Based on keyword searches leading people to this blog, it appears that many are interested in religious syncretism. With this in mind, I thought some comments would be in order. To kick things off let’s take note of two recent articles, each of which sheds some minor light on syncretism.
In the first, Lois Solomon of the Sun Sentinel reports that “Christian Yoga Combines the Ancient Exercise with Prayer and Meditation.” This is not without controversy, given that traditional yoga is deeply embedded in Hindu beliefs and practices (as I noted in this post about Hindus who are outraged that yoga has been extracted from its spiritual context and commercialized). Solomon comments on Christian yoga:
The class, called Praisemoves, is sponsored by Community of Hope, a non-denominational evangelical church in Loxahatchee, Fla. It begins with a prayer thanking the Lord for bringing the group together.
Participants proceed through a series of Sun Salutations, strength and balance poses, twists and Pilates exercises.
“I have had Christians question if this is OK,” said Kerri Verna, who teaches the free class with her husband, Nick. “But yoga is not what it was 20 years ago. It used to be a form of religion; now it’s evolved to just a form of exercise.”
“You can’t take yoga out of its historical context and neuter it,” said Elliot Miller, editor in chief of Christian Research Journal, a publication of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s a spiritual discipline for an Eastern religion. It’s important for Christians not to put themselves in that world.”
This is an imperfect example of religious syncretism — which is a mixing of beliefs or practices from other faiths which results in an amalgam of sorts. Contrary to Elliot Miller’s contention that “you can’t take yoga out of its historical context and neuter it,” people certainly can and do. While this may offend Miller’s personal sense of Christian purity (a fallacious concept that I discussed in yesterday’s post), incorporating bits and pieces of others’ beliefs and practices has been going on for thousands of years in all faith traditions.
As for the idea that spiritual or religious beliefs-practices cannot be extracted from their traditions and used in ways that upset the faithful, that is wishful thinking. Aside from the prime example of yoga being used purely for physical-therapeutic (and commercial) reasons, we have this report from Merinews that Hindus are unhappy about another aspect of their tradition being used for non-spiritual purposes: “Upset Hindus Tell Trudie Styler and Sting: Tantra is Not Just Sex.” Setting aside for a moment that intense sex may induce transcendental mind-body states, the article observes:
HINDUS ARE dismayed and critical of actress-producer Trudie Styler and her husband Sting who apparently think, describe, and fixated on Tantra as just sex.
Styler reportedly offered revelations about tantric lovemaking by Oscar nominated musician Sting to potential buyers at a New York fundraiser auction on May six. Styler reportedly announced in the recent past that “Sadomasochism is the new Tantra”. There were reports that Tantra was now reportedly being utilized in dating in Europe.
Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed said that Tantrism was a major channel in Indian religious traditions and besides Hinduism, it also exerted considerable influence on Buddhism and Jainism.
The rich Hindu spiritual traditions obviously offer several things that can be extracted and used for other purposes — first it was yoga and now it is (tantric) sex. Never underestimate the power of commercial exploitation, especially when coupled with anything lascivious.
As for Styler’s conflation of sadomasochism and tantra, I can’t comment other than to refer readers to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic Venus in Furs and the scintillating work of the Marquis de Sade for additional insights. Rajan Zed’s comments, however, are a perfect example of religious syncretism — Hindu tantras have been adopted by other faiths and incorporated into their traditions.
Some spiritual traditions are of course more amenable to syncretism than others. There are many places in Asia and Southeast Asia where people have no problem practicing a multiplicity of religions. Go to Bali and you will know what I mean. This was also true in the ancient world (i.e., Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Greece, and Rome) before the rise and spread of monotheism. Polytheisms tend to be ecumenical, open, and often welcoming of other beliefs and practices. Shamanisms are much the same. All this historical syncretism and ecumenical tolerance, by the way, is a serious strike against the group level selection theory of religious origins, which requires societies to be bound together by a particular and exclusive religion.
In the West, which is dominated by monotheism, this sort of mixing or syncretism is anathema or blasphemous. Monotheism usually results in exclusive claims to Truth and thus entails a great deal of boundary defense. The imagined tradition must remain “pure” and the particular God must be the One. Unsurprisingly, this breeds a great deal of intolerance towards other faiths and people.