History and Philosophy of Meditation
In this article, we will be shining light on the chronology, historical developments, and key philosophical ideas of meditation. This timeless wisdom was devised by the ancient rishi, yogis and seers in deep illuminate meditative states to give humankind a framework to evolve and reach the highest spiritual liberation attainable by a human being.
This vast illuminating body of knowledge encompasses a diverse range of practices and philosophical ideas. My aim for this article is to provide you with an overview of the primary texts and their key concepts and teachings.
Why The History and Philosophy of Meditation is Important
It’s important for meditation teachers to study the History and Philosophy of Meditation and develop a deeper understanding of the powerful myriad of powerful techniques and philosophical ideas that were devised by the ancient yogis and seers. The main reason why is because during the spread of knowledge in the internet age many of the key essential techniques taught by the ancient rishi have been omitted by many teachers, making the original teachings less effective. I personally believe that’s the reason why so many people struggle learning and teaching meditation.
An example of this is if you ask someone what meditation is, the general consensus is meditation is mindfulness or meditation is all about repeating secret mantras, or meditation is all about stopping your thoughts and stilling your mind.
While mindfulness and mantras are useful techniques, you’ll discover in this article they are just the tip of the iceberg and only one part of the puzzle.
My intent for this article is to provide you with an overview and insight into the key philosophical ideas and practices the ancient yogis actually taught so you can utilise this knowledge to facilitate deep healing, growth change and transformation in your own life and others.
Furthermore to utilise the knowledge as inspiration to create your own unique audios, courses, group coaching and other assets aligned with your life purpose.
Timeline and Chronology of Meditation
Pre Vedic Period. 10,000 -5000 BCE:
Oral tradition advocates that yoga (meditation) originated from tantric teachings cultivated by the ancient sage Shiva more than 10,000 years ago.
Some yogis believe yoga was a worldwide phenomenon and not just isolated to India. Furthermore, the oral tradition advocates that Tantric teachings were assimilated into Vedic teachings at an early age and that one will find Tantric influences in the earliest ancient Indian texts of the Vedas.
In an ancient story, it is said that the first yogi, Adiyogi poured his profound knowledge into the legendary Saptarishis or “seven sages”. The sages carried this powerful yogic science to different parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America.
Archaeological evidence found in the Indus valley 5000-3500 BCE: at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (now in modern Pakistan) and Denmark suggest this could be true. The findings indicate the presence of a statue of Lord Shiva practising meditation. This suggests that meditation and yoga may have been practised in that period.
Below is an image from a stone tablet from the Pre Vedic Period, and a bronze seal from a later period Gundestrup Cauldron, Denmark c200BC -300AD
5000-3500 BCE: Pre Vedic Period
Gundestrup Cauldron, Denmark c200BC -300AD
Vedic Period. c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE
The Vedas comprise an enormous body of the oldest known sacred Sanskrit literature originating in ancient India. Veda is a Sanskrit word meaning knowledge, referring to divine revelation revealed by ancient sages after intense meditation practices.
The 20,358 verses of the Vedas were orally transmitted up to 4500 years ago with help of elaborate mnemonic techniques.
Vedas are said to be apauruṣeya, which means superhuman with each syllable considered to have a Spiritual power. The Indologist George Feuerstein describes the Vedas as a composite of symbol, metaphor, allegory, myth and story inspired by illuminated visions.
The origins of Meditation is rooted in the sections of the Vedas at least Symbolically. Additionally embedded in Vedas are practical methods for living a life in harmony with the Universe.
Vedas are grouped into 4 collections: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda
Rigveda, 1800 – 1100 BCE.
The oldest spiritual text in the world comprised of 1028 hymns or songs in praise of the divine.
Each hymn is recognised as an energised mantra that expands consciousness and was comprised by yogis in the highest state of consciousness communicating with beings in higher realms.
Furthermore, Sankalpas. Similar to an affirmation (An intention formed by the heart, mind and soul– a solemn vow or will to achieve a goal) are also originated in the Rig Veda.
Of 1028 hymns in the Rig Veda
- 250 hymns in praise of indri in praise of the Devine force behind the oceans, heavens, thunder, lighting and the sun.
- 200 of Agni, born of sun, becoming the sacrificial force.
