Discuss the religious ideals and changes in society that propelled the emergence of the systems of yoga and meditation in ancient India

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The second urbanisation of ancient India created the context in which previously nebulous religious ideals and practices were propelled into the mainstream. We cannot be certain if the renunciate practices of meditation and yoga actually originated during the rise of urban settlements, around 500 BCE. However, it is clear that urbanisation facilitated the consolidation of previously unorganized and peripheral renunciates and ascetics into ordered sects, which challenged orthodox Brahmanism as they grew in strength and power. This essay will begin by discussing how meditation and yoga originated. Changes in society caused by the second urbanisation will then be explored, demonstrating how growth of kingships, centralised power, trade and economic surplus provided both the practical changes and theoretical ideals necessary to propel the emergence of organized systems of yoga and meditation. The emergence of Brahmanic renunciation and its eventual institutionalisation will be discussed to demonstrate how yoga and meditation was further drawn into the mainstream. New religious ideals of samsara, karma and moksa characteristic of the Upanisads, Buddhism and Jainism further launched meditation as a principle practice for spiritual progress. Finally, the process by which urbanisation and these new religious ideals undermined Brahmanic ritual will be explored and the origin of these challenges will be discussed. The eventual internalisation of ritual and the growth of individualism greatly propelled meditational and yogic practices to a preeminence in ancient India.


There is some evidence of yoga and meditation existing before the second urbanisation. If this is the case, rather than this period creating these practices it rather facilitated their eventual escalation to prominence. The first urbanisation, dated c. 2500-1900 BCE, is associated with the Indus Valley cultural tradition (Samuel, 2008, p.41). Five “Proto-Siva” seals uncovered from this period depict subjects in postures resembling those practiced in meditation (Dhyansky, 1987, p.104). Mircea Eliade, Vivian Wothington and Yan Dhyansky posit that these seals point to early forms of yoga and meditation (Eliade, 1958, p56; Wothington, 1982, p.1, Dhyansky, 1987, p.104). Wothington further argues that yoga is probably even older than the archeological record (Wothington, 1982, p.1). However, Georg Feuerstein and Geoffrey Samuel correctly indicate that this evidence is ambiguous and has been anachronistically interpreted by appropriating later religious forms into it. (Samuel, 2008, p.3; Feuerstein, 1975, p.41) Samuel concludes that the strongest evidence for the origins of yoga point to their development within the early śramana movements of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, which included the Buddhists, Jainas and Ājīvikas (Samuel, 2008, p.6). The term ‘śramana’ is a generic term employed by members of the many ascetic orders which proliferated during the second urbanisation, including Buddhists, Ājīvakas, Jainas, Nirgranthas, Lokāyatas and many more (Warder, 1956, p.43). Their main activities were austerities, meditation and philosophizing to justify their practices and the knowledge to which they led (Gethin, 1998, p.11). Although Samuel is accurate that the evidence is ambiguous, the idea that these forms existed prior to the second urbanisation should not be ruled out, especially when we are confronted with further evidence in the Rg Veda.


Religious practice of the Vedic period was highly formalized and ritualistic (Werner, 1977, p.104). The deep mystical and contemplative vision evidenced the Upansiads is largely absent from the Vedas. However, Feuerstein and Karel Werner have highlighted passages found in the Rg Veda and Arthavaveda that indicate the existence of ascetics (Werner, 1977, p.104; Feuerstein, 1975, p.43). In the Keśin hymn (RV 10.136), ‘hymn of the long-haired ones’, an ascetic is eulogised whom may have been a forerunner to the later yogin (Feuerstein, 1975, p.43). He is described as travelling around without a home and presiding in the natural world, with his mind dwelling in the ‘inner region’ (Werner, 1977, p.105). Furthermore, the nāsadīya-sūkta, ‘hymn of creation,’ presents us with precursory ontological speculations foreshadowing the later ideals of Sāmkhya philosophy, closely allied with yoga (Feuerstein, 1975, p.43). Although this evidence is reasonable yet not wholly satisfactory, it does serve to highlight that aspects of these traditions existed long before the second urbanisation, but it was the tremendous changes of that period which truly propelled them into the mainstream. Sacred brotherhoods called Vrātyas, have also been highlighted as potential predecessors of the śramanas and yogins (Samuel, 2008, p.117; Feuerstein, 1975, p.46). These groups are described in the Vedas as practicing apparent forms of prānāyāma and austerities whilst located on the fringe of society (Samuel, 2008, p.47). Systems of yoga and meditation had most likely been developing for millennia. Yet it was the precise context of the second urbanisation that propelled them to the mainstream.


