Part III: Origins of Yoga


We have examined some of the characteristics of ‘protean’ Yoga. Humans suffer from ignorance. The Yogi reaches a superhuman state through certain ascetic techniques which allow him to transcend the ignorance and thereby the suffering of humanity. However in the dialectic of space and time, the particle exists in transition as well as in permanence. To know Yoga’s full seed, we must see her in movement and change. For this we shall now trace her history.

We shall see that the history of Yoga is no mere chronological succession of dates & events. The roots of Yoga are not to be found upon a particular line or in a particular culture but extend in a web-like fashion picking up strands from many varying cultures and traditions.

Yoga, a timeless evolving tradition with no beginning

There is no actual mention of Yoga until the third or fourth century B.C.E. in the Upanishadic writings of the Brahmans. [i] The first systematic rendering of the techniques, aims, and philosophy of Yoga doesn’t come until the 5-6th century CE with Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. These writings, however, are not original but instead echo a timeless tradition.

“Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra bring together and classify a series of ascetic practices and contemplative formulas that India had known from time immemorial.” [ii]

The Yogis view themselves as belonging to a timeless tradition. In the Bhagavad Gita, which praises the Yogi above any other man, Krishna says “I am avatar of this time but there have been many times and many avatars.” [iii] I speak the truth but many have spoken the same truth before me. Even the Indian texts always refer to earlier texts and tradition. To further confuse matters the early Yogis left few traces, as they valued discursive logic, viewed writing as useless, and therefore wrote nothing down [iv] Because of this, ideas that had been known for centuries were only formally written down in the first centuries of our era. Practically speaking Yoga has no beginning.

Further this summation by Patanjali does not complete what Yoga stands for. Even at the time Patanjali was writing Yoga was being transformed and extended in new directions by Tantra. The Tantric development itself doesn’t complete or precisely define yoga either, for Yoga has gone thru many more transformations. We shall see that Yoga is a many limbed phenomenon, not a specific ideology or discipline.

Prehistory: Yoga means by which one becomes a super-human shaman

The earliest parallel with the Yogi is in the archaic shaman, common to all cultures in prehistoric times. As mentioned the Yogi has always been associated with the man-god or magician. This motif of the super-human can be traced to the figure of the archaic shaman. It seems that individuals with miraculous powers, the super-human, has always existed in India. Yoga began to exist when the techniques were systematized by which these superhuman states were attainable. Instead of negating these earlier traditions Yoga extends and systematizes their basis.

Similarities between Yoga and shamanism include generation of inner heat

Among the characteristics of the shaman are 1) unusual visions, 2) guide from the profane to the divine existence, and 3) the loss of ego. Each of these characteristics remains as strong components of yoga in the present time.

“It is well known that the production of ‘inner heat’ is a very old ‘magical’ technique, which reached its fullest development in shamanism. We may note here and now that tantrism adheres to this universal magical tradition.” [v]

The notion of burning off the outer selves, tapas, in an act of sacrifice is a characteristic dimension of Yogic spirituality. So it seems that Yoga is merely the systemization of techniques by which one becomes a shaman. The shaman was a common element in the archaic world, but it was only in India “that this incontrovertibly ancient and universally disseminated magical tradition reach a full flowering unparalleled anywhere else in the world.” [vi] We see the yogic prototype in the archaic shaman or magician.

Yoga’s earliest history: fertility cults of Mohenjo Daro

The earliest recorded history of India comes from the Indus valley Mohenjo-Daro civilization. Although the script has yet to be translated, the archaeological remains suggest that the indigenous population had some type of woman-oriented fertility type religion. This heavy emphasis on the female foreshadows the Tantric development in the 6th century AD.

“In the deep philosophy of the Tantra, we have another sign of the resurgence of the religiosity of the non-Aryan, pre-Aryan, matriarchal tradition of Dravidian times.” [vii]

Although the classical Yoga of Patanjali partakes very little of this sensual sexual pre-Aryan tendency, tantric Yoga embraces it to its heart. The mother cult foreshadows tantric developments.

First picture of a Yogi

Additionally, on seals of commerce we find a four-headed deity sitting in full lotus position beneath a tree. It is suspected that this might be “the earliest plastic representation of a yogin.” [viii] So it seems that this early culture may have been experimenting with posture control at least.

So in this ancient civilization we find elements of a religion that foreshadows the developments of tantrism but more importantly has a figure that seems to be in some type of personal meditation. So the individual quest of yoga emerges even at this point.

