The four Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda, c. 1200 BCE) are the oldest books of the Indian traditions. 

Though these compositions do not talk about yoga directly (that would come about 700 years later) they include many ideas and practices which yoga makes use of.

Here is a list of four ways Vedic content was used or transformed for the philosophy and practice of yoga after 500 BCE.

 

 1. AGNI AND SACRIFICE 

The primary religious practice of Vedic times (c. 1200 BCE) was the group practice of the agni hotra–the fire ritual. 

A belief in the power of “sacrifice” was behind the belief in its effectiveness.  

When people doing the ceremony surrendered attachment to lesser things–money, comfort, pride–it was understood that this enticed the Gods to grant more profound boons–a spouse, healing from a disease, rain for crops, etc.

With the rise of yoga, this Vedic framework was transferred to the body.

The heat of unmet desire that one feels when physical or psychological comforts are removed, or the heat of digestion, or the friction created when air passed over the flesh of the throat in yogic breath practices, or the physical heat felt during the body’s muscular exertion, or in the actual physical heat of sitting beneath the sun or near fires–all these were identified as tapas–as A sacrificial heat that refined the awareness of the practitioner–or morally purified them.

A vast range of penances and mortifications, such as standing on one leg, holding an arm in the air, or dressing oneself in heavy chains for hours or years on end, were denials of physical comfort that–like the Vedic formula for sacrifice and discomfort exhibited in the agni hotra–acted as a petition to the gods for boons, or simply granted profound powers to the person performing that particular tapasic (internal heat-building) penance.

This person would be identified as a tapasvin.

In one of the more subtle formulas of tapas, the in-breaths and out-breaths were conceptualized as moment-to-moment sacrifices to this fire.

In another formula, concerning how the koshas (subtle bodies) function, it is said that each of these successively subtler bodies (annamayakosha, pranamayakosha, manomayakosha, vijnanamayakosha, and ananandamayakosha) burns its own “food,” with its own specific fire (jatharagni, pranagni, manisikagni, bauddikagni and anandagni) and that each sheath’s “food” (comestibles, breath, thought, effort, attention) can be fasted from (sacrificed) to stimulate and refine tapas.  The tapas then eliminates impurities in the flesh, the life-force, the mind, the will, and the spirit.  We thereby gain strength, energy, mental power, focus and awareness, and one’s operating system is optimized.

 

2. SPECIFIC TAPASIC PRACTICES

The tapasic practices performed by the Aryan culture and described in the literature of the Vedas (c. 1200 – 800) included:

  1. Fasting
  2. Abstaining from sleep
  3. Wearing ceremonially dark clothes
  4. Isolating oneself
  5. Sleeping on the ground
  6. Forcing the breath into specific patterns (pranayama)
  7. Mantra recitation
  8. Vows of silence, and
  9. Sitting near fires

These diverse activities were integrated into yogic methods for relieving attachment and opening up the the doors of perception to attain the enlightened state or–in the later Hatha Yoga and Tantric traditions (c. 800 – 1600 CE)–these practices were employed to awaken kundalini.  

 

3. THE GODS

The Vedic Gods evolved into different or greater Gods as the Indian traditions evolved, or they evolved into into philosophical concepts as the Vedic Age gave way to the Yogic Age. 

Examples:

  • The minor God, Rudra, became the major God, Shiva
  • The “first man,” Purusha, became the concept of undifferentiated awareness in The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita and Samkhya Philosophy
  • The earth goddess, Prakriti, became the concept of materiality in Samkhya Philosophy
  • Vishnu went from being a minor god to a major one
  • The river deity, Saraswati, became the Goddess of art, music, and wisdom
  • Yama, the “first ancestor,” became the God of Death
  • Surya persisted as a name for the deified sun
  • Vac, the Goddess of speech, central to the chant-focused Vedic tradition, became the root of the word “voice” and, as the ruler of song-making and the arts, her identity was folded into that of Saraswati

 

4. KNOWLEDGE

“Veda” is the Indo-European root for the word “wisdom,” as well as “vision,” “video” and the Sanskrit, vidya (seeing, insight, knowing). 

The Vedic priests (called ritvij, ”sacrificers,” or ravi, “poets”) had liturgical skills that enabled them to properly lead rituals, but it was also understood that each had experiential knowledge that gave them authority and even charisma that enhanced their effectiveness. 

More and more the tradition focused on this knowledge as a power in and of itself.  It came to be seen as a force that made a person sufficient unto oneself–and perhaps godly–regardless of whether or not a person did anything with the knowledge they possessed.

To know something was to possess power—even yogic power.

In yogic contexts, this translated into an emphasis on pursuing knowledge as its own path to transcendence.

Samkhya Philosophy took this even farther than yoga, but, eventually, yoga co-opted Samkhya practice and metaphysics for its own bodily practices (what we can call “endotechnologies”).

In the bluntest sense, the yogic focus on knowledge as a practice in and of itself manifested as jnana yoga–the work of scholarship and the reading of holy texts.

In a subtler sense, this focus on knowledge evolved into meditation on the meanings behind the great sayings which are called the Mahavakyas. 

The Mahavakyas function somewhat like Zen koans, and yogis are invited to chant them inwardly, brooding on their implications.

Patanjali supplies this formula when he says, “The mantra should be recited repeatedly while reflecting on its meaning” (Sutra 1:28).

The eight primary Mahavakyas are:

  1. Prajñānam brahma, “Prana is Brahman (the universal consciousness)”
  2. Ayam ātmā brahma, “This self is Brahman”
  3. Tat tvam asi, “Thou art that”
  4. Aham brahmāsmi, “I am Brahman”
  5. Brahma satyam jagan mithyā, Brahman is real, the world is illusory”
  6. Ekam evadvitiyam brahma, “Brahman is one without a second”
  7. So ‘ham, “He am I”
  8. Sarvam khalvidam brahma, “All of this is Brahman”

This emphasis on knowledge could also take the form of meditating on the meaning of any mantra. 

Subtler still, the singular power of knowledge implies that the “knowledge packet” of any particular mantra can be taken into one’s body tactilely—as a physical thing–to enhance or clarify the self.

This could be done via vinyasa, “precise placement.”

The guru would touch the student’s body and “implant” the mantra in them.

Of course, mantras can be integrated by silent or non-silent chanting, too.   

In the practice of Advaita Vedanta (“non-dual”) Philosophy, this focus on knowledge became even more all-encompassing.

In AV, one accepts intellectually that a supra-intellectual realization of the mahavakyas –or the supra-intellectual realization of vidya (knowing) in an absolute sense–results in jivanmukti–living liberation.      

———————————————-

Along with the Epic of Gligamesh, the Illiad, and the Old Testament, the Vedas are humanity’s oldest complete compositions.

They are the sourcepoint for the religious traditions of India. 

Though the Upanishads (c. 600 BCE to 200 CE) are the first books of yoga, they repurpose Vedic material for yogic use. 

If students and teachers want to know the nuances behind yoga philosophy and practice, if they want to understand how both practice and philosophy evolved–and source the tradition for their personal evolution–much will come of brooding on the holy Vedas. 

>For further opportunities to learn yoga history and philosophy, please opt into our newsletter below.