What You May Not Realize About Yoga

November 20, 2015    BY Georg Feuerstein

The oldest living plant is a windswept bristlecone pine, dubbed “Methuselah,” in eastern California; it is reckoned to have weathered no less than 4,768 years. When it sprouted, the first pyramid was under way in Egypt. In India, the Vedic seers were composing mystical hymns in archaic Sanskrit—hymns that would later be gathered into the Rig Veda, the oldest literary document in any Indo-European language and the fountainhead of the Yoga tradition.

The bristlecone pine readily invites comparison with Yoga, which shares its age. Like the tree, Yoga is a single tradition that, in the course of its long existence, has grown numerous branches. Unlike the bristlecone pine, the tree of Yoga is still growing new branches, or at least new leaf-carrying twigs.

Visitors to the grove in which Methuselah stands are awed by the spectacle of what is possibly the oldest living plant in the world. Should we not be equally awed by the age, proliferation, and vitality of the ancient tradition of Yoga? If we are not, it is perhaps because we are largely ignorant of the ramifying tree of Yoga, which is one of the most amazing and precious creations of our common human heritage.

Should we not be equally awed by the age, proliferation, and vitality of the ancient tradition of Yoga?

Yoga is the most sophisticated spiritual tradition in the world. It is also the oldest continuous endeavor to map the path from the valley of spiritual ignorance to the peak of enlightenment, and it offers the largest assemblage of practical tools for self-transformation and self-transcendence. Think of Yoga as an experiment that has been conducted for at least five millennia by millions of practitioners, including thousands of advanced realizers, and a small but consequential group of truly great masters.

While we ought not to succumb to the temptation of idealizing the past, in bygone eras the pursuit of spiritual goals was highly valued, and yogins and sages were greatly honored. By tapping into our highest human potential, Yoga mobilizes energies that can transform individual practitioners, and through them lead to positive changes in the world at large. Little wonder that generation after generation Yoga has attracted men and women from all walks of life and all cultural enclaves within India’s sprawling civilization.

Hindu Yoga, Buddhist Yoga, and Jaina Yoga

Few people realize that the tree of Yoga has grown in the rich soil of three great cultural complexes or traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. These are not merely religions, as often thought, but entire and largely self-contained cultures which all have their cradle in India. We can view them as fundamental lines of development, or territories, within the larger Indian or Indic civilization. Each has its own distinct body of sacred scriptures, spiritual lineages and teachings, art, architecture, social patterns, and languages—all tied together by common or at least overlapping spiritual ideals, theories, and practices.

Most people, when they hear the word yoga, think of the Hatha Yoga postures, which nowadays are taught everywhere. More informed folk think of Patanjali and his Raja Yoga (the royal path of meditation) or know something about Karma Yoga (the path of self-transcending service) and Bhakti Yoga (the path of self-transcending love). Aficionados might be familiar with Shankara’s Jñana Yoga (the path of discerning between the Real and the unreal) and Kundalini Yoga or Tantra Yoga (the path of the Goddess Power). All of these yogic teachings are present in the vast culture of Hinduism. Over the past thirty-five years, I have written extensively about many of them.

If this Hindu Yoga were all there was, it would already be quite impressive, if not overwhelming. But yogic teachings are also present in the spiritual cultures of Buddhism and Jainism. Thus we face three great forms of Yoga, namely Hindu Yoga, Buddhist Yoga, and Jaina Yoga. We can view these as the three major limbs of the Methuselah tree of Yoga. All three are products of the genius of the same Indic civilization, which has its roots in the Neolithic (the town of Mehrgarh has been dated back to 6,500 B.C.).

As one would expect, these three forms of Yoga have many features in common, but each also has made its own unique contribution to the yogic tradition and thus to the world’s spiritual heritage. Each form has sprouted its own branches, schools, and lineages. Admittedly, it is not customary to think of Buddhism and Jainism as being forms of Yoga, but this is precisely what these time-honored spiritual cultures are. They have yogic teachings and masters at their very core. If we were to remove Yoga from them, they would collapse into insignificance. The Buddha was a fully realized Yoga master, as was Vardhamana Mahavira, the founder of historical Jainism. Both clearly are treasured in their own traditions as such.

It could be said that those who reject the label yoga when applied to Buddhism and Jainism understand the term too narrowly. Broadly speaking, the word yoga stands for spirituality as it has developed on the Indian peninsula (including the Himalayan countries and the island of Sri Lanka). By “spirituality” I mean any practical program that enables us to recover our true identity, whether it be called the transcendental Self (atman), Spirit (purusha), the Absolute (brahman), Ultimate Reality (tattva), Being-Consciousness-Bliss (sat-cid-ananda), the Witness (sakshin), Omniscience (kevala-jñana), the Supreme Person (purushottama), God (deva), Goddess (devi), Suchness (tathata), or Emptiness (shunyata).

A spiritual path, then, is a combination of practices and ideas that help us wake up from the “consensus trance,” as psychology professor Charles Tart put it, and rediscover who we truly are over and above our limited body/mind. When we have succeeded at this program, we are said to have become “enlightened,” “liberated,” or “realized.” These are terms found throughout all three traditions. Let us look at each in terms of its yogic origins and flavor.

Hindu Yoga

Everyone accepts that Hinduism is permeated with yogic teachings, and so I will not spend too much time on this aspect of Yoga’s heritage. What is important to realize, though, is that the word yoga did not acquire its well-known technical sense until about 1000 B.C. when it appeared in the Taittiriya Upanishad. From the context it is clear that it stood for the control of the senses and the mind. Prior to that, the term yoga was widely used in its many nontechnical meanings—“union,” “conjunction,” “team,” “sum,” “equipment,” and so on.

Does this mean, then, that spiritual teachings did not exist in earlier times? Of course not. Already the Rig Veda, the oldest literary collection in the world, is bristling with spiritual ideas and practices which are an archaic form of Yoga. The ancient sages used the word tapas for these teachings, which means literally “heat” or “glow.” It refers to all those many practices—along with their underlying ideas—by which the Vedic seers (rishis) sought to find immortality in the divine realm. As one seer expressed it to the God Indra: By performing austerities we win heaven itself.

Early Western scholars regarded the 10,440 verses of the Rig Veda as “primitive Nature poetry” from the childhood of humanity, with little significance or appeal. It was a modern-day sage, the Bengali philosopher-yogin Sri Aurobindo, who aimed to correct this opinion by focusing on the spiritual content and great relevance of the Vedic hymns to human psychology. Gradually, a new perspective is emerging among Western academics. In Vedicist Jeanine Miller’s words: “Vedic thought, especially with regard to meditation and eschatology, reveals an unexampled depth of insight into the intricacies of the human mind, the background philosophy of which was the root of all subsequent speculations.”

The later, post-Vedic teachings of Yoga can be understood as directly evolving out of the earlier Vedic tradition of tapas. Many of the Rig Vedic beliefs and practices are recognizably present in subsequent teachings, if often in modified form. Even in post-Vedic times, the word tapas was occasionally used in place of yoga. This was also the case in Jainism and Buddhism, which formed in counterpoint to the Vedic stream of wisdom already within the Indian civilization.

Jaina Yoga

Jainism is the name given to the cultural complex revolving around the wisdom of Vardhamana Mahavira and his notable followers. Mahavira (“Great Hero”) was an older contemporary of Gautama the Buddha and lived c. 599–527 B.C. He is held to have been the twenty-fourth “ford-maker” (tirthankara)—we would call him a pathmaker—in a long lineage of great masters. With the exception of Mahavira’s immediate predecessor Parshva, Western scholars doubt the historicity of these earlier teachers, who are said to have had incredibly long life spans rather like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. But while we may question their long lives, there is really no reason to doubt that these great masters actually once walked the earth and contributed to its upliftment.

The sacred scriptures of Jainism portray Mahavira as a formidable ascetic who practiced extreme tapas. Born in 599 B.C., the son of a local ruler, he opted at the age of thirty to renounce the world, pulling out his hair to signal his firm commitment to a mendicant’s life. Henceforth he walked about “sky clad” (i.e., naked) and bereft of possessions. For many years, villagers beat and verbally abused him, but he patiently bore this hardship and cultivated meditation single-mindedly. He barely ate and drank, and squatted beneath the blazing sun to meditate.

Twelve years, six months, and fifteen days after he began his life as a wandering ascetic, Mahavira attained enlightenment. His body, we are told, “shone like a crystal” and emanated a divine sound. He had become a “conqueror,” or jina—a term the Buddha applied to himself as well. (From jina is derived jaina, which means “pertaining to the conqueror.”) Sixty-six days later, his first disciples arrived, and for thirty years Mahavira untiringly taught the path to liberation to an ever growing number of earnest seekers.

His body, we are told, “shone like a crystal” and emanated a divine sound. He had become a “conqueror,” or jina—a term the Buddha applied to himself as well.

Through his own trials and resultant enlightenment, Mahavira had discovered a way out of suffering and its cause, spiritual ignorance. He called his approach proper “conduct” (charitra), his term for Yoga, and he placed great emphasis on the pervasive workings of karma in our human lives. His elaborations on karma are the most detailed of any tradition. As he saw it, the cosmos is filled with karmic matter, which sticks to the soul (jiva) and drags it down into darkness. But this karmic dust can stick to us only so long as the soul is “moist” with impure thoughts and emotions. Our defiled thoughts and emotions give us a certain “vibration,” or what the Jainas call “yoga”—a basic activity resonating with karmic matter. Thus we become karma consumers, and like caterpillars we encase ourselves in tight cocoons. The defilement of our souls then leads to repeated births and deaths.

