Yoga: Original Concepts and History

Department of Psychiatry, Cooper University Hospital, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Camden, NJ, USA


When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.

—Sage Patanjali of ancient India (in the Mahabhasya)

1.1 Introduction

Yoga is not that new to the Western world. In fact, studying about the Transcendentalist Movement in the eighteenth-century West, one can see the deep influence of the ancient Indian Yogic scriptures (Upanishad) on notable Western philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, author of the famous book, The World as Will and Representation (Payne 1958). Schopenhauer’s deep considerations that a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Upanishads, was the way to attain liberation and he keeping a copy of the Upanishad by his side all the time attest to the above fact. Unfortunately, despite its immense popularity, Yoga is a profoundly misunderstood subject, more so in the West. The experiential essence of Yoga is to pass beyond the world of intellectual distinctions and into the world of the unthinkable, where reality appears as undivided and undifferentiated. For most, this seems too difficult to grasp. Yoga is often mistaken for unclearness or un-objectiveness, mainly due to its experiential nature. Ancient Indian philosophies elude even the greatest Western thinkers. For example, in his letters to Romaine Rolland, Sigmund Freud’s mystic friend, Freud himself comments on his own difficulty with the philosophy and practice of Yoga. He writes: “…let me admit once more that it is very difficult for me to work with these almost intangible quantities…” (Freud 1930, p. 72). Being exclusively experiential and subjective in nature, Yogic experiences, while documented over many centuries and millennia, cannot be verified using concrete measures. Unlike scientific methodology, Eastern mysticism regards intellect as merely a means for clearing the path to direct mystical experience. This is called direct because it is experiential and thus bypasses the interpretive and intellectual interference of the ordinary mind. Yogic experiential knowledge is intuitive and non-conceptual and not based on a concrete sensorial experience. In essence, one must transcend taxonomies and multiplicity in order to experience a reality void of arbitrary distinctions. Yoga’s disregard for concrete concepts, reductionism, and the mind/body dichotomy is partially responsible for the grave misunderstanding of Yoga. Here follows the fundamental difficulty with understanding Yoga. As Suzuki (1963, p. 11) writes: “… the scientific method in the study of reality is to view an object from the so-called objective point of view. For example, suppose a flower on the table is the object of a scientific study. The chief characteristic in this scientific (or objective) approach is to put this object (flower) to all kinds of analyses, to talk about it, to go around it, to catch anything that attracts our sense–intellect and abstract it away from the object (flower) itself, and, when all is supposedly finished, to synthesize these analytically formulated abstractions and take the outcome of the analysis for the object (flower) itself.” But the question still remains: Has the complete object really been caught? The answer is no. These objective observations are mere descriptions of the object, in this case the flower, but in reality not the flower itself.