1500 BCE Aryan influence

In the 1500’s BCE the Aryans begin migrating into India. With them they brought a sacred oral literature, a tripartite social structure and an elaborate sacrificial system. [ix]

Vratyas employ prana and tapas, breath and heat

The earliest oral literature, the Vedas, “refer to ascetic disciplines, and ecstatic ideologies that, if they are not always directly related to yoga properly speaking, finally found a place in the yogic tradition.” [x] In this connection we find reference to a fringe group called the Vratyas, who seemed to practice extreme asceticism. Mention is made in the Aranyaka of the Atarva Veda that these Vratyas used both prana (breath control) and tapas (the creation of inner heat). Both of these practices are strongly associated with later Yogic practices. However we don’t know much of the nature of this group.

Sacrificial system of the Brahmans

More important than this fringe group was the sacrificial system of the Brahmans, the priestly class.

“Yoga has succeeded in imposing itself as a universally valid technique by invoking two traditions: (1) that of the ascetics and ecstatics, documented from the time of the Rig-Veda and (2) the symbolism of the Brahmanas, especially the speculations justifying the ‘interiorization of sacrifice’.” [xi]

The first tradition of ‘the ascetics and ecstatics’ has to do with the shamanistic transformations, which we’ve spoken of. This section addresses the second tradition, which includes this ritual sacrifice.

As mentioned the Yogic tradition has always been concerned with the creation of bodily heat, tapas, whether to purify the energy channels, nadis, as in tantrism or to burn off the illusionary selves as in classical Yoga. At the same time the Yogis have been concerned with the sacrifice of the gross physical body for ultimate consciousness, i.e. the sacrifice of one’s transience to the absolute principle.

In the Brahmanic fire ritual both of these elements are seen. The sacrificial fire creates the energy to burn the matter so that this matter is sacrificed to the gods. At the same time the ritual sacrifice was occurring, the same thing was going on in the internal body of the Brahman. He was sacrificing his body to the gods via the soma ritual. [xii] “This sacrifice was early assimilated to tapas.” [xiii]

Tolerant Brahmins include Yoga under their umbrella

The Brahmins, a very tolerant group, wanted to include all religious practices within their scope. [xiv] Thus in their philosophy they made a place for these ancient Yogic ascetics. It doesn’t seem that the Brahman tradition influences the ascetic tradition as much as it includes them within the scope of their religious experience. This is to have more important consequences later when the Yogis begin to formulate a type of philosophy, to systematize and organize their ascetic system.

“The Upanishads remain in the line of metaphysics and contemplation, whereas Yoga employs asceticism and a technique of meditation. But this is not enough to halt the content osmosis between the Upanisadic and yogic milieus.” [xv]

Brahmins shift emphasis from ritual to exploration of the nature of Brahman

The Vedic literature of the Brahmins was composed in four sections. They increasingly swing from the ritual aspect to the personal, individual quest. The initial speculations of the Brahmins had to do with purpose of the rituals. They reasoned that the rituals maintained the universe by keeping the gods in their heavens. From this point they began speculating about the nature of the gods, specifically their main god, Brahman.

“In the course of time, the “science” of sacrifice and of liturgical techniques loses some of its value, and a new science, knowledge of brahman, replaces it.” [xvi]

Brahman, absolute God, equivalent to Atman, inner Self

Later Brahmanic speculation in the Upanishads focuses on the search for absolutes. This search led inward to the purpose and role of the Brahmin priests an individual. This exploration centered on the nature of Atman, their inner self. Simultaneously their search led outward, attempting to understand the absolute principle or God, i.e. Brahman, controlling the universe. Their amazing discovery was that the inner Atman was the same as the outer Brahman.

“The great discovery of the Upanishads was, of course, the systematic statement of the identity between atman and brahman.” [xvii]

This final, absolute, Brahmanic principle becomes the Samkhyan Purusha, being or consciousness.

With Samkhya Yoga attains a philosophy and Brahmanism a technique

From this point Yoga has a philosophy. Even the non-speculative tantrics begin with the basic Samkhyan dualism, Purusha/Prakrti [xviii] . The Samkhyan philosophy marks the merging of the two traditions of Brahmanism and Yoga.

Samkhya becomes Yoga’s philosophy

Classical Yoga and Samkhyan philosophy are intimately related.

