Finding the Inner Empire State of Mind, or Exploring God and Ishvara Pranidhana

One of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga is Niyama—a set of rules to live by if you choose to accept that mission.

There are five niyamas. Ishvara Pranidhana is the fifth one and often interpreted as devotion, a sense of surrendering to god or the Universe. I’m writing about it because it’s the one concept I’ve had the hardest time understanding and practicing.

Like M.I.A would say, “Come take a walk with me.”

The Root of Things

Before we get into my own subjective interpretation, here’s the etymology breakdown of what Ishvara Pranidhana literally translates to from Sanskrit:

Pranidha is the idea of surrendering or bowing to.

  • Pra means front
  • ni is a preposition denoting in or beneath
  • dha is a verb, meaning to place or to lay

Pranidha literally means “to place in front of”.

Īśvara (pronounced Ishvara) is a concept signifying a supreme being who rules the universe. Īśvara comes from the verb īś, meaning to have power, which can be interpreted as a king, a master, a God.

A Brief History

Going back in time, the term īśvara first appeared in one of the four ancient Veda texts—the Atharvaveda Samhita, if you fancy looking it up—estimated to have been written in 2nd millennium BCE.

In that text, Īśvara was identified as the original cosmic man Purusha. In a class I took with Chase Bossart, he called Purusha James Brown, the Soul man of the Universe.

In the Upanishads, the word Īśvara is used to describe the Collective Consciousness. “God” is not a gendered being sitting somewhere high up there; ”God” is actually a state of mind, like Empire is a state of mind, and there’s nothing you can’t do, if you’re Jay Z.

Because so few of us have a direct experience with this state (unassisted by drugs and other stuff), “God” has been personified and given all kinds of names, forms and genders across time and cultures.

In the Bhagavad Gita, written somewhere between fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the term Ishvara took on a modified meaning through a personalized God named Krishna, a human form embodying the abstract idea of a supreme divine being.

Krishna, according to the Gita, is the lord of all creatures, and we’re told to offer him unquestioned devotion.

Faith, Skepticism, and The Sky

The idea of God has always been trying for me, as the idea of unquestioned devotion to someone, *anyone*—especially someone with a penis (sorry guys)—goes against my inclination to question things.

I didn’t grow up in a religious household. We didn’t go to a church or mosque or temple. I often heard mentions of God, but this God didn’t have a name or a face. In fact, the literal translation in Vietnamese for God connotes: “The Sky”.

In Vietnamese culture, there are copious references to The Sky. It’s prevalent in everyday speech. We blame bad things on The Sky. “Ah, The Sky must be angry”, “The Sky must be sad”. We ask The Sky for blessings. We thank The Sky for our good fortunes. We burn incense and offered plates of fruits and bow to The Sky at the end of the year, asking for another one just like this, if not better.

Around 10 or 11 years old, I started to rebel against The Sky and everyone who spoke with reverence about said sky. It’s just the sky! It’s a natural phenomenon—just the atmosphere with layers of gases. Didn’t they study science?

I couldn’t understand this blind faith and devotion, giving the sky all kinds of powers that it clearly did not have, other than the ability to make rain and create thunderstorms.

The whole thing seemed primitive to me. I even began to actively blame this practice for the violence in the world. “It’s this blind faith that leads to wars”, I thought, “when people worship a god they believe is superior”.

Voltaire and Prière à Dieu

While studying French, I read a passage by Voltaire, Prière à Dieu—Prayer to God—and it made a huge impression on my thinking about the universality of the notion of God.

In the essay, Voltaire asked God that the people celebrating Him by lighting candles also support those who worship his sunlight; that those covered in white gowns insisting “you must love God” do not hate those who contend the same thing wearing a black cassock.

After reading it, I became convinced that God is simply an abstract entity we humans create to give ourselves a sense of security in a world where the ground is always shifting, an imaginary friend to keep us company in our lonely hours.

And so, the concept of bowing or surrendering to God has been the hardest for me to grasp in the study of Ishvara Pranidhana. I couldn’t as much as believe in a made-up thing, how could I bow to it? What would I surrender to?

Control and Humility (the non air conditioning kind)

Philosophy aside, the more pertinent question for me is, “How does this apply to the way I live?” “God” is this concept created so many years ago, so long ago that my mind cannot even fathom its duration. (I mean, how long ago is 2nd century BCE?)

Slowly, really slowly, I keep studying the nuances of this idea, and, as Rainier Maria Rilke would say, start to “live my way into the answer”.

The one thing softening me the most from my strong opposition to God is humility, the state of mind that acknowledges—reluctantly or humbly—that I’m not in charge of everything, that I could not possibly be directly responsible for all the causes and conditions in the world.

Another idea I really like is “God” is not some invisible man in the sky, but really the higher being within us all. This makes a difference to me in embracing this surrendering to God thing.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krisha is the the embodiment of our internal guide, the supreme self within. I’m much more comfortable with thinking *I’m* the one making the rain (I keed); at least I feel more empowered by that idea.

Looking Inward 

If we were to do some simple math about the attributes of God, we would have something like this:

  • God is Love, God is within, therefore, Love is within.
  • God is Good, God is within, therefore, Good is within.

There’s a Bible verse where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” From that, we could derive: The Way is within, The Truth is within, The Life is within.

Psychologically, when I do this mathematical operation, I’m much more receptive to these lofty ideas. At the same time, they’re much more intimidating to digest, if not downright frightening.

The Way is within? What way? To where? The Truth is within? What truth? Does that suggest there’s something… not true? And where exactly is “within”?

When I think about this, I wonder if it was necessary for humans to invent a god. I wonder if the idea of something as powerful as Love and Good and Truth can be contained inside us was too much for us to handle.

It’s like that Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

I Wonder What it’s Like to Be a Rainmaker

What about this idea of a Creator? You could say that we are, to some extent, the creators of our own world. We, as our individual selves, through our thoughts and actions, create relationships, construct buildings and bridges, cook things, etc., and we also break them down.

We build things, and they build us. We destroy things, and we eventually also come apart. There is a tiny fragment of the world that’s our own doing, and collectively, we make up the whole world (as we know it).

This is where I am. This is how far I have gotten in the attempt to understand and practice Ishvara Pranidhana.

When I say namaste, when I put my hands together in front of my chest and press them into my sternum, I am literally “laying in front of”. In front of what? Well, my lungs and heart and diaphragm. And if that’s all I ever want to bow to, that would be enough, those amazing organs work tirelessly to keep me well and alive for another day, another breath. I could surrender to my heart. I could believe in my diaphragm.

It’s ultimately a gesture that I choose to assign a meaning to, a reminder to take responsibility for creating the world I live in, and to stay humble. Some people would call it bowing to God, or the Universe, or Consciousness, or The Sky, or Ishvara. Or James Brown.

This whole surrendering thing, then, is a part of getting to know my own Empire state of mind, finding the internal Brooklyn and Tribeca, starting with being aware of my big toes (and one hand in the airrre…).

James Brown singing

Here’s to you, James Brown.