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. fakebenbernanke

    I agree with Alice and JC:
    What's the point of the story, except to meet some posting deadline? It says absolutely nothing; it posits a phony controversy ( religious "ownership") and uses that to fill space. Bad show, CNN, but consistent.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  2. Rex Krame.r

    Striker, listen, and you listen close: flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  3. Guy Rich

    Mr. Prothero ought to read the Bible...
    GOD's WORD is about spirituality and faith. It's about humans relationship with the Supeme Spirit of Creation and our relationships with our fellow human beings. As JESUS says: "...Love the LORD GOD (i.e. YAHWEH) with all your mind, heart,
    and spirit, and love your fellow human beings. on these two commandments hang ALL the law and ALL the prophets.
    It's so simple, it takes a moron with an IQ of 160 to mess it up. OR as Kurt Vonnegut said in "Galapagos" ...the problem with humans is that our brains are too big for our own good...(Knowledge of "Good & Evil")

    Here endeth the epistle .... go in peace.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  4. Ted Striker

    I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It's an entirely different kind of flying – altogether.

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

      It's an entirely different kind of flying.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Seorsa

    All religion, all gods, and all "theology" are just made up junk. For better and for very much worse there are real effects. In my book, the damage of your imaginary friends is far greater than any good.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • jobleaux

      Absolutely! It's always amazed me that most people can't understand that.

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

      Like anything else in the world(not just religion), there are good and bad..You absorb the good and ignore the bad to be a better human. You can do it with or without religion. You can be a very good person being an atheist and you can be an evil person by following the bad aspects of a religion.

      December 7, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  6. Rex Kramer

    Don't be a fool, Striker, you know what a landing like this means, you more than anybody. I'm ordering you to stay up there.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • dude

      I just want to tell you both good luck. We're all counting on you.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  7. Rumack

    The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  8. jobleaux

    Christianity and yoga are nothing alike. It's like comparing apples and potatoes. Christianity is a religion, yoga is an exercise method. This guy is a moron. Yoga has nothing to do with religion. Yes, Hindus practice it but so do a lot of people from other religions. This whole article is stupid. Stupid answers to stupid questions.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:51 am |
    • arun

      Mr jobleaux, If you truly knew yoga, it is based on Animal poses.. All Hindu gods in one form or another is protrayed in a yoga posture. Yoga is no doubt an exercise for Body and Mind but was adapted by Hindus and it iconic Gods. When you fold your hands and say 'OM' there is nothing christian about it. Hinduism is older than christianity. You are free to do Yoga in your church. If you want to associate with Christianity with Yoga you are plain stupid!

      December 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • jobleaux

      Folding your hands and saying "OM" is not yoga, it's Transcendental Meditation which is different than either religion or yoga.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • Jack

      True True. I wonder why yoga is considered anti christian

      December 7, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • arun

      Omkara is part of yoga and Yoga is embedded in Hindu culture and all the Epics. You cannot seperate the two. If you want to take yoga to your church, You are more than welcome. But to just treat it like Pilates only talks about ignorance about Yoga as well as Hindu culture.

      December 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • arun

      Hope this will enlighten you

      December 7, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  9. Steve McCroskey

    I need the best man on this. Someone who knows that plane inside and out and won't crack under pressure.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  10. 3rdMLNM

    There is only one true God;
    Moses, Jesus, David, Muhammad
    are all righteous Prophets of this one and only true God;
    God of Abraham!
    He is the one and only true God, who has created His Universe,
    and His Word in excellent "Symmetry" and magnificent "Mathematics!"

    Moses, Jesus, David, Muhammad have all together
    already come back again in this New Light,
    as they already promised that they would certainly thus come back again
    in this Last and Third Day/Millennium
    for all People, for their eternal Peace and Serenity, now and forever!


    December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • jobleaux

      How utterly stupid.

