Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do Christians has a Fatwa on Yoga?

I visited ancient Corinth earlier this year. In front of the ruins of the temple of Apollo is a large area where the altar once stood. On festival days devoted to Apollo, hundreds of bulls were slaughtered until the gutter, specially built under the altar flows with blood. The priests cannot consume all of this meat so a lot if it ended up in the marketplace or agora, further down in the town. There is so much meat that butchers will not slaughter any more animals. Hence if anyone wants to buy meat, one will have to buy meat offered as a sacrifice to Apollo. This is the dilemma of the Corinthian Christians; buy meat offered as sacrifice to a false god from the agora or become vegetarians.

The ancient Corinthians believed that meat offered to the gods have special powers. Thus it is a blessing to consume such meat. Imagine if you are an ancient Corinthian Christian and do not believe in the god Apollo. How will you feel about eating such meat? Knowing that this contaminated meat will be digested and incorporated into your bodies. So what should you do? You ask your guru, St. Paul. “No problem,” St. Paul said, “meat from the altar is just a piece of meat and it will taste just as good going down. If you believe in the One true God, you will be okay. However, if you think it will a bad influence on other Christians then become a vegetarian” (1 Cor. 8: 1-13 my paraphrase).

In our religious worship and Christian traditions, there are many things borrowed from the different religions and cultures of different times and ‘sanctified’ as Christian practices. Ancient Mesopotamian religions tell of a ‘great flood.’ The Mithras cult from Persia which predates Christianity taught about baptism, table fellowship with bread and wine as blood and body of Mithras and even the fact that their god would die and rise from the dead in three days. Even the Greek word, logos, was adapted by St. John to mean the incarnate God. Many of our great Cathedrals were built on ancient pagan sites and even now, many of our churches face the east-west axis. Our church services are on Sunday (Sun god day) and Christmas on December 25th (ancient Roman pagan solar festival) which were also pagan holy days. So there always has been a tradition of adapting existing cultural and religious forms and ‘sanctifying’ them to become ‘Christian’ traditions. The foundational understanding is that everything is created by God and there is only one true God.

Yoga has its roots in ancient Indian philosophy. Its development and embrace by Hinduism may be traced to the earliest manuscript of the Brahmanas. In its long history, it has undergone many transformations. The yoga often referred to in our context which involves various standing postures (asana) is the Hartha Yoga as opposed to Raja Yoga which emphasise the seated posture (Padma-asana). The various postures of Hartha Yoga or the seated position of the Raja Yoga are but the beginning stages of the other seven limbs of yoga meditation. Hartha yoga, like the martial arts have a physical component and a deeper spiritual component.

As Christians, we should be able to practice the physical components as long as we are aware that that are deeper spiritual components that we should avoid. It is possible to do so. Many Christians practice Pilates without any problem, not knowing that the postures in Pilates were derived from yoga and stripped of all its spiritual components and repackaged as purely a physical and psychological exercise.

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