Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.24
क्लेशकर्मविपाकाशयैःपरामृष्टः पुरुषविशेष ईश्वरः ॥२४॥
kleśa-karma-vipāka-āśayaiḥ aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa-viśeṣa īśvaraḥ ||24||
The Lord is a special soul. He is untouched by the obstacles [to the practice of yoga], karma, the fructification [of karma], and subconscious predispositions.
Vyāsa, Vācaspati Miśra, and other commentators dedicate their longest commentaries to this sūtra. Patañjali notes here that Īśvara, too, is a puruṣa, but he is viśeṣa, special, that is, different and distinct from other puruṣas. He briefly lists four conditions of saṁsāra from which Īśvara is free, and these are elaborated upon by Vyāsa and the commentators. The cause of saṁsāra is the kleśas, obstacles—ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and the will to live—which are discussed in II.3. Under the influence of these, the individual engages in the second item on the list, karma, which consists of one’s actions, whether good or bad. As discussed, actions produce a corollary, their fructification, listed here as vipāka, which is the effect they produce—every action has a corresponding reaction. Chapter II will discuss in detail how these reactions manifest as the situation into which one is born, one’s life expectancy, and one’s life experience (II.13–14). Vyāsa glosses the final term in the list, āśaya (that which lies stored), with vāsanās, habits, or clusters of saṁskāras. While the terms are often used interchangeably, vāsanās tend to refer to latent saṁskāras of past lives, which lie dormant, albeit subconsciously molding personality, habit, and choice, and saṁskāras to the more active imprints of this life generated at every moment. Saṁskāras have to be contained somewhere, and the āśaya is their bed or container in the citta. Vācaspati Miśra adds that these vāsanās and saṁ-skāras, subliminal imprints or subconscious impressions that eventually fructify, lie stored as potencies in the field of the mind. Īśvara is free from all of these conditions of saṁsāra; hence he is a special type of puruṣa.
Since yogīs who have broken the three bonds and attained liberation are free from these influences, Vyāsa makes a point of noting that Īśvara is distinct from liberated puruṣas, since he never had nor ever will have any relation to these bonds. Unlike all other yogīs, then, he never was bound and never will be. He is eternally the transcendent God, not some sort of a liberated yogī. As Śaṅkara points out, akliṣṭa, untouched, means never touched by the four conditions for saṁsāra noted above, whether in time past, present, or future. A liberated yogī was once touched by all these in the past but is no longer in the present. Īśvara was never touched to begin with. He is therefore in a different category from liberated yogīs.
The notion in some modern commentaries that Īśvara is some sort of “archetypal” yogī (Eliade 1969) is nowhere to be found in the traditional commentarial tradition of the Yoga school, nor, for that matter, in the usage of the term Īśvara in the history of Indic philosophical discourse. In later classical Indic philosophical circles there were Īśvara-vādins, those believing in Īśvara, and nir-īśvara-vādins, those who rejected the notion of an Īśvara, a supreme God, but whether Īśvara-vādin or nir-īśvara-vādin, there was no debate at least as to the basic and general referent of the term, Īśvara. The arguments were philosophical, revolving around whether the existence of a personal god was philosophically defensible, not semantic, in terms of what Īśvara meant. While the term can, on occasion, refer by extension to a being with extraordinary power, texts such as the Mahābhārata, the Gītā, and later Upaniṣads indicate that Īśvara was associated with a personal God, a supreme being, by Patañjali’s time, and one would need compelling grounds to renegotiate the meaning of the term as it is used and understood by the entire later Indic philosophical tradition in general in the premodern period. The term cannot be extricated from its traditional context.
