In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christianity and Yoga

  • Introduction
  • Christian Missionary Contexts
  • Typologies and Sources of Yoga
  • Transformative Dynamics of Yoga
  • Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Hindu Pluralism, Inclusivism, and Mission
  • Social and Religious Movements in Modern Yoga
  • Monastic and Pre–Second Vatican Council Contexts
  • Post–Second Vatican Council Contexts
  • Contemporary Jñāna Yoga
  • Contemporary Bhakti Yoga
  • Contemporary Postural Hatha and Kundalini Yogas

Hinduism Christianity and Yoga
Michael Stoeber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0276


Hindu postural yogas of hatha and kundalini have come into significant theological and practical dialogue with Christianity historically. These are physical-sensory oriented yogas, that can include: āsana (body postures and movements); mudra (hand positions); prāṇāyāma (breath meditations); mantra (sacred soundings or chanting); or yantra (mental imaging and visualization). Hatha and kundalini yogas are marked off from other categories of yoga: bhakti (worship and devotional self-surrender); karma (selfless action); rāja (meditative emphasis, centered on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra); and jñāna (discriminating knowledge through meditation). However, some of the physical-sensory practices and theoretical contexts of hatha and kundalini can function as significant prerequisites, helpful supports, or grounding for the devotional or contemplative goals of these other yogas. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (3rd century CE) and its commentaries systematize popular ascetic techniques and contemplative methods of ancient yoga practices and theories, which were then creatively expanded or adapted into hatha and kundalini yogas, and influence, relate with, and contrast to, other yoga types. This article highlights comparative studies and dialogue of postural yogas with Christianity, but also includes references to jñāna and bhakti. Although Christian-Hindu encounters with Indian yogas occur centuries earlier, with the St. Thomas Christians, reliable and detailed records begin in the early 17th century. Christian missionaries studied Hindu texts and communicated aspects of their comparative learning and personal dialogue, while travel writers and Western journalists informed European and American Christians about various practices of Indian yogis-fakirs (ascetic yoga masters). Scholars, religion-theorists, and theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries wrote about yoga, interreligious dialogue occurred among monastics from the early 20th century, and influential gurus introduced various yogas more widely to the West. Historically, this interreligious dialogue and comparative study can be distinguished by three general approaches—though it also occurs without reference to these stances: In Exclusivism, persons of a religious tradition regard the theories and practices of the “Other” tradition suspiciously or pejoratively, as misguided, flawed, or spiritually distorted and dangerous, even while possibly drawing upon significant aspects of the Other’s tradition; Inclusivist-Fulfillment orientations claim both the limitations of the Other—especially in terms of ultimate spiritual ideals—but also acknowledge the positive support of its theories and practices in relation to the fulfilment of one’s own religious tradition, in some cases in extremely complimentary ways. Pluralistic theories grant independent authenticity to certain aspects of the theories, practices, and spiritual ideals of the Other, sometimes recognizing the possibilities of multiple religious participation and belonging or religious hybridity.

Christian Missionary Contexts

Neill 1984 gives a substantial overview of early encounters of Christianity in India, beginning with traditional accounts of the arrival of the Christian apostle Thomas in the 1st century of the Common Era and the later connections of Nasranis with Persia and the Syriac Orthodox Church up to 1500. Some traveling religious and lay people from the 13th to 16th centuries describe aspects of their visits, and Roman Catholic Jesuits arrived in the early 17th century. De Smet 1976, De Smet 1988, de Smet 1991 clarify effectively how the missionary and scholarly activities of Roberto de Nobili (de Nobili 2002) were most significant. The introduction by Amaladass and Clooney in de Nobili 2002 highlights de Nobili’s openness to inculturation, which included language-fluency, extensive study of scripture and culture, taking on the dress, customs, and lifestyle of Hindu saṃnyāsa, and intense dialogue through both comparative study of texts and personal encounters. He acquired a broad knowledge of Vedānta-jñāna yoga schools and other streams of Hinduism from primary and secondary sources. He gave a liberal application of the principal of “right reason” propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas in his assessment of Hindu theology and praxis, in acknowledging truths of Vedantic and Dharma-smṛti teachings about God, salvation, and spiritual attitudes, approaches, and praxis (De Smet 1976), while criticizing related topics such as māyā, theistic anthropomorphism, multiple avatāras, and extreme non-dualism (De Smet 1988). The introduction in de Nobili 2002 mentions other influential Jesuits, Gonçalco Fernandes, Diego Gonsález, and Jacob Fenicio. Fenicio’s popular work, Dos Indios Orientais, systematized and analyzed Hindu schools, beliefs, and practices, which influenced Christian conceptions of Hinduism. Neill 1984, Neill 1985, and Jones 2020 also focus on bhakti yoga, in effectively illuminating the activities of Protestant missionaries in the 17th and 18th century, perhaps most notably the Danish Lutheran Pietist Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, who translated the Christian Bible into Tamil in 1715. Other protestant groups included Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Plymouth Brethren, Presbyterian, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. Mundadan and Singh 1983–2012 and Frykenberg and Low 2003 intentionally attends to sociocultural contexts of India relevant to such dialogue and relations, stressing Indocentric rather than Eurocentric approaches to the material. Frykenberg and Low edit and provocatively introduce an interesting, wide-ranging anthology, that explores conflations of colonialism and Christianity, while clarifying what the authors consider authentic intentions of Christian mission, its universal contexts, the dynamics of conversion, and the Indianization of Christianity.

