What is the oldest meditation technique?
From what we know, meditation comes from a region that is now northern India and southeastern Pakistan and was part of religious worship. This meditation technique likely involved chanting mantras and/or contemplation.
Ancient, enduring, and powerful: that’s meditation. Since our earliest civilizations, we humans have had the impulse to self-reflect and control our thoughts.
The oldest written mention of meditation dates back to 1500 BCE in Hindu scriptures (that’s over 3,500 years ago) but evidence of meditative practice goes back even further.
Over the millenia, meditation has evolved and taken on various forms, with different cultures adopting their own techniques. From ancient Hindu scriptures to Zen practices in China and Japan and beyond, each culture has contributed to the development of meditation techniques.
Given how old meditation is, it’s impossible to determine exactly what is the oldest meditation technique or where it was first practiced. However, by delving into the history of meditation and how different cultures adapted this art, we can uncover fascinating insights into the enduring power of mindfulness and how it has shaped our world today.
Earliest History of Meditation
In the 1920s, archaeologists excavating sites of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization in modern-day Pakistan discovered stone seals dating from as early as 2350 BCE (over 4,300 years old) showing figures sitting in a meditation pose (Mulabandhasana), eyes closed and serene. While it’s up for debate which Hindu gods these may depict, they are our earliest known representations of yoga and meditation.
Watch the incomparable Kino MacGregor performing Mulabandhasana, an advanced yoga meditation pose:
The earliest written references to meditation can be found in the Vedas, which are a collection of ancient Hindu texts that date back to 1500 BCE earliest. Veda means ‘knowledge’ in the Sanskrit language. Scholars believe that the information in the Vedas was passed orally from Hindu sages (rishis) to students for hundreds of years before being written down, meaning that meditation practices were being taught well before 1500 BCE.
The Rig Veda, considered the oldest of the Vedas, is a collection of hymns in praise of various gods. In this text, meditation is mentioned in the context of worshiping the gods or the gods themselves meditating.
Hundreds of years later, Indian sages wrote the Upanishads, also considered to be part of the Vedas. There are over a thousand of these philosophical texts, which were written at different times by different people, probably between 800 and 500 BCE.
The Upanishads introduce the concept of dhyana, a Sanskrit word for ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation’. In essence, these texts describe the path to enlightenment through self-realization – achieved by dedicated practice of various kinds of yoga, including meditation, mantra chanting, and physical asanas.
The practice of yoga meditation involves a combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and concentration.
Later Hindu sacred texts, including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (circa 100 BCE to 400 CE) and the Bhagavad Gita (circa 400 BCE to 200 CE) provide yet more guidance on meditation and the correct way to live a spiritual life leading to enlightenment.
With the emergence of Buddhism in the 4th century BCE, meditation continued to evolve with this newer religion. (Buddhism has its origins in Hinduism, so it’s not surprising that meditation continued to be important).
The Evolution of Meditation in Buddhism
As Buddhism developed over time, meditation changed in form and focus. In its early stages, Buddhism had two main forms of meditation: Samatha and Vipassana.
Samatha meditation focused on calming the mind and developing concentration, while Vipassana meditation aimed to develop insight into the nature of reality. These two practices were later combined to form the basis of modern Buddhist meditation techniques.
As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, different schools and traditions emerged, each with its own approach to meditation.
The Mahayana tradition, for example, emphasized the practice of compassion and the visualization of deities, while the Theravada tradition placed greater emphasis on the practice of mindfulness.
Despite these differences, however, all Buddhist meditation practices share the same goal: to develop greater awareness and insight into the nature of the mind and the world around us.
The evolution of Buddhist meditation in the history of meditation is a testament to the adaptability and resilience of this ancient practice. From its humble origins in the teachings of the Buddha, meditation has continued to evolve and develop, spreading throughout the world and influencing countless individuals and cultures.
Next, let’s take a look at the Zen Buddhist practices in ancient China and Japan.