What Is Ishvara?
The root of the word Ishvara comes from īś- (ईश, Ish) which means “capable of” and “owner, ruler, chief of”, ultimately cognate with English own (Germanic *aigana-, PIE *aik-). The second part of the word Ishvara 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, Ishvara literally means “owner of best, beautiful”, “ruler of choices, blessings, boons”, or “chief of suitor, lover”.
As a concept, Ishvara 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 Shiva, one of the Rudras, prince, husband and the number eleven.
The word Īśvara never appears in Rigveda. However, the verb īś- does appear in Rig veda, where the context suggests that the meaning of it is “capable of, able to”. It is absent in Samaveda, is rare in Atharvaveda, appears in Samhitas of Yajurveda. The contextual meaning, however as the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini explains, is neither god nor supreme being.
The word Ishvara appears in numerous ancient Dharmasutras. However, Patrick Olivelle states that there Ishvara does not mean God, but means Vedas. Deshpande states that Ishvara in Dharmasutras could alternatively mean king, with the context literally asserting that “the Dharmasutras are as important as Ishvara (the king) on matters of public importance”.
In Saivite traditions of Hinduism, the term is used as part of the compound “Maheshvara” (“great lord”) as a name for Shiva. In Mahayana 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 Shaktism, the feminine Īśvarī is sometimes used.
Schools of thought
Among the six systems of Hindu philosophy, Samkhya and Mimamsa do not consider the concept of Ishvara, i.e., a supreme being, relevant. Yoga, Vaisheshika, Vedanta and Nyaya schools of Hinduism discuss Ishvara, but assign different meanings.
Desmarais states that Isvara is a metaphysical concept in Yogasutras. It does not mention deity anywhere, nor does it mention any devotional practices (Bhakti), nor does it give Ishvara characteristics typically associated with a deity. In Yoga school of Hinduism, states Whicher, Isvara is neither a creator God nor the universal Absolute of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Whicher also notes that some theistic sub-schools of Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, inspired by the Yoga school, explain the term Ishvara as the “Supreme Being that rules over the cosmos and the individuated beings”. Malinar states that in Samkhya-Yoga schools of Hinduism, Isvara is neither a creator-God, nor a savior-God.
Zimmer in his 1951 Indian philosophies book noted that the Bhakti sub-schools refer to Isvara as a Divine Lord, or the deity of specific Bhakti sub-school. Modern sectarian movements have emphasized Ishvara as Supreme Lord; for example, Hare Krishna movement considers Krishna as the Lord, Arya Samaj and Brahmoism movements – influenced by Christian and Islamic movements in India – conceptualize Ishvara as a monotheistic all powerful Lord. In traditional theistic sub-schools of Hinduism, such as the Vishishtadvaita Vedanta of Ramanuja and Dvaita Vedanta of Madhva, Ishvara is identified as Lord Vishnu/Narayana, that is distinct from the Prakriti (material world) and Purusa (soul, spirit).
Radhakrishnan and Moore state that these variations in Isvara concept is consistent with Hinduism’s notion of “personal God” where the “ideals or manifestation of individual’s highest Self values that are esteemed”. Riepe, and others,state that schools of Hinduism leave the individual with freedom and choice of conceptualizing Isvara in any meaningful manner he or she wishes, either in the form of “deity of one’s choice” or “formless Brahman (Absolute Reality, Universal Principle, true special Self)”.
In Samkhya school of Hinduism
Samkhya is called one of the several major atheistic schools of Hinduism by some scholars. Others, such as Jacobsen, Samkhya is more accurately described as non-theistic. Isvara is considered an irrelevant concept, neither defined nor denied, in Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy.
In Yoga school of Hinduism
The Yogasutras of Patanjali, the foundational text of Yoga school of Hinduism, uses the term Ishvara in 11 verses: I.23 through I.29, II.1, II.2, II.32 and II.45. Ever since the Sutra’s release, Hindu scholars have debated and commented on who or what is Isvara? These commentaries range from defining Isvara from a “personal god” to “special self” to “anything that has spiritual significance to the individual”. Whicher explains that while Patanjali’s terse verses can be interpreted both as theistic or non-theistic, Patanjali’s concept of Isvara in Yoga philosophy functions as a “transformative catalyst or guide for aiding the yogin on the path to spiritual emancipation”.
