This writing is part of a longer series on the eight limbs of yoga. This week I am finishing up with the niyamas, which make up the second limb. The last of the five niyamas is Isvara Pranidhana, which can be translated as ‘dedicating the fruits of one’s actions to God.’ Consider how you conceive of that which is bigger than your limited ego-self: do you relate to it as a Great Mystery, as the Life Force, as True Nature or as a theistic God? This is very personal, and there are no right answers.
Isvara Pranidhana asks us to lay the fruits of our actions at the feet of God. There are so many factors influencing any given situation and our actions are just one piece. We have control over the intention behind our actions but less control over the outcome of those actions. Surrendering to the mystery is an acknowledgment of this fact. To surrender the fruits of one’s actions to God is to stand in humility before the Universe and recognize that we are ultimately not in control. How would you perform a task if you were doing it as an offering to the Divine?
Yoga teaches us to pay great attention to our intention and to our moment to moment experience. The karma (effect) of any action (cause) is based on the intention behind the action (another cause), not the action itself, and not the result. When we start to pay attention we will see that we sometimes act without clear intention; sometimes our actions are reflexive; sometimes they are motivated purely by self-interest; other times our intentions may be quite pure. What’s important is to pay more attention to how we begin. What is inspiring our action? And then to trust the larger process that is at work in our lives and surrender to all that is mysterious and sacred. That is Isvara Pranidhana.
Yesterday I was making a sunset fire (agni hotra) by the fish pond where I live. There is a net over the pond, and something was caught in the net. I looked and thought I saw a bat. I felt afraid. Then I thought I saw a chipmunk: I felt less afraid; finally I realized it was a robin. The robin was caught in the net. I still felt fearful by the erratic way the net was moving as the bird tried to free itself. I wanted to just attend to my fire, but I found myself walking to the other side of the pond, where I was able to lift the net enough that the bird could fly away. The bird was scared, and I was scared, but my body instinct wanted to help the trapped animal. I returned to my fire feeling peaceful. I wouldn’t have been able to ignore the trapped animal. There was a kind of purity of intention in that action.
The Buddhists say that we will never fully understand all the causes behind the events of our lives because the chain of cause and effect is so long, and there are so many interconnections that we can never fully grasp them all. Surrendering the fruits of our actions to God is a way of acknowledging how much is truly out of our hands. Isvara Pranidhana is that final act of letting go and letting be: trusting that all is as it should be–and even getting down on our knees in humilty before all that is unfathomable and all the Grace that is present every moment.
Mukunda Stiles translates Patanjali’s sutra on Isvara Pranidhana (II, 46) this way:
From devotion to the Lord, one is given perfect absorption into spirit.
What if the next action you took were an offering to the Divine? How would that change the quality of your action? Pay more attention to your actions themselves rather than the results. How does it feels to attend more to your actions rather than to the outcomes? How would it feel at the end of each day to surrender the results of all your good effort to something larger than your limited self?
As you explore, I welcome your reflections.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti Om Peace, Peace, Peace, Shannon