Modifications of Classical Yoga in the Middle-East Religious-Philosophic Schools

Written by kalabin. Posted in Articles

lotos-3Yoga: History, Philosophy, Psychology. Part 3

As a method of human’s spiritual development, Yoga was used by the followers of many philosophic schools of ancient and middle-aged India; the representatives of them applied Yoga practice for discipline of body and spirit. In spite of this, Yoga philosophy, as such,

(Sanhya-Yoga school) wasn’t the dominating school.

In the cultural environment of Post-Classical India, philosophy was developing in fighting between only two philosophic and spiritual traditions – Vedic or Hindu (uniting the philosophic trends based on Vedas and strongly attracted to Hinduism) and Buddha philosophy.

The first one, in the middle-aged period, includes advait-vedant Shankara’s philosophy, Ramanudja’s Theistic school, as well as Vishnuism, Shivaism and Shaktism. Despite their own meta-physical preferences and other (different from Sanhya-Yoga’s) understanding of some important philosophic problems, the supporters of these trends used the elements of practical Yoga in their spiritual practice. Therefore, the middle-aged Indian spiritual teachers Shankara (VIII-IX cent.) and Ramanudja (XI cent.) can be called not only the great thinkers and religious reformers but also the outstanding masters of Yoga.

The Vedanta system belongs to the most philosophically saturated and capacious. Its basics date back to about VII century B.C., though ‘Vedanta-Sutra’ dates back only to II cent. B.C., and the system and all the schools got the most popular only in the interpretation and commentaries of famous Shri Shankara Acharia (Shankara). The sense of the system can be reduced to the following.


The source of everything existing, phenomenal and illusive world is Absolute Reality, Brahman, THAT. This source is outside any qualities and attributes, it is unified and indivisible. And because of that, the spiritual ‘Ego’ of every individual, his Atman is identical with him. At the same time, this spiritual ‘Ego’ isn’t opposed to the body as, in contrast to Sankhya, Vedanta doesn’t reject the duality of the world, doesn’t see the differences between Purusha and Prakriti. Here everything is united, everything is Brahman, and within this unit only Brahman himself and spiritual monads, everyone’s Ego really exist.

But the body and even the thought itself, as well as the whole material phenomenal world, are imaginary, illusive.

Thus, Brahman is the only reality. The material universe is imaginary, it is the result of Maya’s actions, Brahman’s emanation. Maya is the material reason of the world only existing because there is its real reason – Brahman with his eternal energy. Maya is active only because of its involvement in Brahman who influences her like a magnet giving her his immanent force. Therefore, though the world created by Maya can seem to be real, in fact, it is no more than illusion. Behind the illusion of the imaginary phenomenal world, a true man of wisdom always sees its real essence, identity and can rely on liberation – moksha.


To realize the final identity with Brahman, those who are aimed at it must be purified morally and materially, refuse from the wishes and passions, and be ready to deny everything in favour of the great purpose. Having cognized his Atman, the human achieved the quiescent; his inner ‘Ego’ was identified with Brahman.

The system of Vedanta played a very important role in the history of Indian religious-philosophic ideas. Its aspects were accepted in the highest degree in the nationa Indian tradition, influenced the image of Hinduism and even became one of the spiritual basics for the revival of ancient traditions, in the epoch of reconsidering the basics of Indian civilization (Neo-Vedantism).

Ramanudja’s theistic school was opposed to Shankara’s one. Ramanudja rejected Maya’s conception and considered God as personal and as a soul possessing the integral individuality, which finds its true reality not in the solution within God, but in unity with Him.

Ramanudja concentrates his attention on the relation of the world to God and proves that God is real and independent: but in the world souls are also real though their reality depends completely on God’s reality. He believes that the spiritual start lies in the world basis, and he doesn’t consider it as illusion.

He insists on the continuous individual existence of the released souls. Ramanudja teaches that saving is possible not through djnyana and karma, but through bhakti or prasada (mercy). In the divine books, djnyana personifies dhyana, or speculation, and nididhyasana, or concentrated contemplation.


