The Origin and Development of Yoga. Part III

Continued from: The Origin and Development of Yoga. Part II

It is the Upanishads, however, which put yoga on a firmer foundation. It is in these varied texts that we start to see yoga assume a more definite shape. The Sanskrit word Upanishad is made up from the words shad, ‘to sit’, upa, ‘near’ and ni, ‘learn’. The whole word can be interpreted to mean sit down near and receive teachings from a master. The word upanishad can also be interpreted as secret teaching. There are believed to have been about two hundred different Upanishads, the oldest of which was written somewhere around 600 B.C. and the most recent as late as the fifteenth century A.D. Traditionally, one hundred and eight of these Upanishads are regarded as authentic, and of these only about twelve or thirteen are regarded as being authoritative. The major Upanishads are the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya, Swetasvatara and Brihadaranyaka. They vary enormously in their contents – the Mandukya is the smallest with a mere twelve verses while the Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya each contain a few thousand words. The Upanishads are also known as the Vedanta – the culmination of the Vedas, for they are said to contain the essence of the Vedas.

The essential message of the Upanishads is that the Self can only be known through union (yoga) and certainly not by mere speculation and learning. Furthermore, it is emphasized again and again that the Self is not to be realized outside; it is not something separate, but at the very core of our being. The Upanishads use words as a means and not as an end. When asked to define the Self, or consciousness, one of the sages gave the wonderful but very unintellectual or alogical reply: ‘neti-neti’, which means ‘not this, not this’. The Upanishads don’t paint a completely rosy picture of the yogic path – effort is required. For as the Katha Upanishad says, the path is as narrow as the razor’s edge. There is a similar saying from another great yogi and spiritual teacher, Christ, who said: “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life (selfrealization).”

Many of the Upanishads try to describe the highest spiritual experiences and the illumination or knowledge that they received. To this end they use analogies, stories and sometimes beautiful poetry. Other Upanishads are more practical and describe mental attitudes that must be cultivated and adopted in order to both begin and make progress on the yogic path. Others make brief statements regarding methods that can be practised in order to induce meditation. Many other topics are also discussed.

The Upanishads are numerous and the subjects that they cover too diversified for there to be any full treatment of their contents here. However, we can give a brief summary of the scope of their teachings.

Many of the Upanishads devote much space to describing prana and its implications. The earlier Upanishads – the Brihadaranyaka, Chhandogya, Taittinya, etc., were fully aware of the fact that prana is the substratum behind all life forms. They describe the psychic pathways which exist witbin, but not of the physical body, through which prana flows, including the all important nadis, ida, pingala and sushumna3. In the later Upanishads such as the Prashna and the Katha this theme was further develop-ed. The different forms of prana within the body were mapped out according to the functions performed and it is stated that there are seventy two thousand nadis or pranic channels within the body. The concept of the kundalini (psychic and spiritual power) in the form of a serpent within the body is also indicated.

Continue to: The Origin and Development of Yoga. Part IV

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