On a related note, it is generally held, including in traditional philosophical discourse, that Patañjali’s Īśvara is not a creator sort of God. Sāṅkhya is criticized in Vedānta for considering creation to evolve from inanimate prakṛti (pradhāna) rather than the conscious Brahman of the Upaniṣads, and the only criticism levied against Yoga by this school is that it is viewed to hold the same position (etena yogaḥ pratyuktaḥ), so Patañjali’s Īśvara seems to have been seen in this light, and this is, of course, significant. Now, there are two types of creatorship: God as material cause (the material stuff of the world emanates from God) and God as efficient cause (God does not create the actual material substance of the world, which is eternal as is He, but it is He who manipulates this stuff to create the world). But Patañjali nowhere indicates how he envisioned the relationship of Īśvara with the creation of the world. Argumentum ex silentio is not the strongest type of evidence, especially since Patañjali is not talking about creation in the sections of the text where he mentions Īśvara. He introduces Īśvara in the context of meditation, since that is his project in this text. While he does briefly mention a few attributes of Īśvara, they are relevant to the ongoing discussion on meditation and liberation from saṁsāra. Creation is an entirely different topic not connected with the subject matter of the sūtras and thus one has no explicit grounds from the text itself to determine how Patañjali envisioned the relationship of Īśvara with creation. He does correlate Īśvara with oṁ, in I.27, and would have been well aware that oṁ is the designation for Brahman in the Upaniṣads, and that Brahman is depicted there and consequently in the Vedānta tradition as the source of creation. And certainly all the commentators do accept the creatorship of Īśvara, that is, Īśvara as efficient cause.
This seems a fairly important point. Patañjali’s compact sūtras provide succinct information germane to his specific and immediate project, citta-vṛtti-nirodha (samādhi). He thus provides whatever information related to Īśvara is immediately relevant: that samādhi can be attained by Īśvara; that this is possible because Īśvara is omniscient and beyond the kleśas and other sources of ignorance dealt with in the text that impede samādhi; that this can be attained by reciting oṁ, etc. There was no need to extrapolate further since, apart from this commitment to a very delimited focus, there was anyway no paucity of other theistic texts dealing with all manner of additional theological specificities in circulation at the time. (Certainly Vijñānabhikṣu, although much later and clearly a Vedāntin, explicitly states this: “Now what is Īśvara? What is devotion to Him? … He has been very thoroughly analyzed in the Vedānta Sūtras … Consequently, it is only touched upon in passing here.”)
To make this point, one could wonder why Patañjali has nothing to say about, for instance, disease, which he mentions in I.30. Again, this solitary reference is in the context of disease being an obstacle to samādhi, and in this regard only is it relevant to and therefore introduced in Patañjali’s project. There was an extensive body of knowledge in āyurveda on other aspects of disease available at the time. That greater body of knowledge is not relevant to Patañjali’s project, but this does not mean Patañjali did not consider texts that do focus on āyurveda essential to human existence, or did not accept their jurisdiction. Likewise, Patañjali’s text focuses on puruṣa, not Īśvara. But this does not mean he minimizes or rejects the jurisdiction and contours of those texts that focus on other aspects of Īśvara such as creation, or, for that matter, the varieties of praṇidhāna.
To my knowledge, all unambiguous theistic traditions taking root in Patañjali’s day—epic, Purāṇic, Vedānta, Nyāya—accepted Brahman/Īśvara at least as efficient creator (if not, with the Vedāntins, material creator)—understandably because the Upaniṣadic and epic usages of the term cast Īśvara (or the more common Upaniṣadic term, Īśa) in this role. What grounds do we have from this period to insist that Patañjali’s notion of Īśvara was an exception other than the Vedānta Sūtras reference? And even here the evidence simply points to some form of Yoga being associated with some form of Sāṅkhya as denying material creatorship to Brahman. But, even prior to the Vedānta Sūtras, the Mahābhārata states that he whom both Sāṅkhya and Yoga call the Supreme Soul, Nārāyaṇa, is the source of prakṛti, so both prior to the Vedānta Sūtras and also after their composition, there were mainstream strains of Sāṅkhya and Yoga that did accept the creatorship of Īśvara. We have no grounds to consider the author of the Vedānta Sūtras to be referring to Patañjali’s version of Yoga in the quote noted above, since the Yoga Sūtras postdated him. Rather, the very fact that Patañjali makes no reference to the creatorship aspect of Īśvara suggests he accepted the status quo. We must, I suggest, accept that Patañjali considered Īśvara at least as efficient cause of creation.
