Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.23
Or from dedication to Isvara.
Or, [this previously mentioned state is attainable] from devotion to the Lord.
Patañjali here states that the goal of yoga can be attained by the grace of God, Īśvara. In this sūtra, the theistic element of the sūtras is encountered for the first time. The theistic, or Īśvaravāda, element in Indic thought stretches back at least to the late Vedic period; īśvara, from the root iś, to have extraordinary power and sovereignty, is already used six times by the Atharvaveda in circa 1000 B.C.E. and refers in the oldest texts to a personal but unnamed god. It is the term preferred in philosophical discourse concerning the existence of a personal god. In partial contrast to the term bhagavān, Īśvara is often concerned more with a philosophical category in these contexts than with specific divine personal supreme beings such as Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Kṛṣṇa,who all lay claim to the title Īśvara in Purāṇic and epic texts. Of the six schools of traditional thought that stem from this period, five—Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika,123 Vedānta, Yoga, and Sāṅkhya—were or became theistic. Sāṅkhya, although often represented as nontheistic, was in fact widely theistic in its early expressions and continued to retain widespread theistic variants outside of the classical philosophical school thereafter, as evidenced in the Purāṇas (for example, Bhāgavata third canto).124 Yoga has always been theistic: As Feuerstein and others have enjoined emphatically, “The popular academic notion that the conception of God was interpolated into classical Yoga is completely unfounded” (1974, 90).
In his commentary, Vyāsa asks rhetorically whether there is any other effective way to attain samprajñāta–samādhi without delay. As Patañjali indicates in this sūtra, devotion to God is such an option. This notion of attaining a vision of the self by the grace of God goes back to the Upaniṣads (Katha II.20; Śvetāśvatara III.20). Reflecting Patañjali’s undogmatic and nonsectarian sophistication, Īśvara–praṇidhāna, devotion to God, may not be the exclusive or mandatory way to attain realization of the self (given the particle vā, or, in this sūtra), it is clearly favored by him. One of the earliest references to being granted, by a supreme being, the boon (prasāda) of perceiving the puruṣa (ātman) occurs in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad: “Greater than the great, smaller than the small, is the ātman situated in the heart of beings. One without desires and free of sorrows sees the majesty of the self by the grace of the Creator” (II.20). Etymologically praṇidhāna means to place oneself down, prostrate, submit, etc., and while not a common term, means devotional submission (for example, Gītā XI.44). Devotion to God, according to Vyāsa, involves a particular type of devotion, bhakti–viśeṣa; simply by the yogī’s longing, God bestows his grace upon the yogī. When this happens, the fruits of samādhi become quickly available. As Rāmānanda Sarasvatī puts it, God turns toward the yogī as a result of such devotion and says, “Let this that he desires be his!” Vācaspati Miśra considers such special devotion to consist of submission to the Lord with body, mind, and word. Bhoja Rāja, with an eye on the Gītā’s “desireless action,” adds that it entails devoting all one’s actions to the Lord, desiring no fruit for oneself. Hariharānanda describes this state as feeling the existence of God in the innermost core of the heart and considering everything to be done by the Lord. As one meditates on the Lord in this way, and loses interest in everything else, one becomes free from ego, and the mind becomes concentrated and calm.
Śaṅkara states that this sūtra describes bhakti, the yoga of devotion, where the Lord reaches out to the yogī who is fully devoted to him, indeed, comes face-to-face with him, and bestows his grace upon him in accordance with how the yogī has meditated upon him. Thus, in line with the Yoga tradition’s prioritization of experience, one can attain a direct vision of God, by his grace. This grace, through which samādhi and the goals of yoga are attained, is effortless and imparted by the Lord’s omnipotence. Along the same lines, Vijñānabhikṣu states that by meditating on the Lord with love, the yogī earns the Lord’s favor. He quotes a number of scriptures stating that knowledge of God is the cause of liberation and, indeed (and here Vijñānabhikṣu is reflecting the position of the bhakti traditions), knowledge of Īśvara is more important even than knowledge of the puruṣa self. Consequently, the path of devotion for Vijñānabhikṣu (and for the overall Yoga tradition) is the best means of attaining samprajñāta–samādhi, since it does not require one to be solely dependent on one’s own steam and resources in the intense application noted in the previous sūtras.
It seems useful to present a synopsis of the theistic element in the sūtras at this point. Īśvara occurs in three distinct contexts in the Yoga Sūtras. The first, beginning with this sūtra, is in the context of how to attain the ultimate goal of yoga—the cessation of all thought, samprajñāta–samādhi, and realization of puruṣa. Patañjali presents dedication to Īśvara as one such option, and his discussion of Īśvara begins with this sūtra and continues to I.28 (or perhaps, indirectly, up to I.33). It is important to note vā, or, in this sūtra, indicating that Patañjali presents devotion to Īśvara, the Lord, as an optional rather than an obligatory means of attaining samādhi (although some commentators state that puruṣa cannot detach itself from prakṛti without the grace of Īśvara).
The only information Patañjali gives concerning the nature of God is provided in the next few sūtras. In I.24, he states, “The Lord is a special soul.” He is untouched by the deposits of saṁskāras, fructification of karma karma, or the obstacles to the practice of yoga, the kleśas of II.3: nescience, ego, attachment, aversion, and the will to live. Sūtra I.25 informs the reader that “in him, the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed,” and, in sūtra I.26, that “He was also the teacher of the ancients, because he is not limited by Time.” Given the primary context of the sūtras, fixing the mind on an object without deviation, sūtras I.27–28 specify how Īśvara is to be meditated upon: “The name designating him is the mystical syllable oṁ,” and “its repetition and the contemplation of its meaning [should be performed].” As a result of this devotional type of meditation comes the realization of the inner consciousness and freedom from all obstacles.
The second context in which Patañjali refers to Īśvara is in the first sūtra in Chapter II: “Kriyā–yoga, the path of action, consists of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the Lord.” The following two sūtras inform us that by performing such kriyā–yoga, samādhi is attained and the obstacles to this (the kleśas) are weakened. Finally, Īśvara surfaces again in a third context in II.32, where the niyamas are listed. The niyamas, which are the second limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga, consist of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study and, as in the other two contexts, Īśvara–praṇidhāna, devotion to Īśvara (thus, the three ingredients of kriyā–yoga are all niyamas). The various benefits associated with following the yamas and, ethics and morals, are noted in the ensuing sūtras of the chapter, and II.45 states that the benefit from the niyama of devotion to God is the attainment of samādhi. This is the final reference to Īśvara in the text.
These, then, are the gleanings that can be extracted from Patañjali’s characteristically frugal sūtras. From the first context, we learn that the highest samādhi can be attained by dedication to Īśvara, a claim Patañjali will repeat in the third section. This suggests that Īśvara has the absolute power to manipulate the laws of nature; to circumvent the normal procedures required for practitioners to fix their mind, by removing the obstacles to yoga; and somehow to pluck the devoted yogī from his or her material embeddedness simply by an act of grace. We learn that Īśvara is a special puruṣa insofar as he has never been touched by karma and saṁskāras and the kleśas, in short, by the normative influences and conditions to which all puruṣas in the world of saṁsāra are subject. In other words, Īśvara has never been subject to saṁsāra. He is an eternal being, since he is untouched by time, and thus he taught the ancients. This indicates that Īśvara is concerned with the well-being of the souls in this world and actively involved in their upliftment by promoting knowledge. He makes himself available in the form of the repetition of the sound oṁ, which should be recited, Patañjali seems to imply, in a devotional mood (since its meaning, which should be contemplated, is the subject of devotional surrender).
In the second context in which the term is used, Patañjali briefly alludes to the three ingredients of a practice he terms kriyā–yoga, which is a more action-based aspect of yoga than the intense meditational regimen outlined in Chapter I. Here, devotion to Īśvara is mandatory, in contrast to the meditational path, where it is optional, as a means of attaining samādhi. Finally, in the third context in II.32, Patañjali again lists Īśvara–praṇidhāna as a niyama, a mandatory prerequisite for the higher stages of yoga. Moreover, he notes that from this practice, samādhi is attained. Again this is significant, because all the boons mentioned as accruing from the other yamas and niyamas (there are ten in all) represent prākṛtic, or material, attainments—vitality, knowledge of past lives, detachment, etc. It is only from Īśvara–praṇidhāna, the last item on the list of yamas and niyamas, that the ultimate goal of is achieved, samādhi.
