The Yoga Tradition – An overview

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All yoga systems as we know them today, developed within spiritual traditions derived from the ancient Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest and most authoritative religious scriptures of Hinduism. Therefore these Yoga traditions are known as Vedic traditions that are collectively called Vaidhika Dharma (Vedic Dharma) in Sanskrit. Since the Vedas are ancient records revealing the nature of Dharma; the eternal cosmic principles, the Vedic traditions are also known as Sanathana Dharma (Eternal Dharma).

Some yoga teachers also say that since yoga teachings and practices were transmitted in great traditions beginning from time immemorial, hence the ‘Eternal Dharma’ or Sanathana Dharma. Nowadays the Vaidhika Dharma or Sanathana Dharma is commonly referred to as Hinduism or Hindu Dharma. Therefore the Vaidhikas are called Hindus today. They were also called Aryas in ancient times. A yoga system is essentially the spiritual system or methodology taught in any Sanathana Dharma traditions. In that sense, Sanathana Dharma can also be referred to as the Yoga Dharma.

The Dharmic world

Vaidhika Dharma is closely associated with other religions that originated in India although the division between these traditions as separate religions seem to have risen only in a modern era. There are clear divisions in the ancient records when their views and traditions were represented. However the teachers and adherents of all these different traditions viewed themselves within a single universal order called Dharma; a term shared by all traditions to refer to their religions.

Therefore, before we dwell more into the Yoga traditions, it would be apt to mention here briefly the common Dharmic family of spiritual philosophical schools that were founded and developed in the Indian subcontinent. Collectively the Indian schools of philosophy and spirituality can be divided into two major divisions; the Vaidhikas and the Shramanas.

To contrast both divisions, scholars usually defined the Vaidhika or Hindu traditions as astika and the Shramana traditions as nastika. The term astika is used to mean those traditions that regard the Vedas as an epistemic authority and the term nastika is used to mean those traditions that do not regard the Vedas as an epistemic authority. The Vaidhika traditions are inspired and guided by the principles recorded in the Vedas which consist of the collective teachings of hundreds of ancient men and women sages called the rishis and rishikas. The Shramana traditions are centred on the teachings of a particular founder-teacher and the subsequent teachers who came thereafter. Both the streams of traditions have deep influence over each other and share many fundamental principles.

The Shramanas are traditions with strong emphasis on asceticism and monasticism. Jainism and Buddhism are the two major surviving Shramana traditions in modern times. Modern Jainism is divided into Digambara and Svetambara sects. The teachings of the Buddha underwent many changes and expansion over the centuries, branching into many different sects and various schools of Buddhist philosophy; which broadly today can be divided into the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. The Vajrayana is an esoteric Tantric Buddhist tradition that emerged from a synthesis of the Mahayana doctrines with the doctrines of the Hindu Shaiva Tantric tradition. The Shramanas traditions have developed many systems of spiritual practices just as the Vaidhikas did and meditation is especially a prominent feature.

There are many other Shramana teachers who founded different systems of philosophy and spirituality although very little are known about them, such as Makkhali Gosala (founder of the Ajivika system that rival early Jainism and Buddhism), Purana Kassapa, Sanjaya Belatthiputta and others. These are no longer living traditions. The school of Charvaka is also normally considered as a nastika system. However unlike the other Shramana schools, the Charvakas, also known as Lokayatas do not propagate renunciation and ascetic views and are opposed to spiritual practices; instead they advocated materialistic atheism.

Dharma family

The Six Darshanas of the Sutra canons

Now we shall proceed to the Yoga traditions. Classifying yoga systems has always been a challenging task to surmount as the practices were developed and transmitted within Hindu religious traditions that are vastly numerous and intricately related in a maze of syncretic complexities. Each yoga practice was propagated in a tradition for a reason underlying their teachings. To understand why we do what we do in yoga practices, it is important for us to be familiar with these spiritual and philosophical traditions. A system of philosophical and logical thought is called Darshana.