Moreover, the fact that this sūtra indicates that Īśvara is not touched by the kleśas and karma does not indicate that Īśvara could not be a personal God for Patañjali. If he is the teacher of the ancients (I.26), the bestower of liberation (II.45), and omniscient (I.25), then he must have some sort of personality (even to accept a form of pure sattva as held by the commentators), and clearly Patañjali does not consider his involvement with prakṛti in this capacity to compromise him or subject him to the laws of prakṛti—the kleśas and karma, etc. Our commentators differ on how to make sense of this important point, but practically any theistic tradition of the world envisions God as a personal being involved in some way with the world and yet simultaneously absolute and temporally untouched, and the notions of Īśvara prevalent in Patañjali’s time are no exception. One need only consider the Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa as Īśvara unambiguously claims to be the creator and source of everything (VII.4ff; IX.8; X.8; and throughout), the Īśvara who enters into the world of prakṛti and supports it (XV.16–18)141 and yet remains untouched and unchanged by all such things (IV.13–14; IX.8–9). The point here is not to project the theology of the Gītā onto Patañjali but to stress that Patañjali’s Īśvara cannot be extracted from the context of Īśvara-related theologies of the time. The entire Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, too, presents Śiva as Īśvara, who actively creates, rules, and engages with the world and yet remains distinct and transcendent to it. Moreover, the largest body of Sanskrit written material, the Purāṇic genre, while yet to attain its final form, was absorbing oral traditions that predated Patañjali’s time, and these are pervaded with Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa and Śiva theologies of this sort. We have no grounds to insist that Patañjali’s Īśvara be distinct from such theistic expressions, and thus stress that in our view Patañjali’s reference to Īśvara cannot be excised from this context of his time.
Fewer than twenty-five words have been utilized in the sūtras descriptive of Īśvara. Far too much has been made, in our view, by extracting from the greater theistic landscape of Patañjali’s day his terse statements toward a description of Īśvara and focusing on them as if they exist in some sort of isolated bubble specific to Patañjali and immune from the mainstream Īśvara theologies that were enveloping the Indian landscape. We have noted how earlier scholars opted to consider the entire Īśvara element as a later interpolation, in the hope, we suspect, of preserving a rational core to Patañjali, possibly stemming from discomfort with this vivid background of Hindu Īśvara theologies. Even with the more careful attention of later scholars who recognize that the Īśvara element is inherent to the text, one senses an aversion to pursuing the implications of this. In Patañjali’s day and age (and subsequently, for that matter), what options would there have been for any type of Īśvara theism other than the Nārāyaṇa/Viṣṇu- and Śiva-derived traditions? Viṣṇu and Śiva had risen to prominence centuries before Patañjali, and their worship was widespread across the subcontinent by the beginning of the Common Era. The Īśvara theological options of the time are amply preserved in the epic and much neglected Purāṇic traditions, and thus we have gone so far as to speculate whether, given the theistic options of the second and third centuries, one can legitimately reject the probability that Patañjali would have envisioned Īśvara as either Viṣṇu or Śiva, as I have considered (only somewhat gratuitously) elsewhere.
