Before Buddha became a Buddha, he was a Yogi.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on May 29, 2011
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I am quite familiar with the story about  Buddha’s enlightenment under that fateful banyan tree in Bodh Gaya. But until recently, I was much less familiar with his wandering ways before he became Sakyamuni Buddha. Here’s a brief history about yoga in context of the life and time of Buddhism’s founder.

But first a few familiar terms, followed, perhaps, by a few unfamiliar interpretations, to give this article some context:

Tantra: a spiritual path and practice; in its early form also called Shaivism; the yogic practices developed by the indigenous non-Aryans of India related to mantra meditation, kundalini, pranayama, asanas dharana, dhyan, etc,; the various schools and movements of Tantra, such as Pashupatha, Kaula, Shakta, Kashmiri, Vaishnav, Kapalika, Ajivika, Aghora, etc.

Yoga: a spiritual path and practice originally based on Tantra which blended with the Vedic tradition and this Tantric/Vedic synthesis produced the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Samkhya, Vedanta, the Yoga Sutras, Today, we often use the term yoga as a general umbrella-term to refer to all of these schools, paths, and philosophies.

Veda: a sacred tradition based on religious rituals brought to India by the Aryans; there are four Vedic scriptures and Indian civilization is largely a blend of the Tantric and Vedic traditions


If we define religion as a belief system that people faithfully and often blindly follow, then spiritual teachers, be they Buddhist, Hindu, or Sufi Muslim, are not religious. They are awakened masters of the soul who embody their awakened state through practice; by walking the talk. Enlightenment comes first, then the philosophical interpretations, then the doctrines and dogmas, then the religion, then the faithful—and lastly the fanatics with their heavens and their hells.

These exceedingly rare mystics, yogis, and shamans of the soul, they follow the path of human nature, the path of dharma. This path is not just one straight path for all, but a curvy, sundry, many-legged walk up the cloudy but ultimately sunny vista of enlightenment.

These self-inspired teachers do not ask us to simply believe in the dharma. They do not ask us to create a religion. They do not sit in front of fires, or stand in front of alters performing the rites for us. They ask us to practice the dharma ourselves and then to follow the inner challenges of its awe-inspiring revelations. Buddha was such a spiritual mountain climber. Buddha was such a yogi.


“The pre-Aryan civilization, which in proto-historical times had extended its influence as far as Western Europe, had not been annihilated by the invaders and had to a great extent continued to exist parallel to Vedism. The ancient concepts of Shaivism, Tantrism, Shaktism, and Yoga, together with the ancient Samkhya philosophy, lay beneath the surface and continued to reappear at every level and in every period.”

–Alain Danielou, from Shiva and the Primordial Tradition

Danielou is here claiming something uncommonly heard in Western yoga circles: that yoga and Tantra existed independent of the Vedic tradition and then blended into it, just like the colors of Mayan shamanism has blended with Catholicism, but even stronger, much stronger.

If we use the same analogy as above between religion and mysticism, then Aryan Vedism represent religion and Tantric Yoga represent mysticism and yogic dharma as practice. Two archetypes, two icons, are revealed: the priest and the yogi. Or these: the interpreter and the mystic, the believer and the practitioner.

For the sake of historical and psychological simplicity—for in reality the priest and yogi, at least in India, are often various psychological and cultural aspects of the same person—we will assume that the priest is a Vedic Brahmin and the yogi a Shaiva Tantric.

So, this is what mystic and historian Alain Danielou is driving at: Indian sacred tradition is largely made up of these two archetypes, just like the Christian tradition is made up of priests and mystics, religious firebrand dogmatists like Jerry Falwell and spiritual ecstatics like St. Theresa. And sometimes these archetypes emerge as a Tex-Mex of attributes and behaviors, as in the case of some priests and  believers.

Danielou is also reminding us that yoga is much older than Patanjali’ sYoga Sutras (200 BC), that it did not originate in the Vedas as most scholars and contemporary yogis believe, and that yoga is inherently not a religion or belief but a set of practices and a philosophy to live by.