- 100 to Soma who gives immorality and is connected to the sun, moon, rivers, mountains and oceans.
- The remaining are dedicated to Varuna who protects the cosmic order. The Ashvins, supreme healers; Ushas, goddess of the Vedas and of music and arts.
There are references to meditation in the Rig Veda such as Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation) The Vedas also briefly mention the existence of the pranic centres (the chakras) within but not of the physical body.
Samaveda, 1200 – 800 BCE
Samaveda is the Veda of instructions on chanting veld hymns & melody, which was considered to be the root of classical Indian music and dance. The majority of the 1875 verses are from the Rig Veda, only 75 are original. Samaveda is not meant to be read as a text, it is like a musical score sheet that must be heard. Many of the hymns were sung by priests during sacrificial rites.
Yajurveda, 1100 – 800 BCE
Yajurveda consists of mantras or prays for sacrificial worship rituals that were performed by a priest before the yajna fire. The mantras of Yajurveda are internal or spiritual in nature. One-third of its 1975 verses are from the Rig Veda. The rest are original and in prose form.
Atharvaveda, 1000 – 800 BCE
Atharvaveda is the Veda of magical spells and charms for gaining health, healing, love, peace and prosperity and revenge. It praises medicinal herbs and plants. Royal rituals and the duties of the court priests are also included in the Atharvaveda.
Key points of the Vedas
Each of The four Vedas has 4 subdivisions depending on the different views of scholars.
- The Samhitas. The mantra, hymns or verse portion.
- The Aranyakas (text on rituals)
- The Brahmana, or explicatory portion which reflects on the mantra and gives a very detailed, arcane (Secret) explanation of the Mantras to reveal its meaning.
- Upanishad (End proportion of the texts discussing meditation, philosophy & spiritual knowledge that the Upanishads are constructed from)
IMPORTANT NOTE: Throughout all of this large body of sacred literature, Mantras are repeated with precise knowledge of their meaning. This is contrary to meditation traditions that advocate that Vedic mantras have no meaning and should be secret.
The Upanishads. 900 BCE-750 CE
All Upanishads are associated with one of the four Vedas and are considered the last phase of the Vedic revelation. They deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge. (Fundamental nature of reality.)
The Upanishads are commonly referred to as Vedanta. Vedanta is the completion of perceivable knowledge as the aspirant is guided beyond the limited mind to the spiritual self.
The word ‘Upanishad’ can be understood as: To sit with a guru with an objective to acquire knowledge. The Upanishads expand upon, explain, and develop the Vedic concepts through narrative dialogues of a realised master.
Most of the Upanishads are in a form of dialogues between a master and a disciple. They also played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism.
They include philosophical theories that are the foundation of future texts and traditions.
Classification of the Upanishads
It is estimated there are over 200 Upanishads. 108 which have been categorised as canonical Upanishads. (Officially accepted as genuine.)
Upanishads are divided into 7 groups Major, Vedanta, Saiva Shaivism (Lord Shiva), Sakta. Shaktism (goddess Shakti), Vaisnava Vaishnavism (god Vishnu/Krishna. avatar of Vishnu), Sannyasa (renunciation, monastic life), and the Yoga Upanishads.
An interesting point here is that we are starting to see the emergence of core Tantric concepts especially in regards to referencing Shiva, Shakti and the teaching of the Yoga Upanishads.
This can point to the fact that Tantric concepts were actually revealed much earlier than dated and categorised by many modern scholars.
Central Concepts of Upanishads and the Vedanta school
Vedantic philosophies elucidate the relationship between the three fundamental metaphysical categories and their relations.
- Brahman or Ishvara: the ultimate reality.
- Ātman or Jivātman: the individual soul.
- . Prakrit. The empirical world. The ever-changing physical universe, body and matter.
According to Advaita Vedanta school, Ātman is identical with Brahman and there is no difference. The main goal of the Upanishadic philosophy is for the Atman (the soul) to realise its connection with, and to unite with Brahman (The supreme cosmic consciousness).
The spirit of the Upanishads is also inherently opposed to sacrificial rituals in some of the earlier Vedas.
21 Yoga Upanishads. 100 BCE to 300 CE
Yoga Upanishads shine a light on the esoteric yogic and mediative practices that consolidate Vedantic and Tantra philosophies.
