Ishvara Pranidhana: Mysticism as a nonideological Zone?
Patañjali’s yoga philosophy distinguishes between Prakrti or matter, from gross matter to subtle energy, and Purusha, the passive observer. Purusha is not subject to transformation or involved in any action. However, on a higher level is ‘Ishvara‘, the model-Purusha or ‘Paramguru‘, the ‘primal guru‘. He is often conceived as a personal deity, who is not obscured by any Vrittis (mental movements) or Klesha (stirring emotion). Ishvara grants the devotee access to Brahman, the formless aspect of the divine, the source of any existence.
“[Ishvara] is omniscient and the source of all knowledge. [Sutra 1.25] […] His ability to understand is boundless. It goes far beyond any human understanding […] He is the very first teacher, the source that guides all teachers, past, present, and future.“1
Although faith in God is not a necessity on the yoga path, devotion to God is one way to reduce mental confusion and emotional restlessness. According to the author Heinz Krug, ‘Ishvara Pranidhana‘ can be understood as a kind of ‘interface’ with which we can ‘tap’ into the all-embracing universal consciousness when we are in the appropriate state – either in Samadhi or in trance.
“How can we turn to God? We can call on God in a way that best reflects his qualities for us. In the Indian tradition […] the quality of God is expressed through the sound OM. It is crucial that we find an expression of meeting God with respect and humility, without getting into conflict.“2
Above all, Ishvara can be invoked through Pranava, the mystical syllable OM. Therefore, in Sutra 1.28 Patañjali recommends repeating this syllable as often as possible while meditating on its meaning.
“Repetition of the Symbol OM and contemplation on its object – Ishvara – brings one-pointedness to the mind of the Yogin who is engaged in repeating the symbol and contemplating on its meaning.”3
Meditation on the heart-center
Another way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana is to meditate on the heart. However, in yoga practice, the term ‘heart center‘ does not refer to the anatomical heart. Rather it signifies the soft, receptive area behind the breastbone. In this area, feelings such as love, and joy, but also sadness or fear of loss can be felt. In opening the heart by concentration on the long exhalation, a feeling of all-embracing expanse occurs.
“That region is the center of the I-sense related to one’s body. The brain is no doubt the center of mental actions, but if mental fluctuations are stopped for a time, it can be felt that the sense of ego is going down to the heart. […] When after some practice the mind of the devotee becomes somewhat calm and carefree […] a transparent white light limitless luminous sky should be imagined by him within his heart.
Then knowing that the omnipresent God is pervading that space, the devotee should contemplate that his I-sense, i.e. his whole self is in the God who is present in the heart. The next step would be to merge his mind in the mind of the Ishvara residing in the void-like space within his heart and rest in a state of contemptment, without any care or thought.”4
‘Pranidhana‘ means ‘devotion‘, ‘surrender‘, ‘worship‘. ‘Pranam‘ also connotes ‘reverence’, ‘Dana‘ means ‘gift‘. Still, ‘Ishvara‘ is not a creator God who can be ‘bribed’ with offerings. Neither can the Yogi delegate responsibility for his/her actions to this personal god. However, what should be ‘sacrificed‘ is any concern for possible failure. The Yogi should think so little about the results of his/her actions that eventually every action becomes a devotional gift. In other words, the actions should become fulfilling in themselves. However, often we are so fixated on a result that anything that gets in our way becomes an obstacle or a means to an end. As a result, the quality of our actions appears to be secondary.
Vairagya and Abhyasa
Not only ‘Ishvara Pranidhana’ but also ‘Vairagya‘ (the ability to let go) counteracts this fixation on the results of our actions. However, the narrow focus on the results is unfortunately often a side-effect of our strained concentration on a task. In order for the exercise of the ‘mental upgrade‘ (‘Abhyasa‘) to succeed, it is necessary, to let go (‘Vairagya‘) of narrowing perspectives and hindering mental concepts.
When, through Vairagya, a person finally becomes less and less determined by desire, “[…] his true nature is fully revealed [Sutra 1.16]. The more open and clear the view of our own self becomes, […] the more the ability to let go develops. We cannot force this form of freedom by simply ignoring or suppressing wishes and attachments. If we do, we can be sure that these forces will find ways to make themselves felt again.”5
Both Vairagya and Ishvara Pranidhana help the Yogi to overcome mental and emotional obstacles (Kleshas) on the Yoga path. Hence, T. K. V. Desikachar defines Ishvara Pranidhana as ‘accepting our own limitations in comparison to the omniscience of God‘. For Atheists or Agnostics, this could mean recognizing, that the ego only ever allows us to see a tiny part of the whole.
