Yoga in Vedas and Vedic Period (History, Elements, Yogis)

Yoga in Vedas and Vedic Period

Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ meaning to ‘unite’, yoga is the union of the individual self with the supreme self. Yoga means controlling the modifications of the mind. There are various yoga styles, but the central idea of every style is controlling the mind. 

The concept of yoga and different physical postures, known as asanas, that have received recent attention globally, can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Since then, it has undergone multiple modifications, and what we know as yoga today is vastly different from how yoga was originally practised.

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What Are Vedas?

The Vedas are the most sacred book of India and are regarded as the earliest literary record of Indo-Aryan civilisation. With spiritual knowledge encircling all aspects of our life, they are the original scriptures of Hindu teachings. Vedic literature, along with its philosophical maxims, has endured and is the highest religious authority for all sections of Hindus in particular and humanity in general. 

Veda means knowledge, vision or wisdom manifesting the gods’ language in human speech. Even today, the laws of Vedas govern the Hindus’ religious, social, domestic and legal customs. All the Hindu’s obligatory duties at birth, marriage, death, etc., are devoted to the Vedic ritual. They draw forth the thoughts of successive generations of thinkers and contain the different strata of thought within them. 

Also read: History of Yoga (Origin, Evolution, Development With Timeline)

What is Vedic Period?

The Vedic period, also known as the Vedic age or the Vedic era, is a historical period in ancient India associated with the composition and preservation of the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism. 

The Vedic period is considered to have spanned from approximately 1500 BCE to 500 BCE, although the precise dates are debated among scholars.

During this period, the Indo-Aryans, a group of people believed to have migrated to the Indian subcontinent, settled in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent. The society during the Vedic period was predominantly agrarian, with people engaged in farming, cattle rearing, and trade.

Also read: Who is Adiyogi? The First Yogi and Source of Yoga

Yoga in Vedic Period

Here is a  brief look at the evolution of yoga during the vedic period:

1. Pre-Vedic Period (Before 3000 BC)

Until recently, scholars believed that yoga originated around 500 BC when Buddhism existed. Archaeologists found depictions of yoga postures at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. 

2. Vedic Period (3000 BC to 800 BC)

During the Vedic period, yoga was practised ritually to develop concentration and transcend the mundane. The rituals practised during this period differ from the current practices of yoga. The traditions of the Vedic period are close to the definition of yoga- the union of the individual self with the supreme self.

3. Mention of Yoga in the Rigveda

The Rigveda is the oldest Veda and the most revered and essential of the four Vedas. According to writings and preachers, Rigveda’s inspired hymns and mantras invoked courage, happiness, health, peace, prosperity, success, and wisdom. 

Here, one also learns the Gayatri mantra, used today for its potent spiritual qualities and while meditating for yoga. Rigveda also found the first use and definition of the word yoga. These verses provide the foundation and material for the remaining Vedas. 

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Connection Between Yoga and Vedic Rituals

The Vedas are a collection of hymns received by the ancient rishis, i.e. sages as shruti, divine revelation. As hymns and mantras, these works were actively recited out loud to praise and invoke the powers of the spiritual realms. They had been verbally passed on for many generations before being written down on delicate palm leaves. 

These Vedic mantras were utilised in yagas and yajnas, i.e. ritual sacrifices and ceremonies to promote the well-being of individuals, society and the world. It’s astounding that within these works, the foundations of yoga are established, with yoga being defined as yoking and a discipline. 

Four texts compose the Vedas: 

1. Rig-Veda

The Rig Veda is the oldest, most revered, and essential of the four. In the Rig Veda, we learn about the Gayatri mantra, which is still used today for its potent spiritual qualities. We also find the first use of the word yoga. These verses provide the foundation and material for the remaining Vedas.

This veda also includes other hymns and verses that describe the use of breath control, meditation, and the pursuit of inner wisdom. These practices were intended to facilitate spiritual growth, self-realization, and the attainment of higher states of consciousness.

2. Sama-Veda 

The Sama Veda is a devotional collection of melodies that elevate one’s consciousness. The hymns in the Sama-Veda are combined with musical notes, and their content was heavily drawn from the Rig-Veda, providing no distinctive lessons of their own. This use of music combined with mantras formed the foundation for the Bhakti yoga practice of kirtan, devotional chanting.

3. Yajur-Veda 

The Yajur–Veda is devoted entirely to the worship of the deities and the instruction for the technical aspects of ceremonies. The Yajur-Veda served as a handbook for the Vedic priests who executed sacrificial acts by chanting hymns and mantras while following the sacrificial formula (yajus).

It also provides instructions for performing rituals, including breath control exercises known as Pranayama. 

4. Atharva-Veda

The Atharva–Veda consists of spells and charms to dispel evil, disease and misfortune. Its hymns are more diverse than the Rig-Veda and were composed of a more straightforward language making them more accessible to the general population.

This veda explores the nature of the mind, consciousness, and the interplay between the physical and spiritual realms. The Atharvaveda emphasizes the importance of self-discipline, self-control, and inner transformation as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment.

Additionally, the Upanishads, which are philosophical texts associated with the Vedas, delve further into the practices of meditation, self-inquiry, and the study of the self. They explore concepts such as the nature of the true self (Atman), the illusory nature of the material world (Maya), and the interconnectedness of all beings.

Also read: Top 3 Patanjali Yoga Sutras for Balanced Life (With Meaning & Examples)

Elements of Yoga According to Veda

Yoga describes the physical body as a composition of the 5 elements- earth (prithvi), water (apas), fire (agni), air (vayu), ether (akasha). Its stages of existence are birth, growth, change, decay, and death. Made of food, these elements will go back into the food cycle after death. 

Veda mentions about each element of yoga that has its features-

  • Prithvi or Bhumi (Earth) — describes stability, solidity, and grounding.
  • Apas or Jal (Water) — describes fluidity, adaptability and change.
  • Tejas or Agni (Fire) — describes energy, passion and transformation.
  • Vayu (Air) — describes movement, expansion and communication.
  • Akasha (Space or Ether) — means emptiness, consciousness, and intuition.

The elements like Earth, Water and Fire are tangible things; they can be touched or seen and exist as matter. Space and Air are intangible yet exist everywhere, even though we cannot see them. Therefore, Earth, Water and Fire are more accessible for us to understand than Space and Air due to their concrete forms. However, all five elements of yoga are equally important and interrelated.

Also read: Different Definitions of Yoga (From 15+ Scriptures & Roots of Yoga) 

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Prominent Yogis and Rishis in Vedic Literature

Vedic literature mentions several prominent yogis and rishis who played significant roles in the development and transmission of yogic knowledge and practices. 

1. Maharishi Kapila

Kapila is considered the founder of the Samkhya philosophy, one of the oldest and influential schools of Indian philosophy. His teachings dive into the nature of reality, the distinction between matter and consciousness, and the role of self-knowledge in attaining liberation. Kapila’s insights laid the foundation for the integration of philosophy and yoga.

2. Maharishi Vasishtha

Vasishtha is regarded as one of the oldest and most revered rishis in Vedic literature. He is associated with the Yoga Vasishtha, a philosophical text that explores the nature of existence, the illusory nature of the world, and the paths to self-realization. Vasishtha’s teachings shows the importance of renunciation, meditation, and self-inquiry.

3. Maharishi Yajnavalkya

Yajnavalkya is known for his profound wisdom and teachings on self-realization. He is associated with the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a significant Vedic text that explores the nature of the self (Atman) and its relationship with the ultimate reality (Brahman). 

Yajnavalkya’s discourses with his wife, Maitreyi, provide deep insights into the nature of consciousness and the path to liberation.

4. Maharishi Bharadwaja

Bharadwaja is mentioned in the Rigveda and is considered one of the earliest known rishis. He is associated with the practice of yoga, mantra recitation, and the study of sacred texts. 

Bharadwaja’s contributions to Vedic rituals and knowledge transmission played a crucial role in the preservation and dissemination of yogic wisdom.

Also read: Types of Yoga: 13 Different Styles & Forms of Yoga

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FAQs Related to Vedic Period Yoga

1. Which Veda Mentions About Elements of Yoga?

Rig Veda, the oldest among 4 Vedas, mentions the elements of yoga. It also says yoga is a path to attaining higher consciousness and union with the divine.

2. What is the Vedic period in yoga history?

The Vedic period refers to the time period in ancient India when the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, were composed. It is believed to have lasted from around 1500 BCE to 500 BCE. During this time, yoga was practiced and documented as a part of Vedic rituals and spiritual practices.

3. What role did yoga play in the Vedic period?

Yoga in the Vedic period was primarily associated with ritualistic practices and spiritual pursuits. It was considered a means to connect with the divine, attain higher states of consciousness, and facilitate spiritual growth. 
Yogic practices, such as breath control, meditation, and mantra recitation, were used in conjunction with Vedic rituals to purify the mind, cultivate focus, and deepen spiritual awareness.

4. Were physical postures a part of Vedic period yoga?

Physical postures, as they are known in modern yoga, were not highlighted in the Vedic period. The yogic practices of that time focused more on breath control, meditation, and chanting of sacred mantras. The physical aspect of yoga, asanas, gained more prominence in later periods, particularly with the development of Hatha Yoga.

5. How did Vedic period yoga contribute to the evolution of yoga?

The Vedic period laid the foundation for the development and evolution of yoga as a spiritual and philosophical system. It introduced various yogic practices, focused on the connection between the mind, body, and spirit, and provided insights into the nature of consciousness and the pursuit of self-realization. 

The yogic practices and concepts from the Vedic period served as building blocks for the subsequent development of different styles and approaches to yoga in later periods.


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