Meditation has existed in various forms for thousands of years. Used as both a spiritual practice and as a way to manage daily stress, this practice enjoys varying degrees of popularity within mainstream society despite no concrete explanation of its origins.
Brief History of Meditation
An ancient practice predating written history, historians must rely on educated estimates regarding the origins of this spiritual practice. The assumption is that meditation existed long before humans developed the ability to record the practice.
5,000 Years Ago
The earliest recorded evidence of meditation is wall art depicting people in meditative states dating from approximately 5,000 years ago. Further recorded findings of meditation from the Indus Valley in South Asia, which had a population of over five million people, was found in the 1920s by archeologist Sir John Marshall. During excavations of Mohenjo-daro, the capital city of the Indus Valley civilization, Marshall discovered a seal with a carved figure of a yogi. The yogi is sitting in a meditation pose. This important finding dates from approximately 2600 B.C.
3,000 Years Ago
Approximately 3,000 years ago, meditation appeared in ancient Indian scriptures the Tantras; this is around the time writing developed in that region, suggesting meditation likely existed long beforehand.
2,000 Years Ago
The written Sutras of the Pali Canon explain the levels of meditation for Buddhism as a means for salvation. The multi-level steps are intended to help people meditate as a means of quieting the mind and achieving a deep harmony and spiritualness.
900 Years Ago
Carthusian monk Guigo II wrote about meditating on Bible Passages in his book The Ladder of Monks. He based his writings on Lectio Divina, a discipline of scripture meditation dating back to ancient times. Guigo II is credited by some as being the first to use the word meditato to describe the process of meditation.
Early Mantra Meditation
Mantra meditation was handed down from generation to generation by religious seers in ancient times. The mantras they chanted were Sanskrit words or syllables that when chanted repeatedly helped the person meditating to reach a higher level of consciousness. Mantra meditation has its origins in the Vedic traditions. During the Vedic period mantras were used to influence and control the gods.
Vedic Hinduism is the oldest religion to use meditation for mental and spiritual enlightenment. The Vedic period lasted from approximately 1500 to 500 B.C., predating Buddhism by hundreds of years.
Meditation and Buddhism
Born a prince in approximately 500 B.C., Siddhartha Gautama would become Gautama Buddha, on which Buddhism is based. It is said that Siddhartha attained enlightenment after meditating for an extended period of time under a sacred fig tree known as the Bodhi Tree. Since that time Buddhism has focused on meditation as a way of experiencing Nirvana and reaching Enlightenment.
There are four main components, or techniques, used in Buddhist meditation:
Today these four techniques are used by many non-Buddhists in the practice of various types of meditation.
The popularity of meditation as a practice outside of religious worship within the Western world is attributed by Time Magazine to The Beatles, who popularized the practice in the 1960s after they traveled to India in an attempt to find a way to deal with the rigors of fame.
The first yoga studio in the United States was opened in 1947 in West Hollywood by an actress who briefly lived in Bombay. The owner used the term "mental relaxation" to describe the practice of meditation she taught to her students.
Historical Meditation Practices of Various Cultures
Throughout history most cultures have practiced meditation in some form. Many researchers believe that the practice of meditation comes from an instinctive and primal need to connect to the universe and to oneself. The following are examples of cultural variations of meditation:
- Native American sweat lodge ceremonies, where they offer contemplation, prayers and offerings to the Great Spirit. These ceremonies have been practiced since ancient times, and take on a variety of different forms among various tribes.
- Early Christian monks used meditative practices when reading the Bible, reading very slowly as the meaning of each verse was carefully contemplated and considered. Some believe that Chistian meditation was actually established in the earliest Christian teachings (circa 29 A.D. in Roman Judea).
- The Sufi religion's dancing meditations known as Whirling Dervishes. The origins are believed to be rooted in the Mevlevi Order, established in what is modern-day Turkey.
- The sound rituals of the Aborigines, where they used dancing, singing and playing didgeridoos. These spiritual rituals are long-rooted in the Aborigines' history of more than 50,000 years in Australia.
- The Islamic practice of morning prayers and meditations. The foundations for the religion and its prayer practices date back to the 7th century in what is today known as Saudi Arabia.
A Rich and Varied History
Though some meditation practitioners assert that meditation originates from an innate, intuitive instinct from deep within the soul of people, recorded history asserts that meditation originated in the ancient civilization of Indus Valley located in the northwest region of South Asia. A safe assumption is that meditation existed before it was ever recorded, leaving the true origin of meditation to assumption and educated guesses.