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Yoga Sutras for Modern Day Life: Is Yoga Religious?

Before we continue with the commentary on the Sutras,Yoga Sutras for Modern Day Life, it is time to define Isvara. Isvara is much debated term in the yoga world. It is the word that most people use to prove that yoga is indeed religious. Isvara, has been translated by some to mean God. However this is not the dominate belief  of Yoga scholars around the world as some would have you believe. This belief originated from religious people. The dominate belief is that yoga is outside of religion. Yoga does not conflict with any religious beliefs or even atheism. Yoga is the science of self realization which is something that all humans need regardless of background and beliefs.

The subject of Isvara is a deep one and I could spend hours on the orgins, history and etymology of this word. For  brevity, I will keep it as simple as possible.

Something I always notice in commentaries is that everything else is broken down through etymology, except the word Isvara. As I started to research the etymology, I also immediately noticed three types of sutra commentaries. These three types are commentaries written by religious people, commentaries written by scholars from an academic standpoint  and commentaries written based on other popular commentaries where the author parrots whatever the original said.

Urdhva Mukha Paschimattanasana (2)123

In the commentaries written by religious people, by those raised in a religious culture  or from people who copy the commentaries of the two previous categories, it is translated to mean God. In all other commentaries and articles, the authors were very clear that the word was commonly translated to mean “God”, not that it actually meant God.  Below are a few etymological break downs. Note that these are extremely hard to find but all the ones I found agreed.

The root of the word Ishvara comes from īś- (ईश, Ish) which means “capable of” and “owner, ruler, chief of”,[10] ultimately cognate with English own (Germanic*aigana-, PIE *aik-). The second part of the word Ishvara is vara which means depending on context, “best, excellent, beautiful”, “choice, wish, blessing, boon, gift”, and “suitor, lover, one who solicits a girl in marriage”.[11] The composite word, Ishvara literally means “owner of best, beautiful”, “ruler of choices, blessings, boons”, or “chief of suitor, lover”.

10-Arthur Anthony Macdonell (2004), A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120820005, page 47

11Arthur Anthony Macdonell (2004), A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120820005, page 270


Much like “lord” (dominus, kurios) in Western usage, the Sanskrit īśvaráprimarily (late Vedic Sanskrit) has a temporal meaning of “lord, master, prince”. It is in origin a nominalized adjective meaning “capable, able, being in control”, like īśa “owning, possessing” derived from a root īś- “to own, possess; rule over”, ultimately cognate with English own(Germanic *aigana-, PIE *aik-). Sourced from World Heritage Encyclopedia


I.23 īśvarapraṇidhānadvā or from īśvarapraṇidhāna īśvara- ‘ideal, ruler, lord, master, supreme soul’ √īśa ‘to rule over’ -vara ‘best, preferable’ adj.- Defining Isvara by Daniela Vaclavik


If we just look at it from an etymological context, it can mean many things. “Ruler of love”, “Chief lover”  “ruler of choices” “controller of choice”, “controller of love” to name a few. This does not prove that it means “God”.

Another reason this word may not mean God is that it is not used in that context in any of the other major religious books that use Sanskrit. Below is an excerpt from a paper written by Daniela Vaclavik called, Defining Isvara.


Īśvara in the Vedas, Brāhmanas, and Upaniṣads The term īśvara first begins to be used in the Atharaveda, the youngest of the Vedic saṃhitas, in five passages; however, it is not used in the sense of Parameśvara, as it is “used only in the ordinary sense of a lord or master” (Shastri 489).

In the Ṛgveda, the term does not appear at all, and only uses “the epithets īśāna or īśā (from the same root) to designate the power of such deities as the universal sovereign Varuṇa, guardian of the cosmic order; Agni, the god of fire; Indra, lightning-hurling leader of the gods; and Puruṣa, the Cosmic Person” (Pflueger 4751). The term īśāna, a noun meaning “possessing, wealthy, reigning” and in its masculine form as ”a ruler” or “master” (Monier Williams 171) appears “in the Ṛgveda in the sense of ‘a ruler’ and is generally used for Indra and other gods” (Shastri 488). Furthermore, none of all these functional deities represent a highest God, since none of them seems to be consistently above the rest. Additionally, as illustrated in Chapter 3, the Ṛgveda takes a rather agnostic position regarding the nature of the creator of the universe, and further states the many deities are not the creators, for they were created after creation took place. Throughout the Brāhmanas the god Prajāpati is elevated “as the embodiment of Vedic sacrifice” and begins to be connected to the Absolute Brahman (Pflueger 4751).

However, the suffix pati in Prajāpati is another word that has been used in earlier times in the sense of a lord which did not become as widespread as the terms derived from īś (Gonda 133). In the ten older Upaniṣads, the term īśvara “not only has not been used in the sense of Parameśvara, but also, excepting the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, it has not been used at all”, the latter in which it is used in the sense of “capable of” (Shastri 494).


There is more to the above article, but for the sake of brevity, I only included the above passages. If Isvara is not really used in other texts to refer to a supreme being, why are we assuming it means that here?


If you really want to get deep into the meaning of Isvara, read the entirety of the paper above. She goes on to talk about Brahman and the concept of Brahman. Brahman is the word usually used not Isvara. Not that Brahaman means “God” either as the author goes on to explain. The discussion on Brahaman is relevant to this conversation because what do Hindus mean by Brahman or even “God”? Christians or those raised in a predominately Christian culture, immediately equate it with the mono theistic God of the Bible who created everything and reigns as the only Supreme ruler of the Heavens and Earth.   However this is not what Hindus are talking about. If you research Brahman, they are talking about a gender less, infinite, principal that binds everything in the universe. Brahman is not a person that lives in Heaven but a presence that connects all things and can take on many forms.

Again, we can go on and on about Brahman. I am not Hindu or a religious scholar. However, I was raised in the Christian religion and I have studied the history of the Bible from a scholarly perspective. God from the Bible is drastically different from Brahman. So even if Isvara does mean “God”, it does not mean it in the context of the Christain God but in the context of the concept of Brahman.

Is Patanjali referring to a person? Patanjali talks about Isvara in 8 verses. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:23-27 and  verses 2: 1,32,45. When you look at the translation, you see words like “he” which again would make you think that Isvara was God. However, I researched the words that one popular commentary, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda  was translating to mean him (tatra) and he (sah). Tatra actually means “that” or “there” as in “over there” or “there was” not as in “their” that refers to a person. Sah means “that” and in Sanskrit  is a pronoun that has no gender.


In Satchidananda’s defense, he does say that he is using “He”  and “God” for simplicity but that Isvara is not a he or a she but is cosmic consciousness (pg 23). Like many teachers, he felt that the concept of Brahmin was a little complicated so he picked something as close to the concept as possible, the omnipotent and omniscient God of the Bible.  So when Patanjali is talking about Isvara, he is not referring to Isvara as a he or she but as a thing or idea. Below is a non theistic translation that does just that.


I.24 kleśakarmavipākāśayairaparāmṛṣtaḥ puruṣaviśeṣa īśvaraḥ īśvara is a special/distinct puruṣa untouched by the accumulations of karma that arise from afflictions kleśa- ‘affliction’ karmavipāka- ‘effect, result, ripening’ āśaya ‘(by/with) receptacle, abode’ m(a)3pl. aparāmṛṣṭa ‘untouched‘ m(a)1sing. puruṣaviśeṣa ‘distinction, special (adj.)’ m(a)1sing. īśvaraḥ m(a)1sing. I.25 tatra niratiśayam sarvajñabījam there the omniscient seed is unsurpassed tatra ‘in that case, there, therefore’ ind. niratiśaya ‘unsurpassed, perfect‘ adj. sarvajña ‘all-knowing, omniscient’ bīja ‘seed‘ n(a)1sing. Daniela Vaclavik

In summary, there is no proof that Isvara, as used in the Sutras means “God”. Even if it does mean God, it is referring to God more in the sense of Brahman which is not a man sitting in Heaven but is universal consciousness.

Below is a great video that talks about yoga as a science


Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail

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