Today, I finished reading Olympiodorus’ Gorgias commentary. One of the most striking things about the footnotes and the conversation in general is his attempt to sanitize Hellenic theology and Platonism in a way that is palatable to students on whom he relies for his livelihood in a culture that was now hostile to pagan teachers. While scholars have discussed this at length — an interesting piece I read recently was “Pliable Platonism” by Michael Griffin — what got my brain churning wasn’t anything to do with antiquity, but my experience as a polytheist in America, specifically in yoga classes.
In 2012, when I took my current job, I decided to start doing yoga, by which I don’t mean the full eight limbs, but asana and pranayama. From a practical perspective, my library job means that I was suddenly sitting a lot looking at a computer screen; from a social standpoint, being alone in a room of people was the exact level of “I need to get out of my apartment” I needed; and from a religious standpoint, yoga is saturated with references to South Asian Gods and their cultus. One of the things I learned after listening to teachers hedge through their opening talks — usually between 2-5 minutes in length to set the tone and theme for the class — was the significant effort they made to accommodate Christian students so the references to Gods’ myths and the chants (om namaḥ shivaya is literally a prayer to Shiva) were seen as nonthreatening. (Hindu texts were referred to generically as “spiritual wisdom of yoga.”) I kept going to the teachers who did this less often — including one teacher whom I loved because she integrated kirtan into her classes, and I love kirtan — because it made me deeply uncomfortable that this hedging speech was happening, and I didn’t feel empowered to speak up.
Which brings me to another point: Outside of certain religions that claim exclusivism, most people are perfectly willing to pray occasionally to a God without it meaning anything for their religious self-identification.
I am not suddenly practicing Hinduism by reciting a mantra for Shiva or doing occasional kirtan. If I were to visit a Shintō shrine that I stumbled across, it would not make me a practitioner of that religion, either. Neither would impromptu prayer to a specific Kemetic God for a personal issue or striking up regular prayer afterward make me a Kemetic polytheist. Praying to a divine being does not automatically initiate a person into a wider framework of worship. Study, instruction, and formal (sometimes initiatory, depending on the protocol) commitment does.
What would be wrong is ignoring those religious elements in yoga entirely. Yoga arose from South Asian religious traditions, so doing a mantra without acknowledging the God(s) and/or theological position(s) it honors is not okay. Similarly — and to be clear, this is me speaking as a non-scholar Neopagan who grew up praying to Goddesses in the Missouri backwoods with my mom — I wonder if it’s possible to engage with Platonism while ignoring its context, either, no matter how much people try to sanitize it. That question haunted me when I read Olympiodorus, and I think it’s an important one that is still relevant to how Plato is used in academia today.
This isn’t to say that the Christian privilege doesn’t make doing the right thing hard. We are talking about a dominant religious group with a segment that thinks it is under attack because of the phrase “happy holidays,” so I can imagine how avoiding the sanitization of mantras, myths, and sacred texts referenced in a yoga class could be dangerous for a teacher. Still, unless one is teaching in an area where physical safety is at risk, it’s important.
“Around the World in 80 Faiths” is a reality show about a British vicar’s discomfort with other religions. At a stop in Asia, he sees several Buddhist women (maybe high school girls or college-aged women; I saw this a long time ago, so please don’t trust me on the deep details) who were praying to Saraswati at a shrine for success on their exams. He challenged them that Buddhists should not go to non-Buddhist houses of worship to pray. They treated him with confusion and disdain, as he was a British man with a camera crew telling them how to practice their religion. Here, he was trying to influence them with his own rigid way of thinking. And many modern Neopagans are the same way, with rigid boundaries drawn up around pantheons and practices as if hearth cultus determines the sum total of all of the Gods one could ever worship. Paradoxically, we have both very rigid boundaries and are in desperate need of boundaries.
And I think that is where I leave this. Stay safe and warm, and if you celebrate the Anthesteria, tonight is a great night to pray to your ancestors.