Is Hatha Yoga inseparable from the Hindu tradition?


Hatha Yoga found now within the Hindu tradition - one of the oldest living traditions in the world - has its roots which can be traced back long before Yoga Sutras, the earliest text of Yoga attributed to Patanjali who lived in the 2nd century BC. Yoga Sutras are commonly associated with Sankhya School, an atheistic system dating back to the 1st century CE, which might have formed from the 9th century BC. Sankhya affirms existence of pure witness, or purusha, which is beyond any experiences of the mind, and prakriti which is everything the mind can experience including also the human mind itself with its emotions and sensations. Liberation (moksha) is a result of dispelling ignorance (avijja) and realisation of the truth about prakriti and purusha. Patanjali in his Sutras did mention surrendering to Ishvara, but many modern researchers concluded that this verse might have have been added later by his commentators.

Some interpreters claim that Yoga is first time mentioned in the oldest Vedic scripture, Rig Veda dating back almost 2 thousands years BC. Rig Veda includes many references to yoking horses to the charior of Indra which represents binding the mind to the vehicle of the divine. Searching for traces of Yoga in this representation is very uncertain. It is most likely that Yoga was developed by ascetics (Śramana, pali: Samana) who did not belong to Vedic tradition (sometimes also refereed to as the Forest Tradition).

In contrast to Brahmins, Śramana – truth seekers coming mostly from the warrior cast – were supported by voluntary offerings from lay people. Thus although yoga is often mentioned in Vedic texts, it is very likely that it existed independently. Many Buddhist Suttas describe discussions between ascetics from various philosophical schools and the Buddha as well as name the spiritual teachers the Buddha learned from before his awakening.

The orthodox schools which originated from the Śramana tradition and survived until today, such as Jainism or Buddhism, aimed at preserving the original teachings of their founders. The early Buddhist teachings preserved in the scriptures of Theravada school rejected some of yoga practices as harsh and opposing the doctrine of the middle way (majjhimapatipada). Vedic tradition on the contrary, although theistic was open to incorporate beliefs and practices of other schools, including Buddhism and Jainism. Brahmins often studied under guidance of accomplished yogis and – usually having economic advantage – cultivated and preserved these practices passing them down until today.

This leads to conclusion that Yoga, although initially independent, would probably not survive outside the Hindu stream, or would evolve in a similar way as Mahayana which emerged after the second Buddhist council and moved closer towards theistic concepts (such as the doctrine of Samboghakaya). Ancient Śramana traditions not only shared common roots but also influenced each other over millennia, while the Hindu stream helped to preserve some of them including Hatha Yoga, both through their scriptures as well as practice.

It is fair to say that although Hatha Yoga is closely linked to Hinduism, it is an independent system which can be practised without adopting Hindu beliefs.

Drawing of virasana pose on the right is based on the image from Light of Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar