International Day of Yoga 2021: History of yoga in India carved in stone

Yoga started primarily with the concept of Dhyan or meditation, where ascetics seeking moksha would discipline their minds (manas or citta) in order to undertake the inward journey into their inner consciousness (manas teertha).

yoga ancient pic
Harappan seal showing proto Shiva in dhyan yoga mudra

By Monidipa Dey,

Over the past few decades, Yoga, an ancient Indian practice dating back to the Harappan times or perhaps even earlier, has become a part of the daily lives of many living in the western societies, turning it into a multibillion-dollar business commodity. Like many other Indian cultural heritages that the West has embraced, the western perspectives on Indian yoga too tend to remain foggy, where it is viewed as an ancient tradition with certain health benefits, and associated with the imagery of old Vedic sages seated in padmasana. The same views and imagery are reflected on the glossy covers of various Lifestyle magazines, where we find glamorous icons in various aesthetically pleasing yoga postures. While people who grace these covers are doing a wonderful job of increasing awareness about the health benefits derived from daily Yoga, it’s also time the world and India take a deeper look at this ancient practice.

What is Yoga?

The word “Yoga” is rooted in the Sanskrit Bija “Yuj” which means “to join together,” thus signifying union. Here, it signifies Union of the yogin with the Paramatma or the Supreme Consciousness, which is Moksha. To achieve this ultimate Union or Moksha, a yogin or a bhakt (devotee) must follow a specific process over a period of time, which involves various kinds of rigorous mental, physical, and intellectual exercises, which he or she must perform as means to achieve the final release or Moksha. So Yoga is not merely a physical health routine or a batch of exercises. It’s instead a long term process that involves control over mind and body, with the chief objective of achieving Moksha and be liberated from the cycle of life and death to become one with the Supreme Consciousness or Brahman. Since all living beings have originated from this Supreme Consciousness, Yoga is also a process of Re-Union.

Mahabalipuram rock
Mahabalipuram rock relief, Arjuna’s penance / Ganga’s descent, vriks-asana

Yoga started primarily with the concept of Dhyan or meditation, where ascetics seeking moksha would discipline their minds (manas or citta) in order to undertake the inward journey into their inner consciousness (manas teertha). It is for this reason the early Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures lay emphasis on bhavana-dhyan-yoga, where Samadhi is the last stage in this process of meditation before gaining moksha. However, over the centuries with the mainstreaming of Yoga, it slowly evolved, and training the physical body (along with mind control) also became a part of it. Among the various forms of Yoga that have developed over the centuries the noteworthy ones are dhyan –yoga, gyan- yoga, karma –yoga, bhakti yoga, and deva-yoga.

Adi Yogi Shiva imparting knowledge through Gyaan-Yoga, Kailshnathar temple in Kanchipuram
Adi Yogi Shiva imparting knowledge through Gyaan-Yoga, Kailshnathar temple in Kanchipuram

Yoga in art and sculptures

The most famous sculpture that first comes to mind in the context of a Yoga murti is the monolithic Narsimha in Hampi with a yogapatta around his knees. Known as Lakshmi-Narsimha, the original sculpture had a small murti of devi Lakshmi sitting on his lap. However when Vijayanagara was attacked in 1565 CE by the combined Sultanate armies, the Lakshmi murti was destroyed, and without the devi, the murti is also sometimes referred to as Yoga-Narsimha. This murti of Narsimha sitting cross legged with a yogapatta is popular in south India, and can be found referenced in Bhagavat Purana where Sri Vishnu teaches his devotee Prahlad the art of Bhakti-Yoga in that posture. Bhakti-yoga is a form of yoga where the devotee seeks union through pure and unwavering devotion towards his deity. In Badrinath temple the chief deity Sri Narayana is seen seated in dhyan mudra, performing the Dhyan-Yoga. A similar Yoga Narayana murti is seen in the National Museum Delhi, which is of the 10th c. CE from Khajuraho and belongs to the Chandella art.

Shiva in utkatisana in Kailshnathar, Kanchipuram
Shiva in utkatisana in Kailshnathar, Kanchipuram

In Shaivism Shiva is considered the Adi Yogi and the Adi Guru, who had taught seven rishis the secrets of Yoga in a systematic manner, where he had explained the entire mechanics of life, and brought forth Gyaan-yoga as a means by which a human can evolve himself into a higher being. These seven rishis (sapta rishis) were then sent to seven parts of the world to share this ultimate wisdom or knowledge with the common people so that they can seek moksha through gyaan yoga. In south Indian temples this form of Shiva is represented as Dakshinamurti, where Shiva as the Adi Guru is shown imparting the ultimate wisdom through gyaan –yoga.

In another interesting relief work at Mahabalipuram known as Arjuna’s penance/ Ganga’s descent, there is seen a figure (Arjuna or alternatively Bhagiratha) standing in the vriksh-asana or tree posture, as a way to meditate and gain Shiva’s divine blessings. Both Buddhism and Jainism also have Yoga as an integral part of their religion, and the various meditative murtis of the tirthankaras and Buddha stand as testimony to it. The fasting murti of an emancipated Buddha in a meditation posture kept at the Lahore museum is among the more famous yoga murtis in Buddhism.

Besides the deities in yoga, the Hindu temples across India frequently depict various yoga postures by ascetics and other figures on the temple walls. This is because a Hindu temple, which is also a point of union of the devotee with the Brahman through the main deity in the sanctum, is in complete sync with the ultimate goal of Yoga, which is Moksha.

(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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