The Isvara Sutras: 1:23-1:27

Posted January 30th, 2012 by Erin under Student Writings, Yoga Philosophy.

As part of the practice of Svadhyaya, introspection through study of scripture, students from the 2011/12 200 hour teacher training were asked to contemplate the Isvara Sutras, 1:23 through 1:27, in Edwin Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The following post provides examples of how students responded to Bryant’s interpretation and how the sutras resonated for them.

Erin McNally, 200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011

Sutra 1.23

Isvara-pranidhanad va

Or, [this previously mentioned state is attainable] from devotion to the lord.

Bryant: Devotion to God is the quickest way to samprajnata-samadhi; vision of the self by grace of god. This is achieved with bhakti-visesa; “simply by the yogis longing”. Devotion is in meditating on Isvara with love, and the actions of the yogi are desireless, entailing “devoting all one’s actions to the Lord, desiring no fruit for oneself.” The nature of Isvara is also revealed in this sutra: “he is untouched by the deposits of samskaras, fructification of karma, karma, or the obstacles to the practice of yoga, the klesas of II.3: nescience, ego, attachment, aversion, and the will to live.”


Isvara-pranidhanad va is the sutra that establishes how one either includes devotion to the lord into one’s practice or has that become the main method of practice. It would seem to me that, in order to achieve this level of devotion, the yogi needs the foundations set out in the 8 limbs of Yoga. Especially in the case of cultivating desireless action. But Bryant makes a case for the fact that this sutra describes the niyama Isvara-pranidhana as the only effective way to attain samprajnata-samadhi without delay. So the yogi who devotes one’s self to this practice may achieve the goals of yoga faster. But the tone of the commentary is that, while Isvara-pranidhana is a way in and of itself to attain Samadhi, it is  not the only way, and not the mandatory way. I think that this sutra sheds light on not only what one is devoting one’s self to in Isvara, but also what devotion actually is, desireless love.

Sutra 1.24

Klesa-karma-vipakasayair aparamrstah purusa-visesa Isvarah

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.

Bryant: Discusses the nature of Ivara according to Patanjali and locates the historical context that the sutras were written in terms of what Isvara is. Debates whether Isvara is to be understood as a creator god or as an entity or being representing pureness. Clarifies the difference between Isvara as purusa and the rest of purusa as experienced by all other beings. Isvara is free from four of the conditions of samsara, the klesas: ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and the will to live, Karma, vipaka: the fruit of Karma-, and asaya (that which lies stored): vasanas (habits) and samskaras. Also notes that, while liberated yogis have broken free from these conditions of samsara, Isvara is not like these liberated purusas because he never was touched by these circumstances.


The clarification that this sutra offers on the nature of Isvara helps to explain how devotion to Isvara is a specific way for the yogi to have purusa revealed and thus find Samadhi. If Isvara was like other yogis in nature that had experienced and had been liberated from the conditions of samsara, it could follow that one could tap into the enlightenment offered by devotion to Isvara by devoting one’s self to any liberated yogi. This argument is not explicitly made by Bryant but it is within my reasoning on what Isvara is.

The time taken by Bryant to establish the historical context of Isvara helps to explain why, in Patanjali’s text, there is a level of ambiguity over what kind of God Isvara is. I’d like to believe, and Bryant argues, that Patanjali had foresight into the potential aversion to theism that some yogis may employ, and wanted to present the universal truth in the system of yoga without clouding it in a argument over the nature of God. As Bryant says “I’d like to imagine that Patanjali is too sophisticated and broad minded a thinker to risk sectarianizing the otherwise universalistic tenor of the sutras and thereby alienating the aspiring yogis with theistic (or non-theistic) orientations different than his own”

Sutra 1.25

tatra niratisayam sarvajna-bijam

In him, the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed.

Bryant: The phrasing of Isvara’s omniscience as ‘unsurpassed’ indicates that there are levels of all knowing. While this seems odd, the sutra means to clarify the difference between Isvara’s omniscience and the omniscience gained through practice or devotion by the yogi (or Jains and Buddhists). Again, Isvara’s is pure, having never been touched by ignorance. Bryant also explains that because Isvara is pure sattva, his “awareness can be in simultaneous contact with everything, that is, omniscience.”  This differs from the human experience of awareness due to the experience of gaining knowledge through the senses, “which is limited by the tamasic element in the senses of their particular bodies”.


While these Sutras set out to clarify the nature of Isvara, they also help to illuminate the restrictions that embodied beings have, i.e. the quality of the senses in terms of the gunas. The explanation here offered by Bryant of how Isvara’s awareness differs from embodied beings helps to further explain what pure sattva is.  While we can read sutra 1.24 and know a list of what Isvara is not, we can only infer what that means he is. By the clarification of what Isvara is in this sutra, sattva, we can come to understand what pureness may look like. In some ways I believe that, although Patanjali is not forcing theism into the practice of yoga, the knowledge available in devotion to Isvara is unlike any other; it is knowledge of purity.

Sutra 1.26

purvesam api guruh kalenanavacchedat

Isvara was also the teacher of the ancients, because he is not limited by time.

Bryant: Isvara is eternal, not subjected to the limitations of time. This is because, according to the cosmology of Yoga, time is “the movement of the gunas of prakrti, that is, the movement of matter.” Isvara is purusa. And Purusa is eternal, whether the special purusa that is Isvara or the purusa in all beings.


The question of what is purusa is touched on here.  We know that Isvara  is a special kind of purusa. The eternal nature of this purusa helps to illuminate to the yogi that even time, which is bound to matter, is not experienced by purusa, Isvara can bestow the knowledge of eternal purusa on yogis because, as purusa, as eternal and not bound by prakrti, the knowledge given is current, present, aware. Not tied to the time or current-ness or awareness of a teacher from another expression of the gunas, or rather, another time

Sutra 1.27

tasya vacakah pranavah

The name designating him is the mystical syllable om.

Bryant: Om is a “sonar incarnation of Brahman”. Om as Isvara is not a culturally agreed upon association of a word to a thing, it is “an eternal designation not assigned by human convention or socially agreed upon usage”. Om is imbued with the power of Isvara. Because om is linked to prakrti by sound which is accessed by the senses, it is a means of allowing praktri to access Isvara, who is otherwise not on the plane pf prakrti.


Om is like a key into a different system of language. Yogis use om to access Isvara from prakrtic existence. Om is a tool, passed down through time by beings bound in praktri, that creates a sonar bridge from matter to soul.


Libby Madden:200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011

Photo credit: Benjamin Rosser

Isvara pranidhana

Summary of Edwin’s translation: the goal of yoga is attainable by the grace of God. Through devotion, bhakti, god bestows his grace upon the yogi and the yogi is gifted with the fruits of Samadhi. Devotion to the lord entails the dedication of all actions to god with no expectation for fruits, and as such the ego melts away and the being is pure and centered. Concentration and meditation on the Lord as represented in the syllable, “om” with loving devotion leads to the realization of the purusa and liberation for the practitioner. Through dedication to Isvara the highest form of Samadhi can be attained, as by a simple act of grace Isvara can free the yogi from his or her material bonds. Isvara is a soul, but a special soul free of all obstacles and samsara, an eternal being untouched by time.  Pattanjali promotes a theistic yoga practice. One may practice the path of yoga non-theistically, but pattanjali promotes devotion to god as the highest path, and performing the guidelines of the yoga sutras with the attitude of devotion to god accelerates the practitioner to the ultimate goal of Samadhi.

Isvara is a special soul. Eternal and untouched by time, he was never once bound to the kind of life and samskaras like other beings. Therefore he is not some liberated yogi, he is beyond that. Isvara’s relationship to the material world and whether or not he has created it is not discussed, and pattanjali is primarily concerned with the function of Isvara in the path of yogic liberation. Though not much is explicitly stated in the Sutras about pattanjali’s view of Isvara (as Visnu, Shiva, etc.), it can be assumed that he was influenced by the mainstream concepts of his time.

Isvara is a degree of omniscience unattainable by any other being. All beings have a certain degree of knowledge that grows over time but Isvara has the highest level of knowledge, the seed of omniscience. Unlike the yogi who is at one point ignorant and over time becomes omniscient, Isvara was always omniscient. He is a distinct and special purusa, in a different category from all enlightened beings. Isvara is active but only for the purpose of all living beings, a benevolent God, purposed to uplift all beings from samsara. Isvara is the teacher to all ancients and all “ages” because he is not subject to time, or the configurations of the gunas. Isvara is designated by the syllable om not as a cultural changing linguistic name but as eternal and timeless designation. As he is unchanging and eternal he can invest this might into a vibration, a syllable, and that is om. By illuminating the vibration om with his presence, by his grace isvara allows aspirants in prakritic life to meditate on and experience his being through this vibration.

My interpretation: My first reaction to Edwin’s interpretation of the Isvara sutras is his reference to god as a “he”. Though the sutras state that Isvara is an omnipresent being, highest of all, I am resistant to the application of a gender. Edwin’s translations imply that god is a being, a unique kind of purusa. This is in a way surprising to me and differs from my perception of god and Idea for “isvara pranidhana”. I interpret the “being”, Isvara as more of an interconnectedness, a flow, existence of all things, the greater Source. Beyond even a being, a sort of ever-being- flow that contains all things and moves all things and is everywhere. I suppose you could classify that as a “special soul”….  Devotion to this Isvara as I perceive it is a submission to exactly what is, always, giving in to the flow and motion of life with a sense of love, devotion, and gratitude. The longer the focus on this the greater the sense of joy and equanimity, the easier the obstacles in the material world disappear. Devotion to god is a freeing state of unattached flowing equanimity, an idea that even to speak of brings butterflies into my heart. It is trust, love, peace, flow, balance.  It is omniscient because it is beyond all and within all, the essence of our beings as well as animals and all nature. To devote all action to god is to live with the understanding that there is something greater out there than your ego-self, and the development of this attitude as such melts the sense of importance around our ego-selves. In this sense my interpretation is similar to Edwin’s, I just perhaps have a less theistic approach. It seems to me that Pattanjali is promoting a theistic style of yoga not necessarily with the implication that god is actually any kind of typical soul but rather a higher nature and interconnectedness between all things, and the application of a theistic view or personification in the form of Visnu Siva or Krishna is more a tool to concentrate one’s devotion in a more tangible form than just some cosmic concept. Pattanjali says that with devotion the practitioner’s god, in whatever form they worship it in, will appear to him, thus implying that it is almost arbitrary what image one decides to devote that love to. To me it is more about the feeling, almost impossible to put into words, that one accesses, that deep love in the heart, that signifies concentration on the lord regardless of whether there is a theistic focus or not. Just as the syllable om is changeless regardless of cultural linguistic changes over the ages, the cosmic presence of Isvara is changeless regardless of cultural ideals and personifications of how the lord would look in human form.

I suppose the key difference in my interpretation of the idea of Isvara is that everything about god to me is less personified. “He” doesn’t “bestow grace” on the practitioner for their devotion, but rather the natural flow of things is that grace just kind of happens through the dropping in, acceptance, submission, and love for the natural flow of all things, God, Nature, existence, stillness.  Even thinking and writing about this, I have a warmth and peace in my heart. That is grace. That is my devotion to Isvara.

V Haddad:200/hr Teacher Training Student 2011, Singer/Songwriter

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