Monday, January 14, 2008

Idols, Hindu Deities and Yoga

The following question was sent via private email, but I am posting my response to the blog:
I'm curious, what do you think about idols ? i.e. ,
Buddhist/Hindu art/sculpture. Yoga has roots in
Hinduism and often uses Hindu deities and art.
First, I will start by citing a few passages from the appendix of my book:
From the Summary of the Ten Commandments:
1. Constantly remember, and never forget, that there is one God underlying all of existence.
2. Do not engage in idolatry. Do not engage in any belief or practice that even suggests there is more than one God, because if you start down that path, you’ll forget the underlying unity of the universe.
3. Do not take the name of God in vain.
From the Summary of the Seven Noachide Laws:
1. Acknowledge that there is only one God who is infinite and Supreme above all things. (This incorporates not engaging in idolatry).
2. Respect the Creator. (This incorporates not taking the name of God in vain).
I first want to expand on the question a little bit. Eastern Religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, utilize images of various aspects of Divinity not only as art, but as idols in the sense that most of us would think of idols and idol worship as forbidden by the Torah. They actually believe that the various personages in their pantheons are real entities, and that certain statues found in temples, shrines and at other sites designated as sacred or spiritually charged, actually are imbued with the power and energy of the designated deities, and are thus regarded and worshipped accordingly. They also believe that many “root” personages reincarnate repeatedly in various forms and names; for example, the “root” god Vishnu, incarnated as “Rama” (notice the similarity to “Abram”) and “Krishna”. Many believe that the energy of the “root” god Shiva has incarnated in various personages such as Shankara and Ramana Maharshi, and also exists at various spiritually-charged sacred sites, including the holy mountains, Mt. Kailash in the North, and Arunachala in the South.
As I traveled throughout India a couple of years ago, one of my gut reactions was that the commandment against idol worship certainly did not make it to or did not take hold in India, as what appears to be idol worship is infused in the religious culture there. In pondering this issue, one simple answer that came to me is that the Ten Commandments were specifically meant for the Jewish people, and perhaps there was some need for this particular people to not engage in idol worship, as it is repeatedly emphasized throughout the Torah, including emphasis on the severity of this transgression and accompanying punishment (including death). However, it does not necessarily follow that this means that everyone in the world is supposed to not engage in idol worship. So looking at the universal Noachide laws, we see a dictate about acknowledging the unity of Divinity, but the idea that this dictate incorporates not engaging in idolatry is more of an interpretation than an explicit command. Although there is no doubt about idol worship in the East, there is also no doubt that underlying the Eastern view is an acknowledgement of the ultimate oneness of Divinity from which these various distinct aspects and functions, that are anthropomorphized into personages, emerge. I have also noted elsewhere in my book that while maintaining the concept of the ultimate Oneness, Judaism has also struggled with and acknowledged that there are many names, aspects and qualities associated with the Oneness. It begins right away in Genesis, with God the Creator designated as Elohim, while other aspects of God are designated as YHVH, Adonai and Shaddai. Judaism draws the line at personifying these different aspects and qualities, while the Eastern religions take it that one step further. However, in traditional Jewish liturgy, these various names and aspects are included in Jewish prayer and worship. Another thing that has struck me about traditional Jewish practice is how similar the actual physical Torah scroll is treated during Jewish services to how the Easterners regard their idols. In many respects, the Torah scroll is the Jewish religion’s substitute for an idol.
There is certainly a correlation between Yoga and Hinduism. My analysis is that in its purest form, Yoga is spirituality devoid of religion, and Hinduism encompasses much of the spirituality of Yoga and clothes it with religious doctrine and dogma, so many of the terms and concepts used are similar and become confusing. My focus has always been on identifying the pure spirituality clothed in all religions, with a special emphasis on Yoga and Judaism. What has often been characterized as the ultimate teaching of Judaism, that has made it stand out as influencing much of the religious thought that followed after it, is its emphasis on the Oneness of Divinity, incorporated in a Supreme Deity, and thus the moniker “monotheism”. Eastern religion, despite all of its pantheon of deities, acknowledges a Supreme Deity, referred to as “Ishwara” (notice the similarity to “Ish” in Judaism, the fire aspect to existence) in the Indian system, but also emphasizes an impersonal underlying Unity beyond the personifications, referred to as “Brahman” (notice the similarity to “Avraham”), and thus the moniker “monism”. However mystical Judaism also acknowledges this impersonal aspect in references to the “Ein/Ayin” and “Ein/Ayin Soph” (referred to as “Shunyata” in Buddhism).
Most religious/spiritual systems recognize a hierarchy of spiritual energies and personages, encompassed in the elaborate tree of life and four worlds descriptions in Jewish mysticism, along with corresponding Archangels and angels. The Eastern systems have their corresponding designations. Despite its insistence on the Oneness and prohibition against idol worship, Judaism has always and often involved practices invoking other subsidiary aspects and qualities within this hierarchy. I believe the emphasis on the Oneness is a caution to never lose sight of the Ultimate Unity, because when that starts getting placed in the background and separation starts getting placed in the foreground, imbalanced egoism not tempered by humility is not far behind, which inevitably leads to transgression and bad results. Transgression and Redemption is a major theme throughout the Torah and the Tanach. Redemption involves once again placing the Oneness in its proper place in the foreground. This is the teaching behind wearing tefillin (the forehead is certainly one’s personal foreground!) and placing mezzuzahs just about everywhere, along with most other traditional observant practices. Another word in the title of the famous book, “Be Here Now” is “Remember”. Many spiritual/religious practices are aimed at forcing us to remain humble and keep our egos from getting bloated by reminding us that we are functioning within the context of a great mysterious awesomeness way beyond our mortal powers or comprehension.
Well, there was no way to provide a short answer to this weighty question, and I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this for now.


