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Who Is God According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?

sage patanjaliSutras 24 through 26 of Book One of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

24. Ishwara is a particular Purusha who is untouched [aparamrishta] by the afflictions of life [kleshas], actions [karma] and the results [vipaka] and impressions [ashayai] produced by these actions.

Ishwara, God, is not a mere conglomerate of all that exists, but is a distinctive Person or Spirit, the sole independent Being on Whom all else depends. God is a particular Spirit in the sense that He can be experienced as a definite, definable Being–even pointed out by the Masters of Wisdom.

Part of His uniqueness is the fact that He “touches” and rules all things, but is absolutely untouched by anything. (The Bhagavad Gita emphasizes this, especially.) Although the Source of Existence and Action, Ishwara transcends them and is therefore untouched/unaffected by the kleshas–taints or afflictions inherent in relative existence. The kleshas are: ignorance, egotism, attractions and repulsions towards objects, and desperate clinging to physical life from the fear of death (Yoga Sutras 2:2-9). No action affects Ishwara in any degree (again, see the Gita).

Nevertheless, Ishwara is intimately connected to all things while remaining separate from them. Ishwara is present in all things as the universal Witness, and is nearer to us than anything can be, for Ishwara is the Self of our Self, the Paramatman within which our Atman exists.

25. In Him is the highest limit of Omniscience.

This can also be translated: “In Him is the unsurpassed Seed of Omniscience.” This is very important, for by perfect union with Ishwara the individual can come to share or participate in His omniscience. That is, the finite can experience the consciousness of the Infinite, just as He already experiences the consciousness of each individual being (jiva). This is a fundamental part of Samarasya–liberation (moksha or mukti).

26. Being unconditioned by time He is Teacher [Guru] even of the Ancients.

Having existed eternally, Ishwara has been the Guru of all beings, including those exalted primal beings or “gods” whom he made rulers of the worlds. The same with the Manus, the progenitors of the human race. Perhaps the most important point is that he is also the Guru of all humanity. We may have human teachers, but only God can be our Guru. Unhappily, for centuries the greedy, foolish, and unscrupulous have pretended they were gurus of other human beings, but that is a shameful fiction.

Since God is eternal, it is from Him that all knowledge has come–especially the revelation of spiritual truth. As Vyasa observes in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras: “His purpose is to give grace to living beings, by teaching knowledge and dharma [righteousness].” “There is no other but God to give the teaching which is a boat by which they can cross over the sea of samsara, and He teaches knowledge and dharma to those who take sole refuge in Him.…For all the kinds of knowledge arise from Him, as sparks of fire from a blaze or drops of water from the sea,” says Shankara, commenting on Vyasa’s words. Therefore Patanjali concludes: “Being unconditioned by time He is Guru even of the Ancients.”

God as Guru

Dwelling in the hearts of all, God continues to be the guru of questing souls. This does not mean that qualified spiritual teachers are not helpful to us, but ultimately the yogi must be guided by the Divine from within his own consciousness. “The mind is itself guru and disciple: it smiles on itself, and is the cause of its own well-being or ruin,” wrote the great poet-saint Tukaram (Tukaram’s Teachings, by S. R. Sharma, p. 19).

“The mind will eventually turn into your guru,” said Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna (The Gospel of the Holy Mother, p. 340).

Swami Brahmananda, the “spiritual son” of Sri Ramakrishna, in speaking about the role of an external guru said: “Know this! There is no greater guru than your own mind. When the mind has been purified by prayer and contemplation it will direct you from within. Even in your daily duties, this inner guru will guide you and will continue to help you until the goal is reached” (The Eternal Companion, p. 120).

Therefore Tukaram wrote in one of his hymns: “The guru-disciple relationship is a sign of immaturity” (Tukaram’s Teachings, p. 20). The fact that Shankara writes in the Nirvanastakam: “I am neither guru nor disciple [gururnaiwa shishya],” shows that in realization of the Self the limiting guru-disciple relationship is left behind and dissolves away. (There is, however a non-limiting guru-disciple relationship, such as is seen in the relationship of Yogananda with Sri Yukteswar–especially after Yogananda’s return to India in 1935. This grows out of the earlier guru-disciple interaction if the guru is a perfectly liberated being and the disciple is positively moving toward liberation himself.)

Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahashaya wrote to a student regarding the guru: “No one does anything; all is done by God. The individual [that seems to be the guru] is only an excuse; remain abidingly focused on that Divine Guru; in this is blessing.” And to another: “Guru is the one who is all; Guru is the one who is merciful. You are the Guru within yourself” (Garland of Letters (Patravali), Letters 12 and 45). In Purana Purusha by Dr. Ashoke Kumar Chatterjee it is recorded that Yogiraj made these two statements: “I am not a guru. I do not hold the distinction of “guru” and “disciple.” “The Self is the Guru…the immortal, imperishable Guru.” Just as Patanjali says that Ishwara–God–is the guru of all, so did Lahiri Mahasaya. Ishwara is identified in Indian thought with the solar power. In his diary Lahiri Mahasaya draw the sun and wrote beside it: “This is the Feet of the Guru.” He also wrote: “The Sun is the Form of the Guru.”