Patanjali defines Isvara (Sanskrit: ईश्वर) in verse 24 of Book 1, as “a special Self (पुरुषविशेष, puruṣa-viśeṣa)”,
Sanskrit: क्लेश कर्म विपाकाशयैःपरामृष्टः पुरुषविशेष ईश्वरः ॥२४॥
– Yoga Sutras I.24
This sutra of Yoga philosophy of Hinduism adds the characteristics of Isvara as that special Self which is unaffected (अपरामृष्ट, aparamrsta) by one’s obstacles/hardships (क्लेश, klesha), one’s circumstances created by past or one’s current actions (कर्म, karma), one’s life fruits (विपाक, vipâka), and one’s psychological dispositions/intentions (आशय, ashaya).
Patanjali’s concept of Isvara is neither a creator God nor the universal Absolute of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.
In Vaisesika school of Hinduism
Vaiśeṣika school of Hinduism, as founded by Kanada in 1st millennium BC, neither required nor relied on Ishvara for its atomistic naturalism philosophy. To it, substances and paramāṇu (atoms) were eternal, they moved and interacted based on impersonal, eternal adrsta (अदृष्ट, invisible) laws of nature. The concept of Ishvara, among others, entered into Vaisheshika 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 Ishvara as another eternal who is also omniscient and omnipresent (not omnipotent). Ishvara 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. Thus, Vaisheshika’s Ishvara mirrors Deus otiosus of Deism. Vaisheshika school’s Ishvara, states Klaus Klostermaier, 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”.
In Nyaya school of Hinduism
Early Nyaya school scholars considered the hypothesis of Ishvara as a creator God with the power to grant blessings, boons and fruits. However, the early Nyaya scholars rejected this hypothesis, and were non-theistic or atheists.Later scholars of Nyaya school reconsidered this question and offered counter arguments for what is Ishvara and various arguments to prove the existence of Ishvara.
In Nyayasutra’s Book 4, Chapter 1 examines what causes production and destruction of entities (life, matter) in universe. It considers many hypotheses, including Ishvara. Verses 19-21, postulates Ishvara exists and is the cause, states a consequence of postulate, then presents contrary evidence, and from contradiction concludes that the postulate must be invalid.
सिद्धान्तसूत्र : ईश्वरः कारणम्, पुरुषकर्माफल्यदर्शनात्
पूर्वपक्षसूत्र : न, पुरुषकर्माभावे फ्लानिष्पत्तेः
सिद्धान्तसूत्र : तत्कारितत्वादहेतुः
Proposition sutra: Ishvara is the cause, since we see sometimes human action lacks fruits (results).
Prima facie objection sutra: This is not so since, as a matter of fact, no fruit is accomplished without human action.
Conclusion sutra: Not so, since it is influenced by him.— Nyaya Sutra, IV.1.19 – IV.1.21 
Centuries later, the 5th century CE Nyaya school scholar Prastapada revisited the premise of Ishvara. He was followed by Udayana, who in his text Nyayakusumanjali, interpreted “it” in verse 4.1.21 of Nyaya Sutra above, as “human action” and “him” as “Ishvara”, then he developed counter arguments to prove the existence of Ishvara. In developing his arguments, he inherently defined Ishvara 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.
In Mimamsa school of Hinduism
Mīmāṃsā scholars of Hinduism questioned what is Ishvara (God)? They used their pramana tools to cross examine answers offered by other schools of Hinduism. For example, when Nyaya 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, Mimamsa scholars asked, why does this God create the world, for what reason? Further, they added, it cannot be because of Ishvara’s love to human beings because this world – if Ishvara created it – is imperfect and human souls are suffering in it. Mimamsa scholars of Hinduism raised numerous objections to any definition of Ishvara along with its premises, deconstructed justifications offered, and considered Ishvara concept unnecessary for a consistent philosophy and moksha (soteriology).
