Common Ideals of Yoga & Christianity
East and the West can learn from each other
Idea is a Greek word, adapted to other European languages, which means to see, or having a conceptual vision. Ideal is to make that concept real by its realisation through inspiration, acting upon it and by the consequent experience of its meaning. Ideal is perfecting an idea in the process of its fulfilment, embodiment. The popular idea that a practical person is less idealistic and an idealistic person is rather impractical, is silly. If an ideal is unattainable and, thus, not meant to be attained, there is no point in having it, in the first place. It jumps logic.
The moving spirit in doing something worthy is, similarly, the ideal behind that gives the inspiration. An ideal is the goal of an idea, a standard of perfection. A thought-form is the body of knowledge. An ideal is the essence of that knowledge. To have an ideal is to realise the value of a particular knowledge, its purpose behind. It means the search for the reality of an idea by the practice of it and to make it real.
The Sanskrit word for ideal is ádarsha which means towards (á) a vision (darsha), or the aspiration to realise a goal. Drik means direction, drishta vista and darshana philosophy. Thus, in Sanskrit philosophy means a conceptual vision.
There are dozens of parallel ideals in Christianity and yoga. Christianity started as a universal (katholikos, the Greek word for universal) religion, but the two words are oxymoron, contradictory in terms, because no religion can be universal. Religion in practice serves the purpose of tribal identities, linking emotionally the flock (read folk) to the supernatural, for protection and succour through common rituals and hymns of adoration, in common languages. This identity of liturgy and moral codes, spilling over into social habits, provides group security.
Thus, sets of dogmas, or rules of belief, are inevitable in any religion, to keep the flock in line, to conserve tribal identity for the sake of group security. Even at the dawn of the third millennium, for the vast majority of people, this seems to be the case.
Yoga, on the other hand, is not a particular religion, but a philosophy of life guided by spiritual values, a state of mind, freely chosen and individually formed. Thus, it has no set dogmas but universal moral ideals and holy aspiration. It has the same goal, a spiritual union, as the word religion literally indicates, re-ligare, to reunite oneself with one’s divine source.
There are dozens of parallel ideals in Christianity and yoga. One should not exaggerate external differences between dualism (Christianity) and monism (Gyana Yoga), but seek common ground, such as in the saying of Jesus “My Father and I are one” and Bhakti Yoga’s vision of God as the Father of all humanity, just as the Christ said “You are the children of God”.
As long as the individual consciousness is in a state of evolution to find its unity with its origin, the universal spirit or God, there is duality. When there is the final merger of the former in the latter, there being no more the vehicle of individuality, the goal of monism is realised.
There are three basic ideals common to yoga and Christianity.
First, Christianity envisages a spiritual origin of humankind and the whole of the creation itself. Yoga also perceives a common spiritual origin of life (purusha) that becomes the universe, while being transcendental, by the pulsation (spandana) of its material energy (prakriti), of creation, sustenance and dissolution, and finds its heightened expression on the human level. There is no difference between the biblical and yogic view in this regard, if one ignores the literary image of God making man out of clay and breathing life into him.
Secondly, in yoga and Christianity, it is the presence of the spirit within the individual consciousness, inside the human frame, that enables evolution possible. In yoga it is called jivatma (individual soul) identical with paramatma (supreme soul). In the Old Testament it is the image of God (Genesis), and in the New Testament the Kingdom of God within.
The spiritual force within, atma-gyana or soul-consciousness in yoga and Christ-consciousness in Christianity, expresses itself through higher emotions as selfless love and goodness of heart amidst the powerful survival and libidinal instincts, the higher nature appealing to the lower.
The law of substitution is paramount to overcome anything that hinders one’s happiness and progress. It is done by the awakening of soul-consciousness. In order to be successful in desisting from evil, it is not enough to keep within the circle of the admonition of what should not be done. One has to come out of that circle by the impetus of what should be done and be involved with it. Repression distorts the mind and sublimation alone clears it and gives inspiration for creativity. The mind being a field of energy can be treated only in three ways: either repress it by the fear of punishment, or indulge in it hedonistically, or sublimate it with the help of the positive.
