Isvara Pranidhana - Relinquish of Free Will, Surrender to Divinity

Daniel White
April 30, 2023
Isvara Pranidhana - Relinquish of Free Will, Surrender to Divinity
समाधिसिद्धिरीश्वरप्रणिधानात ॥२.४५॥


Through devotion to Ishvara, samadhi is attained.

Ishvara Pranidhana is the fifth and highest niyama. In order to understand it, first we must examine the word Ishvara. The root of the word Ishvara comes from īś  meaning "most capable" or "owner, ruler, chief"[12], while vara means (depending on context) "best, excellent, beautiful", "choice, wish, blessing, gift", or “one who solicits a girl in marriage".[13] Thus, Ishvara literally means “the most capable owner & ruler” or “the one who solicits life”. Ishvara in Indian philosophical thought really translates as “Lord”, as in, the personal, lordly aspect of God almighty. Isvara is the controller, the personal deemer of the universe.

The second part of the word, pranidhana, simply means devotion or surrender. Thus, Ishvara Pranidhana means “to surrender, to devote oneself entirely to your chosen ideal of higher power, be it Lord God, Mother Nature, The Universe, Shiva, Krishna, Allah, Jesus, whoever, whatever”.  

The key feature of Ishvara Pranidhana is the relinquishing of control of one’s own life and the complete handing over of power to a higher principle, to a notion that is beyond the egotistic, individual will. The age-old Christian dictum “Not my will but Thy Will be done” summarises this final niyama. The point is (and the entire message of all religions) is that we are not in control of our life. We do not have free will. All is the Will of God. We are just a witness in this drama, in this divine play, and we are obscured by the thought of separation. 

According to yoga philosophy, the strange sensation of agency that pervades the mind (known as ahamkara, literally meaning “I-maker”), is regarded as a figment of imagination; a blemish, an error in the otherwise clear field of awareness. 

This figment, this abstraction, makes one perceive that we have an existence that is separate from all the other bodies we see outside, and makes us falsely believe that we are a separate agent in control of our separate lives. This is false. The reality, beyond this figment of agency, is that all is the will of nature, which is ultimately the will of God.

 Much in the same way that a fruit on a tree has no control over when, how or if it will ripen, we do not have any control over what happens to us. The ripening of the fruit is deemed by the will of Mother nature, in accordance with the flow of all things, as one phenomena; the intensity of the sunlight, humidity in the air, amount of water in the soil etc. The fruit has no say in it, it is entirely at the mercy of the phenomena of nature, the phenomena which it is an intrinsic part of, and not separate from. 

We go about in the world, reacting to pain and pleasure, craving and aversion, pulled by the senses seeking their respective objects. The tongue wants to taste something rich, the eyes want to see a colourful sunset, the ears want to hear beautiful music, the skin wants to feel softness and warmth. The mind strives for fame, status, power, money and fulfilment of desires. We run from conflict and confronting emotions, ideas, situations or people that we are averse to. We gravitate towards things that make us feel secure, appreciated and peaceful.

We do not have free will; we are entirely dictated by our samskaras, which are the impressions in the mind from past experiences, albethem pleasant or painful. The pleasure that comes from eating a piece of chocolate is associated with the memory of the chocolate and gets imprinted in the mind, strengthening latent desires for it to happen again. This is craving. Similarly, the pain that comes from being separated from a loved one leaves an impression on the mind, associated with the memory of the experience, tainted with fear of it happening again. 

Our subsequent life and all that we experience is simply the play of the samskaras registered in our deep subconscious. Everything that happens, all of life’s unfoldings are due to the accumulated samskaras from our past experiences. This is known as karma. Here is an example to illustrate this. If we are bitten by a dog, it will leave a negative impression, a trauma in the mind. Then, maybe years later, when we see the same dog again, that trauma will get triggered, and we will have a reaction. We will not be able to exhibit free will. The mind will flip, the stomach will fall and the body will jerk the other direction. 

We are slaves of our samskaras. When we see the dog, we might think “Ok, this is just a trauma, don’t worry, no need to react, just let go and everything will be fine”. Ok, so we are no longer dictated by the traumatic samskara, we have overcome it. But, now we are dictated by a discerning, rational samskara instead. We are still not free, we are still thinking, reasoning, rationalising. We are still a slave of the mind and its concepts. Liberation is freedom from all thoughts, from ideas about what we should do. Being able to just be, without thought, without notions of the past or the future, this is abidance in reality, this is freedom. 

All thoughts come from past impressions. So, if you are thinking, if the mind is rolling on and on day in and day out, then you know that you are operating in the world of your past samskaras. Once the mind stops, and your activity continues without thought, from a space of blank awareness, intuition, devotion, love and surrender, then this is when we begin to go beyond the conditioning of the mind. How is this possible? This is possible when we practise Ishvara Pranidhana, when we begin to cultivate reverence to a higher power. When we let go of our separate little self, and when we embrace the servitude of our master. For example, if you believe you are your own master, you will constantly feel anxious about everything, because there is so much risk, so much responsibility. But, when you are just doing what your master told you to do, you do not at all feel anxious. We are just doing his bidding, so it doesn’t matter if it goes right, or wrong. There is no more risk; we have handed over the power of attorney, and we are no longer responsible. 

One could now say, “But that means I can just give up and stop doing anything, and then I am free from all negative karmas”. In this case, one is actively giving up action, and that is action itself. Then the game becomes resisting what is meant to be done, not-doing. And this is not what it means. It means still doing, but being aware that we are just an instrument of a higher will. We are just an instrument, we are just the messenger. Action is going on through us, rather than by us. 

An au pair takes care of her host family as if they were her own. She loves them entirely, with her whole heart. But, deep down, in her heart of hearts, her mind dwells with her blood family back home. She knows that in a moment, she may be relieved of her duties, she may have to leave this family. With that in mind, she is not at all anxious, she is not at all attached to what she does. In the same way, surrendering to a higher principle and giving it power of attorney over our lives frees us from all anxiety. No longer are we doing our own bidding, so there is no risk. If something works well, fine. If something falls through, fine. It makes no difference. We become an instrument, devoting our body and mind in the service of love, harmony and goodwill of our heart. The practice of surrender liberates us from all suffering. 

Every experience we have through the lens of a separate individual, leaves an impression in the mind. If we falsely believe that this world is happening to us, then every experience will leave an impression. If, however, we can see that we are a part of the phenomena of our existence, not a static agent that is pushed and pulled around by it, but rather, an intrinsic element in the entire play, then we may realise that nothing happens to us, rather, everything happens with us, for us, through us. 

A single leaf on a tree is not separate from the entire phenomena of the tree, the ground, the forest, the atmosphere, the climate, the entire earth; even carbon dioxide from another continent. The entire universe is interrelated, the entire universe is conspiring according to a universal law, and absolutely not according to our individual will. When we understand this; that life is happening for us, not to us, we are freed from bondage of impressions in the mind. We are freed from the reactive life of aversion to fear and attraction to security. We may then see that the universal law pervades everywhere, in and through all things, all creatures, all phenomena, everything. There can not be any separation of anything, and there is no escaping the universal law. The Spirit in-all-things is actually the one spirit of all things. Advaita Vedanta says “All beings in the Self, The Self in all beings”. 

Ishvara Pranidhana is the final and highest ethical value to obtain, because it is the end of the story entirely. Once we have realised that we are not the doer and all is God’s doing, all is the dharma - the universal law playing out, then life can no longer affect us. Whatever happens is meant to happen. There are no coincidences, no mistakes, no errors, nothing wrong or right, nothing good or bad, no speculation, nothing at all but the truth of existence itself. Even if we think we are the doer (due to the false ego, the ahamkara), it does not mean that we have become the doer. We were never the doer, we will never be the doer, but, we might believe (falsely) that we were the doer. This is the play of Maya, the cosmic illusion principle, God’s cherished game of cosmic hide & seek with himself. We were never the doer, and we never will be. Just temporarily, we have fallen for the trick, we have taken the bait. Due to the dazzle of the world, we have indulgently relished the fragrance of egoism and inhaled it deeply, enjoying the intoxicating sensations of control and power that it brings us. Eventually we realise this sensation of control is a curse, not a blessing, and only exacerbates pain, anxiety and disappointment, turning the sweet honey of life into a bitter poison.

But, the play of life loses all sting when we see that all is pre-deemed above and beyond us. It is like watching a movie. We do not have any control over the plot of the movie. We are pure awareness, pure consciousness, we are the screen unto which the movie is projected. The movie is not affected by the pictures on the screen. If there is a fire in the movie, the screen is not burnt. With surrender, we find that there is no tangible agent within us. There is no separate “thing” with any separate will, separate from God. There is only God, expressing itself through itself, that is to say, through it's myriad reflections. After the rains, many small puddles on the path all reflect a separate sun. But how many suns are there? The answer is there is only one sun, and His myriad reflections. No single reflected sun can do anything independent from the one true sun in the sky above. Only when the one sun in the sky changes colour, will all the reflections also change. This is the same as our state. We are reflections of that divine light. Nothing cometh to Man but through the Father. 

One can try, try, try to push themselves forward with individual will-power, but something only happens when it is also the Will of God. We can try to manipulate this world according to our own desires, but if we look closely enough, we will see that no matter what we do, we can not change the outcome of life. Life will flow the way it shall flow, as deemed by the creative force far greater than our own individual desires. The entire cosmos as one self-inherent, eternal phenomena is expressing itself in the same way that a nebulae expresses energy in an explosion of dramatic colour; with a power and glory far beyond the domain of any little planet in that galaxy, much less a tiny little creature standing on that planet. 

The cosmic play never began, it has always perpetually flowed. It was never set in motion, it is eternal. This is so simple, so fundamental, so intuitive, that the mind can not grasp it. The mind can not grasp the concept of eternal. The mind sprang into being with the appearance of time and space and cause and effect. The mind functions solely in this field, much in the same way that a fish breathes in water. The mind does not exist outside of this framework, and thus can not fathom anything that lies outside of this domain. No matter how sharp your intellect is, no matter how good your logic is, no matter how much philosophy you have studied, your mind will never be able to rationalise the eternal, the infinite. The mind can only fathom things that are finite, things that are born and die, things that arise from one cause, and give rise to another effect. Things that follow linear time and fixed space. But something that has no cause, results in no effect, lies outside of linearity, is all places at once, is all times at once, such a thing is paradoxical, such a thing lies beyond the mind. 

The eternal reality can only be understood by an intuitive instrument, by a faculty that does not operate using time and space, cause and effect syntax. The heart, known as omkara, (the abode of the primordial source), is the sole faculty that can fathom the eternal. The heart, the seat of the self, the original vibration of OM, is an intelligence that is no stranger to infinite. It is the fabric of the eternal, much in the same way that water is the fabric of the ocean. The heart is the very centre of the universe, is the infinite well of love that breathes in and out, giving rise to all creation, maintenance and dissolution of phenomena. The omkara is the eye of the storm, the place of pin-drop silence, all pervasive understanding, personal dissolution and intuitive reconciliation of perfect sat-chit-ananda, the self-fulfilled, self radiating orb of melting, oscillating, translucent consciousness.

The heart can only understand this, it can not grasp anything logical. Funny isn’t it. The mind can not grasp the infinite, the heart can not grasp the finite. Thus the mind and the heart are opposites. Mind operates in time and space, cause and effect, while the heart operates in eternity, outside of all frames, structures, limitations, inferences and concepts. The heart is entirely intuitive, absolutely not conceptual. In the heart, there is never a reason. In saying “I will forgive him because he said sorry” one does not come into the heart; this is just the mind rationalising the situation. To truly be in the heart, one must renounce all logic, all ideas of cause and effect, all need for asking WHY. The truth is beyond why, in reality there is no why. It is that it is. This is the hard, hard, hard, beautiful, simple, absolutely in-your-face fact that is RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. It is because it is, not beCAUSE of something else. The cause is hidden in the effect, they are one and the same thing, only apparently existing due to the dichotomous, extractive nature of the desperately logical mind. The mind, unable to grasp beingness, extracts reality and bifurcates it out along a deterministic matrix, fixing them in time and space as separate attributes, much in the same way one spreads out an essay, separately pinning each page to a cork board. The mind then examines each page and infers order through cause and effect principles, to understand the essay.

The function of the heart then is the contrary, to reconcile polarity back into the one source, thereby uniting cause into effect and effect into cause, healing dichotomy and reestablishing the inherent fullness of being, reconciling and settling the orb of pulsating peace once more in the intuitive realm of eternity. The heart breathes in the fragrance of the entire essay as one flower, joyfully embracing it like the earth embraces the seed, holding it, nourishing it and believing in the truth of its being, rather than the specific content therein. 

Isvara Pranidhana is the practice of shifting the intelligence from the mind to the heart, moving out of the habit of analysing, scrutinising and questioning life, and rather accepting the fundamentality of every moment, embracing life in love, with firm faith that all is right, all has come from good, to good, and for goodness sake. Nothing is out of place, nothing is accidental, coincidental, untimely or inappropriate. Everything is unfolding precisely at the right moment for us, for our healing. 

The Will of Isvara, the Lord of the universe, is for the final dissolution of fragmented abstractions born of mind and the healing reinstatement of the heart as the centre of spiritual being. The purpose of life unfolding is theosis, to become divine, to accept the spiritual nature of the world as a creative, transformative force that converts the material into the spiritual, that refines gross thought into subtle intuition, that clarifies material conscious into omniscient beingness. God’s Will is that for man to return to his former glory as divine. 

The practice of Isvara Pranidhana, as an ethical virtue in Patanjali’s exposition is to totally allow this process, without a doubt of it's validity, without a doubt of our place in this process. This is a natural process beyond our individual will. Thus, it is not a case of whether we want this or not. Regardless, it will happen, much in the same way that a fruit will ripen by nature’s accord, not by the will of the fruit itself. I will say again, we are flowing down the river of life, destined for emancipation in the ocean, whether we want it or not, whether we struggle or not, whether we have a desire to go to that ocean or another ocean, it makes no difference. To practise this final niyama, we must fully accept that God alone knows what is best for us, far beyond what we think is best for ourselves. Acceptance of this and surrender to the compassion and kindness of life is the ultimate virtue, the ultimate cultivation of morality, the final expression of ethical abidance. This is God’s final commandment, to trust, to have faith, to let go, to surrender to the inherent direction of life, towards love, healing, oneness.

Possibly Isvara Pranidhana is the final niyama because it is the final expression of love, it is the pinnacle of all the other nine virtues that we have discussed. It is the most noble, most courageous and most selfless virtue. As such, it only arises naturally, when we are spiritually ready. We can not try to surrender, born from the ego. The ego can not surrender itself. This is just a game. Much in the same way that only a charmer can tame a cobra, only life can humble the ego. The ego can not surrender, the ego can not relinquish control, it only knows control. Rather, it is the overwhelming influence of God’s grace that crushes the hard shell of the ego, that subdues it under a gravity unbeknownst by it, pulling out the thorn of sovereignty out of its heart and disengaging it once and for all, to become a placid rag-doll, soft, tame, obedient and meek. This is called the ripe ego, and this only happens when we have gone through many hard, ego-crushing experiences of pain and suffering. It is not joy that brings surrender, it is suffering. Suffering is the force that softens the heart, that awakens surrender. Joy only reinforces the ego, keeps its head up. Suffering on the other hand tenderises it, pummels it, rounds all the edges, breaks it. 

So naturally, this only comes when we have gone through hardship, hit the rock bottom, and then began to rise again. Until then, the ego will still think it is in control, making plans, making decisions, scheming, thinking up good ideas, pushing forward. All the other nine virtues may be practised with ego, that is fine, they will still bear fruit, they will still bring about some positive transformation to our life. But ultimately, they will not break the ego. No amount of non-violence, adherence to truth, cleanliness, purity, non-possessiveness, non-stealing, control of the senses and self-study will break the ego. Only life will break the ego, when the time is right, by the grace of God. Isvara Pranidhana is acknowledgement of this, followed by sincere prayer for this moment to arrive, for God to have mercy on us, to take control of our life and lead us away from temptation, to lead us to immortality. 

The only sensical cause of action therefore is to find a higher power that attracts you, that makes you feel humility, love, reverence, awe and inspiration. Then learn about it, study it, find out what it likes and dislikes, and concentrate all the time, in every moment on it, feeling as if, with every action, every thought, every fibre of your being you are serving it, pleasing it, propitiating it, worshipping it. Harness the thing that you feel the strongest sense of love towards. This might be a person, it might be a place, an object, an animal, a book, a deity, even your own mother. It might be OM, a sound vibration. It might have form, it might be formless. It does not matter what it is, it only matters that we can hold it in the highest esteem, unfettered by the lower mind. This is the practice of bhakti, and this is the only way to free ourselves from the trappings of the conditioned mind. Then we concentrate on the feeling of love towards this object, and we try to expand this love, to make it bigger, to make it engulf our whole being, to make it brighter and brighter so that it may illumine even the darkest recesses of the heart, so that it may illumine our higher intellect, so that it may drive out any shadows of self-depreciation, so that it may divinise every desire, thought and emotion.

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