A Tibetan monastery in north India, 1985: Harvard scholar Herbert Benson and his team visited this monastery, high in the Himalayas. They found that the monks practised a form of Yoga resulting in a meditative trance so deep it affected their body temperatures. The team filmed monks using their own bodies to dry wet clothes when the outside temperature was -20OC. The monks were able to sleep peacefully on rocky ledges at 15,000 ft, dressed just in light shawls. Benson’s videos stimulated great interest in yoga in the West. Can we say anything about the origins of yoga? To answer this, let’s skip to a different time and place.
The Indus valley, third millennium BC: Just as prehistoric cave dwellers acted on their creative impulses and produced beautiful and powerful cave art, Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) dwellers inscribed visuals of their own stories on Seals decorated with narrative imagery. As archaeologist Rita Wright shows, these seals are inscribed with quite a variety of tales. In one, a woman simultaneously attempts to tame two tigers, while in another, two men are uprooting acacia trees, but a woman tries to prevent them. These seals might indicate that women had an important role in nurturing plants as well as animals (going to the extent of trying to tame wild animals instead of hunting them).
Quite a few seals concern yogis. In one, a seated figure is locked in a yogic stance, completely oblivious to a great deal of commotion all around him. He is surrounded by wild animals, but shows no alarm. Near him, another man is spearing a water buffalo, but the yogi is undisturbed, totally immersed in his inner world. In another seal, two kneeling people present an offering to a figure seated in a yogic posture. These kneeling people seem to be important personages, because two snakes spread their hoods over their heads, symbolically associated only with royalty or nobility.
Probably the most well-known of the Mohenjo-daro seals is the “Pashupati” seal – in which a three-faced being wearing horned headgear is seated in a yogic trance, surrounded by Indus animals such as lions, elephants, and buffaloes. “Pashupati” is associated with Rudra (who later transformed into Shiva, the ultimate yogi). Shiva is said to have five faces, of which three are visible in the Pashupati seal.
Obviously, since many of the seals contain figures in yogic postures, we can say that yoga existed during the time of IVC. However, we can go beyond that. In the imagery on the seals, the individuals performing yoga are treated with a great deal of respect. The figures in the seals show utmost concentration, and are not disturbed in the least by all the hunting going on around them, nor do they get distracted by the various humans or animals approaching them. So, it is unlikely that the people who made the seals were beginners exploring and experimenting with yoga – yogic practitioners seem to have already attained a very high degree of proficiency, so they commanded reverence and were known for their powers of mindfulness.
This suggests that yoga originated even earlier than the IVC seals. However, in Mehrgarh – an older site to the northwest of IVC sites – which flourished between 7,000 BC and 2,800 BC – archaeologists did not find any figures in yogic postures, though they did find many figurines of normal human beings. Moreover, while Mesopotamian and Persian seals at the time of IVC also show narrative imagery – they lack any figures seated in yogic poses.
While cities of the IVC declined, yoga survived and was formally codified by Patanjali much later in his Yoga Sutra (Patanjali’s date is estimated to be the 1st century BC). For Patanjali, yoga was not just about a variety of physical stances (asanas). Rather, it was a holistic system with both psychological and physical aspects. It included meditation, pranayama, and even introspective exercises such as learning to accept oneself and others. According to Patanjali, yoga was the ability to restrain random thoughts (yogah chitta-vritti-nirodhah). Those who could achieve a high level of concentration in meditation continued to be regarded very highly, as is evident from literature of the subsequent centuries.
For example the 6th century AD mahakavya (epic poem) “Kiratarjuniya”, by the poet Bharavi, depicts Arjuna as a hero, not because of his abilities in battle, but because of his power to still all contemplation and meditate. (The sixth canto of the poem describes how Arjuna’s meditation made even wild beasts in the forests on the hill feel more tranquil, by the power of influence).
The astounding feats of the Tibetan monks recorded by Benson can be accomplished by very advanced yogis, but the beneficial mental and physical effects of yoga even for completely normal and less advanced practitioners are well documented. In fact Benson, who was a professor at the Harvard Medical School, used his findings about yoga and meditation to perfect relaxation and meditation-based treatments of many diseases (including high blood pressure, heart diseases, anxiety, and insomnia) at the Mind/Body Institute at Boston.
To return to the question posed by the title of this article, yoga appears to be even older than the IVC, which would mean that it has existed for at least 5,000 years. Many other ancient accomplishments of ours died out, such as our skills in metallurgy, town planning, and our surgical knowledge as evident from the samhitas of Charaka and Sushruta. Yoga, however, thrived and even spread to other countries – whether we think of asanas, meditation, or pranayama. As yoga lovers in India and elsewhere celebrate International Yoga Day today, they can rejoice in its enduring legacy.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
via TOI Blog
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