Aligning with the flow – Understanding and Practicing Isvara pranidhana in times of crisis

Three Paths… one Common Connection

Patanjali in his delineation of the Yogasutra presents three clear pathways that progressively lead a practitioner of Yoga towards a sustained state of Sattva, eventually enabling Kaivalyam

  • One is a pathway of going inwards, through meditation
  • The second is the pathway of bringing attention and mindfulness to every action, be it mundane or sacred, through Kriya Yoga
  • The third pathway leads towards mediation, but commences at a much more grosser level by directing attention to social and personal disciplines, and from there, to progressively reducing impurities and resistances at all dimensions of the system – from the body, through the breath to the senses and eventually to the mind – this is the path of AstangaYoga

The common thread that links all three pathways is Isvarapranidhana

Isvara pranidhanat eva…

Krishnamacharya in his commentary, Yogavalli gives so much importance to Isvarapranidhana that he divides his commentary of chapter 1 into two parts – one part focusing on the Sutra- s that come before Sutra I.23 and the other part focusing on I.23 and what comes after. In fact, T Krishnamacharya is emphatic that in the present day and age when we generally lack the perseverance needed for a sustained Sadhana, it is only through an attitude of complete surrender to the Supreme that we can ascend spiritually.

As Above, So Below…. As Without, So Within

The concept of a Supreme Being that is beyond all that is manifest, is widely discussed across Vedic lore, highlighted specifically through the Upanisadic teachings as explained to us by the various Acarya Paramparas.

Brahman…Isvara…Jivatma… Prakrti

The Supreme Being Truth – Brahman -  satyam – Jnanam, anantam – beyond the realm of thoughts and words, an ever expanding vastness) (Bruhi samantat) - this is suddha Brahman which is Prapancatita

Isvara also known as Paramatma is how this unknowable transcendent Brahman is comprehended and communicated through limited human thought and speech, experienced as a ‘mahacaitanya’ that creates, pervades, sustains and also dissolves all creation – this Isvara is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient.

The Brahman is the macrocosmic Samasti – the All, the source;

The Atma, soul, is the microcosmic Vyasti, which in conjunction with the body, senses, mind and the mind’s inherent Vasana-s and Samskara-s, is known as Jivatma,  the embodied soul, bound by karma. When freed, it is Muktatma

Antaryamin – the Isvara present within, enshrined in the heart space – as the Narayana Suktam explains – hrdayam tadvijaniyat visvasyayatanam mahat

Prakrti refers to the entire manifest universe expressed through name and form, bound by space and time; in other words, Prakrti is the fully expressed potential of the Brahman

Ekam Sat viprah bahudha vadanti…

One Truth …

Innumerable Manifestations and Perceptions

The entire edifice of Sanatana Dharma is built on the foundation of one Truth – Brahman, that is experienced by each one of us in unique ways, depending on culture, exposure, values, beliefs – and so everything creation and every creature is worthy of reverence for everything is Brahman. It is this celebration of one Supreme that lies at the basis of Isvarapranidhana as an attitude and a practice.

There are two ways of connecting to and meditating on this Supreme – one as the abstract indefinable Brahman and the other as a personal deity, Isvara with whom we create a relationship of deep reverence and love, born of gratitude. This needs both Bhakti and sraddha. For most of us, the second path is easier as it allows us to personalise our deity of choice. As T Krishnamacharya is quoted as saying, “Narayana is my Isvara… It is for you to search and find your Isvara in your roots, in your traditions…”

Why Isvara pranidhana?

  • tatah pratyaktcetanadhigamo pyantarayabhavasca (Y.S I.29)
  • The individual will, in time, perceive his true nature. He will not be disturbed by any interruptions that may arise in his journey to the state of Yoga.
  • samadhibhavanarthah klesatanukaranarthasca (Y.S II.2)
  • Then such practices will be certain to remove obstacles to clear perception
  • samadhisidvirisvarapranidhanat (Y.S II.45)
  • Reverence to God promotes the ability to completely understand any object of choice.

From Conceptualising Isvara to Practicing Isvarapranidhana

A deep awareness that “I”/”You”/”We” are not all powerful… no matter how powerful I/You/We seem to be, in reality

  • I am limited
  • You are limited
  • We are limited…limited by our bodies, our senses, our minds and as a consequence we are limited by the situations we find ourselves in – whether or not of our own making.

However, there is “something” that has power beyond these limitations and to THAT I connect, to THAT I surrender.

Isvara pranidhana is to accept what is… as it is, at this moment…every moment

  • To accept that despite the cutting edge advances of technology, we are still unable to even envision the magnificence and scale of our world, let alone create a new one
  • To accept that the best laid plans can go awry
  • To accept that the failure is not the end of the road and that change is not negative
  • To accept limitations in oneself and others
  • To accept that mankind as a collective and indeed our planet is but a pale blue dot in a much larger cosmic canvas
  • To accept that everything that one has and one is – is a gift, to be received with gratitude, held with reverence and passed on with grace
  • To accept that change is inevitable and to align ourselves a best as we can with change

Isvara pranidhana is to let go

  • To let go of claiming an ego driven ownership of ideas and actions
  • To let go of fear, worry, anxiety and associated dysfunctional behaviour stemming from these (irritation, aggression)
  • To let go of rigidity in terms of planning and implementing any task
  • To let go of the compelling urge to be in the driver’s seat, to retain control
  • To let go of greed, hatred and jealousy
  • To let go of the urge to be productive and in action all the time
  • To let go of the desire for recognition and validation
  • To let go of the urge to be in control of matter, of time, of space, of people… of nature

Isvara pranidhana in Action

  • Demonstrating respect and value for nature – reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Making conscious effort to use natural resources carefully without being exploitative
  • Through the performance of simple rituals (stringing garlands, essential personal hygiene an self-care, offering food as neivedya)
  • Yajna, Puja, Aradhana – worship of consecrated spaces and idols
  • Through the practice of Asana-s (specifically forward bends), indirectly creating a Bhavana of humility and surrender
  • To channelize the senses (Jnanendriya-s and Karmendriya-s) towards positive, uplifting engagements
  • To serve the community and other creatures at large – through charity, donations, construction of infrastructure, provision of food, shelter, clothing, education, access to resources and healthcare…

Isvara pranidhana through the Instrument of Speech

  • By the recitation of Mantra-s and Sloka-s
  • Sankirtana
  • By speaking to everyone with kindness and compassion, at all times and in all situations.

Isvara pranidhana as a Constant Foundation to our Thought Process

  • Through setting a sankalpa of Isvara - arpana, offering (idam na mama)
  • Expression of gratitude for everything that one receives – Isvara – prasada buddhih
  • To offer everything to the Divine, to act as if one is merely an instrument of the Supreme (without attitude of kartrtvam (doership)and bhoktrtvam (attachment to enjoyment of the fruits of the action)
  • To develop the ability to accept what is as it is without regret, without criticism, without complaint
  • An ever-present mindfulness in order to be aware and present in all actions
  • Development of contentment, to be able to count every blessing
  • To plan with care and attention and yet be fluid enough to align oneself to changes as and when they occur

Attributes of a Bhakta (Bhagavad Gita)

  • While Isvarapranidhana is usually understood as a belief in and worship of God, thus, frequently also being misinterpreted as merely religiosity, in reality Isvarapranidhana marks a significant shift in one’s attitude to oneself, to other beings and to all nature at large, including animate and inanimate objects.
  • Isvarapranidhana is possible only when one has a deep Vismaya, a sense of wonder about the magnificence of this universe and all its creatures, a reverence for the source of this abundance, born not out of fear or a desire to control it, but with a sense of humility as merely a caretaker of something invaluable. And so, we see that Isvarapranidhana is about thinking, living and breathing the wonder that is Brahman, undistorted by manmade constructs of religion, community, caste, class, creed, gender, or every other construct that enables a perception of difference and otherness.

This is beautifully outlined by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita in the Chapter on Bhaktiyoga (IX.13 to IX.20)

Isvarapranidhana in its simplest form, is to offer the very best of ourselves not just to the Supreme Being, but also to every living being, and also to treat with respect and reverence every sentient and non-sentient aspect of this universe. A well-known poem explains what Isvarapranidhana truly is, and what it is that we must offer.

Ahimsa prathamam puspam

The first flower is Ahimsa

puspam indriya nigrahah

[another] flower is restraint of the senses,

Sarvabhuta daya puspam

The flower of compassion to all living creatures

Ksama puspam visesatah

A special flower, indeed, is forgiveness.

santih puspam tapah puspam

Tranquility [of the mind] and discipline are flowers too.

Jnanam puspam tathaiva ca

So, also is the flower of wisdom.

Satyam ca astavidham puspam

The eighth flower is Truthfulness.

Visnoh pritikaram bhavet

These are the flowers that please the All-pervasive One.