Positing Jesus Christ as a yogi has become popular over the last two decades. For some, the symbolism is irresistible: loving your neighbors, turning a cheek and other maxims line up with the modern conception of what yoga supposedly entails. There is also the ‘missing period’ of Christ’s life that some speculate represent his time practicing yogic austerities.
Comparing the Christ figure to others is in no way new. He's already received a heavy Buddhist treatment. Authors like Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and Thich Nhat Hanh have all had their go at such synergy. In his book American Jesus, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero discussed how the character of Jesus has been transformed to fit thousands of agendas. Basically, he writes, the exalted savior represents whatever those discussing him want him to.
In one of the most interesting takes on the Christ figure, Alan Watts looked at the deeper meaning of Christian symbolism in his 1953 book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity. Written three years after the British writer and philosopher left the Episcopalian ministry, this obscure work in Watts’ extensive catalog removed any literalism from Christian ritual as he treated the ceremonial stretch between Christmas to Easter in a mythological context.
Followers of most every faith sometimes believe that their discipline was created in a vacuum. For the most hardcore, the rebirth of Christ is ascribed only to him, though the story had already received plenty of circulation in a variety of mythologies, including Tammuz, Mithra, Osiris, Adonis, and Attis.
With this in mind, Watts uncovers a richly symbolic Christian heritage during the winter months, the time of year when the ‘light’ disappears and fields are barren before the world is ‘born again’ with the planting of seeds in spring in preparation of the autumn harvest.
While the predominant amount of ink is devoted to the chants and songs performed during the rituals, one of the most interesting parallels references the importance of trees in historical literature. The tree, as in the epic myth of Eden (and of which the physical structure of the church represents), plays many roles throughout time:
—Osiris is embalmed in a pine tree in the palace of Byblos before traveling to the underworld and, eventually, resurrected by his divine consort/sister.
—The Buddha reaches enlightenment while seated underneath the bhodi tree.
—The Kabbalah bases its Ein Sof on the symbolism of the Tree of Life.
—The Norse god Odin learned the wisdom of runes while immolated upon the World Tree.
—The Aztec hero Quetzalcoatl was formed when a hero shot an arrow of the pochotl tree into another pochotl.
—Moses’ staff was constructed from the Tree of Life, as was the consecrated rod of Hermes, the great Egyptian god of literature, athletics and poetry.
In Watts’ conception, the Tree of Eden plays an identical role with the Cross, the church and the yogic raising of the sacred Kundalini energy. Just as the Christian initiate must enter the narthex, pass through the nave and ascend into the sanctuary, the yogi draws up the energy from the base of the pelvis (representing the biological urge to procreate in the sex organs)to be pulled up to (and eventually out of) the ‘lotus in the skull’ atop the crown chakra. As he writes,
Indian and Christian mythology again reveal their common structure, for as the Serpent Power (Kundalini) of human consciousness ascends the spinal-tree to the sun-lotus in the head, where it realizes its divinity, so the faithful in the Church ascend from Baptism to the Mass—the sacrament of Union celebrated in the ‘head’ of the church towards the East where the sun rises.
In the book Watts warns that those who do not understand that the symbolic nature of Christian ritual is applicable to their own lives will not see the relationship of these iconic figures as meaningful.
In my own experiences, I have found that more devoted Christians refuse to associate their savior with any other figure, while yogis tend to want to synthesize the yogic discipline with everything else...while, oddly, also believing that only through yogic breathing techniques and meditation can one self-actualize.
Neither of these approaches makes sense: if you believe your faith to have been created with no prior influences, you’re being historically dishonest. Yet if you think that everything matches your practice, there’s no display of integrity. Yoga and Christianity, for instance, have very different conceptions of the world and should be honored as such.
Still, Watts was able to relate the symbolism of Eastern and Western thought like few others. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t fully invested in any of them that he could appreciate the potential value they all held. He was able to see the forest for the trees in a way that’s impossible if you’re too bound up by, or not bound up enough in, what you actually believe.