Sep 13, 2018

Greek Roots of Hatha Yoga?

In my surfing the web I’ve come across a curious article that advances the idea of hatha yoga Greek roots. I won’t now bother to look for the link, but the main message was that Alexander the Great’s military campaigns propelled to intensive interaction between Greek and Indian cultures (especially within the territory of modern Pakistan, which is obviously true). The people of India were amazed by the strength of Greek warriors to the extent they borrowed their system of body workout (the Greek gymnastics) and made it a basis of hatha yoga. As to the earlier “exercises” of India, these were nothing but mere asceticism and corporal mortification. 

Though daring, the hypothesis is easy to refute. I have some time before landing, so I’ll give my view of the theme. 

1. Patanjali never mentions hatha yoga or body training. Read this for further details. 

2. In the days of Vyasa – the first known commentator of Patanjali (this been ca. 6th century) – asanas were uncomplicated meditative poses. Was it this that Hindus had borrowed from Greeks? Sounds like an absurd idea (again, see here). 

3. What is noticeable in the earliest texts on hatha yoga (the Amritasiddhi of the 11-12th cent. AD that’s been recently translated by J. Mallinson, and Goraksa-Yoga-Sastra translated by my close acquaintance, Nils [Nils Jacob – transl. note] from Heidelberg ) is that development of hatha yoga did not start from exercises for the muscles involved in movement, that resemble the Greek gymnastics. It proceeded from mudras and bandhas, i.e. exercises for internal muscles, that are of therapeutic, rather than aesthetic, effect. It was only by the 14-15th centuries that the aspect of body training exercises emerged. Had the Greek roots been sleeping in the sand all that time? 

4. But even these mentioned exercises were of static kind. The dynamic gymnastics appeared only in the texts of the 17-18th cent. (see works by J. Birch). Have you ever seen static poses in Greeks? 

5. Treating ancient yoga exercises as nothing but mere asceticism is a fallacy. Though we don’t have any reference to asanas in ancient times, we have explicit mentioning of pranayamas. For instance, in Manu Smriti, Svetasvatara Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita. And all these texts suggest that the practice of pranayamas was well-developed and well-grounded, implying both psychotechnical and therapeutic results. 

6. And, finally, the purpose. Greek exercises of gymnastic type are an obvious derivative from martial arts. This routine is meant for militants, potential guards of a polis. As to Yoga, it was initially the practice used by Brahmans or ascetics, samyasins. At that stage they did not need to protect anything from anyone. Therefore, it was the mind work or – later – work towards the health support that the exercises were purported at. And both objectives were explicitly and repeatedly mentioned in the texts. While war was the pursuit of Kshatriyas who had their respective system of training – Dhanur-sastra. And I cannot say whether the Greeks have in this way or the other influenced these systems. This question needs a thorough study. 

7. Apuleius has a story (I render it from my memory) telling that after one of his campaigns to India Alexander the Great brought the so called gymnosophists – naked wise men. One of them, having lived to a particular age, voluntarily ascended the funeral pile and burned tranquilly, making no sound. If this is a true story, we need to admit the following: whoever this sage was, he had mastered an effective system of mind-practices. Mere wisdom or beliefs are not enough to inhibit autonomic reactions. And it means that these systems had existed long before the arrival of Alexander. 

8. I could have continued the list, but they say we are about to start the landing)) 

Resume: I have no doubts as to mutual influence of Indian and Greek philosophies, though this aspect needs additional scientific evidence. They definitely did interfere in the spheres of religion and politics. I saw the images of Greeks in Sarchi [a village in Himachal Pradesh, India – transl.note]. But Hatha Yoga is a product of purely Hindu thought!

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