Ishvara in Patanjali's yoga sutras

by Dr. Ari Wahlstedt


Yoga is one of the ancient schools of thought in Hinduism. In Yoga sutras of Patanjali it is stated that enlightment is achieved by practicing concentration towards the presence of Ishvara in every moment e.g. repeating the sacred word designating Ishvara, sound OM (AUM) or listening carefully and respectfully the inner guidance within.


The methods described in the Yoga Sutras were being practiced as early as 3000 BCE [3, p. 2]. Referring oral tradition, the period may be even longer. In Patanjali's yoga sutras [3,4: 1.23] it is stated that enlightment (Samadhi) is achieved by devoting to Ishvara. Samadhi is also regarded as being the perfect concentration. Sanskrit word Ishvara consist two parts [1]:

1. ईश (Ish): owner, ruler, chief of

2. वर (vara): best, excellent, beautiful, choice, wish, blessing, boon, gift, suitor, lover

The composite of these two words, Ishvara literally means "owner of best, excellent, beautiful", "ruler of choices, wish, blessings, boons, gift", or "chief of suitor, lover". As a word Ishvara appears in Yoga sutras of Patanjali’s chapter one twice (verses 23 and 24) and in chapter two three times (verses 1, 32 and 45). Chapter one’s verses from 23 to 29 specify what Ishvara means in the context of yoga sutras. As a concept, Ishvara in ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts, variously means creative source pure consciuousness, purusha, God, Supreme Being, Supreme Soul, Supreme Guru or teacher, Lord, King or ruler, rich or wealthy man, god of love, deity Shiva, husband and the number eleven. Related to yoga [2] Sri T. Krishnamacharya advocated that Western yoga practitioners use their own language, imagery, and names of the sacred to deepen their connection to Ishvara. In yoga sutras [3,4; 1.27] the sacred word designating Ishvara is the sound “OM” (AUM). It is stated that “AUM” is the basis of all sounds and thus all the words that can be made.

Surrendering to Ishvara

In yoga sutras, Patanjali repeatedly highlights devotion to Ishvara (Ishvara pranidhana) as one of the five inner practices (niyamas), of the eight-limbed (ashta-anga) path [3,4: 2.32] and, along with discipline (tapas) and self-study (svadhyaya), as part of the threefold yoga of action (kriya yoga) [3,4: 2.1]. Pranidhana can be translated as practicing the presence, sincerity, dedication, devotion and surrender of fruits of practice.

The promise in yoga sutras is that the devotion to Ishvara provides a pathway through the obstacles of our ego toward the divine. It may sound easy to just follow the yoga sutras, devoting one’s life for listening the guidance within. Furthermore, if yoga is compared as life itself, then it is the life itself that is the devotion. Surrendering one’s life to a higher source means the realization of that everything is part of Ishvara, and nothing is unimportant- Even silence is meaningfull guidance. Through listening to the voice within us, we begin to have a relationship with pure guidance in all aspects of our life. In that the translation of Ishvara as the “ruler of choices” is respected. As the attunement to this inner sense of direction (like a compass) grows, it increasingly guides one’s thoughts, speech, and actions. Devotion is remembering to stay connected to that essence not just occasionally but throughout the day. There are [2] many arenas to deepen Ishvara pranidhana: e.g.

1. at the beginning of any action

2. as a way of shifting your perspective when faced with difficulty

3. as a method for experiencing fully the simple acts of life.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois has stated [5, p. 16] that the surrender to God means carrying out all our actions spoken or unspoken, without desiring their fruit, and offering their fruit to the Lord.


In Patanjali’s yoga sutras first chapter is about concentration (Samadhi Pada). The first verse of chapter one [3,4: 1.1] can be translated as “Now the concentration is explained” [4, p. 53]. The first word in the verse is atha (अथ), consisting two sounds a and tha:

1. tha (थ): mountain, eating, protector, loud noise, sign of danger, fear, auspicious prayer, preservation.

With the sound a, atha means certainly, but, what, now, rather, also, else, how else, more, moreover, after this, then, thereupon. In sanskrit language a is the base for all, it is the sound of exhalation. It requires no extra effort and no movement of the tongue or lips to come forth.

Patanjalis yoga sutras chapter two is about practicing concentration (Sadhana Pada). It is stated [3,4 : 2.45] that from an attitude of letting go into one's source (ishvarapranidhana), the state of perfected concentration (samadhi) is attained (siddhih). Or that by resignation to the Lord, Samadhi becomes perfect [4].

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois [5, p. 4-5] states that the human mind seeks the Universal Self and the means by which the mind is directed toward the Self and prevented from going toward outside objects is what is known as yoga, as a hymn of the Katha Upanishad affirms: Yoga is considered to be the steady fixing of the senses. Therefore, the word yoga signifies the means to the realization of one’s true nature. According to Patanjalis yoga sutras one’s true nature is part of Ishvara. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali refers to this inner presence of Ishvara as our foremost teacher [3,4 : 1.26]. By devoting one’s practice – in every moment of life concentration towards the guidance of Ishvara, Samadhi is attained in that moment – now (atha).


1. Arthur Macdonell (2004), A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120820005 Online version retrieved 1.8.2015 from

2. Shiva Rea (2007) The Practice of Surrender. Yoga Journal, Aug 28. Retrieved 1.8.2015 from

3. Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati (2007) Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Interpretive translation. Retrieved 1.8.2015 from

4. Swami Vivekananda (1896) Raja Yoga and Patanjalis Yoga Aphorisms. Retrieved 1.8.2015 from

5. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (2010) Yoga Mala. North Point Press. NY.