The Yoga Upanishads cover asanas, kundalini methodologies, pranayama, (breath exercises) pratyahara, (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration of the mind), Dhyana (contemplation and meditation) and samadhi (a state of meditative consciousness)
Yoga Upanishad additionally discuss topics on ethics such as Yama, (Self Restraints such as non-violence)
Pre Classical Epic Period
400 BCE- 300 CE: Mahabharata
The Mahābhārata is the longest epic poem ever written consists of over 100,000 śloka or over 200,000 individual verses scribed between the 4th century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The original events of the epic probably occurred between the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.
It gives an account of the struggle between two groups of warring cousins in the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes and their successors.
Additionally, It also contains philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or puruṣārtha.
Bhagavad Gita is part of the epic Mahabharata, considered to be one of the Holy Scriptures for Hinduism.
The narrative framework of a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Krishna and Arjuna dialogues cover a broad range of spiritual topics, covering ethical dilemmas and philosophical issues that go far beyond the war they are facing.
The Bhagavad Gita battlefield has been interpreted as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of human life.
The Bhagavad Gita presents a synthesis of ideas about dharma,(the right way of living.) Theistic bhakti,( Devotional worship) and the yogic ideals of moksha.( Transcendental state attained as of being released from the Karma of rebirth)
The text also covers jñāna, (Knowledge or wisdom) karma, and rāj yogas (King of Yogas) and it incorporates ideas from the Samkhya philosophy.
Inspiring Quotes from the Bhagavad Gita.
- Yoga is equanimity in success and failure. (2:48)
- Yoga is skill and efficiency in action (2:50)
- Yoga is the supreme secret of life. (4:3)
- Yoga is the giver of untold happiness (5.2)
- Yoga is serenity (6:3)
- Yoga is the destroyer of pain (6:17)
Darshanas. Hindu Philosophy 500BCE-0CE
Darśana (Sanskrit: दर्शन, lit. ’View, Sight’) is the auspicious insight of a deity or a holy person.
The term darśana also refers to the 6 systems of Hindu philosophy that accept the Vedas as an authoritative, important source of knowledge.
- Samkhya – Strongly dualist theoretical exposition of consciousness and matter. Agnostic with respect to God or the gods. (Buddhism incorporates concepts of Samkhya)
- Yoga – Emerged from Sankhya and emphasizes the practical use of Sankhya theory: meditation, contemplation and
- Nyāya or logic – The school of epistemology (The theory of knowledge) Nyāya reliable means of gaining knowledge. are pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference. Conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning), upamāṇa (comparison and analogy) and śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts)
- Vaiśeṣika– A naturalism School of atomism.
- Mīmāṃsā – An anti-ascetic and anti-mysticist school of orthopraxy. This school deals with the correct interpretation of the verses in Vedas.
- Vedānta– The last segment of knowledge in the Vedas which became dominant in the post-medieval period.
Buddhism and its Chronological Development. 6th-4th BCE
Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers or over 7% of the global population. (Not a religion)It originated in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE and propagated through much of Asia in ancient times.
Buddhism is based on a series of original teachings, various developments and adaptations attributed to Gautama Buddha who was born in Nepal.
Schools and Development of Buddhism.
The most common classification among scholars has been to divide Buddhism into three major branches:
There are numerous other variants. Too many to mention.
Theravāda Buddhism bases its doctrine on the Pāli Canon, the complete earliest extant Buddhist text during the First Buddhist Council, thirty years after the Parinirvana of Gautama Buddha.
Two of Buddhas ten chief disciples (Ananda and Upali ) are said to have recited the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka orally preserving the buddha teachings.
Mahayana Buddhism. 1st century BCE onward
Mahāyāna Buddhism (“Great Vehicle”) developed in India (c. 1st century BCE onwards). Mahāyāna accepts the main scriptures of the Pali Canon but ads new texts such as the Mahayana Sutras.
Tantric additions are also included which are said to be faster and more powerful in achieving Buddha-hood.
The central theme of Mahāyāna Buddhism is to become a fully awakened Buddha bodhisattva that is able to achieve enlightenment but delays doing so he can stay in the world for the compassion and benefit of all sentient beings who are suffering.
