Yoga evolved from Hinduism’s Vedic background at least 2500 - 3000
years ago; however, its more physical form, commonly called Haṭha yoga, only came
into prominence about 1000 years ago, at least as far as our literary and
archaeological records show. The Haṭha yoga
texts that emerged during the early second millennia describe techniques such
as mūdras, bandhas, āsanas and various advanced forms of prāṇāyāmas, which were
till then unrecorded in our textual sources. It is probably the case that these
practices were already in existence long before they were written down.
While the physical practices were novel, the metaphysics
underlying these practices were deeply vedāntic in character. The goal of Haṭha
yoga, as can be seen from almost all the early Haṭha yoga texts, was to attain
the union of brahman and ātman, an Advaita Vedānta goal par
excellence. In this short essay, I will study five of the important very early Haṭha
Yoga texts to show that their metaphysics is deeply embedded in a vedāntic
framework. The physical practice of yoga and its metaphysics cannot be separated.
The modern idea that yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism, propounded by
certain academics and yoga gurus, is ideological posturing unsupported by the textual
Before we discuss the vedāntic nature of these Haṭha yoga texts,
we must note that the goal of yoga as a union of ātman and brahman
goes back to the earliest of purāṇas. So, there is nothing new about Haṭha yoga
using vedāntic terminology and metaphysics. Rather it points to the emergence
of Haṭha yoga techniques from the same group of ṛṣi, muni and siddha who were
practising yoga from the earliest of times.
The most important text of Haṭha yoga is the canonical Haṭhayogapradapīkā
by the Nātha yogi Svātmārāma, dated to about early 1400 CE. This text is
compiled from many earlier Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava texts on Haṭha yoga (most of which
have been published and translated by the Kaivalyadham Institute in Lonavala). These
early yoga texts can be divided into texts written by Nātha yogis and those
written by the yogis who come from the Vaiṣṇava ascetic milieu—the former
coming from the siddha/tantra lineage of Kuṇḍalinī and the latter from
muni/rishi lineage of ascetic tapas. Let us now consider some of these foundational
early Haṭha yoga texts to see their vedāntic leanings.
The Dattātreya-yogaśāstra, dated to roughly the 13th
century, states that the goal of Haṭha yoga is the oneness (samatāvasthā)
of ātman with paramātman, which is the state of samādhi.1 This state is also called jivanmukta—liberation in life—and when the
yogi wants to give up his physical body, he can merge into parābrahman, the
supreme self.2 In fact, in the
very first verse of the text, the sage offers his obeisance to Lord Nṛsiṃha,
who is the form of consciousness (cidātma) reposing in the state of
bliss (sukha-svarūpa). This maṇgala verse proclaims the Vaiṣṇava and vedāntic
leanings of the text loud and clear.
Another text, Gorakṣaśatakam (12th century),
attributed to Nātha yogi Gorkṣanātha, breaks new ground with the development of
advanced prāṇāyama techniques and chakra-based yoga. His concept of samādhi is
the identification (samarasatva) of two entities (jīvatātman and paramātman).
In the highest stage, sage Gorakṣa says, the knower of yoga attains non-duality
(advaita) like milk poured into milk, or ghee into ghee, or fire into the
Yogabīja, another prominent early Haṭha text, is a
dialogue between Śiva and Devī that teaches the necessity of jñāna in the
pursuit of yoga. Only jñāna, without the aid of yoga, cannot lead to mokṣa, and
even yoga without jñānacannot bring mokṣa. The text discusses the
philosophical underpinnings of Haṭha yoga under the vedāntic umbrella of jñāna.
At the end of the long philosophical discourse on yoga, Śiva says to the Devī:
“As the salt on dissolution into the water takes the form of water, similarly
the jīva after seeing brahman, takes the form of brahman and
becomes one with him.”4 The vedāntic milieu of this text is amply demonstrated.
The Vasiṣṭha Saṁhitā, another text that plays a seminal role
in the development of Haṭha yoga, states that samādhi is the state of equality
(samatāvasthā) of the jīvātman and paramātman.5 Sage Vasiṣṭha
holds that the brahman is with attributes and not the attributeless brahman
of the Advaita. The metaphysics of this text is more in keeping with bhedābhedavāda
rather than Advaita but is still vedāntic.
Similarly, in terms of its historical importance, Śivasaṁhita
is the most canonical text of Haṭha yoga, after Haṭhayogapradapīkā. This
text should really be called Yoga-Vedānta text, given that it dedicates its
first chapter, out of five, exclusively to Advaita Vedānta. Further, chapters
two and five have extended sections on Vedānta. The systemization of Advaita
Vedānta teaching in the context of Haṭha yoga is pioneering, and it is a
surprise that the current crop of Vedānta teachers do not use this text for
I have listed five representative texts of early Haṭha yoga to
show the deep connection between yoga practices and vedāntic metaphysics. The
same is true for almost the entire corpus of fifteen early Haṭha yoga texts
starting in the 12th century. And yet we are told that yoga is universal
and nothing to do with religion. Yoga texts were not written in a vacuum but
were products of different Hindu sampradāyas, monastic orders and ascetic lineage.
If yoga is universal, then Vedānta is also universal.
There is also an opinion prominent in western academic
thinking that, since yoga is a ‘practical soteriology’, metaphysics does not
play a role. The problem with this view is that our texts do not support it. The
sophisticated yogic practices mentioned in our Haṭha texts are deeply embedded
within a certain metaphysical framework, be it Vedānta or Śaiva, otherwise the
practices do not make sense. For academics who take an extremely reductionist
view of yoga as an exercise, metaphysics does not matter. But this view goes
against the venerable Hindu tradition of yoga, which has nurtured its ancient
yogic heritage to achieve the highest spiritual aim of human life: samādhi.