Is Yoga a form of Hinduism?
It’s very common for people to misunderstand the philosophical and historical distinction between yoga and religions. While it is a necessarily deep topic, and there is no particularly clear cut answer to this, we know from anthropological and archaeological evidence that yoga as we know it today (meaning; the yoga known as “ashtanga'“ which is mentioned in the yoga sutras of Patanjali) is an art of living life that is based on an ancient philosophy known as Samkhya. We know this because of archeological findings, as well as the admission of this fact from Vedic/Vedanta sources such as Gaudapada that clearly differentiated the ideologies of Veda from that of the likely older system that was native to India, known as Samkhya.
Still, Vedic writings, including some Upanishads, include familiar yogic concepts such as the tri-guna (sattva, rajas, tamas), and the form of causality exposed by Samkhya known as Karma. So, we must assume that the two philosophies at one time coexisted and intermingled, sharing concepts, ideas, and a language (sanskrit). Furthermore, Buddhism also seems to have several similarities to yoga philosophy. We know that Buddhism came from India, and has sharp critiques of the established vedic paradigm that was commonplace at its advent. We also cannot ignore that Hinduism has stark similarities with European, and particularly, Greek, mythology. The explanation of their historical differences can be found, perhaps, in one interesting archaeological finding, and that would be the controversial use of the Hindu swastika by the Nazis.
We know that Hitler chose to represent his new empire with the swastika because he believed it to be a symbol of the power of the “pure” aryan race, which, to him, existed in ancient times. Truth be told, this isn’t too far from reality. The Swastika is in fact a symbol that comes from Vedic mythology, and we know from anthropological and archaeological findings, that the aryans did in fact invade India, and dominate its people and replace its native religions with its own. This leads us to one important clue in this search; Aryans brought with them the religions that would essentially become Hinduism, but they did not bring with them the philosophies which spawned yoga. We know this for several reasons but as we will discuss, the most glaring is that there is no evidence of the Aryans ever doing yoga prior to their invasion of India, and there is no evidence of Vedic culture in India prior to their invasion around 1500 BC. Thus, we can look at anthropological fact, and discover that for tens of thousands of years, people of India lived and developed a philosophical system that was almost assuredly older, yet cut from a distinctly less goal oriented cloth, than were the foundational elements of the Aryan thought complex. It is nearly unquestionable that the theories that underly the practice of yoga came from these original inhabitants of India. In the same way that we know that Native Americans had distinct religions from that of their Christian conquerors, we also can deduce clearly that the people of India that lived prior to the Aryan invasion, also had distinct systems of thought as well.
In truth, Buddhism is actually closer to ancient yoga than is Hinduism, and the historical Buddha lived in the same community, only a hundred years later, as did the great yogic sage known as “The Atheist Kapila”, who was the composer of the seminal yogic philosophy text called “Samkhya Yoga Karika”. Yogas non-theistic roots are in the atheistic system of Samkhya, which makes no mention and in fact declines the potential for the existence of god at certain points. Kapila, and Samkhya philosophy is unquestionably non-theistic. Notably, yoga does not mandate atheism, monotheism, or polytheism, and it does so in interesting style. While the yoga sutras does tend to lean towards a greater power (called Isvara), Isvara may or may not be considered necessarily a cosmic being like one would consider a god, but rather a force of natural power that stems from consciousness. Both Buddhism and Yoga may share a common view in regards to the concept of god, in some aspects, while yoga philosophy makes no mention of training the mind towards any identity of god, but rather suspects that all problems start in the movements of the mind (yoga sutra 1:2-3).
One key difference between ancient yoga philosophy and vedic theory is that yoga leans strongly towards a dualistic reality, while vedic theory leans towards a more universal “oneness”. While Samkhya and Yoga philosophy also have a place for a concept such as Brahman, or a cosmic existence which is beyond duality, yoga in particular does not present this concept as being one that is worthy of our attention. Instead, yoga philosophy remains strongly dualistic (purusha vs. prakriti) and even goes so far as to state that all ignorance in human existence is a result of ignoring the dualistic nature of life as a sentient being (yoga sutras 2:23-29). There are stark differences between vedic and yoga philosophy if one takes the time to observe them.
