Religious Syncretism — Christian Yoga and Tantric Sex

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.

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9 thoughts on “Religious Syncretism — Christian Yoga and Tantric Sex

  1. Pingback: Sunday Sundries — Contested Faiths, Syncretic Possibilities, Morality and Sick Police Behavior

  2. Martin

    Where are you coming from?? It sounds like you have a particular sort of orthodox Christian belief and it would be helpful if you stated that.

  3. Martin

    Then it would be good to understand more about tantra. It is not Hindu, but from shamanistic roots that predate Hinduism. It is different to the Vedantic traditions which are not the whole of Hinduism. As to tantra and sex you could start with Miranda Shaw’s book Passionate Enlightenment; Women in Tantric Buddhism. Some of the tantra within the Christian parts of the world became Alchemy and tantra was practised by the Cathars till they were persecuted out of existance.

  4. Cris Post author

    I am quite surprised to hear that tantra has shamanist roots, given that early or traditional shamanists were almost exclusively, if not universally, hunter-gatherers. I am deeply familiar with hunter-gatherer (or “shamanist”) ethnohistory and archaeology, but I’ve never encountered anything remotely like tantra in shamanist worldviews.

    Nomadic pastoralists are often also shamanists, so perhaps you are referring to the Aryans? If so, what do we know about Aryan shamanism in general and Aryan tantra in particular? Can you refer me to the sources on these subjects?

    With this in mind, how do we know that tantra has “shamanistic roots that predate Hinduism”? What is the evidence or sourcing for this?

  5. Martin

    Tantra was probably very much part of the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled life as it is centrally concerned with fertility and abundance and the process of creation and reproduction. The pre-Hindu tantra in India was places like the Harappan culture in the Indus Valley by 4th millennia BCE.

    The rest of this reply is a cut and paste from Nik Douglas page on ancient tantra.

    Approximately 2500 small but exquisitely made intaglio seals of the ancient Harappan or “Saraswati-Indus” river culture are known. Most were recovered from excavations at the ruined cities of Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Chanhudaro. Others were found at Kalibangan in Rajasthan, the now landlocked ancient port of Lothal, North of Bombay, and elsewhere.

    Most seals were carved from blocks of light-colored, fine-grained steatite, and after carving, the surface was coated with a glaze and fired. Harappan seals are carefully composed and reveal great artistry in the manner of treating their subject. About half of the surviving examples depict a male animal shown in a heraldic way, generally with a line or two of pictographic “text”. About 2% of the seals depict humans engaged in different kinds of ceremonial activities.

    The best known Harappan seal is one identified by archaeologist Sir John Marshall as Shiva Pashupati, the Yogic “Lord of Beasts”. This seal is often cited as evidence that people of the Indus Valley culture knew Yoga and practiced Tantra. It is, however, not the only known example of this subject from this culture. There are several others, of which four are particularly significant.The “Marshall” Shiva seal depicts a buffalo-horned masked male figure seated on a throne in a version of the cross-legged “lotus” posture of Hatha Yoga. The Yogi’s penis is erect, with both testicles prominently visible. The precise placement of both heels under the scrotum is an advanced Tantric Yoga technique known as bandha, meaning knot or “lock”. It is normally used to sublimate and redirect sexual energy and can endow the practitioner with spiritual powers.

    On the Marshall seal the Yogi sits on a type of throne or bed which is supported by an object resembling the hour-glass shaped double drum (known in Hindu ritual as the damaru) normally associated with Shiva and with shamanistic rituals throughout Asia. The top and bottom of this drum takes the shape of horns, tying-in to the horned

  6. Cris Post author

    It’s an unfortunate fact that not much is known about the Harrapan culture; there are no written records and the archaeology is fairly slim. We know, however, that it was a very large-scale food producing society. As such, it is highly unlikely that it was shamanist. There are no known food producing societies that can be generically classed as shamanist. The transition from foraging to sedentary food production is universally associated with the systematization of beliefs, appearance of priests, construction of temples, and development of doctrine.

    The transition from hunting-gathering to food production occurred in the Indus Valley much earlier, beginning perhaps 14,000 years ago. The transition was complete by 8,000 years ago. The time period you cite, 4th millenium BC, is about 4,000 years later than that transition. That’s quite a lot of time for non-shamanist but pre-Hindu tantra to develop.

    I’ve simply never seen any evidence, archaeological, ethnographic, or otherwise, which suggests that traditional foraging shamanists were much concerned with sex, sexuality, or sensuality. Saying they were concerned with creation and fertility, as all peoples are and have been, is just too general. The really major concern about fertility is a cultural development that typically accompanies agriculture.

    Based on ethnographic records, it seems that foragers have never been much focused on sex or “fertility,” and often practiced birth control, abortion, and infanticide, precisely because they were worried about overpopulation and environmental carrying capacity. This puts a pretty big damper on sex, sexuality, and sensuality. To the extent we have any records or reports (all of which are limited and selective) of hunter-gatherers, it seems that sex was mundane and from the rear. Nothing fancy, special, or esoteric.

    So if tantra has pre-Hindu Harrappan roots, I’m guessing these roots have little or nothing to do with hunter-gatherer or shamanist worldviews. I could be convinced otherwise (and would welcome it), but I’d need to see some evidence or sources.

  7. Martin

    I think we have such different definitions and approaches. Below is Wikipedia definition of shamanism.
    Eliade defines shamanism as techniques of religious ecstasy. One of the root meanings of the word tantra is techniques or methods. There is tantric symbolism and nature cult worship in the 25,000 cave paintings of Southern France.

    Shamanism (/ˈʃɑːmən/ shah-mən or /ˈʃeɪmən/ shay-mən) is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world.[2] A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.[3]

    The term “shamanism” is presently often used as an umbrella term referring to a variety of spiritual practices, although it was first applied to the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. The word “shaman” originates from the Evenk language (Tungusic) of North Asia and was introduced to the west after Russian forces conquered the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. Upon learning more about religious traditions across the world, western scholars also described similar magico-religious practices found within the indigenous religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas as shamanism. Various historians have argued that shamanism also played a role in many of the pre-Christian religions of Europe, and that shamanic elements may have survived in popular culture right through to the Early Modern period. Various archaeologists and historians of religion have also suggested that shamanism may have been a dominant pre-religious practice for humanity during the Palaeolithic.

  8. Cris Post author

    You are right about different definitions; as I’ve noted in several posts over the years, I don’t care much for Eliade. His reading of ethnographic records was in service of an agenda and thus was distorted. I prefer a more restricted definition of shamanism, one that is usually linked to hunter-gatherers and always associated with comprehensive animist worldviews.

    Part of my preference is methodological; when working with historical materials, clarity is important. Another part of my preference stems from the fact that “shamanism” has been hijacked by new agers and neo-shamanists in ways that render the concept so amorphous that just about anything mystical, ecstatic, or esoteric is called “shamanic.”

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