Īśvara | Ishvara


1. Īśvara

Īśvara (Sanskrit: ईश्वर) is a concept in Hinduism, with a wide range of meanings that depend on the era and the school of Hinduism.

In ancient texts of Indian philosophy, depending on the context, Īśvara can mean Supreme Soul, ruler, lord, king, queen or husband.

In medieval era Hindu texts, depending on the school of Hinduism, Īśvara means God, Supreme Being, personal god, or special Self.

In Śaivism and for many Hindus, Īśvara is synonymous with "Śiva", sometimes as Maheśvara or Parameśvara meaning the "Supreme lord", or as an Īṣṭa -deva (personal god).  

Similarly for Vaiṣṇavas and many Hindus, it is synonymous with Kṛṣṇa or Viṣṇu.

In traditional Bhakti movements, Īśvara is one or more deities of an individual's preference from Hinduism's polytheistic canon of deities.

In modern sectarian movements such as Ārya Samāj and Brahmoism, Īśvara takes the form of a monotheistic God. In Yoga school of Hinduism, it is any "personal deity" or "spiritual inspiration".

2. Etymology

The root of the word Īśvara comes from īś- (ईश) which means "capable of" and "owner, ruler, chief of".

The second part of the word Īśvara 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".

The composite word, Īśvara literally means "owner of best, beautiful", "ruler of choices, blessings, boons", or "chief of suitor, lover".

As a concept, Īśvara in ancient and medieval Sanskrit texts, variously means God, Supreme Being, Supreme Soul, lord, king or ruler, rich or wealthy man, god of love, deity Śiva, one of the Rudras, prince, husband and the number 11.

The word Īśvara never appears in Ṛg Veda. However, the verb īś- does appear in Ṛg Veda, where the context suggests that the meaning of it is "capable of, able to".

It is absent in Sāmaveda, is rare in Atharvaveda, appears in Saṁhitās of Yajurveda. The contextual meaning, however as the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini explains, is neither God nor Supreme Being.

The word Īśvara appears in numerous ancient Dharmasūtras. However, there Īśvara does not mean God, but means Vedas.

Some consider that Īśvara in Dharmasūtras could alternatively mean King; with the context literally asserting that "the Dharmasūtras are as important as Īśvara (the king) on matters of public importance".

In Śaivite traditions of Hinduism, the term is used as part of the compound "Maheśvara" ("great lord") as a name for Śiva.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism it is used as part of the compound "Avalokiteśvara" ("lord who hears the cries of the world"), the name of a bodhisattva revered for his compassion.

When referring to divine as female, particularly in Śaktism, the feminine Īśvarī is sometimes used.

In Advaita Vedanta school, Īśvara is a monistic Universal Absolute that connects and is the Oneness in everyone and everything.

3. Schools of thought

Among the 6 systems of Hindu philosophy, Sāṅkhya and Mimāṅsā do not consider the concept of Īśvara, i.e., a supreme being, relevant. Yoga, Vaiśeṣika, Vedanta and Nyāya schools of Hinduism discuss Īśvara, but assign different meanings.

Īśvara is a sort of metaphysical concept in Yogasūtras:

It does not mention deity anywhere, nor does it mention any devotional practices (Bhakti), nor does it give Īśvara characteristics typically associated with a deity.

In Yoga school of Hinduism Īśvara is neither a creator God nor the universal Absolute of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.

Some theistic sub-schools of Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, inspired by the Yoga school, explain the term Īśvara as the "Supreme Being that rules over the cosmos and the individuated beings".

In Sāṅkhya-Yoga schools of Hinduism, Īśvara is neither a creator-God, nor a saviour-God.

The Bhakti sub-schools refer to Īśvara as a Divine Lord, or the deity of specific Bhakti sub-school.

Modern sectarian movements have emphasized Īśvara as Supreme Lord; for example,

- Hare Krishna movement considers Kṛṣṇa as the Lord,

- Ārya Samāj and Brahmoism movements – influenced by Christian and Islamic movements in India conceptualize Īśvara as a monotheistic all powerful Lord.  

