In the first article, we discussed “What is yoga?” In the second article, we learned about the Hindu roots of yoga. We found that there are certain Hindu gods that have been understood to play a role in teaching and promoting yoga. We looked at Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti, and said hello to Ganesh. The post concluded by noting four different positions on how to understand the gods of yoga:
- 1. The gods don’t exist; they are mere fables.
- 2. The gods do exist; they are good and can be helpful to us.
- 3. The gods do exist; they are evil and can harm us.
- 4. The gods do exist, but only as personifications or manifestations of the divine, Supreme Reality.
Here we will discuss claim number four, since this is the understanding adopted by the general yoga tradition that continues even in our day. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf. 1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.
Manifestations of the Divine
The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said that the human is a being who desires to know. Wonder is not merely a Western attitude, he asserted: it is a human impulse. It is natural to us. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the nature of yoga. The thing is, when I talk with practitioners about it and try to figure out its deeper meaning, I often receive messages like this one: “The most important thing is to practice yoga. We can discuss the theory for hours and hours. But it’s best to practice and then decide. Change your clothes, open your mind, and fix your attention while performing the postures and pranayama.”
The more I investigate yoga, the more I realize that this advice is not simply saying, “Try it and see if you like it.” It reveals the essence of yoga.
It is saying that experience is more important than understanding, practice is more important than prudence. In other words, the mind of yoga is: “Never mind.”
Let’s see what this means and why it matters.
One of the central problems of an essential philosophy common in India concerns the relation between illusion, temporality, and human suffering.1 The goal of all Indian philosophies and techniques, especially yoga, is liberation from these. Liberation entails not merely relief from physical suffering, such as a sore back, but emancipation from the suffering that comes from existing in this world. You can transcend the suffering that comes from karma, the law of universal causality, which condemns man to transmigrate through the cosmos. Through yoga, it is said, you can enter absolute reality, beyond the cosmic illusion, mirage, or unreality known as maya. No longer will you be imprisoned in becoming. You would be united with pure being, the Absolute, known under different names: Brahman (the unconditioned, immortal, transcendent), atman (ultimate self), and nirvana.
Recall that yoga means “union” or “to bind together.” In a previous article I asked, what does yoga bind us to? A preliminary answer was supplied: to the Hindu gods, who teach yoga techniques. Another answer, however, is as follows:
Yoga is meant to bind a person to ultimate reality. The system of yoga teaches the individual how to be yoked or indissolubly united to that Universal Absolute (Brahman) and to become undifferentiated from it.
Isn’t this a contradiction? Does yoga unite us to Hindu gods or to the Absolute?
Here we should distinguish between two forms of Hinduism, namely:
- a popular level of Hinduism, and
- a higher level of philosophical and religious Hinduism.
According to the popular level, believed in by the masses for the most part, the world is populated by tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of gods and goddesses, myriads of genies, demons, and evil spirits. Those spiritual beings are propitiated and can be manipulated with sacrifices along with yoga practices and disciplines. In this respect, Hinduism bears features that are common in most other pagan religions, including those of Greece and Rome. If it accepts Jesus, it is because it sees him as one god among many.
According to the higher level, the spirit beings are illusions. Instead of renouncing the gods, this philosophy redefines them. They are considered different aspects of the one supreme Absolute, which some Hindus refer to as “God.”
This Brahman or God—it must be emphasized—is not God in the Judeo-Christian sense.
It has no personality. It is not the One Creator, distinct from the universe, who created humans in order to have a personal relationship with them. It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Or rather, according to this point of view, it is Jesus and it isn’t—at the same time. It is as much Jesus as it is Vishnu, because both are representations or instantiations of the supreme reality, the impersonal Absolute existence, of which each human is a part, that permeates everything.
From the perspective of the higher, more subtle Hindu thought, yoga’s role is to help the practitioner to be dissolved into this “higher reality.” B. K. S. Iyengar, the renowned yoga practitioner and theorist, explains it this way: “Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through mastery of the asanas [yoga postures].”2 This is the doctrine of monism. It claims that there are no distinctions among things, that all is one and every difference is a harmful illusion, holding a person back from perfection. Once a person masters yoga, “he is then free from birth and death, from pain and sorrow and becomes immortal. He has no self-identity as he lives experiencing the fullness of the Universal Soul.”3 This is supreme ego-centrism under the guise of self-realization. “I am Brahman!” the yoga practitioner can exult; “I am God; I am all!” But they should equally declare, “I am no one. I am illusion.”
People often claim they’ve “found themselves” through yoga. What an irony. If they looked deeper, yoga would tell them that they’ve found nothing.
In the next article, I will explore how Hatha Yoga (the physical postures and breathing techniques) is meant to help a person achieve union with the Absolute—and what that means for the soul.
This article first appeared on spiritualdirection.com. Reprinted with permission.
Father Ezra Sullivan is a Dominican friar of the St. Joseph (Eastern) Province, USA. Currently he teaches moral theology and psychology at the Angelicum in Rome. He has published scholarly articles on bioethics, theology, and Catholic history, and his upcoming book is entitled Habits and Holiness: Ethics, Theology, and Biological Psychology (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). Currently he is doing research for a book on Yoga from a Catholic perspective, tentatively entitled Yoga and Christ.
- 1See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), xvi-xx.
- 2B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 42.
- 3Iyengar, 48.
- Art: Yoga Meditation Position, Cornelius383, own work, 25 April 2012, CC; Brahma Preaches to Sages, Ramanarayanadatta astri, PD-US copyright expired; both Wikimedia Commons.
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