Mindfulness in ancient India

Mindfulness is a practice popularized in recent times by the American molecular biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn. This practice is used as a very effective stress reduction technique. Mindfulness is rooted in old Buddhist meditation practices. A mindful person has a full non-judgmental awareness of the self and the environment from moment to moment – an awareness of the “now”. Western masters like Kabat-Zinn and his disciples are re-introducing this concept into, among other places, India, which is the original home of this practice. This is a welcome development.

Mindfulness has been practiced in India since the Vedic period. Buddhist masters, though rejecting many of the precepts of the Vedas, adopted mindfulness and adapted it to enhance their meditation regime.

To understand what Mindfulness was as it was practiced in the Vedic times, let us look at RV 10.58.

This hymn was traditionally interpreted as a call to bring back the spirit of a dying person at the point of death. I think it is better and makes more sense to use the direct meaning of the word “manas” – “mind” than to use the meaning “spirit.”

This hymn has twelve verses. All the verses are addressed to a distracted person whose “manas”, “mind”, has traveled far away from the present moment.

All the verses are very similar having the following pattern.

yát te 1 2 3 4 5 6 máno jagā́ma dūrakám ।

tát ta ā́ vartayāmasīhá kṣáyāya jīváse ॥

The “1 2 3 4 5 6” stands for six syllables that are different in the twelve verses.

For example, verse 12 says:

yát te bhūtáṃ ca bhávyaṃ ca máno jagā́ma dūrakám ।

tát ta ā́ vartayāmasīhá kṣáyāya jīváse ॥ 10.58.12 ॥

Translated, it is:

That (yát ) mind of yours ( te mánaḥ ) that has gone ( jagā́ma ) very far away ( dūrakám ) towards the past ( bhūtáṃ ca) and the future ( bhávyaṃ ca ),

[That your (tát te ) (mind) ] we cause to return (ā́  vartayāmasi ) to now ( ihá ) for control (kṣáyāya ), to live (jīváse )

The word kṣáyāya is dative singular of masculine word kṣáya, which means ‘dominion, power’ etc. It is from the root √kṣi ‘to possess, have power’. So kṣáyāya means ‘for power’ or ‘for control’. jīváse is the infinitive of √jīv.

In essence, it means,

”We cause that mind of yours that has wandered far, thinking of the past and the future, to come back to now (present) so that you have control over it to live (stress free).’

[For comparison, Griffith translates this verse as : ” Thy spirit, that went far away to all that is and is to be, We cause to come to thee again, that thou mayst live and sojourn here.”]

The first eleven verses call the mind back from thinking about (ie. the syllables 1 2 3 4 5 6 mentioned above are) the following:

  1. yamáṃ vaivasvatám – Death (Vivasvan’s son)
  2. dívaṃ yát pr̥thivī́m – Heaven and earth
  3. bhū́miṃ cáturbhr̥ṣṭim – Four-cornered earth
  4. cátasraḥ pradíśo – The four quarters of the world
  5. samudrám arṇavám – The high-waved ocean
  6. márīcīḥ praváto – Light beams coming down
  7. apó yád óṣadhīr – Waters and herbs
  8. sū́ryaṃ yád uṣásam – The Sun and the dawn
  9. párvatān br̥ható – Great mountains
  10. víśvam idáṃ jágan – All these that are moving
  11. párāḥ parāváto – Far away (at a long distance)

The hymn thus exhorts the listener to bring his or her wandering mind back to the present, the “now.” This makes it clear that the Vedic Indians practiced a form of mindfulness as a technique to achieve peace of mind.


5 thoughts on “Mindfulness in ancient India

  1. Very good, Paramu. I guess you interpret the first reference to Yama as “thoughts about mortality”? Also, are these simply saying “don’t worry, relax”? Don’t know much about mindfulness but seems like work.

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