Overview

It is probably fair to say that some of the very first systematizations of meditation in history—systematizations that are still utilized today—derive from the early writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism dating back to the middle of the first millennium BCE (before the Common Era). The early writings of the Rg Veda in the centuries prior to this attest to what looks like meditation, with the vipra, the sage who would quake with insights and knowledge derived from perhaps the ritual, perhaps the soma, perhaps his encounter with gods like Indra, the thunder-wielding ruler, or Visnu of the wide-step, or perhaps through his own transformative insight. Moreover, beginning as early as the seventh century BCE, Sanskrit writings in the Upanisads draw from meditation practices to theorize conceptions of cosmos and self. Early Buddhist writings in texts like the Dtghnikaya add to these early Indian reflections on the nature of the self and conceptions of subjectivity. Such Buddhist writings reflect what was claimed as the Buddha’s seminal meditative insight: that the postulation of a self is a motivated fiction, and that meditation allows us to let go of this fiction. We find with these writings both phenomenological descriptions of meditative experiences and philosophical formulations of their implications for ideas of the self.

Later developments in religious expression, such as the bhakti or devotional traditions beginning in the first millennium CE, and Tantra, a complex religio- ritual system beginning also in the first millennium CE, expanded upon the phenomenology of meditation developed earlier. These later movements incorporated an integration of aesthetic elements and, in the case of Tantra, a reformulation of the relationship between the body and altered states of awareness. Both the bhakti movements and Tantra present pan-India evolutions of meditation practices. Both these later movements transcend religious and sectarian boundaries.

One other formative distinction ought to be mentioned: the relationship between the use of meditation practices for the goal of shifts in awareness, directed inwardly, and the use of meditation practices for the attainment of a capacity to affect the physical world through non-mechanical interventions, known as siddhis, or powers derived from meditation practices. These include powers like the ability to read the minds of others, the ability to levitate, and the capacity to stop the effects of poison on the body. The development of siddhis through meditation practices operates as a fundamental selling point influencing the historical acceptance of meditative praxis within wider social arenas, as Tantric practitioners from across the spectrum of Indian religious traditions used the seemingly magical powers derived from their practices to influence kings and polity. At the end of this chapter, I focus especially on a particular Tantric “easy” practice, the Pratyabhijna or “Recognition” school, which offered an integrative attempt to bring ideas of transcendent divinity into the mundane.

 
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