1.2 Yoga as a Mystery and Need for Demystification

It is sad to see that deviating from its original profound meanings and deep scopes, Yoga has been used as an umbrella term for all kinds of things ranging from body building, weight reduction, improving physical stamina and sexual performances, and so on. Seeing closely, one can easily realize that many of these so-called authentic Yogic techniques popularized in the West actually don’t have much to do with the original concepts of Yoga, as they were proposed in the Yogic scriptures of ancient India. No wonder, despite having a few thousand years of rich tradition as well as authentic literature about its philosophies as well as techniques, Yoga is still a profoundly misunderstood subject, more so in the Western world. This is evident from the fact that one of the most popular forms of Yoga in the West is the Hot Yoga which involves literally heating a room to high temperatures in order to induce perspiration and may be to lose some weight. This writer’s first encounter with Yoga in the USA was through Hot Yoga when shortly after his initial arrival in the USA he out of curiosity visited a Yoga studio in a Philadelphian suburb to learn the above facts. Interestingly, despite its huge popularity in the West, this author couldn’t trace any connection of Hot Yoga to the literatures or scriptures on Yoga. This writer wondered if Hot Yoga, because of its physical focus, could have originated from the word Hatha. However, this possibility seems unlikely considering the facts that both the word Hatha in its meanings (Ha = moon, symbolizes the parasympathetic system, tha = sun, symbolizes the sympathetic system) and Hatha Yoga as a system have entirely different origins, scopes, and significance as compared to Hot Yoga. As mentioned above, yogi Gorakhnath and his disciple Swami Swatmarama of fifteenth-century India introduced the Hatha Yoga system as a preparatory stage (rather than as a means to its ends) of physical purification that is necessary for higher steps in practice of Yoga, i.e., meditation or samyama. As opposed to these original deep philosophies and practices of Hatha Yoga, unfortunately only the physical focus on Yoga became popular in the West. After the initial thrust through the transcendental movements, the subsequent interest in Yoga in the Western world was created by Swami Vivekananda who was not only the first ever Indian monk to have visited the Western world but also translated Yogic texts from Sanskrit into English language. During his visit to the USA (Chicago) in 1893, he created a lasting impression of Yogic philosophies (Raja Yoga) in the mind of Western audience and also founded Yoga centers for training. However, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the Western world saw the large-scale application of Yoga, although unfortunately not in its original form but rather in the context of health and a set of mere physical exercises. This has largely contributed to the misunderstandings that Yoga is just a set of physical exercises meant primarily for physical fitness or losing weight.

1.2.1 Some Other Reasons for the Misconceptions

As mentioned before, understanding the ancient Indian philosophies on Yoga and meditation has been an issue even for intellectual geniuses to the likes of Sigmund Freud. Some of the mysteries about Yoga in the Western world arise from the very basic issues of mind–body dichotomy, reductionism, and primacy given to the physical aspects of Yoga in the West as opposed to the holistic approach of the ancient Indian philosophies on Yoga and meditation. Experiential knowledge (as the one in Yoga) is essentially intuitive/non-conceptual, not the knowledge based on concrete sensorial experiences which are considered as mere intellectualizations rather than true experiences. One can see that these are really difficult concepts if one is not brought up in that culture and thus can be very often misinterpreted, based on nuances of languages and culture. In addition to the epistemological discrepancies between Eastern and Western thought, differences in culture and language are also responsible for the West’s misinterpretation of Yoga—where it has been mistaken for physical exercise, relaxation techniques, or a form of religious practice. Sanskrit, the original language of Yogic scriptures, is a rich but difficult language that exhibits complex grammar. The meanings of many Sanskrit words are culturally bound, and of those used in the Yogic scriptures many have no equivalent word in other languages. Consequentially, many Yogic techniques popularized in the West bare no ties to the philosophies proposed in the Yogic scriptures of ancient India. Furthermore, the true masters of Yoga often live reclusively (this is the Yogic traditions of Aranyaka or the forest culture), rarely leaving nature. Alternatively, many of the Yoga gurus (teachers) that do engage with mainstream society do not have the proper experiential knowledge of Yoga to instruct others. Unfamiliar with classical Yogic traditions, these gurus often use Yogic concepts too concretely and/or proselytize misinterpretations of Yoga. Needless to say, without real practice/direct experience, Yoga is just another slogan. One cannot discuss Yoga in its authentic and true sense without the mastery of at least some of the ancient Indian philosophies, as well as the experiential nature of its practice. As it is true for any experiential discipline and more so for Yoga and meditation, some forms of abstractness and intuitive capacity are essential for grasping the original concepts of Yoga. Thus, one can see clearly here that the Yogic experiences, although documented over many millennia, cannot be verified that well by traditional experimental techniques (which are suitable for demonstrating the concrete only). The misconceptions surrounding Yoga are similar to the popular five blind men and the elephant metaphor. In this when five blind men in a small town are describing an elephant, each of them is narrating only part of the truth (in this case describing various body parts of the elephant as the whole elephant) but nonetheless emphatically claiming his own version as the only truth. They are all correct from their own point of view, but only partially. Finally, the wise man they consulted says each one of them is correct and each is wrong too. He further advises them that if they put their partial views together, they will get a true sense of the elephant. In other words, the holistic (rather than reductionist) view is a prerequisite for appraisal of reality. These points apply to the difficulties in the design as well as interpretations of the Yoga and meditation research done in the West. Needless to say that in the best interest of mankind, to be able to use the ancient wisdom of Yoga in its true sense, a great degree of demystification as well as standardization involving more integrated insights of the East as well as the West are of necessity and are long overdue.

