The Vedic Basis of Classical Yoga

Posted November 25, 2012 by Vamadev Shastri in Fountainhead of Yoga

Many people today look to Patanjali, the compiler of the famous Yoga Sutras, as the father or founder of the greater system of Yoga. However, while Patanjali’s work is very important and worthy of profound examination, any extensive study of the ancient literature on Yoga reveals that the Yoga tradition is much older than Patanjali – and that its main practices already existed long before his time. Patanjali was a compiler, not an originator of Yoga teachings.

The traditional founder of Yoga Darshana or the ‘Yoga system of philosophy’ – which the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali represents – is usually said to be Hiranyagarbha. It is nowhere in classical Yoga literature said to be Patanjali.  The Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 349.65), the great ancient text in which the Bhagavad Gita of Sri Krishna occurs and which is sometimes called the ‘fifth Veda’, states: “Kapila, the teacher of Samkhya, is said to be the supreme Rishi. Hiranyagarbha is the original knower of Yoga. There is no one else more ancient.”

Elsewhere in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 342.95-96), Krishna states, identifying himself with Hiranyagarbha: “As my form, carrying the knowledge, eternal and dwelling in the Sun, the teachers of Samkhya, who have discerned what is important, call me Kapila. As the brilliant Hiranyagarbha, who is lauded in the verses of the Vedas, ever worshipped by Yoga, so I am also remembered in the world.” Note that Krishna identifies yogic Hiranyagarbha with the deity of the same name in the Vedas.

Other yogic texts like the Brihadyogi Yajnavalkya Smriti XII.5 similarly portray Hiranyagarbha as the original teacher of Yoga, just as they do Kapila as the original teacher of the Samkhya system. So do commentaries on the Yoga Sutras. For example, Vijnana Bhikshu, the great Samkhya teacher in his Yogavartika commentary on the first sutra of the Yoga Sutras, also explains Hiranyagarbha as the Adiguru or primal guru of Yoga, quoting the Yogi Yajnavalkya.[i] While the depth, clarity and brevity of Patanjali’s compilation is noteworthy, it is the mark of a later summation, not a new beginning.

The vast literature of the Vedas, Mahabharata and Puranas speak of numerous great yogis but does not mention Patanjali, who was of a later period.[ii]  Even the Yoga literature that is later in time than Patanjali, like that of Kashmir Shaivism, Siddha Yoga or Hatha Yoga, does not make Patanjali central to its teachings, though they my mention him, but rather emphasize the deity Shiva as Adinath or their original guru.

The earlier Yoga literature before Patanjali can perhaps be better called the Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana as it is said to begin with Hiranyagarbha. In fact, most of the Yoga taught in Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Mahabharata and Puranas – which is the main ancient literature of Yoga – appears to be part of this Hiranyagarbha tradition. Such ancient Pre-Patanjali texts speak of a Yoga Shastra or the ‘authoritative teachings on Yoga’ and of a Yoga Darshana or ‘Yoga philosophy’, but by that they mean the older tradition traced to Hiranyagarbha.

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is only referred to as a compiler, not as an inventor of the Yoga teachings. He himself states, “Thus is the teaching of Yoga” (Yoga Sutras I.1). This is quite unlike Krishna, the avatar of Yoga, who states, “I taught the original Yoga to Vivasvan” (Bhagavad Gita IV.1).

Patanjali is sometimes regarded as a devotee of Vishnu/Narayana, whose main human avatar is Krishna. This suggests that Patanjali himself was a devotee of Krishna. Traditional Sanskrit chants to Patanjali laud him as an incarnation of Lord Sesha, the serpent on which Lord Vishnu/Narayana resides. This Sesha attribution links Patanjali and his darshana to Krishna/Vishnu. Yet others view Patanjali as a Shaivite Yoga, for his emphasis on Ishvara and Om, which are more commonly associated with Shiva than any other deity formulation.

However, it is the Bhagavad Gita is the primary text lauded as a Yoga Shastra or ‘definitive Yoga teaching’ in the ancient literature. This connection can be carried to the Mahabharata as a whole, in which the Gita occurs. Bhishma in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 300.57) also speaks of a Yoga teaching “established in many Yoga Shastras.” The Anu Gita section of the Mahabharata (Ashvamedha Parva 19.15) has an interesting section that begins, “Thus I will declare, the supreme and unequalled Yoga Shastra.”

Several Upanishads like the Katha, Kena and Svestasvatara are said to be Yoga Shastras, besides numerous Yoga Upanishads that also do not emphasize Patanjali and have Yoga taught by a variety of teachers, including famous Vedic figures like Yajnavalkya and Shandilya. The Puranas, which are large encyclopedic works of traditional knowledge going back to medieval and ancient periods, contain many sections on Yoga but do not give importance to Patanjali. When such texts teach Yoga, they often do so with quotes from the older Vedas, as we mentioned with the Svetasvatara Upanishad in the previous chapter.

This means that the Patanjali Yoga Darshana is a later subset of the earlier Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana. It is not a new or original teaching meant to stand on its own. Such Sutra literature like the Yoga Sutras or Brahma Sutras were regarded as short axioms that required interpretation in the light of the existing more detailed traditions, mainly through authoritative commentaries. The topics addressed in the Yoga Sutras from yamas and niyamas to dhyana and samadhi are already taught extensively in the older literature. In the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 316.7), the sage Yajnavalkya speaks of an “eightfold Yoga taught in the Vedas.” The Shandilya Upanishad (1) refers to an eightfold or ashtanga Yoga but does not mention Patanjali.

While no Hiranyagarbha Yoga Sutras text has survived, quite a few of teachings of the Hiranyagarbha have remained. In fact, the literature on the Hiranyagarbha Yoga tradition may be as large as that of the Patanjali Yoga tradition, which itself represents a branch of it. This means that we cannot speak of a Patanjali Yoga tradition or of a Patanjali Yoga literature as apart from an older set of Yoga teachings rooted in the Hiranyagarbha tradition.

The Patanjali Yoga teaching occurs in the context of a broader Yoga Darshana that includes other streams. This Yoga Darshana existed long before Patanjali and was taught in many ways. It is the Yoga Darshana originally attributed to Hiranyagarbha and related Vedic teachers.

Yet even this Yoga Darshana that is connected to the Samkhya system, and could also be called the ‘Samkhya-Yoga darshana’, is not the only line of Yoga. The Mahabharata and other ancient texts speak of the Vaishnava Yoga that relates to Krishna and the Shaivite or Pashupata Yoga that goes back to Shiva himself. Indeed the main Yoga traditions in India are largely Shaivite and only use the Yoga Sutras in a peripheral manner. This includes the traditions of Hatha Yoga and Siddha Yoga, which are more rooted in the Shaivite Yoga than in the Yoga Sutras. While we should certainly honor this Samkhya-Yoga tradition, we should remember the greater diversity of yogic paths.

Parallel With the Samkhya Tradition

A similar situation, in which the main Sutra text of a Vedic philosophy is later in time than its original teachings, also occurs relative to Samkhya. The main sutra text on Samkhya philosophy is the Samkhya Karika of Ishvara Krishna. Ishvara Krishna (who is not the Krishna of the Gita) is a figure of the early centuries AD who debated with Buddhist teachers near the time of Vasubandhu, the main teacher of Yogachara Buddhism. Ishvara Krishna is a much later teacher than the original founder of the Samkhya system, the sage Kapila, who is regarded as legendary even at the time of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. Ishvara Krishna is more recent than Patanjali, though Patanjali Yoga rests upon the Samkhya philosophy.

There are many Samkhya teachings in the Vedic and Puranic literature older than the Samkhya Karika. The Samkhya Karika has its prominence as a late and clear compilation of an older tradition, not the original presentation. This means that there is no need to regard the main text on a Vedic darshana as the original teaching, or its compiler as the founder of the tradition.

Hiranyagarbha and Vedic Mantra Yoga

Who then was Hiranyagarbha, a human figure or a deity? The name Hiranyagarbha, which means “the gold embryo”, first occurs prominently as a Vedic deity, generally a form of the Sun God, which has many names involving Hiranya or gold.[iii] There is a special Sukta or hymn to Hiranyagarbha in the Rig Veda X.121, which is commonly chanted by Hindus today in their daily rituals, in which Hiranyagarbha refers to the Supreme Being or Ishvara.

