After the deep questioning about the nature of īśvara Patanjali generously gives our minds a rest with a (relatively) simple sutra. īśvara is unsurpassed in the knowledge of all, because īśvara is the seed of all knowledge.
tatra = in that (in this case in īśvara)
niratiśayaṁ = above all else, unsurpassed
sarvajña = sarva – all, jña (jñāna) – knowledge, knowing
bījam = seed
Bryant discusses the use of ‘seed’ in the context of there being different levels of knowing just as there are different levels of growth in the life of a plant. The seed contains all the knowledge of how to become a flower just as īśvara contains all the knowledge of how to become a universe.
In Bouanchaud’s beautiful book “the essence of yoga” he describes the relationship between the perceived individual self and īśvara beautifully.
“īśvara is a model for human beings – our essence is an identical spiritual entity. However…we are imprisoned in negative impulses and sentiments and bound by corporeal limits”
Bouanchaud, B. (2001). The essence of Yoga. Delhi: Sri Satguru, p.38.
It is the release from the prison of negative impulses and corporeal limits (see chapter three, probably wont get to this until 2025!) that a practice of yoga gives us, thus we unite with īśvara.
kleśa: affliction, pain, obstacle to clarity of mind.
karma: action, law of actions.
vipākāśayair: vipāka, result, consequence, ripening . āśayair, ‘by the receptacle, storage, or deposit of samskaras’ ¹.
aparāmṛṣṭaḥ: unaffected, unmoved.
puruṣa: consciousness as a soul.
viśeṣa: special, distinict.
īśvaraḥ is distinct consciousness which is unaffected by the law of karma, or by the afflictions which are stored as saṃskāras.
Bryant states that this is the sutra to which the longest and most detailed commentaries have been dedicated. It is no wonder that this would be the case as contained within these few words is the essence of a debate around the theistic nature of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.
īśvaraḥ is a special and distinct form of puruṣa. We first encounter puruṣa in the 16th sutra where Patanjali suggests that through dispassion we see the reality of the soul. The impression I got from sutra 16 was of some kind of all encompassing, nebulous, consciousness which pervades everything. Yet here it seems that Patanjali is creating a division or a differentiation between different puruṣas. If īśvaraḥ is a special kind of puruṣa then are there other kinds of puruṣa? Are we to think of puruṣa as a universal energy or one which is segregated?
Sri Brahmananda Saraswati describes īśvaraḥ as a force of puruṣa. īśvaraḥ is the “phycological consciousness (and) a symbol of God”² . īśvaraḥ as an element or an aspect of puruṣa. puruṣa is a big concept to try to wrap ones mind around, and it is potentially difficult to identify with an impersonal, universal force.
It is postulated by Bryant that the introduction of īśvaraḥ in this section of the yoga sutras is relevant to how Patanjali was asking us to relate to īśvaraḥ. Namely as a focus for our mediation. This is not a treatise on the nature of God as a creator or supreme orchestrator rather a description of how we can find a personal relationship with an element of puruṣa. The sutras between 23 and 29 detail a technique for mediation which has īśvaraḥ at its heart.
It is possible that Patanjali is providing us with a description of some of the qualities of īśvaraḥ to give us a guide as to what may constitute this special form of puruṣa to which we are surrendering, bowing down to and offering up out consciousness to. It is not, for example, a physical object or an idol, it is not an embodied being or another person. It is a reminder that although īśvaraḥ dwells within the murti (temple idol, statue) the murti is not the whole of īśvaraḥ. It could also be an attempt to make the yoga sutras accessible to all as a technique rather than a dogma. īśvaraḥ becomes a generic term for the force of puruṣa with which we can personally identify.
1. Bryant, E. (2009).The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: North Point Press. pg 87.
2. Mishra, R. (2010). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Monroe: Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust. pg 139.
p.s fear not klesa, karma and samskaras will all be discussed at a later point. I thought it was more important to continue and remain focused on isvarah as a term for now.
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.
There is distinction (viśeṣaḥ) between practicitioners, some are mild (mṛdu), some middling (madya) and some above measure (adimātra).
Commentators offer varying interpretations of this sutra.
Is the sutra discussing……
those practitioners who are most ardent in their practice and even amongst these there are varying levels of intensity. This understanding is built on the sandhi between tatah + api which becomes tato’pi – tatah means from that and api as well. If the ‘that’ is in reference to the intensity mentioned in the previous sutra then this interpretation is logical.
the previous three sutras. The mild practitioners are the prakṛti lyanam, the middling the faithful and diligent and the above measure the most intense.
a combination of both: A recognition that within every practice and practitioner there are varying levels of commitment, that at times we will be merged in matter and need that gross practice to still the mind, at times we will embody faith and this will stop the whirling thoughts and at other times we can be entirely focused, free from distraction. And at any given time the level of intensity of intensity will vary too, we could have a mild/mild practice or a intense/mild practice. It is a recognition that to be human is to embrace change, but remain consistent.
