Religion Dispatches posted another iteration of a question I have brought up in introductory religion classes many times before. A group of parents is thinking of bringing suit against a school district because of a yoga class, which they allege is intrinsically religious. They claim that the poses represent a form of worship to the sun god, while the school district argues that it is a form of exercise, stretching, and focus for the children. The article talks more about the legal implications of the case, but I’d like to think about the theoretical question. Can an action or a symbol be intrinsically religious?
We could take the cross as an example. If you encounter someone wearing a necklace with that symbol on it, you are perhaps more likely to consider it a reference to Christianity than a lower-case “t.” We are culturally conditioned, religious or not, to understand it as a religious symbol, and its presence can prompt a number of positive or negative reactions. However, in different contexts the symbol can obviously be something different: a letter of the alphabet, a plus sign, the representation of a traffic intersection, etc. Historically speaking, the stylized cross by which we represent Christianity is an execution tool. It would be like wearing a miniaturized hangman’s noose or a small electric chair around our necks. The cross was mystified and theologized by Paul and others, becoming the nexus of understanding for resurrection, divinity, and eternal life in the Christian tradition.
The question of yoga has been debated in the West since its popularization, and that of Eastern religion in general, which exploded in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yoga was popularized and now is widespread in many different forms, many or most of which are not explicitly religious. (I tried out a week of Bikram yoga a few years ago. It was only superficially religious, mostly with at the beginning and end of the sessions. On the other hand, I have never sweat so much in my entire life. You sweat through all your sweat and then it’s just pure water coming out of you. Like a miracle. Wait a second…) In the last few years, there have been Hindu groups who have advocated programs to take back Yoga, to reassociate it with its Hindu roots and use it as a positive tool to promote Hinduism. Others, however, have criticized this approach, claiming that Hinduism has no exclusive claim over yoga, or that yoga was not originally Hindu anyway.
When I bring this up in the classroom, nearly all of my students agree that there is nothing intrinsically Hindu about yoga, while acknowledging this may be due in part to their having come to know yoga from “Yoga Booty Ballet” or face yoga for fuller lips rather than as a spiritual practice. But is there a line that can be drawn as to when a symbol becomes intrinsically religious?
There are several avenues we could explore. From a semiotic [the study of signs and symbols] aspect, the only way that a signifier can become equivalent to what is signified (e.g., the cup becoming the blood of Christ) would be through supernatural means. This was attested frequently in early Christianity with the relics of martyrs, for example. A fragment of bone or a bloody cloth became and contained the power of the martyr and could perform miracles. From a non-religious standpoint, however, a symbol is always excessive, meaning it can point to a number of possible signifieds, or meanings, although all are not equally likely in every case.
So that concerns symbols. What about with actions performed by the body? The principle that governs the decision seems close to the same. The parents planning to bring suit against the school district for providing yoga “characterized the ‘Sun Salutation,’ a basic series of yoga poses in which the student stretches his or her hands to the ceiling, as ‘a movement sequence that worships the sun god Surya,’ and claimed that ‘yoga, including its physical practice, is very religious indeed.’ So the human body forms itself in a variety of poses that can become symbols, in this case, of reference to the sun god. The parents in question are claiming an equivalence between the poses the children perform and worship of Hindu deities.
If this is true, what of those who perform yoga for health reasons with no pretense of religious activity? Are they being misled? These questions get more contentious (rightly so) when dealing with children. The parents seem to be suggesting that the school children are unwittingly worshipping Hindu deities. Author Katherine Stewart is correct that the protest has much to do with “other” religious traditions being practiced in schools, and not the dominant Christian one, as there are after school activities such as the Good News Club that have not as of yet generated similar lawsuits in the school district. There have certainly been times where courts have decided that certain activities, deemed religious, cannot be practiced in schools. Although I’m not an expert in that area, it’s likely that most of those cases involved the additional use of language to circumscribe or explain certain types of action, such as the words of prayer to an explicitly Christian God that would accompany a bowing of the head and folding of the hands.
The parents protesting yoga are able to say it is intrinsically religious because they have imbued it with a semiotic equivalence. They have, just as a sincere worshipper does, given it that power. However, due in part to its popularization, in the current cultural climate most participate in the activity without positing any such equivalence with worship. As the equivalence is not a majority belief or practice, it seems there is little theoretical ground for a lawsuit. Whether it will succeed in the courts is another matter…