I’ve been blogging a lot about suffering in the world, so I thought I’d take a quick break and wrap up a draft article that has been in the works for quite a while.
Yogic spirituality? That term may not be familiar to most, but it refers to those religious traditions that, broadly speaking, embrace the concept of a “cycle of life” that involves reincarnation and the overarching power of Karma as the driving force behind reincarnation. You can find out more about the term “Yogic Religion” and many other religious terms at Dr. Irving Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion. There are many variations on this religious theme (Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, etc) and my comments below are directed at the common elements in all of them as far as I understand them.
Before I get into the substance of my article, I have to say something about the title. Although the title may sound as though this article is going to be all about bashing Yogic traditions, I actually mean both descriptors in quite a literal sense. I mean “dehumanizing” precisely in the sense that Yogic traditions ask us to think and act in a manner that is “not human.” By “morally unmoored” I mean, precisely, that Yogic traditions lack sufficient moral clarity. While they do, technically, have some kind of moral framework behind them, practically speaking it’s pretty much an “anything goes” mentality as I will describe later.
I should also throw out another quick disclaimer about this article; it’s not primarily going to be scholarly. I will certainly reference scholarly sources, and other neutral sources of information, but I will also share several anecdotes of personal conversations I’ve had with people who adhere to Yogic religions, and anecdotes from others. I aim to bridge the gap between official doctrines of the Yogic religions and the rubber-hits-the-road perspective of your average Yogic on the street.
In what sense do Yogic traditions ask us to think and act in ways that are contrary to human nature? Primarily they do so by asking us to abandon our intellectual faculties. Below are a few examples from other sources and from my own experience. The first involves the human use of reason; specifically the law of non-contradiction. The second involves the use of language.
Ravi Zacharias loves to share a story of a lunch he had with a professor of Eastern philosophy who tried to convince him to see the world through a “both … and” perspective instead of an “either … or” perspective (follow this link to hear the illustration). As Ravi so brilliantly points out, though, the professor’s very act of trying to persuade him to see the world through his perspective points to the fact that the professor is implicitly working from an “either … or” perspective. “Either” a person sees the world from the professor’s perspective (i.e. the “both … and” perspective) “or” a person’s perspective is wrong. The law of non-contradiction, you see, is not optional. It is one of the three “laws of thought” in other words, laws that you have to abide by in order to think. It is a reality of the world around us and it is inherent to all forms of thought. Reason relies on it.
It is basic human nature to reason because the universe itself is reasonable by nature. This is not something that is imposed on us by our culture, but is fundamental to what it means to be human. As Ravi points out, even in India people look both ways before crossing the street because it is “either the bus or me, not both!” Reasoning is so fundamental to human nature that kids pick it up without having to be taught it. When you play hiding games with toddlers they instinctively realize that if the toy is not in your hands then it must be somewhere else, because either it is in your hands or it is not in your hands, but it cannot both be in your hands and not be in your hands at the same time. That is nonsense. It is so nonsensical, in fact, that if a toddler were to start looking for the toy after you showed them that it was in your hand then we would realize that something was wrong with that child.
I have the pleasure of interacting with a lot of people whose beliefs differ substantially from my own. On one such occasion I was having lunch with a friend I’ll call Jessica who was telling me about her new way of seeing the world, and strongly implying that I should embrace it (remember, it’s either her way or mine, not both, right?). I tried to point out that she was using a “law of non-contradiction” way of seeing the world, but she adamantly denied it. I gave an illustration. Suppose she and I were both looking at a van sitting outside the restaurant we were in. I said the van was blue and she said the van was green. I saw no way around the fact that one of us had to be wrong. It is not possible that we were both right.
She denied it. Even if we were looking at the same van and seeing different colors, to her that would mean there is not an objective reality that we are observing. Strangely, though, on another occasion she was going on at length about a certain crusader for an environmental cause and she declared, without a hint of flexibility in her assessment, that a person could not argue with this crusader because “he’s just right!” I didn’t notice the irony that she would make such a declaration until much later after the conversation so I didn’t point it out at the time. Oops, missed opportunity.
Another story. I had coffee with a different friend (let’s call him Darrin) who was telling me all about reincarnation, past lives and the entire process of growing, spiritually, from traditional Christian beliefs to these more “advanced” beliefs. He made the claim that there is no such thing as “heresy.” In other words, God would not keep us out of Heaven because of our beliefs no matter what they were. Whether or not that’s the case, I wanted to see if he, too, denied the law of non-contradiction so we discussed this concept at length. I gave the simple illustration of belief in reincarnation. He believes we come back after we die. I believe we do not. Upon our respective deaths one of us will be right and the other wrong. Either we will come back, or we will not. If I am reincarnated then my belief that I will not be reincarnated was wrong. Simple, right? Nope. He did everything he could to avoid saying that anybody was wrong, under any circumstance. Everything is true, nothing is false. He refused to agree with me that my belief that I will not be reincarnated was false. I cannot even remember how he justified that, but I just remember being amazed at the lengths he went to in order to avoid saying that my belief was wrong.