Whichever interpretation you favour, I find this sutra reassuring, the important thing is that we practice, that we practice regularly and with as much sincerity as we can. But we are embodied and human and therefore all we can ever do is our best. Some days we will be possessed by a fervent ardour to get on the mat or take our seat and other days we may find it more challenging. Patanjlai is reminding us Samadhi is always there, self realisation is inevitable, it just might take longer if our effort is restrained.
The keen (tīvra) having intensity (saṁvegānām) find samadhi to be near (āsannaḥ).
Patanjali is using this selection of sutras to discuss the qualities of practitioners or the qualities practitioners need to be successful. In 1:19 those who are merged in matter, find their way to a type of samadhi. Next are the faithful and diligent. Here we have the intense and ferocious in their quest for enlightenment.
It is possibly indicative of its evolution from Samkhya that Patanjali’s philosophy spends much time labelling and categorising. It is also useful for practitioners to reflect on our intension, our progress.
For example; if we take the prakriti layanam of 1:19, as Shri Bramananda Sarasvati does, to be those people who find peace in the repetition of material tasks and the yogis who practice with faith, vigor, and discernment (from 1:20), to be two different levels on the route to evolution then this sutra represents the yogi who will evolve the quickest and achieve samadhi in the shortest time through their enthusiasm.
The root vij gives rise to vega which forms the stem for saṁvegānām and such words translated as; violent agitation, the desire for emancipation, vehemence, and also hurricanes, rough seas and the heaving of the ocean. I infer from this a kind of tumultuous state which I would not normally associate with yoga. It feels more like the tapas, the extreme austerities performed when trying to bargain with the Gods for a boon. But perhaps Patanjali is reminding us to engage actively with the process of evolution, that samadhi needs effort to be put forth in order for it to manifest. Perhaps this choice of word is a reminder that the process of practice is not for the faint hearted.
Patanjali may be describing three different types of people who are all working in their own ways towards samadhi or possibly the stages of practice are being described. Maybe we all start by finding solace in Prakṛti, then we turn our attention inwards towards faith and learning to discern the real form the unreal. This sutra reminds us not to get delayed by our navel gazing but to remain focused and intense in our passion for puruṣa.
The ‘others’ of this sutra are those who do not fall in to the categories of videha (the disembodied) or prakṛti-layanam (merged with matter). For us Patanjali is telling us the foundations of a practice come before cessation of thoughts.
Patanjali loves a list so here he is listing the foundations:
Faith or Certainty – we need to believe firstly that liberation is possible, secondly that Patanjali’s methods will get us there.
Vigour, bravery, commitment – we need to be committed to our practice and our conviction. Faith leads to commitment.
Memory – we constantly remember our faith, we remember our focus and our aim, kaivalya. Commitment leads to this remembering why we are doing our practice.
Absorption – in the task of practice. This naturally arises when we keep coming back to our focus and faith and it spontaneously gives rise to >
Discernment or wisdom – we see and comprehend that we are more than prakṛti: we are puruṣa. Understanding arises that we do not need to associate our self with the whirling mind stuff but rather the underlying consciousness that pervades the universe.
Its probably worth noting Patanjali still hasn’t outlined what we should be practicing, he continues to focus on how we practice. This is probably why it takes so many readings of the yoga sutras before we start to make sense of them, we need to have an overview of where Patanjali is leading us and then when we look back on the methods for practicing it becomes clearer. A linier approach to understanding the sutras leads to a less comprehensive understanding.
That śraddhā is placed as the foundation of the foundations resonates with me. It is faith in the practice which takes me to my mat in the morning, which keeps me vegan, which gives me solace when I feel sad.
As the man says “keep the faith” 😉
भव - प्रत्ययो विदेह – प्रकृति – लयानाम् ॥१९
bhava-pratyayo videha-prakṛti layānām
This is the hardest sutra I’ve yet to interpret. Even a literal translation is challenging. I have accessed many sources and find little cohesive thought. Have a look at the table below and get a sense of the disparate interpretations.
Where does this wealth of information leave us? The previous sutra was describing a state of Samadhi which is achieved without external support, where the mind needs nothing specific to focus on (ie a mantra, mandala, technique) as an to aid its journey to clarity. In the Samadhi achieved without a supporting technique the mind simply turns to look at itself and is absorbed in that Self. In this context the Self is pure consciousness, puruṣa. So, following the pattern of the sutras that each threads together from the preceding one (unless Patanjali notifies us of a change of direction which he doesn’t seem to be here) let’s try to deduce (using logical inference, maybe – अनुमान ) what this sutra is about. Probably some form Samadhi. Probably the same form of Samadhi as the last sutra.
There is consensus that the subject of the sutra is the videha and the prakriti-layanam; those who are unembodied or merged in matter. To me that these two classifications of being are placed in the same context is deeply confusing. how can we be incorporeal and merged in matter? Unless when we become merged in matter we become incorporeal?
In Shri Bhramanda Saraswati’s commentary on this sutra he seems to be suggesting that the act of becoming totally absorbed in something gives rise to a feeling of being out of bady – take an intense physical or psychological task (researching this for example, an asana practice, driving on a busy road in adverse weather conditions) anything that requires your full attention, when we are engaged in this task, which is of the physical relam, prakṛti, we are merged with the ‘real’ world around us. During the activity it is as though time has no meaning, place has no meaning, we have no sense of the individual self because we are so focused. If we let our concentration slip for a moment the consequence is that we come back to an awareness of separation between our self carrying out the activity and the activity. But for the duration our concentration holds it is as though we do not have a body, our consciousness is liberated from the restraint of ego or thinking mind and flows freely.
Perhaps Patanjlai is suggesting that this state is very similar to the state when the mind ceases it’s whirling and sees itself because it is so focused so concentrated, but that when we become ephemeral through being merged with matter it is very easy for the mind to be jolted back out of this state?
To be utterly honest this sutra is a real challenge for me to make sense of. Some of the commentaries talk about the videha as being the devas, the demi gods of the hindu pantheon. Or they mention that both those without bodies and those merged in matter are yogis who have not quite reached the state of Samadhi that transcends matter, and are still connected to prakṛti. But then there is Desikachar who favours a simple translation that some people are naturally born in a state of yoga.
I shall continue to explore the ideas in this sutra in my own practice, and perhaps through that study (swadyaya) I too may experience being ephemeral, outside of time and space, for a while.
pūrvaḥ – east (as in pūrvottanasa), early, before, previous. saṃskāra – mental imprints, learnt behaviours, habitual responses. śeṣaḥ – remaining, residual. anyaḥ – the other.
Patanjali has given us the descriptions of some states of Samadhi in the previous sutra. in this sutra he is describing the other (anyaḥ) kind of Samadhi.
The types of Samadhi in sutra 1:17 require an object for the mind to become absorbed in. The mind needs support to find absorption, something to anchor it and allow it to be focused, something to actively help it cease to whirl.
This begins as an active process, we have to put forth effort to concentrate on the object that supports the mind, for example if we are focusing our awareness towards, concentrating on, a flower we have to look at the flower, hold the image of the flower in our mind, and keep coming back to that flower as the mind tries to wander off to look at the rest of the garden. We have to stop the thoughts (virāma-pratyaya). The act of bringing the mind back to the point of focus is effortful and requires practice (abhyāsa).
In this analogy the remainder of the garden, full of bright flowers and butterflies, represents arising thoughts (pratyaya). The flower is the focus and everything else which encroaches on that focus is the mind being drawn into an old pattern of thinking (saṃskāra). Our focus is the flower but perhaps that shade of red reminds us of the soup we had for dinner last night and the mind falls into thinking about that. We have to consciously keep bringing the mind back to concentrating on the flower. And this process, this repetition of bringing the mind back, gathering it in to one point, this practice, then creates a new groove for the mind to rest in.
Once we have practiced stopping the ideas, thoughts, as they arise, they eventually stop arising. The mental imprints, grooves, are still there but they are latent (śeṣaḥ), the mind does not fall into them. Eventually with practice the mind rests in the groove of focus, and concentration. Eventually, with practice, the mind can rest here concentrating only on it’s own nature and requiring no external support – this is the other (anyaḥ) form of Samadhi that Patanjali is alluding to here.
We sit in the garden surrounded by the flowers of our thoughts but the mind rests completely in it its Self, the insects buzz by, the flowers are fragrant, but the mind is still.
ānanda = joy, happiness, bliss. (the end of the drama)
āsmitā = sense of “I”, I-ness.
रूपानुगमात् = rūpānugamāt =
rūpa = form.
anugamāt = followed by, attended by, accompanying.
संप्रज्ञातः = samprajñātaḥ = state of Samadhi in which there is still an object for the mind to focus on.
In the previous 16 sutras Patanjali has described what yoga is and what the mind is. We have a foundation for trying to still the vṛttis through this information. Essentially, and to simplify, we are trying to encourage the mind to get out of the way of our true nature.
In Patanjalian thought the mind is as much matter, physical stuff, as the body, more subtle matter but matter non the less. The only thing that isn’t matter is the consciousness of the universe. Puruṣa. In order to access Puruṣa we need to practice the focusing of the mind and adopt an attitude of dispassion.
For the next section of the first chapter Patanjali describes how the mind can focus to ever more subtle levels, each level moving our awareness through the prakṛti (matter) and towards Puruṣa.
