August 21, 2011

3 Ways to View the Ancient History of Yoga.

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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