Let’s shift gears and think of another way that Yogic religions are dehumanizing; they expect us to stop using language properly. Think about Darrin’s statement for a moment, “everything is true.” The essence of language, and the use of words, is exclusive by nature. If I say “cat” for instance, then I am talking about one kind of animal, to the exclusion of other kinds of animals. When I talk about a “cat” I am not talking about a “fish.” Using a word – any word at all – necessarily means I am excluding any concept that is inconsistent with that word. Even the word “word” is used to describe something in language as opposed to something you might buy at the grocery store. Meaning in language is only possible if specific words are exclusive in nature.
What about the word “truth?” If everything is “true” then nothing is excluded. It would be like using the word “cat” to describe every animal. If so, then the word “truth” does not actually mean anything. Such a view requires us to reject the very nature and function of language itself, another very human enterprise. And, once again, this is not socially constructed either. Even when your child first utters the word “mama” it’s the mother, not the father, who gets excited. Why? Precisely because words mean things, and therefore they do not mean other things. It’s one or the other. Either / Or. It’s only human. In order for the word “true” to carry any meaning at all there must be some things which cannot be described by that word. If everything were really “true” then the entire concept of truth is meaningless.
In several ways, then, (and I’ve only touched on a couple of them) Yogic religions have this tendency to dehumanize us by asking us to strip away some of the very fundamental aspects of human nature. They ask us to stop reasoning. They ask us to see the world from an anti-rational perspective. They ask us to abandon the nature and function of language, though, ironically, they try to persuade us to do so by using language to describe their religion. They ask us to think from a non-human perspective; to voluntarily dehumanize ourselves.
This could be a touchy subject so I will focus more on the words of others instead of my own interpretations. I hope people will understand that this is not something I’m making up, nor am I attempting to spin what I have heard from others.
The first piece of evidence I will point to is the caste system in India and elsewhere. Certain races of people are subject to the most horrific treatment because, it is believed, their ethnic background is a result of their Karma. Not only do they suffer, that system of thought teaches that they are supposed to suffer. It is not only inevitable that they suffer; other humans are often expected to introduce or increase their suffering. My son was learning about this in school and we had quite a number of profound conversations exploring the subject.
Even if the Hindu system is morally appalling, that is not the only example of a Yogic religion. Surely other belief systems do better, right? In fact, Buddhism started, in part, because the Buddha was appalled at the caste system. Buddhism must do better, right? This story is from a young man who left a Buddhist monastery for a number of reasons including rampant sexual abuse and death threats.
For those who know only the gauzy Hollywood imagery of Little Buddha and Kundun and the beatific smile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it’s almost incomprehensible that Tibetan Buddhism would have its own Catholic Church–style problem. But Kalu says that when he was in his early teens, he was sexually abused by a gang of older monks who would visit his room each week. When I bring up the concept of “inappropriate touching,” he laughs edgily. This was hard-core sex, he says, including penetration. “Most of the time, they just came alone,” he says. “They just banged the door harder, and I had to open. I knew what was going to happen, and after that you become more used to it.” It wasn’t until Kalu returned to the monastery after his three-year retreat that he realized how wrong this practice was. By then the cycle had begun again on a younger generation of victims, he says.
Kalu’s run-in with his monastic tutor was anything but typical. According to Kalu, after returning from his retreat, he and the tutor were arguing about Kalu’s decision to replace the tutor. The older monk left in a rage and returned with a foot-long knife.
It would be right to point out, as the article does, that the Christian church has its own share of problems, including sexual abuses. The difference, though, seems to be the ability of a Yogic religion to justify such behavior whereas the Christian religion most emphatically does not. What do I mean? When you accept a Yogic view of life, part of the package deal is this concept that if something bad happens to somebody else they deserved it. That’s the nature of Karma. By way of contrast, when Jesus was asked if a certain man was born blind because of his own sins or the sins of his parents, Jesus refuted both explanations (John 9:1-3). Suffering in this life, generally speaking, is not a result of divine judgment. On the contrary, we are called to help those who suffer precisely because they do not deserve it! In the Karmic system you may be called to make them suffer because they do deserve it. There is a huge, fundamental, difference between the two and it explains why certain abuses in Christianity will always run counter to the spirit of our religion whereas abuses in Yogic religions can find justification from their religious paradigm (as in the caste system).
According to my friend who spent years in Thailand (a predominantly Buddhist country) while he worked with the Burmese people, it was not uncommon for adults to sell younger family members into the sex slave industry. How could this possibly be common? It is morally horrifying! Well, it turns out, if those poor kids end up in a miserable situation then either they deserve it because of something they did in a past life, or their unpleasant circumstances right now are building up positive Karma for a better shot at things next time around. He saw that reality first-hand, but here is some literature to back up that anecdotal observation. First, confirmation that families will sell their own children.
Families in rural areas may sell their daughters for money and then rely on the steady income provided by their prostituted daughters.
And here’s some confirmation of the reasoning behind the sales of their daughters. While the motivation is often economic (poverty is widespread) it is wrapped up in the language of, and justified by, their religion.