The mystics in Christianity and the Sufis in Islam place devotion to God at the center of their existence:
“Devotion is one translation of the word Islam, submission is another. The Arabic term Islam is derived from […] aslama (‘to surrender’) and thus means ‘submission (to God)’ or ‘complete surrender (to God)’.“6
In the emotional experience of mystical ecstasy, all differences of faith and dogmas coincide. Thus, in Sufism, there are also influences from the philosophy of Yoga and Tantra. Furthermore, Patanjali’s term ‘Isvara Pranidhana‘ may indeed be related to Sufism: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is said to have been translated into Arabic by Al-Biruni in the 11th century. Tantra techniques were used by the Sufis to immerse themselves in the cosmic energy:
Mystics are both at the center of religion and on the margins. They do not believe in religious Dogmas, but connect directly, without ideological detours, with God. For them, God is not a transcendent instance, but Pure Immanence. Everything is connected with each other through divine love. For mystics, God is this boundless love, and only through it can God be reached.
Breaking up with isolation?
“In the face of the consciousness of finiteness, the desire to overcome the painful experience of limitation and to break out of the loneliness of isolation awakens. Religion is based on the experience of isolation and the desire to overcome it. Suffering from the finite may well be suffering that border that separates me from the other, which can only be overcome by establishing a special continuity, which has a different structure than the continuity of the self that is established by [political] power. Not power, not return to oneself, but the departure to a boundless openness promises salvation.”8
A power-obsessed person tends to try to break out of his loneliness by ‘expanding the sphere of the self‘. Mostly it is the wish to dominate and control that characterizes the ‘power’, sought by the ego. The mystic, on the other hand, wants to experience this boundless continuum, this openness of being. The narrow perspective of self-centredness opens through the mystical attitude to a perspective characterized by compassion for all living beings. However, this boundless connection with the infinitive is not powerless at all. On the contrary, it is connecting with the source of all possibilities and Siddhis, the source of intuition and inspiration: with Brahman.
The soul’s desire to grow
“As soon as the soul loses its view of the infinite, it falls ill, because its nature is based on the wanting to grow. The soul wants to go beyond itself. If she finds openness, then the state of bliss will appear all by itself. […] The ‘balance’ of the soul is based on its growth, that is, on its increase and accumulation of power. But when the transcendental source of existence, the Brahman, dries up, this ‘will to power’ is always at the expense of others. Power is then only preserved in such a way that it takes it away from others. […] Only when we go beyond this equilibrium [pre-established harmony] of reason, do we come to that gate, behind which Ananda […] hides.“9
Overcoming ideological rifts
In India, for example, communist groups, Gandhians, Neo-Buddhists, Adivasi-, Naxalites, and other minority groups fought each other fiercely about their liberation ideology. All these groups have at times succumbed to the seductions of the ‘Virus of domination‘ and the corruption of power.
“Since the war between religion and science [in communist ideology], the spiritual traditions have been handed over to organized religion. Issues such as overcoming the ego, changing values, and the invisible currents of social conscience have never been seriously discussed. The concept of ‘spiritual godlessness’ has yet to be formed and has yet to bring together its separate currents. Then its spiritual potential will also flow.“10
Liberation from domination virus
It is time to wrest the overcoming of the ego and the liberation from the virus of domination through mystical, enthusiastic devotion (such as the wandering ‘Baul‘ singers) from the sphere of organized religion and its morals.
“The reason to let go of selfishness is not because of guilt. Not because it’s a ‘sin’. Not because it’s ‘wrong’. All such motivations come from lower consciousness and self-judgment. […] Because of its very nature, the small self is the creator of guilt and its self-perpetuator […]. When we move from being selfish with a small ‘s’, we move into being Selfish with a capital ‘S’. We move […] from weakness to power, and from self-hatred and pettiness to lovingness and harmony. We move from striving to ease, and from frustration to accomplishment.”11
Despite obvious differences in attitude and method, shamanism, like yoga and tantra, is a spiritual experimental science. However, unlike the experiments of modern empirical sciences, the experience of the shaman takes place in at least three worlds:
the middle world – the world of everyday experience,
the underworld – the world of ancestors and earth spirits, local and mother deities, and
the upper world – the world of the heavenly or main gods of the prevailing ‘official’ religion.