Vajrayana Buddhism 300-500 CE
Vajrayana draws its philosophy from Mahāyāna Buddhism and Tantra having between 1500 and 2000 surviving Indian Buddhist Tantric texts. It originated in India and spread out of India into nearby countries, it remains the main Buddhist tradition in Nepal, Mongolia and Tibet.
Traditional Vajrayāna sects claim that the tantras and the lineage of Vajrayāna were taught by the Buddha himself and other bodhisattvas. Some of the central themes are similar to the content in the Yoga Upanishads.
Zen Buddhism. 653 CE
As Japanese Buddhism began to evolve, zen meditation emerged from the school of Mahayana Buddhism in China (referred to as the Chan School).
Chan is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana (meditation).
Chan School was strongly influenced by the Taoist philosophy and was later known as Japanese Zen.
Patanjali Yoga Sutras. 100 BCE – 500 BCE.
The Yoga Sutras is a foundational text of classical Yoga. It encapsulates a collection of 196 Sanskrit sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of Yoga and Meditation.
The Sutras were compiled between 500 BCE and 400 CE, by the Indian Patanjali sage.
Patanjali synthesized and organized the teachings from much older traditional sources. Ie Vedas, Samkhya, and the Upanishads.
The Yoga Sutras are divided into 4 chapters.
1. Samadhi Pada.
Samadi is the state experienced when the practitioner attains enlightenment and is achieved when the yogi’s self-identity is absorbed into pure consciousness.
2. Sadhana Pada.
Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for “practice” or “discipline”. Patañjali outlines two systems of Yoga: Kriyā Yoga ( Yoga of Action to achieve a specific result) and Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold or Eightlimbed Yoga).
The Aṣhṭānga Yoga of eight limbs is:
- Yama – restraints or ethics of behaviour
- Niyama – observances
- Āsana – physical postures
- Prāṇāyāma – control of the prana (breath)
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dhāraṇa – concentration
- Dhyāna – meditation
- Samādhi – absorption
3. Vibhuti Pada.
Vibhuti is the Sanskrit word for “power” or “manifestation” or ‘Supra-normal powers’ (Sanskrit: siddhi)
According to Pantanjali this is achieved by the meditative practice called Samyama.
The method unique method combined the simultaneous practice of Dhāraṇā, Dhyana and Samādhi.
4. Kaivalya Pada
The Kaivalya Pada describes the process of (Moksha) liberation and the reality of the transcendental ego.
Kaivalya means means “detachment” in Sanskrit. In this case, it refers to the isolation of purusha (pure awareness or consciousness),from prakṛti.( Matter)
The main purpose of the Yoga Sutras is to attain an enlightened state of consciousness where consciousness is only aware of its own nature as pure consciousness. (Samadhi)
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500-1500 CE: Tantric civilisation
Tantric practices and philosophy is shrouded with mystery and is normally misunderstood in the western world with the common consensus believing Tantra is all about sex.
This is far from the truth, tantric practice encompasses a vast array of practical powerful practices designed to heal and transform the complete physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual dimensions of or human experience in a way that is very relevant for the modern world we live in today.
Western scholars have attempted to date the start of the chronology of Tantra anywhere from 1st millennium CE, to starting 500CE.
The oral tradition advocates that the origins of Tantra began way before the ancient pre-Vedic as propagated by lord shiva.
My personal view after reviewing the available literature is that it seems evident that the Tantric origins are clearly embedded in the Vedas, with some yogis actually calling the Vedas the Tantric Vedas.
Definition of the word Tantra
The Sanskrit word tantras literal meaning, is a framework, system or theory. The etymological meaning is a combination of two processes, ‘tanoti’ and ‘trayati’, meaning expansion and liberation.
Therefore, Tantra can be described as a process to expand one’s awareness, or individual consciousness, to unite with the universal consciousness, attaining liberation, absolute freedom or enlightenment.
The Tantras encompass a numerous and diverse range of scriptures pertaining to several esoteric practices rooted in Yogic and Buddhist philosophy. Tantric texts are usually associated with a particular tradition, sect, and deity.
The practices and philosophy can appear to be different and varied throughout the texts however they all point to experiencing the same outcome.
The main tantric categories and deities are as follows:
- Vaishnavas: Deity Vishnu. Literature: Vaishnava Agamas.
