Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, the canonical text of Yoga, considers visualisation an important technique. Its importance can be gauged by the real estate it gets in an otherwise terse work of just 195 sūtras (aphorisms).
Here are some of the aphorisms related to visualisation:
(Sūtra 1.23) Īśvara praṇidhānād vā / (Yogic concentration) can also be attained through meditation on a special Self or Soul called Īśvara.
(Sūtra 1.37) vīta rāga viṣayaṁ vā cittam / (Stability of mind can be attained) by meditating on a mind free of attachments.
(Sūtra 2.1) tapaḥ svādhyāya īśvara pranidhānāni kriyā yogaḥ / Practices for gaining proficiency in Yoga consist of austerities, self study and meditation on Īśvara.
(Sutra 2.45) samādhi siddhiḥ īśvara pranidhānāt / Meditation on Īśvara leads to Yogic concentration.
Essentially an adept Yogi’s mind is full of clarity and tranquility powered by the discernment or discriminative knowledge obtained through various practices of Yoga. This is also known as the Sattvic state of mind.
Now, Yoga Sūtras says that there are three ways to get to this state of mind. There are those who are, by birth i.e. genetic predisposition, naturally gifted with the ability to get into deeper states of concentration effortlessly. For these people, it is easy to attain Yogic concentration and hence the objective. These are some of the mystics who at an young age became “enlightened”. By the way, powers of concentration does not automatically translate to liberation or enlightenment. Ability to concentrate is just a tool that is employed to achieve discriminative knowledge that helps the Yogi to get rid of his attachments, aversions and fears fuelled by incorrect perception.
Others need to work hard to get there. I outline Yoga Sūtras’s take on this here and here. Essentially one needs to follow certain austerities to restrict the habits not conducive to Yogic concentration and to develop habits conducive to Yogic concentration and do self-study and meditative practices. This is the brute-force route.
There is a third way. It is a sort of short-cut. It essentially says that to transform one’s mind into a particular type of mind, one should simply visualise and meditate on such a mind that already exists. All of one’s actions and thoughts should be as if that visualised mind were causing them.
For example, Sūtra 1.37 above says that to stabilise one’s mind one should visualise and meditate on the mind of a person, who we know is free of all attachments. Attachments pull our minds in the directions of sensual objects and distract us constantly. By visualising such a person and meditating on him constantly, Yoga Sūtras imply that one internalises how one should act in situations of interactions with sensual objects. A bit like knowing instinctively what Jesus or Krishna would do in such instances.
This is not something esoteric. For example, it is easier for some to learn to dance by just watching someone dance and just visualising it. The hard way would be to dance by breaking down the movements and learning them step by step. Some are, as they say, born to dance! Similarly in sports. I talk about a tennis analogy here.
Who is Īśvara?
Now, if the objective is to get to a Sattvic state of mind (i.e. one with unbroken clarity and tranquility), we need someone who has such a mind. According to Yoga philosophy, people who succeeded in liberation (through various means) have such minds e.g. Buddha or Ramana Maharshi.
So we can visualise and meditate on Buddha’s mind. However, there is one glitch. Anyone who had to work in his life to get liberated has had an ‘un-liberated’ part of life, where they were just normal humans with attachments and aversions. They probably did stupid stuff that we all do. As our meditation deepens these petty things come in the way and ‘corrupt’ the unblemished mind we are trying to visualise. For example, at some point during the meditation on Krishna, we are bound to wonder about his 16000+ wives, his philandering ways and his role in Mahabharata as a cunning politician.
Here is where Īśvara enters.One of Yoga Philosophy’s axioms is that the phenomenal universe has always existed (uncreated is the technical word). This is a sophisticated position considering the times then (> 2500 years ago!). The metaphysical reasoning goes this way. People have been getting liberated since the dawn of history. If there is person P_t, who was liberated at time t, then there is surely a person P_s, who was liberated at time s < t. That is, P_s was liberated before P_t. Continuing the argument back in time inductively, there must exist a liberated being that was liberated before all the liberated beings; essentially, the senior most liberated being, coexisting with the beginning-less universe, one that was always liberated. This is like the mathematical symbol of infinity on the number line. It does not exist in a real sense as number 4 exists. Yet it is a useful mathematical concept that provides a ‘boundary’ to the number line.
That senior most, ever liberated being is denoted as Īśvara. Therefore, Īśvara is a technical, abstract concept, whose ‘existence’ follows from the axioms of the Yoga philosophy. Yoga Sūtras define this Īsvara concept with the following Sūtras:
(Sūtra 1.24) kleśa karma vipāka aśayaiḥ aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa viśeṣa īśvaraḥ / Īśvara is a special kind of Self (liberated being) who is free from all attachment and aversions and without any desire to act or having to experience fruits of previous actions
(Sūtra 1.25) tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajñabījam / The power of his mind is unlimited
(Sūtra 1.26) sa esa pūrveṣām api guruḥ kālena anavacchedāt / He is unsurpassed by any other liberated being and he is the teacher of teachers
Now these special qualities of Īśvara solves the glitch we could face meditating on other liberated beings. Since Īśvara has always been liberated, he never had a troubling past that he had to work out of. So meditating on him is the most reliable visualisation pathway to attaining the objective of Yoga. In other words, Īśvara is the ideal object (or concept) for meditation. He does not exist in the scientific sense. He is the result of logical deduction from Yoga (or Saṁkhya) philosophy’s axioms.
Mechanics of Īśvara Pranidhānā
How do we go about visualising this abstract Īs ́vara figure? Yoga Sūtras don’t leave you hanging!
(Sūtra 1.27) tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ / That special being is denoted by OM
(Sūtra 1.28) tajjapastadartha bhāvanam / Repeat it and contemplate on its meaning
Sūtras 1.27 and 1.28 outline the mechanics succinctly.
Praṇava is the uniquitous OM sound one hears in the Yoga studios all around the world. OM denotes Īśvara, just like mathematical symbol for the infinity. Interestingly, OM has no other meaning. The lore has it that it has always denoted Iśvara and has no other usage. Therefore, it does not have any corrupting influence. The association is exclusive.
Īśvara pranidhāna is repeating OM and contemplating on its meaning i.e. the mind of the eternally liberated being. By repeated practice we develop the association and eventually uttering of the OM becomes unnecessary. One can visualise without it and when one remains engrossed as if his mind is that of the Īśvara’s, then he is as good as liberated.
Now we can see why this is considered a ‘short-cut’. This is the direct, straight line path to the goal and therefore, rightfully included as an important pillar of Kriya Yoga.