Category Archives: 1. Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is one of the methods for attaining liberation and union with God, prescribed by the incarnate god Krsna to his friend and disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Jnana Yoga literally means “the path of union through knowledge (Prabhavananda 124).

The Bhagavad Gita (often shortened to the “Gita”) is a highly influential text embedded in the Mahabharata epic. It begins with the armies of the Pandavas and the Kauruvas assembled and ready for battle. The Pandava warrior Arjuna asks his friend and charioteer Krsna to drive between the armies so that he may survey his enemies before the battle commences. Arjuna sees among the rival army his friends, teachers, and other kin and is faced with a severe crisis, caught between his dharma (duty) as a ksatriya to fight and his wish to not harm his those he cares for (Theodore 27). Krsna chastises Arjuna, reminding him of his duty, and telling him that he should not grieve for those who will die, since only the body dies, not the soul which is eternal (Theodore 30). Arjuna remains uncertain and asks Krsna to become his guru and instruct him on how he should properly act (Theodore 29). What follows is a conversation between Krsna and Arjuna on such spiritual topics as the nature of the soul, reality, God, and the attainment of moksa (liberation), which occupies the remainder of the Gita.

During the course of the discussion, Jnana Yoga is described as a method for attaining spiritual liberation, along with Karma Yoga (the path of action), Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion or love), as well as Raja Yoga (the path of meditation) (Prabhavananda 124). Jnana Yoga emphasizes focused contemplation, the object of which is the Divine (Theodore 106). The Jnana Yoga practitioner (jnani) must become adept at discriminating between the real and unreal. Our experiences and perceptions are impermanent and fleeting, having both beginning and end. The only abiding reality is that of Brahman (Absolute Reality), which is equated with the Atman, the Supreme Self (Prabhavananda 125). Krsna discusses what he terms “the Field” and “the Knower of the Field”. The “Field” includes the body, senses, and mind/ego. The knower of the field is the true Self, the Atman (Theodore 104). The jnani learns the true self through relentlessly analyzing, separating and distinguishing the elements that make up reality (Torwesten 90). Jnana Yoga is fundamentally the practise of proclaiming neti, neti (not this, not this), a concept seen in the Upanisads: the jnani comes to realize the true Self by defining what it is not, specifically the body, mind, senses, and any object or experience (“the Field”) (Prabhavananda 125).

As the jnani strips away these false notions of self, through self discipline he should restrain his senses and withdraw from the sensual world, likened to a tortoise withdrawing its limbs into its shell (Theodore 37). Having so withdrawn, the desire for sensual pleasures will remain; however, once the jnani attains a vision of the Supreme, this desire will disappear (Theodore 37). The jnani should become detached and indifferent to the world. Krsna describes the ideal sage as such:

One not agitated despite all kinds of distress, whose apsiration for happiness is gone, and who is devoid of pass, fear and anger…He who is not attracted to anything, and having attained this or that, good or bad, does not rejoice but is not averse either – his wisdom is firmly established (Bhagavad Gita 2.55-57).

Thus the jnani must strive to become indifferent to good and evil deeds, to all desires, to pleasure and pain. Instead, he attains the greatest happiness in the Self (Prabhavananda 125).

The end goal of all of the Yogas is the attainment of moksa, or liberation. Moksa is freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, samsara (Theodore 3). When the yogi has realized Brahman and is fully absorbed in it, meditating on Brahman at the time of his death, he will be liberated from the endless cycle of samsara:

He who leaves the body while pronouncing the single syllable which is Brahman, the Om, while meditating on me, reaches the supreme goal. O Partha, I am easily reached by the yogi who always remembers me, is constantly and fully absorbed in me, and is thus ever yoked. Having come to me, these great souls do not undergo rebirth into that transient abode of misery, as they have attained the highest perfection (Bhagavad Gita 8.13-15).

