While yoga has become immensely popular across the globe, most of us – whether in India or abroad – think of it in terms of a series of asanas designed primarily to make us more flexible. We think of it as a practice that confers dexterity and physical well-being. However, Patanjali, the compiler of the foundational text on yoga, the yoga sutras, was at least as interested in mental wellness as in physical health. In fact, King Bhoja, who wrote a commentary on the yoga sutrasthanks Patanjali for using yoga to “remove the impurities of the mind”.
Patanjali defined yoga as suppressing the tendency of the mind to wander, when one wants instead to concentrate (yogah chitta-vritti-nirodhah). In the types of mental distraction he discusses, he mentions getting lost in past memories, or daydreaming about the future, instead of focusing on the task at hand. Current day psychologists and counselors and countless TED talks advocate living in the present moment, not in the past or the future. Apparently, Patanjali had the same idea a very long time ago (scholars disagree on his actual date, estimates range from the 5th century BC to a few hundred years later). In fact, Patanjali even lays down mindfulness as one of the ways to train the mind for intense concentration. This involved fully savoring a sensory experience of one’s choice – without letting any other thoughts or acts detract from the experience. Mindful meditation is, of course, a buzzword now, but most of us have no idea of it being initially discussed in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Interestingly, Patanjali mentions several other meditation techniques that are popular in modern times, including visualization and focusing on the breath. He also advocated training the mind to remember dreams. Dream analysis is a crucial tool used by modern day psychoanalysts as well.
For Patanjali, the ultimate goal was being able to concentrate so intensely that one immerses oneself fully in the subject, losing all sense of being separate from the topic of one’s focus. He recommends a sequence of steps for getting to this goal, one of which entails cultivating contentment. Patanjali advocates achieving contentment in two ways. The first involves consciously feeling gratitude for the gift of being alive, while the second involves acceptance of oneself and one’s circumstances. Both these methods – gratitude and self-acceptance – are repeatedly emphasized by modern day psychologists. For instance, Robert Emmons, regarded as the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, has authored books detailing the benefits of expressing gratitude, especially in the form of a sense of awe and wonder at the miracle of simply being alive. (Empirical studies on this mainly focused on the positive effects of gratitude on health and productivity). Self-acceptance is also commonly seen by modern psychologists as being a key component of happiness and mental health. In Patanjali’s opinion, feeling grateful and accepting oneself would make one contented, and a contented person has a relatively untroubled mind, making concentration easier for such a person.
Coming to yet another remarkable similarity between Patanjali’s way of thinking and current day psychological thought requires us to talk about Patanjali’s prohibition against murder. This was one of the chief prohibitions that, according to Patanjali, needed to be observed if one wanted to develop powers of intense concentration; a murderer could not become a yogi. Interestingly, Patanjali was completely non-judgmental of the fact that a person might feel like killing someone else. He even explains what one can do in such a situation to avoid actually acting on the impulse. In this, Patanjali was very like modern psychologists, for whom censoring thoughts is completely unnecessary (they only restrict actions, which ought not to hurt oneself or others). This is also in sharp contrast with a lot of philosophies which condemn “sinful thoughts”.
Yoga was actually much older even than Patanjali, who simply compiled existing theories on yoga into a high-quality text. For instance, the physician Charaka mentions quite another form of yoga in his ancient medical text from him the Charaka-samhita, thought to be even older than Patanjali. Perhaps to help aspiring medical students, Charaka’s yoga simply aimed at making people better at memorizing facts! It too emphasized mindfulness.
Even more intriguingly, as described by archaeologist Rita Wright in her 2010 book on the Indus valley civilization (IVC), many seals found in IVC sites depict figures in what seem to be yogic postures. One shows a seated figure immersed in a yogic trance, paying no attention at all to the wild animals surrounding him, or to the fact that a man next to him is spearing a water buffalo! The yogi remains in his inner world of him, tranquil and undisturbed. In another seal, two kneeling people present an offering to a figure seated in a yogic stance. The best known of the Mohenjodaro seals is the “Pashupati” seal, which shows a three-faced figure seated in a yogic posture, surrounded by Indus animals such as lions, elephants, and buffaloes. Pashupati is associated with Rudra, an early version of Shiva, the ultimate yogi.
