Is Īśvara in the Yogasūtra/Pātañjalayogaśāstra just the model of a puruṣa who has realised its being separated from nature? Or is He an omnipotent (and perhaps compassionate) God?
Some months ago, Andrew Nicholson posted here a link to the talks of a conference on the Yogasūtra held at the Loyola University. The talk by Edwin Bryant (a video is available here) made me for the first time aware of the possibility of interpreting the Īśvara of the Yogasūtra as an omnipotent God. Bryant points in particular to parallels in the Bhagavadgītā and in other religious texts coeval with the Yogasūtra.
Possible questions here:
- Is the Yogasūtra really a text predating the Yogabhāṣya? Or should not we rather speak of a unitary Pātañjalayogaśāstra? If the latter, do the arguments above still apply?
- Does it make sense to look for parallels in religious texts (I know, Amod has repeatedly shown how slippey this definition may be, let me then just say that I am speaking about epics and Purāṇas)?
I am by no means an expert, but until now I have thought of the YS/PYŚ’s īśvara as a puruṣaviśeṣa ‘special puruṣa‘ and not as a creator God. In this sense, I have been reading the YS/PYŚ as a philosophical text, to be compared with the Classical Sāṅkhya (rather than with the less philosophically developed trends of Sāṅkhya which can be detected in, e.g., the Epics). This harmonises with my general observation that religious elements tend to be read in a rationalised way in philosophical texts.
However, Jonathan Dickstein recently wrote to me soliciting me to rethink about it. His questions are:
Around this early period of thought (at most 5th cent. BC – 5th cent. CE), is not the term “īśvara” (w/ maheśvara, parameśvara) predominantly used in the grand sense of an all-encompassing “God”? I am aware that the term is also used to denote a “master”or “lord”, even in the Gītā, but in metaphysical and/or devotional contexts, is there any strong evidence that the term ever depicted an imaginary archetypal guru or an uninvolved supreme being (as some modern Yogasūtra interpretations offer)?
A few months ago there was a protracted conversation about this topic on RISA-L, specifically concerning the symmetry of the YŚ’s īśvara with that of the Gītā. While this aspect is of central concern to my own work, currently I am concerned with isolating the dominant use of the term “īśvara” in contemporaneous (not beyond 5th cent. CE) and content-similar (e.g. mokśa śāstra) literature. I have read Bronkhorst and others and how they come to the conclusion that the Yogasūtra‘s īśvara is this type of archetypal guru or uninvolved being. However, these discussions often invoke input from later figures such as Haribhadra, Kumārila, Mādhava, etc. To my knowledge only M.D. Shastri’s article and Lloyd Plueger’s unpublished dissertation haven taken direct aim at the question from within this earlier period.
Presently I side more with Bryant’s position that īśvara, as found in the Yogasūtra and entire Pātañjala Yogaśāstra, is more similar to the Gītā‘s understanding – an īśvara who is most likely creator, efficient cause, intervener, and object of devotion (Īśvara in the YS may be a “puruṣaviśeṣa“, but even Kṛṣṇa is called a “puruṣottama“). Maintaining this position in light of all the obvious textual and philosophical difficulties is the objective of my forthcoming thesis.
What do the experts on Yoga in this blog think? And what do you think?