Thus we can conclude that Patañjali is definitely promoting a degree of theistic practice in the Yoga Sūtras. Although in the first context commencing with the present sūtra, Īśvara–praṇidhāna, devotional surrender to God, is optional as a means of attaining samādhi, Patañjali does direct six sūtras to Īśvara, which is not insignificant given the frugality of his sūtras. This devotional surrender is not optional in the second context, kriyā–yoga. Since it is likewise not optional in the third context as a niyama, which is a prerequisite to meditational yoga, Patañjali seems to be requiring that all aspiring yogīs be devotionally oriented in the preparatory stages to the higher goals of yoga, and although in the higher, more meditational stages of practice they may shift their focus of concentration to other objects (I.34–38)—even, ultimately, to any object of their pleasing (I.39)—they would be best advised to retain Īśvara as object thereafter, since this special puruṣa can bestow perfection of samādhi, which other objects cannot (II.45).
Another way of putting this is that any object can serve as the focus of meditation, but only one object can, in addition to this function, accelerate the attainment of samādhi. Therefore, one would be hard-pressed to find a rationale to pick some other object that does not have this ability. Who would not opt for two for the price of one? To my reading, then, Patañjali, while not blatantly demanding that yogīs maintain their devotion to Īśvara in the higher stages of their meditations, does seem to be discreetly, or perhaps not even so discreetly, promoting it. I envision Patañjali as being too sophisticated a thinker and practitioner to be insistent about this dimension of the tradition, and too delicate about the sensitivities of the nontheistic orientations of other yogī practitioners on the horizons of his day to be dogmatically exclusivistic. But he is clearly recommending submission to God as the best and most expedient path.
When Kṛṣṇa was asked by Arjuna who is superior, those worshipping him with devotion or those trying to fix their minds on their own self (by their own prowess), Kṛṣṇa replied that the devotee is the best of those engaged in yoga (yuktatama), even though those whose minds are fixed on the individual self also attain him (XII.1–4):
The difficulty of those whose minds are attached to the ātman is greater [than those who fix their minds on Kṛṣṇa in devotion]. The path of the impersonal ātman is attained with difficulty by embodied beings. But those who, meditating on Me [Kṛṣṇa], worship Me, considering Me to be the Supreme, and renouncing all actions in Me, with undeviating Yoga, for those whose thoughts are immersed in Me, it is I who quickly become the deliverer from the ocean of death and transmigration. (XII.5–7)
Patañjali, like the Gītā, is not denying that the ātman can be attained by self-effort, but he is clearly favoring a theistic approach.
The optionality noted above is expressed in the Sanskrit particle vā, or, in this sūtra. There has been some discussion among modern scholars as to what the “or” relates to, that is, Īśvara–praṇidhāna devotion to God, is being presented here as an alternative to what? Some have argued that the “or” of the Īśvara-praṇidhāna of this sūtra is being presented as an alternative to the abhyāsa, practice, and vairāgya, dispassion, of I.12.129 While this is not the view of the traditional commentators considered here, it does seem to reflect at least one traditional source. The Muslim traveler al-Bīrunī, who relied on an unknown commentary (that may not be much later than Vyāsa’s), takes it in the former sense. He structures his representation of the Yoga Sūtras in a question-and-answer format, which, although it takes on a mildly Islamic flavoring in the segments dealing with Īśvara, is nonetheless remarkably faithful to his sources:
QUESTION 11: Is there a way to liberation other than the two ways, namely habituation and asceticism [abhyāsa, practice, and vairāgya, dispassion]?
ANSWER: [Liberation] may be attained by devotion. This is constituted by withdrawal from the body and [directing oneself] towards knowledge, certainty, and sincerity in the heart, and towards praise, exaltation, and laudation with the tongue, and action with the limbs. God alone and nothing else is aimed at in all these, so that succour should come from Him with a view to achieving eternal bliss.
In my view, it is unfeasible that devotion can be construed as an alternative to the practice and dispassion of I.12, as no Indic (Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain) soteriological tradition promotes practice or dispassion as optional, not even the much misrepresented tantric traditions. The vā of this sūtra is best read as an option to the self-reliance of the immediately preceding sūtras I.20–22. Thus, one can apply faith, vigor, memory, samādhi absorption, and discernment under one’s own steam, or apply these in devotion to God, which, can expedite the process.
The succeeding section on Īśvara will be followed by additional options for supports that can be used for stilling the mind, all using the particle vā.