Aug 29, 2014

Sutra 1.23. Ishvarapranidhana

In the last dozen of my blog posts I have somewhat deviated from the linear and sequential expansion of the Sutra commentary. Many issues required clarification and more detailed consideration, or they were my contemplations that were wandering in such a mysterious way – so far the format of blog allows taking such liberties, unlike the one of the book. But the time has probably come to turn back to successive commentary on Yoga Sutras. And I must admit that this is the first time that I do it with some reluctance. Of course it is not because I have lost interest in the subject – on the contrary, it has become even more profound; this is because the next 4 lines are dedicated to one of rather tricky moments of Yoga Sutras – the concept of ishvarapranidhana, and, correspondingly, that of ishvara. Again, there is nothing dramatic about it; moreover, I’ve got some sound ideas to share on the issue. Yet when we start discussing the subject we come out on a thin ice with turbid waters of religiosity splashing under it. 
The case is that they often translate the word ishvara as “god” thus pretending that they make it hence more clear. For the purpose of intimidation it can be written with a CAPITAL LETTER. And such interpretation shall immediately give rise to numerous endless pseudo-theological speculations that of course have nothing to do with yoga or real practice. Although the history of such speculations extends back over millennia. Nevertheless I am still convinced of total non-religious (or, better say, supra-religious) nature of both Yoga and other esoteric systems. Suffice it to notice that the work of Patanjali has only 4 short lines dedicated to this most “important” (from the point of religious mind) subject, the ishvara. Unlike the works of its commentators who have got carried away by this concept much further …

On the other hand I understand that as soon as I speak out my opinion on this issue I will be snowed under with personal messages and commentaries from different people preoccupied with religion (that one can easily say by aggressive and arrogant tone typical of them) who will pull my leg by telling me that this line should be understood in this and that way because someone has written that it should, while me, the author of the blog, is a lout who doesn’t understand a thing. What they say is usually illogic and does not match with the context, yet it is very expressive. I shall give an example: after I had shared in VKontakte [the social net popular in the CIS states – translator’s note] the article of Ignatiev about whether Aryans ate meat - rather innocent but duly reasoned in terms of science - I received a number of indignant comments. One of them, probably coming from a Krishnaist, sounded something like: “how dare you say that Aryans ate meat when it is written in the Vedas that they did not”. He wrote this despite the fact that the article quoted certain hymns of the Rigveda that described the process of cooking and eating the meat broth! But the mind poisoned with religion is truly unable to see the obvious even in the text before one’s eyes. Merely out of politeness (or, better say, in order to give the man a minute chance to free his mind from ignorance) I asked the desolate heart whether he had personally read those Vedas he was so cocksurely relying upon. At least, in their Russian or English translation. The answer came as a firm “no”. I need not read them – the discourser replied – since their complete recital can be found in the Bhagavad Gita(((. I said that in this case there was no use for him reading my page since Bhagavad Gita might contain the executive summary of my blog as well. These are all, of course, trivial matters, but they are a bit annoying.

To sum up: if you have a clear and, moreover, an emotional “knowledge” about the “proper” way of understanding the categories given below – leave it for your personal practice and let its success affirm your opinion. In no way you should communicate it to me, especially in the comments.

By the way, if to speak about good-wishing. I always delete negative commentaries immediately, since the person who leaves them has obviously nothing to do with yoga, and this means that his opinion on yogic issues cannot be competent…

As to those readers who are interested, we shall proceed with them to analyzing sutra1.23, especially since the situation I’ve been finding myself in for the last couple of weeks, living in Varanasi [1] and absorbed by Sanskrit studies, disposes well to this.

In order to restore the narrative thread I shall remind that in the second line Patanjali defines Yoga as chitta-vritti-nirodha
  • Then he proceeds with defining each of the vrittis. 
  • In the line 1.12 he introduces the methods of abhyasa and vairagya as the methods of attaining nirodha. 
  • Then he defines the gist of these methods. 
  • In the line 1.17 he proceeds from vairagya to samprajna that we have shown to be logically associated with each other as disengagement and comprehension. 
  • He further draws the consequences of one’s attaining the state of comprehension (samprajna) and factors that expedite the attainment of this state: shraddha (faith), virya (vigor, energy), smriti (memory) and samadhi. 
  • He also mentions (1.20) the importance of ultimate concentration of one’s strength for obtaining the result - comprehension. 

