Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Reflections on Yoga and Jesus.

The "Yoga of Jesus"

I have tried to understand the final journey of Jesus to his death, carrying the Cross, as related to the “Surya Namashkar”.

The Surya Namashkar is a series of yogic poses.

The word "Yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root "Yuj", which means to join. This root term can be traced back to an Indo-European word, which appears also in the Latin "Jug", as found in Conjugal, Conjugate etc. It is also said to link with the word "Yoke". It is in this context that some Indian thinkers, like Vandana Mataji, have spoken of the ancient concept of yoking to be found in the Biblical tradition, as linked to Yoga. So when Jesus said to his disciples "Come to me, all you who are burdened, for my yoke is easy…" one could render this as "Come to me you who are burdened, because my yoga is easy".

The concept of yoking in the Bible is somehow linked to work. Take for example the text:
"lighten the hard service of your father, and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you" ( 1 kgs 12:4)

Other similar passages can be found where yoke is linked to burden and work. In Indian thought, there is the notion of Karma Yoga, or the yoga of work ,which is discussed at great length in the Bhagvad Gita. I find it interesting that the ancient idea of the work of Adam was that he was a tiller of the soil, and that Justin in the second Century said that Joseph, the Father of Jesus, was a maker of ploughs and yokes. In the early Church, I believe, the Cross was related to the plough, and Jesus carrying the cross, was in a sense represented as the archetypal tiller of the soil, yoked to the cross, as an animal that ploughs a field. It is images such as these that inspired me when I started work on Jesus the Yogi.

There was a monk with Dom Bede Griffiths, in his Ashram in South India, called Amalados. He was very interested in yoga, and gained many ideas on the importance of a spiritual yoga from Fr. Bede who was interested in the ideas of Sri Aurobindo, who had established an Ashram in Pondicherry, and had written extensively on the subject of what he called "integral yoga" As I mentioned earlier,the word yoga means to bring together, and in that sense can be related to the Jungian idea of the "integration of the Self". In fact one of the great labours of Sri Aurobindo was to create an epic type poem on the myth of 'Savithri'.

I will come back to the theme of Savithri later,because it provides the link, between what Sri Aurobindo understood as 'Integral Yoga', and the journey of the sun, as it travels across the sky, and then seems to descend into the earth at sunset, beginning a journey through the dark underworld.

Returning to Brother Amaladas, and his yoga practice at Shantivanam Ashram, he was in the habit of doing the 'Surya Namashkar' on the banks of the Kaveri river near to the Ashram; one day I sketched him doing these different "asanas" or body postures, and I asked him what he thought about when he was doing this morning greeting to the Sun. He told me that he thought about the journey of Jesus to the Cross, which presumably took place in the morning, as he was judged very early in the morning before dawn (Peter denied him thrice when the cock crew), and he died on the cross at noon, if I remember rightly, and was taken down from the cross before the end of the day. So in that sense even from early times there is a link between the journey of Christ to the Cross, and the hours of the day. Also, from early times the day of the Sun was taken to be the day of the Resurrection, and Jesus was thought to be the "sun of Justice". It is clear that ancient sun worship did get incorporated into the Christian Liturgy, as we see also in the feasts. The feast of John the Baptist on Mid summer's day replaced an ancient Celtic feast in honour to the sun, and six months later Jesus is born in mid winter, on the feast of the ancient 'Sol Niger' (Dec. 25), or the dark aspect of the sun, when it goes down into the underworld. I believe it is this movement of the sun that also lies behind many symbols related to the Trinity, or the "Three steps of the sun". Jesus descending into Hell is also the sun going down into the underworld, which we find in the myth of Savithri, that I mentioned earlier. The three steps of Jesus is to be found in the ancient formula which we find in the Liturgy, that Christ lived, died and was born again in the Resurrection. This pattern of three steps (Tripadam in Indian mythology) is also basic to dance movement.


The greeting to the morning sun, obviously goes back to very ancient sun worship. At the beginning of the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna:

"I revealed this everlasting yoga to Vivasvan, the sun, the father of light. He in turn revealed it to Manu, his son, the father of man. And Manu taught his son, King Ikshvaku, the saint.
Then, it was taught from father to son in the line of kings who were saints; but in the revolutions of times immemorial this doctrine was forgotten by men.
Today I am revealing to thee this Yoga eternal, this secret supreme: because of thy love for me, and because I am thy friend.
Bhagvad Gita 4. 1-3

The Gayathri Mantra

It this link between yoga and the sun that is also to be found in the concept underlying what is thought by Hindus to be their greatest Mantra, known as the 'Gayathri Mantra', which is taught to the young aspirant at the time of the thread giving ceremony, when he comes of age, and which the devout are supposed to recite daily in the morning.

