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What Ancient Teachings Can't Teach: Creationism to the Yoga Sutras

January 29, 2013, 5:23 PM
Bt-ancient

I’ve noticed a pattern when speaking to friends about creationism: I say the word, and in response receive a squinted eye and disgruntled head shake, followed by, ‘But no one takes that seriously.’ If only that were the case.

I suppose it’s geographical, not to mention tribal. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 15 months, which followed a dozen years in New York City, not exactly havens for creation theology. Yet I recall drives through Tuscaloosa and across Texas, top to bottom, crevices in Florida and ocean-facing Orange County megachurches, and a conversation with a rare Krishnamurti devotee in a Birmingham Indian restaurant. There’s plenty of people who believe outrageous things, and they’re deciding what’s taught to children.

Of course, the ‘debate’ between creationism and evolution is contrived. They don’t speak the same language, much less have anything in common with understanding the origins of life. Yet that’s not my focus; rather, the question is: Why do we give so much credit to ‘ancient’ teachings?

As a yoga instructor, I encounter the same fundamentalist zeal for the past as in the aforementioned churches. The general sentiment is this: There once existed divinely touched people who knew way more than us; we’ve strayed due to our modern existence/comforts/technologies; in order to return to that divinely blessed place (or state of being) we need to heed their warnings and seek the counsel of our ancestors through prayer or other varieties of sympathetic magic.

How does one ‘return’ to a former time? Alan Weisman ingeniously imagined how the earth would respond to a world without humans, but while we’re still here, it is not only impossible to live under the auspices of former times, it would be foolish.

Fundamental realities we are accustomed to—antibiotics, hospitable birthing conditions, nutritional science—have greatly extended expectable life spans. Most people I know wouldn’t consciously accept the conditions our ancestors lived with. This is not to claim that our forebears didn’t have keen insights into the nature of the human condition. Yet it hardly justifies reading their texts to get a better grasp of who we are today. 

Take, for example, the most popular books assigned to yoga teacher trainers: The Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Let’s take a quick glance at a few lessons in the Pradipika:

Mix the lunar nectar [amaroli, or human urine] released by this practice with cow-dung ashes and smear one’s important parts. Divine sight is born.

Or this, declared true after practicing headstand:

Wrinkles and gray hair are invisible after just six months. He who practices it for three hours every day surely conquers death. 

Even treating death as a metaphor—that headstand conquers the fear of death, as we know vanquishing actual death is impossible—there has been no research that I’m aware of confirming the loss of wrinkles and gray hair from this practice, and most science based on drinking human urine is anecdotal and not research-driven. 

Now, let’s gander at what is being taught in some Texas public schools: 

The Bible is the written word of God… The Bible is united in content because there is no contradictions in the writing [sic]. The reason for this is because the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration.

Sad to say mainstream anti-God media do not portray these true facts [of Moses and the Red Sea crossing] in the light of faith but prefer to sceptically [sic] doubt such archaeological proofs of the veracity & historicity of the Biblical account, one of the most accurate history books in the world[.]

Looking beyond content, we find a similar response: a declaration of what reality consists of provided by books that are between 500 years and a few millennia old. The entire practice reminds me of a recent interview on Alec Baldwin’s podcast with Dick Cavett. 

Discussing many of the great actors who appeared on his show, Cavett and Baldwin waxed sentimental, agreeing there will never again be giants of screen and stage among us as a half-century ago. This entire habit of gazing back makes me recall my professor of music philosophy at Rutgers, who remarked in 1995 that no composition created after 1900 should be considered ‘real music.’ The past, of course, is the better time. 

Perhaps it’s a fear of the future, dependently unknowable as it is. Or a yearning for the childhood that strengthened and at times solidified our neural wiring to translate reality as having specific qualities. If we’re told again and again that God answers our prayers, or that drinking your urine cures cancer, we are apt to believe it, whether or not the science behind it holds up.

As an expression of belief, we are likely to never overcome the seduction of a metaphorical imagination. I consider this a good thing. Equating what happens in our daydreams with what we teach children as fact is, however, dangerous. It leads to distorted assumptions about our surroundings, greatly hindering our ability to navigate our inner space, mentally and emotionally, as a response to the greater world.

We can never know the physical conditions our ancestors endured or what caused them to write down what they did. We can certainly be inspired by the poetry and celebrate (some of) the ethical teachings. But we can’t teach our children absurd fallacies and expect to create a society with integrity, nor should we continue to do so with adults. The science of our existence is a wondrous discipline, and as it changes, we need to change with it. Hanging on for dear life to what is speeding past is only slowing our country down.

Image: Nick Pavlakis/shutterstock.com

 

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