And so, in the sutra 1.23 Patanjali declares that:

ईश्वरप्रणिधानाद्वा ॥२३॥
1.23. īśvara-praṇidhānād-vā

The  is a particle meaning “or”, while the word ‘pranidhana’ comes in form of a deponent case with respective ending; thus, the meaning of the line comes down to the following: the aforementioned (that has been drawn in the previous lines) can be attained also (or) thanks to (from) ishvarapranidhana. And now there is only one thing left – to understand what it means J.

And, as I have already said, this is where the real problem starts. In the scope of Indian tradition the word ‘Ishvara’ is used as an epithet of several deities, and sometimes even as their proper name. In the European tradition of interpretation it is usually translated as “God”. But let us be realistic – does it make more sense with it? What meaning of that god is it about? Even within Christian and pseudo-Christian theology god is a loose concept. How can the god of Gnostics and Monophysites be compared to the god of a little old lady in the church praying for her bread and butter? These are totally different objects. Moreover, there are also Jung with his maxima that “our whole unconsciousness is the uproar of the God” / “For the collective unconscious we could use the word “God”; and there are other European mystics as well… That is, putting this word there has not made us get actually ahead. Yet it has given us a good chance of falling into religiosity. Indeed, when listing the most well-known Russian translations of ‘ishvarapranidhana’ (I just can’t be bothered to give the links) we find the following: ‘fidelity to Ishvara”, ‘love for Ishvara’, ‘total devotion to Ishvara’, ‘having Ishvara as a prompter of one’s all acts’, ‘confidence in Ishvara’, ‘commitment to God the Almighty’ and even ‘regular prayers to God with the feeling of humility towards its might…’ The situation with English translations is more or less the same. And now there comes a question: all the above mentioned versions are very interesting and religious in nature, but how can they promote cognition and comprehension (samprajnya)? In no way, of course – these translations simply ‘calcine’ a person in his religious misbeliefs, whatever they are. In my Internet wanderings I once came across an eccentric who tried to ‘crossbreed’ Yoga Sutras with Christianity on the basis of this very line: it took him only to suppose that Ishvara stood for the Crist. I preferred not to save the web-address…. 

Thus, I will now try to give my understanding of ‘ishvarapranidhana’; actually, in order to do this I need to explain my attitude to the category of ‘ishvara’ and develop my idea of “God-seeking”.

Mystic experience and God-seeking 
(an abstract from my lecture is used)
To begin with, we shall go by our own understanding of mystic experience. That is, we shall first try to sort out what the “mystic experience” generally means, what is that “mysticism”. We will try to reconcile the languages of description, throw some bridges between the descriptions of ours and those that can be found in the classic texts, thus fleshing out their usual categories, and then – once again come back to the subject of the article, already based upon the categories that would have a bit resuscitated in our perception. This will be the way – though it may seem a bit strange at first sight.

And the first question we shall start with is: what kind of experience can in general by considered mystic? We now base ourselves upon neither description of some mystics or saints nor any primary sources. There are only us and our own meditation. Which of those things that a person faces (I don’t say “a mystic” – any ordinary person) – which of them come as experience that goes beyond the everyday (profane) experience? Of course we will later understand that the line between the mystic and non-mystic experience is very thin, but still what is this experience that brings a man beyond his self?

Let us take another step back. Almost all dictionaries, reference books on mysticism and so on declare the mystic experience to be in this or that way related to merger with God; that is, now it would be good to comprehend in general the category of “God”, “the divine” proper. Yet it is quite difficult for understanding. Why? Mainly because the whole of this subject is impregnated with experiences of some lower order. That is, in any case: when we speak about the divine – we start thinking about religion, and if we start thinking about religion we come very nearly to thinking about a bearded old man who sits there and pastures us just like some kind of cattle. Or, if this is not a bearded grandpa that we think about, then it is at least a shining spot from movies that has emerged and has once again been trying to meddle in our business. And of course such picture will make any more or less intelligent person feel a bit sick. But what if we try to look at this category of divine from a bit different perspective?

Let us start from the place that is a virgin snow in terms of religiosity– science. There is an interesting moment here: what is it that science is looking for? Any science: physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, sociology, psychology and so on. They are the Regularities.

