Saturday, July 6, 2024

Vrata: An ancient name of Yoga

Long before the time when the compositions of Vedas began, Yoga was known to the Samana (equanimity or Jin) thinkers as Vrata (vow) which was used to purify the soul to attain salvation. This system was founded by a historical figure, the first Ford Maker Rishabhnatha. The Vratas he gave to mankind  was the beginning of modern yoga. Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not stealing), Aparigraha (non-acquisition), and Brahmacharya (chaste living) were the vratas (vows) coupled with sitting or standing postures (asanas) for meditation to know the inner self. those were essential to begin the path of emancipation. These were adapted by Patanjali as yama and secondary vows as niyamas. The concept of the Asanas (bodily postures) was developed during the Indus civilisation era (2600 BC) which can be seen on various excavated seals. There is no doubt that the Vrata system developed by the Jain philosophers of ancient times was later renamed Yoga by the Vedic community.


When Vedic Aryans arrived in India, indigenous folk religion was thriving. Vedic Aryans borrowed freely many local deities adorning Vedic characteristics. At the same time, the Samana (Equanimity) culture of thinkers and ascetics was flourishing almost everywhere. The ultimate aim of these thinkers was to win over the bad qualities of the mind, thus, the movement was also named Jina, victors over inner disorders and to see the world with equanimity, thus called Samana. The ultimate aim of yoga, though divided into many sects, remains the same as was determined by the ancestors. The spiritual quests of ascetics had invented means to attain ultimate bliss; Vrata (Yoga) was one, though they might have decided on spiritual destinations differently. The Samana ascetics were not interested in mundane pleasures, instead, they strived to get answers to the questions, such as what is the meaning of life, whether there is a creator or not, what are the sorrow and how to get rid of them and how to solve ethical problems faced by the world thus acquiring true knowledge by defeating the inner foes to become Jina. (Bhagavati Sutra, 4.160)

It is clear from Rigveda and Atharvaveda that the Vedics came across new identities like the Yatis, the Vratyas, the Munis, and the Keshis. (10.136.1-2) when they arrived in the Indian sub-continent around 1200 and 1000 BC. These personalities would wander renouncing the householder’s life in search of the ultimate truth. Vratyas (including Munis, and Keshis) were the people who strictly followed the principles of the vratas (Vows). Vratyakanda of Atharvaveda clearly shows how the mystic Vratyas had impressed the Vedic Aryans who settled in the region of Magadha. They learned many aspects of their philosophy and way of life forcing them to abandon the previously held perspective to look at the world. A historical figure Jaina Tirtankar Parshvanath’s time is estimated to be ninth to eighth century BC, which coincides with the movement of the Vedic Aryans from the Aryavarta towards further east.

Upanishadik philosophy arose under the influence of Samana philosophy. While embracing their philosophy previously unknown to the Vedic Aryans, they gave new terms to the original. Before the word "Brahma" appeared in the Upanishads, the word "Yaksha was used as a synonym for Brahma. Brahma was the name of the protector Yaksha of the tenth Tirthankar Shitalnath. Though with similar sounds, Indigenous words Brahma and Vedic Brahma had different connotations.  Moreover, the word Brahman (ब्रह्मन) in the Upanishads is neither related to the word Brahman (ब्राह्मण) nor to the Vedic word "Brahma" (ब्रह्म). The Vedic word Brahma comes in the sense of mantra (chant), while in the Upanishads it comes in the sense of the cause of creation. Thus "Vrata" term was changed to Yoga, though the original Vedic meaning of Yoga was just harnessing the horses. However, the spiritual usage of this word first appears in a late Taittiriya Upanishad, which especially elaborates on the necessity of meditation and Brahmvidya, to remove the cause which leads to recourse to Karmas. According to scholars, the Taittiriya Upanishad was composed in 6th to 5th BCE. We find further expansion of the term in Shvetashvatar and Maitri Upanishads which are dated by the scholars to be about fifth to second century BCE. Though the terminology was changed, the original essence of the term Vrata remained the same.

Vrata (vow) was used to purify the soul. Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not stealing), Aparigraha (non-acquisition), and Brahmacharya (chaste living) were the vows were essential Vratas were adapted by Patanjali as yama and secondary vows as niyamas. The asana system of the samana tradition was elaborated by Patanjali under different titles. The ultimate aim of Vrata was emancipation that too remained unchanged though the new title “Yoga” was applied.

When Upanishada says “Aham Brahmasmi” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4. 10), it clearly echoes Samanik or Jain thought. When inner foes are defeated, the person's soul dissolves in the supreme cosmic entity, thus, such a person is called Jina.  

Patanjali of Yogsutra of the third to fourth century AD stresses upon restraints on chitta, vrutti, i.e. “Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration, coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind field.” (Patanjali Yogsutra 1.2) Patanjali repeats Jain philosophy, which principally asks for restraints on the thoughts and actions (Karma) that bring disorder. It is a well-known fact that the Vedic Aryans were hedonists; their prayers to their abstract gods were for the victories in the wars and for the wealth. They strived to live as long as a hundred years. The term “Atma” does not appear in the Vedas in the same sense that is fundamentally considered in the Samana terminology. In the absence of this term, Yoga is left with no meaning. Vedic Aryans learned this science of the quintessence from the Samana alias Jaina ascetics which changed their entire perspective to look at the world. This is why Upanishads and Yoga cannot be a logical extension of the Rigvedic thought that strived for mundane pleasures.

Though very few know today, it is proved beyond doubt that Vrata was the original term for Yoga.

 -Sanjay Sonawani

(He is a researcher of Indian history and philosophy)

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Vrata: An ancient name of Yoga

Long before the time when the compositions of Vedas began, Yoga was known to the Samana (equanimity or Jin) thinkers as Vrata (vow) whic...