Religion also affects Thai girls on a personal level. Buddhism prescribes “acceptance and resignation in the face of life’s pain and suffering.” in accordance with the Buddhist concept of karma. As a result, many young girls that enter prostitution remain there, believing that providing support for their family in this case through prostitution, will have a better life when reincarnated.
…Most of Somaly Mam’s girls [who have escaped sexual slavery] grew up in a culture where the vast majority of citizens embrace Buddhism, which teaches that suffering is a necessary part of life and a result of karma, or a person’s behavior in a past life.
Sexual exploitation, and the Yogic cultures that not only condone it, but frankly perpetuate it, is not the only example of moral unmooring. During the conversation I had with Jessica whom I mentioned earlier, we ended up talking about the Nazi Holocaust. I was trying to make the point that surely if there was ever an occasion where a person was simply wrong to do something – an action that was simply morally unjustified without qualification – it was the holocaust. I kid you not her response was this (as best I can recall her exact words), “it may sound heartless, but the fact that the Jews were killed as they were means they must have deserved it because of what they did in their previous lives.” She went on to describe how we need to stop thinking in moral terms with respect to some things being absolutely right and absolutely wrong, but rather what helps people along their journey of Samsara (the cycle of life).
I have to agree with Dr. Hexham, an expert in world religions, when he observes that
Many members of new [yogic] religions say they remember past lives and adventures. Their “memories” give them a false sense of personal worth and enable them to escape difficult personal relationships with the excuse that they have not yet found their “soul mate.” Simply put, the idea of rebirth is often used to avoid moral obligations. (page 76-77 my emphasis)
“… Avoid moral obligations.” Indeed. In some cases it is far worse than that; Yogic traditions provide the philosophical grounds to behave in a morally repugnant manner.
Folk religion vs official doctrine
It could be argued that these problems are not a result of official doctrine of the Yogic paradigm, but rather that the masses have simply misunderstood what their beliefs actually teach. That is certainly possible. I have been amazed at how many Christians (and particularly ex-Christians) have an appallingly inadequate understanding of some very basic doctrines of Christianity. Could it be that the majority of Yogic believers simply “don’t get it?”
If that is the case then we should call on the religious leaders to correct that problem. It appears, though, that they are part of the problem. Or, they are the problem. The highest level of the Caste system in India, for instance, is the priests. If the Caste system was clearly inconsistent with their religious orthodoxy then they should be openly and loudly protesting that they would even be in the system at all, much less at its pinnacle. Furthermore, it was a story about sexual abuse by Buddhist monks that I shared earlier that was horrifying; they, too, are religious leaders. In other words, the problem goes straight to the top.
Secondly, though, one should rightly ask how that many lay-people could be that horribly mistaken. Even in Christian circles it is not uncommon to find lay-people who simply don’t get the basis of the faith, but it is also easy to find lay people who are more theologically informed than some clergy! When moral outrage and/or extreme theological error occurs in Christian circles there are always enough of the Christians who “get it” to protest the error. On the contrary, Thailand has one of the highest proportions of Buddhists in the world and is also one of the primary sex-trade nations in the world. This would only be possible if the general paradigm of the vast majority of the Thai people allowed that to happen. Frankly, if the Yogic paradigm simply does not condone what is happening then the number of Thai believers who understand the truth must be so small as to be virtually negligible. How did that gargantuan of an error get accepted by that large of a majority of the laity?
The explanation that the “average Yogic just doesn’t get the truth” is a tough pill to swallow. Of course you also get a lot of people who buy into the Yogic paradigm in the Western world, and they clearly and loudly protest these actions. Though some in the Western world who embrace a Yogic paradigm may protest these ideas, others do not. The friends that I mentioned earlier – Jessica and Darrin – are both very white and very English. They hardly represented a break from the Eastern way of thinking. Rather, it seems to me, the many Westerners who are enamoured with Yogic religions and just cannot fathom how it could lead to such moral horror, are like the Christians whose only concept of Jesus is that he wants to be my buddy. They just don’t get it.
Through personal anecdotes, straight from the mouths of those who embrace these ideas, and through scholarly resources I hope I have shown that Yogic religions (those that embrace the broad paradigm of Karma and Reincarnation) tend to push their adherents to abandon the most basic elements of what it means to be human, and the most basic clarity with respect to moral obligations. I do not mean to insult, but to inform, though I find the information deeply disturbing on several levels. Next time somebody says they are going to do yoga, or they make some off-the-cuff remark about “good karma” hopefully this article will give you a little insight into the worldview that informs such ideas and practices. And if you are starting to think maybe there is something to all these ideas, buyer beware!
If all of this strikes you as somewhat unnerving, perhaps you might want to consider (or reconsider) the claims of Jesus. He was quite obviously an adherent of the law of non-contradiction when he claimed to be “the Truth” to the exclusion of all others (John 14:6). Rather than dehumanizing us, he wants to fulfill our humanity (John 10:10). Furthermore, he made it clear that we have moral obligations to help those who suffer (Matthew 25:31-46) rather than looking down our noses at them for sins they supposedly committed in some past life! If that sounds a little more “humanizing” and “morally moored” to you, then you should take the time to get to know Jesus a little better.