Origin and History of Yoga Part 1

Indus Valley Seal

We trace the birth of Yoga from its nascent beginnings in the Indus Valley right up to the Vedic times, where it developed as an alternative to ritualism.

Origin of Yoga

Until recently western scholars and Indologists believed that Yoga developed only as late as 500 B.C. What every child in India knows is now being confirmed by archaeological surveys, scholars of linguistics and scientists working with satellite technology: Yoga is over 5000 years old.

Beginnings of Yoga in the Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization or the Indus Sarasvati Civilization, flourished from 3300 B.C. to 1800 B.C. At its height, this civilization extended from Baluchistan on the Iranian border in Pakistan to beyond New Delhi, India in the east, from Afghanistan and the Himalayas in the north to Mumbai, India in the south. This is the largest and most developed Bronze Age urban civilization known to date.

Present day studies and research support the theory that the Indus Valley was home to the indigenous Dravidians as well as the Sanskrit speaking Aryans, who came in from the north. Recent studies suggest that the Aryans were absorbed in to the prevalent culture as was the case with other ethnic groups in later Indian history. A great cultural and spiritual fusion took place between the Dravidians and Aryans.

Archaeological surveys, undertaken in 1921-22, in what is today Pakistan, provided evidence of the early beginnings of Yoga. One of its most famous seals is that of a male figure seated in the lotus position surrounded by animals. Evidence suggests that this was Lord Pashupati, lord of animals, a form of Shiva worshipped in India and Nepal to this day. These and many other finds show the amazing continuity between the Indus Valley civilization and present day Hindu society and culture.

Yoga and the Vedas

Other Indus valley seals show symbols found to this day in the spiritual beliefs of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions or Dharma. The earliest evidence for elements of Hindu spiritual beliefs were present already around the fourth millennium B.C. in the form of phallic symbols resembling the Shiva Lingam, the symbolic form of Shiva, Lord of Yoga.

The Rig Veda, among the most ancient literature in the library of humanity is also dated back to this time. The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Vedas. The Vedas are the authoritative texts of the Hindu spiritual tradition or Dharma and the source of knowledge for over one billion Hindus in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other emigrant populations in South East Asia, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands.

The world's oldest living spiritual tradition

The Indus Valley Civilization declined by 1800 B.C., probably due to tectonic events that changed the river system and diverted the waters towards the Gangetic plains of what is today known as India. During the next 100 years the great cities of the Indus Valley were abandoned.

The death of the river systems in the Indus Valley forced the populations to migrate to the fertile Gangetic plains, into Central India and farther south up to the tip of the Indian peninsula taking with them their cultural and spiritual beliefs. This would make the Hindu culture and spiritual beliefs the world's oldest living tradition.

In the fertile plains of the Ganges started a new age, where Yoga philosophy and way of life would be refined and spiritual practices developed.

Yoga and the Spiritual Crisis

Vedic rituals and sacrifices led to higher states of consciousness with the recognition that the whole universe and nature itself is a sacrifice. The vedic sacrifice was a microcosmic representation of the process of never ending destruction and renewal of life.

The inner meaning of these sacrifices was however steadily obscured and the late vedic period witnessed the increasing rise of Brahminism and mechanical ritualism that led to a terrible spiritual vacuum. This spiritual crisis led, not only to the rise to the great Gnostic tradition of the Upanishads within the Hindu tradition, but also to Buddhist and Jain Dharma. This period from 800 B.C. to 300 B.C. was a time of great vigour.

Seers and Sages turned their backs to sacrifices and rituals, and residing in serene forest hermitages, they expounded the teachings of the ultimate unity of all things. This body of literature, that came to be known as Upanishads, was integrated in the Vedas. Thus the first part of the Vedas preserves the hymns and rituals performed by Brahmin priests that are used to this day. The second part, the path of knowledge concerns itself, not with ritual but with wisdom. These Gnostic texts ask and answer profound questions: what is life, what is death, where was I before I was born, where will I go when I die, what is the purpose of my life, what is my place in the universe.This literature is also known as Vedanta or Advaita. 

Yoga was often referred to in the Upanishads. The word, as it was used in the Upanishads had several meanings. It meant yoking, harnessing, connection, contemplation. In the later Upanishads it is also used in the sense of renunciation, training of the senses. Thus the Upanishads formed the philosophical foundation of Yoga.

Yoga, a tradition of spiritual practices, now developed within the framework of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought. While the Buddhists and Jains do not accept the final authority of the Vedas, they share a common heritage. It is important to mention here that throughout history the three great Yogic traditions of the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Jains have borrowed freely from each other creating a spiritual synthesis  and fusion.

The Great Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata

Two great epics dominate the spiritual and cultural landscape of India: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Traditionally attributed to the great Sage Valmiki, the Ramayana, exercises a strong influence on the cultural life of the people of India with its emphasis on duties, values and morals. Embedded in this great epic is the Yoga Vasishta, an amazing Gnostic text that answers the questions that all spiritual seekers pose.

