Is Yoga A Religion? What Constitutes A Religion?

This article is graciously provided for republication by the author, Swami Nityamuktananda Saraswati (Dr. Christa-Maria Herrmann), German by birth, naturalized British, originally studying Theology, her university studies soon expanded to Education, Psychology, Philosophy and Art and Design (Ceramics). Different teaching jobs (in colleges and universities) in various countries followed. At the center of her studies (as well as her teaching) was always the subject of 'Self-awareness'.

Is Yoga a Religion?In Silence, we have no problem, but once we use words... the problem starts.

It helps if we are clear about our terminology. What is Religion, Philosophy, Spirituality.

Religion the word comes from Latin: religare meaning "to bind together"; the joining character of the word is expressed in the word ligament, the structure that binds together muscle and bone.

In conventional understanding this means, binding together via a prophet, a sacred text/book, an obligation or... even a shared history . But the term can also be understood in a wider, anthropological and historic sense, even a cultural sense... as we will see.

"Religion" classically binds people to a canon of scriptures, a prophet or divine incarnation, certain rites, laws and dogmas. But they of course do not come from nowhere , these are themselves bound to frames within which they express. Either way, per definition:

"Religion" is an Organisation that binds metaphysical insights into form (i.e. teachings, rituals, organisations) and people share their commitment to these via initiations/baptism/ceremony/vows and other customs, such as body markings .

We can interpret the word different, in a wider sense and say: religare means to join the individual with society, world and the cosmos ... without referring to special forms of this process, such as propagated in various systems / traditions and formalised belief-structures. In that way the term is more liberal not fixed to dogma but simply referring to a coherent connection of all existence (which then has nothing to do with priestly intercession, or ceremony and ritual.

Unfortunately this deeper meaning got buried under piles of dogmas of one colour or the other. "Any spiritual or philosophical ligaments that remained to connect humanity to the world enlarge and the cosmos were severed when scientific materialism superseded theism." (Bruce Lipton) But let's leave that for the moment.

With the wider understanding of "religion", we have to now ask ourselves.... is Yoga, indeed is our very own 'Himalayan tradition' by definition not becoming a religion? (consider the two explanations of the term).

This might shock you, but look at the evidence:

I repeat: Religion is an Organisation that binds metaphysical insights into form (i.e. teachings, rituals, organisations) and people share their commitment to these via initiations/ baptism/ceremony/vows and other customs.

The more, in other words, that we fix the shared insights into form (be it teachings, rituals and yes... organisation), the more we draw a fence around us and our understanding, and commit ourselves to just such teaching and ritual by forms of commitment, the closer we come to the classical definition to a religion. The more we draw a fence, the more there is them and us.

But let's not be hasty in our perception and look also at related other concepts which might help to understand, what constitutes a religion: i.e. Philosophy.

Philosophy too is Organisation, this time, of mental activity and thoughts into systems or concepts. So 1st. point: Religion and Philosophy both of these are external organisations of what?

Organisation of what has been understood/revealed/seen/what goes on inside a person, and by being externalized has consequence, in a culture and its thought worlds.

Now the term philosophy itself means 'lover of wisdom', but like the term 'religion', it has two aspects: A formalised system, externalized and expressed in a cultural frame; so that it can be taught, fixed and followed intellectually by other minds; in other words: a mental organisation/a system... hence we can talk of "isms" such as Existentialism, Communism, or any other ism... "ism" itself, refers to a fixed system.

Or we can use the word philosophy in much more individual way, as to denote our own understanding of life, such as when Swami Rama uses the expression: "Philosophy of Life". Now both of these, when externalized fall under the definition of religion and Philosophy, because as before mentioned they refer to Systems, to Organisation of something... which one loves, or even is bound to.

But then How come different people in different corners of the world have developed different organisations/systems.

