Yoga is not a culturally homogenous, all-Hindu, Vedic tradition, as is often portrayed by revivalist demagogues and those who have set up a raucous campaign to reclaim its roots. It is, in fact, a liberal, eclectic tradition that absorbed freely from Buddhist, Jain, and even Sufi ascetic practices.
Roots of Yoga, a new academic work by renowned yoga scholars Mark Singleton and James Mallinson, is an intensive study of over 100 core texts on the subject. These date from 1000 BCE to the 19 century CE, from early Upanishads and Mahabharata to Jnaneswari and Hawz al-Hayat (The Spring of Life), and include rare texts in several languages, including Tamil, Avadhi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Pali, Tibetan, Arabic, and Persian.
The book, five years in the making and launched last week by Abhyas Trust in Delhi, punctures some of the popular myths around yoga. To begin with, there is no evidence that yoga started as a religious tradition.
“Yoga was a sort of floating technology between various religious systems,” said Singleton. “The Dattatreyayogasastra (13CE), for instance, says that yoga can be practised by anyone irrespective of religion or caste, ascetics, Brahmins, Buddhists, Jains, tantrics, and even materialists.”
Dattatreyayogasastra has some pithy things to say about religious figureheads in “ochre robes” claiming to be great yogis, while lacking practice, faith, and wisdom—“men like that do not practise yoga but attain their ends through words alone, one should shun those who wear religious garb.”
What inspired the book, Singleton said, was the desire to re-look at the hegemony of a handful of texts, mostly Patanjali’s Yogasutras (2CE), in the modern recap of yoga history. “There is a vast range of thinking on yoga through different texts and they don’t necessarily repeat the Yogasutras,” said Singleton. He and Mallinson are also part of an ambitious ongoing five-year research project at SOAS, a university in London, on the evolution of one of the branches of yoga—the hatha yoga.
Another widely-held theory is that yogas are a Vedic practice, traceable back to 1500 to 1000 BCE. This is part of a common revivalist tendency to push the antiquity of knowledge traditions further back in history to give them greater importance. Some wishful thinkers, in fact, push it as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation (3300-1300 BCE), pointing to the Pasupati seal that depicts a seated figure and was discovered at Mohenjo-daro. As the book points out, there are images in Mesoamerica that resemble yogic asanas more than the seal.
The book also traces what is now referred to as yoga, particularly dhyanayoga (meditation), to a much later period—500 BCE, also the period when Buddhism began its rise to prominence. The Vedas had certain elements of mysticism, posture, and breath control critical in yoga, but by no means does that make for evidence of a systematic yogic practice in Vedic era, say the authors.
It was a bunch of renunciant ascetics called Sramanas (strivers) seeking nirvana and moksha (liberation) around 500 BCE whose practices created the earliest template for yoga, though they did not call it that. “These groups, which probably developed independently of the Brahmanical Vedic traditions, but were influenced by them to varying degrees, included Buddhists, Jains, and the lesser-known Ajivikas,” says the book. Ajivika was an ascetic sect that challenged the Brahminical grip on Hinduism.
Buddhist practices, texts, and deities indeed exerted a strong influence in the shaping of yoga, taking its early practice, under other names, to Tibet and Sri Lanka. “The first major text on hatha yoga is Amritasiddhi, an 11th-century tantric Buddhist work,” said Mallinson, who has researched extensively on extreme practices in yoga and written a book on the esoteric tantric practice of Khecharividya.
Research now shows that the Buddhist Yogacara school and its texts predate Yogasutra by two centuries. And the use of several asanas and mudras “bear a close similarity to ascetic practices first mentioned in the latter half of the first millennium BCE, shortly after the time of the Buddha.”
“In the second millennium, the new techniques of haṭha yoga began to be incorporated into the vedantic mainstream, and new texts were composed—such as the so-called Yoga Upaniṣads—which assimilated these technologies and presented them as part and parcel of the tradition,” said Singleton. “Previously, authorities like Shankara had rejected yoga as a spiritual path. Increasingly, hatha yoga became accepted as a practice suitable to householders rather than just renunciants.”
The vedantic appropriation of yoga reached a high point with raja yoga, popularised by Swami Vivekananda towards the end of the 19th century. It combined vedanta, yoga, and western “spiritual” techniques. It is the heady mix of yoga, spiritualism, and nationalism propagated by him that makes him the favourite philosopher and yogi of the right-wing establishment.
Yoga has, over the last couple of years, been personally pushed by prime minister Narendra Modi. The Yoga Day spectacles on June 21, the drive to ensure it a greater place in academia and institutions, and the aggressive stance on issues taken by babas and yogis have ensured that the tradition has now acquired a muscular nationalist profile.
Alongside, the US-based Hindu American Foundation has been protesting what it calls the cultural appropriation of yoga by the West. It accuses western countries of tearing the tradition from its Hindu roots. There are an equal number of Christian and Islamist organisations that see yoga as a Hindu practice. Singleton and Mallinson themselves were at the receiving end of blunt comments at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival: what are two white guys doing writing on yoga? They are often asked confused questions about yoga’s religious roots and antiquity.
But yoga itself has been robustly open to the idea of taking diverse cultures into its cultures throughout its history. “You often find greater details in some of the Persian texts on yoga than in Sanskrit,” said Mallinson. “In fact, the first illustrated manuscript on yoga, Bahr al-Hyat (Ocean of Life), was commissioned by prince Salim, later emperor Jahangir.”