For many years now I have been teaching Yamas and Niyamas (ethical practices of yoga prescribed by the Patanjali Yoga Sutra) to students in Teacher Training programs. I’ve never felt that I fully understood the Niyama called Ishvara Pranadhana. This practice is usually translated as, ‘surrender to god.’ The Yoga Sutra is based on the Sankhya philosophy which is not theistic, it does not have a god. However, the author of the text refers to god (Ishvara) and ‘special souls’ a few places in the text. I have always attributed this anomaly to the fact that the author drew from many sources current to his time. The five yamas were taken verbatim from the Jain religion, as example.

In teaching Ishvara Pranadhana, I have generalized it to mean surrender to life, to destiny, as well as to the soul and, for those who believe in a god, surrender to that god’s will. This fit into the traditional purpose of the Yamas and Niyamas as practices to curb the ego’s expression.

Something I read recently changed my understanding. In Political Violence in Ancient India, by Upinder Singha, I read that in the time of the composition of the Yoga Sutra, Ishvara could mean a ‘mayor’ or ‘village chieftain.’ Later on it meant a ‘king’ and, with the rise of Bhakti in Hinduism, Ishvara became a title reserved for God (or a divine king).

It makes perfect sense that the Yoga Sutra’s prescription for a spiritual, ego curbing life, containing practices that reduced external disturbances, would include obeying the laws given by one’s government. The renunciate yogis of that time were not political, at least they were not supposed to be. The Buddha renounced his kingdom to pursue a search for his spiritual essence. There are records, however, described in Upinder Singha’s book, of kings coming to the Buddha for advice on military matters. And apparently the Buddha answered their questions based on his previous training as a warrior prince.

For modern practitioners, seeking a peaceful environment to pursue a contemplative life, the practice of Ishvara Pranidhana could be interpreted as follows. Drive the speed limit, pay your taxes, etc., obey the law to reduce external and internal disturbances (fear or shame). If you disobey the laws weigh carefully, are you seeking self-gain? Or, are you engaging in a consciously chosen social protest for the greater good as taught by Mahatma Gandhi and yoga practitioners through the ages who exerted themselves to make the world a better place.