My Take: Who owns Jesus? Who owns yoga?
December 7th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Who owns Jesus? Who owns yoga?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

The recent scuffle over Christianity and yoga, initiated by remarks of the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler and picked up in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and here at CNN, has raised a series of questions far broader than whether Christian faith and yoga practice are compatible.

The most intriguing of these questions is: Who owns the stuff of a religion? When my Christian and Jewish friends adopt and adapt yoga postures are they stealing something? Who owns Christmas? Who owns the Buddha? Who owns Jesus?

Religious symbols and rituals and beliefs cannot be trademarked and copyrighted. So techniques for achieving nirvana or salvation are different from the secret formula of Coca Cola or the image of Ronald McDonald. In this respect, global religious traditions have far less control over their “products” and “services” than do multinational corporations. And that control weakens as the popularity of a religion's “products” and “services” spreads.

When I was working years ago on my book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, I was surprised to see how beloved Jesus had become among non-Christian groups in the United States. Jesus’s status here as “the man nobody hates” initially led me to see the United States as even more of a Christian country than I had previously believed it to be.

Eventually, however, I came to see how little control Christians and Christianity have over how Jesus is seen and used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and other non-Christians.

Some of the most beloved Christmas songs in American life - “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks and “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans - were written by Jewish composers. Jews, of course, do not affirm the divinity of Jesus.

So these songs do not celebrate the miraculous birth of God to a virgin in a Bethlehem stable.  In fact, they serve to secularize Christmas, by transforming it from a Christian holy day to a national holiday.

Or as Philip Roth’s narrator puts it in Operation Shylock, "God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas.'  The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ - the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity - and what does Irving Berlin do? Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow."

This is what happens when a religious form becomes popular. Whether it is yoga or Christmas or Christ, as it spreads it diffuses, and its progenitors lose control not only over where it will go but what it will say or do.

But none of the recent commentators on the yoga and Christianity question have pointed out that whatever snatching is going on here is going both ways. Yes, Christians are bending and twisting the Hindu practice of yoga in their own directions. But Hindus are adopting and contorting Christian practices too. So if you want to wag a finger at the Christians you ought to wag one at the Hindus, too.

On December 24, the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, just a few doors down from the Department of Religion at Boston University, where I work, will host a Christmas Eve service, complete with Christmas carols and readings from the New Testament about the birth of Jesus.

The Vedanta Society of Southern California includes on its website a much more extensive list of Christmas celebrations, including a Christmas Eve nativity play and a “Christ Worship” service on Christmas morning.

People who practice a religion often imagine that their tradition, at least, is both pure and unchanging, unadulterated by religions other than their own. But all religions are mash-ups, with new beats played under old lyrics - yoga asanas in a church basement - carols to Christ in a Hindu temple.

Something is lost, of course, when yoga is Americanized and Jesus is Hinduized, but no religion ever made it anywhere without mixing things up. In the Greek speaking world of the ancient Mediterranean, Christianity wouldn't have spread if it had confined itself to Jesus's native tongue of Aramaic. And one of the key characteristics of Hinduism is its willingness to say "yes" to foreign influences.

Got Jesus? Of course, my Hindu friends say, right alongside the Buddha as yet another incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Hinduism • Opinion

soundoff (348 Responses)
  1. Robin Monteiro

    Came across this article after nearly one and half year from the time it is posted,
    it is definately a good point of view which gives a good idea about the present state of the world.
    Actully it gives a clarity in the perception of one's life to see things the way it is!!

    August 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  2. chris

    Nothing wrong with stretching with Yoga poses... I think where the danger lies is in thinking that Yoga poses will lead you to Nirvana... Yoga doesn't lead to salvation, Christ does.. If Yoga is interferring with that, ditch it, but if it's a good way to stretch and keep healthy, then by all means, downward-dog with you.

    January 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Either way it is a stretch.

      January 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  3. Apostle Eric vonAnderseck

    “The most intriguing of these questions is: Who owns the stuff of a religion? When my Christian and Jewish friends adopt and adapt yoga postures are they stealing something? Who owns Christmas? Who owns the Buddha? Who owns Jesus?”

