Forest Ascetics- The Early History of Yoga Flashcards Preview

YS-101 An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga > Forest Ascetics- The Early History of Yoga > Flashcards

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Vedic Religion

c. 1500 BCE

the oldest Sanskrit scriptures

veda = knowledge

4 vedas: ṛg Veda, Sāma Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda

Largely hymns, prescriptive ritual and liturgical texts, mytho-poetic, cosmological

emphasis on orality, written much later

śruti = head

vs smṛti = remembered

chanted, commited to memory, by familial lineages of Brahmin men

Brahmanical religion

mantras = efficacious sacred sound

vāc = sacred speech/goddess, from which the universe manifests, the cosmos as vibratory


Vedic ritual and Cosmology

- Hymns to a pantheon of naturalistic Vedic deities

- "Henothestic" (worship of a single, overarching god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other lower deities) religion

Indra - god of storm, war
Sūrya - god of sun
Soma - deified plant, ritual drink (psychotropic)
Pṛthvi - god of earth
Vāyu - god of wind
Agni - god of fire

yajña = fire sacrifice
ṛta = cosmic harmony


Early "Yoking" in the Ṛg Veda

yoga in the Ṛg Veda (1500 BCE)

- bringing together a word and its meaning

- hitching an animal to its rig/chariot

- the word yoga does NOT yet suggest a meditational or soteriological discipline



8th century BCE

Forest (āraṇyaka) texts

philosophical, wisdom texts

would form the major scriptural foundation for Vedānta ("end of the Vedas")

contain some of the earliest written teachings on yoga

subtle critique of Vedic ritualism, reinterpretation, not outright rejection

interiorization of Vedic ritual

turning within

pursuit of ultimate reality (brahman)

nature of self (ātman)

divinity, human suffering, death, immortality

upa = down
ni = near
ṣad = sit

dialogues between guru, students, sages, gods


Kaṭha Upaniṣad

Story of Brahmin boy, Nachiketas and Death (Yama)

Nachiketas journeys to house of Death and waits 3 days

Death grants the boy 3 wishes:
1) for his father to release his anger toward him
2) to elarn the ritual fire that will grant him heaven (hidden in the cave of the heart)
3) to learn the secret of what happens at death

Death becomes the teacher of yoga


Kaṭha Upaniṣad


Rider - Self - ātman

Chariot - Body - śarīra

Charioteer - Intellect - buddhi

Reins - Mind - manas

Horses - Senses - indriya

Paths- Sense Objects - viṣaya


Early "Yoking" in the Upaniṣads

(5-6 c BCE)

the state of yoking the mind, breath, and senses

Interiorization of the word yoga


Early "Yogis"

roughly 2500 years ago, 5/6th c. BCE

'Greater Magadha', north-east India, along the Ganges

"Extra-Vedic" asceticism

Buddhists, Jains, Ājivakas

the first yogis called śramaṇas (toilers)

original "counter-culturalists"

Early sources: Hagiographies of the Buddha (Pāli Canon), the Epics, late Upanisads, Greek writings


Early Encounters: West meets East

4th BCE Alexander the Great meets ascetics


The Buddha as Ascetic

The life story of Śākyamuni Buddha is emblematic of the śramaṇa movement

Exemplary evidence of early Indian asceticism and the roots of yoga

Prince Siddhārtha, kingdom above the Gangetic plain, in today's modern Nepal

Leaves behind his royal life of plenitude in search of the meaning of life and death, and the quest for enlightenment

Studies with numerous gurus along the way

Practices extreme feats of asceticism (e.g fasting, eating only one mustard grain per day)

Only to reject extreme asceticism, and adopt the "Middle Way"


Early Yoga Practices (5)

Meditation / dhyāna

Chanting mantras / OṂ

Breath control / prāṇāyāma

Seated postures / āsana

Spiritual heat/austerity (tapas), including postures and inversions


Asceticism and Tapas

Cultivation of tapas (lit "heat")

Physical and mental austerities

Forerunners of physical techniques of Haṭhayoga, e.g standing on one foot, raising the arms above the head, hanging upside-down "like a bat"

Largely male, celibate, ascetics

Goals: attainment of boons from deities, supernatural powers (siddhi), immortality, heaven, or "release" (mokṣa) from saṃsāra


Ancient Inversions:

The retention of:
bindu = life-force, semen
rajas = female equivalent

associated with immortality (amṛta)

stored in the cranial vault

practice aimed at reversing and retaining its power

Ancient inversion practice, e.g "Bat-Penance" (Pāli vagguli-vata) = (later in Haṭhayoga) tapkar āsan


Yoga in the Epics

Yoga teachings in the "Book of Peace" (Śanti Parvan), the 12th chapter of the Mahābhārata (Ch 6 of the MBh = Bhagavadgītā)

Yoga and asceticism in the Rāmāyana

Associated with sages (muni): Yājñavalkya, Vasiṣṭha, Hiraṇyagarbha


Modern Inheritors of the Muni yoga traditions

Rāmānandī Tyāgīs

Daśanmāi Saṃnyāsīs


Conclusions: Early Yoga

Our most definitive evidence suggests that yoga arose approximately 2500 years ago in the śramaṇa culture of northern India's Gangetic plains

The origins of yoga are found in these renunciate traditions which emphasized the cultivating of tapas, the eradication of karma, and sought mokṣa from worldly existence

It is here that we can find the "roots" of the psychophysical methods of the later medieval Haṭhayoga tradition

Yoga was originally "extra-Vedic" however was later adopted by the mainstream Brāhmaṇical tradition