image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In the volume containing his translation of the Tao Te Ching based on the Ma Wang Dui texts, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations Victor H. Mair includes an Afterword and an Appendix which make that volume, in addition to its excellent and accessible translation of the Tao Te Ching itself, an essential addition to every home library of those interested in the ancient wisdom of humanity.
Both the Afterword and the Appendix contain fascinating and insightful discussions of the parallels between the themes and imagery and cosmological outlook found in the ancient Taoist texts and the texts and myths of ancient India, including the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata, as well as early texts from ancient India dealing specifically with the practice of Yoga (a subject which is also mentioned in the Gita, as Professor Mair points out).
But the comparison and discussion offered by Professor Mair goes far beyond just an examination of textual evidence to discuss the fact that both Taoism and Yoga can be shown, from antiquity, to "also share a close association with internal and external alchemy" (147).
The internal alchemy, in particular, makes use of meditation, mantras and "sacred syllables," and certain specific postures and movements such as Yoga in ancient India and Taoist movements and postures in ancient China -- and Professor Mair catalogs some of the evidence we have which points to the conclusion that such practices were in use in both cultures from a very ancient period.
In China, Professor Mair points to inscriptions dated to about 380 BC, found on pieces of jade, describing breathing practices describing the movement and cultivation of the "vital breath," and the importance of following the path of this vital breath during our life.
He also points to a passage dated to about 250 BC, found in the parables of Chuang Tzu (also spelled Zhuangzi) which concerns the cultivation of the vital breath in conjunction with physical movements named after the movements of animals -- in very much the same way that Yoga asanas are named after the movements of animals.
The passage in question, from Chuang Tzu chapter 15, is part of a section in which the Master is being somewhat critical of different groups of sages and scholars who are trying to pursue the Way (in his summary of this chapter, Professor Mair writes, "Censuring all disciplines and dogmas, ascetic or otherwise, the author propounds instead mere quietude and clarity," page 144). The section containing the description in question reads, in part:
Retiring to bogs and marshes, dwelling in the vacant wilderness, fishing and living leisurely -- all this is merely indicative of non action. But it is favored by the scholars of rivers and lakes, men who flee from the world and wish to be idle. Blowing and breathing, exhaling and inhaling, expelling the old and taking in the new, bear strides and bird stretches -- all this is merely indicative of the desire for longevity. But it is favored by scholars who channel the vital breath and flex the muscles and joints, men who nourish the physical form so as to emulate the hoary age of Progenitor P'eng.
If someone could be lofty without having ingrained opinions, cultivate himself without humaneness and righteousness, govern without merit or fame, be idle without rivers or lakes, and live long without channeling and flexions, he would forget everything, yet he would possess everything. His tranquillity would be unlimited, yet a multitude of excellences would follow in his wake. This is the Way of heaven and earth, the integrity of the sage.
Therefore it is said, "placidity, mildness, quietude, indifference, emptiness, nonbeing, and non action -- these are the root of heaven and earth, the substance of the Way and virtue." Thus the sage rests in them. Resting, he is peaceful and easeful; peaceful and easeful, he is placid and mild. Hence worries and troubles do not assail him, pernicious influences do not assault him. Consequently, his integrity is intact and his spirit is undiminished. (From Chuang Tzu, translated by Victor H. Mair in his 2000 volume entitled Wandering on the Way, page 145).
Much can be said about the path Chuang Tzu is recommending, which goes beyond and even eschews the use of "channeling and flexions," but the point to be noticed (and the point which Professor Mair is making when he quotes the "bear strides and bird stretches" section in his discussion in the Appendix to his 1990 translation of Tao Te Ching, is the evidence of an ancient tradition involving postures and movements named after (and possibly modeled upon) the movements of animals and birds, and associated with the channeling of the vital breath and the pursuit of health and longevity.
In the Appendix to his translation of Tao Te Ching, Professor Mair then goes on to cite evidence of parallel practices and disciplines in ancient India, including detailed discussions of the cultivation of the vital breath using various meditative practices as well as asanas, in the Vedas (dating to 900 BC or before) and in the Upanishads (700 BC to 300 BC) and in the Yoga Sutras and Yoga Upanishads, dated to not later than the second century BC (discussion found in the Appendix to Professor Mair's translation of Tao Te Ching, pages 156 - 159).
He also notes that specific asanas and postures are mentioned in Mahabharata, including "the mandukayoga (frog yoga) and virasana (posture of a hero)" (158 - 159).
Finally, to crown the evidence that these disciplines must be extremely ancient indeed, Professor Mair notes that "asana (postures) have been found represented on seals and statuettes from Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, sites of the Indus Valley civilization that date back to 2500 BC" (158).
Mohenjo Daro is one of the most ancient known archaeological remnants of a city on planet Earth, and one of the most advanced of ancient cities, famous for its large size relative to other ancient cities, its precise layout, its use of standardized brick sizes, and its sophisticated and extensive plumbing system which included numerous baths -- possibly attesting to the importance of daily ritual bathing such as that described frequently in the ancient Sanskrit epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The seals to which Professor Mair is referring have been alleged by some scholars to represent gods or humans engaged in postures which closely resemble Yoga asanas. One of the most oft-cited and famous of these is certainly the much-debated seal known as the Pashupati Seal, shown above.