The Mahabharata speaks of Hiranyagarbha as he who is lauded in the Vedic verses and taught in the Yoga Shastra (Shanti Parva 339.69). As a form of the Sun God, Hiranyagarbha can be related to other Sun Gods (Adityas) like Savitri, to whom the famous Gayatri mantra used in many Yoga traditions is addressed, and is important in many early Yoga teachings including Vedic mantras and the Svestasvatara Upanishad. Therefore, the Hiranyagarbha Yoga tradition appears to be a Vedic tradition strongly rooted in the use of Vedic mantras. We could accurately call it the Hiranyagarbha Vedic Yoga tradition. It would place the origins of Yoga in the mantras or Mantra Yoga of the Vedas. As mantra is central to all Yoga traditions, this may not be surprising. Indeed if we b begin Yoga with mantra and sacred sound, rather than the current fixation on asana, we can easily understand the Vedic basis of Yoga.

Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita (IV.1-3) that he taught the original Yoga to Visvasvan, another name of the Sun God, again suggesting Hiranyagarbha. Vivasvan was said to have taught this Yoga to Manu, the original man or first king, making it into the prime Yoga path for all humanity. Here, however, Krishna gains prominence over Vivasvan/Hiranyagarbha as the original teacher of Yoga.

The Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 340.50) additionally identifies Hiranyagarbha, as other texts do, with Brahma or Prajapati, the creator among the Hindu trinity, who among other things represents the Vedas and is the source of all higher knowledge. Most of the Vedic sciences are said to have been first taught by Lord Brahma, who represents the cosmic mind. The Mahabharata also identifies Hiranyagarbha with the Buddhi or Mahat, the higher or cosmic mind (Mahabharata 302.18).

Hiranyagarbha appears more as a deity than a human figure, though it is possible that a teacher of that name once existed. The chief disciple of Hiranyagarbha in the ancient texts is said to be the Rishi Vasishta, the foremost of the Vedic seers (seer of the seventh book of the Rig Veda), who passed on the Yoga teachings to Narada (Mahabharata Shanti Parva 308.45).  Vasishta teaches the Yoga Darshana in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 306.26): “The Yoga Darshana has so been declared by me according to the truth.” Vasishta also passes on his knowledge to his son, Parashara, in whose line was born Veda Vyasa, who compiled the Vedas and wrote the Mahabharata.

Vasishta is the prime early human teacher of other Vedic disciplines as well like Advaita Vedanta (the tradition of Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge), and carrying on the Yoga teachings of the deities Shiva and Vishnu as well as that of Hiranyagarbha. There are several important Yoga texts in the Vasistha line including the Vasishta Samhita and Yoga Vasishta, the latter of which is often regarded as the greatest work on both Yoga and Vedanta. While these texts are much later than the Vedic Vasishta, they do show a continuity of tradition, as well as its diversity.

The original Yoga darshana tradition appears not as the Patanjali tradition but the Hiranyagarbha tradition. It teachings are found not only in the Yoga Sutras but in the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita, Moksha Dharma Parva and Anu Gita, which each contain extensive teachings on Yoga. These in turn connect to the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Tantras, which address Yoga in many forms like mantra, ritual (Karma Yoga), knowledge (Jnana Yoga), devotion (Bhakti Yoga), and so on.  The Hiranyagarbha Yoga tradition appears to be the main Vedic Yoga tradition. The Patanjali Yoga tradition arises as an offshoot of it or a later expression of it.

Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta – the three main Vedic philosophical systems – are presented as interrelated aspects of the same tradition in the Mahabharata. Ayurveda and Vedic astrology are set forth important aspects of its outer application. If we want to go back to the traditional roots of Yoga and restore the original teachings of Yoga, we should examine the Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana. In addition, we should look to its Vedic connections and associations with all Yoga paths and branches. This will take us back to the original Vedic Yoga that encompasses all the Vedic deities

Misinterpretations of the Yoga Sutras

Much of modern Yoga rests upon a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Yoga Sutras. The first problem is that many people try to look at the Yoga Sutras as an original text that stands in itself, when it is a later compilation that requires knowledge of its background in order to make sense of it. This causes people to separate Yoga from the earlier traditions that form the context of Patanjali’s teachings, which is why the Hiranyagarbha tradition is so little known in the world of Yoga today.

The second problem is that the Yoga Sutras, consisting of short enigmatic aphorisms, can be easily slanted in different directions according to the inclinations of the interpreter, particularly if they do not give credence to the classical commentaries and connections to earlier teachings. This causes people to invent or imagine meanings in the Sutras that may actually not be there in the original.

Third, the Yoga Sutra tradition has been made into something sectarian, for example, opposing Yoga and Samkhya as competing Vedic philosophical systems to Vedanta. This causes people to separate Yoga from related Vedic spiritual traditions that also employ Yoga practices.[iv] This complication is not something of the modern age only, but occurs in debates between Indian philosophical systems going back to the Middle Ages, a time in which precise logical analysis was often emphasized over broader synthesis.

The original Hiranyagarbha Yoga teachings, such as we find it in the Mahabharata, however, is presented there as in harmony with Samkhya and Vedanta. The synthesis of these three systems is in fact as old as Krishna, if not older.

Such an older integral Yoga is the same general type of Yoga-Vedanta taught by many of the great modern Yoga gurus of India like Vivekananda, Yogananda, Aurobindo, Shivananda and his many disciples, as well as many others – the very teachers who first brought Yoga to the West in the last century. They teach the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads together as part of the same broader tradition. The differences between Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta are regarded by them as minor variations within the same greater tradition.

So, how can we best approach the Yoga Sutras in order to understand their real intent? It is arguably best to do so in the context of the older and broader Yoga Darshana. There is one greater Yoga Darshana that exists like a thread through all the texts and traditions of Yoga. There is no Patanjali Yoga Darshana as an entity in itself apart from the older Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana, nor is the Hiranyagarbha tradition rigidly delineated from other Yoga teachings.[v]***

If we want to understand the meaning of the technical terms in the Yoga Sutras, we should do so with recourse to the older literature, not by inventing our own meanings, or by trying to make these terms unique to the Yoga Sutras. Whether it is the yamas and niyamas (particularly tapas, svadhyaya and Ishvara pranidhana), the different types of samadhi, or the different aspects of Yoga practice – such terms often alluded to briefly in the Sutras can be found explained clearly and in detail in the older and broader literature.

In addition, we should look at the Yoga Sutras in light of Vedanta, not only the Bhagavad Gita but also the Upanishads, which the Yoga Sutras as a Vedic philosophy accept as authoritative While Patanjali emphasizes the Purusha rather than Brahman (the Absolute), we must remember that the Hiranyagarbha tradition gives Brahman its place and that Brahman and Purusha are often synonyms.  We can also look to Vedanta for a greater description of Ishvara or God, which Patanjali only alludes to, but which Vedantic texts examine in great detail. This includes both the traditions non-dualistic (Advaita) and dualistic (Dvaita) traditions of Vedanta, which have their important Yoga teachings.

We should discriminate between the greater tradition of Yoga, which includes all branches and types of Yoga, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, placing the latter in the context of the former. We should look at Yoga not only through the Yoga Sutras but use the Sutras to lead us into the greater tradition of Yoga. This includes the ancient Yoga literature before Patanjali and the later Yoga literature after him, the various lines of Vaishnava, Shaivite, Shakta and Vedantic Yogas, regardless of their philosophical differences.

Besides looking at Patanjali in a new light, we should work to restore the teachings of the Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana. These can be compiled from the Mahabharata, Upanishads, and other ancient Vedic teachings. Through the Hiranyagarbha tradition, we can gradually reclaim the older Vedic Yoga that was regarded as its basis. In this way, we can restore the spiritual heritage of the Himalayan rishis and yogis in all of its grandeur. This is an important task for the next generation of Yoga aspirants, if they want to go back to the origins of Yoga, particularly as a spiritual practice.

[i] Vijnana Bhikshu, Yoga Sutras

[ii] There is not a single reference to Patanjali that I have found in this literature, though I have not examined all the Puranas.

[iii] Hiranyapani most notably

[iv] Non-dualistic or Advaita Vedanta, for example, teaches Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge, while dualistic or Dvaita Vedanta emphasizes Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion.

[v] For example, the Mahabharata also gives prominence to the Shaivite Yoga tradition called the Pashupata line, which is also very ancient.


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Acharya Pandit Vamadev Shastri ( David Frawley) is an American Hindu author, publishing on topics such as Hinduism, Yoga and Ayurveda. David Frawley is an expert in ayurveda, Vedic astrology, yoga, and tantra, all of which, he says, have their basis in Vedanta. Indeed it is the interdisciplinary approach to Vedanta that he sees as his particular contribution in demystifying eastern spirituality. David Frawley has written a number of books on all these disciplines, including Yoga and Vedanta, and Ayurveda and the Mind. His Vedic translations and historical studies on ancient India have received much acclaim, as have his journalistic works on modern India. Pandit Vamadeva Shastri was also the founder and the first president of the American Council of Vedic Astrology from 1993-2003. He is also a Patron Founder of the British Association of Vedic Astrology.

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