Q: Question: Punditji- Please tell me what is the basic meaning of Yoga and how it came into being and who was the founder of Yoga.Is it pertaining to a Hindu god? Why is a particular posture called Surya Namaskar?
A: This is a delightful question because it allows us to take account of the great amount of diversity that constitutes Hinduism. You begin by asking for the basic meaning of "yoga," and — in all candor — it is hard to come up with such a fundamental definition. Of course, people who practice a particular type of yoga are going to say that the meaning of their version of yoga is the basic meaning, but using that method would leave us easily with several dozens of conflicting "basic meanings," which is not of much help.
The history of the development of the word (its etymology) also does not provide much assistance. "Yoga" initially was the word for a yoke, the device that harnesses two animals together, such as two oxen joined by a yoke plowing a field. On this basis, some scholars make use of this original historical meaning of the word and confidently assert that, therefore, the basic meaning of "yoga" is "to be joked together" or "to be united." Then they go on to identify which two things it might be that are unified by yoga, and typical answers include: the body and the mind, Atman and Brahman, the devotee and his god, and so forth. However, these explanations are quite artificial. By the time that the word "yoga" actually appeared in Sanskrit literature, it had taken on a further meaning. Based on the image of the yoked animals in the field it started to mean "exertion" in the sense of "hard work." (This kind of change happens in languages quite frequently. For example, a sundial received its name from the Latin word dies, which means "day." Eventually the word "dial" was applied to the face of any clock or watch, and this meaning was then transferred to the disk with holes and numbers on a telephone, so that one "dialed" a phone number. Nowadays, we can “dial” a number by means of pushing buttons on a square plate mounted on the phone, with no disk involved. This is just one example of how words in the language can take on different meanings.) So, if there is a basic meaning to the word "yoga" in the Hindu literature, it is simply as a practice that requires hard work and exertion. Needless to say, this is a very general description, which still does not give us any information on the nature of yoga. So, rather than using a dictionary, let us employ historical records to see what yoga is all about.
Now, the question comes up as to where in history we should start to look. Let me clarify that there is a distinction between the fields of history and archaeology. History is the narration and analysis of what happened in the past, and it is primarily based on written documents. Archaeology discovers objects, usually referred to as “artifacts,” and it can support history in conjunction with written documents. If an artifact contains writing, then it qualifies as “document,” though, obviously, one must be able to read and understand the writing. You can learn a lot about the past from archaeology, but you cannot construct a genuine history if you do not have historical records.
In the case of yoga, a number of writers appeal to archaeological finds from the ancient Indus Valley to corroborate the theory that yoga had its origins back in the fourth century BC in the culture represented by cities such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa. They base their contention on some seals (small disks) that depict fantasy characters (gods perhaps) sitting with their knees bent and uncrossed, holding their feet together sole-to-sole, a position that at first glance may look like the lotus position of yoga, but is actually far removed from it. From there, these theorists conclude that yoga began in that culture because they were looking for inner peace, tranquility, harmony, and all of the other typical benefits that people ascribe to yoga. However, this theory drastically overshoots the evidence in this case. For one thing, as I pointed out, the figures in these little pictures are not actually in any postures that one would normally associate with any of the classic yogic positions. Worse yet, modern scholarship has not yet succeeded in deciphering the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, and we are not even sure about the type of language that they spoke, or to what other languages it may be related. Consequently any claims as to what the people of that culture may have thought or believed can only be based on a person’s imagination, and no one who respects the methods of scholarship should be making any declarative affirmations concerning the specific details of the religion of this civilization. There is definitely not enough evidence to state positively Yoga was present in the ancient Indus Valley culture.
We do not have evidence for genuine yoga until around 500 BC, which takes us about 1000 years into the time of the Aryan immigration into India. Roughly from that period on, yoga became a common term referring to religious exercises combining physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. One of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy originating around this time was called Yoga; its official scripture is called the Yoga Sutra, and it is ascribed to a man named Patanjali. At the heart of this philosophy is the idea that the human soul (purusha) is entrapped in the material universe (prakriti), and that salvation lies in the liberation of the soul from all of the encumbrances that may currently be holding it back from this imprisonment. In this respect, the philosophy of Yoga closely resembles another school called Samkhya. However, the latter is atheistic, while Yoga includes devotion to a god, Ishvara, whose primary function is that of role model for the yogin. One aspect of this philosophically sophisticated Yoga, also called “Raja Yoga” or "Royal Yoga," is the belief that one of the factors that is holding back the soul and causing the suffering of this life is the fact that everything is always in motion. How can you find peace and stability when everything around you and within you is forever changing? The only truly motionless entity in the universe is Ishvara, and so the aim of the yogin is to imitate Ishvara and become motionless. Thus, you see that here is a lot more to the philosophy of Yoga than the bodily postures and the breathing exercises, but those are, of course, what makes yoga distinctive in the public eye.
The individual physical positions (asanas) of yoga may have certain meanings in themselves, but as a whole their point is to train the body to be able to maintain a state of immobility, regardless of the contortions into which one may have placed it. The breathing exercises (pranayama) serve the purpose of getting the yogin to control his breath, so that, as he advances in proficiency, he needs to breathe less and less. As I mentioned above, neither of these two aspects of yoga are ends in themselves; they are merely two components of eight, which are supposed to culminate in the meditative trance (samadhi) that liberates the soul.
Other versions of yoga soon came on the scene. Hatha Yoga dispensed with a great amount of the philosophy, but it retained its religious orientation, promising immortality to those who practice it. Yoga in the context of Advaita Vedanta became a means towards realizing the identity of the infinite Brahman and one''s True Self (Atman). The Bhagavad-Gita taught a form of yoga expressing devotion to Krishna. Once the basic set of practices was in place, it could easily be adapted to virtually any Hindu school of thought, and it has been. Let us be clear on one important point, however: Yoga is always a religious exercise. The present-day notion of yoga as a type of physical recreation does not fit in with its nature at all.
Surya Namaskara is actually not a specific posture of yoga but it is a sequence of postures that one may go through prior to the genuine yoga exercises. If nothing else this difference comes out quite clearly in the fact that, in contrast to the normal asanas, Surya Namaskara does not arrest movement, but has the yogin move from position to position. "Surya" refers to the sun, and "namaskara" means the action of saluting or worshiping it. The ceremony begins and ends with the recitation of a mantra, followed by twelve stages, each one involving a physical posture, a mode of breathing (inhaling, exhaling, or holding), and the recitation of a mantra.