3 Ways to View the Ancient History of Yoga.

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Indian civilization was born about 11,000 years ago, during or shortly after Neolithic farming settlements were established in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, during the period referred to as the cradle of civilization.

Recent research into this important period of history has revealed that India was, in so many ways, also the cradle of human civilization, not just geographically and culturally, but also spiritually.

For South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, were one of the first areas on the planet where people settled to farm and create urbanized city complexes on a considerable scale.

In Mehrgarh, for example, an area in today’s Pakistan, wheat, barley and eggplant were cultivated, sheep and cattle were domesticated, and people lived in cities as early as nine thousand years ago (7000 BCE).

India was also the birthplace of the world’s first great religions, Buddhism and Jainism. More significantly, long before the birth of Buddha (500 BCE), India had already developed the sophisticated sciences of yoga, meditation, Ayurvedic medicine, and the world’s most advanced and sacred language, namely Sanskrit.

While there is general agreement among scholars regarding the antiquity of India’s civilization, there is less agreement about how and when it developed its sophisticated culture and sacred traditions. There are currently three main theories on ancient Indian history:

  • 1. Most Western and Indian academics hold the view that India was invaded by Vedic Aryan settlers around 1900 BCE. These Aryans worshiped the sun god Suria and brought with them their Rigvedic religion based on sacrifices and rituals offered to “placate and please the Gods, [and] to force them to fulfill wishes and demands.”

These patriarchal and martial Aryans soon conquered northern India and destroyed the great Indus Valley civilization, where yoga was already practiced by Tantric (Shaeva) ascetics. They massacred populations and reduced the surviving Dravidian shudras to slavery (dasyu) without regard for rank or learning.

This conflict has been described in the famous epics Mahabharta and the Ramayana. Over time, India became a blended civilization—par Aryan Vedic, part Dravidian Shaeva, with a liberal admixture of Jain and Buddhist traditions—and this blended culture is what we today know as Hindu civilization.

  • 2. Western yoga scholars, including Georg Feuerstein and David Frawley, as well as some Indian writers, especially within the fundamentalist Hindutva movement, subscribe to the theory that there was never an Aryan invasion around 1900 BCE and that Yoga comes solely from the Vedic tradition.

This “One River Theory” proclaims that the Indus Valley was not destroyed by Aryan warriors but instead by climatic changes. According to these writers, the Aryans are indigenous to India and represent everything that is noble about Indian culture.

In their book In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, Feuerstein and Frawley outline 17 points for why the invasion never took place. In one of these points, however, they reflect on the possibility that the Aryan settlers arrived in India at a much earlier date.

  • 3. This last option brings us to my own “Two River Theory,” that the history of Yoga represents a blend of the Tantric and Vedic traditions of India.

According to Puranic history as well as recent genetic science discoveries, the Vedic Aryans arrived in India at an early age, most likely as early as 7-5000 BCE. Therefore the blending of the Vedic and Tantric (Shaeva) cultures of India had already matured by the time the Indus Valley civilization was destroyed and depopulated around 2000 BCE.

Not long after, around 1500 BCE, India produced the world’s first coherent philosophy and cosmology, namely sage Kapila’s Tantric-inspired Samkhya philosophy, which today is popularly known as the philosophy of Ayurveda, India’s ancient medical science.

About 700 years after Kapila, some of the greatest spiritual literature the world has ever witnessed, namely the oral teachings in the epic Mahabharata, the Vedantic Upanishads, the spiritual teachings of the Gita, and the historical mythology of the Ramayana were written down for the first time.

And around 200 BCE, sage Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras and codified the oral teachings of the Tantric yogis for the first time in the form of Asthanga, or Raja Yoga.

While these three versions of Indian history may seem entirely at odds, there are important overlapping agreements, and the theories do in many ways compliment each other.

The first theory has dated the Aryan invasion rather late (1900 BCE) and does not reflect the genetic research of Dr. Spencer Wells, who claims the invasion started much earlier—about 7-5000 BCE.

