Last year I studied a book containing a dozen side-by-side translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, looking for differences and common threads. Among the scores of verses I studied in this way, the one on devotion had the most diverse translations.
This is food for thought.
Ishvarapranidanat, the Sanskrit term for the practice of devotion, is composed of two words. Ishvara means lord, master, or controller; it applies to royalty as well as to the divine. Pranidanat is a compound word whose components translate literally as lay down before. The translators use various modern phrases to convey the meaning of the compounded word. They render ishvara as god, the supreme being, your innermost source; pranidanata as devotion, alignment, dedication.
This diversity of language reminds me how differently we each experience the divine. Whatever similarities there are tend to be clouded by the different words we use. It stands to reason: you can hardly capture something so ineffable in a single word; it’s not “black” or “white”, “sweet” or “bitter.” Monks and other devotees may spend a lifetime expressing their devotion to the divine, whether they use words or not. Unbeknownst to ourselves, the rest of us express it through our vocations: physicists, doctors, social workers, mothers, soldiers…the list would circle the equator.
Even within my own experience, I sense the divine differently from day to day. My collection of translations of my own experience would include the words “awe,” “mystery,” “fear,” “wonderment,” “joy,” “peace,” “grace,” “gratitude,” and many others. Although I wouldn’t routinely use the term “the divine” as the object of my feelings, it is as good as any.
But no word could really capture for me the experience of the divine; too much of it lies beyond the part of me that speaks. Sometimes music expresses it; at other times silence does. The light in certain pictures captures it; but darkness holds it too. The terms are as numerous and evocative as stars, and just as distant from the real experience.
I don’t believe Jesus was the only one of us to contain the divine. But I love what he said in his Sermon on the Mount, and so I have put my own words to the Lord’s Prayer. This has helped me to develop my own understanding of his sermon, to get deeper into the experience it evokes and explore what devotion might mean to me.
In a way, this is the habit I am learning from the yamas and niyamas: to absorb a practice, and then to express it through intention and action.
I am of a family with a billion brothers –
you, my mother, know my every cell.
Ever other is your place of dwelling
and my love for you so swelling is
that I can only breath your name.
Let my world but imitate
(O fractal infinite, perfection)
that which is of you
and I shall need no other food.
Let me always hear
in the cacophony of family
or in my myriad self
You are time, love, emptiness, my breath;
I in your billionth universe
long to sing a single song of you.