Lord Acton Meets Lord Krishna: Yoga as the Reign of Conscience
Religion & Liberty Online

Lord Acton Meets Lord Krishna: Yoga as the Reign of Conscience

In North America ‘Yoga’ is synonymous with exercise consisting of a series of postures as well as form-fitting and surprisingly comfortable pants. But there’s much more: it’s a philosophy deeply grounded in conscience as the source of virtue. Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy which accept and rely on the Vedas, the most ancient scriptures of Hinduism. Yogic ideas of conscience are strikingly similar to the those of Lord Acton in particular and the Christian tradition in general.

In the introduction to his translation of the Yoga Sutras renowned Yoga teacher and scholar B.K.S. Iyengar explains:

Patajali begins the treatise on yoga by explaining the functioning of mind, so that we may learn to discipline it, and intelligence, ego and consciousness may be restrained, subdued and diffused, then drawn towards the core of our being and absorbed in the soul. This is yoga.

To draw the mind to the soul is to bring our consciousness into our conscience. Yoga is then, as Lord Acton might say, the ‘reign of conscience.’ (For a great unpacking of Acton’s thought on conscience see Johann Christian Koecke’s ‘Freedom of Thought and Commitment to God’ in the recently published Lord Acton: Historian and Moralist).

For Iyengar the soul itself is the seed of conscience:

Citta is the individual counterpart of mahat, the universal consciousness. It is the seat of intelligence that sprouts from conscience, antahkarana, the organ of virtue and religious knowledge. If the soul is the seed of conscience, conscience is the source of consciousness, intelligence and mind.

The Catholic Church likewise teaches in Gaudium et Spes that conscience is the secret core and sanctuary of man:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.

Acton’s concerns in tracing the emerging reign of conscience in history are necessarily social and political but rooted in a spiritual insight and transformation.

Jesus himself says, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17:21

Matthew Henry, Presbyterian minister and famed commentator, breaks it down:

Those who confine Christianity and the church to this place or that party, cry, Lo here, or Lo there, than which nothing is more contrary to the designs of catholic Christianity; so do they who make prosperity and external pomp a mark of the true church. “It has a spiritual influence: The kingdom of God is within you.’ It is not of this world, Jn. 18:36. Its glory does not strike men’s fancies, but affects their spirits, and its power is over their souls and consciences; from them it receives homage, and not from their bodies only. The kingdom of God will not change men’s outward condition, but their hearts and lives. Then it comes when it makes those humble, and serious, and heavenly, that were proud, and vain, and carnal,-when it weans those from the world that were wedded to the world; and therefore look for the kingdom of God in the revolutions of the heart, not of the civil government.

You got to get in to get out. Conscience across religious traditions is known as the organ of virtue and religious knowledge. It is our duty to draw close to it, listen, let it transform us, and likewise to encourage and protect others right and duty to do the same.


Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.