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The Origins Of Yoga

The origins of Yoga

Though Yoga literally means “yoke”, “unify”, it is also a developed system of philosophy, as well as a practical method to realise the ultimate truth originated in ancient India and codified mainly by Patanjali. Let us look at what makes Yoga different from other systems of thought, so we can understand its metaphysical, ontological, psychological and practical view of life. Historically this may have developed well before Christ and developed side by side other systems of thought in ancient India, but we can clearly see the correlation of Yoga with the Sankhya system. In spite of the connection with the Sankhya doctrines, Yoga differs from it on matters of psychology, ethics etc. and brought a scientific approach to disciplinary practices with rigour and great clarity.

Yoga evolved a philosophical understanding and a psychological reasoning

Yoga evolved a philosophical understanding and a psychological reasoning behind human suffering and happiness as well as a set of practices to verify the truths that arrived theoretically. This approach gives Yoga philosophy an established position status among the other disputing systems of Indian Philosophy, because the method of knowing the Yogic principle is direct perception, which is something anyone can check it out.

The worship of the natural forces and rituals to propitiate deities was not enough to the thinking mind of the sages, who want to find the absolute reality or the unchangeable truth similar to the “unified field theory” current scientists are working for. Upanishads were a set of documents that capture these discoveries in an unclassified manner, which later became developed into systematic systems of thought and schools of philosophy and sects.

Yoga Philosophy

To really understand the Yoga Philosophy, we need to be familiar with the fundamental “theory of the Self” that unites almost all Indian systems, according to which the deepest Self of Human being is of the nature of pure intelligence that is transcendent, and that this entity ever remains in its purity and through a beginning less illusion it appears to take part in or become associated with our experience. The conscious experience is relatively illegitimate and as soon as the knowledge about this illusion dawns, the illusion breaks down. This is the fundamental difference between the western thinkers and systems, where the emancipation is required by an external agency.  In Indian systems there is no concept of salvation by an external agent, all power and responsibility lies within oneself to liberate oneself, by self-knowledge. That is precisely the concept of Mukti.

Yoga Philosophy

The concept of Mukti and karma or causality which meticulously organises the universe are the two ideas permeating every system in India except of course the Carvaka.

Yoga however holds that discussions and philosophing is not enough, and that to “perceive” the reality we need to engage in some psychological exercises to get an insight into truth. The vedic sacrificial smarta sects were focusing heavily on the individual rituals and sacrifices and cared for principles or maxims only so far as they were of use for the actual performances of sacrifices to propitiate deities for personal gain here and thereafter. Buddhism and Jainism however tried to formulate a theory of the universe, the reality and the position of sentient beings and more particularly of man. For these two sects, actions were here considered bad or good according to whether they brought about our moral elevation or not.

Evolution Of Yoga As We Know Now

The Samkhya-Yoga philosophy as we now get it, is a system in which are found all the results of Buddhism and Jainism in such a manner that it unites the doctrine of permanence of the Upanishads with the doctrine of momentariness of the Buddhists and the doctrine of relativism of the Jains.

The main works of the system of Samkhya and Yoga are the Samkhya karika, the Samkhya sutras, and the Yoga sutras of Patanjali with their commentaries and sub-commentaries which are very exhaustive. Here are the key ones for reference.

Samkhya karika (200 A.D.) was written by IswaraKrishna. An account of Samkhya by Caraka (78 A.D.) represents probably an earlier school and this has been treated separately. The Vacaspati Mis’ra’s (ninth century A.D.) commentary Tattvakaumudi-is monimental.

Patanjali’s Yoga sûtra (not earlier than 147 B.C.) was commented on by Vyasa (400 A.D.) and Vyasa’s bhasya commented on by Vacaspati Mis’ra called Tattvavaisaradi by Vijñâna Bhiksu Yogavarttika, by Bhoja in the tenth century Bhojavartti, and by Nages’a (7th century) Chayavyakhya.

The main features of the Samkhya doctrine as given by Caraka are thus:

 1. Purusa is the state of avyakta. 

2. By a conglomerate of this avyakta with its later products a conglomeration is formed which generates the so-called living being. 

3. The tanmatras are not mentioned.

4. Rajas and tamas represent the bad states of the mind and sattva the good ones. 

5. The ultimate state of emancipation is either absolute annihilation or characterless absolute existence and it is spoken of as the Brahman state; there is no consciousness in this state, for consciousness is due to the conglomeration of the self with its evolutes, buddhi, ahamkara etc. 

6. The senses are formed of matter (bhautika).

Pancasikha speaks of the ultimate truth as being avyakta (a term applied in all Samkhya literature to prakrti) in the state of purusa. If man is the product of a mere combination of the different elements, then one may assume that all ceases with death. Caraka tries to establish the existence of a self as the postulate of all our duties and sense of moral responsibility. The same discussion occurs in Pañcas’ikha also, and the proofs for the existence of the self are also the same.

