Yoga: A Historical Perspective

“To remain ignorant of what happened before one was born is to remain ever a child.”

— Cicero, The Orator

Yoga has a fascinating and storied history. Serious devotees of any discipline or field of endeavor are always interested in understanding what came before; the historical perspective enlarges one’s appreciation of that discipline. The history of the yogic tradition is immense, reaching back thousands of years. It could easily fill volumes; in this article and the one to follow, I intend only to adumbrate it. This article will provide a sketch of Vedic Yoga and Preclassical Yoga; in the one to come, we’ll take a brief look at yoga’s Classical and Postclassical forms.

About 5,000 years ago, yoga emerged as a spiritual pursuit among the itinerant gurus of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. It is named for its emergence at the intersection of two great rivers in what is now India and part of Pakistan. In the early 20th century, archaeologists discovered the ruins of this ancient (but by no means primitive) culture. The discovery challenged the then-conventional wisdom that yoga was the province of Gautauma Buddha and his early Buddhist disciples hundreds of years later. The archaeological digs in the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro revealed a great many engraved figures of the earliest yogis. The continuity between the Indus civilization and the later Indian Hindu tradition also became evident at that time.

There has been considerable disagreement among scholars as to whether yoga was an invention of the Indus people themselves, that of Aryan invaders from the North, or one of the many cultural fusions of the two civilizations. What is clear is that the Indus people had a thriving maritime economy and prosperous, well-developed urban centers that provided its people with sufficient leisure time to create a variety of artistic, literary and spiritual traditions.

The Rig Veda, an ancient religious text written in proto-Sanskrit, is the source of what are considered the earliest yoga “scriptures.” The word translates loosely to our word “yoke,” and implies the fusing of the spiritual and the physical. As yoga practitioners, we are part of a centuries-old tradition from the longest continuing civilizations in the world: that of India. This part of the world gave us not only the incredibly rich legacy of the Hindu tradition, but also the earliest Buddhist and Jain movements.

Yoga sought to answer life’s biggest questions and provide methodologies for becoming more spiritually evolved. Right from the start, the traveling yogis offered their own distinct dharmas, or competing schools of spiritual thought. Hundreds of years into the yogic tradition, Gautauma Buddha (born Prince Siddhartha) was to become one of the most successful spiritual innovators of ancient India. This may explain why, prior to the archaeological digs in the Indus Valley in the 1920s, many people in the Western world thought yoga to be a Buddhist invention.

Yoga’s earliest school is called Vedic Yoga, after the Rig-Veda scriptures. “Veda” is a Sanskrit word that translates loosely to “knowledge” or “wisdom;” “Rig” means “in praise of.” Hence this early text is meant to be a book in praise of wisdom. It is somewhat analogous to the psalms of the Hebrew scriptures, in that it is a collection of hymns of praise intended to be sung rather than merely recited or read. It also provided specific rituals and incantations for Vedic priests to follow; while these included animal sacrifice, from the beginning there was also an emphasis on joining physical reality with the unseen realm. (For many contemporary yoga practitioners, this transcendent perspective remains central to yoga practice.) Vedic Yoga masters were known as rishis, meaning “seers” or “visionaries.”

Preclassical Yoga is the term scholars use to refer to yoga schools that emerged about 2,000 years into yoga’s history and lasting until about the second century of the Common Era. It is mostly associated with religious texts known as the Brâhmanas and the Âranyakas, another collection of hymnody and ritual texts specific to forest-dwelling hermits respectively. With the arrival of the Upanishads, yoga evolved into an exposition of occult (hidden) truths. They include one of the world’s most celebrated religious texts, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, or “Lord’s Song.” Largely reflecting the emergence of Axial Age ahimsa (non-harming) principle, it exhorts its readers to resist evil done to human beings and other sentient beings. Written in approximately the year 500 BCE, this text remains a great source of spiritual nourishment for many Hindus today. When you hear contemporary meditation teachers talk about transcending the ego and living in balance with all other sentient beings, you are essentially hearing an echo of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ.

A brief sketch of Classical and Postclassical yoga to follow!

Best regards,


Copyright © 2013 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved

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