The Vedas and before them
Archeological surveys move back more and more the time when the Indian culture was created. The most ancient civilization that lived in the huge subcontinent is the Indus Valley Civilization. It springs in the valley of the Indus river, around the middle of the third millenium BC, and it disappears a few centuries after 2000 BC. Its city culture represented mainly by Harapa and Mohenjo Daro is remarkable. Very typical are the streets, crossing each other under right angle and the advanced technology of the systems of water supply and sewerage (many years before the city of Rome was created). Very curious is the fact that there were not any buildings which looked like palaces or temples. There have not been found any marks of central government or supremacy of the priest's class.
An important feature of the Indus Valley Civilization was the literacy.
There are found thousands of steatite seals, decorated with figures of animals, mythological motives and inscriptions of pictographical writing, which remain inscrutable even today. One of those printings is of special importance for the history of Yoga. A horned idol, seated in meditative pose and surrounded by animals is pictured there. It is considered, that it is Shiva`s prototype in his role of Pashupathy or the master of all animals. Other records show the presence of cult to the Goddess and fertility. Quite a lot findings show off an amazing continuity between the Indus Valley Civilization and later Indian society and culture.
In the centuries after 2000 BC on the penninsula, gradually, nomad indo-european tribes, known as aryans, started to invade. Their prolonged contact with the step inhabitants indicated the formation of a new Indian culture. The four social estates or varnas (castes) are formed in this period. These are: the brahmins (priest class), the kshatriyas (warrior class), the vaishyas (trader class) and the shudras (labour class).
The language of the aryans is sanskrit. This is the language of the four collections (samhitas) with hymns, forming the holy canon of Hinduism - The Vedas. The most ancient of them is Rigveda. Its 1028 hymns are grouped together in 10 chapters (mandalas) and form the principle of Hindu religion. In the last mandala we find an amasing abstract method of approach in asking and discussing the eternal metaphysical questions. Samaveda consists of hymns for intoning during time of sacrifices. Much of them are taken from the Rigveda. Yajurveda is the collection, containing all the important for the sacrificial rites hymns. An important place takes up Atharvaveda. This collection is named after the sage Atharvan – "a thing in the fire`s rite". It contains about 6000 magic formulas, amongs them are such with medical purposes. Some of them bring up hints of quite interesting philosophical problems.
It`s getting clear, that Vedic culture is closely related with the rites of ancient indians and in particular with the sacrifice as a connection between the material world and the invisible spiritual world. The spiritual practices, mentioned in Vedas have mainly trance-like and ascetic character.
Besides the four samhitas, another three groups of collections, the brahmanas, the aranyakas and the upanishads, also belongs to the Vedic literature. The Brahmanas are written in prose, and interpret the Vedic practices, while the aranyakas are address the forest hermits. In the brahmanas and the aranyakas is continued the hinted in the samhitas tendency to esoteric, directed inward interpretation of rites. This trend reaches his culmination in the Upanishads.
The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita
beginning of the first millenium BC on starts to appear
the Upanishads, philosophical treatises, containing
secret teachings of Vedanta (literally meaning
"the end of the vedas"). There are about 200 such
compositions, 108 of which are traditionally considered
as classical and 10 of them – as containing the main principles
of Vedic teaching. As most important we can indicate the
following: Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka,
Aitareya, Isha, Katha, Kaushitaki,
Kena, Mandukya, Mundaka, Prashna,
Taittiriya, Shvetashvatara, Maitrayaniya.
In the Upanishads is affirmed the teaching about the identity
of the individual I (Atman) and the supreme absolute
(Brahman), which teaching is the base of the philosophical
system of Vedanta. The idea of karma and reincarnation
developed also; the liberation (moksha) of the
cycle of existence (samsara), becomes the main
goal of the spiritual seeking.
In the Upanishads, the knowledge of the true meaning of things and meditational practices, designed to remove the obstacles hindering its attainment, take place over the rites. In such a way, Yoga continues to form as a system comprising definite psycho-physiological techniques in itself. Maitarayanya Upanishad, for example, treats Yoga as a sixth fold complex (shadanga Yoga), which includes pranayama (breathing control), pratyahara (retraction) dhyana (meditation), dharana (concentration), tarka (study, teaching) and samadhi (superconscious state).
