The History of Yoga

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Please explain the history of yoga. Was the knowledge known outside India before it was recorded here? How did it spread and why was it forgotten? Why is there a sudden interest and revival of this ancient science?

In order to know and understand the correct history of yoga, we will have to rewrite its history. The history we read and know today has been written from time to time with certain political and colonial motives. History, when it is written, should have the motive to record events, not to fulfil and accomplish the designs of rulers.

The Bhagavad Gita was instructed to Arjuna at the end of the cycle of Dwarpa Yuga, at the beginning of Kali Yuga, and according to calculation, 5,100 years have already passed since then. When Hindus perform their daily pooja in the temple, there is a chanting of sankalpa in which every day one more day is added. That sankalpa is always correct because one day is added every day. There are references in the Bhagavad Gita from which we understand that the Upanishads were written much before the Bhagavad Gita. Out of 108 Upanishads, thirty Upanishads are minor, ten are major and the rest are simple Upanishads. Among these Upanishads many talk about yoga such as Yogatattva Upanishad, and Yoga Kundalini Upanishad. They deal directly with yoga, the word yoga and the topic yoga.

In the Prashnopanishad, one clearly comes across the concept of ida and pingala . It is not called ida and pingala, but rayi and prana. Rayi represents the mind or matter and prana represents life. These Upanishads were compiled much after the Vedas.

The Rig Veda is the most ancient of Vedas. Rik means hymn, richa also means hymn. The other Vedas are Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. In the Hindu tradition there is reference to three and sometimes four Vedas. For the chanting of the Bhagavad Gita it is said:

Vedatrayi parananta tattvartha jnana manjari.

With the chanting of the Bhagavad Gita one will attain the knowledge of the three Vedas and the store house of knowledge of the meaning of tattwa.

There were certain sects who recognized only three Vedas and not the fourth, Atharva Veda, for the mere reason that it deals with all kinds of sciences such as magic, archery, and so on. The Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda deal directly with the atman, Brahman, the Supreme Being. The subject matter of all these Vedas is parabrahman, or satyam, the ultimate truth, while the subject matter of the Atharva Veda is life. In the Atharva Veda there are references to pranayama, yogasanas, and different hatha yogic kriyas such as neti and dhauti.

Usha Sukta

The composition of the Rig Veda is very complicated because some of the hymns seem to have been written outside India, especially the Usha Sukta. There is a sukta, an ode to Usha, dawn. It is one of the most beautiful compositions in poetry ever written, giving a definition and description of dawn. Scholars feel that this hymn must have been composed where dawn is very poetic. It was not written in the Middle East, because when the sun rises there, it is frightful, as the temperature reaches a very high degree. In India, sunrise is a common event because it can be seen every day. One can see the rising of the sun, 365 days of the year. If one goes to the Arctic area, the polar region, being able to see the sunrise is most wonderful because one has to wait for it for days together. Sometimes the sun does not rise for six months. One does not see the sun at all and one waits for it to rise. Then one morning when the sun rises, it can be seen for about an hour and it sets again. In Norway, above the Nordic region, thousands of people go every day to watch the midnight sun.

This hymn to Usha must have been written in such a land. There is a story in the Puranas that almost relates to a civilization at the North Pole. There was a rishi named Dhaumya. He arrived at a kingdom in the North Pole, which would not have been a snow bound region then. It must have been a thriving civilization. The prince and the prime minister’s son were playing outside and they were very rude to Dhaumya. The rishi Dhaumya wanted to be guided to some place where he could rest for the night. These two kids misbehaved with him and Dhaumya became furious.

The next morning the whole kingdom was buried under snow. This story indicates the coming of the snow age in the North Pole. Prior to the arrival of the snow age in the North Pole, a civilization must have existed there. Some of the hymns of the Rig Veda like the Usha Sukta composed in the arctic polar region, where a civilization thrived, could not have been earlier than 45 to 50,000 years. If one is talking about 45 to 50,000 years, it gives us the latest date in connection with the history of yoga.

However, we have another difficulty here. 45,000 years ago a great continent submerged into the Atlantic Ocean. That civilization is known as the Atlantis civilization. According to my study, which is by no means complete yet, the Atlantis civilization was the mother of the yoga culture. This continent did not submerge all of a sudden. It must have taken a few centuries. The people migrated with the knowledge they had and went to different countries where they took the message of yoga.

The submerging of the Atlantis civilization and the history of the polar region must have taken place between 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. In the Rig Veda there are references to planetary conjunctions, which are called graha, or yog for the occurrence of such events. Some scholars like Max Müller, Griffith, and Wilson have pointed out that these planetary conjunctions took place 45,000 years ago. They have fixed the date of the occurrences as well. So we can say that these hymns of the Rig Veda were written over 40,000 years ago.

You can imagine how many centuries must have preceded it for the perfection of such a cultured, people, of a nation, which could write the most beautiful poetic hymns. A primitive culture could not have just emerged and started writing it. Hence, there must have been a culture already existing, much before the period of the Rig Veda. In the Rig Veda there is a clear concept of the philosophy of yoga: about dhyana, concentration and the processes through which one can awaken one’s consciousness and elevate the level of one’s atman.

