This is important because meanings of words evolve over time and that the meaning of the word “belief” has evolved too. Karen Armstrong in an interview with Reddit explains:
…the English word belief changed its meaning: beliven used to mean “love, loyalty, commitment, engagement,” It was related to the German liebe (“beloved”) and the Latin libido (“desire”). Only in the late 17th century did it come to mean: “an intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition.”
When ancient sages and prophets talked about having “belief” or “faith” they meant something much different from what it seems to mean today. The call for having belief or faith was akin to a call for action. It was not a call for an intellectual exercise. You do not decide to be a believer or non-believer as an intellectual exercise. Instead you decide to act or not to act. To be a believer meant committing to live your life in a particular way.
And what type of life were the ancient sages asking us to commit to when they asked us to be believers? The answer is that all sages and prophets, throughout history, have unanimously asked us to commit to the “Golden Rule”: To do to others what we would have them do to us.
Belief was a commitment to think and act, all day, every day, in a manner that is consistent with the Golden Rule. The promise was that if you do this consistently you would grow closer to God. Belief was a journey towards God; it was not something that you do at the outset of the journey. God was not an intellectual exercise. God was something practical you could do something about and could grow into.
The genius of ancient sages was that they preferred to talk about God only through metaphor and poetry. For a more direct understanding of God, they explained, it was best to be attained through direct experience. The word “belief” or “faith” was used to describe this. The idea was not to ask people to subscribe to some dogmatic set of unproven ideas, but instead to have them commit to live by the Golden Rule. The claim was that doing so consistently led to an upsurge of spiritual force within that made you increasingly God-conscious.
This brings us to the word “Ishvara-pranidhana” in yoga. This is one of the Niyama and has been spoken of by Krishnamacharya and others as one of the most vital aspects of the 8 limbs of yoga. So what does Ishvara-pranidhana mean? The answer to this question will also help us understand what it means to be a believer.
The word Ishvara translates to God and Pranidhana translates to ‘devotion, surrender, concentration, or dedication.’ The word “Ishvara-pranidhana” hence translates to “God-focus” or “God-surrender”. It means that we should commit to sideline the ego and surrender to God. It means that we should never forget our divine essence and not get lost in the idea that the ego is us. At any given time we have a choice: Either we can be in ego-consciousness or we can be in God-consciousness. If we subscribe to Ishvara-pranidhana we commit to remaining in God-consciousness in every thought and action.
But do we have a choice on how we express our consciousness? The answer according to the sages, past and present, is an unqualified yes. This is in-fact the basis of raja-yoga or the 8-limbs-of-yoga. The central premise of raja-yoga is that if you practice the 8 limbs consistently then you will increasingly find yourself to be less ego-centered and become more spiritual and God-conscious.
The next question is: Why should you care? What is wrong with being ego-conscious? The reason why sages throughout history have essentially given the same message is that they all saw the ego as the source of our problems. The ego takes us away from our essence and makes us behave in a selfish manner. Ultimately this leads to deep sorrow and suffering. Instead of enjoying the constant and deep bliss of divine consciousness we end up swaying in the temporary cycles of happiness and sorrow, progressively drowning in the morass created by the ego.
A believer consciously says no to living disconnected and divided from the whole. The believer wants to dance to the deep wellspring of joy that comes about by being connected with the whole. The believer wants to be open to the joy of divine grace in every living moment. So what do you choose: To be a believer or a non-believer?