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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. Randy Thorp

    Doctrinal paranoia. That's how churches keep tabs on you. Do this, but not that or you end up in HELL!
    If you read Albert Mohler's article, see link above, you run into this:
    "Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation".
    That hurts, this indoctrinated narrowmindedness.
    What did Jesus do when he fasted in the desert? He emptied his mind and meditated. (not on the New Testament because that didn't exist then, did it? hehehe). What did the medieval hermits do? They fasted and castigated themselves to focus on emptying body and mind in order to transcend both. How can one be so blockheaded to see 'post modern' confusion' in practicising peaceful personal routines, such as Yoga, horseback riding, karate, hiking, running, biking, and more?? (I do not include Nascar in this list.... hehehe)
    Mr Prothero is right, in this global age we mingle religious and spiritual practices from other societies, because we live in ONE big Global society, even universe. Amen

    December 7, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Mike, not me

      Randy, how did Mohler's comment hurt. Did Jesus meditated on the Word? The only example we have is when challenged He used the Word as His defense. Christianity is not "Do this, but not that or you end up in HELL!" It is God loves you so much even before you love Him, that He sent His Son to be tempted in every way but with out sin that He may be the perfect pennance and we are saved by grace through faith so that Nobody should boast on their own.
      Why would you want to be in heaven if you didn't like God in the first place?

      December 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
    • Bob

      God loves us so much that he imposed a penalty upon all those born after Adam, despite being innocent of the crime. He then impregnates a woman with himself so he can give birth to himself so that he can sacrifice himself to himself to create a loophole in a rule that he himself created.

      Makes perfect sense to me.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • Jim

      Bob,

      if that is what you beleive then you truly are confused. But since your statement doesn't correspond with reality, you aren't stuck in ignorance if you choose to learn.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
    • Jim

      MNM,

      Although I am not defending the poster you replied to in any fashion, your understanding of meditation and what is describe in the Bible and what is descibed in the Hundu scriptuers is lacking. Meditation throught the Bible is seen and described as meditating ON His word or His attributes whereas meditation in the Hindu tradition is clearing of one's mind (centering) so as to clean the slate and have whatever thoughts be implanted so you can realize you are god. Huge difference like between the difference between Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
    • Thorp

      I meant it not so terribly awfully literally. Have a sense of humor, for dog's sake.
      It "hurts" a fairly organized mind to hear such spiritual babble that christians practicing yoga open themselves to the devil and satan and what not. Are you such a paranoid scared insecure bunch?
      This litteralism of meditating on the WORD is so silly when we know that the bible went through several editorial changes that edited and subtracted gospels, changed wording from translation to translation and more. The catholic church had 1500 years to work on that. And then came the lutherans, baptists, mormons, jehova witnesses and all the rest with their "truths". All of them still CANT agree on the one and only true version and its interpretations.
      Wake up, get a sense of the real world around you. The divine being is all around you, not in the narrow confines of some version of some bible text. She is much bigger than any single denomination.. Amen

      December 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
    • Thorp

      The wrong way to worship and experience spirituality...
      May I remind you that in Pakistan a woman is on death row still about some argument between Muslims and her. They supposedly resented her for touching their water bucket.
      "Don't touch my bucket, you are unclean" [but we are pure]. "Don't practiceyoga, that's satan worship" [we are the only true believers]; "don't call god god, his true name is jahwe jehova lord... [we alone know the proper way to speak to god].
      Looks pretty narrow to me. Amen

      December 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
    • Thorp

      @Jim

      " Meditation throught the Bible is seen and described as meditating ON His word or His attributes whereas meditation in the Hindu tradition is clearing of one's mind (centering) so as to clean the slate and have whatever thoughts be implanted so you can realize you are god."
      You have an interesting view of what meditation is. Who and what implants "whatever thoughts" into your emptied mind??? (an empty mind is a terrible thing to waste...lol). If you believe in the absolute power of your christian god, then I would assume that it will be he/she/ it to fill your emptied mind with his/her/its thoughts.
      If he/she/it can't fill that little space of your/mine emptied mind and surrenders it to satan, then he/she/ it is not very powerful, right?
      Or is your / my emptied mind too small to be bothered with for some useful fillings?? Praise be to... (fill in the blanks)

