The Origin of Yoga

by Delight Yoga

Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. Until recently, many Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, maybe around 500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha, the illustrious founder of Buddhism.

But then, in the early 1920s, archaeologists surprised the world with the discovery of the so-called Indus civilization — a culture that we now know extended over an area of roughly 300,000 square miles (the size of Texas and Ohio combined). This was, in fact, the largest civilization in early antiquity. In the ruins of the big cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, excavators found depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble yogi-like figures. Many other finds show the amazing continuity between that civilization and later Hindu society and culture.

The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization

There was nothing primitive about what is now called the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which is named after two great rivers that once flowed in Northern India; today only the Indus River flows through Pakistan. That civilization’s urbane population enjoyed multistory buildings, a sewage system unparalleled in the ancient world until the Roman Empire, a huge public bath whose walls were waterproofed with bitumen, geometrically laid out brick roads, and standardized baked bricks for convenient construction. (We are so used to these technological achievements that we sometimes forget they had to be invented.) The Indus-Sarasvati people were a great maritime nation that exported a large variety of goods to Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Although only a few pieces of art have survived, some of them show exquisite craftsmanship.

For a long time, scholars thought that this magnificent civilization was abruptly destroyed by invaders from the northwest who called themselves Aryans (ârya meaning “noble” in the Sanskrit language). Some proposed that these warlike nomads invented Yoga, others credited the Indus people with its creation. Yet others took Yoga to be the joint creation of both races.

Nowadays researchers increasingly favour a completely different picture of ancient Indian history. They are coming to the conclusion that there never was an Aryan invasion and that the decline of the Indus- Sarasvati cities was due to dramatic changes in climate. These, in turn, appear to have been caused by a major tectonic catastrophe changing the course of rivers. In particular, it led to the drying up of what was once India’s largest river, the Sarasvati, along whose banks flourished numerous towns and villages (some 2500 sites have been identified thus far). Today the dry river bed runs through the vast Thar Desert. If it were not for satellite photography, we would not have learned about those many settlements buried under the sand.

The drying up of the Sarasvati River, which was completed by around 1900 B.C., had far-reaching consequences. Just imagine the waters of the Mississippi running dry instead of flooding constantly. What havoc this would cause!

The death of the Sarasvati River forced the population to migrate to more fertile parts of the country, especially east toward the Ganges (Ganga) River and south into Central India and Tamilnadu.

Why is this important for the history of Yoga?

The Sarasvati River happens to be the most celebrated river in the Rig-Veda, which is the oldest known text in any Indo-European language. It is composed in an archaic (and difficult) form of Sanskrit and was transmitted by word of mouth for numerous generations.

Sanskrit is the language in which most Yoga scriptures are written. It is related to languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and not least English. You can see this family relationship on the example of the word yoga itself, which corresponds to zugos, iugum, joug, Joch, yugo, and yoke in these languages. Sanskrit is like an older brother to the other Indo-European languages.

Now, if the Sarasvati River dried up around or before 1900 B.C., the Rig-Veda must be earlier than that benchmark date. If that is so, then the composers of this collection of hymns must have been contemporaneous with the people of the Indus civilization, which flourished between circa 3000-1900 B.C.Indeed, astronomical references in the Rig-Veda suggest that at least some of its 1,028 hymns were composed in the third or even fourth millennium B.C.

Thus, the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, who created the Rig-Veda, did not come from outside India to destroy the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. They had been there all along. What, then, was their relationship with the Indus-Sarasvati people? Here opinions still differ, but there is a growing understanding that the Aryans and the Indus-Sarasvati people were one and the same. There is nothing in the Rig-Veda to suggest otherwise.

In fact, the Rig-Veda and the other archaic Sanskrit texts appear to be the “missing” literature of the Indus civilization. Conversely, the archaeological artefacts of the Indus valley and adjoining areas give us the “missing” material base of the early Sanskrit literature—an elegant solution to a problem that has long vexed researchers.

This means that Yoga is the product of a mature civilization that was unparalleled in the ancient world. Think of it! As a Yoga practitioner, you are part of an ancient and honourable stream of tradition, which makes you a descendant of that civilization at least at the level of the heart. Many of the inventions credited to Sumer rightfully belong to what is now known as the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which evolved out of a cultural tradition that has reliably been dated back to the seventh millennium B.C. In turn it gave rise to the great religious and cultural tradition of Hinduism, but indirectly also to Buddhism and Jainism.

Its present-day problems should not blind us to its glorious past and the lessons we can learn from it. Yoga practitioners, in particular, can benefit from India’s protracted experimentation with life, especially its explorations of the mysteries of the mind. The Indian civilization has produced great philosophical and spiritual geniuses that between them have covered every conceivable answer to the big questions, which are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

The Big Question in Traditional Yoga

Traditional Yoga seeks to provide plausible answers to such profound questions as, “Who am I?”, “Whence do I come?”, “Whither do I go?” and “What must I do?” These are the sorts of questions that, sooner or later, we all end up asking ourselves. Or at least, we have our own implicit answers to them, though we may not get around to consciously formulating them. Deep down, we all are philosophers, because we all need to make sense of our life. Some of us postpone thinking about these questions, but they don’t ever go away. We quickly learn this when we lose a loved one or face a serious health crisis.

So, we might as well ponder these questions while we are in good shape. And don’t think you have to feel morose to do so. Yoga doesn’t champion dark moods, but it is definitely in favour of awareness in all its forms, including self-awareness. If we know the stuff we are made of, we can function a lot better in the world. At the very least, our self-knowledge will give us the opportunity to make conscious and better choices.