- In traditional theistic sub-schools of Hinduism, such as the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedanta of Rāmānuja and Dvaita Vedanta of Mādhva, Īśvara is identified as Lord Vishnu/Nārāyaṇa, which is distinct from the Prakṛti (material world) and Puruṣa (soul, spirit).

4. In Sāṅkhya

Sāṅkhya is called one of the several major non-theistic schools of Hinduism by some scholars.

Here Īśvara is considered an irrelevant concept, neither defined nor denied, in Sāṅkhya school of Hindu philosophy.

5. In Yoga

The Yogasūtras of Patañjali, the foundational text of Yoga school of Hinduism, uses the term Īśvara in 11 verses: I.23 through I.29, II.1, II.2, II.32 and II.45.

Ever since the Sūtra's release, Hindu scholars have debated and commented on who or what is Īśvara?

These commentaries range from defining Īśvara from a "personal god" to "special self" to "anything that has spiritual significance to the individual".  

While Patañjali's terse verses can be interpreted either as theistic or non-theistic, Patañjali's concept of Īśvara in Yoga philosophy functions as a “transformative catalyst or guide for aiding the yogi on the path to spiritual emancipation".

īśvara-praṇidhānād-vā ||23||
Concentration may also be attained through devotion to Īśvara.

kleśa karma vipāka-āśayaiḥ-aparāmṛṣṭaḥ puruṣa-viśeṣa īśvaraḥ ||24||
Īśvara is a special kind of Being, untouched by ignorance and the products of ignorance, not subject to karmas or saṁskāras or the results of action.

tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajña-bījam ||25||
In Him, knowledge is infinite; in others it is only a germ.

sa eṣa pūrveṣām-api-guruḥ kālena-anavacchedāt ||26||
He was the teacher even of the earliest teachers, since He is not limited by time.

tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ ||27||
The word which express Him is OM.

taj-japaḥ tad-artha-bhāvanam ||28||
This word must be repeated with meditation upon its meaning.

tataḥ pratyak-cetana-adhigamo-'py-antarāya-abhavaś-ca ||29||
Hence comes knowledge of the Ātman and destruction of the obstacles to that knowledge.

– Yoga Sūtras I.23-29

This sūtra of Yoga philosophy of Hinduism adds the characteristics of Īśvara as that special Self which is unaffected (अपरामृष्ट, aparāmṛṣṭa) by:

- one's obstacles/hardships (क्लेश, kleśa),
- one's circumstances created by past or one's current actions (कर्म, karma),
- one's life fruits (विपाक, vipāka), and
- one's psychological dispositions/intentions (आशय, āśaya).

Patañjali's concept of Īśvara is neither a creator God nor the universal Absolute of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.

6. In Vaiśeṣika school of Hinduism

Vaiśeṣika school of Hinduism, as founded by Kaṇāda in 1st millennium BC, neither required nor relied on Īśvara for its atomistic naturalism philosophy:

To it, substances and paramāṇu (atoms) were eternal, they moved and interacted based on impersonal, eternal adṛṣṭa (अदृष्ट, invisible) laws of nature.

The concept of Īśvara, among others, entered into Vaiśeṣika School many centuries later in 1st millennium AD. This evolution in ideas aimed to explain how and why its so-called "atoms" have a particular order and proportions.

These later-age ancient Vaiśeṣika scholars retained their belief that substances are eternal, added Īśvara as another eternal who is also omniscient and omnipresent (not omnipotent).

Īśvara did not create the world, according to this school of Hindu scholars, but He only created invisible laws that operate the world and then He becomes passive and lets those hidden universal laws do its thing.  

Vaiśeṣika School’s Īśvara can be understood as an eternal God who co-exists in the universe with eternal substances and atoms, but He "winds up the clock, and lets it run its course".

7. In Nyāya

Early Nyāya school scholars considered the hypothesis of Īśvara as a creator God with the power to grant blessings, boons and fruits.

However, the early Nyāya scholars rejected this hypothesis, and were non-theistic.

Later scholars of Nyāya school reconsidered this question and offered counter arguments for what is Īśvara and various arguments to prove the existence of Īśvara.

In Nyāyasūtra's Book 4, Chapter 1 examines what causes production and destruction of entities (life, matter) in universe. It considers many hypotheses, including Īśvara.

Verses 19-21, postulates Īśvara exists and is the cause, states a consequence of postulate, then presents contrary evidence, and from contradiction concludes that the postulate must be invalid.

Proposition sūtra:
Īśvara is the cause, since we see sometimes human action lacks fruits (results).

Prima facie objection sūtra:
This is not so since, as a matter of fact, no fruit is accomplished without human action.

Conclusion sūtra:
Not so, since it is influenced by him.

— Nyāya Sūtra, IV.1.19 - IV.1.21

Centuries later, the 5th century CE Nyāya school scholar Praṣtapāda revisited the premise of Īśvara:

He was followed by Udayana, who in his text Nyāyakusumanjali, interpreted "it" in verse 4.1.21 of Nyāya Sūtra above, as "human action" and "him" as "Īśvara", then he developed counter arguments to prove the existence of Īśvara.

In developing his arguments, he inherently defined Īśvara as efficient cause, omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, giver of gifts, ability and meaning to humanity, divine creator of the world as well as the moral principles, and the unseen power that makes the karma doctrine work.

8. In Mimāṅsā

Mimāṅsā scholars of Hinduism questioned what is Īśvara (God)? They used their Pramāṇa tools to cross examine answers offered by other schools of Hinduism:

For example, when Nyāya scholars stated God is omnipotent, omniscient and infallible, that the world is the result of God's creation which is proved by the presence of creatures, just like human work proves human existence,

Mimāṅsā scholars asked why does this God create the world, for what reason?

Further, they added, it cannot be because of Īśvara's love to human beings because this world – if Īśvara created it – is imperfect and human souls are suffering in it.

Mimāṅsā scholars of Hinduism raised numerous objections to any definition of Īśvara along with its premises, deconstructed justifications offered, and considered Īśvara concept unnecessary for a consistent philosophy and mokṣa (soteriology).

In Vedanta

9. Advaita Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism proclaims that at the empirical level Īśvara is the cause of the universe and the one who awards the fruits of every action. He is defined as the one without likes and dislikes, as well embodied with compassion.

Īśvara is that which is "free from avidyā (ignorance), free from ahaṁkṛti (ego-sense), free from bandhana (bondage)", a Self that is "pure, enlightened, liberated".

Having accepted and established Īśvara, Advaita Vedanta proclaims that the real nature of Īśvara (existence, consciousness and bliss) is non-different from the real nature of an individual.

This gives room in Advaita Vedanta to show the nature of Īśvara as both the material and instrumental cause of this universe and the individual who is limited in his own capacities as unreal and declare that there is oneness between the two having negated the qualities.

This establishes Īśvara as 'saguṇa' or with attributes from the empirical existence and 'Nirguṇa' from the absolute sense. This Oneness is accepted only at the level of 'Mukti' or ultimate realization and not at the 'vyavahāra' or empirical level.

At the absolute level there is no otherness nor is distinction between Jīva (living being) and Īśvara, and any attempt to distinguish the two is a false idea, one based on wrong knowledge, according to Advaita Vedanta.

ईश्वरः अहम् - Īśvara, I am.
— Ādi Śaṅkara, Upadeśasāhasri 2.3.1, 2.10.8

Other Advaitic Hindu texts resonate with the monist views of Ādi Śaṅkara:

For example, Īśa Upaniṣad, in hymn 1.5-7, states Īśvara is "above everything, outside everything, beyond everything, yet also within everything"; he who knows himself as all beings and all beings as himself – he never becomes alarmed before anyone:

He becomes free from fears, from delusions, from root cause of evil. He becomes pure, invulnerable, unified, free from evil, true to truth, liberated like Īśvara.

10. Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedanta

Īśvara, in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedanta sub-school of Hinduism, is a composite concept of dualism and non-dualism, or "non-dualism with differentiation":

Īśvara, Viśiṣṭādvaita scholars such as the 11th century Rāmānuja state, is the Supreme Creator and synonymous with Brahman. Equated with Viṣṇu in Viśiṣṭādvaita or one of his Avatār, he is both the material and efficient cause, transcendent and immanent.