Despite its emphasis of renunciation, practising Jnana Yoga does not necessarily mean withdrawing from all actions in life. Krsna advocates employing the methods of Karma Yoga even as one follows the Jnana path (Theodore 42). Under Karma Yoga, actions adhering to dharma (rituals, sacrifice, etc) are still performed, but are done without attachment to the fruits of their outcomes (Theodore 34). Indeed, Krsna repeatedly proclaims that while both Jnana and Karma Yoga lead to liberation, Karma Yoga is the preferable path: “Both relinquishing activity and yogic activity lead to the highest good, but of the two, karma yoga or yogic action exceeds renouncing altogether” (Bhagavad Gita 5.2). This is because the renunciation of worldly existence in Jnana Yoga is difficult to achieve without the support of Karma Yoga, as it requires the maintenance of a negative attitude of aversion which actually keeps the mind focused on the world (Theodore 55). This can lead to increased attachment to the world, hindering the development of true indifference (Theodore 55). Instead, through practising selfless action devoted only to Brahman, the yogi develops a sense of inner satisfaction which makes the attainment of true detachment much easier (Theodore 57). Furthermore, while the jnani should practise asceticism, extreme austerities are to be avoided according to Krsna:

The hearts of those who practise dreadful austerities not ordained by the scriptures, are filled with hypocrisy and egotism as they are motivated by lust and attachment. Those fools, who torture the aggregate of elements in their bodies as well as me, who dwell therein, know them to have a demonic resolution (Bhagavad Gita 17.5-6).

Instead, moderation in sleep, drinking, eating, and recreational activities is advocated in pursuit of the Jnana Yoga path (Prabhavananda 128).

Most of the ideas in the Gita and the practises of Jnana Yoga are substantially similar to those found in other Hindu schools of thought. Many of the verses about Jnana Yoga are taken directly from some of the middle and later Upanisads, including the Mundaka, Katha, and Svetasvartara Upanisad (Torwesten 89). The concepts of Brahman, the Atman, and the attainment of moksa are rooted in the Upanisadic tradition (Prahavananda 55). The Upanisads say that in order to realize Brahman/Atman and attain moksa, one must first renounce all selfish desires, with all thoughts of the individual self snuffed out by the oneness of Brahman, the same as the detachment advocated in the Gita (Prahavananda 65).

Elements from the Sankhya philosophy are also used extensively for the division and analysis of reality featured in Jnana Yoga. The Sankhya dualism of Purusa and Prakriti, supreme consciousness and material nature, are mirrored in the Gita conception of “The Field” and “The Knower of the Field” (Torwesten 90). The Gita also discusses at length the three gunas which make up Prakriti, specifically tamas (darkness, dullness, inertia), rajas (ego-driven activity), and sattva (lumosity, purity) (Torwesten 91).

Advaita Vedanta, one of the major schools of Hindu philosophy, advocates the practise of Jnana Yoga in order to achieve moksa (Deutsch 104). Advaita Vedanta outlines four general qualifications to be fulfilled by one seeking liberation, as well as three stages they must pass through: first, the aspirant must be able to discern what is real from what is only apparently real. Second, he requires a complete disregard and indifference toward sensual pleasure and petty desires, willingly giving up all that which distracts him and prevents his attainment of self-knowledge. Third, he must cultivate self-control (dama), endurance (titiksa), dispassion (uparati), mental tranquility (sama), intentness of mind (samadhana), and faith (sraddha). Fourth, he requires complete dedication to his quest for true understanding, focusing all his desire upon it alone (Deutsch 105).

The first general stage for the Advaita jnani is known as sravana (“hearing”), which involves the study of advaitic texts, listening to sages, studying the mahavakyas (great sayings) of the Vedas and thinking on their true meaning. This stage provides a framework which can be used for interpretation of the aspiring jnani’s own experiences (Deutsch 106). The next stage is known as manana (“thinking”), which involves prolonged self reflection, incorporating the advaita philosophical principals into himself. Facilitated by a guru, the jnani aspirant learns about the nature of Brahman, and how to discriminate between the different levels of reality (Deutsch 107). He must analyze the ways in which his knowledge of the world and of himself is constituted, realizing how he has falsely identified himself with mere partial expressions of his self (Deutsch 106-107). The final stage is nididhyasana (“constant meditation”). In this stage the jnani actively pursues self-realization, maintaining intense concentration upon his own self as Brahman (Deutsch 108). Detached from all egoism and distractions, he cuts away all lower level experiences and false identifications standing between him and the true Self (Deutsch 109-110). Upon the true realization that he is Brahman and Brahman is everything, the jnani achieves moksa, becoming a jivanmukta, one who is liberated while living (Deutsch 110).

