Thought of the Day

I don't believe in morality, but I believe in ethical conduct as set out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Ethical conduct = a way of behaving that respects others’ right to be happy".

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Origins of Yoga

I continue my mini-lectures on the philosophy of yoga as I learn it myself with an overview on the origins of yoga. The question is how old is yoga and how does it evolve?

The origins of yoga can be traced through the sacred Hindu scriptures. 

In the Upanishads, texts belonging to the late Vedas and composed around 800 BCE, life is perceived as an arena of suffering and grief, and this notion is exacerbated by the process of samsara (eternal cycle of reincarnation) through karma. The goal is to be “freed alike from pleasure and from pain” through the practice of self-control, renunciation of worldly desires and meditation. This latter is defined as a process of separation and discernment. “This calm of the senses and the mind has been defined as yoga”. See my Yoga Methodology post, to understand how freedom is achieved.

Śramanas, wandering sages of Jainist, Buddhist and Ājīvika religions (the latter now extinct), adopt the path of austerity, discipline and contemplative life to achieve liberation while renouncing household life. 

Jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge and discernment), Karma yoga (yoga of selfless action) and Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion through love), unlike the above-mentioned ascetic practices, share a degree of social involvement. The Bhagavad Gītā, the equivalent of the New Testament for Christians, dated around 3rd century BCE, chronicles these concepts of selfless action, love and devotion.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a systematic compendium of the study and practice of yoga written in the 2nd century BCE. Patanjali does not really add anything new to the ontological research, but his merit lies in the compilation of an accessible and organised teaching system, which inherits the same meditative approach to enlightenment and worldview of its predecessors, with an emphasis on renunciation. In chapter 2 (Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah), Patanjali defines yoga through elimination: when we separate from our mind, the mind becomes self-aware, and we become pure consciousness. 

A straight line of continuity can be detected from the Śramana/Upanishads to the Jnana and Sutras philosophies. The Bhakti and Karma traditions, as narrated in the Bhagavad Gītā, undertake a different path: the path of extroversion (pravrtti), which will be further deepened by the Tantric tradition (from the 9th century onwards). Mind is divine consciousness, and desire is no longer a devilish temptation or a waste of energies. Transcendence is possible without renunciation.

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