Yoga and Religion

Yoga has become popular worldwide and its psycho physical efficacy has been established beyond doubt, yet there are people who associate Yoga with a particular religion specially Hindu religion. Teachers of yoga usually encounter this type of problem while teaching yoga to a group of people who are following religion other than Hindu Religion.  Actually speaking, the growing popularity of yoga has disturbed the mind of so called religious people. It is true that Yoga has its origin in India but simultaneously it is also true that yoga has never taught any religious dogmas. The author of this book emphasizes that if a person follows yoga, he can be a better religious person of his own faith.

Religion is a very complicated word and full of misunderstanding. It is said that: - “I was knowing religion till I was not asked what is religion? When it was asked, I think it became most difficult question in the world for me……”

At other place it is written; - “religion is a daughter of hope and fear, explained to the ignorance about the nature of unknowable”. (Ambrose Bierce from the book ‘Oxford Dictionary of World Religion’)

The quotations have relevance only with the point that those who call Yoga – a religious practice, they themselves seldom know about what religion is?

Let us try to make an effort to understand what religion is? Every religion of world has essentially three components. They are –
1.  Ideal
2.  Theology and
3.   Cult

Every religion has some ideal to achieve. This ideal is usually communion with God as the meaning of the word ‘religion’ itself suggests on the basis of its Greeko-Latin root Re-Ligare or Relligio. The concept of God may differ on the basis of one’s faith and belief.

Then comes the word ‘cult’. Cult includes those practices by which the communion with God is made possible. Unless and until one follows the cult established by the particular religion – he is supposed to be non religious person. Let us not forget that this cult has also two aspects –
a.      Superficial aspect
b.      Essential aspect

While following the cult of religion, the religious Heads and so called religious persons give importance to the superficial aspect of cult and essential of the cult is lop sided.  Here it will not be out of place to mention that the difference in two religions may be on the superficial aspect of cult but so far essential aspect of the religion is concerned, there is hardly any possibility of difference in two different religions. Most unfortunate thing is that we are not able to draw a demarcation line between essential and superficial aspect of cult of any religion.

Every religion is suffering from this problem and followers do not apply themselves. Another interesting point with religion is that we have no liberty of opting our religion. It comes to us as ancestral property. In the selection of religion there is no concept like selecting our career.  We observe the cult of a particular religion being followed in our own family.  But the thing that is observed by the child on the name of religion is its superficial aspect only. Essential aspect of religion does not become observable and gradually the mind of a child co-relates the religion with those aspects that he has observed in his childhood on the name of religion and he starts considering religion to be associated with those aspects only. I believe that in order to overcome this problem, we must promote the study of the scriptures of religion with right understanding and discrimination. We must not analyze a religion by observing its followers. In order to understand any religion we must go through its scriptures.

Indian Concept of Religion i.e. Dharma

In India, the word ‘dharma’ is used for religion. Initially the word ‘dharma’ was more applied to religious and ritual rules but by the time of Upanishads and later in Dharmashastras, we find a great change in its meaning. In Upanishads, dharma is related more to the ways appropriate for the attainment of Brahman. But in Dharmashastras, the word acquired a new dimension of its meaning. It got deeply and strongly associated with ethical rules or code of conduct. Manu, the first law giver of India, enumerates the ten characteristics of Dharma. They are:-
1. Dhriti – Patience                            
2. Kshama - Forgiveness                                                                       
3. Dama - Control over mind
4. Asteya   - Non theft
5. Shaucha – Cleanliness        
6. Indriyanigraha –Control over senses
7. Dhi – Wisdom                                
8. Vidya - Knowledge
9. Satya – Truthfulness
10. Akrodha – Non anger

Mention of faith in God or any dogma is conspicuous by its absence in the list of Manu. When dogma became associated with faith in particular is very difficult to ascertain. It seems that after the invasion of Mohemmadans  and then English people on India, Indians came in contact with the people of other religion and had some bitter experiences also, which might have lead them to associate Dharma with faith in God.  Even in the Christian Religion, there is a concept of seven Virtues. They are –
1. Tradition
2. Faith
3. Hope
4. Charity
5. Temperance
6. Prudence
7. Justice

Christian religion itself asserts that last four virtues are cardinal virtues i.e. of basic importance.

In modern age, intolerance in religion has created a greater problem. No Prophet or Son of God or so to say any religion says that be charitable to only to the people of one’s own religion only. We forget that every religion gives this type of code of conduct to be followed towards every person irrespective of other person’s religion, caste or creed. Such commands transcend these types of manmade barrier or division on the basis of caste, creed, religion or nation.

Is Yoga a Religion? 

Yoga is branch of Indian Philosophy and as a branch of philosophy it talks about Law of Karma, Birth and death cycle, concept of liberation etc. These concepts may have some association or bearing with the soil of its origin but the other important practices that have been described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra or various Hathayogic practices are Trans religious practices.

