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Bhakti– by the Grace of God: YSP 1.23

YSP 1.23 ishvara pranidhana va

Bouanchaud: Otherwise, the goal is attained by active devotion to God.

Desikachar: Offering regular prayers to God with a feeling of submission to his power, surely enables the state of Yoga to be achieved.

Swami J: From a special process of devotion and letting go into the creative source from which we emerged (ishvara pranidhana), the coming of samadhi is imminent.

A while back I wrote a column on how the Yoga Sutras were not written in a cultural vacuum but very much reflect the debates that existed at the time within Indian philosophy as a whole. For example, Patanjali adopted  the metaphysical and  psychological tenets of Samkhya, the oldest of the Indian schools of thought. Where yoga and Samkhya parted ways was on the issue of “God”. I use that term in quotation marks because I’m not specifically referring to the God of Abraham, or the another named God of any religious belief system. The word that Pantanjali used was ishvara and that refers to the God-concept and not to a specific deity. Seriously folks, it’s a plug and play system. If you worship the God of Abraham, that’s the one it refers to in this sutra. If you are a devotee of Krishna, then it’s Krishna you would use here. The  native North American may refer to Glooscap (in this region) or The Great Mother. For people in 12 step recovery programs, they use the word “Higher Power” to refer to this undefined God-concept.

Just a little more on the philosophical background of this week’s topic. Typically, in North America, when we talk about yoga styles or schools, we’re referring to the athletic demands of the postural practice or some other attribute of a postural series. There is the Ashtanga sequence and the Bikram sequence and the Kripalu style and the school I’m trained in – the Viniyoga style.  Sometimes, in general conversation technical details get dropped for ease of conversing. These postural styles are referred to as different ‘paths’ of yoga when in reality, they have more in common than difference.

The paths of yoga – the ways to become united with the Divine – are something quite different. In the Bhagavad Gita, we are given three paths: bhakti, karma and jnana. Jnana yoga is finding the Divine through study and scholarship. It’s the route of knowledge. When I think of a contemporary example of an Jnana yogi, the name I come up with immediately would be Dr Georg Feuerstein, a teacher, author, scholar and source of profound wisdom of the yoga tradition. I am personally more attracted to karma yoga or the route of union through action. I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to talk about it, I want to do it. For me, I find yoga (union) through selfless action, be it acts of charity or other actions. And then we have the Bhakti yogis. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, these are the lovers.

The word Bhakti comes from the Sanskrit root word Bhaj which means “to share in” , “to belong to” or “to worship”. The Bhakta, that is a practitioner of Bhakti, are devoted worshippers of <insert your God Concept here>.  There is a lot of different metaphors used to describe this relationship between the practitioner and ishvara (the God concept): lovers, mother/child, Master/servant, teacher/disciple. All of these ideas refer to an intense and very personal devotional relationship. To steal a line from another religious tradition, the Bhakta are “God intoxicated heroes” among us. This love of ishvara forms part of a number of religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, Islam, and Hinduism.

The Bhakti tradition figures prominently in this first chapter of the Yoga Sutras. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring this section which really does lend credence to the assertion that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a bhakti text. This week’s sutra,  ishvara pranidhana va , is one of the most well-known of all the Yoga Sutras and that makes sense since Bhakti yoga is the most widely practiced form of yoga in the world. For devout Hindus, this is where the rubber hits the road in the Sutras. All the stuff before this point was just preamble. The next few aphorisms are the heart of it all, in which ishvara is described. The Bhakti path is an important part of the yoga tradition and I think it’s important to appreciate the ideas within it.

The position of this sutra implies that this idea of Grace is the “best” path to yoga, it is not an exclusive one. The word “va” at the end of the aphorism means “or”.  There are other paths that will be discussed later, but right now, the discussion is on Bhakti. Now as I said before, I’m not a bhakta. I follow a different path altogether but this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing here for me. Some of the principles that flow from the Bhakti “position” are ones that I subscribed to wholeheartedly and I’ll explore that as the weeks go on.

In the meanwhile, thank you for reading and Namaste,




About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

One response »

  1. Very nice post. I look forward to reading your other posts on the Yoga Sutras. You might find something I recently wrote on bhakti interesting


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