Monday, June 17, 2019

Yoga and the Case of Saint Hypatios of Rufinianes

St. Hypatios of Rufinianes

By John Sanidopoulos

In the 33rd chapter of the Life of Hypatios, which was written around 450 by his disciple Kallinikos, about the abbot of Rufinianes Monastery in Chalcedon in the early fifth century, we read about his attempt to rid Chalcedon of what he considered its final remnant of paganism - the Olympic Games.

The story is as follows: Leontios, the prefect of Constantinople from 434 to 435, decided to establish the Olympic Games at the theater of Chalcedon. When Hypatios heard the news, he wept because he thought that he was going to see the rebirth of idolatry, crying: "My Lord, will I ever see idolatry revive during my lifetime?" Then, he assembled twenty monks and went with them to see Bishop Eulalios. Hypatios announced to the bishop that he was ready to die in the theater before permitting such a return of idolatry. Eulalios did not agree, because they were not obliged to offer sacrifices, and asked Hypatios to keep calm. But the monk replied that if Eulalios did not do anything to hinder the celebration, he would go to the theater with his monks and, when the prefect held the presidency of the games, he would throw him from his podium, even if this assassination meant that Hypatios and his followers would be executed; they preferred to die as martyrs before permitting the rebirth of pagan religion.

When Leontios heard that those threats had been hurled against him, he became frightened, decided to stay in Constantinople, on the other side of the Bosphorus, and refrained from organizing the Olympic Games. This was a very great success for Hypatios, whose fame of sanctity increased enormously. As a result, Bishop Eulalios realized that Hypatios was a man of God, and respected him as a father. Kallinikos ends this episode by stating that Hypatios did not know exactly what the Olympic Games were. Then God sent him a man called Eusebius who knew this topic very well and explained to him that the Olympics were a very fearsome festival of Satan, the culmination of idolatrous madness, and a cause of corruption to Christians.

What we know of the Olympic Games was that they consisted of theatrical performances, chariot races, sometimes battles with wild beasts, and mainly athletic contests. Originally they were held in honor of the Olympian Zeus, and as pagan religious ceremonies were a time of much debauchery, and for this reason Christians were forbidden to participate in them or attend them. Many Christians writers wrote against them and condemned them. What Hypatios was doing was merely repeating these accusations and fears from the past and applying them to his time.

However, in the fifth century the games had become a secular phenomenon disconnected from any kind of pagan festival. In fact, between the years 390 and 392, the emperor Theodosius abolished pagan rituals, both public and private, which means that it was not allowed to worship images, to make offerings (neither sacrifices nor libations), and to visit sanctuaries. The result of this policy was that the Olympic Games lost all trace of their religious component, and in consequence they became only an artistic and sporting manifestation. A few years later, in 395, Emperors Honorius and Arcadius ordered that pagan festivals were all excluded from the official calendar. Henceforth, games continued to be held, although unrelated to any religious manifestation, as we observe in the comparison of the calendars of Philocalus (354) and Polemius Silvius (448/449).

The objective of this legislation was to abolish paganism while maintaining intact the Roman shows, a magnificent way of protecting political propaganda and popular entertainment. But the Christian religious authorities never wanted to recognize this secularization. Indeed, after the process of secularization of the Roman games, the Christian leaders continued to criticize them as an expression of pagan religion, as we can see in the episode of Hypatios.

So, when the prefect Leontios tried to establish the Olympic Games in Chalcedon, his purpose was not to revive a pagan celebration, because in doing this he would have infringed the law; his intention was to create a contest, in that moment definitively secular. Leontios merely intended to perpetuate many of the ideals inherited from the classical world. To do otherwise would be to break the law.

On the other hand, Kallinkos also said that before Leontios had attempted to establish the Olympic Games, they had been abolished "by the ancient emperors and by Constantine of eternal memory." But this is not correct. If we examine the imperial legislation of the fourth and fifth centuries related to the shows, we observe that no emperor did ever do anything against the spectacles because, as we have already said, they were a magnificent type of political propaganda and popular entertainment. The prohibition of the games is a historiographical myth created by authors such as Eusebius of Cesarea and other ecclesiastical historians, who specifically affirmed that Constantine banned the gladiatorial shows. Nevertheless the prohibition against the Olympic Games never took place. For example, the Olympic Games continued in Antioch until the year 521, and other games always took place in Constantinople for many centuries after.

Hypatios was wrong in both his intentions and in the reality of the matter. There was no longer any form of paganism in the Olympic Games. His error on this matter drove him to such great zeal with a lack of knowledge that he was willing to murder the prefect to prevent it from happening. It was reasons like this that St. John Chrysostom condemned many of the monks of his time living in or near the cities, because they tended to intervene too much in secular and political affairs and often misinterpreted them, and for this many of the monks and clergy in Constantinople hated and spewed slanders against Chrysostom. We find similar issues in Alexandria in the early fifth century, where monks caused riots and some may have been responsible for the horrific murder of Hypatia. St. Cyril of Alexandria even tried to canonize the monk Ammonius after he incited a riot and almost killed the prefect Orestes, who in turn had Ammonius tortured and killed, but the moderate Christians of Alexandria would not allow this canonization. Even Emperor Theodosius II in the years 416 and 418 in his Theodosian Code prevented fanatical Christians, including certain monks and clergy, from attending public shows and courtroom hearings, because they terrified others with their excessive zeal.

With this being said, what does it have to do with Yoga? In many cases, we find Yoga to be inseparable from its religious significance as a Hindu practice. Many Yoga studios still present it and practice it with at least a minor association to Hindu or New Age beliefs and practices. But sometimes Yoga is stripped of all Hindu and New Age elements, especially when done in a treatment or hospital setting. In other words, it is completely secularized and done as merely a form of exercise. Should Christians still condemn a practice that has a Hindu source but has been completely stripped of Hindu influence? Should Christians still condemn the poses and the techniques if they have absolutely no religious significance? It would seem that Christians would be going too far in doing so, merely condemning it out of fear for something it once was, or even for something it is in some places but it is not in other places. Though great care and discrimination must be used where and how Yoga is practiced, if it is entirely stripped of its Hindu elements, then I see no good reason to condemn it, especially for those who use it as helpful physical therapy and pain relief.