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. Bob

    @Brian you said, "Mike made a tongue-in-cheek comment that I don't agree with, so he's a right-wing radical."

    Where did you get that? I didn't say anything about political leanings. Also, how could you tell it's tongue and cheek given that text has no inflection in the statement. He could have been serious. And given his previous comments, I'd be inclined to say he's making a legitiamte statement.

    Might want to read what people wrote instead of making up stuff to suit your own bias.


    December 7, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  2. The bible guy

    Who owns Jesus no one. That i know for sure. When it comes to both Easter and Christmas, they have nothing to do with Jesus. They were adopted into Christianity, by the Pope who declared he was a representative of Jesus. Christmas goes as far back as being the birth of the sun god Mythira, and Easter goes all the back to the roman god of fertility. Actually because of the religion of the catholic church, they changed the true practices of Christ and implemented they're own teachings during the dark ages. Christ never taught to kill, but they did. Christ never taught Christmas or even Sunday worship, and even putting a cross on the church. No wonder why their was a reformation because Catholics were wrong in what they were doing.
    This might not matter to some, but lets say Christ walked the Earth today, what church we he go to? Baptist, Methodist, Catholic? He would go to the church he established 2,000 years ago. Alright that my 2 cents. God bless you!

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

      Your "two cents" are very valuable!

      December 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  3. Bob Dole

    The Bible says Jesus was born in the spring. Rome created dec25th as a holliday for Christ because dec 25 is a pagan holliday and Christ's followers were causing a lot of pagans to quit following religion. So basically, the same people that killed Jesus made Christmas.

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

      Your time line is about 6 months off friend. John (the Baptizer) was born in the Spring and Jesu was born six months later if one pays attention to the time line and festival schedules.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  4. cc

    It is all about control. The Southern Baptists want control over their "flock" because if those people begin to think for themselves, the Church will lose money and power. It's the same way that Churches have been operating since the dawn of Christianity. It used to be that only priests were allowed to read because the Catholic Church wanted the populace to remain unintelligent cattle that the Church could control and milk for money (how do you think the Catholic Church became one of the richest corporations on the planet?) The Southern Baptists operate in the same manner... if people begin thinking for themselves and exploring the world and other cultures then those same people may see the Southern Baptist Church for what it really is.

    December 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  5. naveen

    Is this article required. I trust in all the Gods. Dude, what makes you write this article except to divide people.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • DWTT

      How can you trust all the gods when YHWH and Jesus both claim to be the only way and the only one? I don't even know how to make that work....oh ye of great faith

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


    December 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  7. Bacchus

    Excuse me, but the Christians stole December 25th from me, and I'd like it back, please.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • Puck

      how about a drink instead? 😀

      December 8, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  8. hotcarl

    i think all atheists and/or agnostics are frustrated with the believers because you continue to ignore the facts. its like trying to tell believers that 2 + 2 =4 and believers want to disagree because faith tells you it equals 5. it doesn't make sense, but sense isn't exactly what you strive for, you just want to believe. very frustrating...

    December 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bob

      Everyone loves a bit of hot carl in the middle of the workday!

      December 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
    • hotcarl

      Bob, I can tell you are an educated man.

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

      All the gods invented by man throughout history would fill at least 10 football stadiums. But YOUR god is the only real one. HA HA HA HA HA, yeah, right, whatever. They're ALL just old myths from primitive cultures. Get a brain.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
    • hotcarl

      jobleaux, I can tell you are an uneducated man.

      December 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mike, not me

      hotcarl, instead of passing judgment why not provide the argument to no God, just like you would provide the evidence for 2+2

      December 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
    • Yeah

      Mike, not me,

      How many times do you need to be told: The burden of proof is on the claimant.

      If you claim that 2+2=4, you must prove it. It is not necessary for anyone to disprove it. Statements disputing your proof only serve to further the validity of your proof.

      And, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof".

      December 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Mike, not me

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof is a falicy you need to stop believing... it is just as "Extraordinary" to say we came from nothing, or apes or two rocks smashing into each other then it does to say we came from God.

      "If you claim that 2+2=4, you must prove it", but I claimed it and did not write out the mathmatical proof. So maybe it is not up to ME to prove it but for you to research it and come to agree with the claim or disprove it.