- Shaivas: Deity Shiva. Literature: Shiva Agamas.
- Shaktas: Deity Shakti. Literature: Shakti Agamas.
- Sauras: Deity Surya. Literature: Saura Agamas.
- Ganapatyas: Deity Ganapati. Literature: Ganapatya Agamas.
There are numerous additional tantric texts and derivatives including numerous Buddhist Tantric texts.
Key Points of the Yogic Tantra Philosophy
- In Tantra, there is no dogma. Whereas, Hinduism has many rules and laws including strict divisions of caste.
- Tantra is non-denominational and can be practised by anyone.
- In Tantric mediation practices, the mind is given freedom during meditation and is not locked into any dogma.
- Tantrics place greater emphasis on practice than on intellectual and philosophical hypotheses.
- Hold non-dogmatic views, which neither praise nor condemn other scriptures and welcome theories and practices from all other philosophies.
- The tantric view is different to other scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and Buddhist texts which advocate that the world is full of suffering and the main aim is to attain Nirvana and end the rebirthing cycle. (Tantrics seek liberation in the world, not from the world)
- In Tantra, desires are lived out with wisdom and respect for the free will of others.
- Furthermore, the tantric view is contrary to western religions that advocate life on earth is full of misery and only comes to an end only when we go to heaven.
- The Tantrics view the whole world as a manifestation of the divine and champion to create heaven on earth so we can enjoy the fruits of the world in this life.
Classical Hatha Yoga
Hatha yoga encompasses a vast array of practices to strengthen, purify and awaken the energy of the body and mind in preparation for meditation. Additionally, many of the Hatha Yoga Texts dedicate many verses to the practice of Meditation.
Great importance is placed upon cleansing practices, diet, regulation of breathing (Pranayama) as well as (asanas) and mudras and bundas. Furthermore, methodical practices are provided to cleanse, purify and awaken the transformative energy of the Chakras.
These powerful practices pave the way for not only better health and wellbeing but also provide the practitioner with a solid foundation to practice meditation.
Hatha yoga has its origins dating back to at least the Yoga Upanishads and the practices have been developed and refined over thousands of years. The more recent classical Hatha Yoga Texts are dated from 1500CE.
Reason Why Hatha Yoga is so Important for meditation
Many people find it almost impossible to sit for even a short period of time without getting distracted by the physical body.
If the body is not healthy it’s almost impossible to meditate as the mind will keep getting distracted by the body. This is why the practice of Hatha Yoga to purify the body and mind in preparation for meditation is so important.
Three prominent Hatha Yoga texts:
1. Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. 1500CE. By a sage called Svātmārāma
Svātmārāma formulated his text from earlier texts. Svātmārāma advises his system of Hatha Yoga is to be utilised as a preparatory stage for physical purification before higher meditation or Raja Yoga.
A considerable amount of verses are dedicated to meditation and Spiritual awakening.
2. Gheranda Samhita.
The Gheranda Samhita composed likely in the 17th century is structured as a teaching manual. It describes itself as a book on ghatastha yoga, which literally means “vessel yoga”.
The Gheranda Samhita was decoded to describe the body and mind being portrayed as vessels that carry and serve the soul (atman, purusha)
3. Shiva Samhita.
The text is composed as a discourse between Shiva to his consort Parvati. Sanskrit text considered a comprehensive treatise on Hatha Yoga dated between 1300-1500CE
Shiva Samhita formulation draws upon various predated sources such as tantra and non-dual Vedantic philosophy.
- 19th Century: Translations of the ancient teachings of meditation began to travel to the west. Swami Vivekananda was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and meditation to the west.
- 1936: Swami Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society who wrote 296 books on a variety of subjects.
- Students are attributed to the spread of Yoga and meditation in the west.
- 1950: The insight meditation movement (Vipassana) started in Burma and spread out to the west. (Mindfulness)
- 1960s: Transcendental meditation began to gain popularity in America.
- 1979: Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program.
- Meditation began to get integrated into the medical world to treat patients with chronic illnesses.
- (De-emphasises or omits many of the Buddha.)
I hope you enjoyed learning about the Chronology and Philosophy of meditation and find it as fascinating as I do. As you can clearly see from what we have been covering, meditation is rich in history encompasses much more than what is commonly taught in the modern world today.
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