Bhakti is achieved through focusing on the conception that God is our innermost ‘I’ and we are only the variations of His substance. But such djnyana cannot be acquired until bad karma hasn’t been destructed. The work carried out by the interested spirit helps to remove the previous accumulations. The purpose can’t be achieved until karma which is enjoined by holy books acts according to egoistic impulses. The result of observing rites is fugitive, whereas the result of cognizing God is indestructible (akshaya); but if we dedicate our work to God, it will help us in making our efforts and achieving rescue. Both djnyana and karma are the ways towards bhakti, or the force which pushes out our egoism, enforces our will, gives us new eyes for seeing and a new peace to our souls.


According to Ramanudja, bhakti is human’s aspiration for more complete cognition of God, quieter and contemplating cognition. He insists on wide preparation for bhakti which includes viveka (neglecting food), vimoka (liberation from all the rest and aspiration for God), abhyasa (continuous thinking about God), kriya (doing good for others), kalyana (wish good to everybody), satyam (truthfulness), ardjavam (honesty), daya (sympathy), ahimsa (non-resistance), dana (mercy), anavasada (good spirits and hope). Thus, bhakti is not simply emotional, but it includes training both will and mind. It is both the cognition of God and obedience to His will.

In the context of Ramanudja’s school, the supreme spirit exists in a number of forms – both of souls and matter. Matter is unconscious, and individual souls are staying in ignorance and subjected to sufferings. However, all of them form the unity because matter and souls exist only as Brahman’s body, i.e. they can exist and be as such just because Brahman is their soul and regulating force.

Therefore, Ramanudja’s theory is advaita (non-dualism) but with the limitation (vishesha), and it is just this one that permits multiplicity. That is why it is called vishishtadvaita or limited non-dualism.


Tantrism, the ancient Indian religious cult of fertility and life, paid significant attention to Yoga. During the Middle Ages, it was actively developing in one of branches of Hinduism – Shivaism (after Shiva), and since the middle of I millenium – in some Buddha schools as well. Due to the idea interpenetration of Tantrism, Hinduism and Buddhism, so called “Tantric Yoga” appeared in which a significant place is taken up by sexual rituals. The path of Tantrism is the path of stressful sensual enjoyment which is used with Yoga purposes: liberating spirit from the power of matter.

The presence of methods connected with experiencing maximally strong emotions in the ‘Tantric Yoga’ sepatates it from both the classical Yoga ideology (where ascetic practice is important) and Buddhism (oriented to spiritual evolution through getting rid of sensual attachments and developing consciousness).


A great role in the development of spreading Yoga philosophy and practice was played by Buddhism. In spite of the fact that its philosophic ideas were sometimes significantly different from the philosophy of Sanhya-Yoga, the psychic technique and other practical elements of Yoga attracted Buddhists’ great attention.

It wasn’t by accident. The ethic-philosophic school of the enlightened prince Siddharta Gautama (Buddha) included a significant Yoga basis. According to the well-known Buddhist life story of the prince-hermit, he spent a lot of years in the forest in the state of Yoga askesis while mortifying flesh and strengthening spirit.

The Forth Noble Verity of Buddha’s school – The Eightfold Path of deliverance from sufferings – resembles the modified system of eight auxiliary means in classical Yoga. All the main elements of this system – ethic practice, self-discipline, psychic technique of developing and controlling consciousness – are present in Buddhism.


The fundamental difference of Buddhist Yoga from classical Yoga is its moderation in the ascetic practice. Buddha claims the Golden Mediate Path of spiritual perfection which goes on between two extremities – excessive asceticism and excessive indulgence to instinctive needs. His own experience of spiritual ascesis and Yoga practice gives Gautama Buddha the conviction that extremities prevent from the successful movement along the way of perfection and liberation.


Gradually, several religious directions and philosophic schools developed in Buddhism. In one of them – Yogachara, its founders are regarded to be Maitreya, Asanga and his brother Vasubandha, (IV cent.) – there is further convergence of Yoga and Buddhist school. The followers of this school believed that achieving the superior verity and nirvana is possible only by means of active practicing the Yoga methods of self-perfection. They attached much importance to developing consciousness with the help of Yoga psychic technique because they considered consciousness as the main form of reality and major creative force. In many respects, thanks to Buddhism the Yoga methods were spreading in the first millennium and at the beginning of the second millennium around the East and beyond it.