Every human being has a body which he wants to keep fit and healthy. Every person has a mind to think, which never remains steady, which is beyond ones control and he wants to make it steady and enable it for better thinking capacity and also wants to have control over it in order to direct the mind and utilize it for higher purpose. Every person respires without being aware that how important it is for his existence. We go respiring without knowing its subtleties and better application. Also we do not know about the close relationship between the function of mind and respiration. In order to know and achieve all these things, we are required to practice Yogic exercises which are related with body culture, mind culture and also culture of respiration... In this way Yoga is religion for every one’s body, mind and existence.

Possible Religious Elements in Yoga

1. Every Yogic practice starts with prayer. An Indian Yoga Teacher is taught to recite Vedic Mantra to create an environment for the practice of Yoga.

2. While teaching Yogic practices, references from original Texts in Sanskrit are usually being quoted. Sanskrit language may create a feeling of its association with Hindu religion.

3. In some yogic literature, we find the application of some Mantras or seed letters to be recited during different practices such as Pranayama, Mudra or Dharana and so.

4. Some concepts of Yoga like Chakra, Vayu, Nadi, Kundalini etc. are considered to be essentially associated with the religion.

5. In some places recitation of ‘OM’ is also objected because its being a sacred word of Hindu religion. In Yoga, ‘OM’ is given great importance for recitation- therefore it is associated with dogmatic Hindu religion.

These are certain possible objections against yoga. Let us try to understand it rationally with a catholic approach.  We shall consider each point separately.

Possible Solutions to the Objections

1. It is true that yogic practices start with prayer and Yoga –because of its origination in India – an Indian yoga teacher is taught to recite Vedic Mantra. Let us not forget that yoga teacher gives importance to the prayer and not to the Vedic mantra. Prayer is recited to create an environment conducive and suitable for the practice. Payer can be selected from any religious scripture to suit the group of individuals. The objective behind reciting prayer is more important and not the particular prayer.

2. Sanskrit is the language in which the original yoga literatures are available and therefore quotations in Sanskrit are usually recited by the yoga teachers. The author very strongly believes that quotations from yogic literature of other languages can or should also be quoted if they are not having any religious touch in them. Therefore, Sanskrit quotations do not make it essentially associated with a particular religion.

3. It is true that in some of the yogic practices, the application of mantras or seed letter is recommended or prescribed. Here, the author wants to suggest all those persons, who are not comfortable in application of Mantra during those practices, they may drop this recitation from their practice. In Gheranda Samhita – it is clearly written – that there are two types of Pranayama- Sagarbha and Agarbha. (Gh. S. V/   ) Sagarbha means Pranayama with mantra and Agarbha means Pranayama without Mantra.  Pranayama can be practiced in both the ways and it can be said that yogic practices are capable of giving similar effect even if it is practiced without Mantra. Thus, simply because it has mantra application, we should not ignore the practice or condemn it.

4. Concept of Chakra, Nadi, Vayu etc. are not the religious concepts. They are the esoteric yogic concepts. They are a type of yogic anatomy and physiology. Those who practice it will realize it. In the process of practice, the practitioner comes across certain experiences and they become unexplainable if he is not exposed to these esoteric concepts. However, these concepts in yoga do not make a strong ground to reject yogic practices on the name of religion. During the initial practice of yoga, these concepts have no importance. When one progresses in the practice, these concepts start unfolding themselves to the practitioner and he understands the value of such concepts.

5. Undoubtedly ‘AUM’ is the word associated with Hindu Religion but it will be most appropriate to quote the words like – ‘AMEN’ or ‘AMIN’ respectively available in Christianity and Islam religions, have their close relationship with the word Aum. The similarity in these three sounds is unique and it suggests that these words are trans-religious. In the words of Saint John, “in the beginning there was word, the word was with God and the word was God”. This primordial word was nothing but the sound of AUM. This is reconfirmed if we try to analyze three English words – omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. It is very much obvious that the word ‘omni’ in all these three words have some common origin and it is not very far from the concept of ‘aum’.

Besides above charges against Yoga, some concepts like birth and rebirth cycle, liberation, law of karma are some such concepts which are not acceptable commonly to the people of every religion. In order to solve this problem we will have to divide yogic presentations into two aspects: philosophical aspect and practical aspect. Those who do not agree with the philosophical aspect of yogic concepts, they are advised to limit their acceptance of yoga only to the practical aspects avoiding any such thing which has any relationship with religion. The author is convinced on the point that the Yogic practices are capable of making a person - a better religious person of one’s own faith.

Thus, the charge against yoga – of being its religion – does not have strong logic. We should open our mind and accept yoga as it is one of the most effective method of  psychosomatic practices which can take care of human beings well being through its non religious practices provided they are followed  and practiced religiously.

The author is Managing Editor, Yoga Mimamsa published by Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute, Lonavala, Maharashtra India. Visit site

Also read
1. Introduction to the 8 limbs of Yoga
2. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
3. A Note on the concept of Yoga in Patanjali Yoga Sutras
4. Six schools of Indian Philosophy
5. Yoga Asanas Photos

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