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).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
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
The Bhagavad Gita
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Article written by: Gordon Logie (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.