The second part to our Brief History of Yoga (BHY) blog series: the pre-classical period.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA:
1. The Vedic Period
2. The Pre-Classical Period
Welcome to our second BHY instalment! This week we'll be exploring yoga in pre-classical period.
The pre-classical period is considered to have begun with the creation of the Upanishads, which are a collection of over 200 texts containing Hindu religious philosophies. They are commonly referred to as the Vedanta in reference to their synthesizing and expanded upon earlier Vedic teaching. The earliest of the Upanishads were created a few hundred years before the dawn of the Common Era.
The Upanishads outline a number of Brahminical concepts, including:
Brahman - the ultimate reality; the universe; the spiritual essence of everything
Atman - the soul; the self; situated Brahman
Moksha - liberation; freedom; when Atman dissolves into Brahman
Samsara - the cycle of rebirth
Contrary to popular Western understandings about reincarnation, samsara is not considered a positive. One is reborn when he or she still has karma to burn off. The ultimate goal is moksha - complete integration into Brahman that frees individuals from samsara. One of the ultimate themes of the Upanishads is that Atman = Brahman - they are one in the same. We are all part of the essential essence that underlies everything.
Skipping over a TON of stuff (which you should definitely explore more if this philosophy interests you!), we'll skip to another text that is of particular importance to the yoga tradition: the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse scripture located within the Mahabharata, which is one of two of the ancient Indian epics (the other being the Ramayana). For those unfamiliar with the epics, they're epic narratives that are still extremely celebrated today. They tell stories that are important to Hindu religious practitioners because they explain the importance of certain religious practices, behaviours and concepts.
The Mahabharata is an extremely long story, so I'll forgo most of the background information and will just skip to the content of the Bhagavad Gita for the sake of brevity. Again though, the Mahabharata is worth reading more about if it interests you, so please do conduct some research of your own if you'd like! :)
The Bhagavad Gita is framed within a dialogue occurring between a warrior, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Lord Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu), on a battlefield. Arjuna faces an extremely difficult decision: he can either slay his family (who are his opponents on the battlefield) and fulfill his dharma (righteous path) or put down his weapons and walk away from battle. The latter may sound like the more appropriate choice, but for reasons outlined throughout the Mahabharata and by Krishna within this particular text itself, the former is actually the correct path for him to take.
Krishna explains how samsara works (one is reborn until all karmic debt is cleared) and how moksha can be achieved (clearing all karmic debt). He outlines three ways in which Arjuna can work towards moksha: 1) renunciation, 2) selfless service & 3) meditation - all yogic actions (bear in mind that "modern" asana-based yoga didn't start to appear until the 19th century). Because his dharma is to slay his family and reclaim his kingdom (thereby bringing good and evil back to balance), he must act selflessly and divinely. Krishna reveals his divinity (Brahman) and Arjuna realizes that he too can become one with this divinity (by obtaining moksha). He chooses to follow the yogic path outlined by Krishna, to fulfil his dharma by slaying his family (even though doing so greatly pains him - this is an act of selflessness) and to ultimately transcend samsara.
That's it for today! Stay tuned for our next instalment: the Classical Period. :)
Image borrowed from here.