      You mean what? "Huge difference like between the difference between Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain"
      Like Chamberlain the peaceful appeaser (WWJD?) and Churchill the (timely necessary) war hawk? Ehmmm , careful, don't mix secular history with spiritual / biblical doctrine. They really don't mix. Yoga and christianity are a much better mix. Amen

      December 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  2. TONG

    HUAMN FORM EYE ONLY SAW FIVE PERCENTAGE IN THIS VISIBLE LIFE WORLD BUT NINETY – FIVE PERCENTAGE ARE INVISIBLE GUYS , SO ONE OWNSELF GOT TO HAVE FAITH IN GOD AND LOVE ONE OWNSELF PARENT ARE THE REAL LIVING GOD THAT CREATING ONE OWNSELF INTO THIS FULL OF ANIMAL MINDEDLY WORLD NOW A DAY , AMEN , ALL CAUSE AND AFFECT ARE CREATING FROM THE PASS LIFE STYLE INTO THIS PRESENT LIFESTYLE ONTO THE FUTURE LIFE STYLE , SO THAT MEAN WHAT COME AROUND MUST GOING BACK AROUND GUYS THAT WHY THE OLD WISE MAN HAVE BEEN CALLING IT KARMA KARMA KARMA , NOBODY CAN AND WILL BE EXSCAPING FROM SUFFERING OF OLD AGE THAN GOT SICK THAN PASS AWAY , LIFE ARE BLESSING SO ONE GOT TO LEARN HOW TO INJOY IT AND DO NOT ABUSE IT OWNSELF BODY , AMEN

    December 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • TING

      LEARN ENGLISH AND STOP USING CAPITAL LETTERS, TONG! YOU SOUND LIKE A SUB-NORMAL PERSON, SCREAMING IN THE STREET!

      December 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  3. Jesus Dad

    I own Jesus.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  4. Kate

    All I can say is I rather live my life thinking there is a God, then live my life like there isn't and find out after I die that there is a God.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jim

      Rather do that noew but may end up regretting that later.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
    • Bob

      Ahh, pascal's wager. Of course, you're assuming that God wouldn't be able to see through your "hedging your bets".

      Also, who's to say God values blind faith, who's to say your faith is right?

      What if God appreciates honest inquiry and logical thought, and all the religions are a test to see if you can do it?

      Who's to say?

      December 7, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
    • jobleaux

      Which god? There have been thousands. To which imaginary, invisible supernatural being in the sky are you referring?

      December 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
    • Maybe

      Oy! Again and again and again with the Pascal's Wager.

      Good job, Bob.

      Maybe we need one of those frequent reminder posts on every thread with the info on this too...

      December 7, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  5. J

    I appreciate the author's commentary though I think its rather naive. I haven't read any of his books but I'd be interested in understanding his world-view. Surely he knows that religious plurality has only been around for a few hundred years. He seems to assume its validity without bringing it into his commentary. It'd be helpful to know why one should view "world religions" as a plurality. Why should one assume such a thing? By the way, who owns the media?

