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The History of Yoga

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history of yoga


When did Yoga start?

The origins of Yoga are lost in antiquity. According to tradition, the Samkhya philosophy along with the Yoga school are considered to be the oldest among the six schools of Hindu philosophy, older even than the Upanishads. This however does not give us much information because there is controversy about the dating of the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures like the Yoga sutras, with dates ranging from 1500-500 BCE (according to Western experts) and 4500-3000 BCE according to Indian tradition.

In this context, this image is very important (image from here). The image is from a seal from the Indo-Saraswati civilization, from the city of Mohenjodaro. It shows a figure in a Yogic posture. The image is quite clearly an image of the God Shiva, the God of Yoga. Various aspects point to this, like the three faced image, the crown with buffalo horns and three peepul leaves, etc.

The image is undoubtedly in a Yogic posture. Since the date of the Mohenjodaro civilization is quite well established and archeologically dated (flourishing from around 4500 BCE, the beginning, and dying out around 2500 BCE), we can say from this that knowledge of Yoga has been there from at least around 3000 BCE, and very likely from much earlier.

Yoga can be said to have begun formally with the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali is an ancient figure whose details are lost in history, at present we know nothing else about him other than the name. The same is true of the origin of the theoretical philosophical school associated with Yoga, the Samkhya philosophy. Samkhya has its origins in the Samkhya Karika of Kapila muni. Of this sage also we know only the name.

The six schools of Hindu philosophy are grouped in two’s, the Nyaya-Vaisesika, the Samkhya-Yoga and Purva Mimamsa-Vedanta. Of this pair of Samkhya-Yoga, the Samkhya is the theoretical aspect and the Yoga is the practical aspect.

Samkhya-Yoga is said to be most ancient among these six schools. Hence it is considered older than the Vedanta school of philosophy. At present the Vedanta is the prevalent mode of philosophy at present, so that when we say Hindu philosophy, we mean the Vedanta philosophy.

The Bhagawat Geeta, which expounds the Vedanta philosophy, does not mention the Raja Yoga system, which is based on Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, though it mentions the other three streams of Yoga – Bhakti, Gyan and Karma, which are based on the Vedanta philosophy.

From this, it is likely that Raja Yoga (or simply Yoga as it is now known) was still considered a part of the Samkhya system at the time of the composition of the Geeta and epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

But over time, Yoga has come to be incorporated into mainstream Vedanta philosophy. Even though the original Samkhya philosophy on which it was based has been overcome by the more sophisticated thought of Vedanta, Yoga continues to gather in strength even in the present day.

In the modern age, we are witnessing a further resurgence of Yoga. It is probably the fastest growing religious-spiritual practice in our day. Just as it was once adapted into the Vedanta philosophy, we now see it being adapted by various other philosophies like atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many more.

Thus perhaps the oldest philosophical system with its roots deep in the first steps of human civilization continues to adapt and strengthen and provide spiritual comfort to humankind.

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