The fundamental aim of all Yogic methods is the diversion of the Prana (breath) which normally circulates in the Ida and Pingala channels into the central Sushumna channel, as was elucidated in a previous post. Numerous yogis across the Indian sub-continent over several centuries perfected a multitude of methods to achieve this common goal. If you ever wanted to read all about it in one place, the “History of Yoga” (editor: Satya Prakash Singh) is for you. This is a massive work comprising 40 chapters spanning about 900 pages written by 19 subject experts which traces the origins and development of Yoga starting from the Vedas to the modern times. It is not possible to do justice to such a large comprehensive volume in a short article. Instead, I will present some interesting tidbits that I gained from the book.
There are four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), each consisting of four sections – the Samhita, the Brahmana, the Aranyaka and the Upanishads. References to Yoga are scattered through these texts. The first section of this book discusses the Yoga described in the Samhita section of the Vedas.
It may be recalled that Sri Aurobindo had unlocked an esoteric interpretation of the Vedas on the basis of his spiritual experiences, but due to his preoccupation with yogic practice, he did not have the time required to scan the entire Vedas and test if his interpretation held consistently across the text. His work was continued by his disciples Kapali Sastry and A.B. Purani (See “Vedas”). This book builds on this prior work by applying Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation wherever possible. Here, we find a description of various Vedic methods of realization such as Angiras’s meditation on the primeval sound Om (called Pranava Sadhana); Atharvan’s meditation on the highest centre in the human body (“churning fire out of the lotus fire in the head”); the Madhu-Vidya of Dadhyan through which the honey that lies latent within the consciousness is unlocked; Bhrigu’s discovery of the spiritual fire; Bhrigu Varuni’s discovery of the five sheaths of the human personality; Vishwamitra’s devotion to the Agni fire; Bharadvaja’s yoga of self-purification and devotion to the Divine; Gritsamada’s devotion to Agni; the Vak-Sadhana of Dirghatamas in which one becomes aware of the hidden forms of speech vibrations which arise from the heat (tapas) conserved in the body; and several other methods which I am omitting here. Some of these Vidyas have been discussed in two earlier posts : here and here.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, the crux of Yoga is to gather the unruly Prana (breath) and divert its flow into the central Sushumna channel. There is a symbolic reference to this idea in the Rig Veda (X.189), which has three mantras that recount how Surya determines the process of breathing-in and breathing-out with Sarparajni, the queen of serpents, as the witness of these mysterious acts. This finding is important because it has been conventionally assumed that the idea of Kundalini has its root in the Tantric tradition rather than the Vedas.
Explorers and scholars have sought to determine the identity of the Soma plant mentioned in the Rig Veda as well as the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastrians. Soma is supposed to be some secret elixir which can confer immortality. Such investigators are oblivious to Rig Veda (10.85.3-4) which avers that the real Soma is not any plant on earth but the ambrosial juice which one tastes after attaining success in Yoga: “They think, when they have crushed the plant, that they have drunk the Soma’s juice; Of him whom Brahmans truly know as Soma, no one ever tastes” . Sri Aurobindo also alludes to the Soma wine flowing through the body quite a few times in his spiritual diary: “The whole mental consciousness is now beginning to be pervaded by a sense of substantial light (jyotih) and the body with a sense of the flowing of a wine, an ecstatic subtle liquor of delight, Soma. The sense of will as a fire, Agni, is sometimes present.”.
Sri Aurobindo spoke of an ascent experience whereby one experiences oneself rising above the physical body. It seems that this idea was alluded to in the Atharva Veda (X.2.26): “Having tied together the head and the heart of this (body), Atharvan, undergoing the process of purification, made himself rise above the brain in the head.” .
The Marut deities described in the Vedas, according to Sri Aurobindo, are the “nervous or vital forces of our being which attain to conscious expression in the thought”. Rudra is said to be the father of the Maruts. The Satapatha Brahmana (XI.6.3.7) contains a verse which seems to strengthen this observation: “How many are the Rudras? They are the ten pranas operating in the human body. This is what he pointed out and continued ‘Atman is the eleventh one’ “.
The second section of the book details references to Yoga in the Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad sections of the four Vedic texts.
The word “yajna” is commonly understood to imply the rituals which are conducted by priests in front of the sacrificial fire. The real “yajna”, as Sri Aurobindo explained, is the kindling of the inner fire through the individual consecration to the Divine. The Aitereya Aranyaka (II.3.4) seems to back this interpretation: “What is known as yajna, that is simply the alternate action of vak and citta undertaken in coordination with each other”. The inner sense of “yajna” is transparent in this verse. Vak is the product of an organ of action, and citta is the result of the operation of manas(sense-mind) in coordination with the sense organs.
The Aitareya Aranyaka enumerates the centers in the human body on which meditation can be done: the spot between the eyebrows, the region of the heart, and the center of the belly . [Personal note: I don’t think center in the belly is advisable because it may generate excessive heat.]
In the Taittiriya Aranyaka(VI.11), we find a description of the psychic being which resides in the heart of all human beings. There is said to be a lotus flower turned downward and lying nine inches below the throat and a few inches above the navel. It is a treasure-chest hanging on a cluster of nerves. In the center of the heart is a hole which holds a compressed form of the entire Universe and within this hole, there burns a fire. It is this fire which keeps the whole body warm and alive. Within this fire is a flame that shines like a streak of lightning. This flame is the abode of the Supreme Being. .
Meditation can be done in two ways: by concentrating on internal body centers or by contemplating on external objects like the sky, the ocean, etc. This has been described in the Maitrayaniya Aranyaka .
Patanjali is normally credited with formulating the eightfold path of Yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana, and samadhi. We find an earlier version of this formulation in the Maitrayaniya Aranyaka (VI.18) which enumerates six steps: pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana, tarka and samadhi .
Section three enumerates discussions on Yoga present in the traditional epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Here, we learn of exchanges on Yoga which occurred between various characters in the epics (e.g. Bhisma gave instruction to Yudhisthira on Dhyana-Yoga in the Mahabharata) .
Section four elucidates on the Yogic practices in Buddhism and Jainism. These are well-known and can be found in other books as well.
Section five concerns the systematization of Yoga which has occurred via Hatha Yoga and through the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Section six discusses the Yoga-Vasistha and the teaching of the southern Vedantic metaphysicians such as Shankaracharya, Bhaskaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya and Vallabhacharya.
Section Seven covers the life of several medieval sages. It describes the life and teaching of the twelve Tamil Alvar saints from Southern India; Narasimha Mehta from Gujarat who wrote the song “Vaishnava Jana to tene Kahiye”(“He who understands the pain of others is one of God’s own”) which was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi; Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal; the poet-mystic Kabir who was revered by Hindus and Muslims; Tulsidas who lived in Northern India; Swami Haridas; and Jnaneshvara of Maharashtra who belonged to the Nath tradition.
This section also relates the content of Narada Bhakti Sutras and other similar Sutras developed in that era.
Section Eight covers the Yogic methods enunciated in Tantra, Saivism (both southern and the northern Kashmir types) and Sufism.
It is traditionally believed that the Tantras were developed in opposition to the Vedas. In chapter 28, the book lays out several points of coincidence between the Tantras and the Veda. It points out that there are in reality two types of Tantras: pro-vedic (astika) and anti-vedic(nastika). The Kularnava Tantra, the Mahanirvana Tantra, and the Prapancasara Tantra bear remarkable similarities with the Vedas. Some of these Tantrik practices are also adumbrated in the Vedic literature. The concept of Diksa (initiation) is found in the Aitareya Brahmana (chap. 1) and the Taittiriya Aranyaka (chap. 2). The monosyllabic bija mantras known to Tantra are also found in the Vedas. The use of the Phat sound is mentioned in the Rig Veda and is also found in the Vajasaneyi Samhita (7.3). The Taittiriya Aranyaka (4.27) mentions chanting of root sounds such as Khat, Phat and Kat. . This information is pertinent to an earlier post which discussed connections between the Vedas, Upanishads, Tantra and Puranas.
In popular mythology, Lord Shiva is depicted with a blue throat. It is said that he stained his throat when he swallowed the poison that had been released from the cosmic ocean during the battle between the gods and the demons (see Halahala). In Chapter 33, which narrates the life of the Tamil sages, Tirumular and Bogar, we find a novel interpretation of Shiva’s blue throat. Tirumular states in verse 521 of his work, the Tirumandiram:
He (Siva) sports the garland of white skulls,
His spreading locks are matter;
He supports the Universe vast,
He fills Space in directions eight,
On the throat of his Downward-directed Face
They say, “He swallowed poision;”
They are ignorant; they know not the truth
What Tirumular implies is that when the sex-energy is directed below the throat, it is dark but when the sex-energy is sublimated above the throat, it becomes amrita (nectar) and it illuminates the body-space above the throat. “Siva has swallowed the poison” means that he has prevented the sex-energy going downward .
