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. Iqbal khan

    Why they are Reverting (converting) to Islam:


    December 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  2. Iqbal khan

    Listen and read Quran in many languages....www.Quranexplorer.com
    check this Surah....

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

    Glorify the Name of your Lord, the Most High, (1) Who has created (everything), and then proportioned it; (2) And Who has measured (preordainments for everything even to be blessed or wretched); and then guided (i.e. showed mankind the right as well as wrong paths, and guided the animals to pasture); (3) And Who brings out the pasturage, (4) And then makes it dark stubble (5) We shall make you to recite (the Qur'ân), so you (O Muhammad (SAW)) shall not forget (it), (6) Except what Allâh, may will, He knows what is apparent and what is hidden. (7) And We shall make easy for you (O Muhammad (SAW)) the easy way (i.e. the doing of righteous deeds). (8) Therefore remind (men) in case the reminder profits (them) (9) The reminder will be received by him who fears (Allâh), (10) But it will be avoided by the wretched, (11) Who will enter the great Fire (and will be made to taste its burning). (12) There he will neither die (to be in rest) nor live (a good living). (13) Indeed whosoever purifies himself (by avoiding polytheism and accepting Islâmic Monotheism) shall achieve success, (14) And remembers (glorifies) the Name of his Lord (worships none but Allâh), and prays (five compulsory prayers and Nawâfil — additional prayers). (15) Nay, you prefer the life of this world, (16) Although the Hereafter is better and more lasting. (17) Verily, this is in the former Scriptures — (18) The Scriptures of Ibrâhim (Abraham) and Mûsa (Moses). (19)

    December 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
  3. Brahman

    Okay, let's put an end to all of this. I forbade any practioners of Christianity, particularly those that are evangelical, to partake in yoga.

    December 8, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude

      What's a "practioner"? Is that like a "religulous"? Inquiring minds want to know....

      December 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Deism fits my beliefs best:


    December 8, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  5. martian1abcd

    When Arjuna asked Lord Krishna about the different people and their different belief Lord Krishna answered and said, ' as i have made everyone differently so will they worship me in their own way.' Our core belief is that everyone regardless of religion will eventually find our way to god. So the practice of yoga is not specific to the hindu people though it is true that it originated with them and many of the positions of yoga are actual poses of our deities. If it can improve the well being of Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Moslem whatever your own beliefs, Yoga is there, and if it brings peace and serenity to you then let it be. Religion is only a word. God exists within. Peace

    December 8, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  6. Anonymous

    I agree with what this guy says in his blog – that Bible, Koran, and other holy texts should be read as allegory instead of literrally:


    December 8, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  7. maddawg

    i have another simple question...

    who in the world asks such STUPID questions????

    religion is a man made, lemming concept.......i'm betting it was one of those lemmings that asked such.........well....lemming questions. very typical!

    December 8, 2010 at 7:10 am |
  8. Nate

    Faith is substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. To find the heart of God is to be true to your faith and to be INFORMED about your faith so that you can gain understanding of the other faiths around you. There is a difference between being confident in your own beliefs and merely being judgemental about everyone else's.

    To dredge up a comment from this article, if you think religious faith and symbols can't be copyrighted, check out Scientology. That doesn't necessarily make it wrong, because declaring a faith (any faith) to be morally superior simply because "I said so" is only judgemental. However, once again, if you are confident about your faith, well, you know...

    December 8, 2010 at 6:44 am |
    • NL

      "Faith is substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."

      OK, I know that Christian apologetics prefers cryptic wording like this so that believers can imagine what it means for themselves, but for the rest of us can you please explain what you mean by this in plain English?

      December 8, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  9. Jasper

    "Who owns Jesus" has to be the stupidest question ever uttered by a human being.

    December 8, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  10. Sheldon

    What about the fact that Christianity itself has "stolen" from Pagan religions– everything about Jesus's birth including the date, virgin mother, 3 kings, guiding star, etc., are all found in numerous Pagan religions. And there's the "stolen" holidays suchs as Xmas and EAster, both of which originally had Pagan significance. Even the Christmas tree was a Pagan symbol-as well as the cross itself.

    Religion without thievery (or "syncretism", as the scholars call it) is a contradiction in terms.

    Who owns Jesus? The Pagans!!!!

    December 8, 2010 at 1:37 am |
  11. Rose Bigelow

    Dr Prothero...I was in your New Testament Theology class at GSU in 1992...Loved the class and I had a terrible crush on you...just discovered your blog...love it!

    December 7, 2010 at 11:14 pm |
    • Facebukk

      You had a crush on old trollface? O_o

      December 8, 2010 at 5:48 am |
    • Sumerian Dude

      Rose and Stephen sittin' in a tree...