The position of the śramanas transformed during the sixth-fifth centuries BCE. This reflects the tremendous social changes precipitated by the second urbanisation of the Ganges Valley in Northern India and culminated in previously peripheral and dispersed groups becoming organised and influential within society (Warder, 1956, p.47). Urbanisation was instigated by iron, the extension of plough agriculture, the prevalent domestication of the horse and an progressively sophisticated market economy (Thapar, 1996, p.37). This led to food surplus and growth in trade, population, monarchical states and most importantly, cities (Olivelle, 1992, p.30). These revolutionary changes in society provided the practical means behind the propelling of systems of yoga and meditation in society. The increasingly hierarchical ordering of society and emerging authoritarian trends threatened the early śramanas (Thapar, 1996, p.77; Warder, 1956, p.55). As the absolute authority of kings was consolidated over large kingdoms, the wanderers began to appear as a menace to society in their evasion of work and service and the inability to subject them to castes, taxation or the king’s rule (Warder, 1956, p.48). Therefore, as Anthony Warder has explained, the wanderers had to make themselves useful to the monarchies (Warder, 1956, p.48). Moreover, they had to organise into defined sects with appointed leaders and permanent residencies (Warder, 1956, p.48). The emergence of kingships and pressure to become defined movements with specific practices and goals was key to propelling yoga and meditation in ancient India.


Urban disillusionment led to increasing numbers joining the newly organised renunciate sects and to the development of religious ideals that catapulted the practice of meditation and the intellectual justifications for it.  As kings wished to secure their power over subjects, society became increasingly more segregated, exploitative and oppressive (Omvedt, 2008, p.30). The purity-pollution dichotomy demarcating the Brahman from the untouchable became firmly entrenched, which may go some way in explaining why the main body of Buddhist monks were drawn from the lower orders of society (Thapar, 1996, p.42 & 63). The transferal from village-based societies to towns and cities created an unfamiliar sense of alienation. This anonymity coupled with increasing hardships made the Buddhist and other śramana sects far more relevant to peoples’ lives as they offered a guide to calm and comprehend the ‘suffering of the newly self-conscious individual’ (Samuel, 2008, p.177). In contrast to the new cities, the Buddhist sangha provided monks with a sense of community and a common goal, where once joined one would adopt a new name and therefore discard his previous caste and live in an egalitarian society (Thapar, 1996, p.50). Romila Thapar posits that the sangha has been portrayed as an endeavour to retrieve the vanishing past (Thapar, 1996, p.78). Yet, Buddhism was also moving forward with a swiftly changing society, so at one time was preserving a nostalgic memory of ancient democracy whilst also prescribing a progress to an enlightened and benevolent monarchy (Warder, 1956, p.46). The śramana groups provided both an alternative to urbanised life in the sangha, and meditative techniques eminently suitable for the urban householder to help alleviate the suffering caused by these changes in society. Therefore, urbanisation not only meant these sects grew in numbers, but also in the relevance of the practices they taught.


Trade was crucial in disseminating renunciate ideals and knowledge of meditation and yoga (Samuel, 2008, p.179). The establishment of kingships and a relatively stable political situation facilitated the travel of merchants and religious mendicants over expansive regions (Olivelle. 1992, p.31). Jainism was particularly associated with trade and it became their predominant occupation (Thapar, 1996, p.39). There was practical utility for traders to support Buddhism or Jainism, if one was engaging in long-distanced trade it provided a community of like-minded people with whom one could claim fellowship (Samuel, 2008, p.179). Trade and improved agricultural production led to material surplus which supported the renouncer communities who were dependent on alms as they had renounced any conventional means of livelihood (Gethin, 1998, p. 48 & Omvedt, 2003, p.31). Therefore, new monastic establishments were located close to cities and towns so they could live off the donations of urban householders who had some margin of economic prosperity (Thapar, 1996, p.51). Begging for alms also meant preaching their doctrines and thus coming into contact with the lay community (Thapar, 1996, p.51). In contrast to Buddhists and Jains, the Brahmans never inaugurated any degree of centralisation in large monasteries near cities and this led to their eventual vulnerability and lack of state support (Samuel, 2008, p.165). By situating themselves near towns these early monasteries were able to flourish due to the recruits and alms they received from urban centres. Without such support and growth, systems of yoga and meditation would never have reached the prominence they did.


