Origin and History of Yoga Part 2

Sir John Woodroffe

From its early beginnings in mysticism to a complete science, Yoga is now a world wide movement.

Since the Hindu mind did not concern itself with the past, the only historical records that we have are those of Persian, Chinese and Greek scholars. Most of what we know of the history of Yoga and Hindu thought has been culled from the narratives of these travellers and from traditional stories and legends.

The period 500 B.C. onwards saw the rise of Yoga as an alternative to vedic ritualism. Dramatic developments in Yoga took place over the next few centuries outside of Hindu society, in the forest hermitages and cave monasteries. 

While the Jain Dharma remained a minority on account of its strict adherance to the principle of non-violence, Buddhist Dharma swept through the Hindu homeland. The incredible rise of Buddhist Dharma and the custom of engaging in dialectical debates led both, the Buddhists as well as the Yogis, to come down from their mystical heights. The Vedic method of contemplation and study no longer satisfied the scientific and intellectual drive of this new generation. It became necessary to develop a technical language to communicate and transfer spiritual and mystical experiences.

Patanjali and the Golden Age of Yoga

Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, is often wrongly called the founder of Yoga. Little is known of the legendary Sage Patanjali. While traditional sources claim he might have lived around 500 B.C., Buddhist and western scholars tend to date the Yoga Sutras around 200 A.D. In this great work of synthesis Patanjali outlines the technical aspects of the Yoga tradition. The Yoga Sutras, composed of 196 aphoristic statements, is essential reading for all serious students of Yoga.

The Emergence of Hatha and Tantra Yoga

Over centuries many adepts developed Yoga into a system of techniques that worked with the mind, breath and body. While the Sages of Vedic lore had no interest in the body, this new breed of masters explored the hidden potentials of the body, mapped out its energy channels and charted out this complex micro universe for future practitioners. The unique and highly sophisticated paths of Tantra Yoga and its off shoots Hatha, Kundalini and Laya Yoga were born.

Thus the first millenia A.D. had brought with it such an amazing crystallization of Yogic thought that Yoga could claim to be a complete science. Yoga, with its beginnings in mysticism, was now a full fledged science.

Shankara and the Great Spiritual Renaissance

By 800 A.D. Buddhist Dharma had declined so dramatically that it had all but vanished from its homeland. A possible reason for this could have been the large number of Buddhists monks and nuns that could no longer be sustained by society. The Jain Dharma on the other hand, was restricted to a small minority due to the strictness of its practices. In this environment ritualistic Brahminism re-established its authority and power.

It was during this spiritual turmoil that the great Master Gaudapada revived the monistic teachings of the Upanishads with his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. His student Govinda was the teacher of Shankara. Shankara, the great Tantrik, Yogi, philosopher, poet and mystic, travelled around the land, challenging the Brahmins to debates that often raged for days. Converting his opponents to ascetic followers of Vedantic philosophy, he has since dominated spiritual life in India. In his brief lifespan of 32 years he left behind the indelible mark of Advaita (non-dualistic philosophy) and come to be as Adi,  the first among all Archaryas (Teachers).

Shankara's commentaries on the ten principal Upanishads and other Vedantic and Tantric texts have attained celebrity status on account of the subtle and deep ideas they contain. So great was the influence of Shankara that when we speak of Vedantic philosophy we mean the Advaita philosophy of Shankara.

It must be noted here that Shankara was considered to be a hidden Buddhist. Scholars find many similarities between his teachings and that of the Buddhist Dharma. His tendency to engage in debates and the reorganization of the Hindu monastic orders may have also been borrowed from the Buddhists. This only confirms our earlier statement that the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Dharma have borrowed from each other creating a beautiful although complex spiritual synthesis.

The Dark Ages

There continued a steady decline in to the ritualistic chaos of Brahmanism centuries after Shankara's reformation. But around 1600 A.D. this was to change completely.

The Mughal invaders, the new masters of the land brought with them their own religion: Islam. The new Islamic masters found that it was not easy to convert a Hindu who had no clearly defined religion. The infamous Jaziya tax was imposed on non-Muslims. Conversions to Islam followed due to political or economic benefits. In the meanwhile the Mughal rulers continued to persecute  spiritual leaders forcing much of the Yoga tradition to go underground.  Many texts and traditions were lost during this time.

The New Dawn of Yoga

The gradual arrival of European traders and the colonisation of India by the British Empire brought about many changes that had a tremendous impact on the Yoga tradition. While the British exploited the country economically, India became accessible to many western scholars, academicians and intellectuals.

The Hindu spiritual tradition came out of its long exile and the values of Vedanta and Yoga reached many distant shores. Intellectuals and writers  such as Schopenhauer and Hermann Hesse showed great interest in Vedantic thought and the spiritual values of Yoga.

We are greatly indebted to many western scholars who carried out the tedious work of gathering and translating ancient Sanskrit and Tamil texts. Two names go down in history for their invaluable contribution to the library of humanity: Max Mueller and Sir John Woodroffe. Sir John Woodroffe, who wrote initially under the name of Arthur Avalon to protect himself from the mockery of his fellow countrymen and that of westernized intellectual Indians, was later knightened.

The British Raj witnessed many Masters of Yoga. Prominent among them were Raman Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Yukteswar Giri and Anandamayi Maa.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa's disciple Swami Vivekananda was a bridge between the East and the West. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of Religions and made a lasting impression on the American public. In the following years, he traveled widely attracting many students to Yoga and Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda's immense success opened a sluice gate for other adepts from India. Prominent among them was Paramahansa Yogananda; his "Autobiography of a Yogi" is a classic.

The sixties movement in America and Europe brought  the hippy generation and the flower children in search of peace to India. The Beatles visit to the Indian Ashram of  Mahesh Yogi fuelled this interest and made Rishikesh the spiritual capital of the New Age.

Yoga, with modest beginnings in the forest hermitages of Vedic times, was now a world wide movement.

Yoga Today

The last half century has brought interesting new trends. The meeting with western minds and modern medicine has had its impact on Yoga.

Westernized educated Indians, who were generally wary of renunciates, because of their famed yogic powers and temperamental personalities, are now showing interest in Yoga. Presented in the garb of Yoga Therapy, this partial form of Yoga is touted as panacea for all ills of modern sedentary lifestyle.

In the West, Yoga as physical culture has become cult.

Many Yoga traditions with ancient lineages are striving to present Yoga in a holistic form. The treasure of Yoga is given unconditionally to all, for history has shown us repeatedly that the spiritual needs of man cannot be satisfied with rituals. Can these spiritual needs be satisfied with partial forms of Yoga?

Book Recommendation:

Autobiography of a Yogi : Includes Bonus CD

A History of Indian Philosophy (5 volume set)

A Search in Secret India

The Elements of Hinduism

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