Origins, History, and Ancient Scriptures of Yoga
In the Yoga Development Course this spring we studied the origins and the history of Yoga in ancient times. It was indeed an honour for me to be able to share the little I now about the vastness of Yoga with a group of 17 dedicated yoginis (women who practice Yoga). We came to understand Yoga as a practical science of the exploration and evolution of consciousness, The Yoga tradition acknowledges that beyond the realms of our physical bodies and ego-personalities (emotions, feelings, thoughts) there lies an immutable eternal essence we call our higher Self, Spirit or in yogic terms, Purusha ("the city dweller") or Atman. This essence, which transcends time and space, rests in the region of the chest for the time we walk and live on this earth. That's why if called all of us will answer: Me? - pointing to the chest. This instinctive universal gesture recognizes the region of the chest and heart as the seat of our true identity. This true identity is our core of goodness and love; it is our own divinity. It is the light within me, which is the same as the light within you.
The light of Spirit that shines in the region of the chest is the spark of God within us. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna that 'the Lord dwells in the heart of all beings'. When asked by a student how to meditate on God, the 19th century Indian saint Ramakrishna answered: 'the heart is the best place. Meditate on God in your own heart'.
The awakening of the spiritual heart opens the door to higher consciousness: the experience of yoking or joining the individual consciousness with God-consciousness, a state we call Enlightenment, Christ- Consciousness, Nirvana or in yogic terms, Samadhi. Within our own heart lies the possibility, the seed of the state of union and Oneness described by saints and liberated beings of all traditions. The practice of Yoga offers the nourishment for the seed to bloom into its full potential.
The origins of Yoga mingle with humankind's deepest longing and impulse toward transcendence since immemorial times. It is possible that the practice of Yoga has started in the temples and pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Others claim it may have started in some European matriarchal civilizations from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, as far as 30,000 years ago. In different areas from Ukraine to the Mediterranean, archeologists have found thousands of clay figurines of goddessses clearly seated in yogic meditation postures. In spite of these interesting conjectures, it was on the Indian subcontinent that Yoga spread and firmed its roots, among the roots on Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Archeological findings of terra-cotta seals depicting Lord Shiva (as Lord of the Beasts) seated in a yogic posture suggests that the practice of meditation was already known to the ancient Indus Valley civilization (3000 BC). With the arrival of the Sanskrit Aryan tribes from Russia who invaded northern India around 1500 BC, the presence of Yoga starts to get outlined through the Vedas and other later scriptures. Looking at the ancient scriptures of India gives us an overview of the development of yogic ideas through the millennia.
1. Basic Scriptures: Shruti (heard) - considered divine revelation to the ancient sages or seers (rishis).
A) The Vedas (vid = wisdom)
There are 4 Vedas: Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda and Atharvana-Veda. The texts consist of thousands of hymns of creation (genesis of human psyche), cosmogony or exaltation of forces of nature as deities, rituals and magic spells.
The Vedas are a legacy of the Sanskrit speakers 'Aryans' from central and southern Russia who invaded northern India around 1500 BC. The writings took place between 1200 and 500 BC, after centuries of oral tradition.
B) Brahmanas 100 - 800 BC
Ritualistic teachings coincide with the emergence of the priestly elite of Brahmins.
C) Aranyakas Forest treatises about rituals and sacrifices. Ascetic practices.
D) Upanishads ('to sit near') 800 - 300 BC
Philosophical, mystical teachings. The Upanishadic sages internalized the Vedic Ritual in the form of intense meditation ('inner sacrifice'); meditative practice was unanimously considered the chief means of obtaining transcendental knowledge. The Upanishadic sages also taught that the individual spiritual essence (Atman) equals the Divine Absolute (Brahman). Among hundreds of Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad, probably composed around 500 BC, deals explicitly with Yoga. It propounds the doctrine of Adhyatma-Yoga ('Yoga of the inmost self'), teaching that the transcendental self (Atman) lies hidden in the 'cave' of the heart and reveals itself through grace. The spiritual aspirant can prepare for self-realization through: wholehearted service to the teacher and constant discrimination between the real and the unreal, all sustained by a burning desire for self-realization. The Katha-Upanishad also defines Yoga as 'the steady holding of the senses, then the yogin becomes attentive for, Yoga can be acquired and lost'. This clearly points to Yoga as a state of awareness and higher consciousness.
2. Secondary scriptures: Smrti (tradition) - they explain and illustrate the fundamental teachings.
A) Itahasa: Books of legend
Two great Indian Epics: The Ramayana (the story of Rama and Sita), composed by Valmiki; the Mahabharata (500 BC - 200 AD), a great collection of 12 books portraying the struggles between the two Bharata families: evil-minded Kurus and the virtuous Pandavas. The Bhagavad Gita ('The Lord's Song) is part of the Mahabharata. Its is considered the 'New Testament' of Hindus and one of the most important spiritual books of humankind. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna about the yogic paths of devotion (Bhakti), selfless service (karma), discernment and knowledge of the true self (Jnana) and meditation (Raja). The Bhagavad Gita was probably compiled by the sage Vyasa around 350 BC. Some scholars consider it a much older scripture. The Great War it portrays between the Pandavas and the Kauravas took place around 1000 BC in Kurukshetra. Because of its great spiritual relevance and timeless wisdom, I tend to agree with those who consider the Bhagavad Gita an Upanishad (divine Revelation). According to Eknath Easwaran, 'The Gita distills the essence of the Upanishads, not piecemeal but comprehensively, offering their lofty insights as a manual not of philosophy but of everyday human activity - a handbook of the Perennial Philosophy unique in World History'.
B) Purana ('Ancient') 800 BC - 1500 AD.
They are great encyclopedic compilations dedicated to deities of the Hindu pantheon, notably Vishnu and Shiva.
C) The Six Darshanas 500 BC - 500 AD. 'Points of view' or classical schools of thought derived from the Vedas: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimansa, Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta. The classical text of Yoga Darshana (also known as classical Yoga) is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (sutra = thread). The Sutras were composed around 200 AD. The four books of the Yoga Sutras deal with the state of samadhi, the practice (sadhana) to attain samadhi, special powers (siddhis) and liberation (kaivalya). The eight-fold path (known as Ashtanga Yoga) is there outlined by Patanjali as a practical map toward self-realization. With the Yoga Sutras, Yoga becomes a tradition on its own right.
Egyptian Yoga by Dr. Muata Abhaya Ashby
Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas
Yoga: the technology of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein
The Harper Collins Concise Guide to World Religions by Mircea Eliade and others
The Bhagavad Gita translated and with a preface by Eknath Easwaran - Vintage Spiritual classics.
Published in Yoga Links. Jun. 2000. Issue 3