To truly understand the core of yoga and yogic philosophy, it is necessary to start all the way at the beginning of this philosophical system with the Vedas and Upanishads. Underlying the various yogic philosophy texts of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and others lie these core Hindu texts known as the Vedas and the Upanishads. The Vedas served as the foundation for Hinduism, off of which the Upanishads and other spiritual scriptures were then written.
Yoga is traditionally a Hindu practice, so understanding the core of Hindu philosophy through the Vedas and Upanishads can provide a rich background for exploring the depths of yoga practice. But these texts are quite long and can take years to study in their entirety, often requiring the assistance of a qualified teacher as well. To help you begin on your journey through these profound spiritual texts, read below for a basic introduction and summary of the Vedas and Upanishads’ core lessons and information.
It is commonly believed that the Vedas are the oldest surviving spiritual scriptures in the world. These texts served as the basis for Hinduism. The word Veda in Sanskrit literally translates to mean “knowledge,” representing the essence of these texts as a divine knowledge about God and humankind. It is believed that the Vedas were transcribed from a direct disclosure from God through Dev Vani to the sages and saints of India during their meditation practice.
There are 4 Vedas:
- Rig Veda
- Sama Veda
- Yajur Veda
- Atharva Veda
It is said that these 4 Vedas were written by Agni Rishi, Vayu Rishi, Aditi Rishi, and Angiras Rishi, respectively. Traditionally, the Vedas were passed from guru to disciple through the oral tradition. But around the year 1500 BCE, Maharishi Ved Vyasa transcribed them into the texts we know today. Due to the earlier oral tradition, many scholars say that the Vedas have actually been in existence for around 20,000 years.
The Vedas were written and spoken in the traditional language of Sanskrit. Most of the Vedas text consists of Vedic hymns, poems, and mantras along with descriptions of various yagyas and yajnas or sacrifices and ceremonies. The first reference to the word yoga is actually found within the Rig Veda, the oldest Veda. From these foundational texts of the Vedas, the deeper wisdom and branches of Indian philosophies expanded.
Although the Vedas are often considered the foundational texts of Hinduism, it was with the Upanishads that many of the deeper truths and spiritual teachings of the Vedas were uncovered. The word Upanishads directly translates to mean “sitting down nearby, ” indicating how the student would sit to study by the guru’s feet to learn the secrets of these texts in a traditional setting.
The Upanishads are a collection of more than 200 texts. However, 108 of these Upanishads are considered core texts, and only 13 of these are commonly studied and used in modern times. These 13 commonly studied Upanishads are as follows:
- Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
- Chandogya Upanishad
- Taittiriya Upanishad
- Kena Upanishad
- Isha Upanishad
- Mundaka Upanishad
- Svetasvatara Upanishad
- Mandukya Upanishad
- Katha Upanishad
- Prasna Upanishad
- Aitareya Upanishad
- Kaushitaki Upanishad
- Maitrayani Upanishad
Each of these 13 Upanishads is also related to a single Veda, serving as an extension of these foundational texts. The Upanishads are at the spiritual core of Hinduism and Indian philosophy, underlying the essence of Vedanta, a primary branch of Indian philosophy.
The development of the Upanishads signaled a shift in Indian philosophy from a focus on outer sacrifices and ceremonies to a focus on inner exploration and mystical states. The Upanishads delve deeper into this profound internal philosophy and methodology for achieving these various states. One of the core teachings of the Upanishads is that Brahman (God) is the same as Atman (the individual soul). This belief is summarized in the famous mantra “Tat Tvam Asi,” which directly translates to mean “That Art Thou,” indicating the deeper meaning of the oneness between the universal soul and the individual soul. The Upanishads also expound on the philosophical belief of the eternal nature of the soul, the concept of rebirth, and karma.
Bringing the Vedas and Upanishads into Your Yoga Practice
In traditional practice, the Vedas and Upanishads were only studied under the guidance of a guru. Even then, a guru would not teach just any student; the student had to be deemed qualified to learn this knowledge. But, in modern times, it is much harder to work within this traditional format, and many students choose to study these texts on their own. There are many excellent English translations of these texts with commentaries that can be used to understand and delve deeper into these texts.
Although these scriptures may not be necessary for every person’s yoga practice, they can certainly provide greater depth and meaning to your yoga practice. By integrating the understanding of the individual soul, the supreme soul, karma, and the power of mantra into your yoga practice, you can harness the essence of the teachings of these scriptures and provide greater spiritual depth to your yoga practice.
Like other yogic texts, these are not something that should simply be read and set aside. Instead, it is essential to integrate this philosophy into the experiential practice of yoga to truly understand this wisdom at the core of your being. A great and simple way to start is by meditating on the mantra “Tat Tvam Asi” and trying to experientially tap into the connection between your individual Atman and the universal Brahman.
Yogic philosophy has a long history, extending back thousands of years with the origins of the Vedas around 1500 BCE and possibly even longer. By integrating this ancient wisdom into your yoga practice, you can tap into a divine ocean of knowledge that can only grow and deepen your understanding with time. So, try to begin reading one of these profound texts or seek out a teacher to help guide you deeper as you begin to reveal the secrets of traditional yoga in your own life.