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The History of Eastern Meditation

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Most scholars agree that meditation, as we know it today, has its roots in ancient India, somewhere between 3000 and 5000 BCE. Cave drawings from this time show people sitting in meditative postures with their eyes closed, suggesting meditation was well utilised at the time. It may be that contemplative practices predate this by quite some time and really, it depends on how meditation is defined. Some suggest the Indus Valley Civilisation took inspiration for meditation from the ancient Egyptians as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics show people and Pharaohs in yogic postures, suggesting a link. Some have even suggested that meditation might be as old as humanity itself - perhaps even Neanderthals meditated. As I said, it really depends on how meditation is defined.

The earliest written records of meditation exist in the Vedic scriptures of the Indus Valley Civilisation, written between 1200 BCE and 1500 BCE. The Vedas reference “asanas” or positions, which, while used to refer to most yoga positions today, originally referred only to sitting meditation. Regardless of when its “official” origination lies in terms of recorded history, it seems likely that practices that enabled people to connect with a spirituality, higher-power, god, gods or simply an appreciation of a divine essence that represents a greater meaning, go back a very long time indeed.

While the earliest histories may be a little diffuse, things start to get a little clearer (and better recorded) following the life and time of Siddhartha Gautama, aka The Buddha (563BCE - 480 BCE). The life of the Buddha, and particularly his enlightenment, mark the start of the Buddhist tradition and the crystalisation of mindfulness meditation as a vehicle to reach enlightenment. While some techniques such as Vedic meditation and practices giving rise to Kemetic yoga predate traditional mindfulness, in many ways Buddhist mindfulness, and particularly its focus on awareness, represents the roots of the tree from which most other modern meditative techniques have arisen.

From the time of the Buddha until the 20th century meditation existed in the East in many forms and indeed, new meditation practices continued to be developed. Around the time of the Buddha meditation was also growing in popularity in China, with the philosopher and teacher Lao-Tze, the founder of Toaism, promoting the value of wisdom in silence. Meditative techniques continued to be developed into the 20th century with Vipassana meditation being redeveloped in Burma in the 18th century (leading the to Vipassana movement of the 20th century) and Transcendental meditation being developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India the 1950’s. In essence, for over 5000 years the East has been a rich breeding ground for connection with the divine and the attainment of tranquility and wisdom through meditation.

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