We shall not speak altiloquent and use the words like “truth” and “grasping the truth” since they are the same very dulled as the category “grasping the God” is. But science looks for regularities. That is, it starts observing some associations between facts, events and situations that were previously supposed to have nothing in common. There are different ways of searching for it – experiments, observation, empirical data, something else… But look: in doing this science is based upon a single postulate almost not subjected to discussing – every man, every scientist, even every extra-materialist considers it to be so much obvious that no one even thinks about discussing it out loud. What is this postulate? It is that there are regularities as such. That is, we all think from the very beginning that there are some laws that link everything to everything. Or, better say, we don’t think so (because we cannot prove it). We even don’t believe (because faith can exist only in case there is some doubt). We FEEL this. This is a bad grounded, but a very deep-seated experience that every man has inside – and this is the first available mystic feeling.

This experience becomes confirmed by practice. We keep finding new consistent patterns. The events that previously seemed to have nothing in common now appear related to each other. Even if at some point it seems to us that it is all about the category of chance, like, for instance, tossing a coin, or of chaos, be it a “physical chaos”, “mathematical chaos” or something else – after some time science makes few more steps and it appears that the formulas for describing these random events also exist: the probability theory describes accidental events, the theory of chaos describes the chaos. It turns out that chaos can also be counted, measured and so on, it’s just that it is done differently, in some more complex way. And nevertheless these regularities are still looked after. The afore described experience can be considered as the first mystic experience available to the man that he can actually rely on. The world is well-ordered even if we don’t understand all consistent patterns. Galileo who was accursed by the Inquisition said that “The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics”. But it does exist, this “Book of Nature”. Darwin who was hated by Christianity talked about the “design of Evolution” but he felt that this design did exist together with regularities.

It is interesting that even without understanding we come closer to them by means of feeling them. This feeling is the sense of the world beauty that has been also inherent to the man. There was an outstanding physicist – Dirac – who said a strange thing: “A physical law must possess mathematical beauty”. Indeed, all formulas that describe the world in a brilliant way are amazingly beautiful: E=MC2 – beautiful, isn’t it! While a clumsy, asymmetric “three-storeyed” formula usually does not describe anything. It cannot be correct – it must be beautiful. Why? Who knows… Generally speaking, Dirac was not a religious man, but he has nevertheless formulated this statement. Apparently scientists are much closer to god than people of religion are…

And now remember, for instance, the Bible: God is Law. How is this somewhat strange formulation usually perceived? In the way that he gives orders, commands or something of the kind. Commands, gives orders – this, of course, is bringing the discourse down to earth. While in fact this idea should be taken literally. God (the supreme) is the law, or rather the collection of all laws of nature, both cognized and not cognized by us.

I have drawn an example of science, but what is it that any man, actually, is constantly concerned about, what question he continuously tries to answer? – What shall one do to live a better life. But this question is based upon an implicit assumption that there still exists some consistent pattern, some regularity between what you do and how you live. It seems so obvious to any person that the idea of existence of that “proper form of behavior” is not even discussed, it is as if embedded. We have thus come to the same very experience of orderliness.

So, the regularities do exist and we can declare safely that all activity of the man (and of the mankind as a whole) is continuously aimed at coming to know them. This is what that notorious “God-seeking” is. Aka “expansion of consciousness”, aka “spiritual development” and so on. Them, and not the visionary experiences of religious leaders, psychedelic trances or ascetic self-tortures. And the most interesting thing about it is that in our hearts we all feel this.

I shall give an example reflected in the speech, and hence in the consciousness. How does a man actually perform that very act of cognition? In a purely technologic way? Where does any new knowledge come from? After all, any new knowledge is received through the method of “peering and scrutinizing”. We look at some set of events, phenomena, even experiments and so on. Here, we have a basic list of some data, another basic list of some data – we somehow correlate them and it suddenly becomes clear that “this” is linked to “this”, “this” does not come accidentally. And after we have understood it, after we have seen it, no more questions arise – it becomes obvious. You tell it to any person – and he sees it as well. But how does this initial “seeing” of “this” being not accidental, the “seeing” of connections between “this” and “this” come upon? This very understanding of relation between “them”? And what is it that connects “them” to each other? The law… It is difficult to explain this connection, and we will come back to this subject later. But now, at the moment when a man comes to see another, new consistent pattern within the chaos of this world he’s got nothing to explain it with. Moreover, there’s nothing that it can be called, provoked, amplified with, and so on. This act is determined by nothing because in the course of any such act of cognition you don’t know what you are looking for. What you search for is bigger than you, than your understanding, it is broader than your discourse. Yes, you understand that your present description of the Universe is not perfect, that “something is wrong with it”, “my mind is somewhat confused”, “there is something that I don’t “get” so far”. And then – there it comes, and there’s a feeling that the light has struck and highlighted something that is new to you. And now, this moment of highlighting a new regularity, highlighting a new association – this is the mystic experience, or, better say, one of the available variants of mystic experience.

Try to look through your life, to recall this moment and call it in some metaphoric manner. If trying to call it metaphorically, which words you could use to name it?

To have one’s eyes open – good term: that is, you used not to see, and now you see. It’s not that you have seen something new: for instance, I was looking at a man, his gestures, and I suddenly started to understand the meaning of his gesture instead of merely seeing random moves of his hands and legs [2]. But this is the gesture that I used to see before, this is not a new gesture. Roughly speaking, apples always fell but Newton saw the law of universal gravitation from it, he saw regularity in it. You took a look at two people and understood that their relations are determined by some patterns, scripts; but you had seen those people before and could have always seen them, and so on.

Insight – a good term from psychology, yet we would like to have a word that could be also understood by a person who has not read the works of Freud.

A lightbulb moment / illumination – good term, a metaphor describing a state when it was dark and suddenly there came the light and everything became evident. When in the darkness, you were peering, wondering: who sits here, what does he do – nothing is clear, and then the light was turned on and everything became clear – this is the lightbulb moment.

Enlightenment. What is the enlightenment? “Knowledge is light, ignorance is darkness”. 

Do these metaphors describe the key point of what has happened? They actually do, though not perfectly. But this is the nature of a metaphor. It never describes things in a perfect way. But “better one-eyed than stone-blind”. It is another thing that is important to us. At the level of “natural speech” we have named the cognitive experience by means of using exactly those metaphors that almost in every Tradition apply to mystic experience.

There is a wonderful book dedicated to this issue, “The Experience of Mystic Light” by Mircea Eliade. The author gives hundreds of descriptions of mystic experience in various traditions – from shamanism up to contemporary religions, and everywhere in this or that form mystic experiences are correlated to “light” metaphors that later, in the course of routinization and “dimming” [3] of mystic experience ceased to be perceived as metaphors and were turned into guidelines for action. So that many generations of pseudo-“mystics” have been illuminating themselves by visualizing the light in their mind’s eye rather than by using the real light of knowledge. It seems strange that it has not yet occurred to someone that soup can be eaten in their mind’s eye as well((. But this is the fate that many spiritual doctrines have. When people no longer comprehend the key point, then the form, the ritual and the literally “understood” metaphor come to the foreground – and one’s consciousness becomes confined within new vrittis. This is how religions emerge.
But let us come back to ishvarapranidhana. I guess the reader has already got my opinion. I understand the category of ishvara as an aggregate of regularities (objective laws) of the Universe that are beyond our current understanding and description. In fact, beyond our consciousness. While the word ‘pranidhana’ derives from the verbal root ‘dhaa’ in the meaning of “hold, retain” that is intensified by two prefixes ‘pra-‘ and ‘ni-‘, its meaning thus been “retention”, “fixation”, “concentration” and so on.

That is, ishvarapranidhana is the state of one’s concentration on something that is bigger than he: one’s willingness to cognize and perceive, willingness to push the envelope and go beyond habitual discourses, to have one’s life aimed at search for new, unknown regular patterns in every aspect of one’ life. The most close correspondence to ishvarapranidhana that can be found in the Western philosophy is the term self-transcendence. In this case the whole text of Yoga Sutras becomes logical. It is the presence and development of this state that facilitates attaining samprajnya – the awareness that in its turn eliminates vrittis.

What practical conclusions can be hence drawn and in what way it conforms with further lines of Yoga Sutras, as well as what impedes ishvarapranidhana and whether the superior can be cognized without science – this, hopefully, you will learn from the articles to follow.

[1] The article was dragged out – I started writing it in Varanasi, proceeded in Georgia and I’ve finished it upon coming finally home.

[2] In this case I appeal to the experience of visual psychodiagnosis trainings that are mandatory in our School.

[3] The first term is of Max Weber, the second one is mine.

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