Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.25
तत्र निरतिशयं सर्वज्ञबीजम् ॥२५॥
tatra niratiśayaṃ sarva-jña-bījam ||25||
In him, the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed.
Although, by definition, omniscience, sarvajña, means to know everything, and thus degrees of omniscience would seem to be something of an oxymoron, Patañjali here indicates that there is a difference between the omniscience of Īśvara and any comparable state obtainable by any other entity: Īśvara’s omniscience is unsurpassed, niratiśāyam.
Vyāsa states that the metaphor of a seed is used because there are in fact degrees in omniscience, as there are in the germination of a seed. He defines the seed of omniscience as the ability to understand anything, large or small, individual or collective, either in the past, present, or future—in other words, the ability to understand all things from all time. An omniscient person is one in whom this seed of understanding keeps growing. As in any form of measurement, there is a maximum attainable dimension of all individual things or subjects; the smallest subatomic particle, for example, says Bhoja Rāja has a certain dimension, as does the vastest entity in manifest reality, space itself. These dimensions of things reach their limit somewhere and so, therefore, does knowledge of them. Omniscience is knowing the totality of the dimensions of all individual things, whether past, present, or future Īśvara must be omniscient in this sort of sense, adds Śaṅkara, to be able to supervise the vast totality of all things in the planned and regulated universe.
Where Bhoja Rāja focuses on the dimension of individual things to define omniscience, Hariharānanda focuses on the knowledge of individual beings. All created beings, whether a worm or a human, have some degree of knowledge, whether greater or lesser. This knowledge of all individual beings, continually grows (new saṁskāras are being implanted in the citta every second). Since there are unlimited beings whose knowledges are continually growing, the collective knowledge is limitless. The being who has attained the maximum attainable level of this expanding collective of knowledge is omniscient. He is the special puruṣa known as Īśvara.
Although, by this process of inference, one can reach the conclusion that there must be a highest attainable state of knowledge, omniscience, one does not know the specifics of such an omniscient being by this process, says Vyāsa. The followers of all kinds of sects consider their masters to be omniscient—even in the Yoga Sūtras there are several sūtras that indicate that the accomplished yogī becomes omniscient (for example, I.40; III.49). Are all these on a par with Īśvara? The difference is that prior to becoming accomplished, such yogīs were not omniscient. Śaṅkara points out here that the Buddhists and Jains themselves state that the Buddha and Mahāvīra attained enlightenment, and this indicates that there was a time when they were not enlightened; in other words, there was a time when they were once subject to ignorance. Their enlightenment and hence omniscience is therefore limited by time—it is not eternal, without beginning.
Vācaspati Miśra makes the same point about Kapila, the founder of the Sāṅkhya system. Vyāsa notes in his commentary that Kapila, the original sage (ādi–vidvān), adopted a manufactured citta (nirmāṇacittam adhiṣṭhāya) out of compassion and presented the Sāṅkhya teachings to Āsuri, whom tradition considers to be the first disciple. Kapila was the first teacher of the lineage and attained liberation, says Vācaspati Miśra, but this is not the same as Īśvara, the Supreme Teacher, who was always liberated. Even as Kapila is accepted as an incarnation of Viṣṇu in some sources, he still had to attain absolute knowledge, according to Vācaspati Miśra, which, as indicated in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad V.2, he received from Śiva Maheśvara. Again, this means there was a time when he—unlike Īśvara—was not in possession of absolute knowledge. As an aside, Vyāsa’s comment about Kapila points to the Hindu belief that enlightened beings may chose to return to the world out of compassion for those still enmeshed in saṁsāra, a notion more fully developed in the Mahāyāna Buddhist notion of the Bodhisattva.
Therefore Patañjali’s Īśvara, who is not limited by Time, is of a different category from that of all other enlightened beings. We will engage in some additional speculations as to how Īśvara’s “extra” omniscience might be read through certain Vedāntic lenses in III.49, which is not irrelevant to the commentarial tradition since, as Vācaspati Miśra states, specific knowledge about Īśvara, such as his various names such as Śiva and Viṣṇu, and his activities and other details, can be gained from other scriptures.
Although Īśvara has no personal benefit to gain, Vyāsa notes that the purpose of his activities is for the benefit of living beings. Īśvara thinks as follows: “During the various creations and dissolutions of the universe, I will uplift beings caught in saṁsāra by disseminating knowledge and dharma, social duty.” Vyāsa is paraphrasing the famous verse from the Gītā here, where Kṛṣṇa states: “I appear in every yuga, cyclical age, to protect the pious and establish dharma“ (IV.8). This notion of Īśvara periodically bestowing instruction to humanity is relevant to the next sūtra.
Śaṅkara makes some useful comments here. Īśvara’s body is pure sattva and thus free of the limitations of the senses of conventional bodies; therefore, Īśvara’s awareness can be in simultaneous contact with everything, that is, omniscient. The awareness of embodied beings is limited by the tāmasic element in the senses of their particular bodies. Thus humans can see only a certain distance, hear only a certain range of sounds, etc. Other animals have senses with different ranges, and thus the limitations imposed on consciousness vary—vultures can see farther than humans, for example, and dogs hear and smell more acutely. Śaṅkara analogizes this with a light inside a clay jar with holes in it—the light of the jar is visible and can illumine only through the holes. The body with its senses is like a jar with holes; awareness can penetrate outside reality only through the holes of the senses (often called “gates” in texts like the Gītā V.13 and Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad III.18), and even then its range is limited depending on the type of sense (the sight of a vulture vs. that of a human, which can be compared with different-sized holes in the jar). But when the jar with its holes has been removed, the light that had been contained within can now pervade everything without being dependent on the holes for its path. Similarly, since Īśvara is free from karma, his awareness is not limited by sensual limitations and thus can perceive everything at the same time. Hence he is omniscient.
Vācaspati Miśra considers the atheistic position that God could not have created the world because it is full of pain. If there were a compassionate God, he would have created a world of undisturbed enjoyment (such arguments surface periodically in the writings of atheistic schools such as the Jain and Mīmāṁsā). His response to this is that God informs mankind of the means of liberation and thus is not cruel. Vijñānabhikṣu considers a further charge that since Īśvara is partial to his devotees, showering his blessings on them and not on others, he is a flawed individual, since partiality is not a sign of transcendence. Not so, he says. Just as fire has the nature of heat, so God’s nature is such that he is controlled by his devotees, but anyone can avail himself or herself of this nature by cultivating pure sattva. Thus, all have access to his blessings. He quotes Gītā IX.29: “I am equal to all beings—there is no one dear to me nor disliked by me. But those who worship me with devotion are in me and I in them.” Pleasure and pain, asserts Vijñānabhikṣu, are the result of one’s own past actions and have nothing to do with Īśvara’s partiality.