A notable practitioner of Jnana Yoga was Ramana Maharsi (1879-1950). Born to a Brahmin family in South India, he was initially educated in Madurai, where he showed little interest in his studies or inclination toward spirituality (Sivaraman 362). A major transformation occurred when at seventeen he was suddenly struck with a petrifying fear of death. Rather than seek help, he decided to try and solve the problem himself: laying down and making himself stiff as a corpse, he contemplated his mortality. He realized that death only applied to the body and not the “I” within. Ramana lost all fear of death then and became engrossed in contemplation of the Self (Sivaraman 363). Subsequently a major change in Ramana’s behaviour was noticed by his brother: he had become totally indifferent to the world as a renouncer would (Sivaraman 363). Following his realization he left his home and travelled to Tiruvannamalai, taking residence in a cave on the sacred hill Arunachala where he remained for 16 years (Rodrigues 250). Ramana is considered to have achieved a state of sahaja-samadhi (effortless absorption) in the Self (Sivaraman 363). Being acquainted with neither the teachings of the Upanisads or Advaita, he was nonetheless able to independently attain the highest goal of those traditions (Sivaraman 364).

Ramana believed reality to be one and non-dual, regardless of the term used (eg. Brahman, Atman, etc). He used the Tamil term ullatu (“that which is”) to describe this singular principle of reality (Sivaraman 365). The perception of reality as a plurality of entities (eg God, man, and the world) was due to action of the mind or ego. When the ego ceases to function, the oneness of reality becomes evident (Sivaraman 366). Ramana advocated self-inquiry as the most direct means to ceasing the action of the mind/ego, relentlessly asking “Who am I?”, leading one to the source of the “I”, revealing the true Self (Sivaraman 371-72). This approach is different from introspection, where one takes stock of the contents of the mind, nor is it psychoanalysis, wherein the consciousness and unconsciousness are examined. The goal is instead to transcend the mind and discover its source (Sivaraman 374).

While Ramana thought self-inquiry was the most direct path to liberation, he acknowledged other methods as valid as well. Realizing that the same method may not work for everyone, he advocated paths such as Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, or Raja Yoga (Sivaraman 375). Ramana also did not think that living as a renouncer required giving up all of the activities of life. Rather, if these activities are performed with detachment, he believed that a householder could be considered a renouncer (Sivaraman 375). By following the path to enlightenment, Ramana believed that realization of the Self and liberation can be achieved here and now in life. Further, he believed the path of liberation is open to all, regardless of caste, class, race, or sex (Sivaraman 377).



Bhaktivedanta, Swami (1968) The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Deutsch, Eliot (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1979) The Spiritual Heritage of India. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – The E-book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online, Ltd.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New York: The     Crossroad Publishing Company.

Theodore, Ithalmar (2010) Exploring the Bhagavad Gita: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning.     Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited

Torwesten, Hans (1991) Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism. New York: Grove Press Inc.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Karma Yoga

Bhakti Yoga

Raja Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita

The Mahabharata






Advaita Vedanta

The Upanisads





Ramana Maharsi

Swami Vivekananda



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Article written by: Gordon Logie (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Ramana Maharsi


Venkataraman (later shortened to Ramana) Maharsi was born on December 30, 1879 to a couple from the brahmin class in Tirucculi, South India (see Herman 8). It may have been his family’s “curse” which led Maharsi to liberation and renunciation of normal life. “His household, according to tradition, was ‘cursed’ into surrendering one member of the family in each generation to become a monk or sannyasi (a ‘renunciate’) who would break all attachments to the world and live a life of holy solitude” (see Herman 8-9). After the death of Ramana’s father in 1891, the Maharsis moved to Madurai to live with the boy’s uncle (see Herman 9 and Godman 1). Here Ramana attended Scott’s Middle School and the American Mission High School, learned English and participated in outdoor sports and games (see Herman 9).

