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Ways of Praying and Knowing

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Ways of Praying and Knowing
Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Hinduism emphasizes concrete practices (yogas) which allow practitioners to know things for themselves. I often wonder if conservative Christians are afraid of the word yoga because they are in fact afraid of concrete orthopraxy! They prefer to strongly believe things but have very few daily practices or yogas that would allow them to know things in an experiential or “real” way.

The summary belief in Hinduism is that there are four disciplines, yogas, toward which different temperaments tend to gravitate. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit for the yoke which unites the seeker with the Sought. Hindus believe that all four yogas can lead one to enlightenment; in other words, there are at least four foundationally different ways of praying and living in this world.

The four basic Hindu disciplines are:

  • Bhakti yoga—the way of feeling, love, and the heart, preferred by Christianity and most mystics
  • Jnana yoga—the way of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, or head-based enlightenment, preferred by some forms of Buddhism and intellectual Christians.
  • Karma yoga—the way of action, engagement, and work, which can be done in either a knowledge way or a service/heart way, preferred by both Judaism and Islam
  • Raja yoga—this roughly corresponds to experimentation or trial and error with mind and body through practices and empirical honesty about the inner life and the world, preferred by Hinduism itself (We see this clearly in Gandhi and his “experiments with truth” and frankly in Mother Teresa who was formed by India more than most Catholics probably care to admit.)

Each of these paths can and will lead each of us to union with Supreme Reality, if we are fully faithful to them over time. For example, Raja yoga focuses on the mind’s ability to discover the spiritual world through eight sequential steps, ending in enlightenment:

  1. Yamas—five moral “thou shalt nots,” calling for non-violence, truthfulness, moderation in all things, no stealing, and not being covetous
  2. Niyamas—five “thou shalts,” requiring purity, contentment, austerity, study of the sacred texts, and constant awareness of and surrender to divine presence
  3. Asanas—physical postures (Westerners typically use the word yoga to simply mean asanas.)
  4. Pranayama—breathing exercises
  5. Pratyahara—withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana—concentration of the mind
  7. Dhyana—meditation
  8. Samadhi—enlightenment, union with the Divine
Image Credit: A Hindu Woman in Yoga Asana Meditation (detail), Lucia Puertas, 2010, river Ganges, Varanasi, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Bhagavad Gita does not counsel that we all become monks or solitaries. Rather, the true synthesis is found in a life-long purification of motive, intention, and focus in our world of action. The Gita calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery. How can we do “pure action”? Only by gradually detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God. —Richard Rohr
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