Yoga penetrated into China earlier than to other regions. In the modern literature sometimes a fixed term of ‘Chinese Yoga’ is already used. As a rule, it generally defines Yoga methods developed in Taoism and Chinese Chan-Buddhism, the religious-philosophic schools which were close and conformable in many respects.

The Taoist Yoga was aimed at strengthening health, lengthening life and developing the hidden forces of human organism. It was achieved by means of special diets and exercises, sexual continence and methods of controlling inner energy (tsi). Many Chinese fighting schools and even some emperors tried to adopt Taoist secrets of their striking achievements.

However, the superior aim of Taoist Yoga was the acquisition of immortality — not physical, as many Western researchers thought, but spiritual one. In Taoism, as well as in other mystical-philosophic schools, this aspect always remained innermost. Therefore, here it is difficult to separate verity from legends.

Chinese history has kept a lot of various legends about Taoists; for example, about the fact that Taoist patriarchs could conserve the viability of the physical body for several ages; that they were able to fly or strike the well-armed and trained warrior only by the power of the thought. Besides, Taoist monk still tell stories about how some adherents of Yoga could grow within themselves “a flower of immortality” and achieved eternal life and incredible power in the earth world and in the bodiless one.

Not only oral stories tell about such achievements. During the period of VIII to XVII centuries, ‘Dao tszan’ (“The Depository of Taoist Scriptures”), the whole collection of written sources of Taoist ideas, was being actively formed. According to some estimates, the total number of them comprises about 4.500 volumes. Among them there is a great number of Yoga compositions.

The school of Chinese Chan-Buddhism appeared on the edge of Indian meditative Buddhism and Taoism. The Chinese term ‘chan’ (analogue of Japanese ‘dzen’) is the phonetic falsification of the Indian term ‘dhyana’ which means “contemplation, concentration” or “meditation”. Dhyana, one of the main elements of Yoga psychic technique, played the key role in ancient Yoga tradition of self-immersion and inner contemplation.

In Chan-Buddhism it was believed that while immersing into the depth of his consciousness the pupil is approaching to powerful insight, or inspiration, in Japanese Dzen-Buddhism ‘satori’.

Thus, Chan-Buddhism represented the Chinese variation of Buddhism where meditation practice had an extremely important meaning. However, the similarity of Yoga and Chan-Buddhism is her completed. They are significantly different in their philosophic basics and practical methods of perfection, The original ideas of Chan-Buddhism are reflected in the canonic text of its founder, the middle-aged Chinese philosopher Huei-nen (VII cent.). His work is named “The Sixth Patriarch’s Sutra”.


A long period of developing Yoga theory and practice in the second millennium was connected with the Tibet. Its severe ice deserts and plateaus gave shelter to Buddhist Yogis who were as good as their Indian Guru-Yogis concerning the results of cognition and spiritual transformation of human nature.

In Tibet, Buddhist Yoga (Mahayana’s Buddhism) as the philosophy and method of spiritual practice got the same systematic development. The collection of the Tibet Buddhist Canon accounts to about 100 to 108 volumes in Chapter Kandjur (“The Collection of Revelations”) and about 225 volumes in Chapter Tandjur (“The Collection of Interpretations”). Many treatises in this collection of writings by Indian, Chinese and Tibet authors are devoted to Yoga practice in its ethical, psycho-technical and psycho-physical aspects. Among them there are such masterpieces as “Bardo Thedol” (so called “Tibet Book of the Dead”); “Milarepa Yogi’s Biography” by Rechung; “Precious Beads” – the collection of Yoga instructions attributed to Dvagpo-Lhardja (Guru Gampo-pa); “Yoga of Great Symbol” composed by Indian Buddhist Saraha and receiving ample recognition in Tibet; “Yoga of Six Doctrines” – the work collection of different authors devoted to the development of paranormal abilities; “Yoga of Transforming Consciousness” – the description of the development practice of consciousness autonomy and others.

A special place in Tibet Buddhist-Yoga literature was taken by Kalachakra’s esoteric system –“The Wheel of Time” (in another version “The Wheel of Law”). With spreading of this teaching in India and Tibet, a new period of developing Northern Buddhism (Mahayana and Vadjrayana) and Yoga practice started.