As suggested as a possibility by Feuerstein and Frawley—proponents of theory number two—this migration started when the Rig Vedic Aryans arrived via the Russian steppes and the deserts of Iran more than 3000 years before the Indus Valley eventually was abandoned.

Indeed, in Feuerstein’s new version of his book The Yoga Tradition, he suggests the Indo-European Aryans arrived in India as early as 6500 BCE, which is exactly what genetic science has concluded. Looking for better pastures for their cattle, and for other riches, these skilled warrior nomads arrived in successive raids and migrations over a period of several millennia.

Genetic science and archeology have determined they arrived in an already inhabited land, and its peoples—the Dravidians, Mongolians and Austrics—had already developed a sophisticated, urban culture, and the art and science of Tantric Yoga was already in practice among them.

In other words, by the time the Indus Valley was finally abandoned around 1900 BCE, the indigenous Indians and the invading Aryans had already experienced 3000 years of conflict and gradual integration.

Hence these peoples, representing different civilizations, cultures and outlooks—one we may term Vedic/Priestly, and one we may term Tantric/Yogic—gradually formed what we today know as the Indian, or Hindu Civilization. Of these two rivers, the Vedic is primarily ritualistic and religious, while the Tantric is primarily empirical and spiritual, while Hinduism represent a blend of these two traditions.

Together these two traditions have also influenced and formed the foundation of what we practice as yoga today. But Tantra has by far been the most influential in shaping the practice of both physical and meditative yoga.

In the words of Swami Satyananda Saraswati:

“The yoga we know today was developed as part of the tantric civilization which existed in India…more than 10,000 years ago. In archeological excavations made in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, now in modern Pakistan, many statues have been found depicting deities resembling Lord Shiva and Parvati performing various asanas and practicing meditation.”


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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.


30 Responses to “3 Ways to View the Ancient History of Yoga.”

  1. Antoinette says:

    wow! thanks so much — very interesting…

  2. Ramesh says:

    You are most welcome, Antoinette. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • YesuDas says:

      Fascinating stuff, Ramesh! Thanks for posting.

      This may interest you: originally, the British King Arthur tradition and the Welsh Merlin tradition were two entirely distinct cycles of myth. When the Anglo-Saxons drove the Britons west in Wales, the two traditions became melded into the stories we know today. I think this kind of melding and reconciliation is one of the driving forces in human civilization.

  3. palariviere says:

    I am completely with you on this subject, it seems to me to be the most probable theory. Modern hinduism is more puranic than vedic, Shiva is not mention in the Veda and Vishnu is not a central god, not like Indra, Agni, Varuna, etc. And there is the Rudra vedic god, Some (maybe most) scholars view Rudra as being Shiva. That may be true that the puranic Shiva as some of the attribute of Rudra, but I am not sure that dravidian Shiva, the original one, as those attributes. It seems to me that Shiva has been integrated in the Purana to recognized the importance of Shiva in the religious landscape of the time. The filation to Rudra must be a way to linked the Purana to the Veda. By doing so, Shaivite are no longer a sect that reject the Veda but are a part of it, unlike Jains and Buddhists, who positevely reject the authority of the Vedia. Strangely enough, while current Hinduism is mostly based on later scripture (Purana, Agama, the sagas, Upanishad, Tantra), it is the Veda that is taken has a test to determine if a sect is hindu or not.

    • Ramesh says:

      Palariviere, you bring up some very interesting issues, which I basically agree with–that of Shiva becoming Rudra in the Vedas, which basically signifies the "terrifying" aspect of Shiva. Now, even more significant to the history is how the Atharvaveda was heavily influenced by Tantric ideas and practices, whereas we do not find that in the Rigveda, since the latter was mostly composed outside India, while the Atharvaveda was composed in India, hence the Tantric influence. While the Puranic, Agama, Nigama and other Tantric scriptures were composed relatively late into books, the oral tradition of the same goes back into antiquity, just as does the Vedic oral tradition. These were paralell scriptures that were oral for thousands of years. That the test of being a Hindu is that one accepts the Vedas shows the influence of the Vedas of course. But in terms of yoga, it was the Shaiva tantra tradition that gave us the parctical teachings of yoga.

  4. Ramesh says:

    From Ken Sendo on Facebook:
    ‎… thank you, Rameshji, for sharing here and please continue to do so.

    Ramesh Bjonnes' article is an excellent introduction in to a subject that has both fascinated and divided many anthropologists, historians and mystics until now — the… exchange, conflict and blending of nomadic patriarchal Vedic Aryan tribes with the more indigenous matriarchal Tantric Dravidian culture of the South Asian subcontinent.

    in this we also can find the deep symbolic polarity of the Vedic/Tantric, solar/lunar, yang/yin, Mars/Venus, masculine/feminine, blade/chalice, liungam/yoni, left-brain/right-brain, etc. which is reflected both objectively and politically in society as well as subjectively within the microcosm of the individual mind/body in the realm of bio-psychology.

    of course we could go into volumes of detail discussing all the connections and ramifications…

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Enjoyed this Ramesh!!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  6. Ramesh says:

    I am glad you enjoyed it Tanya, and thanks for posting it on Elephant Yoga.

  7. Ramesh says:

    From Facebook: Jake wrote: "Fascinating article…there have been so many assumptions made about the ancient world, maybe time to review some of these key areas"

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  9. nimitta says:

    This is an important topic, and it is always good to hear from Ramesh Bjonnes. I'm not sure, however, that this article accurately reflects the understandings most prevalent among researchers in the field. For one thing, it is not correct to say, "Most Western and Indian academics hold the view that India was invaded by Vedic Aryan settlers around 1900 BCE…[who] conquered northern India and destroyed the great Indus Valley civilization". My sense is that most academics now take a much more nuanced view of Aryan migration and reject the idea that Aryans destroyed the IVC through warfare, since there is some evidence that the great cities were abandoned due to environmental factors. It seems much more likely that 1) waves of Aryan migration did indeed occur over a period of many thousands of years without a large cultural effect, as itinerant herders encountered a vast, increasingly sophisticated IVC civilization; 2) the impact of Aryan migration grew dramatically at the start of the 2nd millennium BCE due to a number of factors including their technological advances (horses, chariots, armor) and the internal decline of the IVC; and 3) the encounter of these radically different sensibilities interacted with other kinds of changes to influence the growth of a more rigid Vedic culture and the concomitant emergence of a Tantric counterculture along clearly defined but evolving geographical regions to the west and east, respectively, by the time of the Buddha in the 5th century BCE .

    It is also safe to say that many researchers would be as uncomfortable as I with some of the dating above, even mindful of the fact that it is very difficult today to pin down a precise chronology of South Asian cultural and historical developments. Still, Kapila and the rise of Samkhya are usually located in the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE, with the earliest Upanisads a few centuries after; the Gita can hardly have appeared earlier than 400 BCE; and the Yoga Sutra, or at least a good deal of its content in the latter two books, around 150 CE, its alleged attribution to the 2nd century BCE grammarian Patañjali notwithstanding.

    More importantly, I am not aware of any good evidence that “the blending of the Vedic and Tantric (Siva) cultures of India had already matured by the time the Indus Valley civilization was destroyed and depopulated around 2000 BCE”. In fact, there are a great many indications that they weren’t. For one thing, the cultural and linguistic evidence that survives from the IVC has nothing in common with the Vedas or their culture. Although the Harappan script has never been deciphered, the language appears completely different. The spiritual values and artifacts of the IVC are imbued with feminine as well as masculine energy, and show no inclination toward the sacrifice – both orientations anathema to Vedic sensibilities. Finally, the Vedas betray no interest at all in city-building!

    These are no more than a sampling of the many, complex reasons why most researchers today still believe that the integration of Vedic and pre-Tantric cultures – an unfolding process in which the yogas evolved over many centuries – began during the 2nd millennium BCE and continues to this day. It is also why few accept any of the ‘Out Of India’ models, which hold that the Vedic peoples created the IVC and migrated westward. The actual evolution of yoga and dharma appears much more complex and interesting than that.

  10. Ramesh says:

    Dear Nimitta, thanks so much for your long and informed response. In my article I did not (as you imply) indicate that my view "accurately reflect the understanding most prevalent among most researchers in the field." I clearly presented 3 views, and my own, which is only in part supported by some writers in this area, was the last and third view.
    I stand by my assertion also as outlined in point #1 that most researchers and university academics believe that the Aryan Vedic people arrived after 2000BCE, which you also seem to agree with in your last paragraph. So in that regard, we seem to agree. My point however, which is becoming increasingly convincing is that this migration started much earlier and genetic science has proven that.

    I agree with you that it is very difficult to accurately date this history and that most dates must be tentative, but we do know for example that the Pashupati seals which depict a yogi in the gorakasana position dates to around 3000 BCE. There are also prototantric remnants from Mehrgarh, 7000 BCE, pointed out by Poossehl and that there was a continious civilization from 7000 way into the Indus Valley around 2000 BCE. It is also agreed that this civilization had its heyday between 3500-2000 BCE, during the preliterate period. Hence, much of the knowledge was oral and thus the difficulty in dating this period. But among many Indian scholars there is agreement that this early period was the period in which the Shaiva/Tantric culture was perdominent–Danielou, Bhattacarya, Thapur, Anandamurti, Satyananda, etc. they all hold this view. However, they are Indians, not Westerners.

    Regarding the date of Samkhya, etc. Yes, it is difficult to date Samkhya, and kapila, teh author, but there is general agreement that these texts existed in oral form long before they were written down. So here again, we need to source the Indian tradition, not Western academia, which always dates accrording to written sources, which makes Tantra a very recent phenomenon, 500 AD onwards according to most Western scholars. In India, there is a common understanding that one cannot simply use written sources to date Indian history, one needs to also rely on the Puranas, and Tantras which contains the oral history.
    recent archeological evidence (dr. Rao) suggest that Krishna lived around 1500 BCE even though the Gita was not written down before much later, which is the case of most vedic and vedantic literature.
    Would you date the existence of Shamanism based on the first book of Shamism? I think not. Similarly, we cannot date yoga based solely on yogic texts. We need to go beyond our Western narrow views here and look at the oral tradition as well.

  11. nimitta says:

    Ramesh, I hope that those who re-read your article and our subsequent exchange – including you – will recognize that much of what researchers believe today about these ancient cultures and the evolution of yoga represents a gradual, occasionally painful but necessary shedding of unexamined assumptions on the part of both European 'orientalists' and South Asian ‘traditionalists’ (and now nationalists).

    As I stated, I believe you erred in asserting that ‘most Western and Indian academics’ now suppose that the Aryans ‘invaded’ and ‘destroyed’ the urban centers of the Indus Valley Civilization – your words. Furthermore, it has become widely accepted that many waves of migration occurred over several millennia. However, the influx during the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE onward was different for a number of reasons. Regarding the IVC, the cities were already breaking down, and their populations appear to have begun migrating eastward. As for the Aryans, their numbers, speed, and power were unprecedented owing to new features such as horses, chariots, and armor. In 1900 BCE, though, it seems clear that the cultures had not yet blended and had very little in common. Wasn’t that the opposite of what you suggested?

    There is growing agreement in West and East that artifacts of the IVC and earlier cultures such as are found at Mehrgarh suggest an ancient proto-Tantric flavor (althoughGregory Possehl doesn’t claim that it dates to the beginnings of the Mehrgarh settlements around 7000 BCE). However, one cannot refer to the Mohenjo-Daro seal you cite as ‘Pasupati’ without relying on several assumptions that are probably false and certainly ironic. For one thing, the Vedic epithet ‘Pasupati’ was given to that seal by a European ‘orientalist’, John Marshall, with the romantic but apparently mistaken notion that it depicted a forerunner of the Vedic Pasupati/Rudra, who was not associated with yoga & meditation in any way. For another, if the IVC spiritual tradition had a name for this figure, it certainly wasn’t Vedic since their language and culture appear to be different. For that matter, nor can one even safely assume that the crosslegged figure is human at all, nor that its posture has anything to do with hatha yoga (although anyone who’s tried to get into it will vouch for its asceticism!). Many researchers both Western and Eastern believe the figure is a three-faced deity at the center of a shamanic cult that worshipped the animal powers, particularly bulls.

    Like you, I imagine that the ascetic, inward dimensions of spirituality were far more important to peoples of the IVC and surrounding indigenous cultures than to the Vedic peoples who began arriving from the northwest in waves as small groups of itinerant herders over several millennia. Nonetheless, there is no strong evidence of anything one might call ‘yoga’ or any kind of widespread desire to attain self-liberation before the sramanic period that bloomed in the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE, and a mountain of evidence both oral and textual thereafter. Speaking personally, I have long been intrigued by the theories of Julian Jaynes about evolutionary developments in human consciousness that began to be visible in populations all over the world during the 2nd millennium BCE – changes that may have played a role in the emergence during the following centuries of self-liberation as a human need and possibility.

    One more thing: let’s not accord too much importance to the ‘discoveries’ of Dr. Rao regarding Krsna. As in the case of his supposed decipherment of the IVC script or questionable speculations about horses coming early to South Asia, few accept his claim that the Kushasthali site definitively dates an historical Krsna to 1500 BCE. It may, of course, but then again it may not, and the latter eventuality is far more likely.

    The last point brings one to the least attractive aspect of your response: the unpleasant claim that the kind of careful analysis detailed above represents a “Western narrow view” because “Western academia…always dates according to written sources” and ignores the wise Indian reliance on ‘oral history’. That is nonsense, Ramesh, and betrays a superficial understanding of contemporary historical and linguistic practices. It also condescends to everyone, East and West.

    • Ramesh says:

      My article is the introduction to a 40 page article on the history of yoga and thus is sueperficil, but yes, i basically suggest that the sramanic period is an expression of the integeration of Tantrii and vedic thought over a 3000 year period from 5000 BCE which is when genetic science has proven the Aryans arrived. This idea is proposed by Lalan prasad Singh, N. N. Bhattacarya, Anandamurti, Satyananada and others; it is also alluded to as a possibility by Frawley and Feuesrtein although they gloss over the conflict between the two cultures and claim yoga came from the Vedas. So, yes, what came after 1900 BCE, all that literature was a result of that cultural and spiritual fusion and the yogic practices came from Shaiva tantra, not from the Vedas. This point is "new." in the West. Thus i understand you find it "troublesome." But please do not call it "nonsense." In other words, Indian oral History is at least 5000 years old and well documented in various Puranas.

  12. nimitta says:

    (cont) A case in point: all of the events and teachings discussed here were orally transmitted at first, and thus the authority of oral traditions has generally been recognized and heard from the earliest times. It has been amply demonstrated, though, that the Indian traditions have been subject to the kinds of pressures one finds in oral transmission the world over. For example, the Pali canon carefully preserved as much detail as possible about what the Buddha said and did, but it also contains a plethora of narratives that contradict each other and simply didn’t happen. One of the claims is that Gotama was simply the latest in a long line of Buddhas stretching back for eons – a common feature of oral traditions, especially in South Asia, and in this case probably copied from the Jain Tirthankaras if not the other way around. The science of these last decades has shown that these traditions are never anywhere near as old as they claim, though. That we might regard them as precious, worthy of conservation, and even essential as guides for modern living and spiritual practice today, as many of us do, by no means should preclude a clear-eyed critical evaluation of their historical significance and accuracy.

    The spurious ‘Western academia vs. Eastern tradition’ dichotomy you allege reminded me of the current political discourse in the US, where ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ demonize each other without quite realizing that they’re trafficking in stereotypes that no longer apply. In fact, the sharp line you draw between ‘Western academia’ and Indian understandings began to dissolve many decades ago, and modern historians East and West no longer sift into such predictable categories. Aren't you yourself an exemplar of the shifting demographics, and proof that it's long past time to dispense with simple-minded stereotypes? I am glad that you are!

    • dan says:

      Thank you for taking the time to try and correct this. An "invasion" is no longer thought to have happened. I was just editing a collaborative article for some friends and had to spend a long time explaining what orientialism is and isn't, and why east vs west is a false paradigm seen by social science as an adult sees a child.

      • Ramesh says:

        The invasion theory is no longer thought to have happened by those who gloss over the racial, cultural and caste conflicts…When Howard Zinn wrote A People's History of the united Sates he emphasized history from the Native people's side, which is quite a different perspective than that presented by whites. The analogy is similar in India, and i do not think you appreciate that analogy nor perspective. There are many aryan apologists among us, you seem to be one of them… it never happened… it happened… just as it happened to the natives in the US…

    • Ramesh says:

      Yes, I agree that there is a gradual integration of understandings taking place, which I also emphasized in my article, saying that there were "overlaps" between the 3 views presented. So, yes, I agree with you. Still there are stark contrasts that are important to highlight. For example that many Indians (Anandamurti, Bhattacarya, Lalan Singh and others) point out the racial, cultural divide and conflict and the caste conflict between the vedic Aryans who very much behaved like all invaders, these are facts that are glossed over by Frawley and Feuerstein, facts that are also glossed over by many academics. So, there are perspectives within perspectives…

  13. Joseph says:

    Dear biased author you may like to read this blog and answer the questions raised there. The people commenting on this blog must also view this blog. http://spade-a-spade.blogspot.com/2011/08/questio

    • Ramesh says:

      The best counterarguments to this article, Joseph is that 1) the invasion/migration happened much earlier and that 2) both genetic science and oral history supports this theory.

  14. Joseph says:

    Dear Ramesh,

    I am glad you list Marxist historian Thapur , actually it is Romila Thapar, among other Indian Marxist historians to validate your point. But what you hid knavishly is this Thapar was the one who kept peddling Aryan Invasion "Theory" lie despite overwhelming evidence in support of Migration Theory. I request you to thoroughly search before sighting the example of discredited characters. One does not become a genuine unbiased historian by writing few books and getting awards from a foreign country.

    • Ramesh says:

      Joseph, if you read my article again you will note that I clearly indicated that there were both invasions and migrations and integration over a long period of time. The invasion theory that has been discredited is the one promoted by Max Muller, but there were invasions, but much earlier, as well as migrations. This was not just a peaceful settlement. it is unfortunate that you discredit Thapar, which is too as many cannot stomach her points of view. I draw from many sources, including socalled Marxists (who cares if she is a Marxist!) if the point of view makes sense. And one thing that Thapar brings to the table of this discussions is the racism, the caste system etc instituted by the Aryans. That is completely glossed over by those who do not support her, especially the Hindutva movement, as well as Frawley and Feuerstein–thus they label her Marxist, even though this discussion has nothing to do with Marxism.
      The Vedic/ Tantric divide is also colored by racism and suppression by the Aryan Vedic peoples–one do not need to be a Marxist to see that.

  15. Ramesh says:

    Friide, thanks for your comments in response to Joseph. I very much agree!

  16. Ramesh says:

    Correction: Indian oral history is at least 7000 years old, from 5000 BCE….

  17. Ramesh says:

    Geoffrey Samuel's book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra is perhaps the best and most researched book by any Western academic on this topic. This book, which draws from an exhaustive source of scriptural sources also represent the clearly Western perspective that textual dating is paramount. I agree that texts are important, but we cannot just rely on textual and archeological "evidence." All evidence is interpreted, even if it represents "physical evidence." At any rate, Samuel says that Western academia has concluded via broad consensus that the vedic scriptures were composed around 1200 BC or so. hence, Tantra and yoga to him and to Western academia came later, as most texts on yoga and tantra were written in the common era, after Christ. Thus, once again, I emphasize that this Western academic view contrasts the view that I have developed based more on Indian writers, which is that there is an overwhelming source or oral literature in the puranas and the tantras which claims that both the vedas and the tantras are much much older than that….I understand that this is problematic for Western academia, but let us not dismiss this fact as not existing.

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