Isvara in the Yoga Sutras


Scholars have tended to regard the cosmology of the Yoga Sutras as being essentially in agreement with that of its sister school, Samkhya (as outlined in Isvarakrsna’s Samkhya Karika). Thus, there are two fundamental categories of existence. On the one hand we have the natural/material world (which includes mental and emotional processes) called prakrti, sometimes referred to as drsya (the seen or objective), grahya (that which is grasped, perceived or, that which imprisons or is taken in marriage), alinga (that which is without characteristics - there referring to prakrti in her unmanifest state) and pradhana (the chief). On the other hand is the person or self, purusa, characterised by consciousness. There are many purusas, each one identical. Prakrti (feminine) changes, purusa (masculine) does not.

The first transformation of prakrti, is the manifestation of subtle mental categories (buddhi, ahamkara and manas) which act rather like lenses or spectacles and allow the purusa to watch the remainder of prakrti's unfoldment and hence the creation and transformation of the universe. The problem is that purusas begin to identify with what they see in prakrti instead of remembering that what is before them is simply a 3 D, five sense, all colour spectacular show, put on for their entertainment. This mistaken identification by purusa leads him to think that he is actually bound up with the transformation of prakrti and hence experiencing a series of 'lives'. This is samsara.

The aim of both Samkhya and Yoga is for the purusa to realise his true identity and cease to be involved with prakrti. This state of non involvement is called kaivalya (isolation or aloneness).  Samkhya's method for gaining such realisation is one of reflection on and discrimination between what is self and what is not self. In Yoga the technique is to gradually turn the mind away from the world and direct it inwards. Once this process is successful, the buddhi or most subtle aspect of mind no longer acts like a lens to direct purusa's attention towards the world but rather functions as a kind of mirror and reflects purusa back at himself. When he perceives his own nature he is freed from the illusion of thinking that he is a part of prakrti.

In his The Philosophy of Classical Yoga Georg Feuerstein has challenged the idea that Samkhya and Yoga are two sides of the same coin.  Despite its seemingly radical nature, however, this claim is not nearly as strong as it sounds. When we examine his argument closely he is not claiming that the two systems have virtually nothing in common but merely that some scholars have gone too far in their claims that Yoga is simply a sub school of Samkhya. In this he is absolutely right, and Indian tradition obviously agrees with him since it classes Samkhya and Yoga as two schools (darsana), not one. In Feuerstein's view the two principal differences between these systems are firstly that Yoga puts the emphasis on practical meditational techniques whereas Samkhya stresses intellectual discrimination. Secondly, Yoga is often said to be theistic whilst Samkhya is atheistic. The question is, what does theism mean in this context?'

Ten sutras in the Yoga Sutras refer to 'the lord' (isvara). These are 1.23 29, 2.1, 2.32 and 2.45. In the sutras preceding 1.23 we are told various ways of gaining a state which could be either absorption (samadhi) or dispassion (vairagya).  Then 1.23 itself says "isvara pranidhanad va", "or by contemplation on the lord." In other words, this state, whatever it may be, can be gained by isvara pranidhana, which is usually translated as 'devotion to the lord', although, as I shall argue, contemplation on the lord' is probably a more accurate rendering. The remaining nine sutras are:

1.24 The lord is a special self (purusa) untouched by defilement (klesa), the results of action (karma-vipaka) and the store of mental deposits (asaya).

1.25 In him the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed.

1.26 He was also the teacher of the former ones because of his non-boundedness by time.

1.27 His sound is the pranava (the syllable OM).

1.28 The recitation of that produces an understanding of its meaning.

1.29 Then comes the attainment of inwardmindedness (pratyak-cetanii) and also the removal of obstacles.

2.1 Asceticism, self-study and isvara pranidhana are kriya yoga.

2.32 Purity, contentment, asceticism, self-study and isvara-pranidhana are the disciplines (niyama).

2.45 Through isvara pranidhana comes the attainment of samadhi.

2.1 tells us simply that isvara pranidhana is a part of kriya yoga (active discipline) whilst 2.34 and 2.45 just inform us that is it one of the five disciplines which act as a preparation for the attainment of samadhi. The sutras from book one are more explicit about the nature of isvara. Firstly, we are told that he is a special kind of purusa. What makes him special are the facts that he has always been untouched by defilement, action and its consequences and the store of mental deposits. He was also the teacher of former yogins because he, out of all the purusas, has never been bound by time. His symbol is OM and the recitation of this will enable the reciter to understand the nature of isvara. Furthermore, he is said to be omniscient.

It is clear that for Patanjali the isvara can help the yogin in some way, for he was the teacher of former yogins. But exactly how does isvara help purusas which are in bondage?

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Author: Dr. Peter Connolly

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