      December 10, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  9. Tao

    Instead of parsing words and confronting each others egos, go out and plant a flower or vegetable garden and watch it grow. Pet a dog or cat and look in its eyes. Watch a bird fly. Then you will know what real religion is.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • J

      I thought that was horticulture... I'm confused

      December 7, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Jim

      It doesn't need to make sense...and it doesn't.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • arun

      An excellent point to argue. If I plant the seeds, water them and make it grown into a plant/tree, who gave life to the seed..? What if I had discarded it into a trashcan instead..

      December 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
    • Maggie

      Amen!!! Everyone on here is so confused. And it really isn't all that confusing.

      December 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      I am not confused at all. There are no gods -not even just one!

      December 8, 2010 at 12:08 am |
    • Mike, not me

      Hot Air,
      enlighten us all? Where is your "exceptional evidence" of such a belief?

      December 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Mike, not me

      I did not claim I had evidence, exceptional or otherwise, for my belief, and as has been explained many many, times the burden of proof that somethings exists is on those that claim same. Other than a book of silliness of dubious origin and accuracy, you have no proof to support a belief that gods (even just 1") exist. So my belief is based on the lack of proof that I am wrong.

      That being said, I am not aking for any believer for proof of their beliefs – I stopped asking when (correctly) chastised by Kate (who hasn't been posting lately, hope she is well...). In thinking about it, I've come to believe there is no proof, and there never will be any proof (other than the same old blah, blah blah circular thinking that usually comes down to "'cause my book says so..."), so there is no point in issuing that challenge. Much better to challenge other statements, (you are confused, atheists did this, that or the other thing, point out hypocrisy, etc) and do whatever is beccessarry, that is also non-violent and legal) to keep religion in their various houses of stupidity and out of public policy.

      December 8, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude

      Last I heard, she had gotten a new job...her website hasn't been updated since Oct. 20th...and it would be nice to see her zipping around here. In fact I think she's made a post or two since then, but not so you'd notice, if you get my drift....
      Have a great Boxing Day! (what is that, anyway?)

      December 8, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Sumerian Dude

      Are you my friend... a.k.a... "Sum Dude"...? If so, please give me a 'sign' that I will know it's you...!


      December 8, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude


      A sign? WHAT?
      I just got done leaving you a post back a bit. This is fine dancing. You've been practicing? 😛
      My timing is bad today. Yes, I be Sum Dude.
      I changed it to Sumerian Dude because I have traveled through time from the past to be here. 😛
      I might even have a shard of pottery around somewhere with cuniform writing....! 😯
      I'm just about out the door, though. Have fun responding! I'll be back later anyway.

      December 8, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Sumerian Dude

      Re: boxing day, a british/Canadian (maybe commonwealth nations?) tradition – the day after Christmas – now mostly a big shopping day – perhaps the biggest in Canada. Growing up, the story was that because servants had to work on Christmas day, they were given the day after off. So that the cooking staff could have the day off, box lunches were made up the day before, and the day after became known as boxing day. Now I'll go look for the real origin...

      December 8, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
    • Mike, not me

      HotAir, good post it was very helpful except the end when you stated to keep religion out of the public policy. If you take religion to mean the meaning and purpose of life here and after, then those not affiliated to an organized religion are still religious in that they have their own views on public policy. But they are never ask to keep their views at home and out of the public square, but then again how could you. For example the rules that you make for divorce depend on your views of what marriage is for. If it is for raising a family you make divorce hard, if it is for self gratification then the laws getting a divorce much easier. See no Bible quotes but still a view expressed
      Adapted from Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”

      December 9, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  10. TheMovieFan

    Jesus was acquired by the Republican party and they pervert his teachings for their own financial benefit.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  11. Jesus' Dad

    As Jesus' Dad, I can tell you he is not the messiah.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
    • DWTT

      They may or may not be talking about your hispanic son.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  12. phoenixthe bible pumper

    all right you knuckleheads cor.1 chapter 16 verse 22 24 anathema maranatha love the lord Jesus or be accursed and be forsaken. he owns everything including your eyeballs

    December 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
    • Bob

      A poor troll attempt. You need practice. You're coming out far too strong and far too dumb. The statements need to be somewhat believable and infuriating at the same time. That takes time.

