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. aye laveen

    Momma was Catholic, praying to graven images and burning candles and counting beads and all that stuff, daddy was Jewish, did all the holiday stuff and every Saturday too..... Somehow they made it all work and spent almost 50 years together. We were encouraged to, and did too, go with our little friends and their families to whatever religion they followed services, and on a real regular basis too.
    Then one day I woke up to find myself rather temporarily dead, right then I found out that it's all a big pile of hooie. I have since come to two conclusions:
    1) There's God, in whatever form you choose to see he/she/they/it, and then there's religion. Try not to ever confuse the two
    2) Gandhi was so right when he said "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Kind of goes right along with #1

    December 7, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Luke2343

      sounds like you got it figured out.
      Are you sure you want to trust your eternity to your impressions of other people, and Ghandi, who was deceived himself?
      God loves you, and so much so that he sent his son Jesus to die for you. That's a gift, and all it requires is your faith.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  2. I dont believe in Athiests

    Yoga was originated to worship Pagan gods. All those postures are ways of praising demon dieties. So dont do it. You will open doorways for them to come into your life. People are so ignorant as to how the enemy works. Hindu gods are also real dieties. Just the wrong ones to worship. They are demons as well. Just like the egyptians had power to do magick, but Gods power ate their serpent. So they have power to do miracles so people will believe in them but Gods power is the real power to worship and fear. Anybody who responds negatively to this is woking for satan to fool all of you so dont listen to them. Christians please read the book.. He came to set the captives free. It will open your eyes to reality.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • arun

      Embracing peace weather it comes from Hinduism or Christianity speaks volumes about religion. It only indicates that they are progressive religions. When Hindu's are praying for Jesus, they respect him for his beliefs. You don't see hindus doing that for other religions. Same thing with Christianity, if beatles embraces hinduism, it is because they respect what the religion portrays to the people and the world around it.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • jobleaux

      You're a moron.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • guest

      Never believe a man who says I know it all, never trust a religion that says I have all the answers. Truth/God is a personal journey, you experience it through how you act and treat others in life.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
    • Oh God not again...

      Everybody who believes (fill in the blanks xyz.... that is contrary to my belief -enter narrowminded denomination_) is working for the devil. Hahahaha
      I guess that is the root of the problem, isnt it?

      December 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
    • civilioutside

      This is one of those posts where it's hard to tell if IDBIA is mocking fundamentalists by posting over-the-top nonsense, or if he really believes it.

      December 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  3. Luke2343

    Don't be misled by this article. There is no possible way to "mash-up" God's Truth – that Jesus Christ by His death on the cross and resurrection is the only way to salvation. God loves you. May this Christmas bring you the best gift ever, a personal belief in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • jobleaux

      I have this bridge for sale in NYC that I think you'll be very interested in buying.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:55 am |
    • Luke2343

      do you believe in anything? Is there any truth in your life?

      December 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
    • Yeah

      "...do you believe in anything? Is there any truth in your life?"

      Sure. Natural law... and natural consequences.

      Claims of supernatural truths (even if you arrogantly use a capital 't') have no basis in fact.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
    • jobleaux

      I believe in logic and reason and scientific method. But not in archaic old myths.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  4. 2smart2BU

    Why are Christians to stupid to understand that Jesus and Christ are two separate beings. Jesus isn't the one that is suppose to return. Christ is the only one that comes and he will chose an upright vessel and anoint him the Messiah with his Spirit. And man and God will be one. Of course you can bet your life he won't be very happy with the ways of men. Who could blame him for sharing the rod with this sea of stubborn and ignorant people who make no effort to understand anything other than what they can acquire the easiest. You people have only my sympathy. Nothing more.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  5. Jhampa

    How about the "Buddha Bar" in France. Intoxicants are seen as a diminishing of awareness and wisdom and yet we have a very famous bar named after the Buddha. In one way it promotes awareness to those type of people but in another it brings Buddhism down to a party time theme. Oh well, such is samsara, uncontrollable. Ruled by delusions and karma.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  6. CatholicMom

    No one owns Truth. Truth can be found in the Catholic Church. Jesus promised the Apostles that He would send the Paraclete to bring the Apostles into the fullness of Truth and also remind them of what He told them; plus He would continue guiding and guarding His Church through all time against evil…

    Truth is not a thing, Truth is a Person…Truth is Jesus Christ. No one owns Him like one can own a car but He will abide in us through Baptism and confirm us in His Truth at our Confirmation.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:25 am |
    • Nagao

      . If ...Truth is a Person then J.C. wouldn't be or couldn't be one because of so many different versions exist . Will the "Truth" stand up please ?