  • Frykenberg, Robert Eric, and Alaine M. Low, eds. Christians and Missionaries in India: Cross-Cultural Communication since 1500, with Special Reference to Caste, Conversion, and Colonialism. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

    An extensive anthology that includes much analysis from Indocentric orientations on: controversies surrounding caste and Christianity; histories of Sanskrit grammars; the significant role of Indian catechists, pastors, and teachers; Tamil poetry on Christian infant narratives; Indian evangelical Pentecostalism; Christian relations with the adivāsi (ethically distinct tribal peoples); and Christian missionary impacts on Islam, education, the diffusion of enlightenment philosophy and science, and in defining modern Hinduism.

  • Jones, Arun W. “Bhakti and Christian Missions.” Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism. Edited by Tracy Coleman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318–0231

    Substantial annotated bibliography that goes beyond Christian missions to include comparative theology referencing the work of A. J. Appasamy, J. Carman, F. Clooney, K. Klostermaier, R. Otto, K. Sharma, and other significant contributors, with separate sections on Pentecostalism and music.

  • de Nobili, Roberto. Preaching Wisdom to the Wise: Three Treatises by Roberto de Nobili, S.J., Missionary and Scholar. Translated by Anand Amaladass and Francis X. Clooney. St Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2002.

    Translation of significant writings of de Nobili. An excellent introduction includes descriptions of his novel interreligious dialogue methods and inculturation practices.

  • De Smet, Richard. “Robert de Nobili and Vedānta.” Vidyajyoti: Journal of Theological Reflection 40.8 (September 1976): 363–371.

    Outlines significant aspects of de Nobili’s treatment of the schools of Vedāntic—Jñānīs, with some reference to Dharma-smṛti.

  • De Smet, Richard. “The Wide Range of de Nobili’s Doctrine.” Vidyajyoti: Journal of Theological Reflection 52.3 (March 1988): 159–164.

    Outlines significant aspects of de Nobili’s understanding, teaching, appreciation, and criticism of Hindu doctrine and dharma in relation to Christian perspectives.

  • De Smet, Richard. “R. de Nobili as Forerunner of Hindu-Christian Dialogue.” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 4 (1991): 1–9.

    Focuses on de Nobili’s approach to and practice of personal interreligious dialogue—his studies, intercultural openness, stress on discriminative reason, and pastoral openness.

  • Mundadan, A. Mathias, and D. V. Singh, eds. History of Christianity in India. 5 vols. Bangalore, India: Published for Church History Association of India by Theological Publications, 1983–2012.

    Initiated in 1974 by the Church History Association of India, the projected six-volume History of Christianity in India was tasked to situate the Christian ecclesiology in the socio-culture of India—its regionalism and national contexts, as well as its ecumenical relations and diversity, and the impact of Christian churches on Indian life.

  • Neill, Stephen F. P. A. A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to 1707. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511520556

    Well researched, accessible, and informative historical development of the history of Christian encounters, settlements, and reactions of Indians in India to 1707. It is written by a Christian bishop and does not include serious attention to contemporary coloniality issues.

  • Neill, Stephen F. P. A. A History of Christianity in India, 1707–1858. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511520563

    A sequel to Bishop Neill’s History to 1707, it begins with the Tranquebar Mission and also outlines that of the Thomas Christians, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant contexts, up to British colonial rule, with special attention on education in the development of an Indian Christian Church.

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