Thursday, August 21, 2014

Attaining Moksha, or Whatever Happened to Hindu Yoga?

June 21 is International Yoga Day, which will be celebrated worldwide. My bet is that few who engage in this ancient religious practice will wonder where Yoga came from, or who owns it. Those are the questions being addressed by the “Take Back Yoga” campaign created by the Hindu American Foundation. I first wrote about it in 2012.

When it comes to yoga, there are lots of different kinds being practised by North Americans these days -- hot yoga, power yoga, prenatal yoga, Catholic yoga, restorative yoga, Christian yoga, Jewish yoga, and even naked yoga, to name just a few.

One thing you don't find is Hindu yoga. Which is strange, since yoga originated with that 6,000-year-old religion.

It's estimated about 1.4 million Canadians, and between 16 million to 20 million Americans, do yoga. North America-wide, yoga generated about $6 billion in sales in 2008, once all the yoga-related clothing and other accoutrements were included.

For most people, yoga is a way to promote physical and mental health through stretching, postures and breathing techniques. 

Attaining moksha -- the Hindu ideal of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth -- isn't usually one of the goals. In fact, many yoga practitioners might be unaware of its ancient religious roots.

That is something the Hindu American Foundation would like to change.

In 2010, the foundation launched "Take Back Yoga," a campaign designed to help people become more aware of yoga's debt to that ancient faith.

The campaign began with an essay posted on the foundation's website that lamented how North American yoga culture, magazines and studios had divorced yoga from "the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity."

According to Suhag Shukla, managing director of the foundation, the campaign was started to call attention to the "commercial appropriation and misappropriation of yoga which purposefully delinks yoga from its roots in Hinduism."

While emphasizing that Hindus are glad to share yoga with anyone, she added, "we simply cannot ignore, contrary to what's done by many Western yoga practitioners, the fact that yoga is rooted in core Hindu concepts of divinity in all of existence, karma, reincarnation and moksha."

In fact, the kind of yoga practised by most people in the West today has no real basis in traditional Hindu teaching says Ian Whicher, who teaches religious and philosophical thought of India, Hinduism and the Yoga tradition at the University of Manitoba.

"There is no real evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health- and fitness-oriented practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the 21st century," he said in an interview in The Manitoban.

Whicher would also like to see more people understand and appreciate yoga's deep spiritual roots in Hinduism

"Yoga has a very profound philosophical understanding which links up with our psychological natures, our ethical capacities and our physiological being," he said. 

"Yoga is really about liberating our energy and attention to know more and more what life is, who [we are] and what all this universe is."

What do local Hindus think of all this?

"Yoga is a gift from Hindus to the world," says Narendra Mathur, president of the Hindu Society of Manitoba.

In fact, the Hindu Temple on St. Mary's Road is offering yoga classes to anyone who wants them -- free of charge.

"It's a service to the community," he says.

At the same time, he would be happy if people who do yoga decided to learn more about Hinduism.

"Hinduism is linked to yoga," he says. "We invite people to come to the temple to learn more about it."

In the end, can anyone own yoga? Maybe it's become the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Christmas and Easter -- a popular but thoroughly secularized and commercialized activity divorced from its traditional religious meaning and significance. 

As Aseem Shukla, the foundation's co-founder put it: "Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand."

As for those who practise yoga, maybe the least they can do while doing their bandha, mudra and pranayama poses is acknowledge that yoga has Hindu roots. As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero says, yoga practitioners should "know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant 'om,' it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Religion and the War of 1812

This summer is the centenary of the start of the Great War. I’m writing a column about important role religion played in creating and sustaining that War. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2012, during the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812—about the role religion played in that conflict.

When it comes to war, religion is often one of the first to enlist -- or be conscripted. That was certainly true 200 years ago, during the War of 1812.

That war, which ended with both sides claiming victory, will be the focus of many commemorations, conferences, re-enactments and other events during this, its 200th anniversary.

As someone who grew up near some of the old battlefields in the Niagara region, I've read a lot about the origins, strategies, battles, heroes and outcomes of that conflict. But I can't recall ever hearing anything about the role of religion during the war. What impact did it have?

A big one, as it turns out, especially in the U.S.

In his book The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion, William Gribbin noted the important role U.S. churches played in supporting the war.

"The pious part of the nation turned with confidence to the task of combating international infidelity and domestic godlessness," he wrote.

Many preachers welcomed the war, urging their members to take up arms against Great Britain.

"The Lord will plead our cause, and execute judgment for us," said one. "He will plead our cause in the highway of nations, on the banks of the Wabash, and before the walls of Quebec."

"Such a war God considers as his own cause, and to help in such a cause is to come to the help of the Lord," said another.

For one preacher, battling the British was almost as important as being a minister. Participation in the war, he said, "was second only to preaching the Gospel."

Although American churches were split along various theological lines, Gribbin writes many Christians were united in their hatred of Great Britain. 

"The heat and pressure of war fused religious sanction to national success," he stated, adding the War of 1812 contributed to America's ongoing sense of patriotism and divine purpose.

The war, he wrote, fuelled a "vision of the United States as a chosen nation with a special destiny to establish a secularized version of God's kingdom on Earth."