“The essential differences between them are few: (1) whereas Samkhya is atheistic, Yoga is theistic, (2) whereas, according to Samkhya, the only path to salvation is that of metaphysical knowledge, Yoga accords marked importance to techniques of meditation.” [xix]

Yoga becomes technique of Brahmans

In prior times the Yogis had been concerned with worldly power in their roles as shaman/magicians. Inspired by this interest in power they discovered techniques to develop superhuman powers, most of which concerned ascetic and meditative practices. The Brahmans discovered that internal and external powers are equivalent in the end analysis. This theory corroborated the practices of the Yogis. The metaphysical search of the Brahmans coincided with the technical search of the Yogi. It all ends inside of the single individual.

Yogis learn of higher purpose from Brahmanic philosophy

While the Brahmans learn the ultimate value of the Yogic techniques. The Yogis are transformed, also. Although concerned with power the magician Yogis learn that these techniques really have a higher purpose – the dissolution in Purusha. In the ultimate search, these powers are only distractions. So the magician is transmuted into a Yogi, concerned only with samadhi. His techniques of control become his techniques for attaining religious ecstasy.

As observed, yoga initially stressed the regimented application of technique for the attainment of ecstasy. As such it was primarily an individual phenomenon. It was generally less concerned with philosophy and more concerned with the technique of becoming a super human. With, however, the increased interest of the Upanisadic Brahmins in the search for their inner selves, their Atman, the individual disciplines began to merge. Yoga obtained a philosophy and Brahmanism obtained a personal technique.

Tantra completes the intercourse

The Samkhya/Yoga duality marks the touching of Brahmanism and Yoga but it remains for the tantrics to complete the intercourse.

Classical Yoga, as a specific discipline, developed between the fourth century BCE and the fourth century CE. Patanjali in the late sixth century CE classified and systematized the various techniques of Yoga in his Yoga-sutras. Tantrism, “appearing as early as the fourth century of our era, assumed the form of a pan-Indian vogue from the sixth century onward.” [xx] Tantrism, then, follows immediately on the tail of Classical Yoga. As such, tantrism contains many similarities with Classical Yoga. But, as we shall find, while the formal structure is exceedingly similar, the intentionality is radically different.

Tantra easy way

As an outgrowth of classical yoga, Tantra rebelled against its rigid rules and exclusive membership. Tantra was also a reaction to classical yoga’s excessive intellectualism. While preserving the essence of the classical yoga, it extended yoga to the people. Tantra wanted the attainment of moksa, i.e. release from suffering, to be attainable by all people. Tantrism developed techniques by which all people could reach the ultimate religious experience of union. Tantrism then is the easy way. [xxi]

Ritual worship of a god

One of these easy ways becomes ritual worship of a god. As mentioned, their worship culminates with the realization of identity between worshipper and God. So the Brahmanic religion itself becomes a yoga, a technique for salvation.

Mother goddess, included

As emphasized, tantra stressed the return to Prakrti itself as an instrument to salvation. With this new emphasis the female becomes an object of devotion, worship and meditation. Yoga includes the archaic Gramadertahas of the small villages in its schema for salvation.

“The Tantric development supported the return to power of the figure of the Mother Goddess …, whose cult, rooted in the Neolithic past, had been overshadowed for a period of about a thousand years by the male divinities of the patriarchal Aryan pantheon.” [xxii]

This completes the full cycle of Indian religious experiences. The tantrics include both the female fertility cults of the Dravidian Mohenjo Daro culture and the Aryan Brahmanic ritual as techniques for salvation in their schema. With Tantra, all Indian religious techniques become yoga.

[i] Eliade, lecture

[ii] Eliade, 7

[iii] Eliade, 294

[iv] Larson Lecture 12,4

[v] Eliade p 247

[vi] Eliade p. 107 Tempering Eliade’s remark, Taoism in China marks a continuation of the shamanistic states of ecstasy in China.

[vii] Zimmer, p.569

[viii] 355

[ix] Larson, lecture 10-20

[x] Eliade p102

[xi] Eliade, p. 101

[xii] Larson, Lecture 10-22

[xiii] Eliade 111

[xiv] Eliade 113

[xv] Eliade, p.144

[xvi] Eliade, p111

[xvii] Eliade, p. 114

[xviii] Larson, Lecture 10-4

[xix] Eliade, p7

[xx] Eliade, Immortality and Freedom, p.200

[xxi] Bharati, p.21

[xxii] Zimmer p 569


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