    December 7, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  6. TONG

    THE MORE THAT ONE KEEP ON CONSUMIONG ALL OUT ANIMAL MEAT THE MORE ONE WILL TURNING OUT TOBE LOOKING LIKE AN ANIMAL AND ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL , THAT WHY THE WISE ONE HAVE BEEN CALLING IT KARMA KARMA KARMA KARMA KARMA ARE REALITY PEOPLE , AND THE ONE THAT DO NOT TRUST GOD THOSE ARE THE ONE MOSTLY PASS AWAY IN THE TRAGIC WAY , TO THOSE THAT HAVE THE FAITH IN JESUS AND HAPPY BUDDHA AND MOTHER THERESA AND BUDDHA AND LOVE THERE OWNSELF PARENT ARE THE REAL GOD ONE , THAN THEY ARE THE ONE WILL PASS AWAY WITH THE NATURE FORM WAY OF THE REAL HUMAN FORM WAY OF LIFE , AMEN

    December 7, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  7. Carol

    Mike says comments in Jewish songs and books about Christmas and Easter are "the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity." That makes them the enemy, right? We all worship the same God, no matter how much everyone argues about it. We should quit pointing fingers at each other and just get along.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  8. Saint Ringo

    if Jesus had been persecuted in the last 75 yrs...........all of the Christians would be wearing little electric chairs on chains around their necks.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  9. TONG

    WHO OWN HAPPY BUDDHA AND TAOISM AND JESUS AND BUDDHA , THE ANSWER WAS AND IS ARE IS JUST ONE OWNSELF THAT CAN OWN IT AND NOBODY ELSE WILL OWN IT , JUST LOOKING IN THE MIRROR THAN ONE WILL SAW WHO IS THE ONE OWNING IT , THE ANSWER ARE IS US ONE OWNSELF CREATING ALL THE HEAVENLY PLAVE OR HELL PLACE IN IN OUR OWNSELF MIND GAME WORLD THAT ALL . GOD BLESS THE WISDOM ONE AND THE SEVEN SENSE ONE THAT CAN HAVE THE ABILITY TO USE MORE THAN FIVE PERCENTAGE OF THE OWN EYE THAN COMPARE TO MOST OTHER HUMAN FORM ONLY STARTING TO USE LESS THAN FIVE PERCENTAGE OF THERE OWN LOW LIFE EYE , AMEN

    December 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  10. DWTT

    Down With The Trinity

    BTW

    Whats the point of this article? To prove how Trinitary Christianity is a bunch of hog-wash as it is a mash up of Greek/Roman relgious and philosophical ideas? What about those who deny the trinity? This article speaks nothing of that type of christianity.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  11. Joker

    Interesting how most Christians are nothing like the christ they believe in.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • DWTT

      Why is it amazing or surprising? Their very own bible states straight and narrow is the path of rightesousness, and "FEW" are those who find it...

      December 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
  12. Kamal

    If only we can civilize Islam. The world will become so much more pleasant to live in for many. It is unfortunate that the rulers of Muslim world themselves do not see any need to change, and yet want all the benefits of the modern society. What a hippocratic and un-muslim thing to do.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  13. duh

    yoga is not a religion.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • sandip

      Yes, yoga is not a religion. But, it is part & partial of Hindu religion. Yoga & Hinduism are intervened as Mind & Body of Human.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • arun

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pranava_yoga

      December 7, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
  14. Jenna

    Jesus is dead. Who cares? Get a life people.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  15. Terry

    In reading I am struck by the lack of knowledge on the orgins of the Christmas holiday. Good article to read and get the low down http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

    Always question always seek answers always be a skepitc

    December 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  16. scrollman

    Mr. Prothero, read my novel The Fallujah Scrolls for yet another take on Christianity and religion in general. Oh yeah...throw in some perverted politicians too.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  17. agirl

    there si actually a book that states that Jesus went to India to study meditation and yoga and that is how he aquired his superpowers. In hindu traditions yogis have superpowers.
    anyhow, yoga is definetly Hindu. Hinduism is yoga and yoga is Hinduism. the beauty of Hinduism and Buddhism is that they embrace other religions. Hinduism and Buddhism is more of a philosophy and a way of life. Christianity is a religion. You can practice yoga as a way of life, not as a religion. But when you practice Christianity, that is a religion. I do not practice Christianity and I practice yoga.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  18. Steve McCroskey

    Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

    December 7, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  19. 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 11:58 am |
  20. .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 11:57 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.