political, but a psychological and metaphysical reality.” And I immediately thought how incomplete Berger would see Wagner’s enlightenment if the latter could transcend the social and political only to conflate the psychological and metaphysical!

    Berger explains the importance of this inside/outside distinction in his “Questions of Faith”: “An affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ hinges on the Resurrection as an event, not in human existence or consciousness, but in the reality of the cosmos.” “This was succinctly put by the Apostle Paul: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.'”

    I am acquainted with a delightful ballerina who also teaches yoga, stands on her head during lulls in rehearsal, and, for good measure, does no-hands cartwheels which elicit appreciative applause from the male dancers. I have no idea what her religion is, if any. Yoga, as a religion, may be in vain. But her dancing is an answer to her calling. As such it is dialogical, cosmological, and not in vain.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The Sociology of Spiritual Exercise:

    To live in this world

    You must be able to do three things:

    Teach the whole Gospel while standing on one leg

    Stand on your head while reciting the Bhadavad Gita

    Do a whirling dervish while trying to reach religious ecstasy.

    Having mastered all three

    One can surely say that spinning on your head with one leg in the air

    Is a religion that will keep your head spinning

    Even though it doesn’t have a theological leg to stand on.

    –Yogaswami Peter Lohendra* Berger

    * Lord of three worlds

  • Corlyss

    Does it matter?

    • OttoZeit

      If you’re already of another religion, you bet it does!

  • diderot à la campagne

    It is rather bIzarre that you are not discussing the centrality of yoga philosophy and its triumph in the thinking of the Advaita Vedanta schools of Adi Shankara, neoadvaita mysticism, the role of Kundalini Yoga in early and Vajrayana Buddhism, the founder Gautama being himself, a Yoga master, and the modern schools of Siddha yoga of India. A lot of this has brilliantly been shown by the professor of history of religions, Mircea Eliade, in his classical work “Yoga: immortality and Freedom” long ago. You are naming Vivekanda while omitting to present his great teacher Ramakrishna. You are not mentioning the very important yoga teachers and mystics Meher Baba, Sai Baba of Shridi, Swami Muktananda of the tradition of Abhinavagupta, the great Ramana Maharshi , Kirpal Singh, and their influence in the West today.

    • diderot à la campagne

      it can be called religion in the sense of deep spiritual system.

    • OttoZeit

      Berger’s not writing a comprehensive history of yoga, he’s analyzing a very specific philosophical/theological and cultural issue: “is the basic orientation of yoga, which incorporates a monistic world-view, compatible with the basic orientation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with their emphasis on a transcendent Creator-God?” Most of what you want Berger to talk about would be irrelevant padding in an article devoted to that purpose.

  • John John

    I cannot speak for others, but I have divorced yoga from its mystical side and found a way to enjoy it as an artistic form of exercise. Really, the poses are quite beautiful and ingenious! I do not buy into any mystical elements of “the practice” (I’m a close-minded Christian, lol!).

    Since yoga has been around for so long, it’s not hard to see its influence on modern exercise, dance, ballet, etc.

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