Īśvara manifests in 5 forms, believe Viśiṣṭādvaita:

1) parā (transcendent),
2) vyūha (emanations),
3) Vibhāva (incarnations),
4) Antaryāmin (dwells inside), and
5) archa (icons).

According to this sub-school Īśvara possesses 6 divine qualities:

1) jñāna (knowledge),
2) balā (strength),
3) aiśvarya (lordship),
4) Śakti (power),
5) vīrya (virility) and
6) tejas (splendour).

Rāmānuja's Viśiṣṭādvaita concepts provided the foundation for several Bhakti movements of Hinduism, such as those by Śrī Aurobindo and has been suggested as having influenced Bāsava's Lingayatism.

11. Dvaita Vedanta

The Dvaita (dualism) sub-school of Vedanta Hinduism, founded by 13th century Mādhva, defines Īśvara as creator God that is distinct from Jīva (individual souls in living beings).

Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu) is considered to be Īśvara, and the Vaiṣṇavism movement arose on the foundation developed by Dvaita Vedanta sub-school.

Īśvara (God) is a complete, perfect and the highest reality to Dvaitas, and simultaneously the world is a separate reality for them, unlike competing thoughts in other sub-schools of Vedanta.

In Dvaita sub-school, Jīva (individual soul) is different, yet dependent on Īśvara (God):

Both possess the attributes of consciousness, bliss and existence, but the individual soul is considered atomic, while God is all encompassing. The attributes of Jīva struggle to manifest, while of God it is fully manifested.

Mādhva states there are 5 permutations of differences between Jīva (individual souls) and Īśvara (God):

1) between God and souls,
2) between God and matter,
3) between souls and matter,
4) between one soul and another soul, and
5) between one material thing and another material thing.

The differences are both qualitative and quantitative.

Unlike Advaita Vedāntins who hold that knowledge can lead to Oneness with everyone and everything as well as fusion with the Universal Timeless Absolute, to the state of Mokṣa in this life,

Dvaita Vedāntins hold that Mokṣa is possible only in after-life if God so wills (if not, then one's soul is reborn).

Further, Mādhva highlights that God creates individual souls, but the individual soul never was and never will become one with God; the best it can do is to experience bliss by getting infinitely close to God.

The world, called Māyā, is held as the Divine Will of Īśvara.

Jīva suffers, experiences misery and bondage, state Dvaitas, because of "ignorance and incorrect knowledge" (ajñāna). Liberation occurs with the correct knowledge and attainment unto Lord Nārāyaṇa:

It is His grace that gives salvation according to Dvaita sub-school, which is achievable by predominance of sattva guṇa (moral, constructive, simple, kindness-filled life), and therefore Dvaitas must live a dharmic life while constantly remembering, deeply loving Īśvara.

12. Acintya-Bheda-Abheda

Acintyabhedābheda is a sub-school of Vedanta representing the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference, in relation to the creation, Prakṛti, and the Creator, Īśvara (Kṛṣṇa).

In Sanskrit Acintya means 'inconceivable',
Bheda translates as 'difference', and
Abheda translates as 'non-difference’.

Spirit souls (their English phrase for the Sanskrit word: Jīva) are considered part of God, and thus one with Him in quality, and yet at the same time different from Him in quantity.

- This is called Acintya-Bheda-Abheda-tattva, inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference.

Caitanya's philosophy of Acintya-bhedābheda-tattva completed the progression to devotional theism.

Rāmānuja had agreed with Śaṅkara that the Absolute is One only, but he had disagreed by affirming individual variety within that Oneness.

Mādhva had underscored the eternal duality of the Supreme and the Jīva: he had maintained that this duality endures even after liberation.

Caitanya, in turn, specified that the Supreme and the jīvas are "inconceivably, simultaneously one and different" (Acintya-Bheda-Abheda).

13. In Cārvāka

Cārvāka, another atheist tradition in Hinduism, was materialist and a school of philosophical scepticism. They rejected all concepts of Īśvara as well as all forms of supernaturalism.