1.3 Original Definitions of Yoga

There is no one definition of Yoga. The meaning of Yoga is best understood when one considers the many definitions together. Etymologically, Yoga derives from the Vedic Sanskrit Yuj which means to yoke, to join, to bind together, or to hold fast (Eliade 1969, p. 4). The first written usage of the term is attributed to the oldest of the ancient Indian scriptures, the RigVeda (circa 1200 BC). In the RigVeda, Yoga is described as the mental process and discipline by which an individual’s soul (Sanskrit: jivatman) joins with the Supreme or Cosmic Soul (Sanskrit: paramatman). Borrowing from over 2,000 years of oral tradition, Patanjali (circa 400 BC), the ancient Indian sage and teacher, defines Yoga as chitta vritti nirodhah in the first textbook on Yoga, the Yoga Sutras (Vedic Sanskrit: Yoga Sutra, Section I, Verse 2; Satchidananda 1978, p. 3–6). Literally this phrase means: Yoga is the control or stilling (Sanskrit: nirodhah) of all the fluctuations/transformations (Sanskrit: vritti) of mind/consciousness (Sanskrit: chitta) at all levels. One example will help elucidate this central concept of Yoga. Imagine a lighted electric bulb suspended in a tank of clear water. Here the water is like the mind (chitta) and the bulb is like one’s Real Self or the Soul (the master of the mind). If the water is stirred too much, it will make all kinds of patterns in three dimensions (vrittis or temporary mental states) around the bulb, and these patterns will keep on changing from moment to moment. If the agitation of water is too much, the bulb will disappear from our view (i.e., we can’t see the Real Self when the mind is too agitated, and we are caught in the endless play of chitta-vrittis. As the three-dimensional patterns (i.e., the vrittis) begin to subside gradually with calmness of water, the electric bulb will gradually emerge into our view (i.e., one can see/realize the True Self). This simile illustrates in a rather crude way, both the misidentification of consciousness with the modifications of mind and its reversion to its unmodified/true state when mind comes to rest. Patanjali says that as long as the chitta-vrittis (transient mental states) are not in a state of nirodhah (control), drashta (the seer, the Self) is not established in his svarupa (True Self); rather he misidentifies with that particular vritti (temporary mental state) which happens to occupy the field of consciousness for the moment. It is essential to still the endless fluctuations of mind in order to experientially realize the truth of life (self-realization).

Since Pantajali, others have developed their own definitions of Yoga. One modern definition claims “…the word Yoga serves, in general, to designate any ascetic technique and any method of meditation” (Eliade 1969, p. 4). Iyengar, the Yoga Master who is largely responsible for the current popularization of Hatha Yoga in the West, defines Yoga as: “the science to free the Soul from its constraints through the integration of body, mind, and consciousness” (Iyengar 2000, 2001a, b, 2009). Yoga has also been defined as the method of yoking, or unifying, the lower or egoistic mind to the higher mind through sublimation (Feuerstein 1990b) and as “inner stability and balance, both of which depend upon constant concentration” (Feuerstein 1990a, 2001). The Bhagavad Gita uses the term Yoga extensively and in a variety of ways. It claims that the root of all suffering is the agitation of the mind, the consequence of selfish desire. The only means of extinguishing this desire is by simultaneously stilling the mind through Yoga and engaging oneself in higher forms of activity. This allows the practitioner (Yogi) to embrace their essential nature or True Self (Sanskrit: svarupa) through self-realization or insight. Self-realization only occurs from within the individual and cannot be understood from the external world; the inside is the seat of all human experiences. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to liberate the Soul from its constraints using self-knowledge or insight, vipassana. This liberated state is known as samadhi or the state of sustained integrated oneness with the Ultimate Reality. In the existential sense, Yoga is the science of finding meaning for one’s life.

