Let’s talk about God. Or rather, let’s talk about the Not-God in Raja Yoga.

During this winter season, where a great many number of religious and/or spiritual holidays are celebrated, I want to discuss a concept from The Yoga Sutras that I feel is often misinterpreted: isvara. The most common translation of this concept that I’ve seen calls it “God;” and, being someone who sometimes has to defend against the encroachment of others’ God-concept on my own beliefs, I’d like to set the record straight. 

To be clear: I don’t have anything against God, or gods – neither does Patanjali, author of the Sutras – and I realize this might be a touchy subject. And that’s exactly why I want to bring it up! One of the things I find most amazing about Raja Yoga is that it can be integrated with almost any religion, because at its heart it is a philosophical path that neither confirms nor denies the existence of any God. (So if you hear someone in your yoga class discussing what Ganesha symbolizes, or how the gods Shakti and Shiva are best worshipped, you are hearing about a different branch of yoga. Or perhaps a religion that blended yoga in…but that’s another topic.)

So what is this Not-God of Raja Yoga, and why do I call it that? Picture, if you will, what images and assumptions come to mind when I throw out a word like God. Or goddess, or god with a little ‘g’. Does it look like a person? A recognizable form? Is it something you pray to? Are there blood-based or elemental rituals to make it/them/her/Him happy? Even if it’s someone you’ve rejected or a concept you despise, how would you define it? 

Herein lies the problem. Most of us have some kind of definition associated with gods – and that’s exactly what isvara isn’t.

Isvara is not a being

I want to distance this concept from all of your preconceived definitions. By its very nature, isvara cannot be defined. It exists outside of time. It is eternal and unchanging. It has no rules or concept of right or wrong. And it doesn’t give two figs about you, your life, or how you live it. 

If you remember the concept of Purusha and Prakriti, you have a better starting point to understand. Put extremely simply, prakriti is everything we see, smell, hear, feel, taste, sense, and conceptualize – even consciousness is contained in this realm. Purusha is…not that. It is the infinite that exists because the finite is possible. We cannot observe it. It is often called pure awareness.

Isvara is the mac daddy of purushas. As ridiculous as that sentence sounds, it doesn’t even accurately convey the scope of what isvara encompasses. Nevertheless, when we align with isvara, or surrender into it, we are looking to align ourselves – our small, finite, time-bound selves – with the all-encompassing, infinite, eternal nothingness that is also everything.  Which can be experienced, but which we lack words or concepts to fully elucidate. Isvara is not a being that can be described or pictured; it is Being itself.

Welcome to a great conundrum of Yogic philosophy: we want to understand and surrender to something we cannot define or describe. And yet, to not attempt to put the concept of isvara into words means that we can’t make any progress towards aligning with it. The core problem is that we instinctively want to compare isvara to something we know, but its very nature is completely alien to what we have for comparison. 

There’s an Indian parable that describes this fairly well: the blind men and the elephant. To paraphrase, a number of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each of them touches a different part of the elephant, and compares it to what he knows – the man at the trunk says, “An elephant is like a snake!”; the man at its leg counters, “No, an elephant is like a tree!” – and none of them actually understands what an elephant is. Misunderstanding isvara is even more complex, because at least an elephant fits a category that people can understand (animal); comparing an elephant to eternal nothingness is like trying to catch a black hole with a butterfly net – utterly impossible. 

And yet, we continue to try. The Yoga Sutras detail a system of going ever more inward, stilling the mind, in an attempt to glimpse that which we cannot describe. Teachers who have come before us promise that there’s something worthwhile at the end of this yellow brick road of meditation, even if they can’t show you any postcards. After all, formless being doesn’t exactly photograph well 🙂

Letting go of the mind / Allowing understanding

There is a reason isvara is often mentioned with the concept of surrender – isvara pranidhana, “to align with isvara” or “to surrender to isvara.” When our mind, no matter how brilliant or how persistent, is thwarted in its understanding; when we realize our normal tools bring us as blind men to the elephant of isvara; when we no longer struggle to define or comprehend…we are asked to surrender. To let go of thinking, and experience fully. We are asked to look with a different lens, one we aren’t well-versed in, and trust in be-ing. 

There is a reason that Yoga has endured through the ages. There is a reason that a collection of sutras (translated as “threads”) that consists of 196 lines can be read and studied for years on end. Yoga does not show us the answer – cannot show us how to be – but it points to the path. More importantly, it gives us hope that at the end of the journey there’s an understanding worth working for. 

If we align ourselves with the ideal of pure awareness – if we surrender to isvara – we are promised a freedom we cannot conceive from where we are. Even in progressing towards said freedom, there are so many benefits to unlock. Like reading or writing, surrendering the mind to isvara is a skill we can learn and improve with practice. 

Isvara is so beyond our mental understanding, but it is not beyond embodied knowledge – being felt – on a deep, soul level. It may not take the form of the omniscient beings we are used to, and it may not be a comforting or benevolent presence. But when we can clear our minds, give in to the experience, and find the freedom in being human, our potential becomes possibly as limitless as isvara itself. And THAT is worth surrendering to.