Yogananda on gurudom

When Paramhansa Yogananda, who first made Lahiri Mahashaya known in the West, was questioned “about his own role in the religious evolution of this planet,” the great yogi replied: “The one Ocean has become all its waves. You should look to the Ocean, not to the little waves protruding on its bosom” (Swami Kriyananda. The Path, p. 493). Another time he objected strongly to the suggestion that only his writings should be read in the public services of Self-Realization Fellowship, saying: “I came to make you God-conscious, not Yogananda-conscious.” At other times he said: “There is no such thing as ‘Yogananda-realization,’ only God-realization.” To someone who asked about a “disciple,” Yogananda replied firmly: “I never speak of people as my disciples. God is the Guru: They are His disciples” (The Path, p. 327).

Progress without a guru?

If an aspirant neither has nor desires an external guru he can still succeed in spiritual life. That this is so is proven by the fact that the twentieth-century Masters Shirdi Sai Baba, Neem Karoli Baba, Paramhansa Nityananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Swami Rama of Hardwar (Ram Kunj), Om Baba of Delhi, Swami Ramdas of Anandashram, and Ramana Maharshi attained enlightenment without the agency of an external guru. Ramana Maharshi particularly emphasized that God is the guru of all, saying: “Only the Supreme Self, which is ever shining in your heart as the reality, is the Sadguru [True Guru]” (The Power of the Presence, p. 116).

The supreme example of someone who attained enlightenment without a guru is Buddha, who is referred to in Buddhist texts as “Self-Awakened.” All spiritual life is self-initiated from within; we are both guru and disciple as Krishna and Arjuna symbolize in the Bhagavad Gita.

Saints on gurudom

Paramhansa Nityananda said: “He [God] is the One guru, the guru Who is in all, the guru of the universe. No [human] person can be your guru, a person can only be secondary. The real guru is Guru of the Universe” (Chidakasha Gita 105). To emphasize this, Nityananda never gave initiation or became a “guru” in any manner or sense, though he was inspirer, guide, and advisor to many.

Neem Karoli Baba was wont to say, “I make devotees [of God], not disciples” (Divine Reality, by Ravi Prakash Pande, p. ii.).

Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh used to say: “I abhor gurudom”–the debasing of the student-teacher interaction to a personality cult.

Swami Yatiswarananda, Vice-president of the Ramakrishna Mission, wrote to one of his students: “We really are not gurus. We bring the message of the Guru of gurus. What all service you can get from me you will. But please turn to Him for light and guidance, for peace and blessedness. As you yourself are finding, human beings are not good enough. The Lord, the Guru of gurus, alone can give us the shelter, the illumination and the bliss we need.” That sums it up very well.

Another leading spiritual figure of the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Premeshananda, once wrote: “We have presently become inundated by this ‘guru doctrine.’ The purpose of the guru is to lead us to the realization of God; but God has been left behind, and the guru has become the latest fashion. So it is not safe to talk about a particular person. If one places a powerful personality before others, they will hold on to him instead of to God.”

The aspiring yogi can then feel safe and assured that God will be his guru, just as He has been for all the enlightened throughout the ages.

Sri Ramakrishna on gurus

In conclusion let us look at the words of Sri Ramakrishna himself on the subject as found in the Majumdar translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: “Satchidananda [Existence-Consciousness-Bliss] alone is the guru; He alone will teach” (1.2.8; also: 4.2.1, 5.1.2, 5.5.1). “If somebody addresses me as a guru I say, ‘Away you rascal!’ How can I be a guru? There is no other guru except Satchidananda. There is no other refuge but Him. He alone is the ferryman who takes one across the ocean of relative existence” (1.12.8). “A man cannot be a guru” (2.19.6). “He who says of himself that he is a guru is a person of poor understanding” (3.17.4). “The more you will advance, the more you will see that it is He who has become everything and it is He who is doing everything. He alone is the guru and He alone is the spiritual ideal of your choice. He alone is giving jnana, bhakti and everything” (4.26.2). “Do you pray to Satchidananda Guru every morning? Do you?” (4.9.2).

In the Nikhilananda translation, on October 22, 1885, when someone refers to someone as Sri Ramakrishna’s disciple, he says: “There is not a fellow under the sun who is my disciple. On the contrary, I am everybody’s disciple. All are the children of God. All are His servants. I too am a child of God. I too am His servant. ‘Uncle Moon’ is every child’s uncle!”

Shankara comments: “Just as the human teachers turn their face towards the wholly devoted pupil and give him their favor, so this supreme teacher gives his favor when there is pure contemplation on him.”

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