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Monday, November 11, 2002

Ishvara-Pranidhana: Devotion To The Lord

Oh Boy. This is where many people (especially in the west) who come to Yoga come up against major resistance. It's that word, "Lord," that seems to push people's buttons. Despite many western "yoga" teachers prostestations, Patanjali's Classical Yoga formulations, both Kriya-Yoga and Ashtanga-Yoga are indeed "theistic," unlike the Classical Samkhya philosophy with which it is often compared. In fact, it is this theological component that is one of the major differences found between Samkhya and Yoga.

However, when we look at this "Lord" that Patanjali postulates, we see that it is nothing like what we in the west are inclined to think of when we think of "God" or the "Lord." As Georg Feustein points out, Patanjali's conception of the Lord is most "peculiar and problematic." Patanjali tells us that Ishvara is a "special self" (purusha). What makes Ishvara "special?" Ishavara is a purusha that has at no time ever been caught in the activity of prakriti, specifically defined as being untouched by the "causes of affliction" (kleshas) whereas all other purushas somehow do become "ensnared." Ishvara is further said by Patanjali to be the "first teacher" of Yoga.

Of course, this leads to the problem alluded to by Feurstein. That is, how can an utterly transcendental Self ever intervene in the phenomenal world of space and time (prakriti)? Also, Patanjali elsewhere postulates that purusha(s) never truly interact with prakriti. He postulates a radical dualism, which often comes as a surprise to those who practice yoga in the west, influenced as it has been by the non-dualistic Vedantic teachers who brought Yoga to the west. Logically, then, Patanjali pulls what is alleged to make Ishvara special out from under this weighty concept.

But, not to worry. The concept of Ishvara-Pranidhana is still a valuable one and in fact can be said to be central to the "successful" practice of Yoga. If we take the purpose of Yoga practice to be the transformation of the "individual personality" and for the deluded identification with the ego to be seen through and transcended, then we can see Ishvara-Pranidhana as the practice of opening oneself to what is sensed or understood to be greater than oneself. What this "something greater" is certainly need not be conceptualized as a Higher Being, God or Self. Again, as Feurstein notes, even atheists can "embark upon this opening-up" by "appreciating their own relative insignificance and dependence on the cosmos itself."

While Vyasa explains Ishavara-Pranidhana as the practice of a special kind of love or intention by which the Lord becomes inclined to favor the yogin, I like to focus on the Mahayana Buddhist conceptualization and practice of pranidhana as specifically the taking of the Bodhisattva Vow, which is the first step on the path of the Bodhisattva. WIth this vow, the yogin and yogini make the firm, determined resolution to attain enlightenment, not merely for oneself, but for all beings. Thus, one's whole life and practice becomes "other-centered," rather than focused on oneself. This is a wonderful way to devote one's life to something larger or greater. In doing so, one is honoring the spirit of the practice of Ishvara-Pranidhana, in offering up all the fruits of our actions and efforts. This is the heart of Karma-Yoga, and so we see how this path outlined by Patanjali in fact does integrate the major forms of Yoga practice. Hatha for the physical "apparatus," Jnana for the mind, Bhakti for the heart and Karma as the Yoga of Action are all included in Patanjali's Yoga, strengthening and harmonizing each aspect of the practitioner. While these four types of Yoga are often said to be appropriate for the four basic types of human personality, we may do ourselves better to see tham not as mutually exclusive paths, but as interrelated areas of a full, broad, and deep life. This Yoga is a true "holistic" discipline and mitigates against encouraging any existing imbalance.

The next time you begin your Yoga practice, whether it is to sit in meditation, do asanas, cook a chocolate cake or chant a mantra, take a few moments to visualize all those throughout the world who suffer (which truly includes all of us), and perhaps especially those who haven't the good fortune to be able to practice any real spiritual path, whether as a result of poverty, ignorance or oppression of any kind. Dedicate your practice to them. Hold back nothing. Give it all away.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 3:34 PM


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