The figures in the seals show maximum concentration, of the sort described much later by Patanjali. They are not distracted by all the hunting going on around them, or by the various humans or animals approaching them. So, it is unlikely that the people who made the seals were beginners exploring and experimenting with yoga – yogic practitioners seem to .have already attained a very high degree of proficiency by the time of the Indus valley civilization (which itself was at its height in the third millennium BC). They evidently commanded reverence and were known for their powers of deep concentration. While Mesopotamian and Persian seals from the time of the IVC exist, that also show narrative imagery, they lack figures in yogic poses, suggesting the unlikeliness of foreign influences. Archaeological evidence suggests that yoga was most likely even older than the seals in the IVC.
The regard in which yoga was held is evident in ancient Sanskrit literature. For example, in Bharavi’s sixth century epic poem, the Kiratarjuniya, Arjuna is a hero not because of his prowess in battle, but because of his yogic abilities. He was able to still all contemplation and meditate. (The sixth canto of the poem describes how Arjuna’s meditation made even wild beasts in the forests on the hill feel more tranquil, by the power of influence).
A key component in achieving concentration in Patanjali’s system was the state of dhyana = which became known as zen in East Asian Buddhism, where it was taken by a fifth century South Indian prince, Bodhidharma. Documentary evidence about Bodhidharma comes not from India, but from other countries – primarily China, but also Indonesia, Tibet and Japan. The oldest Chinese source about him dates from the early sixth century. He is first mentioned by Tanlin (506-574), followed by other Chinese sources like Jingjue’s(683-750) The Chronicles of the Lankavatara mastersDaoxuan’s seventh century Further biographies of Eminent Monksand the tenth century Record of the Patriarchal Hall. Japanese and Indonesian sources also mention him (according to the modern Japanese scholar Tsutomu Kambe, who studied the manuscripts about him, Bodhidharma was from a Brahmin royal dynasty (a rarity) and was probably from Kanchipuram.) All these sources recount how Bodhidharma, a practitioner of yoga, traveled to China via a harrowing voyage by sea, had a spectacularly unsuccessful interview with the Chinese emperor, whom he managed to offend, and then made his way to the Shaolin monastery. His reputation of him as an eccentric having probably preceded him, Bodhidharma was refused admittance into the monastery by the Shaolin monks, but remained completely unperturbed. He literally settled down next to the monastery and spent the next nine years gazing at a wall. There were plenty of wild animals in the area surrounding the Shaolin temple, but they did not attack Bodhidharma. One is reminded of the Indus valley yogis meditating undisturbed by dangerous animals nearby, or of Arjuna’s calming influence on the animals of the forest during his penance in the Kiratarjuniya.
Gradually, the Shaolin monks, who had started bringing Bodhidharma food and water, grew curious and in awe of his mental discipline, his perseverance and physical hardiness. After nine years, Bodhidharma was finally given a room in the monastery, and taught the monks – at their behest of him – dhyana or Zen meditation. With its emphasis on meditation, quieting the mind and focusing on the breath, the popularity of Zen subsequently spread from East and South-East Asia to the West and is finally making its presence felt in the homeland of Buddhism, India.
From the intrepid yogis of the Indus valley civilization, to scholars like Patanjali, who sought to harness its powers for mental concentration and contentment, to Buddhists like Bodhidharma who spread it worldwide, yoga has gone through many avatars. On International Yoga Day, fans can rejoice in the enduring legacy of yoga across the globe, and in its holistic approach to both mental health and physical endurance.
Brishti Guha has a PhD in economics from Princeton and is currently an associate professor at the School of International Studies, JNU
The views expressed are personal
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