Very important is the influence of the arising in 6-th century BC spiritual teachings outside the Vedic Tradition like Buddhism and Jainism, founded respectively by Siddhartha Gautama and Vardhamana Mahavira. They reject the sacrifices, reject the importance of the castes and place at the basis of their doctrines the principle of harmlessness (ahimsa). All this leads to reformation of Brahmanism itself and especially to its ethical aspects. The buddhist ideas were raised to the rank of state religion in the times of the third king of the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka.
Not later than 4-th century B.C. is ended the grand indian epos - the Mahabharata. The basic thread in this huge (18 volumes) work is the fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. In the poem, they are weaved many others stories and passages concerning the different aspects of life in ancient India for which the Mahabharata can be treated as an specific encyclopedia. In the epos we find many quotes that refer to Yoga and samkhya, but the greatest importance for Yoga and the Indian spirituality is the inserted about 4-3 century BC poem Bhagavad Gita. It represents the teaching of Krishna, narrated by him to prince Arjuna (the third of the five Pandava brothers). In the eve of the battle, when the armies are already aligned Arjuna is seized of hesitation and mistrusts. Realizing the nonsense of the forthcoming bloodshed, he decides not to fight. In response god Krishna expounds the philosophy of different kinds of Yoga to him. Thus, the three main paths (margas), bhakti, karma and jnana Yoga are differentiated.
In the centuries around the beginning of our era, there are differentiated the sixth ortodox (astika) schools (darshanas) of hindu philosophy, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The definition astika distinguishes them from the unorthodox (nastica) traditions, which do not acknowledge Vedic authority, amongst them the most famous are Buddhism, Jainism and Lokayata. Each one of astika darshanas are systematized in brief gnomes, called sutras (literally "thread"). These are original summaries of the teachings, whose purpose is the breaf enunciation of its basic principles, but not its complete and comprehensive explanation.
The remarkable role of the sage Patanjali (who lived the latest in the 4th century) consists in that that with the writing the Yoga sutra he defines Yoga as one of the six darshanas. Later on, many commentaries of the sutras appeared, the most important among them are Yoga Bhashya, written by Vyasa (the most ancient and the most basic text of its kind, written probably around 6th century), Tattva-Vaisharadi by Vachaspati Mishra (9th century) and Yoga-Varttika by Vijnana Bhikshu (16th century).
Yoga sutra consists of 195 sutras, divided into 4 chapters (padas). These are Samadhi pada (the chapter about the meditation), Sadhana pada (the chapter about the methods), Vibhuti pada (the chapter about the supernatural abilities), and Kayvalya pada (the chapter about the absolute detachment).
The system, expounded in the sutras and their commentaries, becomes known as the classical Yoga or Raja Yoga (the Royal Yoga). Although formally it is based on the psychology and the metaphysics of samkhya, its importance overruns the frames of any partucular system. The principles which are imposed in the sutras are considered to be the general base of every Yoga practice or variety.
Post classical Yoga and Tantra
Through the centuries after Patanjali many varieties of Yoga have been developed.
Of great importance for the Indian spirituality is the famous Vedanta and Yoga teacher Shankara (788-822). Along with Nagarjuna (a buddhist thinker from the 2th century), he is one of the greatest minds in the Indian and the world history. During his short life, he succeeds in a remarkable way to expound the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and to inspirit the Vedic viewpoint. Shankara leaves his inspirational commentaries on each of the three main parts of Vedanta - the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma sutra. Founded by him, the Swami order has a considerable place in the spiritual science with its 12 divisions until ourdays.
A powerful influence on Yoga after the 6th century had the culture-philosophical tradition of Tantrism. It leaves its imprint on all important Indian religions and often gives birth to quite exotic versions of them. The philosophy and the practices of tantrism are expounded in the texts, called tantras (the most known of which are Mahanirvana Tantra and Kaulaarnava Tantra).
Tantrism is based on the idea of the merging of the passive "male" principle of Shiva and the creative "female" aspect of the Absolute, honoured like Shakti. The honoring of the female principle is the key of understanding this doctrine. It is claimed that the path of tantra is very appropriate for the dark epoch of Kali Yuga.
The tantric practices bring in themselves the idea of the overcoming of the opposite principles, through their merging. Usually, complicated ritualistic actions are used, filled with opulent symbolism. For example, widely used are mantras and yantras- formulas, which depict definite powers of the nature of the sound`s language, respectively of geometric forms.