      December 8, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  12. Seb

    To All Hindus, read Rig Veda to know better about Jesus.! Then talk about Yoga!.
    To All Christians, practice yoga to learn the true value of Jesus.!

    December 7, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
  13. GB

    Well all I am saying is 95 percent of the people who comment on this site do not even own let alone ever really read a bible. The only biblical text is from "word of mouth" by who knows source. At the end of the day Christ is Love and displays his love fully. I as a christian am telling all the believers out there that they are a huge part of the reason people turn away from Christ because they try to live in the world and say 'I believe In Christ". However the bible states not everyone claiming they knew him will enter and he will tell them he never knew them. You have to actually change. I would rather hang with non believers any day for atleast they are not trying to double dip and think they are fooling God with their mouths claiming they know him yet their life reflects the world. Christ is coming......

    December 7, 2010 at 10:14 pm |
    • NL

      "Well all I am saying is 95 percent of the people who comment on this site do not even own let alone ever really read a bible."
      Like many American atheists I own a few bibles in hard copy, have a collection of versions on my iPhone, have bookshelves of other religious texts, and I read from them all regularly. You can't just dismiss everyone who disagrees with you as not reading the bible; we just interpret it differently, is all.

      "Christ is coming......"
      It's been about 2000 years and some Christians have been sitting on the edge of their seats the whole time. Maybe you all will have a cheerier outlook on life if you just relax those muscles a little, eh?

      December 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  14. Jataayu

    His comparisons are absurd, to say the least.

    Ramakrishna Mutt is not stealing or copying Jesus. why do they need to, when there are enough of gods and saints in the Hindu pantheon itself? Nor are they saying that "Jesus is not christian" so that they can comfortably celebrate christmas, without any feeling of "guilt" or stigma.

    They are admiring and adoring Jesus as a Christian symbol as such, unconditionally, in line with Sri Ramakrishna's teaching of respecting all religions. That is why RK Math is celebrating Christmas Eve.

    This is totally different from what the Yoga merchants are doing.

    December 7, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
  15. paul.c

    All these posts,all these wars.all these peoples dead,all these people brainwashed,all these people divided,all these people burned at the stake,all this arguing,all this money gubbing,all of these lies,all the self righteousness,all the arrogance....for something that has never been proven to exist...faith is for those who dont know the truth.What a joke

    December 7, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  16. Keith1952

    My last statement must have had too many big words in it. The moderator must be having a rough time getting through it.

    December 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
    • Reality

      Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments. See below:

      "Raison's Filter Fiber© (joking about the copyright)
      1. Here's my latest list – this seems like a good spot to set this down, as nobody's posting much on this thread.....
      bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to post that wonderful argument:
      Many, if not most are buried within other words, but I am not shooting for the perfect list, so use your imagination and add any words I have missed as a comment (no one has done this yet)
      – I found some but forgot to write them down. (shrugs).
      c-um.........as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, etc.
      sp-ic........as in disp-icable (look out Sylvester the cat!)
      ho-mo...whether ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, etc.
      t-it.........const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, (an unexpected one)
      va-g....as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant
      ar-se....yet "ass" is not filtered!
      jacka-ss...but ass is fine lol
      p-is.....as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, etc.
      There are more, so do not assume that this is complete.
      okay words that you might not expect to be filtered....!!!

      Here's a word to add to the banned list: co-co-on
      whether it's c-oc, or co-on, this is ridiculous

      December 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm |
    • Blank

      What is this old crap? Why haven't you updated this list?

      December 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  17. Jim Bob

    Kindness is essential to all religions, and haters are disqualified from all religions. Unless the religion is a cult in disguise.

    December 7, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
    • sanjay

      Anything which says "Our God is true, your God is false" cannot be a reigion - it is a cult.

      December 8, 2010 at 4:03 am |
  18. Jerry

    It's about Jesus, not about religion.

    December 7, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
    • NL

      How does that work? You believe, but do nothing about it?

      December 7, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
  19. brandon s

    Oh my god, what a giant waste of time this is

    In the words of the late Robert Anton Wilson, "Agnosticism is the only sensible position."

    December 7, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
    • NL

      Point is, nobody knows for certain. People just make up their minds, and then live their lives accordingly. You can remain an uncommitted agnostic for only so long. At some point shouldn't you really make up your mind and live as if God is, or is not, really out there.

      December 7, 2010 at 11:50 pm |
  20. Reality

    Once a day WARNING for new commentators:–

    • The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".

    • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.

    Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments.

    December 7, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
    • Sumerian Dude

      @Reality – You should post a link to the newest and best list instead of dragging around these moth-eaten paragraphs....!

      December 8, 2010 at 1:10 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.