here we go again, part 2


I want to say from the onset that my writing is not meant to be a scholarly history of Hinduism and I won’t get into any debates about what Hinduism is, who is a Hindu, etc. I am more than cognizant of the various Hindu gods and goddesses and know the difference between a Shaivite and a Vaishnavite (I’m partial to Murugan who is also known in Mahayana Buddhism as Skanda.)

But all that doesn’t matter for this purpose. After all, I am Buddhist with a Kali yantra tattooed on my back so you can figure that out by yourself. I am only writing about yoga as taken from my notes over the years and from the Joshi essay referenced in Part 1. You can read this or move on but be advised that I will not entertain any type of religious debate — there are other forums where you can argue any point you want to make.

When I wrote that “Hinduism actually rejects yoga” in part 1, I knew those words would be shocking.  But when the KYM teacher used those words he was talking about the way Hinduism in general views the philosophy of yoga as a path of liberation.  I have to say that in any yoga training I have ever done I never heard it said that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.  Yes, yoga philosophy is a part of Hinduism, but as for yoga originating in Hinduism, I beg to differ.

Before the time of Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE, approximate date of death) the religion of India was Vedic Brahmanism and alongside the Vedic tradition there was an ascetic (the sramanas) form of thought and practice originating in prehistoric times. Prof. Joshi writes that Buddhism had the closest affinity with this sramanic culture and Hinduism grew out of a fusion of Vedic Brahmanism with Buddhism and other sramanic religious trends.

In order to discuss the roots of yoga or whether yoga springs from Hinduism, let’s keep some dates in mind: Vedicism, 1500-500 BCE; Tantricism and Hinduism, 500-1000 CE.

Sages (munis) and ascetics (yatis) lived in ancient India before the time of the Upanisads.  Prof. Joshi writes that “the Rgveda describes a muni who practiced meditation and led an austere life. He is said to be ‘long-haired’ and probably wore a beard. The munis either lived naked or wore … dirty garments and were experts in techniques of silent ecstasy.” (Joshi, p.27)

This was the culture — pre-Hinduism — that birthed the beginnings of yoga.

In part 1 I wrote about Stephen Cope’s talk on the history of yoga during my training at Spirit Rock. He drew a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Vedic rituals, these sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind.

My KYM teachers taught that Samkhya and yoga are closely related. Prof. Joshi writes:

“In later Brahmanical tradition these two systems [Samkyha and yoga] are generally mentioned together. Yoga as a way of religious perfection is older than the Yoga system of thought now associated with Patanjali’s Yogasutras (cir. 300 CE.) Yoga as a way was an essential element of Sramanic culture. Yoga is therefore of non-Brahmanical and non-Aryan origin. The munis and yatis of Vedic age practiced yoga and dhyana. This is clear from the Rgveda… The early Yoga was possibly identical with Buddhist Yoga or the way of meditation. As it belonged to the non-Vedic Sramanic tradition, the early Yoga was possibly non-theistic and ascetic.” (Joshi, p.33)

Cope taught that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when it is commonly said that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that is not true because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we are familiar with today were revealed.

The Sutras are not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. Yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutras but given the religious atmosphere of India at that time, it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. In his essay Prof. Joshi writes that the Mahabharata (which the Bhagavad Gita is part of) was compiled during the period when Buddhism flourished most in India, during 400 BCE to 400 CE: “the present form of the Mahabharata, with its ethics and philosophy, would have been impossible without Buddhism.” (Joshi, p.13.)

Both the Sutras and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body, and the breath in the breath.

Sounds like yoga (asana-pranayama-meditation) to me. It seems that if anyone should “take back yoga”, it should be my ash-covered friends in the photo above because it was their pre-Hindu forebears who saw yoga as a path of liberation via one’s own efforts rather than through being born into the right caste or through the rites and rituals of Vedic Brahmanism.


Reference:  “Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions” by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

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10 thoughts on “here we go again, part 2

  1. This is brilliant, clear and so even-handed Linda. And I so agree with you about the ash-covered sannyasis. The tradition of fearless inquiry into the body-mind using the tools of asana, pranayama, meditation and inquiry is one of India's great gifts to the world, and most of those tools were developed in direct opposition to the caste-obsessed, rites-and-rituals-will-save-you mindset of mainstream HInduism.

    How can any “ism” own the very practices that both illuminate their essence and transcend their trappings?


  2. “brilliant, clear and so even-handed”

    thanks so much, Kevin! I will remind my husband of your description of my words next time we argue…;) 😀

    your article helped a lot…when I read it, it reminded me so much of what Stephen Cope talked about at Spirit Rock, the first and only training I've ever done that really brought yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism into historical perspective.

    frankly, I have never been in a training where anyone ever said that yoga arises from Hinduism. While I feel their pain, the HAF really has their own agenda.


  3. This is a perfect antidote for all the hegemonising tendencies of the organisations making blockbusting assertions about yoga. I am going to read it again to get the detail. ALL corporate yoga is phoney yoga. Yoga is about INDIVIDUALS not groups or companies or charities or non-profits. Everyone must have a voice and the Hindus are entitled to speak as much as anyone else – and up until now they have resisted that so all we hear are the profiteering secularists, fitness gurus and quack therapists. A realignment is overdue and HAF are leading the way – in their own way. Why Hinduism may not be what Hindus think it is


  4. Excellently done! When I told my dad about this whole silliness he immediately wondered about the old shamanic traditions and if anybody remembered them – I'll assure him that people know and recall and still allow them the acknowledgment of their gifts.

    And it might seem silly and small, but I was just delighted to see BCE and CE used. Because I'm odd that way.


  5. The truth is that Hinduism is prone to dogma and fundamentalism every bit as much as any other religion out there.

    And yoga and Tantra have been up and done in the estimation of Hindus for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

    In fact, even today in India there are still people saying that “yoga should not be seen as Hindu in origin”.

    Seems to be very much a matter of semantics on some levels.

    Fact is, the earliest history of yoga can be guessed at but there's little to 100% confirm any position.

    My teacher has explained that before yoga was even known as yoga, all of these traditions and practices came from our shamanic forebears. Pretty much like those ash-covered guys and their ancestors. And who can own that?

    There's no brand for wisdom, no delineation for knowledge.

    Really, we should all just be grateful for whatever benefits yoga brings into our life, yeah?


  6. agreed.

    putting my ear plugs in with all this yoga/Hinduism debate and saying lalalalalalalalalalala…..

    as Grace Slick used to sing, it doesn't mean shit to a tree…..


  7. Interesting perspective, but in a western based view of the eastern culture. These compartmentalized notions of what is 'vedic,' what is 'hindu,' what is 'Buddhist,' and what is 'Jain' did not exist in the ancient world, and I am saying this as a person with knowledge in Sanskrit as well as someone who has lived in what today is considered a Brahmanic tradition.

    The Vedas themselves are abstract poetry that are difficult to construct into a formidable religion, but that is because the modern concept of religion did not exist. It seems more an appreciation of nature and the human potential.

    There are also inner teachings that Brahmins practice within the Vedic framework which show similarities to the traditions of the Persian Magi, the Muslim Sufi, the Christian Mystic, the Jewish Kabbalist, the Alchemist and the Egyptian Hermetic. It is believed that for anything to be truth it must be eternal and have no founder. It must naturally occur anywhere and everywhere.

    To worry about the label is itself a limitation of consciousness.


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