ईश्वर प्रनिधानाद् वा
ĪŚvara praṇidhānād vā
It is no wonder that this sutra should be the first stumbling block and cause for such an hiatus in my attempt to communicate an exploration of these ideas. Please accept my apologies for how long it has taken me to get back to writing this.
This is the first directly theistic sutra. It contains a word which cannot be defined through reason or logic. A word whose meaning is so diverse it sends as many running into ecstasy as it does running into denial and rejection. An appreciation of the vast nature of this sutra is almost impossible through the rational mind. And that is in many ways what Patanjali encapsulates in its simplicity.
First I invite us to consider some of the challenges of translation. Translation is not an exact science. Language is mutable and tricksy at the best of times. Meanings are fluid and personal. Definitions which should lend clarity an often divide opinion and lead to dispute.
We had a car once, and half of our family thought it was blue the other half thought it was green, no amount of word play, or analytical thought could develop our understanding of where the other half were coming from, we all acknowledged that there was room for ambiguity but also held firmly to our convictions of the colour. And this is just a colour and a car. What if the thing we all saw differently was something as vast as the universe? How do we find a word that encompasses all of it?
Not only is it difficult to imagine a single word that can adequately express this idea but translating this word from one culture to another adds further layers of challenge. For example let us imagine that in the original language (in this case Sanskrit) the word really can mean everything to everyone. Imagine there is a word that means both blue and green and all the nuances in between. Even if this word exits in one language unless there is a word that corresponds exactly in the language of translation we are still stuck in a mire of maya.
For a long time humans have tried to make sense of the world they see around them using language, we crave understanding and somewhere our understanding of understanding has become primarily cognitive rather than experiential. But life is experiential, we experience, we feel and if we’re honest how often do we actually understand?
For a western woman coming from the philosophical paradigm of the European enlightenment most of the philosophies I have been exposed to are written by men coming from a Judaeo-Christian culture. To fail to acknowledge that this will have an impact on my world view and certain words will be imbued with this cultural understanding is to not acknowledge a fundamental challenge most of us will face when confronted with the word Isvara.
Furthermore the history of people who began to translate the Indian philosophies is dominated by white men, often Christian. So when presented with a word that represents the energy of universe in a way that one might be able to relate to personally, it is only natural that they would reach for a translation that they were comfortable with: God.
But how many of us are still comfortable with this word? How many of us come to the word God neutral? I was raised an atheist, I have had studied Christian theology and western and eastern philosophy, I’ve had more ‘religious’ experiences than I can shake a stick at and I still stumble when I say God in public conversation.
My experiences of God are not of the traditional Judaeo-Christian description, no burning bushes, no heavenly hosts. My experiences are of a sense of deep peace, deep love, and a conviction that everything will be ok.
When describing religious experiences the mystics of all faiths use similar language. From Rumi, to Aquinas the themes are the same and the language is very different to the dogma that many of us are first introduced to as religion.
Patanjali is a practical philosopher whose main interest is in finding ways that we can all have ‘religious’ transcendental experiences.
Up until this point Patanjali has discussed the need to practice but has given little guidance on what we practice to reveal these experiences. One could suggest that in this sutra Patanjali gives us our first practice, and if we nail it it can also be our only practice!
What is the practice? To offer everything up to Isvara. What is Isvara? Isvara is the manifestation of the energy of the universe which you can personally relate to. Whatever that may be for you. The key here is that it is a manifestation of the whole and that there is a possibility for a personal connection. This sutra is describing the devotion of bhakti yoga, the dedication of karma yoga. The act of offering up, of surrendering doership, of recognising that we are a part of something bigger. It is not surrender in the sense of quitting.
The word pranidhana can be broken down into components.
pra: completely, in front.
dha: to place
dhana: placing, holding
To place ourselves completely down in front of that manifestation of the universe we personally relate to.
We are making ourselves humble, we are removing our sense of self importance and beginning the long process of watching the ego dissolve. An alternate translation for pranidhanad is to transfer identity; again there is the sense of losing the self to find the Self.