“According to [the Nepalese Shamans], much of what is attributed to the Vedic, Brahmin, Hindu, or Buddhist traditions is rooted in shamanism. For example, Ayurvedic healing has its origins in shamanism. […] Even Sanskrit goes back to languages that are still spoken today by ethnic groups [in Nepal] in which shamanism is still alive.“12
While yogis in the Samadhi state can tap into the universal consciousness and thereby acquire supernatural perceptions and abilities (‘Siddhis‘), shamans in the trance state open and empty themselves to become the medium of the gods or spirits.
However, during their trance, the ‘Jhakris‘ do not completely lose their everyday consciousness. Accordingly, the deities are not completely possessing them. Rather, in the trance state, the shaman becomes a voyager between the worlds.
“When we travel in trance we are not afraid. We leave our fear on the altar. There we pick it up again when we return.“13
Fear is exactly that restricting force that sets (ideological) limits and seeks support, therefore it must be left behind on the shamanic altar when the limits of consciousness are being removed.
The path of love
“‘The way of the shamans is the way of love’ […] As healers, they follow the idea of turning hate into love, greed into generosity, and ignorance into humility. […] The task of bringing love, harmony, and peace to the hearts of their patients, who have fallen ill with the gnawing poisons of hate, greed, and ignorance, […] requires the confrontation with uncomfortable truths and dangerous adversaries. […]. The diagnoses that they make in trance and, back in normal consciousness, communicate to those seeking help, are often ruthless.”14
Mystical connection with the healing power of nature
Thus, through the shamans’ intense connection with the upper and lower world, or with the collective energy field, as well as their extensive knowledge of the healing effects of plants, they can heal mental and psychosomatic illnesses and uncover connections. In this way, the balance between people, as well as between man and nature can be restored in time. Consequently, conflicts, and sometimes even epidemics or natural disasters can eventually be avoided.
Death of the aspirant
However, before the aspirant can become this interface between the worlds, s/he must die the death of initiation. Usually, the plants or mushrooms (such as henbane, belladonna, angel trumpet, toadstool, jimsonweed, and ergot) which provide the transition to other worlds via trance are highly poisonous. They can, even if only slightly overdosed, actually lead to the death of the aspirant.
However, if dosed correctly, s/he ‘only’ dies on his/her first journey to the upper or lower world. Correctly spoken: his/her everyday consciousness ‘dies’ on that journey. Replaced by a liminal shamanic consciousness, it can additionally receive the ‘frequency’ of the upper and lower world. Moreover, the twice-born can then ‘switch‘ between the frequencies, as with a world receiver.
Topography of the worlds
“It is the shaman’s art to be able to consciously induce and control the trance state. The topography of the worlds beyond is culturally predetermined down to the last detail. […] [The shamans] know from which world they want to receive which signals and which ones are helpful to them on their journey through the three worlds. So it can happen that in the middle of their flight through the underworld they question their patient in order to obtain important information that will help them to decide which of the seven tunnels to take or which helping spirit to consult.”15
For this new receptivity to arise, the senses of the body have to be transformed. The ‘demiurge‘ is dismembering the energetic body of the shaman, alchemically melting it in the ‘Shaman’s cauldron‘, and subsequently reassembling it.
“When the body shakes because it can no longer channel the in-flowing emotions when it can no longer tame them, when it writhes and cries and laughs, or when all this happens only inwardly, then this is a sign that the world is experienced in instability – not chaos, but clarity. For the boiling feelings heat up the whole person, make his mind hot until it boils over, and into this instantaneous emptiness knowledge of things penetrates.“16
In other words, in Trance the Shamans are connected to a source of power that is otherwise only available in extreme situations such as schizophrenic mania.
Shamanism in Europe
Even though the Catholic Church persecuted and almost extinguished shamanism, it was not an exotic, foreign phenomenon in Europe either. Indeed, shamanism influenced the mysticism of ancient Greece. These influences came from Thrace and Scythia, where shamanism was widespread. The Greeks spoke of a legendary people in the far north, the Hyperboreans.
“The Hyperborean Apollo is said to have received his mystical and ecstatic character from there, which was expressed in the obsession of Pythia and the dark words of the Delphic Oracle. […] The soul of the medium has left to make way for a god.“17
In his anthology ‘Clashing Rocks. Early Greek Religion and Culture and the Origins of Drama‘ Jack Lindsay starts from the thesis, that the ‘Argonaut Saga‘ and the ‘Odyssey‘ describe shamanic journeys. Even the Greek tragedy is, according to Lindsay, of shamanic origin.
