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. HotAirAce

    You just have to love it! A group of believers (dare I say *christians*) worrying about practicing yoga because it might be tainted by other's beliefs... It's just exercise people!

    December 7, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Nicole

    I'm pretty sure Jesus, the man who died for our sins OWNS US........

    December 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • arun

      If Jesus had travelled to India when he was alive, He would have converted to Budhism..(Considering Budhism existed before Jesus).

      December 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      And I'm pretty sure he (jesus) didn't die for our sins and doesn't own anything. He's dead. Period! Get over it!!

      December 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
    • Nicole

      The son of God converting to Budhism....not hardly

      HotAirAce is appropriate (well minus the ace) because everything you wrote was hotair

      but thanks for replying.....made my last minute of work entertaining!!

      December 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  3. Fred Evil

    How can one own something that does not exist?

    December 7, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Smokey

    Yoga originates out of the hindu faith, and to practice yoga as it is intended one ought to have at least a passing familiarity with hindu ideas, beliefs, and philosophy. Yoga and meditation go together hand in hand. Just as Jesus tells us how to pray in the New Testament, Krishna tells us how to practice yoga in the Bhagavadgita. Both are spiritually uplifting techniques that better our mental state and wellbeing by allowing us to more closely approach the ultimate spiritual reality which is God.

    I think a Christian can practice yoga within their faith, just as a hindu could pray and venerate Christ, but some who practice more restrictive variants of the faith might disagree (I remember in Bible School they showed us all these videos on the dangers of getting involved in meditation, yoga, mormonism, scientology and so forth). It is scientifically proven that prayer, meditation and yoga all have tangible benefits to our health and wellbeing, overall happiness and satisfaction with life, but we ought to understand that these are merely byproducts of being brought closer to God, and are not the be-all and end-all of these ancient and effective practices.

    December 7, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  5. Julie Labrouste

    Wow. This is nothing but LOOKING for conflict. Nobody owns any of those things. Only in a capitalist society this grotesque can there be a story about who owns Jesus/yoga...SICK!

    December 7, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  6. Harry Bilbo Potter

    I want to know what happened to all the cavemen that were riding the dinosaurs before the flood. Did they believe in Jesus?
    Did Moses believe, what happened to all the people that existed before JC arrived to save everyone, except himself of course.

    December 7, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  7. How do we know?

    Indeed how do we know that anything we read is true – regardless of who writes it? Is it not by faith? Otherwise we must conclude that all that is written is a lie or a myth even what the scientist say because how do we know that all they put on paper is true?

    December 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  8. Jesus' Dad

    Stephen Aloysius, grow up.

    December 7, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • stephenaloysius

      I'm not the one pretending to be a deity.

      December 7, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  9. stephenaloysius

    I'm glad we could all take a little time out of our busy schedules today to bash each others beliefs. I never leave comments, but the level of stupidity and ignorance reached here today is awe inspiring. Here, how about this, quit worrying about other people and what they think and worry about yourself. But wait, you wouldn't be brave enough to bash someone in real life because it is not socially acceptable, so you get to do it here, you are awesome, how great you must feel to finally be able to tell someone different than you that they suck, high five yourself. I'm not picking a side, I'm just pointing out you are all generally dumb opinionated morons, and now you all have something in common. Happy Holidays.

    December 7, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  10. sealchan

    Of course, these concerns are only problematic if it is the stuff of ritual that primarily defines your spiritual practice. I guess this question is the concern of the Extroverted believer.

    December 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  11. butlerbulldawg74

    hallmark owns most of it.

    December 7, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  12. Desibloke

    I wish Sara Sidner contributed to this guy's article and made it all about monkeys and snakes in India.

    December 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  13. Bubba

    OK, I own both JC and Yoga. I bought them off this guy who was selling stuff in the alley. I didn't need the Brooklyn Bridge.

    December 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • Seorsa

      And your faith, the faith that brought you blindly to that alley, makes it real!

      December 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bubba

      Seo, I made up that story. Is it still real? How big does the lie have to be before it's not real?

      December 7, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • arun

      Sorry I patented both, (just like Facebook wants to patent the word 'Face'.).
      I own it.
      You have got the answer to this story, Now move on ( patents are still pending for Islam , if you want to patent them in your name).

      December 7, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  14. jeff

    I think the late, great Yoga Berra would have said: "How can a you stretch and think at the same time?"

    chortle, chortle,


    December 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Frogist

    Good god. Can christian right leaders become even more ridiculous? Apparently yes, yes, they can. Christians better get rid of all the other stuff that isn't christian too... but at least we won't have a tree massacre this year for the 25th. Of all the stupid things I've heard from religion these days, this takes the cake. Even if the cake is a lie. I can't even comment on the article which has some interesting ideas... I'm too flabbergasted by the idea that some people think yoga is threatening to christianity.

    December 7, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  16. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Gee, Stephan, almost 40 years ago when I was in college with minors in Religion and South Asian studies, I learned that Hindus had been revering Jesus as an Avatar, a son of God or a Mahatma since Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to the west coast of India! As far as Christians and Jews "adopting" Yoga, I think you are about 400 or so years behind the times. Jesuits brought back Yoga practices with them after their first missions to India, incorporating them into their own physical discipline routine.

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

      That would be Thomas supposedly brought back yoga after his mission to the subcontinent. But, since there is no actual evidence for this occuring, it is not recognized as accurate.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  17. Barking Alien

    Maybe we could just francise Jesus and send him royalty checks for Christmas.

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

      How much would a franchise cost, and would you have to buy your Jesus materials from the company or could you buy local stuff too?

      December 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  18. DCC

    Blind faith is nothing more than an excuse for ignorance.

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

      True words...and that is why most people don't have the blind faith of an atheist.

      December 7, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  19. TVS

    The Flight comments are hilarious... Steve McCroskey, looks like the author chose this week to start drinking and smoking weed all through to the weekend. This article is best 'incomplete and inconclusive'... he would be out in the first round of "are you smarter than a 5th grader".
    coming back to the topic , IMO: Religion is a human's way of finding the way to god, Yoga on the other hand is a way to keep his body healthy... remember the old saying "a healthy body has a Healthy mind".
    "Let you Faith rescue you !! " Peace out !!

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

      @TVS: They were from Airplane... I consider it a sign of the second coming of Leslie Nielsen.

      December 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude

      Surely you jest. 😀

      December 8, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  20. David Johnson

    I'm a believer now.

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

      Not a trace of doubt in my mind

      (Evolution might be true – I've certainly evolved from the Monkees... 🙂

      December 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude

      I can see all obstacles in my way....(oh, wait. that's a different song...sorry!)

      December 8, 2010 at 1:07 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.