Yoga, just like Christian mysticism, has been heretical wisdom, percolating from the forest ashrams, the mountain caves, an untamed awareness trickling up and into the mainstream Vedic society from the poor, even the outcasts, the Dravidyan shudras, for thousands of years. The young Buddha was often seen wandering among these yogi outcasts.


“Every educated Hindu have looked upon Tantra as running parallel and in close interaction with (rather than merely in opposition to) the Vedic heritage. They distinguish between Vedic and Tantric—vaidika and tantrika—currents of Hindu spirituality.”

–Georg Feuerstein, from Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy

“After the Vedic Aryans came into India, two types of practice used to take place side by side: one the one side, the sacrificial fires of the rishis…and on the other side, the non-Aryans’ Tantra sadhana, the practice of self-control and attainment of divine knowledge.”

–Shrii Anandamurti, from Tantra and Indo-Aryan Civilization

These two sacred rivers of India stretch far back into historical antiquity and have often had a rocky relationship, much more rocky than Feuerstein and the Western yoga community acknowledges.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, he was a yogi, a mystic wanderer, a Shaiva Tantric. Moreover, together with his friend Mahavira, later recognized as the founder of Jainism, he spoke out against the excesses of the Vedic priesthood: the animal sacrifices, the caste system, the opulence of the temples. And these protests makes  sense, given that the Buddha had spent his young adulthood among the heretics of Vedic society–the yogi tantrics.

In other words, the Buddha, after leaving behind his life as a prince, became a yogi quite familiar with the various practices of Tantra: mantra meditation, kundalini awakening, asana practice, fasting, the smearing of the body with ashes, the begging of food from a human skull.

“Owing to a historical aberration, there has been a tendency to present [the] re-appearances [of Tantra and Yoga] as new developments, except when they have been envisaged solely in relation to Vedic civilization.”

–Alain Danielou, from Shiva and the Primordial Tradition

Just like the Christian priesthood eventually closed the book on Jesus’ revolutionary revelations and encased them as the final “word of God” in the Bible, so has the Indian Brahmin priesthood claimed the often heretical wisdom of yoga as their own.


This is particularly so in the case of Tantra, which according to Yoga Journal and most Western scholars is no more than 1500 years old, because that’s when the Tantric texts were written down.

That’s like claiming Shamanism to be no older than the first book on shamanism.

“Tantra is widely said to be based on the Vedas. That is, however, very disputable for there is much evidence to suggest that the root of Tantra predates the writing of the Vedas…” –Swami Satyananda Saraswati

“Yoga, which is the paramount factor in spiritual practices, is itself based on Tantra.”

–Shrii Anandamurti

Buddha came of age as a wandering monk with this kind of insight. He, like so many of his contemporaries did not distinguish between Yoga and Tantra. And many years after his death, the Buddhist and Hindu Tantras would cultivate similar meditation practices, and utter many of the same philosophical ideas.

According to Danileou, as an oral tradition Tantra had been alive and well since at least 6000 BC as an outgrowth of shamanism. This oral history and genealogy was passed down through antiquity and eventually written down in the various Puranas.

The philosophy was eventually written down in the many Tantras and the Agamas, and some of the practices in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika amd the Gerandha Samhita.

Tantra was certainly alive and well a thousand years earlier than the Tantric texts from the Middle Ages, during the time of Buddha (ca 500 BC). Indeed, the Buddha was not just a contemporary of Tantra, he practiced it, he was a yogi.

But, what else is new? History has been written for and about those in power—the priests, politicians, kings, and merchants—for as long as there have been minstrels, bards and scribes with the ability to tell stories and write them down on sheets of bark, hide, and banana leaves. And that’s why the history of yoga has also, in large part, been written by those in power: the Vedic Brahmins. And today it is written by those Western scholars who emulate their point of view.


After Buddha, or Gautama, renounced his life as a prince, he joined various groups of wandering yogis and Shaiva tantrics. One of these yogis was named Makkhali Gosala.

The figure of Gosala is very important, for in presenting a different version of the old culture, until then ignored and rejected by [Vedic] Aryan society as the superstitions of despicable slaves, he attracted those, such as Mahavira and Gautama, who were dissatisfied with Vedic rigidity, and he aroused a sudden interest in the antique pre-Aryan philosophy [Shaiva Tantra] within the good society of the period. Mahavira traveled with Gosala for six years, and Gautama joined them for three or four years. The commentary on the Avashyaka Sutra by Jina Dasa, which gives a rather complete picture of the life of Mahavira, contains the story of his travels in the company of Gosala. Gosala finally argued with his two disciples over points of doctrine, and they separated.” –Alain Danielou, from The Play of the Gods

Their argument: is our life predestined or do we have free will? Gosala argued that human beings were under the complete control of a cosmic principle while the two young rebels, Gautama and Mahavira, argued that, through yoga, one was no longer under the spell of determinism. One could, through yogic practice and ethical behavior, get one leg up on one’s karma—and be free!

Gautama was not a slacker monk. He was not just hanging out in the shade of the ashram walls smoking hashish and waiting for another bowl of rice and dal. He had intense spiritual ambitions.

He knew how to fast and sit in lotus position for days on end without losing his concentration, without moving his body. This we learn through his encounter with two other yogic teachers, namely Arada Kalapa of Magadha and Rudraka Ramaputra of Vaishali.

Sage Kalapa taught the coming Buddha a yogic practice enabling him to finally enter a state of no-thing-ness (akimcanya-ayatana). Indeed, the young Buddha-in-the-making entered these trance states with ease and Kalapa soon asked him to share the leadership with him in his order of yogis. But the young, former prince declined his offer.

He then joined the order of sage Rudraka Ramaputra, whose teachings held within its nondual vision the prediction of new heights of spiritual evolution. Through these new practices the young spiritual athlete became intimately familiar with a state of “neither consciousness nor unconsciousness” (naiva-samjna-asmajna-ayatana).

Still, the fierce yogi’s thirst for enlightenment was not quenched. He was not convinced he had attained the spiritual plateau of permanent awakening. He picked up his begging bowl and moved onwards.


“When Siddhartha was moving about in Bihar in search of Truth, he met Sanjaya, a great Tantrist near present Gaya, and was initiated by him into Tantra Sadhana.” –Lalan Prasad Sing, from Tantra: Its Mystic and Scientific Origins

Little is known about the exact practice Buddha embarked upon, but it is commonly accepted that he ended up meditating under a banyan (fig) tree.

“According to the accepted Tantric belief and usage, the banyan-tree is one of the five trees recognized as Kula-trees. It is therefore not without any reason that Siddhartha performed his Sadhana [spiritual practice] under the famous banyan-tree near Gaya and attained spiritual enlightenment. (Buddhahood).” –Lalan Prasad Singh

When I lived in an ashram in Nepal, I was initiated into the practice of Dhyan Sadhana of Tantra, which is also the 7th limb of the Asthanga Yoga of Patanjali. The practice–which culminates after performing the other 3 meditation lessons of this well known eight-limbed path, namely pratyahara, pranayama, and dharana—involves using an internal image as a point of concentration and gateway to the nondual realm.

As Tantra embraces opposites, one employs the paradoxical practice of form to reach the formless. The practice of thing-ness to reach no-thing-ness. One also uses longing to reach a state of no-longing.

Some years later, I picked up a copy of Andrew Harvey’s excellent book Journey to Ladakh in which he describes in detail a Buddhist Tantric practice of this technique which is stunningly similar; down to a tee similar.

Which is to say, these practices are nearly as old as the Himalayan hills; they are generally not taught by Vedic priests (unless in those rare circumstances they have taken Tantric initiation and serve the dual role of yogi-priest). They are taught by yogis, often in secret. They are also not generally described in books or sutras, not even in the Yoga Sutras.

Moreover, with some variation, they are also taught in Buddhist Tantric circles. Indeed   the Buddha himself must have practiced and taught similar practices to his disciples.

“Some scholars think that Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school [of Buddhism], is the real exponent of Buddhist esotericism. [In] our view it is the Buddha himself who is the founder of Tantrism in Buddhism.” –Lalan Prasad Sing

In other words, when looking at a Buddha statue you not only get a glimpse of the form of the formless shine of enlightenment, you also get a glimpse of the inner Yoga, the inner Tantra of enlightenment. For Buddha, no doubt, was a yogi both before and after he became the Buddha.

Just take a look at how beautifully he positions his lotus feet, holds his mudra hands, closes his eyes….a Mahayogi, a Great Yogi, no doubt.


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


39 Responses to “Before Buddha became a Buddha, he was a Yogi.”

  1. integralhack says:

    I appreciate you getting the word out about Buddhism and Tantra, Ramesh! Of course, as you know, Buddhism got caught up in monasticism and scholasticism that sometimes detracted from the "Tantric core" of Buddhism.

    I see two strains of Buddhists emerging: those that are trying to reconcile Buddhism with scientific materialism and those that are trying to get back to the tantric roots that Buddhism, Taoism, yoga and other spiritual traditions share. In many ways, this is an exciting time.

    BTW, I think my hero Nagarjuna would agree with Lalan Prasad Sing's statement above. Nagarjuna held Sakyamuni Buddha in highest esteem.

  2. Rob rGyatso says:

    Hi Ramesh, Rob rGyatso here.

    I am going to be a bit scholarly – nit-picky, here, I hope you will forgive. And I have no problem with Siddhartha being a yogi, no doubt there.

    In your definition of Tantra, you mentioned it was the same as Shaivism, which ignores the rich Vaishnava Tantra traditions.

    There is much to think about in your post, and the arguments are not new. I remember most of these discussions in the 70's when I was studying with the Western and Indic scholars around Tartang, Deshung, and others, as well as traditional Sankara and Vedanta scholars. The problem then, and I think now, is that most of the assertions made in the sources you quote are hard to definitively and evidentially trace to the *very early times, that is, before Ashoka .. Of course, it is easy to make presumption on the basis of "it *MUST have been this way," and write it up as fact, when it may be far from it. (I am not suggesting you are doing this, but I feel that your sources may stand some scrutiny in this regard.) It may well be that it actually truthfully IS the way that it was, but the actual evidence has to be there too. One can make some suppositions on the basis of a couple of Harrapan seal stamps that suggests some sort of yogic practices existed in pre-Aryan, pre-Vedic India, but until the script is deciphered, they can only be a tantalizing breath of fevered imagination amongst the less disciplined scholars and practitioners. (And I have plowed fruitlessly through an entire monograph by a well-meaning and enthusiastic scholar who felt that he was "translating" the Mohenjo Daro script.)

    As well, it is likely that the environment that gave rise to the Veda and the Avestan works, as described in the Hymns, is the great post-glacial paradise of the lakes and grass lands of Central Asia (until the droughts began in about 4000 BCE). But other than devotion and praise, there is not much that can be deciphered of the Vedas, Brahamanas, or Upanishads, that indicates the more psychologically intense basis of the Tantra-yogas. And this does not disprove it either, just saying it isn't there in what we can definitely date.

    I would also like to see the original material, if any, on which Danielou bases his assertion that Siddhartha was a fellow student with Mahavira. That is new to me, all the actual evidence that I had heard of to date indicated quite the opposite. Contemporaries, yes, it can be supposed that they may have even met each other, but no evidence that can be relied on to assert mutual study.

    Danielou and a couple of your other sources also seems to almost equate yoga and tantra or claim it was early and contemporanious. Again, there are overlaps, but there are distinct differences in approach to technology. The Rajas-yoga and the philosophy of the Upanisads do not have the tone of the later tantra works, to put it politely. Nor do any of the early Buddha-Dharma works.

    I think that in terms of documents, the Teacher-Student relationship in Buddhism, so apparent under the Mahasiddhas, so necessary in the safe practice of Buddhist Tantric Yoga, can so far only be traced to the Council of Vaisali, where the monastic community was condemned for holding more than one group practice within the same "parish" area, due to the monks' preference in favouring one teacher over another.

    I appreciate your overview of the topic and bringing forward some of the popular views, these speculations are quite exciting, but may in the end be not provable. But this should not matter too much to the practitioner, since it is the immediate validity of the transformation and the integration that is important, and not the history of it.