1.3.1 Yoga, Its Meanings and the Minor Conceptual Differences from the Samkhya

The term Yoga has such a large number of meanings that a Sanskrit dictionary lists three pages for just the meanings of this term (Gode and Karve 1979). The earliest roots of Yoga have been traced to the third millennium BC (Worthington 1989, p. 11). Bearing an impressive history of around 5,000 years, Yoga has become an umbrella term given to myriads of philosophies, spiritual practices, and esoteric as well as ordinary means of knowledge. The ancient Indian literature informs us that Yoga as a philosophical system is derived from the Samkhya (lit. numerist) system of philosophy which was propounded by the mythical sage Kapila and derived from the Rig-Veda (circa 1200 BC), the oldest among all the sacred scriptures of ancient India. Svetasvatara Upanishad (section VI, verse 13) definitely refers to the soteriological validity of the Samkhya philosophy with Yoga practice (Eliade 1969, p. 389). Although, unlike Yoga, Samkhya doesn’t admit the existence of God, the profound philosophical similarities between the two systems led some authors to propose that Yoga can be said to be consisting of Samkhya with definite mention of God (Sanskrit: seshwara samkhya). Vivekananda (1956, p. 5–6) explains further the minor differences between the Samkhya and the Patanjalian system of Yoga (also called the Eight-limbed Yoga/Ashtanga/Raja Yoga): “The two most important differences are, first, that Patanjali admits the Personal God in the form of the First Teacher, while the only God that Samkhya concedes is a nearly perfected being, temporarily in charge of a cycle of creation. Second, a yogi holds the mind to be equally all-pervading as the Soul, or Purusha, and Samkhya (dualist) does not.”

In his introduction to a collection of essays regarding Yoga, Jacobsen (2005, p. 4) claims that Yoga has five principal meanings according to Yogic scripture: (1) Yoga as a disciplined method for attaining a goal; (2) Yoga as techniques of controlling the body and mind; (3) Yoga as a name for one of the schools or systems of philosophy (Sanskrit: darshana); (4) Yoga in connection with other words, such as Hatha-, Mantra-, Laya (Kundalini)-, and Raja (Ashtanga)-Yoga, referring to traditions specializing in particular techniques of its practice; and (5) Yoga as the goal of its own practice (i.e., Yoga as union with the Supreme Soul). In all Buddhist as well as some Vedantic traditions, Yoga is considered as the union of mediation/deep contemplation with the wisdom (Pali: nanna; Sans: jnana) or insight (Pali: vipassana).

1.3.2 Various Forms of Yoga

The Yogatattva Upanishad of the Yajur-Veda, a significant ancient Indian text on Yoga, distinguishes four varieties of Yogic practice: (1) Hatha Yoga, (2) Mantra Yoga, (3) Laya Yoga, and (4) Raja (Raja = Royal) Yoga (also known as Ashtanga or Eight-limbed Yoga). Raja Yoga (as described by Patanjali, and Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda of modern India) is regarded as the highest practice (Deussen 1980).