In Vedanta school of Hinduism
Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism proclaims that at the empirical level Ishvara 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 (vaiShamya NairgghruNya doSha vihInaH). Ishvara is that which is “free from avidya (ignorance), free from ahamkrti (ego-sense), free from bandhana (bondage)”, a Self that is “pure, enlightened, liberated”. Having accepted and established Ishvara, Advaita Vedanta proclaims that the real nature of Ishvara (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 Ishvara 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 Ishvara as ‘saguNa’ or with attributes from the empirical existence and ‘nirguNa’ from the absolute sense. This oneness is accepted only at the level of ‘mukti’ or ultimate realization and not at the ‘vyavahara’ or empirical level. At the absolute level there is no otherness nor distinction between Jiva (living being) and Ishvara, and any attempts to distinguish the two is a false idea, one based on wrong knowledge, according to Advaita Vedanta.
Ishvara, I am.— Adi Shankara, Upadesasahasri 2.3.1, 2.10.8 
Other Advaitin Hindu texts resonate with the monist views of Adi Shankara. For example, Isa Upanishad, in hymn 1.5-7, states Ishvara 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 Ishvara.
Ishvara, in Vishishtadvaita Vedanta sub-school of Hinduism, is a composite concept of dualism and non-dualism, or “non-dualism with differentiation”. Ishvara, Vishishtadvaitin scholars such as the 11th century Ramanuja state, is the supreme creator and synonymous with Brahman. Equated with Vishnu in Vishishtadvaita or one of his avatar, he is both the material and efficient cause, transcendent and immanent. Ishvara manifests in five forms, believe Vishishtadvaitins: para (transcendent), vyuha (emanations), vibhava (incarnations), antaryamin (dwells inside), and arca (icons). According to this sub-school, states John Grimes, Ishvara possesses six divine qualities: jnana (knowledge), bala (strength), aisvarya (lordship), sakti (power), virya (virility) and tejas (splendor).
Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita concepts provided the foundation for several Bhakti movements of Hinduism, such as those by Sri Aurobindo and has been suggested as having influenced Basava’s Lingayatism.
The Dvaita (dualism) sub-school of Vedanta Hinduism, founded by 13th century Madhva, defines Ishvara as creator God that is distinct from Jiva (individual souls in living beings). Narayana (Vishnu) is considered to be Ishvara, and the Vaishnavism movement arose on the foundation developed by Dvaita Vedanta sub-school.
Ishvara (God) is a complete, perfect and the highest reality to Dvaitins, and simultaneously the world is separate reality for them, unlike competing thoughts in other sub-schools of Vedanta. In Dvaita sub-school, Jiva (individual soul) is different, yet dependent on Ishvara (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 Jiva struggle to manifest, while of God it is fully manifested.
Madhva states there are five permutations of differences between Jiva (individual souls) and Ishvara (God): between God and souls, between God and matter, between souls and matter, between one soul and another soul, and between one material thing and another material thing. The differences are both qualitative and quantitative. Unlike Advaita Vedantins who hold that knowledge can lead to Oneness with Everyone and fusion with Universal Absolute, to the state of moksha in this life, Dvaita Vedantins hold that moksha is possible only in after-life if God so wills (if not, then one’s soul is reborn). Further, Madhva 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 Maya, is held as the divine will of Ishvara. Jiva suffers, experiences misery and bondage, state Dvaitins, because of “ignorance and incorrect knowledge” (ajnana). Liberation occurs with the correct knowledge and attainment unto Lord Narayana. It is His grace that gives salvation according to Dvaita sub-school, which is achievable by predominance of sattva guna (moral, constructive, simple, kindness-filled life), and therefore Dvaitins must live a dharmic life while constantly remembering, deeply loving Ishvara.
Acintya bhedābheda is a sub-school of Vedanta representing the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference, in relation to the power creation and creator, Ishvara, (Krishna).
In Sanskrit achintya means ‘inconceivable’, bheda translates as ‘difference’, and abheda translates as ‘one-ness’. Spirit souls 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. Madhva 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).
In Carvaka school of Hinduism
Cārvāka, another atheist tradition in Hinduism, was materialist and a school of philosophical scepticism. They rejected all concepts of Ishvara as well as all forms of supernaturalism.
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