Liberation takes place when we slough off our karmic skins by becoming “dry,” or free from negative thoughts and emotions. Then we will rise into freedom like beautiful butterflies emerging from their cocoons. At that point, the soul (which has the three characteristics of consciousness, happiness, and energy) is fully purified and free to roam all dimensions of existence at will. There is no further need for recycling ourselves lifetime after lifetime; instead we live in splendid perfection. The term used for this elevated state which is beyond space and time is kevala-jñana, or absolute knowledge. This reminds us of the cognate word kaivalya, used by Patanjali, the compiler of the famous Yoga Sutra, to refer to liberation. Both Mahavira and Patanjali thought of this supreme realization as a disembodied state. In the Acharanga Sutra, Mahavira refers to it as follows:

The liberated one is not tall or short, round or triangular...not black, blue, red, or white, has no body and is not male, female, or neuter, and perceives and is conscious but without comparison—a formless existence. There is no condition of the Unconditioned.

As Mahavira saw it, on the ordinary level, prior to enlightenment, the soul’s energy is limited. It can power either the process of consuming free-floating karmic particles, or it can power the process of liberation. But liberation is possible only when we exert ourselves through tapas (=Yoga), which burns off all karmic accretions. The foremost karma-busting activity is to cease engaging in destructive behavior like anger, pride, deceit, greed, lust, fear, and so on. We can do this when we have a proper context of understanding. Thus Mahavira’s fourteenfold path begins with “right view” (samyag-darshana), which, in turn, makes us sensitive to our karmic conditioning and also motivates us to go beyond it. Only when we see that our pain is self-inflicted will we make the necessary turnabout. In other words, we become willing to endure the lesser “pain” of conscious discipline in order to overcome the greater suffering resulting from wrong thoughts and actions.

Moral disciplines are fundamental to spiritual growth, and Mahavira (and subsequent teachers) worked out in great detail what a spiritual practitioner ought and ought not to do. He believed in taking vows (vrata), and the whole path of Jaina Yoga has been mapped out in a long series of vows such as fasting for a certain period of time, sexual abstinence, severely limiting one’s possessions, practicing meditation, and so on. A central spiritual practice of Jainism is cultivating the supreme value of non-harming (ahimsa). The Jainas (or Jains), especially the monastics, go to extreme length to avoid harming or killing other beings, including insects. They feel that no activity causes a greater karmic burden than harming others. Rejecting both fatalism and reliance on a divine power, Mahavira stressed self-reliance. We constantly get ourselves into karmic trouble, he maintained, and we also have the power to extricate ourselves from it.

There is no question that the Jaina path is a unique form of Yoga, even though here the Sanskrit term has been given a technical meaning that is distinct from Hindu and Buddhist Yoga. At least this is so in the early Jaina scriptures. Later on, masters like Haribhadra Suri (eighth century) and Hemacandra (twelfth century) used the word yoga in exactly the same sense as did, for instance, Patanjali. If it looks, waddles, and quacks like a duck, surely it must be a duck.

Buddhist Yoga

Like Mahavira, Gautama the Buddha belonged to the proliferating renunciate (shramana) movement of his day, which flourished outside the Vedic orthodoxy of the brahmins. Born c. 563 B.C. he, like Mahivara, was the son of a minor ruler and exchanged the comfortable princely life for one of great hardship. Unlike the founder of Jainism, however, after six years of the most stringent austerities (tapas), Gautama concluded that extremist practices were not conducive to liberation. He was close to death from sheer exhaustion. So he adopted what he called the “middle way” (madhyama-marga) of neither blindly yielding to egoic desires nor denying the body what it needed to be healthy and sound. His five companion ascetics abandoned him, thinking he had lost sight of the supreme goal of liberation.

Then, in a single night of sustained meditation and intense inner struggle, Gautama accomplished the near-impossible: he transcended the ego and its multitude of karmic patterns and experienced what he called “nirvana,” the extinction of all craving. When the sun rose the next morning, an awakened one (buddha) sat under the fig tree where he had meditated for so long. He had succeeded in the heroic deed of waking up completely from the compelling dream of conventional (egoic) life. He was thirty-five at the time.

In a single night of sustained meditation and intense inner struggle, Gautama accomplished the near-impossible.

Emerging from his deep meditation, the newly born Buddha spent several weeks pondering the implications of his realization and formulating it into a self-consistent teaching. At one point he decided to find his former fellow ascetics and share his insights with them. His public ministry, which lasted until his death in c. 483 B.C. at the age of eighty, began with his first speech, which is remembered as “setting the Wheel of Dharma in motion.” Within a short time, disciples had flocked to him in large numbers. Some became monastics; most remained lay followers through whose support his spiritual community (sangha) grew rapidly.