Hatha Yoga (Sanskrit: Persistence or Physical Force)

Hatha Yoga was systematized by yogi Gorakhnath and is detailed in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Muktibodhananda and Satyananda 2000), the most comprehensive text on Hatha Yoga and authored by Gorakhnath’s disciple yogi Swatmarama in the fifteenth century. Hatha Yoga is founded on the physical elements of Yoga: asanas (postures) and pranayama (controlled breathing). Swami Sivananda (1854–1934), a physician, Himalayan yogi, and proponent of Hatha Yoga and Kundalini tantra, describes Hatha as follows: Ha is associated with the ida nadi. Nadis are energy channels, which are subtle and not physical, through which the vital force flows. The ida nadi in tantric traditions are associated with the moon. Ha also refers to the flow of cold air within the left nostril and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s relaxation response. In contrast, tha is associated with the pingala nadi, which in tantric traditions is associated with the sun. Tha also refers to the flow of hot air within the right nostril and deactivates the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s fight or flight responses. Here, we see that the classical philosophy of Hatha Yoga originally emphasized the grave significance of one’s breathing (Sanskrit: prana vayu, from which the word pranayama or breath control derives). Breath is not only the chief link between body and mind, but it also plays a central role in the body’s energy metabolism: a profound psychosomatic insight indeed.

Mantra Yoga (Sanskrit: Man = Mind, to Think; tra = Tools or Instruments)

Mantra refers to a sacred syllable, word, or phrase, usually in Sanskrit, thought to cause the practitioner’s spiritual transformation. Spiritual teachers also use mantra when initiating their disciples. The use and types of mantras vary according to the school and philosophy. Mantra Yoga, in addition to mantra, employs yantras (Sanskrit: instrument or object serving to hold/anchor), which are auspicious geometrical figures engraved on metal, ground, stone, wood, or even skin. Yantras are used for the purpose of worship and symbolize the expressions of cosmic manifestations within the objects on which they are engraved. Symbolic and representative of spiritual energy’s primordial unity, the yantra is said to transform the object upon which it is drawn or practiced. The mandalas that Carl Jung practiced upon are essentially a form of yantra (for more detail, please refer to Jung’s The Red Book, 2009). In Mantra Yoga, the mantras inscribed on the yantras are essentially thought forms representing divinities or cosmic powers that exert their influence via sound vibrations (Feuerstein 2003). Both mantra and yantra are heavily used in tantra Yoga which as a system of Yoga reached its pinnacle during medieval India (circa fifth century CE) (White 1996). Of note, tantra is the 4th and the newest system in the evolution of Yoga, the other three being Samkhya (Veda), Upanishads (Vedanta), and Shramana (non-Hindu philosophies, i.e., Buddhism and Jainism).

Laya Yoga (Sans: Dissolution, Merger, Absorption, Yoga)

It is also known as Kundalini Yoga. Kunadlini (Sanskrit: kundalini = coil or spiral) is thought to be a form of life force or spiritual energy that resides at the base of the spine, where it lies dormant and coiled like a snake. The practice of Kundalini Yoga is thought to awaken one’s Kundalini, unraveling the coil and allowing it to rise and travel through the first of the six primary chakras—energy points at which the subtle or nonphysical nadis (Sans: energy channels) meet—and, ultimately, reach the last of the primary chakras, Sahasrara, at the crown of the head. This process is achieved through deep meditation, or dhyana. Through the practice of Laya Yoga, one may achieve union with the supreme consciousness (Avalon 1974, p. 222).

Raja Yoga and Its Differences from the Hatha Yoga

As previously mentioned, Raja Yoga, as proposed by sage Patanjali, is considered the highest form of practice (Deussen 1980). Raja Yoga can be better understood when comparing it to Hatha Yoga. Raja Yoga adopts Hatha yogic devices like asana and pranayama, both in principle and practice, but reduces Hatha’s multiple and elaborate forms that focus on physical transformation to just one form sufficient for its immediate object of interest, the mind. Sri Aurobindo elucidates this chief difference in practice (i.e., the primacy of the body in Hatha Yoga versus that of the mind in Raja Yoga). He describes this discrepancy as follows: “Raja Yoga takes a higher flight [than the Hatha Yoga]. It aims at the liberation and perfection not of the bodily, but of the mental being, the control of the emotional and sensational life, the mastery of the whole apparatus of thought and consciousness” (Aurobindo 1999, p. 35). In Raja Yoga, the yogi fixes the eyes on the chitta, the mental stuff of consciousness from which all activities arise. With this follows the absolute quieting of the restless mind and its elevation to a higher plane of consciousness. Through concentration of mental force, attained via the successive stages of Raja Yoga, a superconsciousness, the utmost inner concentration or ingathered state of the consciousness, known as samadhi is attained (Aurobindo 1999, p. 36).

