Yoga: From Hindu Mysticism To Therapeutic Wellness And Empowerment

Jun 13th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Today, yoga is part of a global wellness industry worth $25 billion.  Alistair Shearer, a historian of Yoga, demonstrates that “in the US alone, the number of people doing yoga shot from 4 million in 2001 to more than 37 million by 2016.” Yoga today is associated with physical fitness, good health and clean living; 80% of yoga practitioners today are women.  But few know that yoga has its roots in ancient and medieval India in the worldview known as Hinduism.  It is first discussed in the Upanishads, philosophical writings written between 800 and 200 BC.  In those texts, “yoga” is described “as the union—in Sanskrit, yoga—of the individual mind with the universal divine consciousness.  At this early stage, physical postures are never mentioned.  Rather, yoga was a mental discipline.”  As the centuries passed, yoga became associated with arduous acts of penance (e.g., sitting or squatting immobile, standing on one leg, holding an arm in the air, or “sitting by a blazing fire in the heat of summer or immersing in freezing water in winter.”).  Even later, yoga was associated with mystical teachings offering a path toward enlightenment.  It had nothing to do with beautifying the body or rigorous exercise as it does today.

Modern yoga has jettisoned most of its esoteric practices and has instead incorporated “elements of European gymnastics, exercise and dance, as well as bodybuilding routines from Indian wrestling.  The resulting hybrid, boosted by slick commercialization and celebrity endorsements, has taken our stressed-out, image-driven world by storm.  Therapeutic empowerment for today’s women is an unlikely evolution for a discipline that started 3,000 years ago . . . .”

Yoga was wrapped around the enigmatic development of the worldview known as Hinduism.  Hinduism is perhaps the most complex and difficult worldview to understand, especially to the western, rational mind.  It seems to hold frequently contradictory tenets and is the most difficult to summarize.  Hinduism gradually grew over a period of five thousand years, absorbing and assimilating all the religious and cultural movements of India.  It has been likened to “a vast sponge, which absorbs all that enters it without ceasing to be itself. . . Like a sponge it has no very clear outline on its borders and no apparent core at its center.”  Let’s examine some of the elements of this “sponge-like” worldview.

For the Western, rational mind, one major question looms in Hinduism: How can there be different beliefs in different gods (Hindu polytheism) and yet still maintain the reality of oneness, so central to the Hindu idea of Nirguna Brahman?  Malcom Pitt argues that

“Because of the relative unreality of God himself in the theistic sense, the realization that all concepts of God are human and all creatures are Brahman, it seems to be only natural that the Hindu can tolerate the worship of any form of any kind as a manifestation of Reality.  This is the framework that allows the most advanced Indian philosopher to feel that the most primitive animist, in living up to his best light, is on the path to the realization of Reality.” [Introducing Hinduism, New York: Friendship Press, 1955, p. 21]

Although Hinduism seems therefore to be a polytheistic religion, in reality, its theology contends that there is one monistic Nigurna Brahman.  Ultimately, all religions and all beliefs reflect some kind of “path” to that Reality.  Hence the “sponge” we know as Hinduism.  What follows are some cardinal definitions essential to understanding Hinduism:

  • “God”—In Hinduism the Supreme Being is the Impersonal, Nirguna Brahman, a philosophical Absolute, beyond all impediments, either ethical or metaphysical.
  • “Man”—The human is an emanation or temporary manifestation of the Impersonal Brahman.  Humans are not inherently or permanently valuable nor are humans accountable to “god.”
  • “The World”—The physical world is a temporary, worthless illusion due to the veil (or “maya”), which hides the Impersonal Brahman.
  • “Reincarnation” or “samsara” is the belief in the transmigration of the soul.  There is a cycle of rebirth after rebirth after rebirth of the soul that goes on and on.  One could be reborn as a wealthy aristocrat or as an animal, a beetle, a worm, a vegetable, etc.
  • “Karma” is the cause of what is happening in one’s life now.  The Law of Karma (“karma” means “works, deeds”) is the law that one’s thoughts, words and deeds have an ethical consequence fixing one’s lot in future existences.  “Karma” is what determines the nature of the next birth in the cycle.
  • “Moksha” is the release form the cycle of reincarnation, the cycle of life.  It is salvation from illusion and release into the true reality of Nigurna Brahman.
  • “Nirvana” is not a place but a state in which self-awareness is lost and oneness with Brahman attained.

 

Many of Hindu’s concepts and practices have penetrated the western world.  In some ways, Hinduism is mainstreamed into the West and is now a part of both western thinking and lifestyle.  Two examples:

  • Yoga.  Yoga is not unique to Hinduism but is a fundamental technique for achieving Hindu spirituality.  Norman Anderson describes yoga as “the physiological and psychological technique by which all bodily and psychic energy is controlled in order to achieve spiritual perfection.” [The World’s Religions, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 148] Spiritual perfection is ultimately reunion with Brahman.  Through the control of body and mind, the human can achieve a state of being that transcends space and time.  The soul is thereby freed from attachment to the physical world of illusion.  For the pure form of yoga, all mental activity stops and the mind is completely still.   However, as the above paragraphs have shown, today in the West, yoga is a means of relaxation, to relieve stress or even to attain medical goals of muscle relaxation.
  • Reincarnation.  Reincarnation, connected with the Law of Karma has also been popularized in the West.  It is manifested in three ways: (1) For some Karmic reincarnation provides an explanation for birth defects, physical handicaps, poverty, social injustice and suffering.  (2) Many today argue that humans “remember” their past lives in previous reincarnations.  Feelings of deja vu are additional proofs for reincarnation, some argue.  (3) Some even argue that the Bible teaches reincarnation.  John the Baptist and Melchizedek are viewed as reincarnations of Elijah and Jesus.  The doctrine of being “born again” in John 3 is further evidence of Christianity accommodating to Hindu reincarnation.  The late Edward Cayce popularized such teachings in his books and lectures.

In sharing Christianity with Hindus, there are three significant barriers to which Christians must be sensitive.  Only God the Spirit can break down these barriers, but the Christian must be conscious of them and their power.

  1. Most Hindus believe that ultimate truth is a synthesis of many truths.  They separate the Jesus revealed in history from the Christ of the Christian faith.  He is not the only path to truth or to salvation.  Christians of course reject this syncretism.  Revelation is the only source for truth and Christians cannot surrender this.
  2. Many Hindus believe that all religions lead to the same goals and that none possess full truth.  Often, Hindus contend that Jesus is a way to salvation but will not tolerate that He is the way of salvation.  Here then is perhaps the most formidable barrier between Christianity and Hinduism.  Jesus is exclusive and His path of salvation is exclusive (John 14:6).  This truth cannot be surrendered.
  3.   Hindus believe that there is divine revelation in all religions and that none can claim exclusivity.  Therefore, Christianity is not unique.  But, because it is rooted in revelation, Christianity is unique and exclusive.  With love and compassion, this truth must be maintained.  Only God’s Spirit can break down this barrier.

See Alistair Shearer, in the Wall Street Journal (25-26 April 2020) and James P. Eckman, The Truth About Worldviews, pp. 27-36.

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