    The kingdom of darkness wants to claim everything to reinvent a false reality for the approval of the next up-coming and ignorant generation to compete with the old traditions of the former generation. Newness cannot be interpreted as correctness. http://apostlestoday.net/

    December 21, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  4. Iqbal khan

    Why they are Reverting (converting) to Islam:


    December 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  5. NEONwhip

    ok, so, mithra?

    December 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  6. Iqbal khan

    Listen and read Quran in many languages

    Surah 102

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

    The mutual rivalry (for piling up of worldly things) diverts you, (1) Until you visit the graves (i.e. till you die). (2) Nay! You shall come to know! (3) Again, Nay! You shall come to know! (4) Nay! If you knew with a sure knowledge (the end result of piling up, you would not have been occupied yourselves in worldly things) (5) Verily, You shall see the blazing Fire (Hell)! (6) And again, you shall see it with certainty of sight! (7) Then, on that Day, you shall be asked about the delights[] (you indulged in, in this world)! (8)

    December 11, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Iqbal khan

    Listen and read quran in many languages...www.Quranexplorer.com

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

    When the earth is shaken with its (final) earthquake. (1) And when the earth throws out its burdens, (2) And man will say: "What is the matter with it?" (3) That Day it will declare its information (about all that happened over it of good or evil). (4) Because your Lord will inspire it. (5) That Day mankind will proceed in scattered groups that they may be shown their deeds.[] (6) So whosoever does good equal to the weight of an atom (or a small ant), shall see it. (7) And whosoever does evil equal to the weight of an atom (or a small ant), shall see it. (8)

    December 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  8. Jones

    Iqbal Khan,
    Wonderful quotes and worthy of every appreciation,
    Just wish to know, why then did the muslim world turn away from following this? We all saw crowds in the muslim world jubilating in 9/11 when the the world trade centers were hit.
    It seemed to me you guys have departed from the truth.
    This holds TRUE for American Christians and their Hollywood style tele-evangelist, who think Jesus Christ is an American, and that the Bible is some American literature, You have departed from your faith.
    To my Hindu friends, there are less than 3% Christians in India(Or shall I say Hindustan?) Yet you still manage to murder them daily on grounds of their faith. Which of your 3000 and above Hindu deity are you following to do so?
    To the atheist, I still don't know what you offer in exchange for religion and faith. Man has a need to believe and that is why religion is so successful, You have to offer something better than religion if your an atheist otherwise you just more confused then the others.

    December 11, 2010 at 1:55 am |
    • Iqbal khan

      You have hit the nail on the head, the real problem is practicing the religeon, people say they belive one thing and do something else as they get tempted and influenced by satan this is because the lack education and knowledge.
      the fact of the matter is that there is only one TRUTH and if one tries hard to find can find like some of the following people have check them on youtube.com under How I came to Islam, just have an open mind I can assure you will gain lot of knowledge if nothing else! they are:
      Khalid Yaseen, Abdul raheem Green, Yusuf estes, Yonne Ridley, Jashua Evans, Jerald Dirks, Siraj wahaj, Bilal philps, Jeffry Lang,
      Yusuf Islam, Yusuf Hamza, Zakir Naik, Steve Jhonson, Dr.Gary Miller and many others.

      December 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  9. CatholicMom

    Have any of you heard about the new audio Bible? I love this! I ordered 4 for Christmas gifts! Listen so some excerpts [voices of actors with sound effects]: truthandlifebible.com

    December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • Bob

      Oh, you're THAT type of christmas gift giver. "I got you a DVD of your favourite movie! You got me.... the bible... thanks."


      December 10, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Yeah

      Hmmm, would be interesting to see how they handle the baby killing, virgin r.ape and other violent parts...

      December 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  10. John

    Matthew 15: 21-26

    December 9, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  11. Sundeep Kadakia

    This is a wonderful article, showing how the world faiths are converging and mixing. There will still be some bigots but majority of the world will adopt each others values – the process must have started century back but it has become very prevalent now a days. Well, I believe we're moving towards next level of humanity.

    December 9, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  12. Water to whine

    I think the author of this article is running out of legitimate things to write about.

    December 8, 2010 at 7:48 pm |
  13. Brahman

    Asalaam aleikum Iqbal. I forbid you to discuss Islam anymore.

    December 8, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.