History and Importance of the language Sanskrit in Yoga

August 12, 2020

Yoga is as ancient as human civilization itself or perhaps even older than the time since we came to be known as a “civilization”. Even before we could articulate our thoughts into a language, even before we could communicate, we were practicing yoga. We were “living” Yoga. Civilizations many thousand years old show tablets, epithets, seals, etc., where humans are shown to be sitting in yogic postures. These seals and tablets reveal that humans were incorporating yogic postures in their day to day lives but we still do not know what language they spoke. There is an intense debate on it, which is not of significance in the discussion of this topic. Maybe we will decipher the language, the origin of it, verbiage of it, maybe not. Nevertheless, we know that yoga is as old as humans themselves and practice is more important than language. 

  The Pashupati Seal was discovered at the Mohenjo-Daro archaeological site of the Indus Valley Civilization  in 1928. It is known to be from around 2350-2000 BCE. In this seal, a man is seen seated with his knees bent and heels are touching together, toes pointing downward (modern day Butterfly pose or Baddhakonasana). Hands are gently resting on the knees. 

 

Yogis used Sanskrit as a medium of communication because that is what they were speaking many thousands of years ago. Yogis lived a very simple life back then. They secluded themselves from the everyday hustle and bustle. They lived in forests, on mountain tops, in caves, etc.. They drew inspiration from nature constantly. A lot of yoga asanas are named after animals, insects, birds, mountains, rivers, etc.. Many times, these postures are named after sages/seers, and craftsmen/workers. By understanding the names of the postures in Sanskrit, we can connect to the thought process and lives of these yogis. We can understand what were the sources of inspiration for them. What got them excited, what influenced their mind. This in turn will allow us to attune our practice to the same elements. This will help us develop a spiritual connection to this ancient practice. 


Yoga has a very complex history. It is influenced by many religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and many more, as well as by many cultures. This history is thousands of years old, and the earliest  descriptions of yoga are found in ancient Hindu texts known as Vedas. 


Having originated in the early second millennium BCE as Vedic Sanskrit and tracing its linguistic ancestry back to Proto-Indo-Iranian and Proto-Indo-European group of languages, Sanskrit was the language of a cultural order that exerted influence across South Asia, Inner Asia, Southeast Asia, and parts of East Asia. As the oldest Indo-European language for which substantial written documentation exists, Sanskrit holds a prominent position in Indo-European group of languages. The “Rig Veda” which is known to be one of the oldest texts written in Indo-European language, is an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. It is here that we first  see the mention of the word  “Yoga”. In Rig Veda, Yoga is mentioned as “to Yoke” or “to make one”. Asanas are not described as the method of this “yoking” in Rig Vedas; rather Meditation is used as the way of “making one” of the self with the Divine. 


The hymns that are written in the Rig Veda and many other sacred texts are known to have a potent spiritual effect on the practitioner, when repeated in Sanskrit language. Some of us as students and teachers feel the need to say these hymns, mantras, asana names in their original ancient and sacred language while others feel that the language is archaic and does not feel the need to do so. Some of us feel a deeper spiritual connection to our practice through the language, others might find it strange, unnecessary and sometimes contradicting with their religious or spiritual beliefs. 

As practitioners of yoga, we need to derive the conclusion from our own personal practice and then cultivate sensitivity towards others and their choices. This can be in the form of asana names, mantras, chanting of OM, discussing Vedas and Sutras, etc.. Choosing to incorporate Sanskrit in your personal practice in a way that resonates with you the most, is the only way to honor and pay tribute to one of the oldest, most refined and grammatically evolved languages of the ancient time. 




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