UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From ancient origins to poetic revelations : exploring perceptions of yoga in early Islamicate and Sanskrit literatures in India, 200-1500 CE Jones, Laura


This thesis compares depictions of yoga in literature with the practices and philosophies described in yoga treatises between 400 BCE and 1500 CE. This comparison, while broad, will help establish a basis for future research into the pre-modern public perception of yoga and yogis, as well as provide some insight into how yoga evolved and was received both in the exogenous and endogenous spheres. This study employs a mixed-methods approach combining intellectual history, adaptive reuse, and intertextuality studies. It begins by examining yoga and philosophy treatises that provide the basis for various popular schools of yoga. The second section looks at early Islamicate engagements with yoga. The final section analyzes depictions of yoga in Sanskrit literature. The primary findings indicate that non-yoga practitioners in premodern South Asia were both curious about yoga while also wary of its claims to unlock magical powers in dedicated practitioners. There seemed to be a public awareness of what yoga was and who practiced it, but until the early-medieval period, circa seventh century CE, it was not recognized as a homogenous school. While the depictions of yogis all represented ascetics, the actual practices, abilities, and beliefs themselves diverged drastically, and whether it was accepted as a legitimate set of practices seemed to depend on the author more than their background. These results suggest that there was never any single definition of yoga, nor a broadly recognized school of yoga. Rather, there was an array of people who practiced asceticism and operated on the peripheries of the established religious traditions. The literary responses were initially curious. Yoga became more formalized in the second millennia and adopted more transgressive practices, and the writers were more cautious about the schools, often depicting them as blasphemous. Around 1500 CE we see more acceptance of yoga practices by writers.

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