Many centuries prior to Patañjali, there were Sāṅkhya/Yoga traditions preserved in the Mahābhārata that were theistic, all with Vaiṣṇava flavorings. Ramakrishna Rao (1966) has extensively sieved through the Sāṅkhya and Yoga (Mokṣadharma) sections of the great epic and determined that there were several variant schools subscribing to Sāṅkhyan metaphysics, all of them theistic in some form or fashion. These theistic expressions were Vaiṣṇava in orientation, that is, they used the language of Viṣṇu/Nārāyaṇa when referring to Īśvara (even in those variants that conceived of the Supreme Truth in less personal terms). And, of course, the epic’s Bhagavad Gītā (generally dated between the fourth and second centuries B.C.E.) has Viṣṇu in his form as Kṛṣṇa emphatically stating throughout that he is Īśvara and that prakṛti and her Sāṅkhyan evolutes are his “lower nature” (VII.4). The only extant description of the supposed original source Sāṅkhyan text, the S˙aṣṭi-tantra-śāstra in the (admittedly later and sectarian) Vaiṣṇava Ahirbudhnya Saṁhitā, also accepts a Sāṅkhyan Īśvara and considers him to be Viṣṇu, and these Vaiṣṇava Sāṅkhyan traditions were preserved in the Purāṇas, as in the later Vedānta traditions (including that of Śaṅkara who clearly conceived of Īśvara as Viṣṇu). There was thus a widespread variety of Vaiṣṇava-flavored Īśvara traditions preserved in a variety of genres long preceding Patañjali.
Indeed, every characteristic Patañjali will make about Īśvara being transcendent to karma, of unsurpassed omniscience, teacher of the ancients, untouched by Time, represented by oṁ, and awarding enlightenment seem extracted from the Gītā. In the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa claims to be a distinct (but supreme) sort of puruṣa, the uttamaḥ puruṣas anyaḥ, specifying that this puruṣa is distinct from not only nonliberated puruṣas but also liberated ones (XV.16–18)149; beyond karma and the kleśas (IV.14; IX.9); of unsurpassed omniscience (VII.26; X.20, 32; XI.43); the teacher of the ancients (IV.1, specified as Vivasvān the sun god, who in turn imparted knowledge to Manu, the progenitor of mankind); transcendent to Time (X.30); the sound oṁ (IX.17); the remover of obstacles impeding the progress of his devotees, and the bestower of liberation (VII.14; IX.30–32; X.10–11; XII.7; XVIII.58). There is thus perfect compatibility in quality between Patañjali’s unnamed Īśvara and Kṛṣṇa as depicted in the Gītā. Similarly with the attributes assigned to Nārāyaṇa/Viṣṇu throughout the Nārāyaṇīya portion of the Mokṣa–dharma section in the twelfth book of the Mahābhārata epic, which unambiguously presents Viṣṇu as the supreme deity possessing all these characteristics throughout.
Of course, the Mahābhārata with its Gītā was not the only well-known philosophical text on the religious landscape at the beginning of the Common Era promoting theism to an identified Īśvara. A definite theism had also long emerged in the late Upaniṣads, particularly the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (generally dated from the fourth to second century B.C.E.), which vigorously identifies Śiva (named Rudra and Hara in this text) as Īśvara. Indeed, the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad assigns to Śiva several of the same generic characteristics associated with Īśvara that Patañjali uses: He is distinct from other souls; he is the awarder of liberation (or, more precisely, by meditating on him all illusion disappears, I.10); he is omniscient and the maker of Time (VI.2, 16); and he supported (taught) the ancient sage Kapila, the founder of the Sāṅkhyan system. This text is very relevant to our line of argument as it promotes yogic practice; Chapter II gives the most extensive (and almost sole) description of yoga in the earlier Upaniṣads (along with the later Maitrī). Moreover, the sūtra is situated in the context of Sāṅkhyan metaphysics, which is the infrastructure within which Patañjali situates his yoga system.
The Gītā (by most dating estimates) and the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad had preceded Patañjali by centuries, as had many of the Purāṇic stories, even if they were still being organized into their final literary forms, and there is no evidence that Patañjali’s rendition of Īśvara is a departure from such specific theistic orientations. Indeed, the question must be raised as to what alternatives to Viṣṇu or Śiva would there be anyway in that period. We thus suggest that the evidence points to the conclusion that the theism in Patañjali’s system can stem only from these preexisting Vaiṣṇava or Śaivite strains.
One might add a final note here, that Patañjali not only stipulates the practice of svādhyāya, literally self-study, understood in all the commentaries as referring to the study of scripture (which teaches of the self) and recitation of japa (II.1, 44), but also states that from such study and recitation one connects with an iṣṭa–devatā, one’s divinity of preference (a term used in the Upaniṣads and earlier Vedic texts to refer to the Vedic gods). That Patañjali was well versed in the śāstras, sacred texts—and thus hardly immune to the theistic currents of the day—is already obvious; this sūtra suggests he was himself oriented toward a specific divinity of preference. It is hard to conceive that this divinity would have been one of the (by this time) minor Vedic deities for reasons outlined in the commentary to II.44 (where I again take up the matter of Patañjali’s own personal theistic orientations), but which can be summarized by pointing out that the minor deities are approached for worldly boons. Obviously the yogī has no interest in worldly boons, as Patañjali has already specified. The yogī is interested only in samādhi, and the only divine being who can bestow this is Īśvara. Thus, iṣṭa–devatā might better be read, as it is taken in the theistic traditions, as a reference to a form of Īśvara to which the yogī is partial. This is underscored by the fact that all the commentators understand svādhyāya as also referring to the recitation of mantra, japa, which Vyāsa, following Patañjali (I.27–28) takes as reciting oṁ. Oṁ, we will see, specifically refers to Īśvara. So whether svādhyāya is taken to be study or mantra, iṣṭa–devatā can conceivably refer only to a preferred form of Īśvara. The preferred forms of Īśvara in the second century had long been associated with Śiva or Viṣṇu or one of his incarnations such as Kṛṣṇa. There were no other candidates.
If one felt inclined to push the matter, the scanty inferential evidence that can be brought to bear on the case for Viṣṇu as Patañjali’s iṣṭa–devatā might include the facts that, apart from the evidence of the earlier Vaiṣṇava-flavored Yoga streams preserved in the Mahābhārata noted above, the later tradition considered Patañjali to be an incarnation of Śeṣa, Viṣṇu’s serpent carrier in the Ocean of Milk (rather than, say, Nandi, Śiva’s bull carrier) and assigns the primary commentary on Patañjali to the famous Vyāsa, who is embedded in Vaiṣṇava narrative traditions. Indeed, the Mahābhārata (XII.337.4–5) considers Vyāsa a manifestation (aṁśa) of Viṣṇu/Nārāyaṇa and the son of the latter. This might suggest the preservation of a tradition that was partial to Īśvara as Viṣṇu. For this and other reasons, a case can thus be made that Patañjali personally subscribed to the Vaiṣṇava/Viṣṇu-flavored theism of the older epic and Purāṇic Sāṅkhya and Yoga traditions. But one can also make a case for Śiva. Perhaps any such reading of the sparse evidence reflects preexisting dispositions, but one can certainly argue that Īśvara in Patañjali’s time had long been associated with Viṣṇu and Śiva, and thus Patañjali would in all likelihood have been either a Vaiṣṇavite or a Śaivite.
Having said all this, one cannot ignore the fact that Patañjali chose not to disclose his understanding of Īśvara other than in the most general categories of relevance to the specific focus of the sūtras, citta–vṛtti–nirodha. I like to imagine that Patañjali is too sophisticated and broad-minded a thinker to risk sectarianizing the otherwise universalistic tenor of the sūtras and thereby alienating the sensitivities of aspiring yogīs with theistic (or nontheistic) orientations different from his own. That millions of people worldwide continue to find his text personally relevant today speaks to his foresight in this regard.
On a related note, the Yoga tradition in America today primarily stems from the Vaiṣṇava (Viṣṇu-centered) traditions. Krishnamacharya, his son Desikachar, and his son-in-law Iyengar are all devoted members of the Śrī lineage of Vaiṣṇavism, best associated with the twelfth-century Vedāntin Rāmānuja. This is a devotional lineage, prioritizing bhakti, which accepts Viṣṇu as the Supreme Īśvara. This aspect of their heritage is unknown to most of their followers, since it was not stressed by these ācāryas upon coming to Western shores viniyoga writings of Desikachar than in those of Iyengar). The transplantation of Vaiṣṇava bhakti to the West in modern times as a yogic path unto itself is to be credited to the efforts of A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami, founder of ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement), whose devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa inspired him to spread Kṛṣṇa-centered bhakti–yoga (Kṛṣṇa Consciousness) around the world. Noteworthy, too, in the same time period, is the transplantation of the Kashmiri form of Śaivism featuring bhakti to Lord Śiva popularized by Swami Muktānanda, founder of Siddha Yoga.
