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A Tale Of Two Cities - A Pre-History Of Yoga

Rose Busto
Oct 15, 2019 4:14:17 PM

If you walk up the steps of the British Museum’s vast atrium and turn left, you will come face to face with an imposing statue of the Buddha. Immediately to the right of this statue, you will find a small cabinet full of tiny artefacts from one of the earliest and most sophisticated civilisations known to man- the Indus Valley.



The Indus Valley civilisation (c. 2500 BCE) has generated more speculation about the origins of Yoga than almost any other.1 We know very little about it other than that it had a complex legal and economic system and a sanitation system to rival that of any other known civilisation. This much is clear from the seals of office on display and those aerial photographs of the archaeological ruins which show evidence of sophisticated plumbing, bathing facilities and waste disposal.


Figure 1. Archeological site of Mohenjo-daro

The main excavations took place in the early twentieth century at the two sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in Northern India (now Pakistan). In 1928-29 one of the most remarkable findings came to light- several seals of office which depicted a seated figure with what appeared to be horns on its head. The initial assumption by Sir John Marshall, the lead archaeologist on the site, was that this was an early depiction of the god Śiva or Paśupati, the Lord of the Animals, in what resembled lotus position (padmāsana). Since then scholars have debated hotly among themselves as to the existence of a kind of “proto-yoga” which predated the Vedic Period by about a thousand years.2



Figure 2. One of the so-called Śiva- Paśupati seals of office

No-one knows what happened to these great cities. Some scholars have speculated that they were wiped out by raiding armies from the North. Others believe that the inhabitants encountered drought or other adverse conditions and migrated south, leaving these once-great cities to decay into ruins. What is certain is that, whether through war or natural catastrophe, a once-sophisticated, urban civilisation was lost and, in its place, a largely rural, tribal, agricultural society arose.



As these tribes consolidated their power, new state structures and rulers began to emerge. Among the greatest of these were the Kurus and the Pancalas- the protagonists in the devastating war chronicled in the great Indian epic, the Mahābhārata.3 Essential to the king’s power was a support system with the religious and moral authority required to uphold the law and to legitimise his position. For the kṣatryas, the ruling warrior class, this was provided by the brahmins, the priests and religious celebrants of the day.

Gradual urbanisation also helped to create a new social class of merchants and wealthy householders which required the services of the brahmins. The brahmins, in turn, consolidated their status by standardising the ritual practices which they were called upon to perform. They also created family lineages with the exclusive pedigree and eligibility to officiate at these rites. The power of this priestly, learned class cannot be underestimated. In the Ṛgveda, the earliest work in the Vedic corpus, the creation story of the puruṣa, the first man, sets out the very basis of Vedic society: “His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.4

Within this scheme, the brahmins were at the apex of the varṇa, the caste system which ensured the stability and prosperity of society. They were more powerful than the king himself, since he relied on them for the officiation of those rites on which the prosperity of the kingdom depended. By propitiating the capricious gods through sacrifice, the brahmins were able to ensure the prosperity and wellbeing of the person who made the sacrifice- be it the king or the humble householder- in this world and the next. Particularly important was the fulfilment of one’s duty (dharma), the acquisition of wealth (artha), and the enjoyment of legitimate pleasure (kāma). In an era of warring tribes, great emphasis was also naturally placed on strength and valour, with the warrior god, Indra, often being invoked before battle.5

This golden age of Brahmanism, known as the Vedic Period (c. 1750-400 BCE), lasted over a thousand years. Culturally, it was an extremely fertile time during which the religious canon which lent its name to the period, the Vedas, was composed. The word Veda itself is derived from the Sanskrit root verb vid, “to see” or “to know, ” and the Vedas chronicle the many wonderful hymns, visions, stories, legends and rituals which were granted to the rṣis, the “see-ers” of the age. These revelations were passed down orally over many generations before being committed to writing as ritual practices and language became standardised, particularly through the creation of Sanskrit, a language which was largely the preserve of the educated élite.6

The rituals found in the Vedas are many and varied. To our Western minds, they seem sometimes strange and even incomprehensible. They range from the aśvavedha, the annual horse sacrifice (which some scholars believe involved ritual copulation of the Queen with the horse) to the agnihotra, the fire sacrifice which the pious householder was required to perform daily. The main ritual of the Rgveda, however, is the soma rite. Soma was a hallucinogenic drink concocted from a plant (or plants) that enabled the person who ingested it (usually the officiating priest) to experience a trance-like state. It gave the user a sense of immense personal power, intimations of immortality and the visions which provided proof of the officiating brahmin’s connection to the world of the gods. So revered was the drug that it was regarded as a god in its own right.7

The purpose of these sacrifices was to control the gods. Control of the gods meant, in practical terms, control of events before which human were rendered powerless, such as famine, flood and drought- an important consideration in a largely agricultural society, where climactic extremes entailed catastrophic consequences. And this, in effect, is why the brahmins- the poet-priests and ritual experts of society- were so powerful. For a sacrifice to be effective, the ritual had to be performed exactly as prescribed. Recitation had to be equally precise- one word or syllable wrong and the sacrifice would be invalid. Since the only people who knew how to execute these rituals were the brahmins themselves and their descendants, they were able to preserve and consolidate a powerful caste which still inspires awe and reverence in India today.




The ascendancy of this priestly class was not to last, however. Although the Vedic corpus begins with the precision of the rituals and hymns of the Ŗgveda, it ends with the esotericism and introspection of the Upaniṣads.

The Upaniṣads signalled a new direction in the way people thought about the world, a subtle shift in the dynamics of power and a new emphasis on internalised, rather than external, ritualised knowledge. They initiated a debate about the inner sense, rather than the prescriptiveness, of religious matters. The emphasis from now on was to be on internalised knowledge, or jñāna, rather than on material or martial gain. With the implied rejection of the superiority and necessity of ritual and its guardians, a new commitment to a higher goal of spiritual liberation- mokṣa- began to be formulated. In the process, concepts such as the role of karman (action) and sāṃsara (the wheel of rebirth) began to gain currency, as a philosophical and religious revolution began to take shape.

This new perspective had more in common with the many ascetic movements which emerged towards the second half of the first millennium than with the religious orthodoxy. But there were also renunciates within the system who decided that there were alternatives to the current dependence on ritual. It is in the Upaniṣads that we find some of their earliest formulations of Yoga, the expression of a new and radical way of looking at man’s relation to the cosmos, himself and others. And it is to the Upaniṣads that we will turn to next.


1 Some scholars have argued for the existence of a “pre-historic” form of Yoga, others against. The appendix to this paper shows two opposing arguments.

2 In the appendix to this article I have included two arguments, for and against

3 Some scholars date this war as early as 3000 years before the Common Era, although the epic itself is believed to have been composed, in various stages, between 900 and 400 BCE

4 The Rig Veda: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Wendy Doniger (London: Penguin, 1981), p.31.

5 The Atharvaveda, for instance, contains many spells designed to kill one’s enemies
6 The Vedas are regarded as ṣruti, or “that which has been heard” as opposed to smṛti, “that which has been remembered”. The distinction is important- rsis were revered as holy men, poet-seers who had received their knowledge by direct transmission from a higher source. What they spoke, therefore, was regarded as indisputable truth.
7 There are many hymns in the Ṛgveda eulogising the plant-god. For an in-depth study of soma and its use in ritual practice, see Matthew Clarke’s, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca (London: Muswell Hill Press), 2017

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