History of yoga part -2

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continued from last post….

history of yoga

I can provide here only the merest thumbnail sketch and, if you wish to inform yourself more about the long history of Yoga, recommend that you study my book The Yoga Tradition. This is the most comprehensive historical overview available anywhere. But be prepared for challenging reading and a fairly large tome.

The history of Yoga can conveniently be divided into the following four broad categories:

Vedic Yoga
Preclassical Yoga
Classical Yoga
Postclassical Yoga

These categories are like static snapshots of something that is in actuality in continuous motion the “march of history.”

VEDIC YOGA

yoga meditation

Now we are entering somewhat more technical territory, and I will have to use and explain a number of Sanskrit terms.

The yogic teachings found in the above-mentioned Rig-Veda and the other three ancient hymnodies are known as Vedic Yoga. The Sanskrit word veda means “knowledge,” while the Sanskrit term rig (from ric) means “praise.” Thus the sacred Rig-Veda is the collection of hymns that are in praise of a higher power. This collection is in fact the fountainhead of Hinduism, which has around one billion adherents today. You could say that the Rig-Veda is to Hinduism what the Book of Genesis is to Christianity.

The other three Vedic hymnodies are the Yajur-Veda (“Knowledge of Sacrifice”), Sama-Veda (“Knowledge of Chants”), and Atharva-Veda (“Knowledge of Atharvan”). The first collection contains the sacrificial formulas used by the Vedic priests. The second text contains the chants accompanying the sacrifices. The third hymnody is filled with magical incantations for all occasions but also includes a number of very powerful philosophical hymns. It is connected with Atharvan, a famous fire priest who is remembered as having been a master of magical rituals. These hymnodies can be compared to the various books of the Old Testament.

It is clear from what has been said thus far that Vedic Yoga which could also be called Archaic Yoga was intimately connected with the ritual life of the ancient Indians. It revolved around the idea of sacrifice as a means of joining the material world with the invisible world of the spirit. In order to perform the exacting rituals successfully, the sacrificers had to be able to focus their mind for a prolonged period of time. Such inner focusing for the sake of transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.

When successful, the Vedic yogi was graced with a “vision” or experience of the transcendental reality. A great master of Vedic Yoga was called a “seer” in Sanskrit rishi. The Vedic seers were able to see the very fabric of existence, and their hymns speak of their marvelous intuitions, which can still inspire us today.

PRECLASSICAL YOGA

This category covers an extensive period of approximately 2,000 years until the second century A.D. Preclassical Yoga comes in various forms and guises. The earliest manifestations were still closely associated with the Vedic sacrificial culture, as developed in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas. The Brahmanas are Sanskrit texts explaining the Vedic hymns and the rituals behind them. The Aranyakas are ritual texts specific to those who chose to live in seclusion in a forest hermitage.

Yoga came into its own with the Upanishads, which are gnostic texts expounding the hidden teaching about the ultimate unity of all things. There are over 200 of these scriptures, though only a handful of them were composed in the period prior to Gautama the Buddha (fifth century B.C.). These works can be likened to the New Testament, which rests on the Old Testament but at the same time goes beyond it.

One of the most remarkable Yoga scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gita (“Lord’s Song”), of which the great social reformer Mahatma Gandhi spoke as follows:

When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies and my life has been full of external tragedies and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita. (Young India, 1925, pp. 1078-79)

In its significance, this work of only 700 verses perhaps is to Hindus what Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to Christians. Its message, however, is not to turn the other cheek but to actively oppose evil in the world. In its present form, the Bhagavad-Gita (Gita for short) was composed around 500 B.C. and since then has been a daily inspiration to millions of Hindus. Its central teaching is to the point: To be alive means to be active and, if we want to avoid difficulties for ourselves and others, our actions must be benign and also go beyond the grip of the ego. A simple matter, really, but how difficult to accomplish in daily life!

Preclassical Yoga also comprises the many schools whose teachings can be found in India’s two great national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (in which the Bhagavad-Gita is embedded and which is seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined). These various preclassical schools developed all kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation through which yogis and yoginis can transcend the body and mind and discover their true nature.

CLASSICAL YOGA

This label applies to the eightfold Yoga also known as Raja-Yoga taught by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sutra. This Sanskrit text is composed of just under 200 aphoristic statements, which have been commented on over and over again through the centuries. Sooner or later all serious Yoga students discover this work and have to grapple with its terse statements. The word sutra (which is related to Latin suture) means literally “thread.” Here it conveys a thread of memory, an aid to memorization for students eager to retain Patanjali’s knowledge and wisdom.

The Yoga-Sutra was probably written some time in the second century A.D. The earliest available Sanskrit commentary on it is the Yoga-Bhashya (“Speech on Yoga”) attributed to Vyasa. It was authored in the fifth century A.D. and furnishes fundamental explanations of Patanjali’s often cryptic statements.

Beyond a few legends nothing is known about either Patanjali or Vyasa. This is a problem with most ancient Yoga adepts and even with many more recent ones. Often all we have are their teachings, but this is of course more important than any historical information we could dig up about their personal lives.

Patanjali, who is by the way often wrongly called the “father of Yoga,” believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of Yoga to bring about their separation, thereby restoring the spirit in its absolute purity. His formulation is generally characterized as philosophical dualism. This is an important point, because most of India’s philosophical systems favor one or the other kind of nondualism: The countless aspects or forms of the empirical world are in the last analysis the same “thing” pure formless but conscious existence.

POSTCLASSICAL YOGA

This is again a very comprehensive category, which refers to all those many types and schools of Yoga that have sprung up in the period after Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra and that are independent of this seminal work. In contrast to classical Yoga, postclassical Yoga affirms the ultimate unity of everything. This is the core teaching of Vedanta, the philosophical system based on the teachings of the Upanishads.

In a way, the dualism of classical Yoga can be seen as a brief but powerful interlude in a stream of nondualist teachings going back to ancient Vedic times. According to these teachings, you, we, and everyone or everything else is an aspect or expression of one and the same reality. In Sanskrit that singular reality is called brahman (meaning “that which has grown expansive”) or atman (the transcendental Self as opposed to the limited ego-self).

A few centuries after Patanjali, the evolution of Yoga took an interesting turn. Now some great adepts were beginning to probe the hidden potential of the body. Previous generations of yogis and yoginis had paid no particular attention to the body. They had been more interested in contemplation to the point where they could exit the body consciously. Their goal had been to leave the world behind and merge with the formless reality, the spirit.

Under the influence of alchemy the spiritual forerunner of chemistry the new breed of Yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. They regarded the body as a temple of the immortal spirit, not merely as a container to be discarded at the first opportunity. They even explored through advanced yogic techniques the possibility of energizing the physical body to such a degree that its biochemistry is changed and even its basic matter is reorganized to render it immortal.

This preoccupation of theirs led to the creation of Hatha-Yoga, an amateur version of which is today widely practiced throughout the world. It also led to the various branches and schools of Tantra-Yoga, of which Hatha-Yoga is just one approach.

compiled by mahendra ( http://www.paramyoga.org)

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