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Yoga and Religion, Part 3

Brian Cooper
Nov 4, 2019 1:00:19 PM

In our final installment we bring the story up to the present and put the question of religion and yoga into perspective.

Vivekananda naturalises and secularizes – so that yoga becomes a science based on natural laws and on a spiritual technology for attaining Samadhi. Under these circumstances the Yoga Sutras on which he based much of his talk, become a DIY manual of practice.

It is worth looking at the overall spiritual landscape at the time of Vivekananda’s teachings. The Theosophical Society, led by Blavatsky, created an Asia which never actually existed but which gained a tremendous following among Americans and Anglophiles, who bent it into a new version distinctly Victorian and moralistic. This yoga was a meditative yoga and rejected any form of Hatha yoga which was considered as pagan and obscene. Blavatsky described it as a lower yoga, injurious to health. The mythical Asia was further reinforced by Arnold’s poem on the Buddha who is described as a paragon of protestant ethics, successfully applying the Victorian self-help approach to the spiritual realm. This domesticated Buddha came to represent the archetypal yogi of modern Yoga.

Another leading light of the Theosophical society, William Judge, produced his own reading of the Sutras, which emphasized moral qualities as contained in the Yamas. For Judge, theosophical and Christian brotherhood had become Hindu righteousness.

The term Raja yoga had been popularized by Blavatsky and become mainstream after Vivekananda’s publication of the book by the same name. What Vivekananda did was to present the dualistic Patanjali in ways which were monistic. In other words, the soul was not isolated from matter, but was the divine source of bliss within an individual consciousness. He also included references to Kundalini, setting the scene for the acceptance of more physical practices and ultimately hatha yoga. There was an increasing demand for practical techniques which could achieve immediate results. This practical thirst was addressed by accounts of yogic masters setting an example that could be open to anyone. This was Vivekananda’s triumph, for he saw this need and produced a more or less practical, scientific program, free from any trappings of traditional religiosity, and appealing to the current materialistic and ego-centred ideology of the times.

The above leaves us with two specific aspects of modern yoga theory:

  • Practice of yoga should go hand in hand with voluntary good works
  • Self-improvement is the heart of yoga practice

These have no counterparts in classical yoga.

The role of Tantra in modern yoga

Tantrism and its offshoot, Hatha Yoga, had both been overshadowed by the previously described movements. Both Blavatsky and Vivekananda dismissed the practices as lowly and unnecessary. However, the practices offered the public exactly what they had been looking for: a practical means to enlightenment, a touch of the secret and exotic, and the promise of becoming as a god, which tantric texts promised. The methods used were, on first appearances, scientific and rational. However, Tantra and Hatha never emerged as valid ways to enlightenment, but instead as mere preparation for the so-called higher yoga of Raja yoga.

The Hatha yoga now taught is a sanitized version of the original. It is safe, non-religious and supported by the philosophy of self-improvement and will power. It offers a means to evolution and personal growth without rituals and complicated gods. And it offers a highly materialistic view of the body-mind connection as validated by present day science. Here is what an Indian Yogi has to say:

While the roots of yoga are most certainly linked with Hinduism, and its most important teachings known as the Vedas, or books of knowledge; the average yoga student has little exposure or awareness of the ancient roots to yoga. While many students are looking to escape religion, or certainly not looking for a new religion; for many, at best, they are open to new age spirituality. While this new type of spirituality borrows heavily from many of the great eastern traditions such as Hinduism, it is rare that they offer a comprehensive system of study. Often deities are relegated to a backseat within the new age philosophical model. The result has been a lessening of the understanding of deities and the important role they play within spiritual growth. The ultimate result being that this is becoming a world devoid of conscious understanding regarding deities. What is the place, role and relevance for these Vedic deities? Their timeless wisdom, spanning eternity, as recorded in the Vedas. Or are they to become forgotten myths from some distant ancient people. Will their relevance with yoga become an abandoned teaching, or are they waiting for each student to discover their secret meanings? 

In Tantrism, asanas and mudras evoke certain states of consciousness by re-discovering the message hidden within them. These experiences are trans-physiological and represent yogic states which are not accessible without preliminary spiritual initiation. What is happening in modern yoga is the continuing physicalization of what were previously subjective trans-personal states. Examples of this are nadis, chakras and kundalini. These have now become materialized and are claimed to be accessible to anyone by correct practice. The entire tantric sadhana with its rich symbolism, imagery, visualization, iconography, and mysticism has been reduced to a near mechanical practice mixed with a smattering of New Age philosophy.

This has opened the doors for a rampant consumerism where chakras are fine-tuned, nadis opened, and auras cleansed with readily purchasable self-help guides or equipment. The result has been the opposite of what was intended – it has made people more attached to the physical instead of taking them beyond the physical.

And this brings us full circle back to Christian Yoga. This surely is the extreme end of the spectrum, a yoga offering only exercise, stripped of all religious overtones.


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