What is the concept of God in yoga? What role does God play in human bondage and liberation?
Yoga is a practical philosophy. It teaches us to take responsibility for our actions and offers an entirely different understanding of God than do the religionists. Because the goal of yoga is to attain perfect freedom from the binding forces of our personalities as well as from the forces of nature, it places God in that realm of perfect consciousness which is not governed by anything other than itself. Yoga defines God as a special Purusha, a supreme soul, which was not, is not, and will never be affected by afflictions, vehicles of afflictions, karma, and the fruits of karma. All other souls at some time in the past, present, or future somehow fall under the sway of karma and the attendant afflictions of ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. According to yoga, this supreme soul is the only spiritual preceptor of all teachers who were ever born, for God is beyond origin and end. In addition to perfect freedom, unrestricted power of will, creativity, and eternity, in God also lies the “unsurpassed seed of omniscience.”
Yoga defines God as a special Purusha, a supreme soul, which was not, is not, and will never be affected by afflictions, vehicles of afflictions, karma, and the fruits of karma.
This particular notion of God, described in the Yoga Sutra, highlights three intrinsic characteristics: perfect freedom from and transcendence of all karmas and afflictions; the role of primordial spiritual master, the eternal guide of all living beings; and omniscience, perfect knowledge of everything. These three characteristics clearly indicate where the interest of the yogis lies. Yogis strive to attain freedom from the bondage of karma and afflictions, such as ignorance, ego, attachment, and the host of miseries—anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, desire—that originate from these afflictions. The yogis realize that once we are caught in this apparently unending cycle of confusion, attachment, desire, and so on, our vision becomes clouded and it is hard to disentangle ourselves. Only one who was never entangled in the first place can help us free ourselves. Similarly, only one who is already free can help guide us in attaining freedom from the long chain of karma and the fruits of karma. According to yogis, the Supreme Purusha is very special; God is not bound like ordinary souls. Ordinary souls are those that experience a sense of incompleteness, lack of freedom, and lack of perfect knowledge, and thus have an inherent urge to be absorbed in God.
Then does yoga teach us to be totally dependent on God? If so, how can we be responsible for our actions?
Yoga does not teach us to lean on God or to use God as an escape. Rather, it teaches us to make the best use of all the resources we have received as a gift from above to unfold our human potential to its fullest. It diligently introduces the idea of the teacher within because, according to the yogis, God alone is the true primordial master. We cannot expect this primordial master within to take care of our mundane needs, but in the form of inner inspiration, inner guidance, motivation, enthusiasm, courage, and determination, God—the inner teacher—helps us think, speak, and act in a manner which enables us to attain freedom from our karmic bonds.
In no way does yoga make us dependent on God. On the contrary, a yogi would say that God helps us gain freedom from the deluding forces of the world. Once a person knows the liberating force of the omniscient God, who dwells eternally within each of us, this realization naturally manifests in the form of love and faith. This, in turn, makes it possible to surrender ourselves to God. This natural unfoldment of surrender is not an act of helplessness but one of clear understanding between us and the omniscient Divine Being, who constantly guides us along the path. We do not need to make an effort to surrender ourselves to God; rather, the spontaneous wave of gratitude toward that inner guide creates a mental climate of self-surrender. We then need to continue working with ourselves while remaining aware of the fact that anything we do is due to the guidance of the true teacher—God. In this way, we are able to take full responsibility for our present actions without feeding our egos by telling ourselves, “I’m wise and capable of doing what I’m supposed to do without being dependent on anyone else.” We also take full responsibility for our previous karmic deeds, doing our best to undergo karmic purification. Upon realizing that even with intense effort we can hardly even scratch the surface of our previous karmas, without any conflict or hesitation we automatically surrender ourselves to God and attain freedom.
I don’t have any sense of receiving inner inspiration or guidance from within, although this is where the process of surrender you describe seems to start.
That’s correct—it begins with inner inspiration. We receive inner inspiration in its truest sense only after we have gained access to the inner realm, where the Divine Being dwells in Her full glory. Spiritual practice is the way to gain access to that realm. This requires effort. Passively waiting for the Divine Grace to illuminate our inner core is futile. Grace is already there. We have to work hard to remove the factors that are blocking it. Through yogic exercises, pranayama, meditation, contemplation, prayer, and selfless service we attenuate the veil that blocks the flow of inner inspiration and guidance. The thinner the veil, the easier it is to perceive this inner inspiration. With that recognition, the process of surrender naturally unfolds.
Grace is already there. We have to work hard to remove the factors that are blocking it.
You said that yogis conceptualize God the way they do because of their concern with attaining freedom from the bondage of karma and the afflictions of ignorance, ego, etc. that lead to misery. Does this concept of God have anything to do with truth or the reality of an actual God?
Because of the touchy nature of the subject, yogis and yoga texts generally avoid discussing God. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the main text of yoga, brings up this topic within the context of working with the mind and its modifications. Yogis are fully aware that Truth is God and that God is infinite and indescribable. Therefore, any description of God is bound to be incomplete. Moreover, each of the followers of the many religions and sects on the face of the Earth have their preferred notions of God. Any description that conflicts with those notions will offend and anger.
According to the experience of the yogis, if our hearts are purified and our minds are one-pointed we’ll gain an intuitive understanding of God, which is infinitely clearer and more encompassing than our intellectual understanding. This is the reason they place such emphasis on the techniques that lead to purification and one-pointedness. That is also why when Patanjali discusses God, he does so within the narrow frame of how God can help us attain freedom from those elements which disturb our minds and pollute our hearts. Out of the countless powers and characteristics that are intrinsic to God Patanjali mentions only omniscience, eternal freedom from all karmas, and the fact that God is the primordial spiritual teacher. According to yogis, God exists as the Absolute Truth and it is due to this existence that everything else can exist. But the totality of God consciousness cannot be captured in words.