Royal patronage and financial support from ministers and śresthins (merchants or bankers) was enabled by material surplus (Thapar, 1996, p.63). The śramanas received patronage as they became important allies for the traders and rulers who sought to undermine the brahmanical varna-ranking system, which placed the priests at the top (Thapar, 1996, p.40). Furthermore these renouncer sects helped to consolidate the kings’ power. George Bailey and Ian Mabbet have illustrated the crucial role of the śramanas in acting as intermediaries between the newly established state authority and the rural populations which urban centres encountered as they expanded (Bailey & Mabbett, 2003, p.175). The Buddhist monasteries had access to expansive local areas and could act as focal points for the diffusion of state authority, mobilising popular support and providing political legitimacy for the King (Thapar, 1996, p.81). Theoretically, Jaina monks were to preserve political neutrality, yet their relationships with financial groups and their high literacy meant they became closely associated with royalty and politics in Rajasthan (Thapar, 1996, p.82). Not only were these renouncers handed prestige, validation and influence through state support and financial patronage, but also by the general public due to their supposed yogic powers achieved through their austerities (tapas). Patronage allowed these monasteries to flourish propelling systems of meditation.


The Buddhist and Jaina concept of ahimsā, non-violence, suited the new rulers wishing to discourage inter-tribal warfare that would upset the economy, trade routes and agricultural and material production (Thapar, 1996, p.49). Warder has argued that the general Buddhist attitude of acceptance of monarchy favoured the early spread and consolidation of the tradition in the rising urban centres and monarchical states (Warder, 1956, p.45). Whilst on one hand they pacified protest to the autocratic kings by their aversion to violent revolt, their doctrine of ahimsā concomitantly restrained the kings, converting them towards the ideal of universal compassion (Warder, 1956, p.61). The Buddhist doctrine of karma came to be an effective way of explaining the origin of social inequality, placing the responsibility on man himself, rather than social injustice or an abstract deity, thus numbing the sting of social protest (Thapar, 1996, p.47). The renouncer sects and their meditative practices grew to prominence in ancient India as they became accepted as an essential counter-weight to conventional society (Thapar, 1996, p.87). In an ironic way their rejection of society led to their important role within society, whilst they could live off society, they were not be of society.


The second urbanisation witnessed the emergence of fully-fledged Brahmanical renunciates, previously a contradiction in terms. Urbanisation disintegrated the strict familial and kinship ties characteristic of Brahmanism and resulted in a freedom previously inexperienced (Olivelle, 1992, p.32). Patrick Olivelle argues that freedom to choose was at the heart of the practical and ideological challenges to traditional Brahmanism (Olivelle, 1992, p.32). Vedic civilisation had been village-based up until the sixth century BCE and it was to the villager that the Brahmanical dharma was addressed (Olivelle, 1992, p.30). Urbanisation therefore made Brahmanism increasingly irrelevant, whereas the Buddhist path which addressed the real struggles of social existence, became pertinent to people’s lives. Challenges to Brahmanism were being made from inside the tradition, as well as through rival ideologies. The celibate ascetic replaced the householder as the new religious ideal, the Upanisads subverted Brahmanical traditions writing that those who have truly experienced the self as Brahman renounce ‘the desire for sons, the desire for wealth, and the desire for worlds, they lead a mendicant life’ (Brhadāranyaka Upanisad, trans. Olivelle 1998, p.83). Similarly, the Buddhist Digha Nikāya propounded that ‘the household life is a dusty path full of hindrances while the ascetic life is like the open sky’ (Olivelle, 1992, p.43). Renunciatory ideals, previously at odds with the Brahmanical ideals of procreation and ritual, were eventually assimilated into the fabric of mainstream religion through the āśrama system.