All Yogis who have transmuted their sexual energy are able to experience this sweet nectar in the throat. Sri Aurobindo also seems to have experienced it, as per his diary note on Feb 6, 1911: “Felt the sweet taste of the amrita in the throat and noticed the struggle ibidem of the impure rasa causing nausea with the amrita”. A few days later, he wrote, “Sweetness of amrita much stronger, denser and more frequent and continuous, the mixture of phlegm less frequent.”. This is a good illustration of how the body gets physiologically transformed through Yoga; one begins to experience a sweetness and tranquility within the body.
In the chapter on “Elements of Yoga in Sufism”, we get a detailed correspondence between Sufi and Yogic disciplines. It is written by Mohd. Sanaullah (Aligarh Muslim University) who has intimate knowledge of Yoga as well as Sufi practices. There have existed at least four major schools of Sufis in India (Chisti, Suhrawardy, Qadiri, Naqshbandi) going back several centuries. Some of these orders seemed to have incorporated yogic methods into their practice while others did not. The chapter names several Sufi practices and traces them to their yogic origins. Mulla Shaida(??-1669), a celebrity poet during the reign of Mughal Emperors Jehangir and Shah Jahan, is reported to have written in his memoir:
They (the yogins) are the guides of Sufis in performing and learning breath-control (Paas-i-Anfaas). They treat the physical ailment through breath control and such other methods prescribed by their sages. Those who are perfect in this science can raise themselves in air and walk on water. They also possess remarkable knowledge about the nature of things (herbs). They also exert themselves in the pursuit of gnosis; according to the compiler of Hauz al-Hayat, they believe in the unity of God as well as the existence of Prophets from time to time. They call Hazrat Khizr Gorakhnath in their language.
Gorakhnath was an ancient seer of the Nath tradition discussed in an earlier post.
The Hauz al-Hayat (“Pool of the water of life”) mentioned in the above passage is the name given to the Persian translation of the Amrutakunda(“Pool of nectar”), a Sanskrit text on Yoga which is now lost. According to Carl Ernst:
“This eclectic Persian text contained breath control practices relating to magic and divination, rites of the yogini temple cult associated with Kaula tantrism, and the teachings of hatha yoga according to the tradition of the Nath yogis (popularly called jogis)….at least forty-five copies (of this manuscript) are found in libraries in European and Arab countries, the majority being in Istanbul. None of the manuscripts is older than the late sixteenth century….Sufis from the Qadiri, Mevlevi, and Sanusi orders in Sind (Pakistan), Turkey, and North Africa continued to refer to The Pool well into the nineteenth century. The Arabic text was twice translated into Ottoman Turkish, and Muhammad Ghawth’s Persian translation was itself rendered into Dakhani Urdu. The Arabic version is still in use today; a Damascene Sufi shaykh who is an expert on the works of Ibn al-Arabi regards it as a very important treatise.” .
It is significant to observe this cross-religious assimilation in the light of contemporary concerns about the compatibility of Yoga to people of other religious traditions.
Section Nine covers the modern sages : Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda; Ramana Maharshi of Arunachala; Sri Aurobindo; Mahavatara Babaji and the school of Kriya Yoga which was popularized by Yogananda; Visuddhananda’s Akhanda Mahayoga and lastly, Gopinath Kaviraj.
Section Ten is philosophical in nature. It presents the Nyaya-Vaisheshika argument on the validity of knowledge acquired through yogic means.
There is a lot of information that I have omitted in this condensed review. I might post another article on this book later. (Update: See part 2 now posted). One helpful feature of the book is that at the end of every chapter, it lists the Sanskrit verses from the ancient scriptures which were alluded to within that chapter. This is the table of contents from
I. Innovation of Yoga in Vedic Samhitas
1 Traces of Yoga in the Vedic Samhitas (Satya Prakash Singh ) 3
2 Yogic Sadhana of Vedic Seers ( Satya Prakash Singh ) 21
3 Yoga of Devotion in Vedic Samhitas (Satya Prakash Singh) 73
4 Vedic Yoga of Knowledge (Satya Prakash Singh) 101
5 Karma and other Miscellaneous Yogas (Satya Prakash Singh) 121
6 Yogic Motifs in Indus Seals (Satya Prakash Singh) 141
II. Elaboration of Yogic Thought and Practices in Brahmanas Aranyakas and Upanisads
7 Recapitulation of Elements of Yoga in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas (Satya Prakash Singh) 155
8 Crystallization of Yoga in the Early Upanisads (Satya Prakash Singh) 171
9 Consolidation of Yogic Sadhana in the alter Upanisads (Satya Prakash Singh) 197
III. Continuation of the Tradition in The Ramayana and the Mahabharata
10 Tradition of the Yogic as reflected in Valmiki’s Ramayana (Satya Prakash Singh) 215
11 Status of Yoga in the Mahabharata (Satya Prakash Singh) 223
12 Revival of tradition of Yoga in the Bhagavadgita (Satya Prakash Singh) 237
IV. Deviation from the Vedic Tradition in Jainism and Buddhism
13 Jaina concept of Yoga (Dayananda Bhargava) 255
14 Yoga in Buddhism (Satya Prakash Singh) 285
V. Systematization of Yoga in Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Yoga
15 Yoga in Patanjali (Satya Prakash Singh) 307
16 Hatha Yoga (Satya Prakash Singh) 327
VI. Yoga of Vedantic Acaryas and Yoga Vasistha
17 Yoga of Acarya Sankara (Satya Prakash Singh) 345
18 Bhakti-Yoga of Post Sankara Vedantic Acaryas (Satya Prakash Singh) 359
19 Yoga-Vasistha and its View of Yoga (Satya Prakash Singh) 371
VII. Bhakti Yoga of Medieval Saints
20 Yogic system and Sadhana of Alvars (Prema Nandakumar ) 383
21 Yogic Sadhana of Narasimha Mehta (Bharati Jhaveri) 405
22 Yoga of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (Chandtasekhar Rath) 429
23 Yoga of Kabira (Chandtasekhar Rath) 445
24 Yoga of Tulasi (Satya Prakash Singh) 455
25 Swami Haridasa and the Mode of his Yogic Sadhana (Sukh Ram Singh ) 465
26 Yoga of Jnanesvara (Shubhada Joshi ) 475
27 Yoga of Bhakti Sutras (Satya Prakash Singh) 489
VIII. Yogic Sadhana in Tantra Saivism and Sufism
28 Yoga in Sakta Tantra (Suparna Chatterjee) 507
29 History Of Yoga of Saiva Siddhanta (R. Gopalakrishnan ) 529
30 Sivayoga of Virasaivism (M. Sivakumara Swamy ) 543
31 Yoga in the Monistic Saiva Traditions of Kashmir (Navijivan Rastogi) 559
32 Yogic Significance of Sri Yantra (Pavitrananda Brahmachari) 581
33 Yogic Sadhana of Tamil Siddhas with Special Reference to Tirumular and Bogar (T.N. Ganapathy) 601
34 Elements of Yoga in Sufism (Mohd. Sanaullah) 629
IX. Revival of the Spirit of Yoga in Modern India
35 Yogic Sadhana of Maharishi Ramana (A.R. Natarajan) 655
36 Yogic Sadhana of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda (Satya Prakash Singh) 681
37 Philosophy and Yoga of Sri Aurobindo (Kireet Joshi) 695
38 Mahavatara Baba and his School of Kriya Yoga (Satya Prakash Singh) 707
39 Alhanda Mahayoga of Shri Vishnudhnanda and Gopinath Kaviraj (Suparna Chatterjee) 717
X. Yogic capability in the estimation of Logic
40 Nyaya-Vaisesika Argument in Favour of the validity of Yogic knowledge (Raghunath Ghose) 735
Appendix I: Exploring the Legend of siddhasrama Jnanganj (A.K.Sen Gupta) 755
Appendix II: Prospects of Application of Yogic Wisdom to Medical Science (Prakash Chintamani Malshe) 805
- Satya Prakash Singh(ed). History of Yoga, New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2010 p 203
- ibid., p 329
- Sri Aurobindo, Record of Yoga, CWSA vol. 10-11, p 937
- Satya Prakash Singh(ed). History of Yoga, p 13.
- Sri Aurobindo. Secret of the Veda, CWSA vol. 15, p 412.
- Satya Prakash Singh(ed). History of Yoga, p 150.
- ibid., p 161.
- ibid., p 163.
- ibid., p 166.
- ibid., p 167.
- ibid., p 168.
- ibid., p 226.
- ibid., p 509.
- ibid., p 613.
- Sri Aurobindo, Record of Yoga, CWSA vol. 10-11, p 38
- Satya Prakash Singh(ed). History of Yoga, p 644
- Carl Ernst, “The Islamization of Yoga in the Amrtakunda Translations”. Journal of the. Royal Asiatic Society, ser. 3, 13, no. 2 (2003): 199–226.
- Kundalini in ancient Greek and other non-Indian cultures
- Similarities between Sumerian Anki and Vedic Agni by Jean-Yves Lung
- Meditation techniques from the Yoga Upanishads
- Why does Yoga give you a “high”?
- Cultivating witness consciousness (Saksi Bhava) – part 2
- Can I have more than one Guru?
- Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology
- Significance of places of worship, relics and prayer rooms
- On collective prayer and meditation
- Distinguishing between stilling the mind and dynamizing meditation
- How does the brain absorb new ideas?