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coach suitcase

“You wish ~” My American friends love this sentence! They use it to tease and taunt each other constantly!

Patrick S. O'Donnell


Yours is a perceptive and important question and the proposed "alternatives" are, in some sense, both correct. Much depends upon what particular philosophical school one subscribes to and thus it could be said that the impersonal Isvara is, in fact and in the end, Atman. At the same time, devotion to a personal deity is quite common and necessary for a host of reasons--and not just for novices!--but largely as a means of facilitating spiritual progress (toward liberation). Of course it strikes one as odd that one can worship a deity, as in bhakti yoga, while in the back of one's mind as it were, there's an understanding that what one is worshipping is, ultimately, not Real (it is only 'provisionally' real). All the same, the experiential awareness of the illusory character (maya) of that personal deity can only be truly had upon liberation, so bhakti (devotional practice) yoga is necessary until such time as one experiences the highest attainments of jnana yoga (the climbing gear necessary to reach the summit of the mountain is no longer required once one has arrived at the mountain top, to modify a common analogy). This is a short and simple response that will have to suffice for now!

I'm grading papers for the next couple of days (and several family members and friends with birthdays soon!) so I'll have to postpone addressing your question with the care and depth it deserves, which at the very least entails clarifying the views of several philosophical schools and discussing some of the differences between Samkhya (theory) and Yoga (practice) although the two systems are in many respects part and parcel of each other. Isherwood was an Advaita Vedantin, and that school's thoughts on these matters are a bit different (although my account above conflated or ignored some of those differences). Part of the difficulty here is the different senses and uses of shared terms like jiva, atman, purusa, Isvara, etc. So, in a couple of days I hope to find the time to post something that will elaborate upon the above reply in a more satisfactory manner.

I'm most grateful for the thoughtful response to the post.


Robert Hockett

Thanks a million for this, Patrick -- very helpful indeed! One quick question: On the one hand, 'yoga' would appear to designate a cluster of practices, or techniques, which I suppose is why it is sometimes labeled a 'science of freedom' or the like. On the other hand, some sutras such as Patanjali's -- at least in the English translations with which I'm familiar -- seem at some points to emphasize the utility of personal devotions, of an alomost loving sort, to Isvara in the practice of yoga. And some of the commentaries I've read, if I recall them correctly, characterized Isvara in highly personalistic terms. What I am wondering about, then, is the relation between these observations and the impersonal Ishvara you mention here. Is it that 'impersonal' here means no distinct self but simply *the* Person, or the Self (Atman)? Or is it that thinking of Ishvara in personalist terms is recommended only for newcomers to the practice, as a sort of heuristic device or crutch that will serve until one transcends personality? (I think I recall at least one commentary -- perhaps Isherwood's -- suggesting something like this.) Or is it perhaps that I've read or remembered too much lumpen-commentary, or indeed even *mis*-read or mis-remembered it (not at all unlikely!)?

Thanks much again for this!,

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