At the young age of sixteen Ramana underwent the sudden and irreversible transformation to a jivanmukta (“one who is liberated while still alive”) (see Herman 9-10 and Forsthoefel 246). On August 29, 1896 he was sitting alone in a room when he was abruptly struck with an overwhelming fear of death (see Herman 9 and Godman 1). He promptly lay down and essentially became “a corpse” by “stopping his breathing and closing his eyes” (see Herman 9). It was in this state that he became aware of the true nature of the Self. His attainment of moksa (“release” or “liberation”) drastically altered the rest of his life as he also realized the futility of carrying out everyday tasks (see Godman 2). Six weeks after his liberation, Ramana followed what he considered to be his destiny, left his family, threw away his money and worldly possessions and made his way to the sacred mountain of Arunacala (see Godman 1-2 and Sharma 1984:616). It was here that he spent the rest of his life “attracting loving attention, admirers and devotees from around the world…” (see Herman 10).

The first two or three years of his new life were spent in a state of intense absorption into his realized awareness. So much so that parts of his body were eaten away by insects, his fingernails and hair grew to incredible lengths and he scarcely ate. Slowly, over a period of several years he regained a state of physical normalcy without ever losing touch with his liberated consciousness which began to manifest itself as an “outer spiritual radiance” (see Godman 1). As word spread about the Hindu sage, people came from the far reaches of the world with their “questions, problems and concerns” (see Herman 11). Most of his teachings were conducted in a non-verbal manner. Ramana sent out a “silent force or power which stilled the minds of those who were attuned to it” and gave insight into the liberated state (see Godman 2). He felt this was the way in which people could understand his lessons in the most concentrated and forthright manner (see Godman 2). However, for those who were unable to understand his silent knowledge, Ramana occasionally gave verbal teachings (see Godman 2). He made himself available to visitors twenty-four hours a day and spent the rest of his life living in a small communal hall and delivering spiritual guidance (see Godman 3). In 1950, Ramana Maharsi contracted cancer and passed away at the age of 71 (see Herman 10).

Beliefs and Teachings

The attainment of Self-realization and liberation is the ultimate goal of the teachings of Ramana Maharsi (see Sharma 1984:619). The process by which this is to be achieved was one of the distinctions of Ramana’s beliefs. He advocated the importance of an individual “inward quest” to realize the “ultimate source of the limited ego” (see Forsthoefel 243-246). This quest was centered around the constant search into the question “Who am I?” (see Forsthoefel 246). Earnest inquiry into this question would bring a person to the awareness that the ego, or “I”, does not exist, thus destroying it (see Godman 53). In other words, “when the mind unceasingly investigates its own nature, it transpires that there is no such thing as the mind” (see Godman 50).

During one’s quest for liberation, and once Self-realization occurred, Ramana advocated assuming a “still” or “silent” mental state (see Herman 34 and Godman 13). Stillness during meditation on the question “Who am I?” allows for concentration on this topic only. This creates a “firm base for liberation” (see Godman 160). Once Self-awareness is known, an individual will have a “still mind which is adorned with the attainment of the limitless supreme Self” (see Godman 156). In other words, silence and stillness allow the identity of the Self to become assured (see Herman 13). Stillness is also strongly connected to Ramana’s emphasis on the individuality of the path to liberation.

Ramana insisted on the importance of personal experience in gaining liberation. He taught that learning from books was ultimately useless due to the fact that “no words, categories or concepts can apprehend the limitless Self” (see Forsthoefel 248). He also deemed the guidance of a spiritual guru (including himself) to be superficial and futile because a guru could not give an individual anything which they did not already have (see Godman 32). Each person has the ability to gain liberation; “all that is needed is that you give up your realization of the not-true as true” (see Godman 12). For Ramana, spiritual truth was unaffected by social and cultural differences. He promoted the thought that liberation is “here and now, available to any person, regardless of caste, stage, nationality or religion” (see Forsthoefel 245). On the subject of non-Hindu traditions he believed that “…their expression is the same. Only the modes of expression differ…” (see Forsthoefel 251).