Shamanism in Nepal and Bhutan
Shamanism is a phenomenon that is not only at the interface between the upper and lower world. Furthermore, it is also integrating different religions and different levels of these religions. In Nepal, for example, Shamanism built in a very interesting connection with Tantrism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Mohan L. Rai, a Kirati shaman from Bhutan, has founded an institute in Kathmandu which imparts shamanic knowledge and techniques to interested students from all over the world – the ‘Shamanic Studies and Research Center‘.
His father was a much sought-after shaman in Dorokha, Bhutan. As a child, Mohan Rai helped him with his shamanic seances. Mohan Rai himself had initiation experiences that clearly indicated his vocation as a shaman. Therefore, he was predestined to continue the shamanic tradition of his family. However, his father could not feed his family sufficiently with his shamanic activities. Therefore, Mohan Rai decided to take a different path.
Once Shaman, always Shaman?
Although Mohan Rai performed a ceremony to ‘close’ his shamanic path, the spirits he had called in his youth, did not let go of him. Hence, with his institute, Mohan Rai intends to preserve shamanic knowledge by transmitting it to interested students and anthropologists. With the penetration of the Western lifestyle into the most remote Himalayan villages, fewer and fewer young people want to follow the materially deprived shamanic path of life. For this reason, shamanism in Nepal is slowly threatened with extinction.
One of the first Western students of the Shamanic school in Kathmandu, Ellen Winner wrote the life story of Mohan L. Rai in her book ‘Mundhum. Of gods, spirits, and shamans in the Himalayas‘.
Individual access to mystical realms is suspect to the monotheistic religions. Indeed, the individual could eventually make him-/herself independent of the dogma.
“In contrast to the integrative and developmentally consistent attitude of shamans, which refers to nature, the followers of monotheistic religions are not historically but ideologically oriented. Their God is the most important one. He claims sole dominion.”18
It was not uncommon for Catholic or Islamic religious guardians, to execute Christian mystics or Sufis as ‘Heretics‘ due to their postulated union with God. The mystic feels God speaking in and through himself: “I am the Absolute Truth.” (Husain ibn Mansur al-Halladsch, 10th century). Religious authorities, who have always seen their legitimacy in ‘mediating’ God to the ordinary mortals, perceived this as a frontal attack on their faith.
However, dogmatics did not only persecute Sufis but also Shamans. Catholic missionaries in the colonies, as well as the communist government in Russia and Confucianism in China, tried to eradicate shamanism.
One of the reasons why Sufis had to keep their practices secret was because they lived in a community with their spiritual masters. According to Sunni Islam, however, there must be no intermediary between God and the believer.
Moreover, the practices of the Sufis were not only about following rites and customs. Accordingly, the risk of going astray in radical spiritual techniques was high. Therefore, an experienced spiritual master was necessary, as in Yoga and Tantra.
Spiritual awakening states can lead to a mania-like state often described as ‘divine intoxication‘. “If [the stream of unconscious energies] is not wisely controlled, it can be wasted in feverish excitement and activity. If, on the other hand, the stream of energies remains too much in abeyance and unexpressed, it gathers and the high pressure can cause damage, just as an electric current can blow a fuse.“19
However, in today’s world devotion to God, or tapping into universal consciousness seems to have become more difficult.
“In the past […] simple wholehearted worship of a teacher or savior, or loving devotion to God was often enough to open the gates that led to a higher level of consciousness and to a feeling of inner unity and fulfillment. Today, however, the more diverse and conflicting aspects of modern man’s personality are involved and need to be transformed and harmonized.”20
Paradoxically, with the growing number of people, who are consciously seeking a path to a more fulfilling life, mental disorders of spiritual origin are on the rise. However, binding forms to deal with the state of dissolution, which is part of the spiritual transformation, are no longer existing. As a result, the individual has to continue his/her social and professional duties, as if nothing had happened. For this reason, many people today go into the vicinity of dubious esoteric promises of salvation and sects. As they seem to give certain stability and like-minded seekers.
Esoteric salvation promise
In today’s world, the spiritual seeker can usually no longer withdraw into the seclusion of nature for this intermediate state of liminal transformation.
“It is not surprising, therefore, that this difficult and complicated task, this ‘double life’, can lead to a variety of psychological disorders, such as exhaustion, insomnia, emotional depression, emotional excitement, and restlessness.“21
Roberto Assagioli points out that such symptoms, which can arise as a consequence of a disturbed spiritual transformation, require a completely different psycho-therapeutic treatment than ordinary mental disorders. Therefore the model of psycho-synthesis includes a ‘higher unconscious’ and a ‘higher super-conscious‘ or ‘transpersonal self‘.
Author: Eva Pudill
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes