Yoga is certainly among India’s most successful exports. From the time that Swami Vivekananda and other important gurus first brought yogic disciplines to the West in the late 19th century, they have found broad acceptance at every level of Western society.
What all forms of yoga have in common is that they are decidedly experiential in their approach to spirituality and distinctively Indian. Photo from Flickr.
Today, over 20 million people in the United States alone regularly practice some form of yoga. What most of these people do not realize, however, is that what they often know simply as ‘yoga’ is in fact a variety of practices descended from only one form of Indian yoga, called hatha yoga, greatly stripped down, simplified, and secularized for Western consumption. Although the word yoga immediately calls to mind the difficult postures and disciplined breathing that are major elements of this tradition, there is a great deal of yoga in India that has little or no interest in the physical exercise that has become the West’s primary focus. In this article, and the four that follow, I will endeavor to shed some light on the wonderful (and sometimes bewildering) diversity of spiritual thought and practice that yoga, in the full sense of the term, has to offer.
What all forms of yoga have in common is that they are decidedly experiential in their approach to spirituality and distinctively Indian. From about 3300 to 1300 BC, most of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with parts of what is now northwestern India and southeastern Iran was dominated by the Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization. Very little is known about these earliest urban Indians. The ruins of their cities, of which Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro are the most famous, testify to their impressive knowledge and ability in engineering, metallurgy, and handicrafts. In the absence of intelligible writing, however, all we know of their culture comes from interpreting their figurines and their seals. On one of these, called the Shiva Pashaputi seal (circa 2000 BC), is found the image of a figure seated in what modern yogis may recognize as the lotus position. The figure is horned in a way reminiscent of the trident of the modern Shiva—a god often called the ‘lord of yoga’. This horned deity and his famous spiritual technique thus appear to be of inestimable antiquity.
The name of Shiva, however, belongs to a much more recent period. As the Harappan Civilization came to an end, it was displaced by invaders from the northwest—not yet too distant relatives of the peoples who would become the Greeks, the Romans, and the Germanic and Slavic tribes that vexed their borders. These nomadic Indo-Europeans, as they are called, came into India with their own pantheon of gods and traditional practices, but seem to have absorbed many of the indigenous beliefs that they discovered. From this unique blend of religious traditions modern Hinduism was derived. Yoga might be said to have attended at the birth of the faith that now teaches it to the world.
Nonetheless, its inclusion in modern Hindu thought and practice is quite complete. Strange as it may seem to Western yogis and yoginis sweating on foam mats in gymnasia, in India yoga is regarded as a school of philosophy—one of six that are known as astika, or ‘orthodox’, because of their acceptance of the authority of the Vedic scriptures, brought by the incoming Indo-Europeans. All of these schools have as their aim the connection of man to ultimate reality; indeed, the literal meaning of the word yoga is ‘to add’, ‘to join’, or ‘to attach’. Through the practice of yoga, no less than through the teachings of the other five astika schools, one seeks to be released from the illusions of ordinary existence in order to realize one’s own union with Divinity. This is certainly the sense of the first manuscript to use the word yoga as the name a spiritual discipline, the Katha Upanisad (c. 400 BC). Whatever the precise function of yogic practice may have been to the people of the ancient Indus Valley, the contemporaries of Socrates and Plato saw it as a means of interior ascension, rising through the varied levels of reality to apprehend the ultimate reality within.
Over the centuries, the means for doing this have become highly varied. In the next article, we will examine the approach of hatha yoga in its full manifestation as a discipline of the body leading to the freeing of the mind. In the articles that follow, we will see the approaches offered by karma yoga, which seeks a connection to absolute reality through engagement in the affairs of the world; jnana yoga, which focuses on knowledge and right understanding as a means to liberation; and bhakti yoga, which aims at man’s release from illusion by total devotion to God. Although all that we will read and learn is, in the form in which we will take it, quite recent (bhakti yoga, for example, being only a product of the high middle ages), at the heart of our exploration will run a thread at least four thousand years old, connecting us to a time beyond the mists of history when the gap between man and God that yoga seeks to bridge was perhaps not quite so wide as it is felt to be today.