Some of the oldest known references to the practice of meditation are found in the ancient sacred texts of the Hindu tradition,1 a major world religion whose ancient roots stem from the Religion of the Sun.
From the Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is an ancient Hindu epic that conveys numerous spiritual teachings within the story it tells.
The following passage from the Mahabharata describes a meditation exercise through which a person can reach a higher state of consciousness. It tells how a practitioner should first relax and still the body (becoming inert “like a piece of wood”), then quieten their mind and senses, so they no longer perceive anything externally, nor possess any desire for any sensory excitement within. Then, in this inner quietness empty of desire, it describes how one can reach a state where the mind is “undividedly” united with consciousness, which happens when there is complete silence in the mind.
Note that traditionally “yoga” can broadly refer to any kind of spiritual practice or discipline; in this context it refers to a sitting meditation exercise (i.e. not yoga asanas):
…a person, restraining speech, sits like a piece of wood, crushing all the senses, and with mind undividedly united [with the Supreme Soul] by the aid of meditation. He has no perception of sound through the ear; no perception of touch through the skin; no perception of form through the eye; no perception of taste through the tongue. He has no perception also of scents through the organ of smell.
Immersed in yoga, he would abandon all things, rapt in meditation. Possessed of great energy of mind, he has no desire for anything that excites the five senses.
~ The Mahabharata, Translation by K.M. Ganguli2
The text goes on to explain that when first practicing meditation, a person’s mind or attention may be unstable — moving about in all directions like a drop of water on a leaf. While the mind may be fixed in meditation for a time, as soon as one’s attention strays it can become as “flighty as the wind” again, which describes the mind being scattered, with lots of thoughts arising. It explains that when this happens, a person should calmly direct their mind back to meditation without becoming discouraged or annoyed.
As a drop of water on a (lotus) leaf is unstable and moves about in all directions, even so becomes the yogin’s mind when first fixed on the path of meditation. When fixed, for a while the mind stays in that path. When, however, it strays again into the path of the wind, it becomes as flighty as the wind. The person conversant with the ways of yoga-meditation, undiscouraged by this, never regarding the loss of the toil undergone, casting aside idleness and malice, should again direct his mind to meditation. … Though feeling annoyed in consequence of the flightiness of his mind, he should fix it (in meditation). The yogin should never despair, but seek his own good.
~ The Mahabharata, Translation by K.M. Ganguli3
Another excerpt from the Mahabharata contains a description of a meditation exercise where one sits in nature, restrains their senses, and concentrates their mind on “the All or universal Brahman” which in the Hindu tradition signifies the source of creation and the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena.4 It describes how the practitioner should perceive themselves as part of, not separate from “the All”, and meditate on various parts of their body as parts of the All.
Restraining all the senses in a forest that is free from noise and that is uninhabited, with mind fixed thereon, one should meditate on the All (or universal Brahman) both outside and inside one’s body. One should meditate on the teeth, the palate, the tongue, the throat, the neck likewise; one should also meditate on the heart and the ligatures of the heart!
~ The Mahabharata, Translation by K.M. Ganguli5
Please note, more practice excerpts will be added as and when we find them. While we recommend the practices in these excerpts, featuring a passage from a text does not mean we can vouch for the entire contents of a text.
Jenny Resnick, Jordan Resnick, Justin Norris and Matthew Butler contributed writing or research to this article.
“Brahman.” The Free Dictionary. Accessed February 12, 2018. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/brahman.