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

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

In our first learning unit, we’ll look briefly at the migrations of the people who wrote the Vedas (the Aryans or Indo-Europeans) and then explore the content of these books—and understand how they plant the seeds of yoga’s long development.

Here is a list of four ways in which the content from the books was used or transformed in the yogic traditions 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 the effectiveness of this ritual. 

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 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 penance (who we would call the 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, etc.) burns its own “food,” with its own particular fire (jatharagni, pranagni, manisikagni, etc. ) and that such “food” (actual food, breath, thought, etc.) can be withheld (sacrificed) from that respective body to refine its inner heat (tapas) and optimize ones operating system (e.g. gaining strength, steadiness, mental power, etc.). 

 

2. TAPASIC PRACTICES

The tapasic (internal heat-building) 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 ceremonial 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 practices were all 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 used 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. (c. 500 CE).

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 or action on this Earth in Samkhya Philosophy
  • Vishnu went from being a minor god to being a major one
  • The river Goddess, Saraswati, became the Goddess of music, art 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 the Goddess of song and the arts. Her identity was folded into the identity 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 knowledge as a power in and of itself, as something that made one sufficient unto oneself–and perhaps godly–regardless of whether that knowledge resulted in action.  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 or technologies (what are called “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 the meditation on the meanings behind the great sayings which are called the Mahavakyas.  The Mahavakyas functioned like the zen koans, inviting yogis to meditate on their meaning.  The main 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 mantras in general.

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, a mantra can also be integrated into the self by silent or non-silent chant. 

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.              

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