Returning to our commentators, Īśvara is unsurpassed by any other power, continues Vyāsa; he has no competitor. Nor does he have an equal. As Vyāsa puts it rhetorically, if, among two equals, one says of a desired object: “Let it be old,” and the other says: “Let it be new,” the wishes of one of the two will be thwarted since they cannot both have their way. And if, on the other hand, their wishes never contradict, adds Vācaspati Miśra, then what is the point of having more than one Īśvara in the first place? Thus, Īśvara has no equal but is the one sole being who is unexcelled and unequaled. Therefore, Patañjali states that he is a special puruṣa. His existence is substantiated by the scriptures, add the commentators (Vijñānabhikṣu lists a variety of passages in this regard, such as the occurrence of the term Īśvara in the Gītā [for example, XV.17]). The scriptures are themselves the product of Īśvara when he associates with pure sattva. Thus there is circularity among Īśvara, pure sattva, and scripture: Īśvara produces scripture from his adoption of pure sattva, and scripture directs one to Īśvara. Obviously this means that, since Īśvara is omniscient, and it goes without saying that he is beyond any cheating propensity due to his nature of pure sattva, the scriptures emanating from him are absolute and free from error.
Vācaspati Miśra raises an issue here concerning Īśvara’s “personality.” If Īśvara has knowledge and the power to act, as the previous sūtras indicate that he does (since he has the power to bestow liberation on the devoted yogī and thus must be aware of his devotion, and I.27 informs us that he taught the ancients), does this not mean he has a citta mind? Pure consciousness, Vācaspati Miśra reminds us, is unchanging and without object according to the Yoga school (and an axiom of Hindu thought in general), and therefore removed from all knowledge and the desire to act. Knowledge and desire are thus functions of citta, in other words, citta–vṛttis. Did not the opening sūtras of the text inform us that these very citta–vṛttis are responsible for bondage in saṁsāra? The citta itself is the product of prakṛti and thus has its origin in ignorance, avidyā. How can Īśvara, who is forever free, be bound by prakṛti and its products and subject to ignorance in the form of citta–vṛttis?
Vācaspati Miśra resolves this dichotomy by supposing that the Lord, even though untouched by nescience, appears to assume the nature of ignorance out of his freedom, just as an actor imitating Rāma freely assumes the character of Rāma. But the actor does not forget his real self. In the same way, Īśvara associates with pure sattva, free from the influence of rajas and tamas, out of his own free will, says Vācaspati Miśra. A parallel notion of Īśvara is expressed in the Gītā:
Although I am unborn and my nature is imperishable
And although I am the Īśvara of all beings
Yet I come into being by my own power
By controlling prakṛti, which is mine. (IV.6)
Nonetheless, even if Īśvara associates with prakṛti out of freedom rather than bondage, his inclination to do so still indicates desire on his part, and desire, for Vācaspati Miśra, is also a symptom of ignorance. To address this philosophical objection, Vācaspati Miśra patches together a rather complicated argument (that will not meet the approval of Vijñānabhikṣu). He argues that Īśvara is transcendent to Time. Before the dissolution of the universe, Īśvara determines, or wills, that he will again associate with sattva when the next universal manifestation occurs. This wish or saṁskāra is deposited into sattva along with the collective saṁskāras of all embodied beings. When dissolution occurs, all saṁsāric puruṣas remain in a latent state until the next manifestation. The saṁskāras each puruṣa had accumulated in past lives also remain latent but are again regrouped around the appropriate puruṣa when the next cosmic manifestation takes place. This, for Vācaspati Miśra, applies to Īśvara: After dissolution, Īśvara disconnects from sattva and all acts of volition (i.e., from the citta), as do all other puruṣas. But when the universe manifests again, Īśvara’s determination from the previous cycle is activated, like a cosmic alarm clock, and Īśvara again associates with prakṛti (just as, says Vācaspati Miśra, Caitra who contemplates “tomorrow I must get up at daybreak” and then, after sleeping, gets up at that very time because of the saṁskāra he had deposited into the citta the previous day to this effect). This cumbersome explanation is construed to explain how desire, knowledge, and the will to act, which in conventional Yoga understanding are citta-vṛttis indicative of unliberated puruṣas in saṁsāra, can exist in Īśvara, whom Patañjali says in this sūtra has always been pure and liberated and free from ignorance.
