Santosha and Original Sin

“Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve into a dew.”

                                     [Hamlet I ii 129 – 130]

Since Shakespeare placed those words in Hamlet’s doleful mouth the view of the flesh has changed, … but not as much as we like to think. Many times in a Hatha Yoga asana we may wish that not only flesh, but bones and ligaments would melt into a sweet dew as we push, relax and wish ourselves into the postures. Hidden in our efforts resides the belief in just how tarnished we think the flesh is. Many of us who practice Yoga believe we are here to change the body, because the body is not flexible enough, not strong enough, not quick enough, not clean enough, not pure enough, not sexy enough, not well enough, not young enough; just not enough.

A book in the “Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali” reveals a quaint little niyama (observance) called Santosha. The text reads: “santosâd anuttamaï sukha-lâbhaï” which translates as: “Contentment brings unsurpassed joy.”

Many of us in the West don’t come by contentment easily and we suffer grave difficulty in opening to unsurpassed joy. Our forever search to attain stuff is the engine driving our very active consumerism. And it is no wonder, especially coming from a western Christian background. Here and only here the strange concoction first formulated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430.) arose; Original Sin.

Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God; the 4000- Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (Ballatine Books, 1993) wrote, “A deep sadness … informed Augustine’s later work; the fall of Rome influenced his doctrine of Original Sin, which would become a central way people would view the world.” According to Armstrong Rome represented law, reason and order and was dragged down by the “chaos and lawless passions” of Barbarians. “Neither Jews or Greek Orthodox Christians regarded the fall of Adam in such a catastrophic light; nor later would Muslims adopt this dark theology of Original Sin.”

Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest, wrote in his book, “Original Blessing” (Bear and Company 1983) that when Augustine was formulating Original Sin he was translating the Christian Testament from a Latin misinterpretation of the Greek text. He wrote that “original sin became the starting point of the west’s flight from nature.”
Armstrong would agree when she wrote, “Augustine left us with a difficult heritage. A religion that teaches men and women to regard their humanity as chronically flawed can alienate them from themselves. Nowhere is this alienation more evident than in the denigration of sexuality in general and women in particular.”

It is not the job of a Yoga teacher to teach dogma, but to open one to the experience of being truly human; to help the student find that peace within themselves. We need to look closely at how a way of living from another culture may play when introduced into our own; how certain beliefs filter through our backgrounds. We also need to look into our own life-long beliefs and become aware how they affect us day to day.

The body we have with us always. We may take it for granted and we often view it as a machine. Yes, it ages and grows weary, but we should honor it as a living organism. We need to respect it for the joy it brings in sexuality, in the way it captures the cool breeze with our face or even in the way it tastes chocolate in our mouths. Honor it for how it allows us to feel sensations. Trust it for how it warns us when things go wrong.

To think of it as congenitally flawed because of a long ago break from the Divine will bring us to describe the body as sullied. Yes, Shakespeare’s words are beautiful and take us to a Divinely artistic place, but language sullies our perceptions.

Maybe when we feel our aches and notice the body does not work like it did when we were younger we can be content with the fact that at least it stills works.