      December 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • guest

      There you go again, uttering a bunch of statements and inanities without reason, explanation or proof. I know you feel good saying all these things, but really, what ARE you saying????

      December 7, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • jeff

      @guest, I understood her just fine...

      grace and peace,


      December 7, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      There is only One Truth. There is only One though man has made Truth seem to mean thousands of differing truths.

      December 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • Truth

      I am the common enemy of all religions based on delusions and the words of men.
      Deny me all you like, I will always be in your face.

      December 8, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  7. fl

    i don't think the crossing of ideas is a bad one. it opens people's minds to the possibility of other ways of thinking about their life, health, and purpose. if religion and faith is so right and strong, it should be able to withstand debate.
    yoga obviously helps a lot of people, even if jesus didnt do it. jesus didnt do or have a lot of things, it doesn't make them a bad idea. (he didnt have a cell phone, internet, a way to shave that beard, buttons... ).

    December 7, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  8. thurisaz26

    It appears from the wide range of comments from this board that the main point of this article has been lost upon most of the posters, and perhaps by even the author of the article as well. I think the article lacked clear focus. I will say he did make a good point by stating that religious groups do not always have full control of their own symbols and images. This is one reason why I think it is ridiculous for the whole Holiday Wars. Christmas has long ceased to be a religious holiday to most Americans, and yet the agnostics, atheist, and others attack Christmas as if they really believe it is still a religious holiday. If nothing else, those groups should applaud themselves for the meaning of Christmas has largely been lost among the populace and has been relegated to a season of touchy feelings and materialism mixed in with a sanguine old man who slips through chimneys. The incarnation of Jesus is only a footnote to Christmas these days.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  9. C0mm3nt

    Interesting article – I just want to point out that Vedantic Centers are not Hindu Temples really. The concepts are the basis of Hinduism but it is a more religiously flexible concept base. So it's not like they are having religious services for Christmas in Hindu temples – I really don't think any TEMPLE would have that because they are usually dedicated to a specific Hindu god. Not against the idea, just pointing out the difference.

    Meanwhile, as a Hindu who went to a convent school in India, Christmas was always fun and spiritual for us.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  10. T3chsupport

    Tis the season to realize that pretty much all major ancient religions are talking about the same exact God as one another, and to stop fighting over nonsense, and actually try living in the way that your communal god wishes- loving one another, and not being a big d-bag to one another just because you worship in a different fashion.

    Happy Holidays!

    December 7, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  11. Kay

    It seems to me that most religions are more about how to live than how to believe. "Holy people" (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, et al.) tell us how to live. Jesus said that we should love God and love our neighbors, and that everything else was commentary; he told us to take care of each other, and to be kind. This is a good way to live, no matter which religion (or none) you follow. People didn't pay much attention to him, though, did they? Instead they had wars over details like whether he was all human, or all divine, or part of each.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  12. guest

    This whole article relies on the fact that yoga is tied to religion – it is not. Hindus do not practice yoga to worship God or a particular deity. Yoga belongs to ancient India, and was used for salvation – whatever that might mean. IT is a set of postures that have no relation to how you worship God. Copyrighting yoga on the basis f religion is wrong, but it can be copyrighted as a system of ancient postures.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • jeff

      copyrighting a particular posture is fairly absurd, don't you think? Sort of like the woman who recently registered ownership of the sun and now wants to charge everyone for its light.

      grace and peace,


      December 7, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
    • SB

      Yoga is not a set of postures to keep you healthy. Hathayoga (postures) is one part of 8 fold dicipline (Ashtanga yoga) which include non-violence, eating right food, pranayama, meditation and other vedic (vedic means knowledge) practices. Only very few people (sadhus-who are bent on realizing God and self) practice these. It takes a life time to get to some stage, so dont even worry about it. For ordinary souls like you and me, its out of question. So what we do for keeping healthy is basically Hathayoga (postures), but it has been said in vedic scriptures that it will help a person maintain optimal health if done regularly. Western eating habits (eating meat resulting in constipation) doesnt really help. It only does more harm than good. Having said all this, its very unfortunate for Church to question its origins which are vedic and date back to long before Christ walked on this earth. Its Hindu tradition by all means. Questioning Yoga and Astrology origins only expose your shallowness as a religion. Most ancient religions starting from left. – Hindu (Vedic), Jews, Christianity(After Christs birth), Islam (400AD). Now Church claims to be the oldest religion of all ? How funny.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Please add Taoism and Confucism (China) to your list and Buddhism, a child of Hinduism, came about 500 years before Christ supposedly arrived to teach socialism and concern for your fellow humans. Like Luther and protestantism, Jesus was not trying to create a new religion he was only trying to reform the current one. He died a Jew and his followers debated whether or not the Gentile was to be allowed in.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
  13. Matt

