How Does Yoga Relate to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism?

Although it may perhaps seem otherwise too many in the West, Yoga is not a primarily physical practice. Not all kinds of Yoga are physical, and all physical forms and dimensions of Yoga are secondary in significance to their non-material essence. Ultimately, it may be set that yoga is mutually inclusive of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines, deriving from a worldview that these different levels of reality are intricately connected and interdependent in some way or another. In order to analyze the relationship between the various yoga practices as they pertain to the different Vedic traditions (those being, as they are discussed here, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), we must understand how these particular religious traditions do in fact relate to one another to begin with.

Arjuna and Krishna

Image via Wikipedia

There are several schools of thought of Yoga which appear in Hinduism and other traditions. The goal is devotion, attaining the true self which is one with the ultimate reality, or Brahman. The Bhagavad Gita introduces three forms of Yoga: Karma yoga, or the yoga of action, Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, and Jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge. As Krishna explains to Arjuna in the same text, ‘O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.’ [51] In early Hindu scripture, yoga is not seen as a unified and systematic practice of meditative and contemplative practices. This latter notion indeed came out of early Buddhist thought, and did not find its way into the Hindu tradition until the middle Upanishads, namely the Katha Upanishad. Perfection in yoga would be obtained through the ‘lightness and healthiness of the body, absence of desire, clear complexion, pleasantness of voice, sweet ordure, and slight excretions.’

Jainism is a religion, and indeed a lifestyle, centered on the notion of nonviolence. It suggests a very ascetic and monastic lifestyle, the follower choosing a very simple lifestyle that would be deemed extreme by Buddhists, who preach moderation as understood in contrast to what may be seen as self-deprivation. Unlike Buddhism, it did not grow out of Hinduism. It seems that some of the ancient religious traditions and practices of the Indian subcontinent grew into what would be called Hinduism by western scholars. Other traditions would become Jainism, although both religions are believed by their followers to have always existed, at least on some level. While these different religions’ development in the past continued to have influence today upon one another and exchanged ideas, it would not be correct to assume that one developed from the other in any kind of linear way. References to Yoga may be found in many of the earliest Jain texts such as the Niyamasara and Tattvartha sutra. Yoga, as understood by Jain gurus, has been referred to and, indeed, defined as being the highest form of devotion. Yoga is seen as a combination of activities of the mind, body, and speech for the goal of the liberation of the soul. As these notions have been so central to Jain teachings from the start, Jainism has been seen by some as being the practice of yoga itself, formed and developed into a full religion.

The Buddha’s essential message may be seen as a two-filled critique of extreme self-deprived asceticism on the one hand, and gluttony and excess on the other. In an age where the latter is all too common and the former all too rare, modern scholars of religion, not well trained in Buddhist history, may fail to appreciate the importance of this essential teaching, that is to say that the Buddha strongly condemned subjecting oneself to pain and starvation in the name of simplicity. Indeed, for the Buddha, this is neither nonviolent nor a form of authentic devotion and could indeed only be seen as a continuation of the very suffering he hoped each follower could work to eliminate. This balance of moderation or the middle path, if understood, serves to eliminate any apparent paradox or confusion on the part of the modern seeker when presented with Yoga as a practice that, transcending all its diversity, appears to be essentially physical and yet not physical at the very same time. Yoga is particularly central to Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Nyingma tradition, in which the path of meditative practice is divided into nine yanas, the last six being essentially yogic: ‘Kriya yoga’, ‘Upa yoga’, ‘Yoga yana’, ‘Maha yoga’, ‘Anu yoga’, and ‘Ati yoga’.

As the Hindu teacher Sri Ananda Moyi Ma once said, ‘Do not omit the outward if you wish to know the inward. The inward is reflected in the outward.’

Leave a Reply