No one really knows how old meditation is or who created it. One of the biggest challenges of dating meditation can be accredited to it being handed down from person to person, similar to storytelling. Fortunately, meditation’s widespread acceptance and inclusion in numerous religions provide us with a trail of breadcrumbs that can help us trace back its roots.
There’s speculation that the first civilization to meditate was our prehistoric ancestors. Theorists suspect that the original hunters and gatherers would show their appreciation to the gods through offerings and rhythmic chants. These chants are said to be the earliest form of mantras. Throughout history, mantras have been used as vehicles of meditation, used to clear the mind of all distractions. Its constant repetition evolves into a self-belief, becoming a truth within your consciousness and subconsciousness. You have probably seen a representation of the popular mantra OM, a vocalization of the sound of the universe. Another theory suggests hunters and gatherers would even enter trance-like states. It is believed the trances may have been induced by prolonged time spent in dark caves and staring at bright fires.
A more popular opinion believes the earliest form of meditation, an iteration similar to the one we are familiar with, can date back to anywhere between 5000 – 3500 BCE. While searching the Indus Valley, an area that was situated in what we know as Pakistan and northwest India, archaeologists discovered wall art depicting some of the first meditators. Figures were found depicted in different positions with their eyes closed. Meditation among these inhabitants isn’t hard to believe considering this civilization has been compared to Sumer; a notable, well-developed culture of the past.
Hundreds of years later, spanning somewhere between 600 – 500 BCE, we begin to see the formation of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. These three cultures would develop intertwining forms of meditation which would eventually differ in philosophy. Buddhism’s meditation wanted to come to an understanding of interrelatedness between all things. Taoism concerned itself with wielding one’s internal energy. Hinduism remained as it always had, to bring its followers closer to divine beings. These movements also acted as precursors to two of the most prolific meditation texts: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita. This early example of meditation’s evolution would demonstrate the practice’s flexibility in purpose, which would be seen throughout its lifespan.
This is the first part in Muse’s “History of Meditation” series. Follow the 3-part series in the upcoming weeks.