ĪŚVARA , meaning "the lord," is the chief term used in Indian religion and philosophy to designate a supreme personal god. Goddess worshipers employ the feminine form, īśvarī. The noun comes from the Sanskrit root vīś, which means to own, rule, be master of, or be powerful. The meaning of the term developed over the history of South Asian literature.
In the earliest strata, the hymns of the Ṛgveda (c. 2000 bce) prefer the epithets īśaṇa or īśa (from the same root) to designate the power of such deities as the universal sovereign Varuṇa, guardian of the cosmic order; Agni, the god of fire; Indra, lightning-hurling leader of the gods; and Puruṣa, the Cosmic Person, who was dismembered to create the universe. Though powerful, these early "lords" are not supreme personal deities. The term īśvara itself first occurs in the latest collection of Vedic hymns, the Atharvaveda, where it is extended from the god Agni (fire) to Vayu (wind), Prāṇa (life energy), and Kāla (time)—all later associated with the supreme god, Rudra-Śiva, also called Great Lord (Maheśvara). Later the Brāhmaṇas, priestly books elaborating sacrifice, elevate the god Prajāpati (Lord of Progeny), as the embodiment of Vedic sacrifice, creator, preserver, and ruler of the world. This lord is equated with brahman, the underlying Absolute.
In the last portion of the Veda, the Upaniṣads (800 bce–200 ce), where the mystical link between brahman and the innermost soul (ātman ) are explored, the concept of īśvara emerges fully. Although early Upaniṣads focus more on the mystical equation of brahman and ātman, later Upaniṣads, such as the Śvetāśvatara coalesce personal and impersonal conceptions of divinity into īśvara as a single, supreme, gracious, personal god. Here Rudra ("the howler"), a Vedic storm god also known as Śiva ("the beneficent one"), creates the world, pervades it, and dwells in humans as their soul, ruling all. Though he is lord of the external world, it is knowledge of the lord in meditation (yoga) as the inner soul that brings ultimate liberation.
The roughly contemporaneous Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 bce), the most popular portion of the epic Mahābhārata, develops the concept even further with respect to Viṣṇu-Kṛṣṇa, the other principle deity to whom the term īśvara is applied. Like Śiva, Viṣṇu is an early Vedic god who grows in stature as he is identified over time with popular divinities, here with Vāsudeva, Nārāyaṇa, and Kṛṣṇa. With Kṛṣṇa as avatāra, or the incarnate "descent" of the transcendental lord as an earthly prince, īśvara becomes vividly personal. The Bhagavadgītā establishes devotion (bhakti) as a new path to salvation, alongside the earlier paths of ritual action (karma) and inner knowledge (jñāna ). Kṛṣṇa is seen as Supreme Lord (parameśvara ), the very foundation of brahman, beyond the universe, its creator and ruler. Kṛṣṇa is also revealed as the ultimate person (puruṣottama ), immanent within the human heart. While clearly preferring devotion, the spiritual disciplines (yogas) of the Bhagavadgītā poetically synthesize the sacrificial, introspective, and devotional paths to liberation. This tendency to prefer and elevate the path of devotion (whether to Viṣṇu, Śiva, or in later times the goddess) to a supreme personal deity continues in the sectarian literature of the epics and Purāṇas, becoming from the medieval period to modern times the mainstream of Hindu spirituality.
In philosophical literature, other conceptions of īśvara hold sway. Sāṃkhya explains the world and its operation impersonally, in terms of the dual principles of matter and pure consciousness—without recourse to īśvara. The Yoga philosophy of Patañjali maintains a similar dualism, yet includes īśvara as the ultimate exemplar of pure consciousness. Here devotion to īśvara through repetition of his holy sound Oṃ is only seen as an optional means to achieving the meditative insight and absorption that alone grants liberation. In Yoga, īśvara is neither the efficient nor the material cause of the universe. The philosophy of Karma Mīmāṃsā, like heterodox schools of Buddhism and Jainism, emphasizes the law of cause and effect—the doctrine of karma—such that the need for an īśvara figure to create and maintain the universe is unnecessary. The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika schools, though probably opposed to īśvara originally, in later commentarial literature support īśvara, the author and teacher of Vedic revelation, as an eternal being who combines eternally existing atoms according to karma to create, maintain, and dissolve the universe.
Śaṁkara's nondual Vedānta philosophy has famously subrated īśvara as "lower brahman," For Śaṁkara, "higher brahman " is an absolute beyond all qualities (nirguṇa ) and description. To ordinary worldly perception this higher brahman is ignorantly seen as īśvara, the personal god replete with qualities (saguṇa ). Alternatively, Rāmānuja's qualified nondual Vedānta understands īśvara as ultimately real, a personal deity eternally possessing all good qualities, distinct from the material world and souls, though dwelling in it and ruling them—a view more consistent with the growth of devotional theism in the last millennium.
Chemparathy, George. An Indian Rational Theology: Introduction to Udayana's Nyayakusumajali. Vienna, 1972. Overview of theism in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika philosophy.
Gonda, Jan. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. The Hague, 1965.
Gonda, Jan. Visnuism and Sívaism: A Comparison. London, 1970; New Delhi, 1976.
Goyal, S. R. A Religious History of Ancient India, Up to c. 1200 a.d. Meerut, India, 1984–1986. A comprehensive treatment of Indian theism by an eminent historian.
Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (1925). 2d ed. 2 vols. Westport, Conn., 1971. A classic source.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. Mythologies and Philosophies of Salvation in the Theistic Traditions of India. Waterloo, Ontario, 1984.
Pande, Susmita. The Birth of Bhakti in Indian Religion and Art. New Delhi, 1982.
Lloyd W. Pflueger (2005)