A (Very Brief) History of Meditation
Since the dawn of self-awareness there has be an impulse to transcend the human condition, and nowhere has that impulse been stronger and expressed more creatively than on the Indian peninsula. India’s civilization has, since before written history, built its foundation on Yoga, a quest for transformation, which is central to human life and human evolution. And this history of evolution is the history of yoga and meditation; they can be considered one practice.
The Sanskrit term yoga is commonly understood to mean, “Union” of the individual self (jiva-atman) with the highest self (parama-atman), meditation is the means to achieve Yoga.
While Yoga is a universal practice, it is in India where the roots of the practice arose. The first historical connection to yoga is a brief one, from the archeological dig at Mohenjo-daro, in Pakistan, was a civilization which flourished in the Indus River valley almost three thousand years before the birth of Christ.
The seal of the Indus Valley depicts a fertility god, similar to those found in Mesopotamia, with an erect phallus, surrounded by wild animals, a pair of deer sitting in front of him while he sits in the classic lotus posture of the yogi. The little seal, about two inches square, imprinted with undeciphered script is one of the few pieces of evidence linking the Indus valley civilization to the first known Indian civilization.
In the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. the Indus Valley culture disappeared. It was as this same point in history (4500-2500 B.C.E.) that another group of people gathered around the Saraswati River. This period of history is defined by creation of the wisdom tradition found in the hymns of the four Vedas. The Vedas which are mankind’s oldest records of knowledge, are poetic, visionary and sensual descriptions of the creation and the destruction of the Universe, and are believed to have been the truths intuited by enlightened Rishis at the beginning of this cosmic cycle.
It’s the Upanishads, a group of Vedic texts that ushered in a new cultural period of a different metaphysical flavor, a period that can be seen as the beginnings of India’s psychospiritual culture or earliest hint of Yoga. However, it was in the fifth period (1000-100 B.C.E.) where, in the teachings of the Mahabharata,the first complete Yoga work, the Bhagavad-Gita is found. It’s during this era in which Buddhism and Jainism begin to emerge.
Half way through the Classical Age (100 B.C.E.-500 C.E.) the Yoga–Sutra of Patanjali were composed. By this time there was a common body of nonsectarian knowledge which reached back into unrecorded history and became the ground state that gave rise to the disparate wisdom traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and the Yoga Sutras.
The Yoga Sutras (the Sanskrit word sutra meaning literally “thread”) are the clearest and most authoritative teaching on traveling the inner journey of self-realization and are the culmination of millennia of experience. While it is understood that the sutras we complied by Patanjali, they are, most likely, the work of many different authors.
It was Patanjali, who gave Yoga its classical format, so his school is referred to as Classical Yoga. It was Patanjali’s school that systematized and defined the most important elements of Yoga practice and theory. Patanjali created, in just under two hundred verses, one of the significant spiritual works ever produced.
Because of the brevity of the sutras, each averaging only six words, a long tradition of commentary has arisen. The earliest commentary, form around the fifth century, is attributed to Vyasa (the name means arranger) who is also given credit for compiling the Mahabharata (titled the Fifth Veda, considered the grand epic of India) and it’s his interpretation that is considered almost indispensable and the starting point for understanding the sutras.
It’s around the middle of the first millennium C.E. (500-1300 C.E.) we see the rise of Tantra or Tantrism. The Tantric tradition was the culmination of centuries of practice that created a grand blending of spiritual and philosophical system out the various and divergent approaches of the age. Tantra can be understood to be a blending of the deepest metaphysical wisdom with the popular cultural belief systems of the time.
As Tantra evolved and continued, it begins changing the spiritual lifestyle of the major wisdom traditions, of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The change of the greatest significance was the rise of feminine principle (known as Shakti) which began, during this time, to gain an air of respectability.
This era was also known as the Puranic Age, because it was during this time that the Puranas were created and compiled. The Puranas, many of its works influenced by Tantra, are sacred histories containing mythological and philosophical knowledge, and many also containing important information about Yoga.
The last age before the modern age of Yoga is the Sectarian Age (1300-1700 C.E.). The next stage in the history of meditation and Yoga was set by rise of the feminine principle of the Tantric Age. The bhakti movement, the movement of spiritual devotion, was the climax of monotheistic ambitions of the growing sectarian communities.
Its epic irony, that the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the growing presence of the European empires in India, and the rise of the Modern Age (1700-Present) was precipitated by the movement based on love and devotion.
Following the Queen Victoria assumption of the title of Empress of India there has been a continuing impact from western imperialism on the traditional culture to this day. Both imposing and introducing Western-style science and educational systems as cause a steady diluting of the traditional Indic value systems.
The flow of energy and information and its impact on culture, it turns out, flows both ways. Beginning in the Mid-Eighteen hundreds, a group of forward thinkers, who became known as Transcendentalist, began studying Hindu scriptures from English translations of German adaptations of the Sanskrit. Emerson and Thoreau, leaders in the Transcendentalist movement, transformed the Hindu concept of Brahman (the Divine Ground of Creation) into the Oversoul, a more universal understanding.
The Transcendentalist movement was followed by the Theosophists of the early nineteenth century, led by Madame Blavatsky, who made Hindu meditation text regularly available. The New Thought movement of the Theosophists practiced guided meditation and mantra meditation as part of their practice.
It was the presence of Swami Vivekananda, at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, which was the hallmark event for the introduction of meditation into the Western culture and mind. Ever since the appearance of Swami Vivekananda there has continued to been a steady flow of “energy and information” and Hindu wisdom to the West.