In Christianity the appeal is to the higher nature, such as in the injunction of returning good against evil, not seeking vengeance, not following the rule of taking an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, but to purify the heart through love and forgiveness.
In yoga the appeal is the same, such as in the words of the Buddha: “Hatred does not cease by the retribution of hatred but by the response of love”.
Immanence of God
The third ideal is the immanence of God or the universal spirit. It means that life can be improved, that human nature could evolve through seeking and fulfilling of a spiritual presence within (image of God) and respecting its existence on the level of humankind at least.
That God created all people equally can have any meaning only on the basis of the commonness of his presence in all souls. Nothing else is equal in life. On the basis of the recognition of this common spiritual element can there be the preservation of human dignity and the possibility of forming a just society. Apart from providing a balance of mutual interest, all ethical principles or moral laws are based on the recognition of this common spiritual presence. In modern democracies, the system of universal franchise is based on this principle, without the spiritual prefix.
Some Christians find it difficult to accept the immanence of God because of their orientation of his exclusive existence in heaven. Being in the universe is a threat to his diminution, who is transcendental. But God is not a material being whose immanence as spirit does not affect its transcendence, just as space everywhere remains the same even if being within the roofs and walls structured on the ground.
When Jesus says to seek the kingdom of God, it means to find a spiritual meaning in life, to practise such ideals as truth and love that represent the image of him within. To seek and serve it more than anything else is the Christian way.
In yoga the presence of God as universal spirit is explained on five levels:
- In matter as a cohesive principle or energy that gives substance to it.
- In all living organism, including vegetation, as a life principle.
- In the lower forms of life as individual minds conditioned by life-supporting instincts.
- In the higher forms of life, such as on the human level, as the power of reason and determination.
- In an evolved human level as soul-consciousness through spiritual aspiration and moral idealism.
It is because of God’s transcendental nature that there is no limit to the understanding of truth and the feeling of love even on the human level.
A common ground about the vision of God in yoga and Christianity can be found in the words of the Christ to the Samaritan woman at the well: “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. (John IV:24)
By worshipping in spirit Jesus probably meant through spiritual aspiration, and in truth by a life of truthful conduct and in accordance to the teachings in the Torah.
In yoga, God as spirit can be defined by five mystical terms:
- Universal, therefore immanent or present everywhere.
- Infinite, thus without a form or being limited spatially, or confined to a house of worship or place of pilgrimage or heaven.
- Eternal, thus not being bound by time, or subject to change through the influence of time.
- Transcendental, that which alone, as a principle, helps the evolution of consciousness and, thus, our perception of truth and love, laws and ideals, in an ever-expansive way.
- Inner light, that which enlightens the mind with reason and wisdom, and elevates it by holy aspiration.
However, these mystical qualities attributed to God cannot have sufficient meaning without some tangible means of realisation. Thus, the five paths leading to him are:
- Truth which is determined by evidence, consequence, and the principles of equality such as in common good, liberation (truth shall set you free), and independence (it does not need any support).
- Love and devotion for spiritual ideals in a general sense, and regard and affection for the loved ones on a personal level.
- Beauty, which means sublimation of lower passions to experience the depth of pure love, of grace and harmony, to refine our perception of the outer reality and expression of the inner spirit.
- Goodness, or purity of heart, which is trying to be free from resentment and hate, prejudice and pettiness, wickedness and fanaticism.
- Justice, or fairness to all, identifying our interests with those of others, not treating others as we would not like to be treated.
In Christianity these values are overwhelmingly present. The essence of the teachings of Jesus can be said as: Love God (or spiritual ideals) with all your heart, love your neighbour as yourself, and do not be a hypocrite. Peace and love, forgiveness and renunciation of worldliness, are the cornerstones of Christianity.