Darshana literally means ‘vision’. The term ‘Darshana’ is a general term denoting all Indian schools of philosophy in the sense of a philosophical system (including Jain, Buddhist and Charvaka). In the study of Yoga teachings, the most prominent classification is that of the six schools of Hindu philosophy that comes under the heading of sad-darśana or ‘six Darshanas’.

The six Vedic or Hindu Darshanas are:

1. Nyaya
2. Vaishesika
3. Sankhya
4. Yoga
5. Mimamsa
6. Vedanta

The core thoughts of these spiritual and philosophical schools are compiled in the scriptural treatise called the Sūtra. They are characterised by formulating doctrines of metaphysics through deductive reasoning, syllogistic arguments, epistemological enquiry and logics and emphasises on pursuing spiritual realisation through the study of knowledge, truth, reality, existence and proposes psychological and practical methodologies to experience the truth expounded therein. This led to the development of systematic spiritual disciplines called yoga.

It is important to highlight here that when referring the term ‘Darshanas’ as schools of philosophy, it is not limited to the idea of philosophy often expected in Western philosophies, where it has become a mere pursuit of intellectual and academic speculation with little experiential relevance. In the same way, the Western view of religion is also often limited to a ‘creed of beliefs’ divorced from any logical and philosophical investigation and validity.

Hindu philosophy and broadly all Indian schools of philosophy contain to the fullest extent of all the branches of intellectual investigation and yet they exist within a larger spiritual tradition where there is strong emphasis on experiential insight as a dimension to knowledge and personal growth. Philosophy serves spirituality as a transformative and practical vehicle in advancing our understanding of life, self and reality. Without rational philosophy, practices can only exist on blind faith. The Hindu religion is first and foremost a philosophy of life with an emphasis on practical spiritual integration with all aspects of living to create the yogic lifestyle.

Apart from the group of six Vedic schools based on the Sutra treaties, there is also another group of traditions that have appeared within the Hindu fold in which yoga practices as we know today have developed.

The Three Darshanas of the Tantra canons

The Tantric traditions are a group of religious teaching based on the philosophical and theological doctrines propounded in the Tantra or the Āgama scriptural texts. The Tantric-Agamic traditions have its roots in the principles founded in the Vedas. The early Sankhya and later Yoga and Vedanta ideas form an integral part to the Tantras. Gradually the Tantric traditions developed as a syncretic form of theistic philosophical systems combining the teachings of the six Hindu Sūtras and the numerous Tantra or Āgama canons. The Tantric-Agamic traditions are found in three major groups – Shaivas, Shaktas and Vaishnavas.

Vaidhika Dharma

A look on each tradition

The Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Nyāya-sūtras written by the Sage Aksapada Gautama. Nyaya means ‘logic or rules’. This school produced many Hindu logicians that developed theory of logic, metaphysical categories, syllogism and epistemology and forward a rational pursuit of knowledge.

tadarthaṃ yamaniyamābhyāsātmasaṃskāro yogāccādhyātmavidhyupāyaiḥ

‘For that purpose (meditation that leads to final liberation) there should be purification of the self, by means of yama (restraint) and niyama (observances) and such other methods of internal discipline as may be learnt from the science of Yoga.’ — Nyāya Sūtras, 4.2.46

The Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Vaiśeṣika-sūtras written by the Sage Kanada Kashyapa. Vaisheshika means ‘distinctionism’. This school is much older to the Nyaya School. The Vaishesika philosophers were at the forefront of promulgating atomic theories. They maintain that all objects in this physical universe are fundamentally compound of atoms. It is a school of pluralistic realism.

ātma-indriya-manas-artha-saṁnikarṣāt sukha-duḥkhe
tadanārambha ātmasthe manasi śarīrasya duḥkha-abhāvaḥ sa yogaḥ

‘Pleasure and pain, results from contact of self, sense, mind and object. Non-origination of that follows when the mind becomes steady in the self. After it, there is non-existence of pain in the embodied soul. (This is) that Yoga’. — Vaiśeṣika Sūtras, 5.2.15 – 5.2.16

The Vaisheshika Darshana and Nyaya Darshana are closely related and shares many concepts. In a later period, a single school of Nyaya-Vaisheshika emerged from a synthesis of both earlier schools.

The Sankhya school (often spelt Samkhya) of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Sāṃkhya-sūtras written by the Sage Maharishi Kapila. Sankhya means ‘enumeration’. Sankhya Darshana is the most ancient school of Hindu philosophy. It is older than any other Hindu schools of philosophy known including Jain, Buddhist, Charvaka and others. Sankhyan philosophers are possibly the first Vedic philosophers who attempted to develop a science to study, analyse and describe the content of the Vedas through a systematic methodology of intellectual and rational guideline.

prāpte śarīra bhede caratārthatvāt pradhāna vini vrithau
aikāntikam ātyantikam ubhaya kaivalyam āpnoti

‘After obtaining (in due course) separation from body and after the cessation of activity of nature (pradhana) in respect of the individual, there attains liberation (kaivalya), which is both certain and final’. — Sankhya Karika, 68

taṁ vidyād duḥkha-saṁyoga-viyogaṁ yoga-saṁjñitam

‘Yoga is known as the disconnection (viyoga) of the connection (samyoga) with suffering.’ — Bhagavad Gita, 6.23

The Sankhya Darshana is a proponent of the theory of causation and theory of evolution of matter beginning from the primordial matter. Sankhyan thought have made great contribution to advance Hindu psychology and mind science. Swami Vivekananda calls Sage Kapila “as the greatest psychologist the world has ever known”.

The Yoga school of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Yoga-sūtras written by the Sage Maharshi Patanjali. Yoga means ‘union’. Patanjali is the compiler of the Yoga-sūtras and certainly one of the most important Hindu teachers in history. However, many people mistakenly attribute Patanjali as the founder of Yoga philosophy itself. The teachings of Yoga philosophy have existed since the time of the ancient Vedas in various aggregates. Patanjali outlines the spiritual practices in a systematic methodology called Ashtanga yoga (the Eightfold Yoga path). Yoga Darshana of Patanjali developed directly as an extension of the existing Sankhya Darshana.

yogaś citta-vritti nirodhah
tada draśtuh svarupe avasthanam

‘Yoga is the restrain of the activities of the mental-waves.
Then the seer establishes in its true nature’. – Yoga Sūtras, 1.2 – 1.3

Yogāḥ samādhiḥ

‘Yoga is samadhi’. — Yoga-Bhashya of Sage Vyasa, 1.1

Another common misunderstanding especially among modern day yoga teachers and practitioners is to attribute the Yoga school of philosophy of Patanjali as the philosophical basis for all yoga practices especially asanas although in most cases the practitioners tend to describe yogic teachings based on ideas of the Vedanta school. It is easy to see how the mistake can arise from the convenience of referring to the name of the school pioneered by Patanjali which happens to be ‘Yoga’ unlike the names of other schools, for example Vedanta, Vaishnava or Shaiva.

Therefore it is important to note the two different application of the word ‘yoga’. One the word ‘yoga’ refers broadly to all the systems of spiritual practices (such as Ashtanga yoga, Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Hatha yoga, Karma yoga, Kriya yoga, Laya yoga, Raja yoga and so on) while ‘Yoga’ when used in the context of a particular Hindu tradition is a name of a school of philosophy of Maharishi Patanjali. This misperception has become pandemic also because of the narrow focus of representing asanas or yogic exercises alone as ‘yoga’ while leaving out the broader study of Hindu philosophies and spirituality as an organic whole.

The Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Mimamsa-sūtras written by the Sage Jaimini. Mimamsa means ‘analysis’ or ‘critical investigation’. This is the leading school of Vedic hermeneutics which developed from the effort to analyse the ancient Vedic rituals in particular those found in the Brahmana portions of the Vedas and to ensure their performance are in accordance to proper injunctions.

codanā-lakśaṇo ‘rtho dharmaḥ

‘Dharma is the purpose which is indicated by the injunctions of the Vedas (that impels men to action)’. — Mimamsa-sūtras, 1.1.2

The Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy was systematised in the Brahma-sūtras (also known as Vedanta-sūtras) written by the Sage Badarayana. Vedanta means ‘the culmination of the Vedas or the aim of the Vedas’. The term originally referred to the Upanishad texts of the Vedas (the teachings that usually appear as a culmination of a Vedic recension). Vedanta Darshana of Badarayana is basically a school that analysis the teachings of the Upanishads. Therefore, the school also called Uttara Mīmāṃsā (‘latter enquiry or analysis’) while the Mimamsa Darshana of Jaimini which focuses on the Brahmana texts that appear in the earlier parts the Vedas is called Purva Mīmāṃsā (‘former enquiry or analysis’).