    "Jesus’s status here as “the man nobody hates”" ???? This quote alone shows that the author has no clue what Christianity is about. Culture absolutely hates Jesus...they think they love good morals, but everyday people hate Jesus by their actions.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:07 am |
    • CalgarySandy

      No. It is not hatred of Jesus. It is disgust with the behavior of some of his most vocal followers. If one does not believe then one does not hate. It is a particular kind of mouthy, bigoted, and ignorant believer that is disliked.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
    • NL

      Nope, that would be like saying that you hate all soccer because of the behavior of English soccer hooligans. I'm basically fine with Jesus and with moderate believers. They may still believe in some wonky stuff, but they keep it to themselves and don't impose these things on everyone else. It's the radical fundamentalist movement and the blood-thirsty, judgmental Christ they've made Jesus out to be that I find detestable.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
    • MacGyver

      No, I just dislike him (Jesus). And the feeling is mutual, as stated in Luke 19:27.
      "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."

      I don't like anyone that says I should be killed for being an Atheist. I thought you said your Jesus preached only love. Where is the love in that?

      December 8, 2010 at 5:08 am |
  14. Scott Yardley

    This article assumes that Christianity is a lie. For if Christianity is true it would have the character of truth. Truth is measurable and can be defined. Just as laws are measurable and defined. Just as science is measurable and defined. But if Christianity is not measurable and its definition is subject to one own liking, then there is not truth to it.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  15. Xavier A L , India

    If Jesus lived a life that was the most colorful and powerful life any mortal has ever lived. Man finds God in anything which is above his thoughts and his imaginations. Jesus was such one. He showed the world how to live as humans respectfully without harming anybody, abusing anybody, hurting anybody. He lived happily and a contented life to the envy of all. He is an icon of life- A GODLY FIGURE- indeed.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:01 am |
    • Matt

      He lived happily? What about those times when crowds tried to stone him? The time he raided the temple of business? How about that time he was tortured, mutilated, and hung on a cross? That's real happy...

      December 7, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  16. Tāṇḍava

    I think the key difference is that some people are denying the Hindu origins of yoga, whereas I doubt if the non-Christians celebrating Christmas are saying that it was never a Christian festival.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • Frogist

      @Ta ava: Good point.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Christmas was, in fact, a pagan winter festival. As with many other holy days and saints days the Church took it over to sucker the locals in. Christmas is a cluster of a variety of celebrations. Jesus was modeled on Horus (Virgin Birth, rose from the Dead...) and Apollo (birth of the sun, nimbus...). Greens were brought into the house to celebrate the return of the sun. The yule log is Germanic. So is the tree. I'm sure Wikipedia has the whole lot. Most cultures have a festival to celebrate the solstice and to provide a break from the monotony of short days winter.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Ta ava:
      Shoot! I take that back. I thought you said:
      "I think the key difference is that some people are denying the Hindu origins of yoga, whereas I doubt if the Christians celebrating Christmas are saying that it was never a pagan festival". My bad. My bad.

      December 7, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Ugh... I would and do...! Christmas well pre-dates Christianity, as a pagan festival. Some names have been Saturnalia. It was celebrated long ago all about the winter solstice.


      December 8, 2010 at 3:27 am |
    • martian1abcd

      Does it really matter?

      December 8, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  17. Whatevah

    My mom has a super duper crazy religious friend of the Southern Baptist variety. When my mom mentioned that I had been doing yoga, she said that was a religion. I do it for the exercise. Not to "salute the sun" or whatever. And yes, I understand that it has a history and that it was used as a mind/body/spirituality tool. I just leave out the spirituality part because I happen to believe that the spirit or "soul" is just the consciousness that results from having a functioning brain.

    December 7, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  18. remarkable apathy

    He is the Alpha and the Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the Light of the World. That which cannot be owned or distributed...flurishes unfettered like weeds unsown.

    December 7, 2010 at 10:57 am |
    • David Johnson

      @remarkable apathy

      And you know this how? Bible. How do you know the bible is true? Inerrant word of god. How do you know? 'cause the bible says so. I see.


      December 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      DJ That is exactly, almost word for word, what my Baptist mother used to say to me when I was trying to get a straight answer. I call it intellectual abuse when children are told to shut up, don't think, you will go to heck for that, it is a sin to question the Book, don't read that other book...

      On the other hand, she believed in evolution but saw it as God's method of creation. Still bunk but less damaging to the education system.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  19. Ed

    Who in the hell cares? Something to fight about over a man made bunch of crap that is nothing more than a way and means to control people.

    December 7, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  20. non-christian

    i am NOT a "non-christian".... i'm a human being!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 7, 2010 at 10:56 am |
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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.