Recently a yoga student told me her family was strongly opposed to her meditating and doing hatha postures. “How can you do yoga and still be Christian?” they wanted to know. I was astonished. Yoga is totally non-denominational; it’s a universal form of spiritual practice that can be adopted with equal benefit by people of all religions and no religion at all. Saying you can’t be a Christian and practice yoga is like claiming that good Catholics can’t sing spirituals.
Still, it’s true that yoga developed in the deeply religious cultural matrix of India, and perhaps it’s that aspect of its history which some Christians react against. That’s unfortunate because, as anyone who has studied both the Bible and the scriptures of India knows, the two traditions have a great deal in common.
The parallels between the biblical book of Genesis and ancient Indian legends begin when God creates the world in seven days. Sacred Indian texts tell us the universe was shaped by God in seven stages. While many Christians believe each of the seven days of creation were 24 hours long, the yoga sages explain that days of God, not human days, are meant. Therefore each of the seven “days” last millions of years in human time. In addition, the yoga tradition says there are seven more stages to go before this world cycle has been completed and our solar system dissolves. The yogic tradition agrees with the Western scientific claim that our earth and sun are almost exactly halfway through their life cycle. But it agrees with the Christian belief that there is a transcendent intelligence guiding this process.
When we read the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and his ark, and Abraham and Isaac, the similarities to India’s earliest texts become even more striking. For example, the legend of Manu, the first man or “Adam” of this world cycle, was already ancient when the Rig Veda was composed over 5,000 years ago. (The earliest parts of the Bible were written much later, probably between the 12th and 8th centuries b.c.) Our words man, woman, and humanity are related to Manu, which means “thinking being” in Sanskrit. Mythologically, humans are the descendents of Manu. But how did this mysterious figure become the forefather of us all?
Stories about Manu are scattered in all layers of Indian scripture. According to ancient Indian chronicles called the Puranas, many thousands of years ago Manu was bathing in the ocean when a small fish swam into his cupped hands. Realizing the tiny creature wouldn’t survive long in the sea before being eaten by larger fish, he took it home and kept it safe in a cup full of water. It quickly outgrew the cup, however, so Manu transferred it into a pot, and then into a large jar. Eventually, the fish grew so big that Manu’s largest container could barely hold it. By this point, the fish was mature enough to survive on its own, so Manu carried the heavy jar to the ocean and set it free.
The fish told Manu, “Thank you for saving me. Now it’s my turn to rescue you. Soon there will be a terrible flood and the whole world will be destroyed. Build yourself an ark, and after the flood begins I’ll return and tow your ship to safety.”
As it turned out, this was no ordinary fish. It was the Matsya Avatar, the “fish incarnation” of God, who had assumed this unlikely physical form in order to rescue Manu from impending disaster. The fish told Manu, “Thank you for saving me. Now it’s my turn to rescue you. Soon there will be a terrible flood and the whole world will be destroyed. Build yourself an ark, and after the flood begins I’ll return and tow your ship to safety.”
As soon as Manu completed his boat, the great deluge began. The entire world was submerged in the rising waters. True to his word, the divine fish pulled Manu’s ark to safety on a mountaintop in the Himalayas. We know from the Rig Veda that Manu sent a bird out from his ship to find out if there was enough dry land for him to disembark, just as Noah would do in the biblical version. The bird returned to Manu with a sprig of soma, a plant whose sacred juice is offered to the fire during Vedic rituals.
A story from the Maitrayani Samhita narrates that when Manu climbed out of the boat, he wanted to perform a sacrifice to thank God for saving him and his family. But every living thing had been destroyed—there was nothing left to sacrifice. A priest suddenly materialized in front of him and commanded, “You must sacrifice your wife!” Manu built a sacred fire and was about to offer his beloved wife into the flames when suddenly God thundered, “Let the woman go! Your willingness to make this sacrifice is sacrifice enough!”