While some scholars have since cast doubts upon the assertion that the Pashupati Seal represents early evidence of Yogic activity, a fascinating article written by Yan Y. Dhyansky entitled "The Indus Valley Origin of a Yoga Practice" and published in the scholarly journal Artibus Asiae in 1987 examines many of the counterarguments and then notes that most of the critics seem unaware of the difficulty of sitting in a posture such as the one shown in that seal (also known as Seal #420) and other similar seals (such as Seal #222 and Seal #235, in which nearly identical postures are indicated).
More importantly, he also demonstrates that the critics invariably misidentify the asana which appears to be nearly identical to that shown on the ancient seals from Mohenjo Daro -- which Yan Dhyansky identifies as Mulabandhasana. He points to a photograph taken in the 1930s of the famous Guru, T. Krishnamacharya (1888 - 1989), seated in this exact asana, and notes its striking resemblance to the posture depicted in the Mohenjo Daro seal (to see the photograph from the 1930s juxtaposed with Seal #420, see this website dedicated to the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya).
You can also look at the photographs in the landmark book Light On Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar, who studied Yoga under Sri Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India, to whom Sri Iyengar dedicated the book itself. As Yan Dhyansky points out in the article cited above, B. K. S. Iyengar has photographs on page 344 and 345 of Light On Yoga illustrating Mulabandhasana. There is also discussion of the steps for getting into this very challenging asana, as well as discussion of its benefits:
This asana exercises Muladhara Chakra, the prostate gland and gonads. It also has the wonderful effect of controlling excessive sexual desire and helps to save energy. It therefore controls and stills the mind. 346.
It would appear from the above evidence that the knowledge of specific disciplines related to cultivating the "vital breath" as well as aspects of what is referred to as "internal alchemy" may be very ancient indeed -- as old or even older than the earliest known ancient mythological texts we have available to us at this time (such as the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt and the Gilgamesh and other mythical texts from ancient Mesopotamia, both of which sets of texts are roughly contemporary to the Mohenjo Daro excavations).
In the Afterword to his translation of the Tao Te Ching, Professor Mair writes of the numerous parallels between the distinctive aspects of the ancient Yogic traditions and the ancient Taoist traditions that:
if Indian Yoga did not exert a shaping force upon Chinese Taoism, the only other logical explanation is that both were molded by a third source. Since no such source is known, we can only assume an Indian priority and wait for additional data from future archaeological discoveries. 146.
That passage was published in 1990; since then, the excavation of Gobekli Tepe, and the dating of the site's completion to the incredibly ancient date of 10,000 BC, has opened up a whole new perspective on humanity's ancient past (although its revolutionary impact has yet to fully ripple through and shake up all of the conventional narratives and scholarly structures built upon the older models of history). Although there are no signs (as yet) of asanas being depicted in the artwork found at Gobekli Tepe (as far as I know), the existence of this site certainly speaks to the possibility of an advanced ancient civilization (or civilizations) or ancient culture (or cultures) so far back in time that they might serve as the common ancestor for some of the parallels we see across different cultures that are otherwise difficult to explain.
Furthermore, the existence of undeniable parallels between ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories found around the world, and the evidence that they are virtually all based upon a shared system of celestial metaphor (a very sophisticated system, and a world-wide system, evidence for which is explored in my books and many blog posts), also points to the possibility of an ancient common predecessor or source-culture.
The evidence that Gobekli Tepe was deliberately buried, a massive task, not later than 8,000 BC also points to the possibility that the extremely ancient culture (or cultures) might have been wiped out or at least severely disrupted by some sort of disaster, natural or man-made. Professor Robert Schoch has been pursuing the implications of this important piece of evidence in his own research and recent books, such as Forgotten Civilization.
Hypotheses such as those which Dr. Schoch has put forward, in which a sophisticated and extremely ancient predecessor civilization was forced to literally "go underground" for centuries or even millennia in order to survive, might explain the appearance of advanced spiritual traditions such as the Yogic tradition and its associated understanding of "inner alchemy" in some of the earliest cities known to scholars at this time, such as ancient Mohenjo Daro.
I would also posit that clear traditions within disciplines such as Yogic and Taoist meditation of associating various "meridians" and "energy points" in the human body (including the chakra system) with meridians on our planet and with celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and visible planets points to a connection between these ancient disciplines and the ancient wisdom contained in the myths, and encoded in terms of metaphors which associate the Invisible Realm with the motions of the sun, moon, stars and visible planets in the heavens above.
Whatever the answer to this ancient mystery might be, it is clear that practices such as Yoga, Taoist meditation and internal alchemy, breath work, certain martial arts (especially the "internal" martial arts), and practices such as what is today called chi gung or qigong, may be extremely ancient -- stretching back at least to the time of Mohenjo Daro, more than 4,500 years ago, and perhaps several millennia before that.
This is something to contemplate as you perform your daily asanas (if you have a Yoga practice) or your daily meditation -- and something to consider, if you do not now practice any of those ancient disciplines, but have been thinking of giving one of them a try.