  3. Open Source says:

    The original article contains one or two inaccuracies that set out to confirm the authors bias. With a little more care many of the valid points made elsewhere would carry more weight. Weaving a compelling philosophical argument into a boys comic whose demograph is probobably coterminous with the Cosmopolitan audience is a challenging task so commendations all the same. You will find the freewheelin YJ universalists couldn't care less though – after all yoga is for EVERYONE -right?

  4. Well done, Ramesh. Another fine contribution to the Elephant Yoga dialog.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  5. Rene Carlos Ochoa says:

    When someone posts a point of view which is different from one shared by a reader of the post, why is it often referred to as a "bias," with all of the negative connotations associated with the term? Why can it not be simply taken as a different point of view?

  6. Ramesh says:

    Good point and question, Rene Carlos!

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Maybe not such a small point…the Buddha or "Awakened One" was never a Buddhist nor did he teach that in any teaching. If we are to assume that he was a Yogi, but one that goes beyond being a mere Yogi, then a Yogi is what he remained as until his parinirvana. Of course that is his outer display. Having attained enlightenment and going beyond any kind of having to rely on any method to maintain his enlightenment…there was no need for a "school". He taught, yes. But even so his teaching it is said never took place. Trying to pinpoint the footsteps of the Buddha can be fun but we will miss the point. I like the effort you have made in tracing the Buddha's life. But he never was a Buddhist.

  8. NotSoSure says:

    Ramesh-Love the post but using Danielou as a reference may have been a huge mistake. Danielou was a firm believer and defender of the cast system. He also was not know, in some circles, for accuracy in his writings. Pasted is a critique of India, a Civilization of Differences by Danielou.

    Danielou (1907-94) was a musician, scholar, and convert to Hinduism best known for his interpretations of Hindu texts. This volume consists of works unpublished at the time of his death but written (according to the preface) over a huge span of time, from 1938 to 1991. The theme is caste, or, more precisely, Danielou's belief that Hindu society reflects a timeless "sacred order" that can only be good. The author's apologia for caste is a string of ahistorical, undocumented, and highly suspect assertions. He argues, for example, that the "Pariahs" of the caste system have only themselves to blame and that those who criticize the caste system (including Gandhi) are crude materialists who do not understand the value of each "race" or type keeping to its own niche. These ramblings of an Orientalist romantic may be of some interest to historians tracing European encounters with India. As a source of information about India, however, the work is appalling nonsense. Not recommended.-Lisa Klopfer, Eastern Michigan Univ. Lib., Ypsilanti (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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  10. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh and Bob….geez…these buddhist discussions are always so …."touchy"? haha My comment in regard to the Buddha and his being a Yogi was intended to draw attention to what Ramesh had described about Siddhartha's years of aesceticism and not being satisfied with those states of consciousness he had achieved; knowing that there was something more beyond "consciousness" no matter how "high" he had gone. He was a Yogi. But my point is that when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree every kind of consciousness was destroyed and his karmas were completely purified.Here, it would appear, he ceased being a Yogi….as he no longer required a yogic method. He did not need a method to maintain his enlightenment. Buddha was Buddha. Awakened.

  11. Padma Kadag says:

    According to the teachings the Buddha was already the Buddha even while being Siddartha and an aescetic. That everything was percieved as his path for those that need a path to follow to enlightenment. To some he remained to appear as a yogi after his enlightenment because they were not able to recognize his awakening and they themselves needed a master yogi to follow. We could go on and on about how some say the Buddha never taught, etc but that only confuses people and I myself am not qualified to even really talk about it as I do not completely understand it.Thanks for the article

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  13. […] despite my own idea that the featured aspect of my classes was adherence to what I considered to be “yogic authenticity”. Through her lens, she saw me in a different light than I saw […]

  14. […] Before Buddha became a Buddha, he was a Yogi. […]

  15. rosestone says:

    Buddha came from the sramana tradition of north-east India. So too did Mahavira, the most important of the Jain teachers. The sramana tradition influenced Hinduism. There are six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Yoga was influenced by sramana beliefs and practices, and the Sankhya school which is linked to yoga. Vedanta was also influenced by the sramana tradition, possibly by Buddhism more than anything else.

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