Updated: August 14, 2009 14:35 IST

Development of Yoga

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Probes the roots of yogic, meditative, and tantric practices of Indian religions

THE ORIGINS OF YOGA AND TANTRA: Geoffrey Samuel; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.

The book discusses, in a historical perspective, the techniques of mental and physical cultivation known as Yoga, Tantra and Dhyana which are integral to the religious traditions of early India. In the main, it deals with the development of the Vedic, the Buddhist, the Jain, and the Brahmanical traditions down to the early medieval period, the 12th century.

A scholar of Tibetan and Indian religions and of social and cultural anthropology, and a keen observer of numerous people engaged in spreading the practices of Yoga, Dhyana and Tantra, Geoffrey Samuel probes the roots of yogic, meditative, and tantric practices of Indian religions and touches upon the archaeological relics of the Harappan culture, particularly the seal of a buffalo-headed figure probably seated in yogic posture, and the Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro.


The first of the two parts speaks of the development of yoga and meditation in the Gangetic valley in the context of second urbanisation, the interactive contemporary world, religion in the early states, the origins of the Buddhist and Jaina orders, and the Brahmanical alternative. It ends with an interlude reviewing asceticism and celibacy, wherein the author has tried to suggest the two directions of Indic religions the Brahmanical and the Sramanical besides bringing out the contrast between the pragmatic and everyday religion.

According to him, the role of asceticism and celibacy in Buddhism and other Indic traditions makes sense when viewed in the wider social context of assumptions and practices in vogue, particularly the assumptions regarding gender and sexuality. Key issues discussed include the growth of the ascetic orders and the development of a series of techniques of mind-body cultivation among the various ascetic groups. The author begins by asking why did the ascetic orders and the new goal of liberation from rebirth develop at the time they did? Despite the fact that all historical personages and what they stood for were notoriously remade generation after generation, the core element of the messages of the Buddha, Parsva, Mahavira, Makkhali Gosala and the other spiritual leaders of the Sramana tradition was the renunciation of material life, involving rejection of familyand of the emotions, feelings, and impulses that tied one to it.

Tantric practices

The second part dwells on the classical synthesis, Tantra and wild goddesses, subtle bodies, longevity, internal alchemy, the state, and the later history of yogic, tantric practices.Tantric practices were a relatively minor part of the ritual technology of the state in most cases, for hardly did they employ images of ferocious goddesses or inhabited the dangerous fringe territory between the ordered world of social existence and the mysterious realm of transcendence with misfortune, terror, and death.

Towards the end, the author harks back to the basic question of reality about meditation, yoga, and mind-body processes. He argues that, historically, the evolution of these techniques is that of an overall development from simple to complex approaches by different ascetic groups. He takes the position that it is hard to get a clear perception of what yoga, meditation, and tantra are about. What is academically feasible according to him, is to try and trace the genealogical connections of practices and ideas rather than try and compute the variety of historical instances into a comprehensive definition.


If anybody believes that the usefulness of the techniques of yoga, meditation, and tantra as tools in todays global society may still be worth investigating, Geoffrey Samuels says, our ability to make sense of them and use them can be enhanced by an understanding of the historical context in which these practices developed. What one really understands from the history of these techniques is that its earliest phase belongs to the Vedic Age, when the procedures were centred on the visionary revelation of divine knowledge in the form of hymns and statements of sacred truth, which could be used in ritual contexts related to death and for a proper transition to a heavenly afterlife. In the age of the Upanishads, the idea of yoga became a technique of entering the body of another human being. By the time of the Mahayana Buddhism, the techniques of meditation once again got combined with visionary procedures.

In the subsequent age, the tantric techniques of the Kapalika, Kalamukha, and Sakta ascetics of the Kaula tradition combined yogic practices with the idea of visionary communication with the deity almost exactly as construed by the Buddhists of Mahayoga Tantra. The movement of prana through the channels of the body is closely linked to the conscious control of bodily processes during practices of sexual yoga. In the beginning of the 12th century, the yogic and tantric practices were scarcely known outside of South Asia and the Buddhist societies of Southeast and East Asia, a few specialist scholars and esoteric practitioners aside. Though the historical analysis stops with the 12th century, the author reflects on how a travesty of meditation and yoga practices works among millions of people in the global society today.

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