Vācaspati Miśra does not explain how, in the new cycle of creation, the pure and independent Īśvara can become influenced by the reactivated sattva containing his deposited wish from the previous cosmic cycle. Vijñānabhikṣu draws attention to this problem, pointing out that it is ignorance that causes puruṣa to associate (or, after cosmic dissolution, reassociate) with prakṛti—but how can ignorance be applicable to Īśvara? Rather, for Vijñānabhikṣu, desire, knowledge, and the power to act exist in Īśvara eternally. Here, he again reflects the position held by certain Vedānta schools, which also hold that Īśvara’s mind and, for that matter, body are not prākṛtic productions, even in its pure sāttvic potential, but made of pure Brahman and thus part of the essential nature of Īśvara rather than an external prākṛtic covering as is the case with the mind and bodies covering the puruṣas in saṁsāra.
Vijñānabhikṣu uses this sūtra as an opportunity to argue on behalf of the view of the Sāṅkhya and Yoga schools that there is an eternal plurality of puruṣas, in opposition to the position of the advaita, non-dualistic, school of Vedānta, which posits one ultimate, single all-pervading puruṣa (ātman). The Yoga view holds that, both in the liberated state as well as in the world of saṁsāra, there is a plurality of individual souls, while the advaita school holds that the apparent plurality of puruṣas, including the puruṣa known as Īśvara, is a product of ignorance occurring only in the world of saṁsāra. In advaita Vedānta, from a liberated perspective, there is only one undivided ātman. Other Vedānta schools, such as Rāmānuja’s viśiṣṭādvaita, oppose this view, and Vijñānabhikṣu presents various arguments against the advaita position that can be found in the writing of Rāmānuja and other post-Śaṅkara Vedāntins. For example, if there were only one ultimate undivided ātman, then if any one jīva (the ātman in saṁsāric bondage) becomes liberated, it attains to this undivided state. How, then, can other jīvas continue to exist in saṁsāra? In other words, if there is only one undivided ātman in reality, how can it exist in both liberated as well as saṁsāric states? This contradicts the supposed undividedness of ātman. For this reason alone, there must therefore be a plurality of puruṣas, some liberated and some in saṁsāra, as held by the Sāṅkhya Kārikās (XVIII). The argument has a history in the polemics of Vedāntins opposed to Śaṅkara’s extreme advaita form of monism. Thus, Īśvara is distinct from the puruṣas, and the individual puruṣas from each other.
And, importantly, clearly in response to the Vedānta criticism of Sāṅkhya (and, by extension Yoga), Bhoja Rāja notes that it is by the will (icchā) of Īśvara that the union between puruṣa and prakṛti takes place. The Vedāntins point out that since prakṛti is inert and unconscious, and puruṣa in its pure form is free of all desire or any content of consciousness, how could the union between the two ever occur? For Bhoja Rāja, as for the Vedānta and all other theistic traditions, it is the desire of Īśvara (in conjunction with the previous activities of each puruṣa) that brings about the union between the two in each cycle of creation (the issue of first time primordial beginnings is avoided in Indian philosophy in general by positing that this cycle is beginningless). Thus, with Bhoja Rāja, Vijñānabhikṣu, and, of course, Śaṅkara and other commentators, Vedāntic concerns are blended into the commentaries on the Yoga Sūtras (which is an organic and quintessentially orthodox exegetical thing to do).