Deborah Shaya said...

Yoga and Tai Chi (qigong/qi kung)

These physical exercises are based upon AVODAH ZARAH (idolatry), and come from a SOURCE OF TUMAH. (‘Tumah’ is spiritual ‘uncleanliness’, which is extremely damaging to a person’s home and life).

The Torah cannot be mixed with Avodah Zarah. This is twisting the Torah, and the Torah must remain straight.

Practicing yoga or tai chi is harmful to a Jewish person – spiritually, and therefore physically.

Steve Gold said...

The above is a view that some Jewish people hold, while other Jewish people hold much different views, even some who consider themselves Orthodox/Observant. This issue has been addressed exhaustively on the site under the subject: Is Yoga Kosher?. That article and discussion there is currently not available, as it is undergoing editorial review, but the editors have assured me that it will reappear for viewing by the general public sometime soon. I am therefore not going to open up this blog to more entries encompassing this same kind of discussion. but would encourage folks who are interested to look for its reappearance at the site.

Steve Gold said...

One more note: While the discussion remains unavailable, you can find many other viewpoints and discussions by entering "Is Yoga Kosher" with a search engine.

Quote of the Week 381 - Heaven

Heaven is all round,

Translated to sound.

--Michael Hedges



Announcing Publication of New Book, DIMENSIONS: Navigation the Spiritual Spectrum

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum, now available at Amazon, in paperback print and Kindle versions. It is easily found by searching my name, or by searching the full title and subtitle. You can also click on the image of the book in the right hand column of this blog.

What a great way to start the New Year, cozying up to a fire, real or imagined, and reading a new spiritually inspiring book, sure to become a classic!

DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum

Grounded in the traditions of Torah and Veda, Steven J. Gold takes us on an oceanic tour of the depth and breadth of spiritual consciousness. Sharing personal stories and insights into various traditional scriptures as examples, he urges us to adopt a spiritual worldview, to “ponder infinity, awake and arise,” to “find your inspiration and follow it.”

“The chapters…are records of what happens when Steve’s right mind, and heart, are given full freedom to wander where they wish. As discoveries and correlations are made, his well-trained left mind and sharp wit give his observations shape and form…” – Brother Shankara, Resident Minister, Vedanta Center of Atlanta

“Universal Ice Cream: Dive deep into Steve’s wonderful book to help find your favorite flavor on the Spiritual Spectrum.” – Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Spiritual Leader, Congregation Shalom B’Harim, Dahlonega, GA

“Steven J. Gold’s Dimensions is an exploration of spirituality from the inside out. If you are looking for a guide through the pathless land of truth, read this book.” – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The World Wisdom Bible

Interfaith/Inter-Spiritual Contemplative Groups

Please check out the following, which is an ongoing activity that may be of interest: