Ishvara Pranidhana: Is it God or Ourselves?

Ishvara Pranidhana

Written by Ravinjay Kuckreja

The school of Yoga has ethical norms in place, the Yama and Niyama, which tell us to be truthful, to be clean, to not harm others—basically to be a good and moral person. Most religions have them in place as values that develop as one obeys God, and surprisingly, Yoga is no different. 

There is a God in Yoga, but the Sanskrit word used to refer to this God is “Ishvara” which actually means “controller”. The Yoga Sutras (1.24) of Patanjali continue to define this Controller further:


And here this Ishvara is defined further as:

  1. a special soul
  2. unaffected by affliction, or in other words, not influenced by this world and different emotions
  3. unaffected by action and the results of action, or freed from the cycle of karma
  4. without any inherited tendencies, or without any influence from previous lives 

However, what is interesting to note is that this Ishvara is a “purusha visesa” or a special soul. The Yogi sees every living entity as a soul, or a “purusha”, a spiritual being. This purusha enters into a material body and gives it life, making it conscious. A tree for example, is alive as the purusha within it keeps it alive. On the body of this tree, however, we have many other creatures like ants and birds, all also alive because of this purusha within them. Therefore, there is essentially no difference between a tree, an ant, a bird, with you and with me, as we are all of the same essence. 

Now, Ishvara is being defined as a special purusha, a special soul.  This is a very different way of defining God, but because of that it leaves it open to interpretation. This Ishvara can be God, a Supreme Being above and beyond everything, or it can also be a liberated soul, nonetheless a soul, like you and me, that is already unaffected by the world. So this Ishvara can be a God or a higher Self. 

In the Niyama, however, we are told to surrender to this Ishvara, or Ishvara Pranidhana. This act of surrender to a higher controller is not meant for worship in order to gain deliverance or to remove one’s sins. It is to develop humility, to be humble. Why is developing humility important? Well, first of all, being humble is not a bad thing. By being humble we open ourselves to learning, we are ready to be a disciple, be a student. And most importantly, if we all equally have the capability to achieve liberation and to eventually become this Ishvara, we should be extremely mindful to not develop ego. 

Ego, or in Sanskrit, Ahamkara, is a very fine and subtle covering of the individual soul. True ego is understanding that we are this purusha, non-different from all the other purushas around us. However, when ego is developed as pride in one’s own ability and identity, it becomes a hindrance. Therefore, this ego should be gradually destroyed, and the best way to do this is by worship! In the process of worship, we surrender to another Ishvara, giving up the ego that we are capable of being an Ishvara or becoming an Ishvara. This is why the worship of God is encouraged within the Yoga practice, but it is for developing humility and blessings instead of attaining deliverance.

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