An important role in appearing and spreading Tibet Buddhist Yoga during VIII to XV centuries was played the teachers of Tantric Buddhism. The most well-known of them were Padma Sambhava, Atisha, Tilopa and Naropa. Their activity was continued by Naropa’s pupil, Tibet spiritual devotee, poet and translator Milarespa, Milarespa’s pupil, the founder of Monk Order Kardjiut-pa Gampo-pa; Atisha’s pupil, the founder of Monk Order Kadam-pa Domton. A great contribution to developing Tibet Buddhism and Yoga was made by Tszong-apa (Tszonhava), the Tibet philosopher and reformer.


During that period, Yoga methods started to be used by some followers of Islam and Christianity. Among various schools of Islam, Sufism experienced the strongest influence of Yoga. This non-orthodox mystical direction originated in the depth of early Islam in VII-VIII centuries as a reaction to official Islam whose leaders began to pay more attention to political conquests and material wealth than to spiritual perfection.


Like Indian Yogis, Arabian Sufis didn’t reject the religious cult and other formal instructions of Islam doctrine. But they believed that ritual services and rites are of little value in spiritual perfection in comparison with personal inner experience of mystical transformation.


Sufis honoured the tradition of spiritual preceptorship, used meditations with constant repeating the name of God and other sacral formulas, ascetic practice, ritual dances and strove for achieving the inner illumination and convergence with God.

Among the well-known followers of Sufism were Al-Basri, Abu al-Muhasibi, Abu Yazi, Djunaid, Halladge. A bit later, in XII-XIII centuries, the ideas of Sufism were supported by such outstanding Arabian thinkers as Gazali, Suhravardi, Ibn al Arabi.


Whereas Sufism can be considered as a certain variation of Yoga within the cultural-religious tradition of Islam, Hesychasm is about the same within the religious tradition of Eastern Christianity. The term “hesychasm” originates from the Greek “calmness, silence, estrangement”.

The characteristic elements of Hesychasm spiritual path are strict asceticism and the practice of ‘mental prayer” (in mind), that is multiple mental repeating a certain sacral phrase. Historians believe that such practice in Christianity appeared under the influence of ancient Egyptian and Sinai ascetics who lived in deserts in solitude, like Indian hermits, and could probably know the elements of Yoga.

Hesychasm, as a particular mystical trend, was widely spread during the late period of Middle Ages (XI – XVI cent.) in the area of developing the Eastern branch of Christianity – in Byzantine Empire and Rus. The well-known religious thinkers and spiritual ascetics Sergy Radonegsky, Feodosy Pechersky, Nestor Chronicler, Nil Sorsky, Vassian Patrikeev, Maxim Grek were grown up with the ideas of Eastern mystical Christianity which was inspired with Hesychasm. Later, the elements of Hesychasm penetrated into many Orthodox monk communities and were practiced for achieving the spiritual purity from everything worldly and for communion with God.

In this connection it could be noticed that among some modern researchers there is an opinion that Jesus Christ visited Tibet and India and there studied spiritual philosophy and mystical practice including Yoga. Nikolai Notovich, the Russian military journalist who published the book “Unknown Years of Jesus Christ” in late XIX century, claimed that in Ladakh Buddhist monastery (Himalayas) he saw the ancient manuscripts describing the long-term stay of Prophet Issa in India and Tibet.

The existence of similar manuscripts in the secret archives of Vatican was admitted by the Catholic Cardinal Rotelli who was acquainted with Notovich. Possibly, when Rome Catholic Church opens its archives for researchers, this question will be enlightened.


So, the Middle-Aged stage of Yoga developing was over in XVIII century. Its consequent was significant widening the cultural region for spreading Yoga methods of spiritual practice. Yoga penetrated into Buddhist religious and philosophic schools, Taoism, Islam and Eastern Christianity. While changing under the influence of some philosophic doctrines, Yoga kept the elements of psychic technique and introduced the practical method of controlling human’s inner world. During that stage, Yoga philosophy was preferably being developed in India, China and Tibet.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment