Are Svadhyaya and Isvara-pranidhanat theistic?

In our conversation Tuesday night at the Yoga Garden Teacher Training, where I was giving a slam-bam “3000 years of yoga history in 90 minutes” lecture, Michelle Myhre, the director of Advanced Studies there asked a very good (and historically puzzling) question. Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra (YS) is descended in part from Buddhism and Sankhya philosophy, both of which are not theistic — they don’t center on practices of devotion to gods. Buddhism never denied the existence of gods — deities show up in the Buddhist texts all the time — it just didn’t hold that devotion to them was the key to liberation. In fact, Buddhism considers the gods to be bound by karma, ignorance and grasping just as much as we are, and that they die and are reborn just the same. Likewise Sankhya, as far as I know (though I’m not as much of a Sankhya expert…) — it’s just not about devotion. It’s from Sankhya that Patañjali gets his primary understanding of Pure Awareness (purusha) and Form/Energy, or “nature” (prakriti) as separate factors of experience, and thus the core insight leading to freedom is to disentangle them from each other, basically ceasing to identify with the objects of awareness. The cheese stands alone!
So… Patañjali is not theistic. His practice doesn’t rely on devotion to deities. We have to do our own work. He tells us to concentrate — unifying the mind through the practices of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, or samyama (all 3 together) — and then disentangle our misperception of purusha and prakriti. Easy… on paper, anyway! Michelle’s question was about a verse in the YS that confusingly seems to bring in a theistic orientation, verse 2.44. Here it is in Chip Hartranft’s translation:
“Self-study deepens communion with one’s personal deity” (YS 2.44) (svadhyayad ishta-devata-samprayogah)
It’s in the section describing the niyama, or observances, and refers to the practice of svadhyaya, or “self-study”. Often this is glossed as study of texts, but can also refer to inquiry into the nature of the self, which is how I tend to read it. But what’s this about one’s personal deity? That’s the literal meaning of the word ishta-devata. But what’s it doing here?
Hartranft, my fave commentator by far, doesn’t discuss it. I wrote him to ask for specifics, and here’s what he wrote me:
“You know, I was surprised to go back and see that I didn’t address this issue in my book, for I do talk about it quite a bit when I teach the niyamas. It is difficult, of course, to gauge Patañjali’s frame of mind or intentions regarding the inclusion of theistic language – including isvara pranidhana as well – but my sense of the Yoga Sutra is of an anthological intent requiring broad inclusiveness. After all, the text manages to accommodate many disparate elements, including Buddhistic ‘path’ awakening, shamanic powers, and the likely affiliations Patañjali’s hearers probably had to Siva or Visnu, right alongside the samkhya’s fundamental atheism and its ongoing dialogue with Brahmanism. I’m not sure if the author was attempting to appease or simply to acknowledge, but the reference to ista-devata makes me think that between the two common understandings of svadhyaya – studying wisdom teachings on one’s own, and studying oneself – he was talking more about the former than the latter. It must be added, though, that it is clear from the rest of the teachings that the only way to benefit from such teachings is to enact, to embody them – an endeavor requiring careful self-study to discern where and how the teachings might apply in one’s own life and sphere.” (Chip Hartranft, personal communication.)
It’s interesting that the reference to ista-devata leans svadhyaya more toward text-study [on one’s own] than the perhaps more popularly-taught in the West “study OF yourself”, i.e., through techniques of inquiry. Hartranft blends the two — the “internal” and “external”: the needs of each practitioner to find ways to apply/embody the teachings in her own life and the traditional practice of study of wisdom teachings.
The commentaries of some of the other prominent teachers slant strongly toward the theistic, perhaps reflecting their personal practice (Iyengar a Vaishnava, Satyananda a Shaiva). BKS Iyengar glosses ishta-devata as “Supreme Soul” in his commentary, and then says that svadhyaya consists of text study+mantra+OM, which gains one a “vision of his tutelary or chosen deity, who fulfills all desires” (Iyengar 1993, 148). Hmm. If I could just get all my desires granted by my home slice deity, why would I have to do all this hard meditation? Sounds like the (Vaishnava) Gita’s praise of Bhakti Yoga to me: all that other stuff is hard, but just love me and I’ll (Krishna) do the rest. Satyananda gives a different position. He says that svadhyaya is just “closing the eyes and observing one’s own self” (Satyananda 1976, 206). This “gives rise” to the ability to “concentrate deeply on the god or goddess of choice”. Again, no explanation for how this fits in the general scheme.
The wonderful Vimala Thakar, in her book Glimpses of Raja Yoga (Rodmell 2005, 34-38) gives a better discussion than either of these, talking beautifully about study and observation — both of the meanings I mention above. But she doesn’t give a translation of the verse, and doesn’t address “gods”. However, in her discussion of the next verse, on Ishvara-pranidhanat (“orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness” in Hartranft), she does discuss Ishvara, and the sense of whether this implies a deity or not. Ishvara later was turned into a god, but here seems to refer more to the infinite quality of awareness, which Thakar calls “the all-permeating pervasive principle”.
Georg Feuerstein (RIP!), as usual, gives a crisp historical gloss. He says that it’s wrong to call Patañjali non-theistic, and that he was steeped in theism, or more properly, pan-en-theism, which is a great way of saying “divinity-in-everything”. GF says it this way:
“Devotion to the Lord [ishvara-pranidhanat] is the heart opening to the transcendental Being who for the unenlightened individual is an objective reality and force, but who upon enlightenment is found to coincide with the yogin’s transcendental Self.” (Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 248) And that “the leap from individuated experience to ecstatic Self-realization is a matter of divine intervention.” [my italics]. Divine intervention?? In Patañjali? Not what I’ve ever been taught! But it does explain these two verses.
Basically, it doesn’t sync up easily with the rest of the practices in the YS, but it’s not a terrible contradiction. Patañjali is anthological, as Chip said, already giving us many different ways to settle the mind (YS 1.32-40), and seems open to various practices as long as they all lead to the same result: samadhi, which conditions the mind for insight and liberation. If devotion to a deity works (and it certainly helps me… Jai Hanuman!) as a natural element to my purifications, then I’ll do it. I don’t go as far as Feuerstein and say that this implies that divine intervention is necessary, but if I can have some help along this path, I’ll sure take it.
Thanks to Michelle and both TT groups for being great, and asking good questions. And thanks to Chip for a quick response to my question. May we all be free.

1 thought on “Are Svadhyaya and Isvara-pranidhanat theistic?”

  1. Thanks, Sean. This makes sense – Patanjali is offering us options being of the ‘whatever works’ school of yoga.
    You told us that yoga has always reached into its past to give credibility to its ever-changing practices. You shared that devotion on a deity is a stronger aspect in the tantric path. It’s interesting how the many forms of yoga differ, and where those points of connection are that the next ‘evolution’ of yoga runs with.
    Thanks for the fun insights, Sean! My world opened up a little from your lecture & I’m looking forward to more!

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