This first chapter is called Samadhi Pada as it is giving information about Samadhi, interestingly though, it isn’t until almost halfway the chapter Patanjali specifically mentions Samadhi, everything is alluding towards this state, this clarity of mind, but the word is not stated unambiguously until sutra 20. Possibly this is due to the understanding that the teachings were not linear, this is a collection of aphorisms about the state and process of yoga. Patanjali is beginning with definitions of terms rather than practical advice. We start by learning about the state of the mind as it is and then move to some processes of how the mind may begin to quiet, before looking at a more detailed map of which route to follow.
Imagine a map without a legend. If we are looking for a church but don’t know the symbol for a church and we had never seen a church before we could be standing next to one and never realise it.
Patanjali is giving us the legend for yoga, before suggesting the best route.
To continue the route analogy (indulging in a bit of vikalpa here, do excuse me), climbing routes vary in difficulty and grade so to reach the summit there may be many paths, one which is suitable for any level of climber, just as Patanjali will offer us a range of techniques. But just as before we attempt to climb we need to know where we are going Patanjali offers us markers and check points, and an idea of where we may end up.
It is also significant that Patanjali is expecting us to practice, we are given waystones for where we are in our practice and what further stages of focus we can develop.
This sutra is the first which describes different states of clarity the mind can find. All of these states are samprajñātaḥ they are states in which the citta still requires a form (of some kind), to focus on.
Vitarka, the most concreate form. The mind becomes absorbed in something physical, for example the colours or shape of an idol, or a flower. There is something tangible the mind is focusing on.
Vicāra, more subtle, the essence of the form becomes the focus. So rather than the shape or colour of the flower the mind rests on the essential nature of the object – note an object is still present.
ānanda, from contemplation on the essential nature of the flower the mind rests in a state of deep bliss. Take the beauty and majesty of a sunset, we begin by admiring the physical form of the sunset, the oranges and purples, and the mind becomes cleared from the thoughts of the day, the anxieties and the triumphs, absorbing the beauty until the mind rests in that beauty, from this a sense of deep peace, bliss, or joy arises. It started with an object – the sunset.
I hope we have all experienced this at some time, I believe it is the experiential nature of the sutras which make them accessible. Patanjali is giving word and clarity to the mystical experiences we may have encountered.
The last state of clarity is āsmitā in this context it could be likened to the third sutra with the seer seeing it’s self. āsmi means ‘I am’. tā denotes ‘ness’. So this ‘I am – ness’ could be interpreted the deep sense of ‘everything will be alright’ which arises out of the bliss of absorption. We feel we belong, the yearning of the soul desists and we dwell fully in our own being. It is the sense of well being after savasana, the sense of lightness that comes in the heart when we allow the mind to clear and focus, when expectation and judgement cease and we can fully inhabit our essence. āsmitā begins with prakṛti (from the bliss that came because the mind became absorbed in an object) but ends in puruṣa.
tat = that paraṃ = highest (the highest vairāgyā/dispassion) puruṣa = the soul kyhāter = knowledge of/ perceiving
guṇa = the substances which make up the world, rajas, tamas, sattva. vaitṛṣṇyam = indifference
The highest dispassion is born from perceiving Puruṣa, this leads to indifference towards the guṇas (and therefore prakṛti).
vairāgyā can be achieved through a committed, sustained, firmly established practice of focusing the mind and thus stilling the citta vṛttis. In the previous sutra Patanjali describes that this is a dispassion towards objects in the material world and objects we have heard about and may desire. In this sutra Patanjali goes further in saying that it is possible to find indifference towards everything in prakṛti (which is everything in existence apart form Puruṣa). This includes matter not only in the physical world but also the psychological one. Thoughts and feelings are also composed of the guṇas. Emotions can be rajasic (firey), tamasic (lethargic) or clear (sattvic). Once we have knowledge of puruṣa we can become indifferent towards everything. Only puruṣa is not subject to guṇas and therefore puruṣa is the only constant thing in existence. Thus once we have perceived this what purpose does attachment to Prakṛti serve?
Once again there is the potential for nihilism to creep in. If everything is irrelevant except for puruṣa, what’s the point of it all? Now we need to apply śraddhā (faith) remember that the mind, the thoughts are coloured by the experiences, the saṃskāras, patterns and by the guṇas. Therefore the little voice which is the nagging doubt is no more real than the sky flowers or unicorns of vikalpaḥ. The part that questions and fears is not the seer seeing itself. Once the seer has seen itself and there is kyhāti of puruṣa then indifference towards the world naturally follows.
But indifference is not distain, nor is it careless, it is a security rooted in knowledge that beyond all this suffering and chaos is quietude, beatitude. Once the vṛttis cease and the mind is not seesawing between rajas and tamas with glimpses of sattva, like the sun through the clouds, once the clouds clear and we are illuminated by seeing the seer, then we become most effective, efficient and discerning, because we act without fear.