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

      Stupid, It is Stupid

      December 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • Rahul

      Why do you have tell that to other people? Why cannot you just keep that knowledge upto yourself? The problem only arises when you try to impose your faith upon the others. Let people choose their religion and let them decide if they want to practice yoga or not.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  11. Ravi

    The author is ignorant to think that Hindus are praying to Jesus to claim ownership of Jesus. The vedanta society organizing the christmas service is merely to pay homage to other faiths... Just the way white house celebrates Ramadan, Christmas, Hindu Diwali etc. Jeez... The author's credential as a religious scholar surprises me.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • Jack

      How idiotic of you to compare Vedanta society with White house.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
  12. Rex Kramer

    Striker, have you ever flown a multi-engine plane before?

    December 7, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  13. Nagao

    Stephen Prothero,BU religion scholar and ...? Clearly clue-less on this subject .

    December 7, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  14. Ted Striker

    I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It's an entirely different kind of flying – altogether.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • Ted Striker

      It's an entirely different kind of flying.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  15. Steve McCroskey

    Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  16. Rex Kramer

    Striker, listen, and you listen close: flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  17. Elaine Dickinson

    There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?

    December 7, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  18. Rumack

    I just want to tell you both good luck. We're all counting on you.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  19. Rahul

    The author has clearly shown the lack of knowledge and has written this article far away from reality in some dream land. Hindus did not know anything about Christianity until the missionaries intruded to India under the name of charitable organizations and later started the process of conversions of Hindus to Christians, needless to mention that the caste system in India was the major boost for the Christian missionaries who lured the so-called lower caste people by money etc to be Christians. The missionaries adopted different ways to let the fools believe that Christianity was no different from Hinduism. They even displayed pictures of Mariam and Jesus wearing traditional Hindus dresses like Saree for example. Even the Church prayers are sung on the tunes of traditional Hindu prayers. Christianity was made to look like almost same to Hinduism. As most of the South Africans says that "Christians came to us with Bible in their hands, now all we have is Bible". There is a long list of how poor people in India were forced to adopt Christianity and certainly is not possible to list all of them here.
    What I believe in is, that there should be no race to increase the head count but unfortunately both Islam and Christianity has been running in this race for so long. One with violence and one with money power.
    I believe all the Americans are very nice and good people and lots of there organizations working in some countries are genuine but some of them are responsible for using wrongful ways to force people to change their religion which is unacceptable.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • Kunal

      I agree with you. Tell you real incident. I was studying in St. Xavier's college,Ahmedabad,India.All the staff members in college were Christain, even the waiter in cafeteria was Christain. After 6.00 pm in the evening, some missionaire people were educating very poor and backward people (not Christain. needless to say Hindus). They were give free grain (imported from USA- why ?? wheat is also availabe and made in India), free clothes and few cash money. One of hindu professor was working there as temporary staff in St. Xavier's college, he was offer to full time position there if he converts himself to Christain, he did otherwise he could have lost his job.
      Conversion to Christanity and Islam is one of the most powerful and hidden agenda by both the religion & religious leaders.It is one of the highly funded program or I would say conspiracy to become the largest religion in the world. You will not find this promoted conversion in Jews, Hinduism or Buddhism,Sikhism.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
    • John

      Absolutely Correct. You have given clear cut picture of what is happening in india.......................Hope, we all should understand this fact & stop entertaining missionaries misdeeds in poor countries across world.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  20. JonathanL

    That may only be the tip of the ice berg. I know Jews who practice Yoga, and I am an Atheist who meditates. I also work out at the gym. Doesn't anyone own that? I speak English, do I need to pay homage to England whenever I speak? We evolved from single cell animals, to multi-cell colonies, to invertebrates (euphamism for 'spineless worms'), to fish, to amphibians, to lizards, to rodents (earliest mammals) to monkeys, and then Apes and then us. Should be be saying thanks to all single cell animals, and spineless worms every day that we live? Don't we have anything else to do?

    December 7, 2010 at 11:41 am |
    • Swami

      well said

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

      Knowledge needs Compassion . Please open your heart for the rest of us "NAMO AMITABA" Thanks .

      December 7, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • Ellen

      Please speak for yourself. Maybe your distant ancestors slithered out from under a rock. But please do not include my ancestors in with that group. Thank you!

      December 7, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
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About this blog

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.