Yogic spirituality – dehumanizing and morally unmoored

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.

Dehumanizing

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.

Morally unmoored

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.

http://digital.law.washington.edu/dspace-law/bitstream/handle/1773.1/946/4PacRim\ LPolyJ505.pdf?sequence=1

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.

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

…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.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/february-12-2010/rescuing-chi\
ld-sex-workers/5684/

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.

Summary

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.

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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11 Responses to Yogic spirituality – dehumanizing and morally unmoored

  1. Pingback: Yogic spirituality – dehumanizing and morally unmoored | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. wishwon says:

    Great article! Just to add something to the discussion however; you said “On the contrary, we are called to help those who suffer precisely because they do not deserve it!” I don’t think this is entirely correct Christian theology. The suffering we endure is something we do indeed deserve. God is a perfect judge, plus God is Sovereign over all affairs of this universe. But, more primary to God being Judge, is that God is Love. He was Love in the Trinity before there was anything to judge. This is then the foundation, or motivation, for Grace. While Karma is impassioned justice, God is not. He is far removed from impassioned, and He relates to us primarily through Grace, not Judgment. Since we we have received His unwarranted Grace, we are told to share this Grace with others. We love others (help them and what-not) because God first Loved us. We don’t help others because they don’t deserve to suffer, as we all deserve suffering; but we do so because God’s perfect Judgment is overshadowed by His Grace, and we who try to follow in His footsteps need to do the same thing. We primarily approach our fellow man in an attitude of love and grace. (There is much more to this story then what is outlined)

    • Paul Buller says:

      Excellent point. Indeed the depravity of humanity is such that we do, in fact, deserve a lot of unpleasantness. The Biblical message, though, seems to be that human suffering in this life is not a result of Divine judgment. That’s saved for the next life. In this life, as you suggested, we are to spread God’s grace instead of assuming somebody’s suffering is the result of Divine judgment.

  3. Christine says:

    Hey Paul, really enjoyed your article. I have been thinking a lot about the very same things recently too. But, I wanted to ask your thoughts on yoga. After years of avoiding yoga, I took it up this year and it has really, really, REALLY helped me. I have mobility back in joints that I have not had in years, and I’ve been able to get off my heavy-duty rheumatoid arthritis drugs. There is just no denying the physical benefit yoga has had on my body. The type of yoga I do (Bikram) is incredibly athletic and focuses on the healing benefits of the poses (although, frankly, Bikram himself seems a bit conceited and off his rocker). I know there are types of yoga that are antithetical to Christianity, but not all are. It seems like the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bathwater to dismiss all types of yoga.

    • Paul Buller says:

      Christine,

      I have to take my lead from Douglas Groothuis. In a lecture series of his that I listened to he covers New Age spirituality, including Yoga. I don’t recall exactly which lecture it was in which he covered Yoga, but the New Age stuff starts at lecture 33.

      http://www.lastseminary.com/apologetics-survey/

      His point seemed well made that stretching is a part of yoga, but stretching is not identical with yoga. Yoga goes beyond merely physical actions and includes an element of spirituality (centering oneself, emptying one’s mind, etc) which goes far beyond mere stretches and is informed by a very specific worldview with very specific metaphysical goals in mind. If a person does various stretches then a person is not practicing Yoga any more than a person who goes for a swim is being Baptized (my analogy, not his). However, the moment your activity falls under the banner of “Yoga” (or “Baptism”) then you have moved beyond the merely physical into the metaphysical. And the metaphysical paradigm that undergirds Yoga is something people ought to know about before blindly walking into Yoga thinking “I’m just in it for the stretches.” There are plenty of other ways of doing stretches without dabbling with these kinds of Eastern philosophies. I don’t do any of them, but I’ve heard of Pilates; is that primarily about stretching, but absent any suspicious metaphysical attachments?

      And I should point out that if Bikram may be a bit conceited and off his rocker then Groothuis is a bit opinionated and eccentric. Still, that doesn’t make him wrong! Listen to his lecture series and see what you think.

  4. TMB2 says:

    You touched on it by saying that consistent monists will ‘abandon the most basic elements of what it means to be human,’ but I get the sense that if you were to ask a monist if their brand of monism was dehumanizing, the answer you would be back would be, ‘purposefully so.’

