The Hindu Roots of Yoga: The Saptarishis - Hindu American Foundation
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The Hindu Roots of Yoga: The Saptarishis

By June 25, 2021 July 19th, 2021 No Comments

The Saptarishis are revered in Hinduism as the seven great sages. It is said that Adiyogi (Lord Shiva) taught yoga to the saptarishis so they could pass along the knowledge and tradition to humanity. Today, we’ll take a deeper dive into a few of the Saptarishis and the asanas that bear their names.

They were born from the mind of Brahma, the Creator, and continue to guide the human race through the four yugas. The saptarishis are truly enlightened beings, having understood the meaning of Brahman (the Divine, Consciousness). The Saptarishis of the current manvantara (the current four yuga cycle) are:

  • Atri
  • Bharadvaja
  • Gautama Maharishi
  • Jamadagni
  • Kashyapa
  • Vasistha
  • Vishwamitra

Those who continue to discount yoga’s roots in Hinduism need look not much further than the names of various asanas which pay homage to Hindu sages and Hindu deities. There are many – including Hindus – who claim yoga is ‘universal’ and cannot be tied to a religion. Unfortunately, this line of argument demonstrates a limited understanding of Hinduism. It attempts to fit the Hindu tradition into a religious box with more structured Abrahamic religions. But the Hindu tradition cannot be confined to this box or any box…there is no single founder, no single text, no single head or leader, and no single, correct path. The beauty of Hinduism lies in its diversity, its breadth of philosophy, and its acceptance of multiple paths based on personalities.  At its core, Hinduism is an experiential tradition. The same is said of yoga.

Traditionally, Hinduism is called Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Truth.  And indeed it’s philosophy can be universally applied as it does not require belief in one specific form of Divine or adherence to a prescribed set of rules. The ultimate goal is freedom from the cycle of birth and death, or moksha, which can be universally achieved regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. No one is born saved or condemned, but rather earns the fruit of their actions, words, and thoughts, or karma, and advances spiritually by acting in accordance with dharma, or righteousness. 

It is with this very basic understanding of Hinduism that yoga should be examined. Of course, one does not have to be Hindu to practice yoga.  Nor does practicing yoga ‘convert’ one to Hinduism. But it is undeniable that the underlying philosophy of yoga stems from Hindu philosophy.  

Today, we’ll quickly learn about four of the seven rishis and look at the yoga asanas that bear their names.

Bharadvaja

Sage Bharadvaja composed sections of the Rig Veda, and is mentioned in the text multiple times. Bharadvaja loved to learn and realized one lifetime wasn’t enough. He asked Lord Indra for additional lives so he could continue to learn and study the Vedas. 

He learned the science of ayurveda from Lord Indra to help humanity. Much of his instruction is captured in the Charaka Samhita, one of the foundational texts of ayurveda.  

Bharadvaja is the father of Dronacharya, the guru of the Pandavas and Kauravas in the Hindu epic Mahabharat. He is also referenced in the Ramayana as one of the sages that Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita spent time with during their exile. The Bharadvaja Ashram still exists in Prayagraj, India. 

See the asana named after Bharadvaja done in our Instagram post to the right.

Kashyapa

Sage Kashyapa is considered the father of all the Devas, Asuras, Nagas, and all of humanity.  He is the father of Garuda, who serves as Vishnu’s vahana (mount or vehicle).  He is the author of the Kashyapa Samhita which is used in Ayurvedic paediatrics, gynecology, and obstetrics.

Some theories suggest that Kashmir is named after Kashyapa from “Kashyapa Mir” or “the lake of Kashyapa.” Legend has it that Kashyapa drained the lake which once existed in Kashmir.  From the draining emerged the beautiful Kashmir Valley.

See the asana named after Kashyapa done in our Instagram post to the right.

Vasistha

Sage Vasishta also composed sections of the Rig Veda and is known for his philosophical discourse to Lord Rama, called Yoga Vasishta.  Among many heavy topics, the text enlightens the reader on the nature of all existence, karma and free will, and spiritual liberation. Importantly, Vasistha describes the seven stages of yoga* (bhoomika) as:

  1. Shubhechha – Pure wish or desire to know and do good
  2. Vicara – Inquiry into spiritual practices
  3. Tanumanasi – Mind becomes subtle
  4. Sattvapati – Establishment in the truth where the mind is free from division and unity is steady
  5. Asamsakti – Freedom from attachment and only an undivided reality remains
  6. Padarthabhavana – Knowledge of theTruth
  7. Turiya: Establishment in pure consciousness/State of supreme awareness.

*This list varies slightly based on the source and translation.

See the asana named after Vasistha done in our Instagram post to the right.

Vishwamitra

Perhaps the most well known of the Saptarishis, Sage Vishwamitra found the Gayatri Mantra, one of the most highly revered mantras in Hinduism. The Gayatri Mantra is often mentally repeated during various types of pranayama. 

Om bhūr bhuvaḥ svāhā

tatsaviturvareṇyaṃ

bhargo devasyadhīmahi

dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt

“We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may She enlighten our minds.” – Swami Vivekananda’s translation

Vishwamtira is known for his years when he was a King Kaushika and attempted to steal Sage Vasistha’s cow, which could give its owner whatever he desired.  After his entire army and divine weapons were defeated by Vasistha, Kaushika gave up his kingdom and became Vishwamtira after thousands of years of tapasya, or austerities. 

Vishwamitra also appears in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, as one of the gurus of Rama and Lakshama who lead them to kill powerful asuras like Taraka. 

See the asana named after Vishwamitra done in our Instagram post to the right.