The Origin and Development of Yoga. Part IV

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

The early Upanishads, such as the Kena and Isha, began to indirectly develop and formulate the precepts of karma yoga, though it is left to the later Bhagavad Gita to fully expound the essence of karma yoga. It is these Upanishads that first indicate the possibility of treading the yogic path and reaching the culmination while performing one’s everyday duties. Until this time there was a tendency to see the yogic and spiritual paths as being completely separate and divorced from worldly pursuits.

Various Upanishads, such as the Prashna and Katha, deal quite extensively with the mantra Aum. In fact the Mandukya devotes its entire commentary to this topic and nothing else. These texts again and again emphasize that meditation can be most easily induced by concentration on Aum. The Mundaka Upanishad considers Aum as a bow, the individual self as an arrow and Brahman or the Self as the target. If the arrow is aimed with full concentration, then there is no doubt that it will pierce and merge with the target. So it is with Aum that one can attain the highest states of meditation.

The early Upanishads lay down some of the basic rules of raja yoga which were later fully systematized and expounded by Patanjali. In fact, various useful suggestions are mentioned such as the following two examples: “With the body, head and neck held upright, direct your awareness to the heart region; and then Aum will be your boat to cross the river of fear.” (Swetasvarara Upanishad)

In fact this is the first time that a sitting pose suitable for meditational practice was specified in a scriptural text. “The supreme path begins when the five senses and the mind are stilled and when the intellect is silent. This tranquillity of the senses is yoga.” (Katha Upanishad)

This clearly defines the meaning of the fifth state of raja yoga, pratyahara, where a person’s awareness is withdrawn from the external world and the sense organs. In fact, this all important stage is preliminary to the attainment of meditation through raja yoga techniques and is elucidated again and again in the Upanishads.

We have only mentioned some of the earliest Upanishads, and the ones that are regarded as being the most important. There is a goldmine of information on other aspects of yoga in the texts we have mentioned, as well as the large number of so-called minor Upanishads. For example, the Yoga Chudamani covers a wide range of practical aspects of yoga ranging from asanas and pranayama to psychic centres and self-realization. It also deals with some yogic practices that are part of kriya yoga, though not in much detail. The other Upanishads are also a source of many practical and theoretical principles of yoga. However, the only thing that the Upanishads lack is a systematic treatment and summary of the paths of yoga; they are a conglomeration of profound ideas mixed with various other kinds of information. In fact, we can say that the Upanishads are intended more to inspire than to instruct. During the era of the writing of the Upanishads, right up until quite recently, instructions on practical yoga were always imparted personally by a gum. The writers knew this and so detailed techniques were not recorded. This was left to the discretion of the guru and to later yogic texts.

Though they don’t explain yogic practices in any depth, the joy of higher awareness shines through the Upanishads as clearly as the midday sun. They tackle sublime questions of existence with the utmost simplicity and directness. The answers they give are revelations in themselves. The Upanishads are such that they can be read by any person in the world with at least some kind of comprehension and empathy, without becoming lost in a haze of over-intellectualization as is so easy with many other scriptures. They are meant to simplify not to complicate.

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

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