स्वदेहमरणिं कृत्वा प्रणवं चोत्तरारणिम् ।

ध्याननिर्मथनाभ्यासादेवं पश्येन्निगूढवत् ॥ १४॥

The yogi should use his body as the lower piece of wood and pranava (AUM) the upper piece of wood, and strike them against each other until the fire of realization kindles and he realizes the supreme being.

Shvetashvataropanishad 1.14

View Of Samkhya Of Caraka & Pancasikha

From the point of view of history of philosophy the Samkhya of Caraka and Pancasikha is very important; for it shows a transitional stage of thought between the Upanisad ideas and the orthodox Samkhya doctrine as represented by Isvarakrsna. On the one hand its doctrine that the senses are material, and that effects are produced only as a result of collocations, and that the purusa is unconscious, brings it in close relation with Nyaya, and on the other its connections with Buddhism seem to be nearer than the orthodox Samkhya.

Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras which was commented on by Vyasa, Vacaspati and Vijnana Bhiksu. It agree with the Samkhya doctrine as explained by Vacaspati and Vijnana Bhiksu in most points, so in a way we can call Samkhya as the Kapila school and Yoga as the Patanjala schools of Samkhya and hence can be treated together.

The earliest references are in the Maitrayani, Shwetaswatara and Katha Upanishad.

पृथिव्यप्तेजोऽनिलखे समुत्थिते  पञ्चात्मके योगगुणे प्रवृत्ते ।

न तस्य रोगो न जरा न मृत्युः प्राप्तस्य योगाग्निमयं शरीरम् ॥ १२॥

When the yogi attains a body purified by Yoga-fire he becomes free from decay and disease, his youth is prolonged, and he lives long. He then experiences superior smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound.

Shvetashvataropanishad 2.12

यच्छेद्वाङ्मनसी प्राज्ञस्तद्यच्छेज्ज्ञान आत्मनि ।

ज्ञानमात्मनि महति नियच्छेत्तद्यच्छेच्छान्त आत्मनि ॥ १३॥

The senses and the work organs should be withdrawn into the manas (sense-mind) and the manas should be absorbed into the jnanatman (consciousness).

Kathopanishad 1.3.13

Six Angas Of Yoga

The conception of Yoga as we meet it in the Maitrayana Upanisad (6.18) consisted of six angas or accessories, namely pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana, tarka and samadhi.

The precept for effecting this unity is this:

  • Restraint of the breath Pranayama
  • Withdrawal of the senses Pratyahara
  • Meditation Dhyand
  • Concentration Dhdrana
  • Contemplation Tarka
  • Absorption Samadhi

Such is said to be the Sixfold Yoga. By this means When a seer sees the brilliant Maker, Lord, Person, the Brahma-source, Then, being a knower, shaking off good and evil, he reduces everything to unity in the supreme Imperishable.

तथा तत्प्रयोगकल्पः प्राणायामः प्रत्याहारो ध्यानं धारणा

तर्कः समाधिः षडङ्गा इत्युच्यते योगः  अनेन यदा पश्यन्पश्यति

रुक्मवर्णं कर्तारमीशं पुरुषं ब्रह्मयोनिम्   तदा विद्वान्पुण्यपापे

विहाय परेऽव्यये सर्वमेकीकरोति  एवं ह्याह   : 

यथा पर्वतमादीप्तं   नाश्रयन्ति मृगद्विजाः ।

तद्वद्ब्रह्मविदो दोषा   नाश्रयन्ति कदाचन ॥ ॥ १८॥

Maitrayana Upanisad (6.18)

In the actual Yoga sutras two new elements have been added, and tarka (contemplative enquiry) has been replaced by asana. Samadhi or Dhyana school belong to one class of logical thinkers called sasvatavada. The  tarka was an anga in samadhi, the last of the angas given in Maitrayani Upaniasad represents the oldest list of the Yoga doctrine, when the Samkhya and the Yoga were in a process of being grafted on each other, and when the Samkhya method of discussion did not stand as a method independent of Yoga.The substitution of asana for tarka in the list of Patanjali shows that the Yoga had developed a method separate from the Saamkhya. The introduction of ahimsa (non-injury), satya (truthfulness), asteya (want of stealing), brahmacaryya (sex-control), aparigraha (want of greed) as yama and sauca (purity), santosa (contentment) as niyama, as a system of morality without which Yoga is impossible (for the first time in the sutras), probably marks the period when the disputes between the Hindus and the Buddhists had not become so keen.

Yoga metaphysics of the samsara (rebirth) cycle in connection with sorrow, origination, decease, rebirth, etc. is described with a degree of similarity with the cycle of causes as described in early Buddhism. This simply shows that there must have potential exchange of ideas between Buddhism and Indian systems at that time.

The parallel development of the Samkhya and Vedanta systems believed that Yoga method was not necessary, philosophic enquiry was sufficient for self-realisation, provided they have a clear mind, as mentioned by Sage Vidyaranya in Citradipa. He recommends “Yoga method” to destroy the pride of the intellect and purify the mind. Patanjali Sutras develops the methodology with a consistent metaphysics (which we will handle in another article) and a whole series of other Upanishads and was later assimilated by schools like Sakta and Shaiva schools and even by Vajrayana Buddhism.


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