In the earlier texts one does not find references to those yoga practices which relate to the treatment of diseases, because people were very healthy. They did not have sickness of the type we have today. Therefore, when they wrote about yoga, they only said that through the practices of yoga the realm of maya and avidya can be transcended.

In the Ishavasya Upanishad, the first of the Upanishads and the last chapter of the Yajur Veda, there are six mantras. They say that the spirit of those people who are involved only in the matter of the mind and senses, enters into the area of darkness, but those who are involved in the path of the spirit, that is dhyana yoga, enter a still darker region. Further it is said that there should be a combination of the two; the world of the senses and the world of the spirit, both must evolve side by side. This is a clear indication towards a combination of both karma yoga and dhyana yoga.

Latin America

In 1973, when I was in Colombia for a big conference organized by our institution, I visited the south of Colombia. There are wild forests and not many people live there. First we went by helicopter, then by jeep, then I rode on a donkey. There were many people and swamis from different places with me. The name of that area is called San Agustin and it is considered to be a museum. There is no building, and it is spread over a very big area of forest maybe over hundreds of miles.

We took many photographs and printed them on the front cover page of the YOGA magazine. These stone carvings are so wonderful that they speak their story by themselves. I saw the stone carving of neti kriya, of a person holding a lota and practising neti. Of course there were stone statues of padmasana, swastikasana, siddhasana, vipareeta karani, bhujangasana, vajrasana, vrishchikasana and many other asanas, also of uddiyana bandha. There were hundreds of asanas depicted in that wild area, so now you understand how far this civilization has gone!

I have also travelled to different areas in Mexico and gone to different temples of Shiva in remote areas. They are not very well looked after by the government, but still the people of the locality take care of them. After a brief study, we have come to conclude that the civilization in Colombia preceding the invasion by the Spanish, Dutch, English people, of the different races of the Incas, Aztecs, Chibchas, were well conversant with the principles of yoga.

The story goes that when the Spanish invaded there was a temple in every community, which used to be at the top of the mountain where they consecrated their daughters. The priests used to live in those temples which were dedicated to Surya, for Incas were sun worshippers and did Surya pooja. They dedicated their daughters to that sun temple and used to dress in white and yellow. The yellow colour stands for vasant, spring, and the white colour is life. They used to live the life of sannyasins, though not much is known as to what sadhana they did. It is known, however, that they did not mix with the general public at all and only worshipped Surya. Whether this was only the external Surya remains to be interpreted.

When the Spanish people invaded, they killed all of them. They packed all the gold and sent it to Europe. There is a written document about it. The letters written are now a part of the document of man’s cruelty upon innocent people who were dedicated to spiritual life and a non-political culture. Spiritual people are not dedicated to the political culture; they do not understand it. Just because they do not understand the political culture does not mean that they have to be massacred.

It is believed that the king in Colombia, on one full moon night did some tantric ceremony and gold powder came showering on him. Due to his tantric worship he was completely buried under gold, and that is also the reason the name of the Colombian airport in Bogotá is El Dorado. This story resembles the story of Karna of the Mahabharata who did tantric worship in Munger which was his capital. He also received gold due to his worship of Devi and distributed the same gold to his subjects.

The people in Colombia are very rich in gold. In the museums you see nothing but gold. In Indian museums you find only Buddha statues made of granite and different stones. In Colombia you find that everything is made out of gold from plates to brassieres. I have seen gold brassieres finer than the ones our ladies wear, because they were very expert people and knew how to work with gold very well. These people had a long tradition of yoga. Then their culture was destroyed by the political system and this wild forest remained. San Agustin does not represent their culture.

Colombians should have named this museum after the last king who was murdered. The Spanish invaders invited him to surrender but he refused. They battled for days but could not win over him. Finally, the Spanish said that they should become friends. The Colombians were innocent and gullible. The Spanish arranged a dinner for the king, who came unarmed and was killed. This museum should have been dedicated to such a man as that king.

Similarly, if you go to the south of France, to the south of Ireland, to Scandinavian countries, from there to Afghanistan, India, Tibet, South-East Asia and up to Vietnam, there seems to have been a belt where yogic science was very well known to the people. We have been collecting a lot of evidence in Scandinavian countries. There is a brilliant swami who has studied the yogic tradition in Scandinavian countries and has found in their old culture, the concept of kundalini, ida, pingala, sushumna, and the awakening of the inner spirit. From all these details we come to a conclusion that the culture of yoga is very ancient.

Of course it came to a sudden halt due to political systems. Political systems everywhere are responsible for the destruction of all that is beautiful that man has created. The science of politics is a science that inherits total selfishness. Political systems are based on selfishness and the cult of power. Most power hungry men need to get power by hook or by crook. It does not matter which religion one upholds, it does not matter which religion one kills, it does not matter which frontiers one breaks and which ones one defeats – politicians are not interested in it. They are very selfish and conscious only of getting control of power. They can prove anything, they can say and write anything, and the history you read today is written by these people.

This is how the culture of yoga was destroyed little by little in every country because power went into the hands of the people who were not virtuous, but who became great heroes by killing people and waging wars. This is the way history was influenced by people.

19 October 1981, Munger