While yoga differs philosophically from vedism primarily based on the individuality of the atman/purusha/self, it differs from buddhism because of the very idea of atman. According to many Buddhist doctrines, Buddha’s enlightenment was beyond the duality explained by yoga philosophy, and thus there is a doctrine of “non-atman” espoused, in general, by Buddhism (usually). This is notable because it is almost definite that Buddha himself studied Samkhya, but decided that he literally and metaphorically needed to move on from it (there is evidence of this in many historical documents of his life, and there is also a supposition that Samkhya would have been highly influential in his society at that time).
Yoga, being a philosophy that promotes undeniably the existence of purusha or atman that is fundamentally and entirely distinct from all natural and material phenomena/prakriti (yoga sutra 2:21-24) , as being both individual (specific to each sentient being) and eternal, we find this to be contrary to concepts of it being destroyable/impermanent (Buddhism) as well as being that which exists only individual in material form (Veda). Yoga philosophy, being that of Samkhya, is incredibly unique in that it has not changed at all over thousands of years in regards to these basic facts regarding its explanation of the nature of reality. Most specifically, yoga philosophy espouses the belief that there are two aspects of reality (purusha and prakriti) that are, in truth, definite and distinct from each other. Further, it explains that they are not united in any form other than that of an ignorant or delusional concept of existence, which occurs from mistaken identity of a purusha while living in physical form. This basic concept may be touched upon by Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, but it is the unceasing and poignant insistence upon this one thing which makes yoga unique.
From an anthropological perspective, there is one major event that also divides yoga from vedic sources, and gives proof to the theory of Samkhya being the oldest philosophy on earth. That proof is in the Aryan invasion of India around 1500BCE. Around the time of the collapse of the Egyptian empire and the rise of the Greeks, Aryan people from the “west” (in relationship to India) began conquering India and with its invasion also destroyed its tribal belief systems. Notably, the people of India at this time were genetically unique from the Aryans. We also now know, interestingly, that the Aryans likely had the DNA of Neanderthals, while ancient Indians are likely pure human descendants from Africa. This may be important in collecting archaeological data on this matter because there are no remains or remnants of yoga in the lands of the Aryans, but there are many connections between Veda and Hinduism and the Aryans. This leads most historians to believe that the Aryans brought the philosophies of the Vedas to India, and with it overtook the ancient “native” Indian philosophies (this would be the advent of Brahmanism). These Aryans were much more advanced than were the Indians of this time, having been warring for thousands of years, and refining their weapons, and developing distinct advantages through the use of horses and chariots. Truly, the ancient Indians were no match for the more technologically advanced Aryans; perhaps, though, the Aryans were no match intellectually for the advanced philosophies of the Indians.
Importantly, Samkhya was a philosophy that came from the native people of India, and more definitively Northeastern India (near where Buddha was also from). It is believed by many yogic scholars that this part of India was at one time home to many very advanced spiritual masters, and while there lack many textual artifacts of this, the time honed and orally transmitted system of Samkhya has remained, as has its cherished practical descendant, yoga.
Please note that facts are always changing in biological anthropology as well as our archaeological understanding of these places, but what will not change is the distinction that is within yoga philosophy itself, and is clear to those who pursue its meaning with ardency. Vedic wisdom is truly great, and as yoga teachers we will likely always turn to the deeper meanings of the vedas, the Upanishads, and other ancient texts that parallel yoga in many ways. Still, a devout practitioner of yoga comes to a point where the explanations provided by religious and societal doctrine fall short of providing a meaningful explanation for one burning question that is in the hearts of true practitioners of yoga. For some, there is no answer other than the one that yoga gives, and for them, we can rejoice that the philosophies of yoga are still in existence, and can be learned and understood, even today.
Below is an audio recording of a conference at Bellingham Yoga School, when this topic was inquired upon.