It is clear from biographical accounts of the Buddha that prior to his enlightenment he had studied with at least two teachers—Rudraka Ramaputra and Arada Kalama—who taught some form of Upanishadic Yoga, which he mastered readily. His own teaching (dharma) contains many concepts that we may understand as Yoga without violating its intent or diminishing its great originality.

The Buddha’s noble eightfold path begins, like Mahavira’s slightly earlier teaching, with what he called “right view”: Without proper understanding, we cannot act wisely. And without wisdom, we are bound to create karma that keeps us entrapped in the cycle of existence (samsara) from one life to the next. The Buddha was as horrified by this prospect as was Mahavira and other lesser spiritual practitioners. For them, karma boiled down to suffering (duhkha). When asked about his own path, the Buddha taught the four noble truths:

  • Life is suffering.
  • The cause of suffering is craving (rooted in spiritual ignorance).
  • Suffering can be stopped.
  • The noble eightfold path is the way to stop suffering.

Essentially, the eightfold path consists of eight steps to liberation that take us progressively away from those deeply rooted mental patterns that produce karma and thus suffering. The struggle for liberation occurs in the battlefield of our own mind. Like Mahavira, the Buddha did not resort to a religious belief in a divine agent whose grace could remove our suffering. He placed the responsibility for our happiness or unhappiness, freedom or bondage, squarely on our own shoulders. We must, he said, understand very clearly the mechanism by which we continue to produce the karmic conditions for unhappiness, and then we must consistently apply the remedy of the eightfold path.

In the Buddhist Pali canon, the Buddha is frequently called “sage” (muni), which also is the name given to great masters of Hindu and Jaina Yoga. He is portrayed as an inveterate meditator, and some form of meditation, or mindfulness, is at the heart of all branches of Yoga. The word yogin is applied to adepts in all three branches of Buddhism—Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. In Mahayana Buddhism, one important school is even known as Yogachara (“Yoga Way”). The highest teaching of Vajrayana Buddhism, which understands itself as the secret teaching given by the Buddha, is known as anuttara yoga, or the “unexcelled yoga.” If there is such a supreme Yoga in Buddhism, then we can consider the less advanced Buddhist practices as Yoga too. In short, Buddhism is a form of Yoga.

An Enlarged Perspective

Why would one even want to emphasize the common yogic background of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism? First of all, it simply is the case. These three are spiritually based cultures, and, broadly speaking, we must consider them as yogic cultures. The popular view, which overemphasizes their distinctions, is essentially myopic. There is a need to take a panoramic view, which allows us to see more of the picture, and to see it better.

When we do this it becomes clear that Hindu Yoga, Buddhist Yoga, and Jaina Yoga are indeed just that: Yoga. If there is any doubt left, we should remember that all three traditions use the term yoga to describe themselves.

Yoga is too big to squash into little ideological boxes. We need to realize this and start breaking down inherited biases and misconceptions.

From this enlarged perspective, we can now cultivate sincere tolerance in regard to the three great forms of Yoga and their branches, schools, lineages, and individual practitioners. As practitioners ourselves, we can see how we are all on the same quest and often have the same or quite similar ideas and practices. We no longer have to feel conflict about practicing Hatha Yoga postures, going on Buddhist Yoga meditation retreats, or modeling our lives after the moral precepts found in exhaustive detail in the tradition of Jaina Yoga. We can now open ourselves to discovering our kinship with yogins everywhere, including practitioners in other spiritual cultures, such as Christian mysticism, Jewish Kabbalah, and Muslim Sufism. The Yoga masters of any spiritual tradition have profound wisdom and knowledge to offer, which we should feel free to receive. Yoga is too big to squash into little ideological boxes. We need to realize this and start breaking down inherited biases and misconceptions.

Yoga is a five-thousand-year-old spiritual tradition that, in its march to the West, has had to overcome various challenges. The latest challenge is commercialism, which predictably it will survive as well. But the commodification of Yoga drives home the need to keep alive the dialogue between tradition and contemporary culture. Without exorcising its spiritual orientation, traditional Yoga must be made relevant to our present-day situation, which is vastly complex. Its usefulness is greatly enhanced when we gaze beyond the historical boundaries between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism to their core concepts and practices.

Like Methuselah, the bristlecone pine, the many-branched tree of Yoga has weathered many storms. Unlike the pine, however, Yoga has the potential of growing for many more thousands of years, assisting our human species in its slow development toward full spiritual maturation. Quite apart from Yoga’s importance for our further human evolution, this age-old but ever self-renewing tradition can serve us in our individual growth now. 

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2003 issue of Yoga International.

Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.