1.4 Yoga: Origins and Scriptures

1.4.1 Origins of Yoga from the Samkhya System in Ancient India

The six astika (theistic) Hindu philosophies that recognize the authority of the Vedas are: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta (Muller 1899). Nastika (atheistic) Hindu philosophies that do not recognize the authority of the Vedas include Charvaka, Ajivika, Jainism, and Buddhism (Robinson et al. 2005). As a system of philosophies, Yoga originated from the Samkhya. Samkhya (Sanskrit. numerist) system of philosophy was propounded by the mythical sage Kapila and derived from the Rig-Veda (circa 1200 BC), the oldest among all the sacred scriptures of ancient India. Svetasvatara Upanishad (section VI, verse 13) verifies the soteriological validity of the Samkhya philosophy with Yoga practice (Eliade 1969, p. 389). Although, unlike Yoga, Samkhya doesn’t admit the existence of God, the profound philosophical similarities between the two systems led some authors to propose that Yoga can be said to be consisting of Samkhya with definite mention of God (Sanskrit: seshwara Samkhya). Despite the ideological differences between the astika and nastika, Yoga, as a philosophy, is well accepted in both schools.

1.4.2 The Oral Tradition of Yoga

Before any textual mention of Yoga, the Yogic philosophy and practice were passed through the oral tradition. Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras (circa fourth century BC) is the very first text regarding Yoga. Although the Yoga Sutra is regarded as the most important textbook on Yoga, scholars agree that Patanjali did not conceive of Yoga himself. Patanjali served merely as a great expounder of Yoga. Archeological evidence indicates that classical Yoga, as a system of contemplation for uniting the human spirit with the Supreme Being (Sanskrit: Ishvara), may have origins that reach back as far back as the Bronze Age, during the Indus Valley Civilization approximately 3000 BC till 1500 BC (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro). Several seals excavated on Indus Valley Civilization archeological sites depict figures resembling the postures commonly practiced in Yoga and meditation. Furthermore, several well-known ancient Indian scriptures provide descriptions of Yoga long before Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras (e.g., Rig-Veda, circa 1200 BC), Katha Upanishad (circa fifth century BC), and Svetasvatara Upanishad (circa fourth century BC; Radhakrishnan 1953; Sarvananda 1987; Gambhirananda 1997, 2003).