The Gayathri mantra, which has been adopted for use in meditation, by some Indian Christians, comes from the Rig Veda(III, 62, 10)and has in fact a very special meter, which is supposed to have a great energy. The following is the Mantra:

OM :- Pranava - The word that is God
BHUH :- God who is eternal
BHUVAHA :- God who is the creator
SVAHA :- God who is Independent
OM TAT :- That eternal God
SAVITHUR :- That creative principle of light manifested through Sun
VARENYAM :- That Supreme God propiated by the highest Gods
BHARGO :- That light that bestows wisdom, bliss and everlasting life
DHEVASYA :- The light of that effulgent God
DHEEMAHI :- we mediate
DHIYO :- May our intellect
YO NAHA :- Be directed by that lord
PRACHODAYAT :- Towards Illumination

In a sense, these words can also be linked to the different postures of the Surya Namashkar.

The Story of Savithri.

The ancient story of Savithri, daughter of the Sun, is found in the Epics, but seems to draw on much more ancient sources. The childless king who prayed for an offspring, along with his wife, was taught the Gayathri Mantra. As a result the queen conceived. But the Sun told the king, that he would have a daughter, and not a son. But the king was told that the child girl, who is to be called Savithri (Savitr is the Sun, thought of as masculine, though in many tribal cultures the Sun is pictured as feminine, whereas the moon, Chandra, is masculine), is to be treated in every way as equal to any male. As a result, when she is born, she is treated like a son, and taught the Vedas. But when she grows up,nobody wants to marry her,as they are afraid of a woman who is so wise. Finally, she goes out in search of a husband, in her chariot, and finds in a forest a young man who is the son of a blind hermit (who later on turns out to be a king). This boy is called Satyavan, meaning the true one. She decides to marry him, but it is later found out that one year after their marriage, he will die. So on their first wedding anniversary, when he is preparing to light the sacrificial fire, she goes with him into the forest where he is cutting wood for the fire. He feels tired, and comes to rest his head in her lap. There he dies, cradled in the lap of his wife. (The figure of Satyavan lying in the lap of his bride reminds one of the Pieta).

Death comes to fetch him, and Savithri hands him over to death, but insists on following Death to the underworld. Death repeatedly tries to persuade Savithri to go back to life, but she will not leave Satyavan. Finally when death reaches the lowest hell of his kingdom, he turns round to find Savithri there, and says to her that she is a very remarkable woman, and she should ask of him whatever boon she wants, as she is his honoured guest. She asks for a child. He is delighted, and says that her wish is granted. But then she says she cannot have a child without her husband. So reluctantly death returns Satyavan to her, and she brings him back to life.

Holy Wisdom in the Song of Songs.

This Indian myth about Savithri, which is spelt out in great detail by Sri Aurobindo in his epic poem, represents Holy Wisdom, who is Daughter of the Sun, and who goes down to the underworld, to recover her dead lover, who like Manu, is a manifestation of primal man (Adam). It is in a way like the harrowing of Hell, but here by a feminine figure. She is Shakti, or the primal energy of light, which goes down into the underworld, to recover the seed of life which has been buried. That, anyway is how I understood it in a series of paintings which I did relating this myth to the Song of Songs;

Under the apple tree I awakened you
There your mother was to travail with you,
There she who bore you was to travail.
Set me as a seal upon your heat,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death,
Jealousy is cruel as the grave,
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love
Neither can floods drown it.
Song of songs. 8.5, 6

For Aurobindo, this journey downwards is the Integral Yoga, which is different from an ascent into spiritual wisdom. Rather it is a descent into the unconscious. It recovers wisdom from the depths.

These are some thoughts that underlie my treatment of the Yoga of Christ, which is characterized by a Kenosis. In one series of pictures, I even went so far as representing Jesus as a woman who suffers in the way that a woman travails in order to give birth.

Namashkar: In the Franciscan Spirit.

Jesus greets creation. There are the opposites of water, and earth, and the tree of life connecting the two. Jesus the man, is judged not only by Pilate, but the whole of Creation, which groans with him. The gesture of joining the hands together is to say "namashkar", meaning : "I bow to you"

In connection with Yoga, the 14 stations of the Cross, and a spiritual journey that tries to tread in the footsteps of Jesus, it is interesting to note that it originated in a Franciscan spirituality. It was the Franciscans who were assigned the task of looking after the holy places in Jerusalem. I have thought about the relation between the famous Canticle of Brother Sun, and the Greeting to the Morning Sun. But this is another subject that could be expanded on later.