For understanding that, lets for a moment digress to what we know of Yoga: Yoga is the science of the mind; wise ones have come to the conclusion, that how we perceive the world and ourselves depends on the 'mind-make-up'. What is nowadays called "a matrix!" And the matrix, 'the mind-make- up' has grown with the experience, the perception of the environment. We make our world according to what our perception/or (should I say) our learned projection tells us about the world we live in. We have learned this matrix, like we learn everything else... but may be the influence for that learning.. has its roots way back into antiquity.

So let's make an excursion... several thousands of years back... when the original social matrixes of man's mind-sets grew.

Some people lived in the desert... life in the Oasis, was determined by protecting and providing for my clan, my family, my food source, around my water-whole. Meaning, a great deal of organisation around a Patriarch who over-sees the distribution of water and food... guarantees the survival of the clan. Outsiders pose a threat to the limited resources. Extrapolating an image of God from my own experience/mind matrix... God is understood as a super patriarch, who looks after his children; who judges who and what resources and welfare action... etc. to be taken. He is the one, to obey.

 Now other people lived in the sub-tropical Climate - regions of the world, where food is available in abundance, where life force is tangible in every plant, animal and being. Hence the minds project that experience into the image of God, who then is present in everything in abundance. He is the All- soul, the life force; the beauty in everything and everyone. Such mind-set developed mainly in South East Asia. And to some degree... all over Asia.

Lastly we have people who lived in the ever change Climatic conditions of northern Europe... Sometimes it's warm and plants grow, then comes winter no growth, no food. So an analytical mind-set has to develop, that studies in detail, when, what and how to grow food, make shelter etc. Processes and conditions of existence (matter) has to be analysed and its laws studied - ultimately this creates materialistic philosophies...

Now do not take this in any limited frame... but be aware that humanity has always been on the move and influenced each-other. See the above as guidelines, points that have developed different ways to organise and bind what is known in different systems... depending on influences such as environment, and climate and later culture.

People across the globe experience the divine, a power greater than themselves and now according to their mind-set; their "mind -make up" which is of course conditioned by their environment and culture... frames this experience. Once externalized and expressed in a certain way, their experience becomes fixed, especially when handed down.... over generations.

Although the experience, of that highest power, that is beyond the human (latin: Divine)... is shared... the expression is different... fixed in different frames.

The more fixed... the more a Religion... "that which binds".

That understood; let's look at the shared underlying experience; that which goes on inside. It is that which we call Spirituality. 

The first two, Religion and Philosophy, externalise what is happening internally.

Let's recap: We understand, by comparing to memory files stored in our mind and these "memory files" are put there through interaction with the external world. In short, whatever we meet on the outside world, we note - we take up through our senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling) - process it and store it. These files then act as reference points to understand future input, or what happens within us.

Understanding can happen either by comparing new input with what is stored in these memory files (which is in the world of Yoga what we call the conditioned mind: manas), or by simply accept something as it is, without interpreting and conceptualising it - or storing it. The latter, one could call a direct or original experience. We simply observe what happens, without judgement, without overlay of words and concepts!

We know, because it happens to us. From this direct experience, change happens within our own selves, within our essence. This inner conviction, this inner knowing, in our own spirit, is what is called Spirituality!

That means: Spirituality can not and has - no system, there are no fixed expectations or concepts it is simply "our experience", ever fresh, ever new!

Spirituality then is subjective, experience based and - something that continuously moves us on.

With every experience I change, with every experience there is a new "experiencer" thus there is constant movement without creating calcified structure! The experience itself moves me constantly closer to my potential, becoming more whole, more loving, wiser, more kind.

It is interesting to note that in modern science, modern evolutionary theory; it is recognized that evolution happens only when there is NO OUTSIDE calcified structure!

It's kind of understandable, that if the structure, is fixed... there can be no growth; and that on the smallest living organism/cell just as in multinational business of today.

Where there are shells, where there is hard protection; fences against change... there are limitations, meaning: no growth can happen. When the structure is on the inside (such as in vertebrae) growth can happen... in evolutionary terms... the brain/neo-cortex could evolve.

It means we need to be constantly vigilant not to have expectations, to grow into rigid frames. Swami Rama warned over and over of not to have expectations, because they are just-what leads to such fixations, dogma, limitations!

We need constant alertness, to prevent getting fixed in a mould, unaware and taking things for granted, i.e. "I had a lovely meditation yesterday, saw such light, felt such happiness and... I want today to have the same meditation!" When this is how I think, then the balance tips and gradually spirituality becomes religion!

So spirituality keeps me in the Now, the mind alive and fresh. Religions and Philosophies binds to fixed outside frames that limit growth.

How can we cultivated such ever fresh spirituality?

Usually when we encounter any situation or object we react in two possible ways: I like it - or dislike it; consequently I either run to the object (or event) or away from it. In this way our whole life is spent running to...or from... If I stop running - I am present and am in my centre, I am "at home" wherever I am, whatever the situation. From this centre I can act afresh, appropriate to any situation - without a fixed shell! Call it what you may: religion, tradition; system; or... or!

Yoga is a path that teaches us to learn from our own experience!

We observe our interaction with the world, understand its nature and cultivate harmony between the "world outside me" and the "world inside me" without getting fixed on either!

Now this is done by a Shaman from the Amazon in his unique way, a Buddhist monk from outer Mongolia in his way... It is done by Benedictine Monks in their special way; an Atheist can have yet another way; and a Vedantin or Christian Protestant can do it still differently.

What is important is not the form, the frame, the cultural laws and habits... but my experience of that which is beyond me. We have to learn to discriminate between the form and the essence!

Hence the call of most great Masters, whether Buddha, Mahavira, Swami Vivekananda or Jesus Christ is: "Awake, awake!" Allow yourself to experience....

When we fix things, they become habits, they become stale, they go wrong - because we expect them to be in a certain way, we take them for granted, and "can do them in our sleep!" Then we cause problems to the world or the world causes problems to us.

Spiritual life is a life of extreme alertness; we become the witness to the mechanics of thoughts, emotions and sensations and then we change our selves according to our own experience! That makes us free from all obedience to systems! It empowers us... to learn from our own life... not from someone else experience , not from books or dogma that tell us: this is how it is! Find out yourself!

What about Religion and Philosophy?

A religious life is a life where I am told to change according to other people's awareness, I am guided by what other people say is good for me. I follow!

It's very similar with philosophy; a philosopher makes his thoughts into concepts/ systems of thoughts and I am to follow! Given time, both religion and philosophy deal with other people's concepts. The further removed the concepts are from the original experience, the more complex and calcified they grow. This is a universal phenomenon, which over time gets compounded by man's tendency for power games. (i.e. the original Christian experience was first overlaid by the Greek intellectual philosophy, then by the Roman power-structure).

Now religions can and do often house spirituality (Mysticism), and similarly philosophy can house spirituality, but spirituality can house neither! When it does - it gets lost!

It's the inherent drive in man to learn from his own experience, which is what evolution is about; people do not learn because we say so! Without personal experience we get lost in religious structure, in the religious differences, in philosophical thoughts. And here lies a crucial point: spirituality has to constantly question itself! Only constant self-inquiry (self-awareness) leads to the loss of the egotistical "I", without this, the practitioner of spiritual disciplines loses purity of perception. We need to constantly experiment with our own life's perceptions (see Swami Vedas statement in the Upaaya kaya)

But now... pay attention, here comes the difficulty: In order to asses our own experience, we need a yardstick, something to guide us, hence we should study the various sacred scriptures. But study, not with blindness, not by looking at the thoughts of others as though they are objective facts (--- that does not exist; it's a fallacy...) facts are simply someone else's subjective experiences, put into a cultural frame, and declared "truth".! To study or not might help... depending whether: You can discriminate between the essence and the form. Yoga has learning discrimination as one of its most important axioms!

Check with vigilance, whether what you hear and read in the books fits your own/ the spiritual aspirant's experience. With an awake, inquiring mind, even studying the scriptures can become revelation; i.e. become experience.