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

      It is truly an art form to troll with the ring of authenticity and so far, your form demonstrates you are a neophyte.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  13. Tree

    I must have missed it, but I haven't heard of Hindus complaining about Christians using Yoga, I have heard about Christians complaining about Christians using Yoga. I have no idea of how Hindus are using anything "Christian". There maybe some Hindus who have adopted the Santa Clause/Gift Giving/Xmas Tree idea, of which those are all secular and have very little if anything to do with Christianity. Of which I know the xmas tree portion of Christmas has Pagan roots, well as does the whole day. So if Hindus are actually "stealing" anything from Christianity, it can only be something the Christians stole from the Pagans.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  14. S.B. Stein

    JP is wrong about why Jesus was crucified. That was never a way the Jewish courts of the time would have executed someone. There was also no way that the Jews would have let someone be executed by the Romans for violating Jewish law.

    Jewish law doesn't limit ways to get to the next world if that is your goal. Jewish law deals with the proper ways to act toward each other as well as the Divine and the world around us. Jewish law has some ritual aspects and eithical aspects that should be observed. If people look in the story of Noah, there are 7 commandments that people in his time are supposed to live by. In Judaism, those are the rules for non-Jews. Jews are required to learn and live by a stricter set of rules.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  15. qmcs

    There are no Gods of any type – how can you own something that does not exist? But it wonderfully American to imply a legal aspect to this and that one day, perhaps, when ownership is determined, lawyers will have lots of fun.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jim

      Since you are not omniscient, your statement is a statement of irrational belief. Good luck with that...

      December 7, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  16. Jim

    Nobody owns God, that is a purely foolish and common misconception. If Jesus is Messiah (and He is) then He is by definition the owner of the universe, not the other way around.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
    • The bible guy

      Welll said!

      December 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  17. Rachael

    You say "I came to see how little control Christians and Christianity have over how Jesus is seen and used... ". You don't seem to have much understanding of the history of Christianity or Christmas. Are you aware that Catholism was the original Christian church? Did you learn the history of Martin Luther and how he wrote the proclamation that created the Protestant movement? Are you aware of all the different Protestant religions that have been started since then? My point is Southern Baptists don't own Jesus or Christianity. There are numerous view points on Jesus that all fall under Christianity and who is to say is the most valid. As for Christmas, it is not only about Jesus, it is also a festival that has been celebrated by Europeans since before Christ was born and is very much about helping people get through the dark, snowy winter with good cheer. We know that historically Jesus was born in the Spring and his birth was added to Christmas later to reduce its pagan focus. Ultra religious Protestants have often been anti-Christmas and many people love Christmas even though they do not take the nativity story literally. Who is to say who owns any religious or spiritual thought? I'm glad I live in a country where each person can decide for themselves the true meaning of Jesus and Christmas and people of many religions can enjoy the Christmas holidays together, while also keeping their own personal beliefs.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • DWTT

      Catholicism is not the original church. Read their own encyclopedia since your so intense on education.

      December 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  18. Jesus' Dad

    Stop with the folderol. I said I own Jesus. Now don't make me come down there.

    December 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
    • Jim

      Good to see the junior highers are out in force on CNN...

      December 7, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  19. bushwhacked

    there is evidence that christianity is a version of hinduism,(as maybe judaism) and more than a passing similarity in their rituals and terms and dogma

    christos and krishna
    abraham and ram
    virgin birth of khrishna, and jesus
    sara and sarai and saraiswati
    the concept of the chosen one, and savior, and lord

    many more
    so why "own something" when you don't understand it.
    more drivel from academics with little practical thought on their articulated dogma.

    civilization, like religion came from the east, and there really are no "western religions" as this author is implying

    December 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jim


      You obviously had a comparative religion class. By design, the class is a VERY quick gloss over the very deep subject. It is classes like those that give only enough information as to make deep decisions from very little information (like thinking one knows about sailing a schooner because one "sailed" a balsam wood, toy boat in a shallow puddle). Those "similarities" are so shallow that they don't hold up under even minor scrutiny let alone real study.

      That is a classic case of having enough information to be dangerous but not enough to understand the subject matter.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • Keith1952

      Jim you are full of more mis-information than should be humanly possible. People of faith do not have to discount the truth in order to believe. bushwhacked is making a valuable point that Christianity like every other religion on earth has taken elements from other traditions. That is the undeniable truth unless you are a fundamentalist. If you are a fundamentalist anything then reason is not a part of your belief system.

      December 7, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  20. DudeWheresMyGod?

    What in the hell is this guy talking about?

    December 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • jobleaux

      He doesn't know.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:42 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.