The term āśrama is absent in any pre-Upanisadic literature and was probably created around the fourth century BCE (Charkraborti, 1973, p.4; PO 18). Olivelle has convincingly argued that the new system’s attempt to institutionalise and legitimise renunciation was an urban invention (Olivelle, 2011, p.18). Originally they represented alternative ways of life, but ultimately became a sequence of stages that all men of the Vedic elite would travel through (Olivelle, 1993, p.117). The life of the Brahman would begin as a Brahmacārin, a student of divine lore, he would then progress to grhastha, householder, after which was the stage of the vānaprastha, whereby he would live as hermit in the forest meditating on the deeper meanings of the sacred texts, finally he would pass into the stage of the sannyāsin and become a homeless wanderer, renouncing everything including his ritual fire and taking the final step into the Unknown (Werner, 1977, p.108). Olivelle has argued the later āśrama system with its stages rather than choices reflects a retreat from the spirit of liberalism ignited by the new urban context, and a more scrupulous incorporation of renunciation into the Brahmanical world framework (Olivelle, 1992, p.54). Nonetheless, this new system brought the meditative and yogic practices of asceticism and renunciation into conventional custom.


Concurrent with the rise of religious institutions promoting meditation was a new, shared ideological framework through which rapidly changing existence was viewed (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.4). From the sixth to third centuries BCE, northern India saw the inception of embryonic religious ideals, later becoming axiomatic to Indian ethos (Thapar, 1996, p.36). This new framework promulgated by the Upanisads, Buddhists and Jainas consisted of samsara, karma and moksa. Despite these concepts being shared however, they were interpreted very differently (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.4). The controversy surrounded the nature of ultimate reality, the causes of human bondage and release (Olivelle, 1992, p.39). While Buddhists believe liberating knowledge was necessary to break out of human suffering, the Jainas located the problem in human intentions and/or actions, therefore self-control and asceticism were prescribed (Olivelle, 1992, p.39). However, there was no strict demarcation between the two and elements of both are found in each tradition. Furthermore, despite different interpretations, the practices of yoga and meditation were advocated by all traditions as a means through which one may reach liberation. Samsāra, posited by Jainism and Buddhism, postulated that human existence is bound by rebirth and is a continuum of suffering and bondage (Olivelle, 1992, p.33). The concept of karma, interpreted in various ways, became the guiding framework for the austerities and philosophising of the śramanas on their journey to liberation (Omvedt, 2003, p.32). Moksa, variously known as nirvana, kaivalya or Bodhi, constituted liberation from samsāra and was the supreme goal to which all efforts were directed.


It was through the practices of yoga and meditation that this new goal could be achieved. Meditation rose to such distinction as it was claimed that the great intuitive revelations and abstractions of the Upanisads were arrived at through the meditational practices of jhāna yoga (Wothington, 1982, p.12). Furthermore, it was recorded that Buddha achieved his enlightenment by means of meditation and preached due to his experience of truth, rather than what he had reasoned alone (Gombrich, 1996, p.5). The Vedas began to be denied as the source of all knowledge, with dissenting groups popularising knowledge acquired through meditational experience and perception (Thapar, 1996, p.58). Most importantly for the propelling of systems of yoga and meditation was the notion that through the meditational practices every person could experience what the Buddha and rishis had encountered. The path to liberation is based on the idea that reality is other to that which can be known. Yoga and meditation have the practical concern of preparing oneself for the direct experience of reality.


Brahmins had held great power over society through their jealous guarding of knowledge (Wothington, 1977, p.11). In contrast, Buddhist monasteries and Jain communities became open centres of learning and literacy, undermining the Brahmanical monopoly over sacred knowledge (Thapar, 1996, p.52). Whilst the Jainas, Ajīvakas and Brahmanical renunciates emphasised ascetic practices and simple meditational exercises, the Buddhists developed a complex range of dhyāna exercises as techniques for purifying and calming the mind (Samuel, 2008, p.174). For Buddhists, rather than the complete cessation of the sense, meditation was directed towards achieving equanimity towards them and eventually attaining liberating insight (Samuel, 2008, p.135). In contrast, Jaina meditation aimed at the cessation of all activity, as activity was the source of unhappiness and karma (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.5). Therefore, they practiced extreme ascetic practices including the termination of breath. Prior to the second urbanisation Brahmanical meditation was practiced by orthodox priests, however it was intimately tied up with sacrifice and did not assume much importance (Feuerstein, 1975, p.49). However, the early Upanisads posited meditation as principle as it was the means by which the liberating knowledge of Brahman was realised and union with God was attained (KN 111). The Nāradaparivrājaka Upanisad writes, ‘He attains the eternal Brahman through the practice of meditation’ (NpU, 142, trans. Olivelle 1992, p.145). The second urbanisation generated the context in which new religious ideals emerged. Practice of yoga and meditation grew exponentially as they were the means by which religious practioners could achieve their new religious goals, namely liberation from suffering or union with God.  


The early Upanisads are testament to the internal challenges posed to orthodox Brahmanism. Olivelle has argued that the anti-ritualistic and pro-celibacy stance of the early Upanisads arose within a similar socioeconomic background to Jainism and Buddhism (Olivelle, 1992, p.37). Therefore the new Upanisadic doctrines were mainly urban products. Unlike the Vedas that contained the infallible directions for ritual and morality, the Upanisads contained transcendent knowledge necessary for human salvation (Olivelle, 1992, p.3). Olivelle points to Upanisadic stories of Kings teaching Brahmins, inverting accepted roles, and highlighting a divide between traditional village Brahmans remaining faithful to old ritual religion and the city Brahmins accommodating the new urbanised context (Olivelle, 1992, p.38). In the Dharma-sūtras we see conservative village Brahmans encouraging other Brahmins not to visit cities (Olivelle, 1992, p.38). In every way the Vedic value system was inverted: celibacy over marriage, ritual inactivity over ritual performance, wilderness over village and economic inactivity over economic productivity (Olivelle, 1992, p.46). The new religious ideals of samsāra, karma, moksa turned Vedic values, such as the begetting of offspring and sacrifice, into obstacles to liberation, the newly discovered religious goal of the new world.


The decline of ritual and its eventual internalisation due to new religious ideals meant systems of renunciation, yoga and meditation became the ultimate religious practices. The fulcrum on which the Brahmanical world had spun was ritual duties understood through sacrifice and familial-social duties exemplified by procreation (Olivelle, 1992, p.28). Ostensibly, sacrificial theology was grounded in the claim that creation resulted from sacrifice and that in the same way that the Gods had attained immortality through sacrifice, so could humans (Olivelle, 1992, p.23). Frits Staal has argued the fundamental ‘meaninglessness of ritual’, stating that their primary ‘obsession’ with ritual was with the rules rather than any deep symbolism (Staal, 1979, p.3-5). Whether or not this had always been the case, in the new urbanised and intellectual climate ritual was becoming increasingly irrelevant and unsupported by the new ideals taking hold of society (Omvedt, 2003, p.47). Furthermore, ritual was becoming increasingly complex and expensive, requiring an array of ritual specialists to provide various services (Olivelle, 2008, p.56). Within the new understanding of karma, the power of ritual meant they became the predominant cause of karma and therefore rebirth (Olivelle, 1992, p.61). In complete contradistinction to the Vedas, the Upanisads, influenced by these new notions of karma, concludes that the ‘elimination of karma means principally the elimination of rites’ (Olivelle, 1992, p.62). The Katha Upanisad also presents a sardonic appraisal of ritual (KaU 1.2.13, trans. Olivelle, 1998, p. 441):

                        Wallowing in ignorance, but calling themselves wise,

                        Thinking they are learned, the fools go around,

                        Hurting themselves badly, like a group of blind men,

                                    Led by a man who is himself blind….

                        Deeming sacrifice and gifts as the best….

                        they return again to this abject world.

This reversal of values is astonishing. Rituals and sacrifice fell from being the ultimate spiritual practice to being both meaningless and harmful to spiritual progress (Olivelle , 2008, p.87). Vedic theology had letitiised society itself through its validation of marriage, yet the new ideals of celibacy undermined this also (Olivelle, 1992, p.26). A sacrificer had to be married and his immortality was guaranteed by the birth of a son (Olivelle, 1992, p.26). Yet new religious concepts within and without brahmanical tradition began to see family life and society as hindrances on the holy path of saving knowledge (Kaelber, 1989, p.179).


