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One summer morning before the pandemic brought us indoors, I was sitting on my front porch reading the Bhagavad Gita when two Jehovah’s Witnesses walked onto my stoop. “Can we tell you about Jesus?” they asked me.
“Only if I can tell you about Krishna,” I responded, holding up the Gita for them to see.
I must have caught them off guard. They hurried off without so much as a word.
That’s too bad. There are few things I enjoy more than learning about people’s religious and spiritual practices, and few books I enjoy discussing more than the Gita. It is an important book to me as a yoga teacher and as a scholar because it asks what I consider to be the most significant question for contemporary yogis: What does it mean to live a life committed to oneness?
The highest secret
The Gita is a useful book for contemplating the concept of oneness. In the Gita, Krishna teaches the great warrior Arjuna the “highest secret,” namely, that a person’s soul (atman) is an incarnation of the universal soul (brahman). This means that people are not separate from God. The divine is in all things.
There are important historical and socio-cultural reasons for why the Gita has become one of the bibles of contemporary global yoga. But I think the key to the Gita’s appeal can be found right there, in the doctrine that people are divine. It’s an empowering doctrine that can make our lives seem special and sacred.
It also points us towards oneness.
All are one
Krishna tells Arjuna that diversity and difference are maya, an illusion. Human beings appear to be different, but in reality we are not. When it comes down to it, everyone is basically the same, because everyone is an incarnation of the divine.
If the divine is in all things, then all are one. Krishna teaches Arjuna that though the world appears to dance with diversity, in reality all people—and all living beings—are one.
In contemporary global yoga, we’ve taken this teaching to heart. “Oneness” has become our gospel.
There’s no question that believing in oneness has appeal. For one thing, it seems true. It has the support of science, which has found that genetic differences among humans are almost nil. And it’s comforting to understand that, on a primordial level, all life is built from stardust and rain and earth. When it comes down to it, believing in oneness seems simple and easy. Psychologically, I think it helps us to feel good about ourselves and our yoga practice.
Oneness and sameness
Politically, we live in a world of entrenched divisions, and so it can be reassuring and also quite productive to remember what we hold in common. In spite of our differences, all humans suffer, and all humans desire to be free from that suffering. In spite of our differences, all humans are strong, resilient, and capable of boundless joy and beauty and wonder. I firmly believe that the world would be a better place if we addressed all people as sacred and divine beings worthy of dignity and respect (in my new book, The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita, I call this practice “communication as yoga”).
But the true measure of a belief lies in the actions we take. To me, the most important question we can ask about oneness is how it shapes how we live our lives. There are many ways to live a life devoted to oneness.
I’ve found that for many yogis, oneness means sameness. These yogis are being true to certain passages in the Gita. However, if oneness means sameness, then there is no need to engage in the types of difficult conversations about diversity, inclusion, and social justice that are ongoing in our culture. We can safely walk away from such conversations because they address illusory matters that are maya—not real.
This, I believe, is a mistake.
See also: Why Yoga Has Always Been Political
The ethics of oneness
Not all philosophies of oneness make the assumption that oneness equals sameness. Take, for instance, my favorite poet, Walt Whitman. Whitman read and studied the Gita, and he, like Krishna, believed that each and every one of us is an incarnation of God. We are united in our shared divinity, but also in the common project of life, a global project of many languages and many faiths. Our experiences of oneness are diverse, conditioned as we are by our life stories, our cultures, and our languages. These differences are not illusions. They are real. For Whitman, oneness is not sameness. We are one, but we are different, too.
In my book, I conclude that a life devoted to oneness that does not acknowledge difference is unethical.
Unfortunately, our world is founded upon hierarchies and laws that mark some lives as more valuable than others. Not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to pursue happiness or to contribute to our common life. Many are actively excluded and made to suffer because of the color of their skin or their gender or where they were born or their sexuality or their religious faith.
This kind of injustice is all too real and results in suffering and violence (or himsa). If our belief in oneness leads us to ignore it—or to spiritually bypass it by insisting that it is an illusion, that we don’t see it, or that differences don’t matter—then we become complicit in the creation of suffering and harm. This is not the kind of yoga I want to practice.
The potential of our practice
For me, the ultimate purpose of our yoga practice is to promote joy, happiness, and well-being by reducing the amount of suffering in the world, for ourselves and for all living beings. Yoga is a practice of shared healing. Yoga is how we prepare ourselves to meet the challenges of living in a world on fire.
For global yoga to live up to its full potential, we must not walk away from the chance to learn from each other—specifically from one another’s differences. We must think more deeply, and talk more openly, about how we embody oneness in our lives and our yoga practices. Using oneness as an excuse to turn away from the action needed to address the world’s troubles serves no one—even the person who is turning away.
Believing in oneness might seem simple and easy, but it’s not. Once we recognize that we are all in this together, and that we need every bit of our collective wisdom if any of us are to thrive, then oneness demands that we make major changes to how we are living our lives, both on and off our yoga mats and meditation cushions.
Yoga is an ancient practice that is constantly evolving. It’s vital that contemporary yogis do not walk away from the chance to consider and discuss the ideas that form the bedrock of our practice. By contemplating these ideas alone and considering them together, we can determine if our core beliefs are serving us or holding us back.
In the end, I contend that we should understand oneness as an ethical and political challenge to build a wiser, more inclusive, more diverse community committed to equal justice for all. Perhaps then we can begin to build new alliances that will heal the world.
About the Author
Jeremy David Engels PhD, is a Professor of Communication and Ethics at Penn State University and the co-founder ofYoga Lab in State College, PA. He is the author of five books, including The Ethics of Oneness: Emerson, Whitman, and the Bhagavad Gita (Chicago 2021). You can find him on Instagram at @jeremydavidengels