The point of the myth is the same in both cases: God’s command was a test of faith (shraddha in Sanskrit), and a reminder that God requires us to surrender everything to him.
Jewish sages knew a story similar to this, though they changed one important detail. Manu cherished his wife more than anything else in life, and therefore was asked to renounce her. Abraham, however, most loved his son, Isaac. He, like Manu, was prepared to sacrifice what he loved most if that was what God ordained. The point of the myth is the same in both cases: God’s command was a test of faith (shraddha in Sanskrit), and a reminder that God requires us to surrender everything to him.
As a reward for their perfect faith, both Manu and Abraham were made fathers of great nations. In another interesting correspondence, Parshu, the name of Manu’s wife, the mother of humanity, means “rib.” In the Bible, the primordial mother, Eve, is created from the rib of her husband, Adam.
Manu became the first king and lawgiver in this cycle of creation. (Earlier races of humanity had been destroyed in previous cataclysms, according to the Indian tradition.) Incidently, the great lawgiver of the ancient Egyptians was called Menes; the first great king of Asia Minor was Minos; the Celts honored Menw as their forefather; and even the Incas called their first king Manoc. The first lawgiver of ancient Rome was named Numa, which is the two syllables of Manu transposed. It’s hard to believe the similarity of names is a coincidence.
In South India the word mina means both “fish” and “star.” And indeed, on a clear night you can still see Manu and the fish that saved him. Western mythographers admit they have no idea who first defined the constellation we call Aquarius. But once you know the Indian legend of Manu, you’ll immediately recognize the great figure in the sky pouring water out of a celestial jar into the cosmic ocean. Look more closely and you’ll see something else falling out of the jar: a gigantic fish, the constellation Piscis Austrinus.
Judging from ancient Indian tradition, Noah’s flood didn’t take place on earth but in the sky. This would explain why geologists have never been able to find physical evidence of the worldwide flood described in the Bible. On the other hand, the large portion of the sky beneath Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces used to be called “the cosmic waters” in both ancient India and Mesopotamia, which share this flood myth. Perhaps the tale is a dim memory of a point in the precessional cycle many thousands of years ago when this sector of heaven rose so high in the night sky it seemed as if its waters might engulf the entire cosmos.
In the tale of Manu they teach us that when our entire world is wiped out at the time of our death, we should attach our mind (Sanskrit manas) to the inner light that shines like a brilliant star in the sky of our awareness.
The ancient astronomers who composed this myth were also yogis, according to Indian tradition. In the tale of Manu they teach us that when our entire world is wiped out at the time of our death, we should attach our mind (Sanskrit manas) to the inner light that shines like a brilliant star in the sky of our awareness. It will carry us across the ocean of birth and death. But we must be prepared to offer up everyone and everything we love to the Supreme Being, just as Manu and Abraham were. That total commitment to spiritual life qualifies us for divine grace.
The “divine fish” is still a symbol of the divine savior today. In India he was the Matsya Avatar; in Mesopotamia the divine fish-man who saved humanity from the great flood was called Ea or Oannes; and today he’s called Christ. For two thousand years, Christians have used the symbol of a fish to represent Jesus. Every time I’m sitting in traffic and notice that the car in front of me has a little metal fish glued to the back, I think of Manu and the divine fish that towed him to safety.
When we trace our spiritual lineages back far enough, whatever our religion, we find they converge in a great ancient tradition that is shared by cultures throughout the world.
When we trace our spiritual lineages back far enough, whatever our religion, we find they converge in a great ancient tradition that is shared by cultures throughout the world. The inner meaning of the ancient myths, however, and the spiritual practices that help us directly experience their truths have been painstakingly preserved in India for thousands of years. For this reason, even though I was raised a Christian, I don’t see yoga as an “alien” tradition. Instead, it seems to me an older sister of Christianity who has much to teach us if we can put aside our prejudice, sit quietly, and listen.