Cambridge, MA. A few weeks ago there was a flurry of news around the rather sensational comments made by Fr. Gabriele Amorth, on the diabolical influence in both the Harry Potter series and in the practice of yoga. See for instance the version given at UCA News (a Catholic website in East Asia). I do not know Fr. Amorth, and could not discover on the web an exact transcript of his remarks, and so have been hesitant to comment. Many have, and there is no lack of comments about his comments, on the web. Many are merely repetitive and seem singularly ill-informed. Some come from more educated Christians who refer to the Church’s record of suspicions about yoga – as in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1989 letter worrying about the indiscriminate borrowing of Asian spiritualities, or the Vatican document, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life – while some come from thoughtful yoga practitioners who, whether Christian or not, fail to see what Satan has to do with yoga. Enough has been said, it seems.
But I have been asked both by friends and relatives, and by Hindus in India, about the meaning and significance of the attack on yoga. I think it simplest to make a short series of comments, sketched here and none fully developed (we are at the end of the semester, after all…)
First, mere recriminations against the religion of another are just about never acceptable or useful. No Catholic likes it if the Eucharist is written off as merely “priestcraft” or “patriarchal machinations” or even the venerable “hocus pocus,” and it is hard to imagine that it helps in any way to burden the millennia-old theory and practice of yoga with the deadly charge of being Satanic. And it is a really bad idea to insult a nearly billion Hindus – who see Hinduism as having a special affinity to yoga – by charges of Satanism that echo centuries of heated Christian attacks on Hinduism, and I hope Church leaders in Rome have instructed Fr. Amorth not to make such sweeping charges.
Second, if one is a professional exorcist, one may indeed see everything in light of that profession, and so it is not surprising that Fr. Amorth sees the devil at work everywhere; perhaps it is his default explanation of the woes that afflict us. Others might appeal to literary or philosophical measures of worth, but the exorcist sees things in his own way. To others this will seem odd, exaggerated, and this is all the more reason to be careful when speaking to a wider audience who do not share one's profession or expertise, but see the world through other legitimate lenses.
Fourth, it is not as if only Fr. Amorth has intelligent cautions to offer against facile equations of yoga and Christianity, or only sources such as the ecclesial documents mentioned above. Others do it well and to the point, without harshness. For example, at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, I attended a panel on Yoga and Christianity The tenor of the papers was intelligent and careful, a major theme being that it would be intellectually careless to equate Christian and yogic spiritual practices, or to claim loosely that “God” – Isvara – means the same thing in both traditions. Nor does it help, the panel and a host of scholarly sources suggest, to imagine that yoga is simply and only whatever it may happen to appear to be in this or that yoga studio, or in the eyes of one or another current or former practitioner. Scholars, often without any particular bias to protect, take it for granted that yoga cannot simply or without inevitable recalculations become a Christian practice. For yoga to be Christian or American or secular or New-Age does not happen of itself, it is something people choose to make happen, and like other things we do, sometimes our creativity works better than others. But there can be no blanket condemnation of yoga as essentially not-Christian. (Nor, of course, is Christian meditative practice just one thing.)
Fifth, study helps. As readers of this blog know, I am a professor and scholar, and turn very often – too often for the tastes of some readers, I suspect – to the study of the text. My tendency in this direction is really not the delusion that books and words are preferable to “real-world reality,” but that careful reading performs the admirable service of pinning us down, to ascertain whether we know what we are talking about. Several years back, I offered a series of posts here on “Yoga and the Spiritual Exercises” – related to a course that I am thinking of offering again next year, and one of the salutary aspects of that study of Patanjali’s ancient treatise on yoga was that while this study does not replace practice, which is something else, it does open up a reliable space for careful study and consideration of how yoga has been theorized, what worldview and anthropology often go with it, and what claims were made at the heart of the written tradition as to where it leads. My point then, and now (I won’t repeat myself here) is that once we study the texts of yoga, we are in a position to make far more refined choices about what we like or not, what we think is compatible with Christian theology (of one or another tradition), and —because we remember what we read – how the study of yoga can usefully, deeply, and in a way open to ongoing assessment - affect our Christian thinking, practicing, praying, even if we do not become yogis. And still, in the end, yoga will not be right for some Christians. What we need are not prohibitions, but Christian spiritual directors who know something about yoga, and as it were from the inside.
And so: as I mentioned, I have never met Fr. Amorth, and it is not right to criticize him for comments I have not been able to find and read in full. I am sorry if even here I have misjudged him. But what I can do is suggest to you, my readers, that in an age when interreligious knowledge is increasing at an incredibly rapid rate, it is wise to avoid most of the heated information that pops up on the web, from Fr. Amorth as well as his critics, and instead go and read a good book. On yoga, I recommend Christopher Chapple’s Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali's Spiritual Path to Freedom (SUNY Press, 2009), and, if you can find it, Fr. J-M Dechanet’s Christian Yoga (English translation, Harper, 1960), in its day a rather daring opening of the door to the Christian practice of yoga.
And then, if you do practice yoga as a Christian, do so with reflective attention, to see how your yoga and your Christian commitment interact, intensify, and at times possibly disturb one another. Then sit up straight, close your eyes, and take a deep breath - before stopping - or going deeper - into yoga.
If the devil is anywhere in this, he surely finds to his liking careless words that sensationalize rather than shed light.