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Is Yoga 5,000 Years Old? The Archaeology of Yoga

By Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D., KRI December Newsletter

In understanding the history of when yoga practice began, perhaps the most seminal historical scripture has been Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, approximately 2,000 years old, in which the description of the process and psychology of yogic meditation is thoroughly described.

Other texts around the same time include the meditative practice and teachings of Buddha and the description of meditative practice in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads (dated to approximately 200 B.C.E. and possibly a little earlier). In the Katha Upanishad (1-III-9) is text describing the act of meditation using the analogue of a charioteer guiding horses to represent control of attention over thoughts: “…the man who has a discriminating intellect as his driver, and a controlled-mind as the reins, reaches the end of the path – that supreme state of Vishnu.”

The word “yoga” does appear in the older Vedas; however, the context of its use is more as a state of unitive/transcendental consciousness rather than as a contemplative behavioral practice. As noted in the online Encyclopedia Britannica, “The prehistory of Yoga is not clear. The early Vedic texts speak of ecstatics, who may well have been predecessors of the later yogis (followers of Yoga).”

Therefore, given the uncertainty of the references to actual yoga practice in the Vedas, a more conservative conclusion as to the history of yoga practices would be to associate it with the other texts above. We can therefore say with confidence that yoga/meditation practice is “thousands of years old.” To put a more exact number on it, yoga is at least 2,500 years old.

However, there have been numerous instances in books and internet sites that refer to the origin of yoga as being 5,000 years old, far earlier than can be justified by the scriptural texts noted above. For example, there are statements on websites: “Yoga, a 5000-year-old practice, still suited for the modern era” and “The development of yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago…”. A Yoga Alliance web page states that “Yoga was developed up to 5,000 years ago in India…

There is also a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Health Practitioner entitled “Yoga: 5,000 Years Young”. Even Indian government institutions entrusted with representing and promoting yoga have clearly stated that yoga practice is this old (See: https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?25096/Yoga+Its+Origin+History+and+Development). So, where does this significant 2,500-year extension of the origin of yoga practice come from?

In the early 1920’s, notable archaeological excavations in Pakistan and northern India revealed the existence of a previously unknown ancient civilization centered around the Indus river that was contemporaneous with other ancient societies such as Mesopotamia.

Image: Indus Valley Stone seal excavated from Harappa show a figure in a yogic pose, circa 3,300-1,300 BC. Photo was taken at the National Museum of India by the author.

This civilization is now known to have existed between approximately 3,300 and 1,300 B.C.E. and has been called the Indus Valley Civilization or the Harappan Civilization after one of the major excavated towns. Among the many artifacts unearthed were small stone seals, which were used as stamps for making impressions, typically for trade purposes.

One carved image appears to be the classic yoga meditation posture, with legs folded in a sitting posture with the arms extended and resting on the knees. The artifact pictured was on display in the National Museum of India in New Delhi earlier this year. The similarity of this posture to the meditative posture was not lost on the archaeologists and historians who quickly began surmising that this civilization was possibly involved with yoga practice. As of 2002, there were a total of 16 artifacts unearthed depicting this yogic-like image, including a copper plate.

These artifacts also include symbols, which are suggestive of a script or language; however, it has yet to be deciphered, and so we cannot confirm that these artifacts are representing yoga practice. We cannot rule out the possibility that this posture is related to some other behavior and activity. Of course, sitting cross-legged on the ground is not a unique way of sitting, especially in ancient times.

These yogic-like artifacts have been discussed in a 1981 paper entitled “An Archaeology of Yoga” by Thomas McEvilley in the journal, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. He thoroughly presents the arguments of multiple scholars and historians who have argued for the conclusion that yoga practice existed in the Indus Valley civilization, but he also convincingly provides strong possible counter-arguments that make these conclusions questionable.

In addition to these yogic seals, there are other artifacts which some scholars have suggested are also yoga-related. A well-known male limestone bust from excavation at the Indus Valley town of Mohenjo-daro has had some of its characteristics attributed to meditative practice. In a very early report shortly after its discovery, it was suggested that the eyes appear to be partly closed and to be focused at the tip of the nose as is consistent with early descriptions of meditative practice.

Image: Artifacts excavated from Harappa appear to show figures with eyes “overshadowed” and focused at the tip of the nose. 

In a chapter within the 1953 book The Art and Architecture of India, there is an interesting discussion on the features of a limestone torso from the Indus Valley town of Harappa, which has the abdomen extended. The author suggests that this is consistent with yogic abdominal breathing: “The fact that the figure appears pot-bellied is, therefore, iconographically correct and truthful. It is not intended as a caricature in any sense, since this distension resulting from yogic breath-control was regarded as an outward sign of both material and spiritual well-being.”

Image: Seated figure with hands in Anjali Mudra. Photo was taken at the National Museum of India by the author.

There are a number of clay figurines discovered which are in seated postures with hands pressed together in prayer pose. (Anjali mudra or Namaskar pose; see the photo of one of these taken at the National Museum of India). However, as with the yogic seals, there are alternative possible interpretations of these artifacts that cannot be dismissed lightly, so there remains uncertainty as to the association of these artifacts with yogic practices.

It is understandably tempting to attribute yoga’s origins to the Indus Valley civilization, as these images are very striking in their similarity to yogic practices. However, until the script is deciphered, or other stronger evidence becomes available, we cannot be truly definitive.

On the other hand, does it really matter whether yoga is only 2,500 years old and not 5,000 years old? Clearly, this is not important with respect to any modern-day practical purposes, as we can still be confident that these are truly “ancient” practices. For those with a passion and curiosity for history and archaeology, this is a deeply interesting question.

There is significant hope that we will ultimately find the answer; it is estimated that 80% of the Indus Valley civilization sites remain to be excavated, suggesting that there is very likely more definitive evidence to come, and perhaps even an Indus Valley Civilization analogue to the Rosetta Stone that would allow understanding of the script.

Stay tuned.

Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D. is the KRI Director of Research, Research Director for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has practiced a Kundalini Yoga lifestyle since 1973 and is a KRI certified Kundalini Yoga instructor. He has conducted research on yoga for insomnia, stress, anxiety disorders, and yoga in public schools. He is editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care and author of the Harvard Medical School ebook Your Brain on Yoga.