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The Original Teachings of Yoga- From Patanjali Back to Hiranyagarbha

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Note: The modern Yoga movement has departed considerably from the classical Yoga tradition, becoming more of an exercise system than a spiritual practice. However, through its general acceptance of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as the primary text of Yoga, it has at least maintained a foothold in the tradition.

In the following article, we call for a return to the ‘original Yoga’ tradition that is older than Patanjali, and on which Patanjali based his work. This call is meant to take students back to the greater system of Yoga rather than just to the Yoga Sutras as representing the original tradition. It is meant to help lead them through the doorway of the Yoga Sutras to the greater universe of the Yoga and its many teachings going back for thousands of years.

We do this by examining older references to Yoga, particularly in a text called the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata, a great epic of 100,000 verses, perhaps India’s most famous story, is best known for containing the famous Bhagavad Gita of Lord Krishna. But it contains many other Yoga teachings with an extensive explication of the Yoga tradition and all aspects of Yoga long before Patanjali.

Hiranyagarbha as the Founder of the System of Yoga
Many people today look to Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, as the father or founder of the greater system of Yoga. While Patanjali’s work is very important and worthy of profound examination, a study of the ancient literature on Yoga reveals that the Yoga tradition is much older.  

The traditional founder of Yoga Darshana or the ‘Yoga system of philosophy’ – which the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali represents – is usually said to be Hiranyagarbha. It is nowhere said to be Patanjali.  The Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 349.65), the great ancient text in which the Bhagavad Gita of Sri Krishna occurs, states: “Kapila, the teacher of Samkhya, is said to be the supreme Rishi. Hiranyagarbha is the original knower of Yoga. There is no one else more ancient.”

Elsewhere in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 342.95-96), Krishna states, identifying himself with Hiranyagarbha: “As my form, carrying the knowledge, eternal and dwelling in the Sun, the teachers of Samkhya, who have discerned what is important, call me Kapila. As the brilliant Hiranyagarbha, who is lauded in the verses of the Vedas, ever worshipped by Yoga, so I am also remembered in the world.” Other Yoga texts like the Brihadyogi Yajnavalkya Smriti XII.5 similarly portray Hiranyagarbha as the original teacher of Yoga, just as Kapila is the original teacher of the Samkhya system. So do commentaries on the Yoga Sutras.

The vast literature of the Vedas, Mahabharata and Puranas speak of numerous great yogis but does not give importance to Patanjali, who was of a later period.  Many important deities and gurus are spoken of as teachers of Yoga. The deities include Hiranyagarbha, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesha, and Aditya (the Sun God).  Human teachers include Krishna, Rama, Bhishma, Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, Dadhicha, Dattatreya, Narada, Nachiketa, Asita, Devala, Jaigishavya, Galava, Shandilya, Ribhu, and many others. Even the Yoga literature that is later in time than Patanjali, like that of Kashmir Shaivism or Hatha Yoga, does not make him central to their teachings.

This earlier Yoga literature before Patanjali can be better called the Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana as it is said to begin with Hiranyagarbha. In fact, most of the Yoga taught in Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Mahabharata and Puranas – which is the main ancient literature of Yoga – derives from it. Such ancient Pre-Patanjali texts speak of a Yoga Shastra or the ‘authoritative teachings on Yoga’ and of a Yoga Darshana or ‘Yoga philosophy’, but by that they mean the older tradition traced to Hiranyagarbha.

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is only referred to as a compiler, not as an inventor of the Yoga teachings. He himself states, “Thus is the teaching of Yoga” (Yoga Sutras I.1). This is quite unlike Krishna, the avatar of Yoga, who states, “I taught the original Yoga to Vivasvan” (Bhagavad Gita IV.1).

Patanjali is traditionally regarded as a devotee of Vishnu/Narayana, whose main human avatar is Krishna. This strongly suggests that Patanjali himself was a devotee of Krishna. Traditional Sanskrit chants to Patanjali laud him as an incarnation of Lord Sesha, the serpent on which Lord Vishnu/Narayana resides. Krishna is the incarnation of Narayana/Vishnu lauded in all the literature. There is a special Narayana Mahatmya or ‘Greatness of Narayana’ in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 348) that lauds Krishna/Narayana including saying (87), “Yoga has the nature of Narayana,” and (91) that “Hari Narayana is the Great Yogi (Mahayogi).”

This Sesha attribution subordinates Patanjali and his darshana to Krishna/Vishnu. The depth, clarity and brevity of Patanjali’s compilation is noteworthy, but it is the mark of a later summation, not a new beginning.

The Bhagavad Gita is the primary ancient text lauded as a Yoga Shastra or ‘definitive Yoga teaching’. This can be carried to the Mahabharata as a whole, in which the Gita occurs. Bhishma in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 300.57) also speaks of a Yoga teaching “established in many Yoga Shastras.” The Anu Gita section of the Mahabharata (Ashvamedha Parva 19.15) has an interesting section that begins, “Thus I will declare, the supreme and unequalled Yoga Shastra.”

Several Upanishads like the Katha are said to be Yoga Shastras, besides numerous Yoga Upanishads that also do not emphasize Patanjali. The Puranas contain sections on Yoga said to be authoritative in nature as well and do not give importance to Patanjali. When such texts teach Yoga, they often do so with quotes from the older Vedas.

This means that the Patanjali Yoga Darshana is a later subset of the earlier Hiranyagarbha Yoga Darshana. It is not a new or original teaching, nor was it ever meant to stand on its own. The topics addressed in it from yamas and niyamas to dhyana and samadhi are already taught in detail in the older literature. In the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 316.7), the sage Yajnavalkya speaks of an “eightfold Yoga taught in the Vedas.” The Shandilya Upanishad (1) refers to an eightfold or ashtanga Yoga but does not mention Patanjali.

While no single simple Hiranyagarbha Yoga Sutras text has survived, quite a few of its teachings have remained. In fact, the literature on the Hiranyagarbha Yoga tradition is much larger than that on Patanjali Yoga tradition, which itself represents a branch of it. We cannot speak of a Patanjali Yoga tradition or of a Patanjali Yoga literature apart from this older set of Yoga teachings rooted in the Hiranyagarbha tradition. The Patanjali Yoga teaching occurs in the context of a broader Yoga Darshana that includes other streams. There is only one Yoga Darshana that existed long before Patanjali and was taught in many ways. It is the Yoga Darshana attributed to Hiranyagarbha and related Vedic teachers.

Parallel With the Samkhya Tradition
One should note that this situation in which the main Sutra text of a Vedic darshana is much later in time than its original teachings also occurs relative to the Samkhya system. The main sutra text on Samkhya is the Samkhya Karika of Ishvara Krishna. Ishvara Krishna (who is not Krishna of the Gita) is a figure of the early centuries AD who debated with Buddhist teachers near the time of Vasubandhu of Yogachara Buddhism. He is a much later teacher than the original founder of the Samkhya system, the sage Kapila, who is legendary even in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

There are many Samkhya teachings much older than the Samkhya Karika that occur in the Vedic and Puranic literature, though perhaps none as succinct as or simplified. The Samkhya Karika has its prominence also as a late and clear compilation, not an original presentation of Samkhya. So there is no need to regard the main text on a Vedic darshana as the original teaching, or its compiler as the founder of the tradition.

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