The basis of yoga can be said to consist in:
- Dedication to, or faith in, or love of spiritual values such as integrity and compassion, altruism and duty, responsibility and loyalty, self-improvement and humility of spirit. That is the real meaning of loving God. Emotionalism is not love but devotion and dedication.
- Basing upon them, to develop a solid sense of right and wrong, and guide one’s conduct accordingly. The basics are simple: to harm is wrong, to heal right; action conducing disharmony is wrong, promoting peace is right; to cheat is wrong, to be honest is right; to be crooked is wrong, to be straightforward right.
- To consider life as a gift of God rather than a punishment, as something precious to make it useful and creative, to make others happy and, in the process, be happy.
- Our journey through life can be made comfortable through faith and knowledge. These are the two wheels on which life moves. If they are well made and kept in a good condition, the jolts on the way that are inevitable can be better absorbed and, thus, less will be our suffering. Faith means a deeper sense of values and love of ideals through which one matures emotionally and gains a measure of freedom from human bondage. Knowledge is to liberate the mind from superstition and fear through the search for reality and a better understanding of the life around, the universe we live in. It also pertains to our inner nature, of the psychological layers of our being, through which to free the mind from prejudice and fanaticism, and the ignorance of our spiritual roots.
- The most fundamental of all is the sublimation of our earthly nature. It means disciplining and overcoming common human weaknesses: selfishness, pride and vanity; anger, hate and jealousy; deceit, greed and envy; covetousness, lust and aggressiveness; hypocrisy, deviousness and back-biting.
The yogic way of life consists less in doing the postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayamas), or dietetic preferences, but more on our effort at self-improvement, Karma Yoga or selfless service, and to have inner strength and harmony through meditation.
In the Christian way, Jesus speaks about it as: Do not pray in the market place so that others can see you, but in your room so that God can hear what is in your heart. Ask not God for foolish things, for he knows what is good for you, but ask him what he wants of you. It simply means base your life on spiritual ideals and overcome your weaknesses. Carry the cross (at least a measure of self-abnegation) and follow me (be inspired by his example to do what is right as best as you can and in the best light of your understanding).
Life is what we make of it, with our inner resources, with self-effort, and in relationship to the circumstances, which are, in part, our own creation, with an element of the unknown. In Christianity it is called God’s will, in yoga the consequence of a past, unseen karma.
What we are is the result of what we have tried to be or did not try to be, and what we are doing now or failing to do. We are true or false to God in direct relationship to if we are true or false, just or unjust, kind or unkind to each other.
In the yogic spirit, worship of spiritual ideals is the worship of God as spirit, without form, which the individual can as well do through the conceptual form of Jesus or, as in the Hebrew tradition, Adonai-Elohim, a supreme father-like mystical figure in heaven.
Prayer is a movement of heart through the feeling of spiritual love. It is an inner communion. The real meaning of it is the movement of our life through deed, inspired by that love.
Christian beliefs, such as in its mythology, will largely remain empty if the above ideals, which pulsate in the teachings of Jesus, do not find an adequate expression in the Christian’s life.
The British author, G.K. Chesterton said that Christianity has not failed; it has simply not been practised, having found it too difficult to do so. I do not entirely subscribe to this view.
Christianity has had a violent past, quite contrary to the spirit of its initiator. It is still a narrow-minded religion, rather than katholikos. Yet, there can be no denial of the fact that the Western civilisation is founded on Christian values, with deep roots in the Old Testament and the enlightened ideas of the Hellenic civilisation, which were revived in the age of reason at the end of the eighteenth century.
Yogic ideals went to sleep in India centuries ago. In the middle of the nineteenth century Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated the revival process, which is on-going. As in any civilisation, birth, flowering of growth, decay and phasing out are followed by rebirth, and rebirth needs adaptation, according to the needs of the age and cultural environment.
As such, both the East and the West can learn from each other, without losing their roots.