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Yoga and the ancient spiritual Vedic texts of India


The history of yoga is marked by great uncertainty and obscurity. This is attributed to the dependency on oral transmission that was used in the ancient period and the secretive nature of the teachings. Thus the chronology or the specific origin is unclear(Shearer, 2020). It is believed that yoga developed in the ancient India during the Indus Valley Civilization, the pre-Vedic Eastern states of India, in the Vedic period and the sramana movement. The start is tracked back from the 3300BC(Bhattacharyya, 1970). The pre-philosophical speculations of Yoga emerged in the period between the 500-200 BCE. The coherent philosophical system to yoga was better defined by the emergence of the philosophical schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism(Feuerstein, 1996).

The yoga texts were transmitted orally with a large number of it having been written on leaf palms(Feuerstein, 1996). This made it vulnerable to damage and lose. However the traditions of practice and narration have played a significant role in the continuities and history of Yoga. The Vedic scriptures (Vedas) which were majorly composed in Sanskrit and are the oldest form of literature in Hinduism and one of the oldest spiritual texts in the world, that define the concept of yoga (Kak, 1997). (Yoga is a sanskrit word. The Vedas are categorized into Rig-Veda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. The Vedas are considered as supernatural texts that are revelations from the ancient sages that were given in meditation(Kak, 1997).

The beginnings of yoga are founded on the Indus-Saravasti civilization over 5000 years ago in which the first appearance of the word yoga is mentioned in the Rig Veda sacred texts(Bhattacharyya, 1970). The Vedas contained a collection of texts of songs, mantras and rituals. These were used by the Vedic priests, the Brahmans(Feuerstein, 1996). The Brahmans and the Rishis who served as the mystic seers refined yoga and over time developed it through the documentation of their practices, beliefs and teachings(Smart, 1998). The documentation was resulted into a huge work with over 200 scriptures referred to as the Upanishads. The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the common scriptures from around the 500 B.C.E(Price, 2010).

This defined the pre-classical yoga in the ancient Vedic texts. In this era the early Indian contemplative texts are interpreted as gradually developing for the Aryan foundations. Yoga is believed to have been in existence in the pre-Aryan period and it was refined through the Vedic period(Crangle, 1994). Therefore through the teachings in the Upanishads took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and taught it as a sacrifice of ego undertaken through self-knowledge, action which is the karma yoga and wisdom defined as jnana yoga(Phillips, 2009). Although little evidence of the existence of the existence and practices of the yogis of the Vedic era, it still can be held that they truly existed and in accomplished state(Feuerstein, 1996).

The practices made in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad texts from the earliest Hindu Upanishad. This includes the practices of conscious breathe, pranayama and the concentration of the senses on self, Pratyahara are mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in c 900 BCE which later became yoga(Feuerstein, 2003). The tapas are documented as the concentration and bodily postures that were used by Vedic priests in the conduct of sacrifices and developed to practices of yoga. The yogic asana are regarded as an evolution of the vratya ascetics mentioned in the Atharvaveda(Bhavanani, 2011).

Later in the 500-200 BCE, the evidence of the systematic yoga brought forth concepts such as the Buddhist texts, middle Upanishads, the bhagavad gita and shanti parva(Phillips, 2009). The period in the fifth century BCE termed as the second urbanization is considered as the period in which the techniques in the early sramana movements i.e. the Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas developed(Huntington & Huntington, 2014). Buddha advanced his Yoga system using some of the experiences he gained from previous teachings.

The yoga of the classical era is highlighted by the works of the Patanjali(Patanjali, n.d.). The Patanjali yoga sutras were defined as the first systematic yoga. These are the considered as some of the best expressions of the Brahmanica yoga in which contain the eight limbs of yoga(Miller, 1996). The limbs ascribe a path and steps towards attaining enlightenment, Samadhi(Taylor-Rugman, 2012). The yoga sutras are influenced by the sramana traditions and the beliefs of Buddhism and Jainism. The compilation by Patanjali has been widely used as the first compilation of the formal yoga philosophy and has strongly influenced the modern yoga philosophies and practices(Badlani, 2008).

The tantra Yoga evolved as a form of the post-classical yoga in which the practices to rejuvenate the body and prolong life were embraced. The teachings of the ancient Vedas were disregarded from practice and the physical body formed the means of achieving Samadhi, i.e. enlightenment in this period(Taylor-Rugman, 2012). The continued exploration of the connection between the physical aspects and the spiritual aspects became the point of focus culminating to the Hatha yoga. The hatha yoga is regarded as the yoga in the west(Bhavanani, 2011). In the 19th century the philosophies of yoga were taught more in the west through the travelling of the yoga masters. The movement and travelling of the masters led to establishment of institutions that have since been popularizing the concept of Yoga(Kumar & Aanand, 2015).

References

Badlani, H. G. (2008). Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom. iUniverse.

Bhattacharyya, S. (1970). The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Yoga: India’s philosophy of meditation (Vol. 12). Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.

Bhavanani, Y. M. D. (2011). The history of yoga from ancient to modern times.

Crangle, E. F. (1994). The origin and development of early Indian contemplative practices (Vol. 29). Otto Harrassowitz Verlag.

Feuerstein, G. (1996). The philosophy of classical yoga. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.

Feuerstein, G. (2003). The deeper dimension of yoga: Theory and practice. Shambhala Publications.

Huntington, S. L., & Huntington, J. C. (2014). The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. Motilal Banarsidass.

Kak, S. C. (1997). Science in Ancient India. Ananya: A portrait of India, 399–420.

Kumar, V. R., & Aanand, S. (2015). Yoga: A case of reverse Innovation. PURUSHARTHA-A journal of Management, Ethics and Spirituality, 8(2), 12–18.

Miller, B. S. (1996). Yoga: Discipline of freedom: The yoga sutra attributed to patanjali. Univ of California Press.

Patanjali, M. (n.d.). YOGIC PRACTICES.

Phillips, S. (2009). Yoga, karma, and rebirth: A brief history and philosophy. Columbia University Press.

Price, J. (2010). Sacred scriptures of the world religions: An introduction. A&C Black.

Shearer, A. (2020). The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West. Hurst & Company.

Smart, N. (1998). The world’s religions. Cambridge University Press.

Taylor-Rugman, D. C. H. (2012). Dharmamegha Samadhi in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. (PhD Thesis). University of Wales, Trinity St David. Michelle Liz

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