Ramana’s teachings are considered to exemplify the jnana yogic path (see Godman 34 and Sharma 1984:623). Jnana yoga is “the way of knowledge” which is exactly what is gained through the destruction of the mind: true knowledge of the divine Self (see Herman 120 and Forsthoefel 247). However, this knowledge is not separate from the knower, nor is it an experience, it is “a direct and knowing awareness of the one reality in which subjects and objects have ceased to exist” (see Godman 10).

Ramana Maharsi’s life took place in the context of the Indian Independence Movement. However, his views on social activism did not match other Hindu sages alive at that time (ie. Mohandas Gandhi). Ramana did not support Indian nationalism nor did he support any kind of social involvement (see Sharma 1999:102). It was of his opinion that individuals should focus on Self-realization instead of on social action (see Herman 14 and Godman 213). It was in this way that they would realize that the world is not different from Themselves and ultimately, “there are no others to be helped” (see Herman 14). This is a view which Ramana had to defend many times (see Sharma 1999:100).


Ramana Maharsi is the only modern Hindu sage who is widely considered to be a genuine jivanmukta and who has spoken about this enlightened state at great length (see Sharma 1999:93). The sage “embodied the supreme excellence, the highest ideal represented in so many epic accounts, mythologies, and philosophical texts in the history of Hinduism” (see Forsthoefel 243). This gave him incredible appeal to not only the elite Indian classes but to lower castes and non-Hindus alike (see Forsthoefel 251). He represented an intense spirituality which seemed to manifest itself in a radiating “presence” (see Forsthoefel 255). This presence provided legitimacy for Ramana’s religious teachings, added to his popularity and quickened the spread of his ideas (see Forsthoefel 252 and Herman 10). In this way, he was extremely important wealth of information for students and scholars interested in the state of a jivanmukta (see Forsthoefel 257).

In addition, Ramana was influential in that his religious philosophy was accessible to all people, in their present lifetime (see Forsthoefel 242, 248). These ideas were particularly progressive during the time period and thus were highly influential to Hinduism as a whole (see Forsthoefel 248, 257). The cross cultural aspect of Ramana’s ideas also added to the attention he received from other religious groups around the world (see Forsthoefel 250). His ideas and unique life experience inspired many people and were highly regarded on a worldwide scale (see Forsthoefel 251).


Brunton, Paul (1952) Maharsi and His Message. London: Rider & Co.

Forsthoefel, Thomas A. (2002) “Weaving the Inward Thread to Awakening: The Perennial Appeal of Ramana Maharshi (sic).” In Horizons. Erie: Mercyhurst College. pp. 240-59.

Ganapatimuni, Vasishtha (1998) Sri Ramana Gita: being the teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi (sic). Tiruvannamalai : Sri Ramanasramam.

Godman, David (ed.) (1985) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (sic). Boston: Arkana.

Herman, A.L. (1991) A Brief Introduction to Hinduism: Religion, Philosophy and Ways of Liberation. Boulder: Westview Press.

Maharsi, Ramana (1970, c1959) The collected works of Ramana Maharshi (sic). Arthur Osborne (ed.). New York: S. Weiser.

Sharma, Arvind (1999) “Jivanmukti in Neo-Hinduism: the case of Ramana Maharsi.” In Asian Philosophy. London: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Sharma, Arvind (1984) “Predetermination and Free Will in the Teaching of Ramana Maharsi (1879-1950).” In Religious Studies. London: Cambridge University Press.

(1995) Ramana Maharshi (sic) Part 1. New Delhi: Library of Congress Office.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Mount Aruncala

Jnana Yoga

Indian Independence Movement



Mohandas Gandhi





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Article written by: Marie Robertson (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.