- Consistent practice of yoga is correlated with a diminishment of Christian belief.
- Practitioners typically begin yoga for physical reasons but stick with it for spiritual reasons.
The Gods of YogaI’m not much of an exercise person. The practice of pumping iron or toning my body with a machine has never excited me. It seemed meaningless at best and slightly narcissistic at worst. This is one of the reasons why yoga appealed to me. It seemed to be exercise with a real meaning. What I didn’t expect was what that meaning actually is. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which indicates “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.”1 Someone who practices yoga as a way of life is called a yogin or a yogi. Because yoga indicates binding, we must ask: What does yoga bind us to?
My jaw almost hit the floor when I found the answer.
Was my experience typical?
Clearly not every book on yoga promotes Hindu gods, and not every yoga class has pagan statuary—but many do. The classical yoga tradition argues that all yoga should associate with the gods of India. In order to understand why this is the case, we must uncover the Hindu roots of yoga.
For Westerners who like everything (including religion) neat and tidy, boxed up and labeled, sitting on a shelf ready for inspection from a discerning customer, Hinduism poses difficulties. “What we think of as one religion,” one writer notes, “is a multifarious collection of sects, traditions, beliefs, and practices that evolved from the Vedas, the world’s oldest sacred texts, and took shape across the vast Indian subcontinent over the course of many centuries.”2 There is real difficulty in pinning down a precise doctrine of universal Hindu belief because “Hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure, no historical starting point, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one.” Because of this, Hinduism has been called “the world’s largest disorganized religion.”3 Nevertheless, Hindus have generally recognized six principle schools that represent authentic developments of the Vedic scriptures. Yoga is one of them.4
What Are We to Make of the Pantheon of Yoga gods?It seems to me that there are four basic positions:
- The gods and goddesses do not actually exist. They are only metaphors, imaginative fables meant to inspire the yoga practitioner. Some people may believe this, but I think it is insufficient and reductive; it does not adequately explain the cultural and experiential data available.
- They do exist and are benevolent: they may be invoked in order to obtain energy, power, good fortune, etc. This is the position of a number of simple Hindu believers.
- They do exist but are evil and should not be invoked. This is the position of traditional Christianity (and perhaps Islam and Judaism). “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
- They do exist but not in the way one might imagine. They are all manifestations of the one supreme being, the all-encompassing reality, which one could call “God.” This is the position of the more developed understanding of Hinduism, an understanding that has been adopted by yoga.
In the next article, we will explore the last position: that the gods exist, not in themselves, but as manifestations, personifications, or realizations of the divinity.
This article first appeared on spiritualdirection.com. Reprinted with permission.
- 1Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.
- 2Philip Goldberg, American Veda (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 3.
- 4See Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd Ed. (Chino Valley, AZ: Hohm Press, 2008), 72-78.
- 5Jean Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition, trans. Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 26.
- 6Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 84.
- 7http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/shiva.htm#.UvpGMLQkgf8 For a retelling of the Shiva legend, see Sadhguru, “Yoga Originated from Shiva,” The Times of India 19 March, 2009. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-03-19/vintage-wisdom/28031005_1_shiva-yoga-intimacy
- 8Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 87.
- 9Sally Kempton, “Oh My Goddess,” Yoga Journal Online. http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/1980 See also “Goddess, Where Art Thou?” http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2617
- Art for this post: Ganesh Idol from Belgaum, Karnataka, 10 September 2013, Kirti Krishna Badkundri, CC, Wikimedia Commons; Shiva (A Gopuram in Karnataka), 23 May 2012, Foliate08, CC; “Vishnu in his form as Pandharinatha or Vithoba worshipped at Pandharpur (Maharashtra). He stands facing to the front, blue-skinned, naked to the waist, wearing a jewelled yellow skirt, royal jewellery and a conical crown. He also wears a garland of tulsi flowers. He is four armed—two hands rest on his hips, whilst the other two hold a disc and a conch (the symbols of Vishnu),” 1820-1825, author unknown, PD copyright expired; Mirror detail of Rasamanjari-Manuskript des Bhanudatta (Erotische Abhandlung), Szene: Liebhaber, ca 1690, PD-Worldwide; idol of goddess Lakshmi Devi, in the temple at Hebbal(N) near Mouje Nandgad, District Belgaum, Karnataka, India, 2 January 2008, own work, Rajivhk; Kali (Shyama at a Sarbojanin Kali Puja pandal at Shakespeare Sarani), Kolkata, 2010, own work, Jonoikobangali, CC; Sculpture of goddess Durga at Durga temple, Burdwan, 3 October 2011, own work, Joydeep, CC; all Wikimedia Commons.
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