In Canada, Anglican Bishop John Strachan played a notable role in the conflict. Described by Pierre Berton, in his book, The Invasion of Canada, "as perhaps the most significant and influential Canadian of his time," Strachan used his pulpit and position to promote patriotism and support for the troops.

But not all churches were pro-war. Two of the groups opposed to the conflict were the Quakers and Mennonites on both sides of the border. Their peaceful witness in Canada is being marked this year by the 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee, an Ontario organization that plans to hold events, post information on the web and place historical markers in the region about the role of peacemakers during the war.

One of the most interesting anti-war stories involved Duncan McColl, a Canadian Methodist minister in the Maritimes.

When war was declared, McColl -- who had parishioners living on both sides of the border in New Brunswick and Maine -- called together the men from Canada and the U.S. in his parish and persuaded them to declare they wouldn't fight each other.

According to one account, McColl said: "I've baptized you and married you. And I don't believe you want to fight each other." They agreed they did not.

Later, he personally confronted both American and British soldiers who came to the area, sending them elsewhere to do their fighting.

One consequence of the war was the disruption it caused within denominations that had members in both the U.S. and Canada. 

For Baptists in the Maritimes, the war severed a number of important cross-border relationships with their counterparts in the U.S. Once the war was over, the ties were immediately renewed.

The fighting also impacted Methodists in what is now Ontario. Not only did the war prevent itinerant Methodist preachers from visiting Methodist churches in Canada, it raised deep questions about how Canadian members of that denomination could support efforts to preserve their country, but at the same time preserve Christian unity with Methodists in the U.S.

In his bibliography of writing about Canadian churches and war, Gordon L. Heath of McMaster University notes "there is very limited research on the churches and the War of 1812." 

Maybe this anniversary is a good time to examine the role religion in Canada played in that war, and also in some of this county's other wars -- including recent ones like the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan.

For students and scholars, that field is wide open. According to Heath, nothing yet has been published about the role of religion in Canada in those two conflicts.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Church, State and Taxes

Much has been made of how the CRA required Oxfam Canada to change its charitable purpose from the "prevention" of poverty to "relieving" poverty. Most people don't know that there are only four charitable purposes that allow groups to issue tax receipts: The relief of poverty, the advancement of religion, the advancement of education and for community good. Some people are wondering why, in a secular country like Canada, the advancement of religion is still considered a charitable purpose, as I wrote in 2013.

Every Sunday at my church, we take an offering. Every week, people give. That's a good thing. But should we get a tax receipt for it?

That's a question being raised by the Canadian Secular Alliance, a national organization dedicated to promoting church-state separation and the neutrality of government in matters of religion.

According to the Canada Revenue Agency, charities can issue a tax receipt to donors if they are involved in alleviating poverty, advancing education, advancing religion or providing other benefits for the community. 

Of those four categories, the Alliance wonders why -- in our increasingly secular society -- religion is still listed as a charitable purpose.

In a 2012 submission to the standing committee on finance, the Alliance called on the government to remove advancing religion as an eligible charitable activity.

"We recognize many religious charities perform activities of public benefit like poverty alleviation," said Alliance president Greg Oliver in a statement on the organization's website.

"Any organization performing genuine charitable acts should be granted tax incentives for those -- but only those -- activities."

Following its submission, the Alliance received a letter from the Minister of finance. 

In the letter, the Minister stated the Canadian government's position is that "providing charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social cohesion."

Phew! People of faith can breathe easier, knowing they will continue to receive a deduction for donations to religious groups. Or can they?

No. This issue isn't going away. 

As Canada grows more secular, more people will wonder why some should get tax receipts for giving to pay for a pastor's salary, repairs to the church roof, educating about religion or --  especially contentious in a pluralistic society -- for efforts by one group to convert people to another faith.

Then there's the matter of property taxes; some groups, like the Victoria, B.C. Secular Humanist Association, wonder why places of worship should be exempt.

Only those groups that can "justify these exemptions through their local charitable work," should benefit from the property tax exemption, the Association states on its website.

Places of worship that only offer "weekly assembly to their memberships" should not be exempt, it states.

For John Pellowe, CEO of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, an umbrella group representing 3,200 faith-based charities, religious groups need to take these challenges seriously.

For decades, it was "assumed that religious groups provide a public benefit," he says. But that assumption is increasingly being challenged by those who argue "religion has no place in a secular society."

Today, he says, religious groups need to make a persuasive case for why society benefits from their existence. "They can no longer take it for granted."

One thing religious groups can point to, Pellowe says, is how religious people serve all of society through their giving.

Pellowe points to a report about giving from Statistics Canada showing people who are more religiously active give more than those who aren't to all charities -- not just to religious groups -- and that the just over 16 per cent who attend worship services gave 41 per cent of the total donated to charity in 2010.

Advancing religion produces "engaged and unselfish citizens," he says, adding that by granting religious groups the ability to give tax receipts, the government "isn't supporting religion, but the good that religion does."

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that the key concept of public benefit when it came to charitable activity would be subject to society's "current social, moral and economic context." 

As that context changes, religious groups need to pay attention; as Don Hutchinson of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada noted in a column in Faith Today: 

"The matter of public benefit is now assessed more outside the walls of the church than within. To demonstrate religious bodies provide public benefit will require more than worship services and Sunday schools."