Tracing the origins of Yogic practices, a gift of ancient Hindus to the world

The concept and practice of Tapas is an important part of Vedic culture . The term Tapas literally means heat and can refer to the heat represented by severe austerity.  Rig Veda 10.129.3 informs us that the whole universe was manifested from the Tapas of the absolute.

‘Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth  was born that Unit.’

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10129.htm

Tapas referring to heat is obviously also associated closely with Agni or fire, for e.g in  Rig Veda  6.5.4

‘Agni, whoever secretly attacks us, the neighbour, thou with Mitra’s might! who harms us,
Burn him with thine own Steers for ever youthful, burning with burning heat, thou fiercest burner.’

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv06005.htm

Being associated with fire, it is also connected to Yajna or Vedic rituals which use fire. Breathing practices centered around Prana i.e the vital force represented by breathing is associated with kindling Agni or the sacrificial fire used in Vedic rituals as stated in Satapatha Brahmana 2.2.2.15.

‘Now, when, on that occasion, they produce that (fire) by churning, then he (the sacrificer) breathes (blows) upon it, when produced; for fire indeed is breath: he thereby produces the one thus produced. He again draws in his breath: thereby he establishes that (fire) in his innermost soul; and that fire thus becomes established in his innermost soul’

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe12/sbe1245.htm

So we can assume that the some of the Vedic rites involved breathing techniques which are also associated with meditative practices.

In the early Upanishads also we encounter various mentions of meditative practices. For example Chandogya Upanishad 8.6.6 mentions the mystical meditative doctrine in which the inner force which is located deep within the heart is raised up through the subtle arteries called as nadis into top of the head to attain immortality.

‘There are a hundred and one arteries of the heart; one of them penetrates the crown of the head; moving upwards by it a man reaches the immortal; the others serve for departing in different directions, yea, in different directions’

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01166.htm

Same doctrine is mentioned in Katha Upanishad 6.16 and similar descriptions can be found in other Upanishads like Prashna Upanishad 3.6, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.19 etc. Similar description from Taittiriya Upanishad 1.6.1-2 also mentions about inner force residing within the heart and attaining union with Brahman by opening the passage located in top of the head.

Although direct details of specific meditative postures are not there in early Vedic texts, it is possible that these meditative techniques obviously involved some sort of postures. Interestingly, we find numerous seated meditative postures in the art of Indus valley or Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization dated to 2600-1900 BCE, which also reappears much later in early historical iconography from Mauryan period onwards starting from around 400 BCE.

Indus seal showing a seated Yogic divinity being worshiped by two kneeling figures who have snakes behind them. Source: https://www.harappa.com/sites/default/files/pdf/script-indus-parpola.pdf
Terracotta figurine from Indus valley showing a seated man with hands holded in Anjali mudra. Source : Excavations at Harappa by MS Vats
Coin from Suarashtra region dated to 500-400 BCE depicting Goddess Lakshmi seated in same posture as seen in Indus seals. Source: http://coinindia.com/galleries-surashtra.html
Coin from Ujjain dated to 200 BCE depicting Goddess in same posture. Source: http://coinindia.com/galleries-ujjain2.html
Around 2800  year old skeleton from a burial in Ahar-Banas culture from Rajasthan, the earliest evidence for Yogic Samadhi burial. Source: http://varnam.nationalinterest.in/2009/09/a-4000-year-old-lepers-tale/
Yogic Samadhi type burial from Sangam age site (around 2000 year old) of Kadumanal from Tamil Nadu. Source: http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2915/stories/20120810291506200.htm

The skeleton excavated in Kadumanal shows Yoga was also practiced by Sangam-age Tamils, again destroying the theory peddled by Dravidian fanatics that early Tamils were not Dharmic people.

Early Buddhist and Jain texts also mention specific meditative postures. For example Maha-satipatthana Sutta of the early Buddhist Pali cannon mentions various techniques of meditation and also about cross legged posture which is the most commonly used meditative posture.

Kalpa Sutra of the Jains also mentions about Mahavira attaining enlightenment after undergoing severe meditation in a specific posture in which the heels are joined together.

So both Buddhist and Jain traditions, dated from around 600-500 BCE, acknowledge the existence of various meditative postures and techniques. Broadly, we can call these as part of what we perceive as Yogic practices.

The control of Prana represented by breathing which is associated with certain Vedic rites  is obviously similar to the Yogic practices revolving around breathing and the mystical Vedic doctrine, which talks about rising inner force into top of the head through subtle nadis or arteries, is an obvious precursor to the later Yogic Kundalini doctrine, the only differences being the Vedic doctrine states that the inner force is located within the heart instead of in the bottom of spine as in Kundalini doctrine, and no direct mention is made of major Chakras associated with Kundalini in the Vedic texts.

Thus, like all other mainstream Hindu or Dharmic sects, Yoga too has its foundations in Vedic culture, which was later codified by sages like Patanjali. Further meditative postures and techniques kept on developing in later times.

Correction: An earlier version of the article mentioned that a skeleton in Yogic Samadhi uncovered from Rajasthan was 4000 years old; it is actually around 2800 years old.


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About the Author

Dauhshanti & Paanchajanyaa
@Dauhshanti - A proud Polytheist & Idolater, blessed to be born into the civilization of Bharata. @paanchajanyaa - Soldier of dharma... Yato dharmas tato jayah...