1.4.3 Sanskrit (Vedic) and Pali (Buddhist): The Original Languages of Yogic Scriptures

Sanskrit, the oldest of the Indo-European languages (origins from the Proto-Indo-Iranian ancestral languages), and Pali, the Dravidian or Munda language (possibly the native language of the Indus Valley Civilization), are considered the original languages of most Yogic scriptures. While Sanskrit has been the written language of Vedic and Upanishadic texts (collectively called the Hindu philosophies; the word Hindu originates from the Indus Valley Civilization), Pali is the language of the canonical texts of Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism which was originally a spoken language with no alphabet of its own. Pali, also called prakrita (meaning natural or unrefined), is actually vernaculars in contrast to Sanskrit (meaning elaborated or polished). Historians agree (Thapar 2002; Robinson et al. 2005) that the Aryans migrated into India from the West, from what is now known as Iran, dislodging the Dravidians, the natives of the Indus Valley Civilization. Despite this dislodgement, there were great intellectual and linguistic integration between them and Sanskrit originated from this rich integration. Literature suggests that the separation of Indo-Aryan language proper from the undifferentiated Proto-Indo-Iranian ancestor group of languages probably happened somewhere between 1800 BC and 1500 BC (Mallory 1989; Muller 1859) and culminated in Vedic Sanskrit by the end of the Vedic period, around 500 BC (Witzel 1989). Around this time, various factors including cultural, political, and linguistic, all contributed to the end of the Vedic period, and other movements such as Jainism and early Buddhism (collectively called the Shramanic movement) emerged, using the popular vernacular Pali dialect, rather than Sanskrit for their texts. In addition to the possible integration and mutual enrichments between the Indus Valley (Vedic) and Shramanic (non-Vedic) philosophies, this also inspired the compositions of Yogic texts not only in Sanskrit but also in Pali: The philosophies in the Upanishads are the common origin for both Vedantic and Shramanic (Jainism and Buddhism) philosophies of ancient India (Radhakrishnan 1953, p. 949). It is important to note that Sanskrit grammar is highly complex and many Sanskrit words lack words with equivalent meanings in other languages like English. The complexity and nuances of Sanskrit, in addition to the experiential nature of Yoga, requires careful interpretation of Yogic scriptures. One should be careful not to interpret Yogic scriptures rigidly according to their literal meanings alone while disregarding the context or possible symbolic interpretations. For the purpose of practice and to avoid a mere intellectualization, the practitioner (Yogi) should consider the truths underlying the various scriptures, rather than engaging in exegetic controversies.

1.4.4 The Varieties of Yogic Scriptures

It is important to understand the broad categories of the original scriptures on yoga. All ancient Indian sacred scriptures can be categorized under two types: shruti (or Vedas, literally means hearing or listening, oral tradition) and smriti (literally means remembered texts from oral traditions, which later were converted to written texts). Scholars believe that one possible reason the shruti or oral traditions of teaching were maintained for a long time without getting translated to the smriti traditions (the documented or scriptural forms) was because the original thinkers were aware of limitations of a written language in capturing the right meaning of the knowledge taught in the oral traditions. Shruti is traditionally believed to be a direct divine revelation of the cosmic sound (Sans: nada) of truth heard by ancient Indian sages (Sans: Rishis) who then translated this knowledge to scriptural forms, e.g., sacred books like the Rig-Veda and the Yoga Sutra.

Approximate Time Lines for Compositions of Yogic Scriptures

Rig-Veda: 1500–1100 BC; Sam-Veda: 1500–500 BC; Yajur-Veda: 1500–500 BC; Atharva-Veda: 1500–500 BC; Upanishads: 1200–500 BC; Bhagavad Gita: 500–200 BC; Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: 400 BC–200 CE; Ramayana: 400 BC–400 CE; Mahabharata: 400 BC–400 CE; Mimamsa Sutra: 300–200 BC; Nyaya Sutra: second century BC; Vaiseshika Sutra: second century BC; Samkhya Karika: around 200 CE; Yoga Vasistha: tenth to fourteenth century CE (Radhakrishnan 1923, 1953; Radhakrishnan and Moore 1967; Eliade 1969; Thapar 2002; Muller 1859, 1899; Jain 2007; Dundas 2002; Mohanty 2000)

Talking about the time lines of ancient India, one notes that Gautam Buddha (founder of Buddhism) lived from 563 BC till 483 BC. Vardhamana Mahavira, the famous reformer (also called the great Tirthankara) of the religion Jainism, lived from 599 BC till 527 BC (Jain 2007). Sage Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra, the first textbook of Yoga) is said to have lived circa 400 BC (Jacobi 1910; Radhakrishnan 1923), which seems to be the period after the Buddha’s demise. From the existing literature, it is not clear how much sage Patanjali’s writings were influenced by the teachings of the Buddha. According to some experts (Radhakrishnan 1923, 1953; Radhakrishnan and Moore 1967), the oldest of the major Upanishads (Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chandogya, Brihadarnyaka, etc.) were composed during the pre-Buddhist era of ancient India; other Upanishads like Katha and Mandukya were composed after the fifth century BC (in the transitional phase, after the Buddha’s life time), and the newer Upanishads (Maitri, Svetasvatara, etc.) are dated to the last few centuries BC. So understandably, the description of Yoga in the earlier Upanishads reflected more of Samkhya (Indus Valley/Rig-Vedic) philosophy, whereas descriptions in the later ones were more of Vedantic or probably early Buddhist philosophies.

Shruti and smriti fall under one of the following subcategories: Veda, Itihasa, and Purana.


The Vedas (Sanskrit: vid means to know)

The literal meaning of Veda is knowledge or wisdom. The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts and are believed to have been compiled by the great sage of ancient India Veda Vyasa (lit. person who narrated the Veda).

The Vedas have 4 divisions: Samhita (Veda proper), Brahmana, Aranyaka, and Upanishads (Vedanta):


Samhitas (literally “collections”) are thought to have been composed before the twelfth century BC. They are collections of mantras (sacred syllables or chants). The four collections are as follows: Rig-Veda Samhita (the oldest), Sam-Veda Samhita, Yajur-Veda Samhita, and Atharva-Veda Samhita.



Brahmana (lit. who knows the meaning of the Brahman, the Ultimate One) are prose texts said to have been composed around 900 BC. They outline the techniques of solemn sacrificial rituals and contemplate their meanings and themes. Each Brahmana is associated with a particular Samhita. Many of the Brahmana scriptures are expositions on the mystic significance of the various sacrificial ceremonies.



Aranyakas (lit. the forest treatise) are the third part of the Veda and were composed before the Upanishads by those hermits who lived and meditated in the forest traditions (Sans: vanaprastha), in total social isolation of nature. Aranyakas deal with the mystical meanings of the sacrificial rituals performed in seclusion in the forest life.



Upanishads (Sanskrit: upa = nearby, ni = at the proper place, shad = to sit) literally means to sit at the feet of a teacher and learn the knowledge about the Supreme Spirit. These sections of the Vedas are also collectively referred to as Vedanta (Sanskrit: Vid = knowledge, anta = goal reached) and were composed between 900 and 600 BC (Radhakrishnan 1923, 1953). The Vedantic/Upanishadic system of philosophy is understood as the essence of the Vedas or the purpose or goal of the Vedas. Vedanta is concerned with the end (final goal) of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically (Humes 1966). The Upanishads generally mention the Vedas with respect. In the form of dialogue, the Upanishads consider metaphysical questions (e.g., the fate of the soul) and interpretations of the Vedas. Vedantic/Upnaisadic philosophies are considered the putative end and essence of the Vedas; hence, another name of the Upanishad is the Vedanta (Sanskrit: Vid = knowledge, anta = goal reached). Together Vedanta forms the basis for the Vedanta school of philosophy. Similar to non-Vedic Shramanic philosophies (e.g., Buddhism and Jainism), Vedanta renounced all Vedic ritualism and radically reinterpreted the Vedas in purely philosophical terms.

The Sutras (as in the Yoga Sutras, literally means threads, generally understood as aphorisms or verses) are a category of Vedanta. Sutra language is the last stratum of Vedic Sanskrit leading up to approximately 500 BC. Around 400 BC (time of the composition of the Yoga Sutras), the sutra style of compositions reached their greatest stylistic peak. Other important texts that are considered sutras include: some Upanishads (e.g., Katha Upanishad and Maitrayaniya Upanishad) and the Vedanta Sutra, composed around 200 BC by Indian philosopher Badarayana. The Vedanta Sutra systematizes the Upanishadic philosophies into a single treatise (Radhakrishnan 1923, 1953).




The Itihasa (Sans: events of the past or history)

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Dec 11, 2016 | Posted by in MUSCULOSKELETAL MEDICINE | Comments Off on Yoga: Original Concepts and History
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