Meditation 6 – Yoga 3 – Preclassical era, Bhagwad Gita and Mahabharat

Preclassical era (500-200 BCE)

Yoga concepts begin to emerge in the texts of c. 500–200 BCE such as the Buddhist Pali Canons, the middle Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita andShanti Parva (Book of Peace) of theMahabharata.[94]


Katha Upanishad

The first known appearance of the word “yoga”, with the same meaning as the modern term, is in the Katha Upanishad,[9][95] composed about fourth to third century BCE, where it is defined as the steady control of the senses, which along with cessation of mental activity, leading to a supreme state.[90][note 13] Katha Upanishadintegrates the monism of early Upanishads with concepts of samkhya and yoga. It defines various levels of existence according to their proximity to the innermost being Ātman. Yoga is therefore seen as a process of interiorization or ascent of consciousness.[97][98] It is the earliest literary work that highlights the fundamentals of yoga. White states:

The earliest extant systematic account of yoga and a bridge from the earlier Vedic uses of the term is found in the Hindu Katha Upanisad (Ku), a scripture dating from about the third century BCE[…] [I]t describes the hierarchy of mind-body constituents—the senses, mind, intellect, etc.—that comprise the foundational categories of Sāmkhya philosophy, whose metaphysical system grounds the yoga of the Yogasutras, Bhagavad Gita, and other texts and schools (Ku3.10–11; 6.7–8).[99]

Shvetashvatara Upanishad

The hymns in Book 2 of Shvetashvatara Upanishad, another late 1st millennium BCE text, states a procedure in which the body is held in upright posture, the breath is restrained and mind is meditatively focussed, preferably inside a cave or a place that is simple, plain, of silence or gently flowing water, with no noises nor harsh winds.[100][98]

Maitri Upanishad

Maitrayaniya Upanishad, likely composed in a later century than Katha and Shvetashvatara Upanishads but before Patanjali’s Yogasutra, mentions sixfold yoga method – breath control (pranayama), introspective withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), mind concentration (dharana), philosophical inquiry/creative reasoning (tarka), and absorption/intense spiritual union (samadhi).[9][98][101]

Greek historical texts

Alexander the Great reached India in the 4th century BC. Along with his army, he took Greek academics with him who later wrote memoirs about geography, people and customs they saw. One of Alexander’s companion was Onesicritus, quoted in Book 15, Sections 63-65 byStrabo, who describes yogins of India.[102] Onesicritus claims those Indian yogins (Mandanis ) practiced aloofness and “different postures – standing or sitting or lying naked – and motionless”.[103]

Onesicritus also mentions his colleagueCalanus trying to meet them, who is initially denied audience, but later invited because he was sent by a “king curious of wisdom and philosophy”.[103]Onesicritus and Calanus learn that the yogins consider the best doctrine of life as “rid the spirit of not only pain, but also pleasure”, that “man trains the body for toil in order that his opinions may be strengthened”, that “there is no shame in life on frugal fare”, and that “the best place to inhabit is one with scantiest equipment or outfit”.[102][103] These principles are significant to the history of spiritual side of yoga.[102] These may reflect the ancient roots of “undisturbed calmness” and “mindfulness through balance” in later works of HinduPatanjali and Buddhist Buddhaghosarespectively, states Charles Rockwell Lanman;[102] as well as the principle ofAparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-craving, simple living) and asceticismdiscussed in later Hinduism and Jainism.

Early Buddhist texts

Werner notes:[10]

“But it is only with Buddhism itself as expounded in the Pali Canon that we can speak about a systematic and comprehensive or even integral school of Yoga practice, which is thus the first and oldest to have been preserved for us in its entirety.”[10]

The chronology of completion of these yoga-related Pali Canons, however, is unclear, just like ancient Hindu texts.[104][105] Early known Buddhist sources like the Majjhima Nikāyamention meditation, while the Anguttara Nikāya describes Jhāyins (meditators) that resemble early Hindu descriptions of MuniKesins and meditating ascetics,[106] but these meditation-practices are not called yoga in these texts.[107] The earliest known specific discussion of yoga in the Buddhist literature, as understood in modern context, is from the third- to fourth-century CE scriptures of the Buddhist Yogācāra school and fourth- to fifth-century Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa.[107]

A yoga system that predated the Buddhist school is Jain yoga. But since Jain sources postdate Buddhist ones, it is difficult to distinguish between the nature of the early Jain school and elements derived from other schools.[10]Most of the other contemporary yoga systems alluded in the Upanishads and some Pali canons are lost to time.[108][109][note 14]

The early Buddhist texts describe meditative practices and states, some of which the Buddha borrowed from the śramana tradition.[111][112] One key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative absorption must be combined with liberating cognition.[113]Meditative states alone are not an end, for according to the Buddha, even the highest meditative state is not liberating. Instead of attaining a complete cessation of thought, some sort of mental activity must take place: a liberating cognition, based on the practice of mindful awareness.[114] The Buddha also departed from earlier yogic thought in discarding the early Brahminic notion of liberation at death.[115]

The Pali canon contains three passages in which the Buddha describes pressing the tongue against the palate for the purposes of controlling hunger or the mind, depending on the passage.[116]However there is no mention of the tongue being inserted into thenasopharynx as in true khecarī mudrā. The Buddha used a posture where pressure is put on the perineum with the heel, similar to even modern postures used to stimulate Kundalini.[117]

Uncertainty with chronology

Alexander Wynne, author of The Origin of Buddhist Meditation, observes that formless meditation and elemental meditation might have originated in the Upanishadic tradition.[118] The earliest reference to meditation is in theBrihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest Upanishads.[90] Chandogya Upanishad describes the five kinds of vital energies (prana). Concepts used later in many yoga traditions such as internal sound and veins (nadis) are also described in the Upanishad.[78] Taittiriya Upanishad defines yoga as the mastery of body and senses.[119]

Bhagavad Gita

Krishna narrating the Gita toArjuna.
Main article: Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’), uses the term “yoga” extensively in a variety of ways. In addition to an entire chapter (ch. 6) dedicated to traditional yoga practice, including meditation,[120]it introduces three prominent types of yoga:[note 15]

The Gita consists of 18 chapters and 700[note 19] shlokas (verses), with each chapter named as a different yoga, thus delineating eighteen different yogas.[126][127] Some scholars divide theGita into three sections, with the first six chapters with 280 shlokas dealing with Karma yoga, the middle six containing 209 shlokas with Bhakti yoga, and the last six chapters with 211 shlokas as Jnana yoga; however, this is rough because elements of karmabhakti andjnana are found in all chapters.[126]


Description of an early form of yoga called nirodha–yoga (yoga of cessation) is contained in the Mokshadharma section of the 12th chapter (Shanti Parva) of the Mahabharata epic. The verses of the section are dated to c. 300–200 BCE. Nirodha–yogaemphasizes progressive withdrawal from the contents of empirical consciousness such as thoughts, sensations etc. until purusha (Self) is realized. Terms like vichara (subtle reflection), viveka (discrimination) and others which are similar to Patanjali’s terminology are mentioned, but not described.[128] There is no uniform goal of yoga mentioned in the Mahabharata. Separation of self from matter, perceiving Brahman everywhere, entering into Brahman etc. are all described as goals of yoga. Samkhya and yoga are conflated together and some verses describe them as being identical.[129]Mokshadharma also describes an early practice of elemental meditation.[130]

Mahabharata defines the purpose of yoga as the experience of uniting the individual ātman with the universalBrahman that pervades all things.[129]


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