When people say that Jesus was a yogi, what do they mean? What makes a person a yogi? A yogi is one who is in union with God or one who aspires to such union. Fearlessness is the clearest sign that one has attained that state of experience. After knowing the Truth and one’s eternal relationship with that Truth, one is no longer affected by loss and gain, honor and insult, success and failure. The phenomenon of birth and death is of no more significance to such a one than putting on a set of clothes and taking them off again.
Fearlessness is the clearest sign that one has attained that state of experience.
Evidently Jesus was such an accomplished master. He was fully established in his true self and was not affected by either honor or insult. He knew his relationship with Truth, which in Christian terminology is called “Almighty God.” Death had no meaning for him. The willingness with which he gave his body can be seen in the account of the Last Supper (“Take, eat; this is my body.” Matt. 26:26). As the yoga tradition has it, his resurrection is a purely yogic feat, known as parakaya pravesha (casting off the body and re-entering the same or another body at will). According to the yoga tradition, yogis of this caliber are immortal. They continue serving and guiding aspirants forever.
Did Jesus intend for his message to become a religion? If not, how did this happen? As a representative of yoga, my answer is “no.” No master wants his teachings, knowledge, or services to be confined to a limited group, and Jesus was no exception. Saints and spiritual masters understand the higher purpose and goal of life, and that is why their underlying message is always love all, embrace all; hate none and exclude none.
The teachings of all these masters are universal. They are grounded in deep spiritual knowledge and experience. But when the masters pass away their followers often begin to “own” both the teacher and the teachings, claiming that they are the only ones who truly understand his teachings. They insist that only they are entitled to carry on his mission. Further, to magnify the importance of both themselves and their teacher, they attempt to undermine other teachers and teachings. This is how a religion is created.
The Christian religion is not alone in shutting the door on other teachers. It happens in all religions. The Hindus, for example, have closed their eyes to Christ as well as to many other saints and sages. And within Hinduism there are hundreds of sects and hundreds of swamis, most of whom ignore or undermine all teachers but their own. In most ashrams, students are forbidden to practice any form of meditation other than that taught by the founder of that ashram.
Furthermore, once a spiritual path becomes a religion it also becomes a business, and in business you do not want to help your competitors. What had been a group of spiritual seekers becomes an institutionalized community, building a solid wall around the teaching of the master, and the message of the master has a hard time spreading beyond that wall.
It is unlikely that Christ is the only master whose teachings have been distorted. Has the same thing happened with the teachings of Buddha? Yes. Christ and Buddha were great masters who offered their wisdom to all humankind. Think of the sacrifices they made, the forbearance they showed, what great hearts they had, and how willingly they subjected themselves to pain and insult in service of the teachings. It is by remembering these characteristics and attempting to manifest them in our own lives that we become Christian or Buddhist. It is simple: A Christian is one who follows the footprints of Christ; a Buddhist is one who follows the footprints of Buddha. Instead of walking in the footprints of these great masters, however, we redesign their footprints until they begin to resemble our own. Then we claim they are the footprints of Christ or of Buddha. If you examine Buddhism you will see that many of the teachings now delivered in his name were not taught by Buddha at all. In fact much of what passes as Buddhism goes against his teachings. For example, Buddha taught that our immediate concern is not with gods and goddesses, but with understanding that there is both pain and a cause of pain. He encouraged those around him to find a path that leads to the state beyond pain and misery and begin practicing that. He taught that our immediate goal is to achieve nirvana, the state where pain is extinguished forever, and when we have done that, we will not need to figure out whether God exists or not, or whether God lives in heaven or within ourselves. All this will become apparent once the mind is free from misery, hatred, loneliness, anger, and pain.
Until then, Buddha advised, “Do not waste your time trying to understand the subtler issues of life, and do not waste my time asking questions about God.” He avoided the subject of the existence of God, and when pushed he said, “Forget God. What is clear is that misery exists and there is a need for happiness.” Buddha never gave a straight answer to questions about the existence of God, and yet today Buddhism has one of the most elaborate mythologies and theologies ever conceived. This has nothing to do with Buddha.
What is the difference between spirituality and religion? Spirituality encourages people to come to an understanding of right and wrong, truth and untruth, through personal exploration. Religion imposes a definition of right and wrong. In a spiritual tradition the heart is allowed to sense what is right and wrong, and the buddhi (intellect) is given the freedom to evaluate the ideas of right and wrong that have come to us from great masters in the past. If the heart and the intellect are not allowed to come forward and help us find our path, the life goes out of spirituality and it becomes a religion.
In other words, the moment a spiritual tradition begins to discourage people from seeking God independently, it turns into a religion. When the heart and brain are suppressed, when we are forced or manipulated to think along the lines of somebody else’s thinking, spiritual wisdom declines and the process of inner transformation slows and stops. Transformation comes only when we put the teachings into practice in our own lives.
The moment a spiritual tradition begins to discourage people from seeking God independently, it turns into a religion.
What would it take for yoga to spread and become as popular as the religions of today? It will never happen, because yoga demands that you practice and experience, rather than simply believe. Yoga requires you to find out for yourself, and most people are not interested in doing that. They are looking for someone to lean on. Religion has a hold on those who suffer from dependency, while those who are drawn to yoga are aware that they have to gather the wick, oil, and matches and light their own lamp. Such people suffer less from fear and doubt than those who are dependent. They know that they can reach somewhere higher only when they themselves move from here to there, and they know that this requires self-effort.
Every journey is a personal journey. It never happens that someone else undertakes the journey and you reach the destination. It is not enough to understand that someone else has walked the path—but unfortunately many will not accept that: they want others to walk the path for them. And because yoga will never pretend to do that it will remain unpalatable to most people. Those seeking independence and personal freedom will be drawn to this path; others will not.