Note, that this insightful experience can happen when we study a passage from the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or Kant's "Critic of Pure Reason". It is where our intention and attention is, that makes the difference between Religion, Philosophy - and Spirituality! As the Zen Master said when asked how to reach enlightenment: Attention, attention, attention!

This is why it says in the Old Testament: " Smash all those images that your mind makes!" (Ex.20/4); If you don't, you just have created a new religion, for yourself... or worse... for others.

We have to let go of the patterns our minds project onto the experience, hence the Mystic Meister Eckhardt says: Let go, let go, let go even of your projection of God!

Spirituality then is lived, is applied Religion, is applied Philosophy (and that not for the sake of others; not because of vow or obligation to others, but with integrity to one self, to the Self!). We need to learn to see with a discriminating mind... what is frame... what is essence. What is truth what is its cultural mantel.

It is that which we will try to do in the next few sessions. Whether for religions, for science or for the tradition of yoga. It does not help to use a language that is borrowed from other cultural or mental frames... it confuses and distorts. And yet we have to put our experience into words, concepts etc... to communicate. But let us try to discriminate, to clean... in fact to purify, the way we think and talk about our spiritual experience, so it stays alive... and does not become religion.

My personal way of dealing with this difficulty, is to use as much metaphors as possible... then no individual one can become a prison of meanings. But that... is my subjective way.... aware of my subjective perspective... keeping it as open... as I can...

Now what about Yoga, the path we all somehow are sharing: 

I find that Yoga is neither Religion, nor Philosophy but a practical, spiritual path.

Yoga philosophy, when it is in union with its original purpose and alive - it is practising Spirituality. Yet when it becomes fixed as an absolute, an exclusive way (which is easily happening due to the mechanism of how our mind works) it too can become a religion... a religion that it never is meant to be! Key is constant awareness to the machinations of our mind, and training the ability to control this mechanism.

The word Yoga is often translated as uniting or union (the awareness of union) . To know that what happens inside us follows the same laws as what happens outside in the universe; as above so below - is not only at the heart of yoga or even the ancient Vedas, but it is also present in many other holistic perceptions of the world, right down to the concept of the universe as a hologram, a unified field, a fractal universe ( same similar repeating patterns interconnection)... and many indigenous views.

From many different sources we are told: ultimately there is one source, one God, one Absolute Reality... and Yoga adds: make this your own experience! Studying Yoga books does not make me into a Yogi ; just as books about Medicine don't make me into a Doctor! Knowledge has to give up its "otherness" and become my experience. Experienced knowledge alone has power; just like words on a prescription for a sick person do not cure the illness, so words cannot make me wise - I have to take the medicine!

That's why the Astavakra Geeta i.e. says: study, gather knowledge yes, but the wise one has to leave all that knowledge behind. The state of yoga cannot be reached that way... because mental knowledge is a frame... the frame "is not the experience"... it does not go through the "eye of the needle!" to use a Christian metaphor.

Ultimate Reality can only be reached, without the limitations of our thoughts and cultural systems - hence it cannot be reached via Religion, religion, form... has to be transcended! The path to the mountain top, can be this way and that... but as long as we stay on the path... we can't reach the top. Or as one of my teachers used to say: if you stay in the taxi, you will never get to hear the Concert!

The mountain top is only one, even though many path lead to it. Yoga terms the original source Kaivalya (All-One-ness); Buddha speaks of Nirvana; Lao-tzu, of the Tao; Vendanta calls it the Absolute, indescribable Formless; Christian Mystics call it Godhead - or God Absolute. Quantum theory peaks of ultimate intelligent energy, called consciousness. The experience is there but how it is dealt with, is where differences arise! When we make those differences into systems and organisations.. then we have Religion; and moreover we have my system-versus yours! --- My religion versus yours.

May we stay clear of that Trap! Hari Om


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19 Dec 2021;
07:00PM - 08:00PM
Full Moon Meditation 2020

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