Book 1, Sutra 26: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“ISWARA WAS THE GURU OF THE FIRST GURUS, BEING BEYOND THE LIMITS OF TIME.”
This sutra is further evidence that Patanjali supports genuine religious sentiment in his Yoga Sutra. Having mentioned “Iswara,” which can roughly be translated as God or Lord (although it doesn’t have the gender connotations that the English words do), in the earlier sutras now in this sutra he is saying that Iswara was the first guru’s guru. That means that Iswara taught someone yoga originally and that person passed on the teachings. That means that this first (human) teacher of yoga was taught directly by Iswara. That means that this first (human) teacher had a direct personal relationship with Iswara. And that is a 100% support or justification for religious devotion in and of itself because the ability to personally connect to the God of All That Is forms the basis for all of religion.
If God or “Iswara” exists in a way that we can have a direct personal relationship with, and Iswara has the characteristics that Patanjali already ascribed to Him (omnipotence, etc.) then it makes sense that we can get help in our Yoga practice through petitioning Him with prayer and surrendering our ego to Him (or Her).
But many translators, even after this sutra, are unwilling to admit that Patanjali is making such a clear recommendation for religious sentiment and devotion. Many are still hanging on to the possibility that Patanjali is referring to something abstract and impersonal when he writes “Iswara” and so, such devotion to God is subordinate to a more vedantic or nondualistic enlightenment. Religious devotion, according to their translations, is a tool for the yogi to develop renunciation but is not part of the Ultimate Truth about our True Self that Patanjali is guiding us towards.
AK Aruna is one of those translators. He writes “Patanjali appears here as simply an advocate of yoga that includes samadhi (contemplation) and an appreaciation of an intelligent Lord as a means for equipping the mind to attain ‘kaivalya’ (liberation).”
For this sutra Vishnudevananda writes “The highest teacher is the Self, Purusha. All ancient sages such as Jesus and Buddha, realized the Self. While they may have had earthly teachers, the Source of their vast knowledge was not of this plane. Living in a superconscious state, they had direct access to the Truth, that knowledge which is absolute.” This does not support religious sentiment in the ultimate sense nor does it imply that Patanjali would support religious sentiment in the end.
Of course, there are some big issues that come up if we acknowledge that Patanjali is whole-heartedly supporting religious sentiment. Who is Iswara and how does Iswara compare to Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, Krishna, Rama, Devi, Shiva, Allah, Wakan Taka, etc.? Is “Iswara” the One God’s particular name for Patanjali? Or does Patanjali just use this word but is referring to any conception of the One omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscience and all-loving God? Does Patanjali agree with Krishna’s teachings on this subject in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna teaches that the One True God takes on many different names and forms to suit particular groups of His (Her) children?
Some of the more religious translators try to deal with this issue in various ways. Sri Rama says “the gods that we know and believe in, with all their powers and attributes, sit at the feet of Ishwara the Gurudeva. These primeval Lords came into being with the creation of the [larger] Bubble. Iswara, the Divine Fragment, is timeless, unborn, eternal—Satyam! Hence . . . who can be Its equal?”
The other issue concerns gender and that one is more easily answered. I have used the masculine pronouns when referring to Iswara but there is no such gender connotation in the original Sanskrt. From what I have understood elsewhere, the concept of Iswara would be considered incomplete if it was only male. In Hinduism in general it is assumed that God is both male and female and beyond the two at the same time. Please forgive my lazy writing style, relying on the more common English use of the masculine to refer to God.
From the Sadhakas translation we have more support for a religious sentiment within the Yoga Sutra: “God is the highest of our teachers. God is the highest, He knows. He is right within us; the only thing is to find His address! He knows. Not that he does not speak—but that we do not listen.”
Stiles keeps his translation on the fence by writing “That Self is also unlimited by time and is the guru of the most ancient spiritual teachers.” From his translation of this sutra we might think that those original gurus learned by going inward to their True Self which is somewhat different from saying that they developed religious devotion and learned yoga directly from God or Iswara.
Hartranft also pulls away from religious sentiment by translating this sutra as “Existing beyond time, Iswara was also the ideal of the ancients.” Brahmananda Saraswati hedges his bets by adding that God “is always within the heart as the Satguru,” thereby allowing readers to excuse themselves from externalized religious sentiment if they want. Tola and Dragonetti probably move the farthest away from religious sentiment in their translation and their opinion is worth repeating here because it probably represents the position that many vedantists might take:
“In order to have been able to be the preceptor of the primal [teachers] Iswara has had to give up kaivalya (isolation [later posited as the goal of yoga]) and come into contact with prakriti (matter) . . . [this is) not in accordance with samkhya [philosophy] because a liberated purusa, as is Iswara, is a purusa who has, for all times, set himself beyond prakriti and, as such, is devoid of all activity.”
My opinion is that Patanjali’s wording of these sutras on a yogi’s relationship to God are subtle enough to allow vedantists to skip them but, upon close examination, clearly support a yogi’s pursuit of a direct and personal relationship to All That Is, through a particular form of God. For Patanjali, this is not just an effective tool to develop renunciation and overcome the ego, this religious sentiment is somehow an integral part of the final and absolute Truth about who we are.