    Monism describes reality as being metaphysically broken (in contrast to Christianity, which says that reality is morally broken). Reality, as the monist describes it, is an absolute unity, a complete oneness. The person as an individual exists only an illusion foisted upon the absolute unity. It is out of this state of illusory individuation that our troubles come. To fix this metaphysical situation, you have to eliminate the illusion of particulars.

    It is true, as you pointed out, that this leads the consistent monist to abandon reason – in absolute unity, there is no difference between A and non-A. It is also true that this leads the consistent monist to abandon morality – in absolute unity, there is no difference between cruelty and non-cruelty. This is dehumanization, yes – but that’s the point.

    Given that monism describes individual persons as illusions in light of an absolute unity, and given that monism seeks to eliminate this illusion, it can be accurately said that monism is dehumanizing in the dictionary sense of removing from reality any individual human quality. The differentiated masses are the problem! The fact that I see me as me, and you see you as you is the problem. In this view, the individual person is an obstacle to be overcome and a bad dream to be awakened from. Man qua man is only a shadow and a shade, a nothingness that never truly was, a shabby suit to be worn for a time and then disposed of.

    Don’t tell a monist they need to be born again. It will only depress them.

    • Paul Buller says:

      You are spot on! I didn’t want the article to grow too long (it was already rather lengthy) so I didn’t get into the fact that this is precisely what they are shooting for. Groothuis covers this at length in the link I provide in the other comment.

      Many people are enamoured with Eastern thinking and they have a very romantic view of what it looks like. In particular, a lot of people seem to think that a Yogic frame of reference can be melded with, or at least is not entirely inconsistent with, a Christian (or a vaguely-Christian) frame of reference. The two are even more dissimilar than water and oil. My hope in this article was primarily to raise awareness of some of the full implications of Yogic religions that many in Western cultures may not be aware of. Indeed much more could be said about why they do this, their understanding of the nature of reality and so forth.

      Do you know of any good resources people could reference to further their study of the subject? Links would be wonderful.

      • TMB2 says:

        Ellis Potter was a Buddhist monk for quite a few years before abandoning the religion, but he still has great sympathy for the metaphysics behind it. He can describe monism as being beautiful in a way I never could. He has written a few articles here and there, but what has helped me most was a lecture he gave where he compares monism, dualism, and trinitarianism

        [audio src="http://www.martinweaver.net/Ellis/soundfiles/Comparing_Eastern_and_Western_Worldviews.MP3" /]

  5. Chris says:

    Hi Paul,
    Although there may be social injustice in countries that are predominantly “yogic,” we also see many, many examples of this in so-called Christian societies. What about the ways in which colonial Christian empires laid waste to many of the countries they were “civilizing”? What about slavery? What about the witch hunts, the Crusades and the Inquisition? Aren’t these examples of a Christian society that is “morally unmoored,” as you describe yogic societies? If both religions, Christianity and Yogic, have these types of morally reprehensible histories, what makes Christianity better? The Bible may SAY that we are all equal in Christ, that we are to love our neighbour, but clearly this has not happened, historically speaking. What really matters is how people treat each other, and I’m not sure it can be argued that Christians (have) treat(ed) people much better than the yogis.

    • Paul Buller says:

      I already addressed precisely that point in the article so I will be brief. When your religion has been around for 2000 years and has been adopted by 1/3 of the humans on the face of the planet, the odds of finding a few wackos here and there, or even groups of people who don’t get it, across the entire history is about as difficult as finding somebody wearing plaid in a large enough crowd. It may be unlikely, but given a large enough crowd…

      The question is never whether a person who claims allegiance to such-and-such worldview does something horrible, but whether the worldview itself is more likely to inspire somebody to do something horrible, avoid doing something horrible, or is relatively silent either way. I already explained the difference between Yogic religions and Christianity with respect to the general paradigm. That some Christians have screwed it up (heck, we all do!) is neither surprising nor problematic to the veracity of Christianity.

      And with respect to the impact that Christianity has had on the global scene I strongly recommend the book “6 modern myths about Christianity and Western Civilization” by Philip J Sampson. It’s loaded with eye-opening facts and pages of footnotes to his references.

      • wishwon says:

        Just to add emphasis, people acting evilly is a strong part of Christianity. Christianity teaches that we are born with an evil nature. (Total Depravity) And Christianity teaches that even after Salvation we continue to struggle with this nature, and that we will never overcome it this side of death. I would say even stronger then the odds are sin will happen because of the largeness of the faith, that Christians acting evilly is inevitable. I know I have.

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