Samādhi or Yogic Concentration is a tool that is employed to achieve Viveka Khyāti or discriminative knowledge. This knowledge aids in destruction of attachments, aversions and fears arising from Avidya or incorrect knowledge. As a result, an adept Yogi’s mind is established in clarity and tranquility. Sūtra 3.55 summarises this beautifully.
(Sūtra 3.55) sattva puruṣayoḥ śuddhi sāmye kaivalyam / Through purity the intellect resembles Consciousness or Self (Puruṣa) and leads to liberation (Kaivalyam).
Now, Yoga Sūtras say that there are three ways to get to Samādhi. Some people are naturally gifted with the ability to effortlessly get into deeper states of concentration. Samādhi come easy to them.
Others, namely the vast majority of mortals, follow a long and arduous path of training paved with conviction, energy and constant recollection of the goal.
There is yet another way, which is considered the direct way. This is Īśvara Praṇidhānā. It is an important part of the Yoga toolkit of Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Its importance can be gauged by the repeated attention it gets in an otherwise terse work of just 195 sūtras or aphorisms.
The Power of Visualisation
Īśvara Praṇidhānā is essentially a type of dhyāna or contemplative practice. To understand Īśvara Praṇidhānā, it is useful to note the visualisation technique advocated in Yoga Sūtras.
(Sūtra 1.37) vīta rāga viṣayaṁ vā cittam / (Stability of mind can be attained) by meditating on a mind free of attachments.
Attachment to sense objects push and pull our minds and distract us constantly. By visualising and meditating on the mind of a person free from such attachments, one internalises how that mind would act in different situations.
This is not something esoteric. For example, it is easier for some to learn to dance by just watching someone dance or just visualising it. The straight forward way of breaking down the movements and learning them step by step is not easy. Similarly in sports.
Who is Īśvara?
People who have attained liberation e.g. Buddha, Ramana Maharshi are the obvious candidates for such visualisation practices. 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 some of the stuff that we all do. As our meditation on their minds deepens these petty things could come in the way and ‘corrupt’ the process. For example, at some point during meditation on Krishna, we are bound to wonder about his many thousands of girlfriends and his role in Mahabharata as a cunning war strategist.
Here is where Īśvara enters. One of Yoga Philosophy’s axioms is that the phenomenal universe or Prakṛti has always existed. People are born and some attain liberation through Yoga (or other means). Those that do not are born again and the cycle continues. Continuing the argument back in time, there must exist a liberated being that was liberated before all the liberated beings. That senior most, always-liberated being is denoted as Īśvara in Yoga Philosophy.
Yoga Sūtras 1.24 through 1.26 outline the concept of Īsvara:
(Sūtra 1.24) kleśa karma vipāka aśayaiḥ aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa viśeṣa īśvaraḥ / Īśvara is a special kind of Self (Puruṣa) who is free from all afflictions and is 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 solve 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 for meditation.
Mechanics of Īśvara Pranidhānā
How do we go about contemplating Īśvara? Sūtras 1.27 and 1.28 outline the mechanics of Īśvara Pranidhānā succinctly.
(Sūtra 1.27) tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ / That special being is denoted by OM
(Sūtra 1.28) tajjapastadartha bhāvanam / Repeat it (OM) and contemplate on its meaning
Praṇava is the uniquitous OM sound one hears in the Yoga studios all around the world. OM denotes Īśvara. Interestingly, OM has no other colloquial meaning unlike many Sanskrit words. Therefore, the association to Īśvara is exclusive.
Īśvara pranidhāna involves repeating OM and simultaneously contemplating on the mind of Īśvara, the eternally liberated being. Through repeated practice, one could eventually contemplate Īśvara at will without having to utter the sound. And when the mind is engrossed as if it is the mind of Īśvara’s, it is full of clarity and tranquility.
An effective practice of Īśvara Praṇidhānā presupposes some degree proficiency in dhārana (focus) and dhyāna (contemplation). These in turn require some degree of control and stability of mind and the sense organs. The eight accessories of Yoga come to the rescue here.
Now we can see why Īśvara Praṇidhānā is considered the direct way. It is the express path to the goal of Yoga and therefore, rightfully included as an important pillar of Kriya Yoga.