Surya Namashkar Mandala

Yogic meditation

Yoga can be understood as the form of silence. It is a way of discovering an inner body, not just the outer physical form. Yoga is concerned with breathing, with slowing down the processes of the body, to realize an inner conscious shape. The Buddha sat under the tree of Wisdom, or Bodhi Tree. It is here that he gained enlightenment. Some thinkers like Ananda Coomaraswamy, thought that art is itself a kind of Yoga. Yoga is a way of embodying the imagination; it is a way of seeing a spiritual reality through visible forms. It is this process that lies at the heart of an understanding of the living force of the imagination, which the yoga of art is concerned with.

Returning to the lap of the earth

A yogic posture that brings the body back to an almost foetal posture, reminds us of the need to return to the lap of the Mother. The Maternal lap is compared to the seat of Wisdom. In fact the word "seat" is derived from "seed". The seed is layed in the lap of Mother Earth. Behind the figure of the bent body is a mask like form. It is as though a new person is emerging from the navel of the crouching form. Like the sprout that comes from the seed, the bent body is like a root, out of which a new form of life emerges.

The sleeping posture.

'Nidrasana' is a fundamental yogic posture. It is the posture which we take when we sleep. In this posture, the body is at rest, and like the energy lying in a seed, is preparing to come again to life. Death in that way can be understood as a form of sleep. Death is not a final destruction of the body, but is a condition in which the human vessel returns like the fallen seed to the earth, and lies hidden for a while in the womb of mother earth. Yoga is concerned with re-birth, with a life force that is continually trying to renew the physical world.

The Serpent lifted up

When Nicodemus came to visit Jesus by night, to learn from him the secret of his spiritual teaching, Jesus reminded him of the Serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert, healing the people. Jesus said that unless the serpent is lifted up, humanity cannot be saved. The serpent is a creature that moves on its belly on the ground. It appears to be condemned always to be earth bound. But the serpent can also lift part of its body up. The image of healing, going back to Greek medicine, represents a snake climbing up a vertical rod, by rapping its body in a spiral form around a vertical axis. In Yoga it is imagined that there is a serpent power that rests at the base of the spine. The purpose of Kundalini Yoga, is to help this serpent energy to rise uo towards the conscious mind. One important posture of Yoga is called "Sarpasana", meaning the snake form. Here the body lifts itself from the ground, bending upwards, by this action releasing energy that lies dormant in the body.

Yoga as Self Offering.

In the Bhagvad Gita, Yoga is related to sacrifice. Yoga is a work, but a work where physical action itself becomes a "Sadhana" which means a spiritual search. Through Yoga, the body itself becomes a way of seeing, or "Darshana". The body is not just something material, it is also self conscious. It is through the body that we come to realize an inner Presence or Atma.

The Plough Posture.

One of the Yogic postures is called "Halasana", which means the posture of the plough. The word "Yoga" is linked to an ancient Indo-European root which we also find in the word "Yoke". A Yoke links animals, or connects the conscious creature, with the earth, as when a plough is used to turn the soil, fixed as it is to a yoke. The plough is a very ancient symbol of agricultural work, and it is said that the Indian village plough is essentially the same implement that was used in the Mohenjodaro civilization.

Yoga and the Cosmos

Yoga links the human being with the rest of creation. In that sense Yoga has a cosmic dimension. The body is not only something external--within the body there lies the world of the imagination. It is in this sense that we might understand an inner landscape. Yogic postures show us that the body is like a tree, or a mountain, or some animal like a snake or lion. Here the posture is related to the form of the tree.

Touching the Earth

Yoga is a physical practice, but it is also connected with the imagination, and the way that we understand the body as a vessel, or vehicle of the spirit. In that sense Yoga is concerned with the transformation of nature, into a deeper experience of the soul, present in creation.There is a profound link between the soul and the body, and gestures of the body symbolize inner spiritual attitudes. Here, the act of touching the earth, embodies an inner humility, or kenosis, which honours the earth.

Jesus Greeting

A series of charcoal drawings which are linked to the "Stations of the Cross" series, represent the figure of Jesus in various yogic postures. These postures of the body attempt to find a spiritual reality embodied in creation.

Charcoal drawing from Yoga series


The Surya Namashkar is a series of gestures that are performed in the morning as a greeting to the morning sun. This exercise can be understood as a meditation, and can be related to a reflection on the yoga of Jesus, who was characterized in the early Church as representing the "Sun of Justice"

The First Station of the Cross: Jesus is judged.

Jesus accepts the passion that is symbolized by the tree that stands by flowing waters. The waters represent Baptism, but also the water in which Pilate washed his hands of the blood of Jesus. Jesus is like the just man in Psalm 1 who stands firm, his roots drawing from the lowly waters . He touches the earth as a sign of his humility

The Second Station of the Cross: Jesus takes up the Cross.