The Mahabharata dominates the spiritual life of India. Authored by the legendary Sage Vyasa, the epic was most likely compiled from different sources over centuries. The story of warring cousins, the Mahabharata discusses values, ethics and the path of righteousness. The Bhagavad Gita, embedded in this great epic, is a dialogue between the confused and anxious warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Lord Krishna. In the centre of the battlefield, symbolic of the conflicts in the mind and the opposing forces of life, Lord Krishna expounds the life affirming teachings of Yoga.

The Bhagavad Gita or Celestial Song, comprising of only 700 verses, uses many metaphors from the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita is essential reading for all students of Yoga, for it summarizes the sublime teachings of the Upanishads and the different paths of Yoga.

Book Recommendation

A History of Indian Philosophy (5 volume set)

The Supreme Yoga: A New Translation Of The Yoga Vasistha (2 volume)

The Concise Yoga Vasistha

The Ramayana


Jay from Delhi:
The Indus Valley Civilization was probably a Jain civilization. Jain dharma is an ancient Indian dharma, the beginings of which have been lost in antiquity. The evidence in the form of seals of what is generally called pashupati is also similar to the ways jains portray their saints or Arihants. The decline of Jainism coincided with the rise of other religons in India.

Ashis from Gwalior:
Why in the ramayan & mahabharat and puran bhagbat nothing is mentioned about the indus valley civilisation?

Robert Lane from Virginia, USA:
First, "India" is a creation of Britain, and not the people themselves. They were a bunch of republics, monarchies, and tribal nations. Phrases like "Aryan conquest of India" are anachronistic because "India" did not exist. The Aryans had their own countries. The Dravidians had their own countries. The Austrics had their own countries. The British forced them together. "Hindu" just means from the "Indian" subcontinent (which England named). Each of the original "Varnas" had their own country. Ancient texts mention Shudra kings, which would be impossible under the modern concept of "laborer caste". Ancient texts also mention Vaishya kings and emperors, which would be impossible under the modern concept of "merchant caste".

White people fixating on the Indus Valley because it has gee-wow ruins is racist. It makes it seem like nobody else made cultural contributions. Austrics, Dravidians, and Aryans of all Varnas made contributions. Even if the Aryan-Invasion theorists were 100% correct, then it would still not impact the rest of the subcontinent because they were completely separate nations. Projecting British colonial "India" back into the ancient past is anachronistic and racist.

There is never going to be a coherent narrative that fits the modern Western yoga studio, because "India", "Hindu", "Aryan", "Dravidian", etc. are all Western creations made to serve an imperial and colonial agenda.

Jay from US:
I wanted address the misinformation that some commenters posted here.

Robert Lane said the idea of India is a British invention. Not true. The area of India was known as a single civilization even before it was united as a political entity. It just wasn’t called India. It was known as Aryavart. Later, under the Mauryan Empire it was united as one political country. The Mauryan empire stretched from parts of Eastern Iran to Myanmar. It included all of Nepal, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and even further north. And it went all the way to Sri Lanka. This empire lasted for over 300 years. It started around 322 BCE. This is what is known as Akand Bharat. The treatise used for governance, ethics, laws, business, military, and philosophy was the Artha Shastra. Even after the fall of the Mauryan Empire, the Artha Shastra was the treatise most kingdoms used. Today we have manuscripts of the Artha Shastra in Sanskrit, Kannada, and Tamil. Which shows the importance of this system in all parts of India. Artha Shastra proves the single unity of India as a political entity.

Jay, It was most likely a Yoga based civilization. Shiva and Rishabh can actually be the same person. The Yoga seal of Shiva from the Indus Saraswathi Valley Civilization could also be Rishabh. It could be that Jainism and Sanathan Dharam started from that same similar origin of interpreting Shiva/Rishabh differently. Just think about it, Shiva and Rishabh’s stories are very similar.

The whole Aryan migration, based on the dates given by the west is vey suspicious. The western scholars claimed the Aryan invasion happened 3,000 years ago. They claim they brought chariots. Recently a 4,000 to 5,000 year old chariot was discovered in India, in the state of UP. Along with weapons, shields, and etc. So the “Aryan invasion” theory is busted.

Shah Nawas from Kondotty, Malappuram, Kerala, India.:
To the point. Honest to history. Thank you.

Balinarayan from Assam, India:
1.Jay from Delhi's concept that Indus Valley Civilization was probably the Jain Civilization is not true. Indus Valley Civilization is much earlier than the Jain Civilization.
2. Robert Lane's belief that the idea of India is a British invention is totally wrong. Yes, the name 'India' was not there, its name was Jambudwipa, Bharatavarsha, Aryavarta
3. Jay from U.S. is saying that The whole Aryan migration, based on the dates given by the west is very suspicious. The theory is not just suspicious, but totally a wrong theory. There was no 'Aryan Invasion' as such. These are d stories prepared with some pre-conceived motivations.

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