Two basic paths, known as dakshina marga (path of the right hand) and vama marga (path of the left hand) are differentiated in Tantrism. Whereas in the first path the stress is given to inward practices and meditation, in vama marga the main rite panchamakara is related with the performing of 5 actions, which traditionally aren`t reccomended in the other Yoga sysems, viz. drinking wine, eating meat, fish, overdoing grain and ritualistic sex. The aim of all this is the accumulated energy to awaken the sleeping serpentine power Kundalini, staying latent in Muladhara chakra (the center of energy in the lower part of the spine). The physiology of the chakras, nadis and kundalini is very typical for the Yoga systems arising in the Middle ages under the influence of tantrism. Among them are Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga and the quite popular today Hatha Yoga. It has to be noticed however, that as panchamakara, so and the chakra systems have their interpretations and applications not in a literal sense.
The bhakti movements become very popular in the days of the Muslim yoke in India. In the 16th century Chaitanya resurrects the cult to Krishna in East India. Another well-known Hindu saint of that time, related with bhakti Yoga is Kabir, honoured also by Muslims. There is a similary direction also in the teaching of Guru Nanak, whose doctrine became a base for the original synthesis between the Hinduism and islam - the Sikhism.
Among the important for the Yoga works are the written mainly in 14th and 15th centuries Yoga Upanishads. These are 21 Upanishads, representing different Yoga systems, based on Vedanta and Tantrism.
Yoga in the modern world
The history of the contemporary Yoga begins with Swami Vivekananda and his participation in the Parliament of the World's Religions in 1893 in Chicago. At this forum Vivekanada makes a great impression to the American audience and provokes an increasing interest to the Indian spirituality. Swami Vivekananda`s success gives a way for many others propagandist of the ancient teaching until nowadays.
A popular spiritual teacher in the early years of the western introduction to Yoga becomes Paramahamsa Yogananda. He comes to Boston in 1920 and five years later established Self-Realisation Fellowship in Los Angeles. His Autobiography of a Yogi inspires thousands of followers all over the world for Yoga, but it also helps about spreading of some not so correct ideas about the teaching, related with the practicing of supernatural abilities and miraculous phenomena, which have no direct relation to the object and the goal of Yoga.
In the first half of 20th century works one of the greatest philosophers of Yoga, Sri Aurobino Ghosh. Having been raised in a British-cultured family and having received his education in England, he has created an original philosophy, called purna Yoga (integral Yoga). It treats Vedanta and Yoga through an original evolutional method of approach.
Maybe the most important figure among the Indian spiritual teachers is Swami Sivananda. He sets out his spiritual way after many years of successfull medical practice and after a long pilgrimage opens his ashram in Rishikesh, in the Himalayas. Later on, he establishes the organisations Divine Life Society (1936) and Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy (1948). He has written over 200 books in which he sets forth the philosophy and the practice of Yoga in a unique simple style. Many of his disciples become very popular in the West.
A significant representative of Hatha Yoga in the modern world is Sri Thirumoolar Krishnamacharia, who died in 1989, at the age of 101. His son Desikachar continues his father's work. Others well-known disciples of Krishnamacharya (and at the same time great masters) are B. K. S. Iyengar, who wrote the most detailed practical handbook, Patabhi Joys and Indra Devi. Iyengar is a Yoga teacher of the well-known pianist Yehudi Menuhin, who invited him in Europe in 1954 and in this way opened his way to the West. Among his disciples are Aldous Huxsley and the mother queen of Belgium.
In 20th century many centers have been opened for learning and researching of Yoga. In 1918 Sri Yogendra begins his medical researches on Yoga in the managed by him research institute in Bombai. About 100 kilometers from it, in a small health resort town of Lonavla, is situated the Kaivalyadhama Yoga institute, established by Swami Kuvalayananda. This organization contributes much for the scientific studies of Yoga. A Yoga University, in the state of Bihar opens also Swami Satyananda.
Other well-known names are the great teacher of Advaita Vedanta Ramana Maharishi, the ex-teacher of mathemathics Swami Rama Tirtha, the Hatha Yoga master Dhirendra Brahmachari, the related to some forms of Zen Jidu Krishnamurti, the author of thousands lectures and meditational techniques Osho and others.
The work of many gurus, carring out their activities in the West is contradictory. Only knowing the principles and the practices of the classical Yoga, a man could be able to orientate and to estimate the values of multitude spread teachings, presented like authentical Yoga.