Jesus is here in the "tree posture". He himself becomes the tree. His acceptance of the Cross is in a sense his embracing the tree of life,
bowing down to the earth. Here, Jesus is himself part of the Cross. In the Syrian Christian tradition the Cross is called "Mar Silube" which is like saying "St. Cross" or Holy Cross. The term "Mar", is applied to an Abbot, for example. It indicates that the Cross itself is like a person--the suffering
servant, obedient even unto death.

The Third Station of the Cross: Jesus falls

There are various postures which indicate a total surrender to the
earth. This posture is called Shashakasan. It is a gesture which we
find in the act of worship, or total self giving to the Lord. I relate
it also to the form of the snake which is shown below the figure of
Christ falling down to the earth. The snake is the lowliest of
creatures, and is related to the tree

The Fourth Station of the Cross:Jesus meets his Mother

This is another variant of the Tree Asana, where the Yogi balances on
one leg, and raises his folded hands above his head as a sign of the
highest greeting. He is standing on a seed like form and in fact he is
like the tree that grows out of the seed. The seed here is the
Mother--but in another sense she is also the tree. She is the fruit of
creation, in that she also participates in the suffering of Jesus. In
the Franciscan tradition the Stations are often accompanied by the
singing of the "Stabat Mater". The feminine is always present--like the
idea of Savitri who accompanies Satyavan into the underworld, like the
seed which falls into the ground, and germinates there. There is an
energy, or fire coming out of the seed, which is the golden womb, or
golden germ, spoken of in the Vedas

The Fifth Station of the Cross: Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene

Jesus is supported by the tree. Here the friendship of Simon is like a support against which Jesus can rest in his final journey. The tree is in this sense both a friend and also that symbol of life on which he offered his life as a sacrifice.

The Sixth Station of the Cross: Jesus Meeting Veronica

The act of Greeting comes at the beginning of the cycle of the Surya
Namashkar series of gestures.
The theme of Veronica, or the "True Icon" is not really Biblical, but represents the way that the image of Jesus is imprinted on the cloth with which Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. This Image of Jesus is believed to be a healing
image, like that of the Holy Shroud. Jesus is the standing figure who
can also be understood as the axis of the Universe.

The Seventh Station of the Cross: Jesus Falls.

There are three of these images of Jesus falling, which indicate his
Kenosis, his coming down to the earth. This Asana which is the seventh
one of the Surya Namashkar series, is known as "Sarpasana", or the
posture of the snake. It is like the snake which is trying to lift
itself from the ground

The Eighth station of the Cross: Jesus Meeting the Women of Jerusalem

Here the women are symbolized by the shoots of the plants which are
springing up all around Jesus. The snake is again a symbol of their
suffering, their desire to break out of the darkness of the earth and
reach for the light of the Sun

The Ninth Station of the Cross: Jesus falls the last time.

Jesus falls like a tree that has been broken by a storm and uprooted from the ground.
This posture that we find within the Surya Namashkara series is a transitional posture between one of abandonment on the ground, and rising again to stand. It is the fourth or ninth posture of the Surya Namashkar cycle.

The Tenth Station of the Cross: Jesus stripped of his clothes.

Jesus is stripped of his clothes, as a tree is stripped of its leaves
when the wind blows through it.
In the Surya Namashkar series this is in fact the third gesture, which
is again another form of bending down and touching the earth in the Surya
Namashkar cycle.

The Eleventh Station of the Cross: Jesus nailed to the Cross.

This Asana (yogic posture) is called "Halasana", meaning the posture
of the plough. Jesus in the act of being nailed to the cross becomes
the plough which will turn up the earth, ready for sowing

The Twelfth Station of the Cross. Jesus on the Cross.

The Tree is like a stump to which the sacrificial animal is bound. The
sun, which is like the eye of the heavens weeps for the dying Creator.
Jesus has his hands joined above his head, which is the ultimate form
of greeting--the Namashkar to the Creator. He reaches up to his

The Thirteenth Station of the Cross: Jesus is laid in the lap of his Mother.

In a sense this is like the Padmasana, or the "asana" (posture) of the
lotus (padma). Jesus, like Satyavan, is laid in the lap of the Mother, in the myth of Savithri. The lap, or seat of the Mother is compared to the lotus flower. The tree of the cross is like the weeping willow, whose branches reach down to the waters. As the psalmist says in the Bible: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept".

The Fourteenth Station of the Cross: Jesus is buried.

Jesus is buried, and like the sleeping Asana (Nidre asana) he becomes one
with the earth. Beside him is the pot, which symbolizes the empty container of the body, from which the waters of life have been poured out. He is like the tree that is uprooted, falling onto the ground.

Yoga of Jesus

The Fifteenth Station of the Passion: Jesus rises from the dead.

Jesus is seated in meditation. The snake is below him, its body in the
form of Infinity "Shesha: the endless one". He is in the leaf of the
Tree of Wisdom, or the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha sat and
gained enlightenment