Ritual was not rejected but reinterpreted. There was a process of internalisation, whereby ritual fires were abandoned yet symbolically carried inside the samnyasin (Olivelle, 1992, p.68). Johannes Heesterman has explained that rather than the world being viewed on the ‘transversal axis of reciprocal relations with others, everything is now concentrated on the vertical axis of the individual life’ (Heesterman, 1985, p.34). This individualisation thus implies that a person must be all, lest he be nothing. Therefore, no longer was it necessary for different parties to be involved in one ritual, as different parties were subsumed into the individual, the cosmic man (Heesterman, 1985, p.36). Heesterman states, ‘He is the world unto himself… he has resumed the oppositions of the world in himself; there is no duality for him anymore’ (Heesterman, 1985, p.39). The individual with internalised sacrificial fires, is released from society and able to perform the ritual within himself and by himself (Heesterman, 1985, p.39). This internalisation propelled the emergence of systems of yoga and meditation. The perfection of ritual became the practice of internal detachment and knowledge, attained through yoga and meditation. As a result from the second urbanisation individualism flourished and liberation became determined by what one knows and does, rather than the intermediaries and social relation which had dominated the rituals of Vedic society (Olivelle, 1992, p.40). To reach moksa became a purely individual journey and the reinitiates life, along with the practices of yoga and meditation, was the supreme way to achieve this.


How Brahmanical challenges originated has caused much academic controversy. Heesterman argues that rather than institutionalised renunciation and internalised ritual being the outcome of non-Brahmanical protests against Brahmanical orthodoxy, these changes were the final and logical result of the internal maturation of orthodox Vedic sacrificial theology, ‘the orthogenetic, internal development of Vedic thought’ (Heesterman, 1985, p.42).  Heesterman’s emphasis on the strong continuities between sacrificial and renunicatory theologies is correct, however he fails to consider the internal conflicts and external pressures of urbanisation and rival ideologies. Scholars such as Louis Dumont and Werner have argued that changes within Brahmanism were purely a defence mechanism in the face of renunciation (Werner, 1977, p.107; Olivelle, 1992, p.21). The evidence however does not support this. As Olivelle has argued, the Brahmanism was not a monolithic entity and struggles between new ideologies of renunciation occurred as much within the Brahmaincal tradition as between it and other religions (Olivelle, 2011, p.13). There was clearly much cross-fertilisation between the different religions of ancient India, yet due to the absence of any straightforward chronology there can be no certainty as to which tenets originated where. As Gombrich and Olivelle state, it is much more profitable to study the political, economic and social factors of the Ganges valley during the middle of the first millennium BCE to understand how ascetic ideologies and practice of meditation and yoga became incorporated in mainstream religion (Olivelle, 1993, p. 90; Gombrich, 1988, p. 66).


The second urbanisation generated the social context that facilitated the growth and sustainment of previously peripheral and insignificant renunciate sects practicing yoga and meditation, into organised, influential and prominent religious orders. As the position of the śramanas were transformed systems of yoga and meditation came to the fore. Urbanisation provided both the practical means for this and the theoretical justification. Trade, growth in population and economic prosperity meant that the developing merchant class had the finances to patronise these sects who could buttress their power whilst undermining the Brahmanical varna system. The increasing influence of these renouncer groups meant that the new rulers sought alliance with them through royal patronage, allowing these contemplative communities to flourish whilst also sabotaging Brahmanical prestige and hegemony. Simultaneously, urbanisation led to the rise of shared conceptualisations of existence. Alienation and increasing hardship fostered the sense that all human existence was inherently suffering and to escape the cycle of rebirth one must aim for liberation. This new ideal of liberation was achieved through detachment to material desires, liberating knowledge and/or union with God was achieved through systems of yoga and meditation. Most crucially, meditation and yoga were the means by which one could achieve these religious aims. Ritual, which had been praised as the ultimate religious act was internalised, and meditational practices with an emphasise on individualism came to the fore as what would ultimately liberate humans from this world of suffering.






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