The Vedanta school is also referred to as Brahma-vada or ‘the doctrine of Brahman’ as the ‘Absolute Reality’ which is called ‘Brahman’ and its relation to the universe and human existence is at the core of the teachings. Vedanta promulgates Brahman as the principle of the ultimate reality or highest truth sought by humanity. Vedanta establishes that Brahman is an immutable absolute Consciousness that is beyond the limitations of time, space and causation.

Om brahmavid-āpnoti param, tadeṣā’bhyuktā, satyaṃ jñānam-anantaṃ brahma.

Om. One who realises Brahman attains the Supreme. With reference to that very fact it has been declared: Brahman is the Reality (satyaṃ), Awareness (jñānam), and Infinite (anantaṃ). — Yajur Veda, Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.1.1

Brahman is the unified field in which the whole universe exists; it is both the efficient and the material cause of the universe. Brahman is the underlying principle of unity behind the apparent diversity in all the things in this universe.

om pūrṇamadah pūrṇamidam, pūrṇāt-purṇam-ūdacyate,
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya, pūrṇam évāvaśiśyate.
Om śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ

Om. That is Whole (Absolute Reality); this is Whole (manifested universe); from the Whole, the Whole becomes manifest. From the Whole, when the Whole is negated, what remains is again the Whole. Om Peace, Peace, Peace. – Yajur Veda, Ishavasya Upanishad (Invocation mantra)

sarvam khalvidam brahma, tajjalaniti santa upasita, atha khalu kratumayah puruso yatha-kratur-asmin-loke puruso bhavati tathetah pretya bhavati, sa kratum kurvita.

All this is verily Brahman. Everything originates from That, everything dissolves in That and everything is sustained in That. Therefore meditate on Brahman with a tranquil mind. Now, verily, a person consists of conviction. As one’s conviction in this world, so does one becomes when departing hence. Therefore one should shape one’s conviction. – Sama Veda, Chandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1

The Vedanta school is the living representative of the ancient wisdom tradition of the Upanishadic rishis. In modern times, the Vedanta Darshana is hailed as the crown jewel of Hindu philosophy. It is the most vibrant and prominent school of spiritual and metaphysical thought in modern Hinduism.

Almost all living Vedic traditions are permeated with Vedantic principles. The Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and Upanishads forms the three canonical scriptures of the Vedanta Darshana. Various philosophers have given extensive commentaries on the Vedantic canons leading to the rise a few sub-schools of Vedanta philosophy in which the Advaita Vedanta school is one of the most dominant and ancient sub-schools of Vedanta.

The Advaita Vedanta school also has synthesis many thoughts of all other Vedic schools. Today a unified system of Sankhya – Yoga – Vedanta with the Advaita principles at its core has become the most popular yoga teaching among yoga teachers and practitioners worldwide.

Traditionally the Advaita Vedanta propagates the systems of Jnana yoga, Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga although Jnana yoga takes precedence as the primary spiritual path of the Advaitins. Jnana yoga or the ‘path of knowledge’ is considered the direct path to Self-realisation.

Nevertheless many Advaita Vedanta teachers also taught that apart from Jnana yoga, other yogas such as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Hatha yoga and Ashtanga Yoga (some modern teachers called it Raja yoga) can serve as a path to Self realisation since the role of all these yoga practices are to purify and develop spiritual maturity of the mind so that it becomes capable enough to rise above internal pressures and ego identifications and allow the individual to engage in Self-enquiry (atma-vichara) leading to Self-awareness (atma-jnana).

“Yoga is really nothing but ceasing to think that you are different from the Self or Reality. All the yogas — karma, jnana, bhakti and raja — are just different paths to suit different natures with different modes of evolution and to get them out of the long cherished notion that they are different from the Self. There is no question of union or yoga in the sense of going and joining something that is somewhere away from us or different from us, because you never were or could be separate from the Self”. – Sri Ramana Maharishi, Quoted from Day By Day with Bhagavan, 5.5.46

Many of the systems of yoga asana practices that are taught today have been propagated by teachers from the Advaita Vedanta tradition.

The Shaiva school is centred on the Shiva-principle as the Supreme God that is both transcendent and immanent. Shiva is both the efficient and material cause of the universe. Shiva is Supreme Consciousness. Shiva in motion is cosmic energy or Shakti that manifests the whole universe. Shiva is seen not as different from Shakti; both represent the principle of Divine Father and Divine Mother of the universe although the transcendent Shiva (Para Shiva) is beyond gender. Lord Shiva is worshiped as formless, form and formless form.

Shaiva Darshana synthesises the doctrines of Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta into the doctrines found in the Shaiva Tantras. The major Shaiva Darshanas are the Pāśupatas, Lākula Pāsupata, Śaiva Siddhānta, Siddha Siddhānta, Kashmir Śaiva (Trika Śaiva), Vira Śaiva (Lingayat), Śiva Advaita among others – each is a sect with its own lineages. The systems of yoga found in Shaiva traditions include Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Siddha yoga, Mantra yoga, Hatha yoga, Laya yoga and Kundalini yoga.

The popular yoga asana or yoga postures and exercise practised today has its origin in the Shaiva sect of Natha teacher lineage of Siddha Siddhanta. The monumental work on Hatha yoga called the Haṭha Yōga Pradīpikā was authored by Yogi Svatmarama who was a great Natha yogi, in the line of teachers of the Adinatha Sampradaya (Adinatha lineage).

The Shakta school is closely related to the Shaiva tradition although the Feminine principle of Divinity; Shakti or Devi is at the centre of its teachings. The worship of Shakti or Divine Power as the Supreme Goddess who is the dynamic principle of the universe is the primary focus while the worship of Shiva is secondary. Shakti is worshipped as the Divine Mother in her various manifestations.

One set of Tantric Goddesses are called Matrikas (Mothers) usually worshipped along side with the Yoginis (celestial attendants). The Shakta tradition is deeply rooted in esoteric practices and the Kundalini yoga system dominate its spiritual practices. Some Shaktas are also philosophical and devotional in approach, emphasising on Bhakti yoga centred on the worship of Divine Mother.

The Vaishnava school is centred on the Vishnu-principle as the principle of the One Supreme God who is absolute, all-pervading and the source of all Avatars (Divine Descent). The Vaishnavas identify Lord Vishnu (also called Lord Narayana or Vasudeva) as one and the same as Brahman of the Upanishadic Vedanta. Lord Vishnu has many Avatars such as Lord Rama and Lord Krishna.

The Vaishnava philosophers have developed many sophisticated philosophical schools that unite the Supreme God Vishnu of the Vaishnava Tantras with the Absolute Being (Brahman) of the Vedas.

The Vaishnava interpretations of Vedanta philosophy gave rise to a number of sub-schools of Vedanta, which are taught through Vaishnava sampradayas (teacher lineages) such as the Vishishtadvaita Vedanta of Ramanuja, Shuddhadvaita Vedanta of Vallabha, Dvaitadvaita Vedanta of Nimbarka and Acintya Bheda Abheda Vedanta of Chaitanya; all of which proposes different degrees of qualified-non-dualistic thought. There is also the school of Dvaita Vedanta of Madhava which propound a strict dualism. All the schools of Vaishnava philosophy is focused on the sole practice of Bhakti yoga which is aimed at cultivating personal loving devotion, selfless service and total-surrender to the Supreme Lord Vishnu or Lord Krishna.

A detailed discussion of each school-tradition and sect would be something for future consideration.

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