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The Bhagavad-Gita describes various yoga systems called karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. This post discusses the differences between the various yoga systems and how these systems are based on different causes of our experience. With this, we can also discern which system is superior to the others, to construct a hierarchy of yoga systems.

An Overview of the Yoga Systems

Yoga is the realization of our free will and finding the best use for it. There are two problems involved in practicing yoga—(1) a philosophical understanding problem of how we are free and yet responsible for our actions, and (2) what the correct use of that will is.

In an earlier post, we discussed how our will is limited by three things—(1) kāla, or what will happen in the universe, (2) karma, or the events in which I have to participate due to the consequences of previous acts, and (3) guna, or the habits formed in the past that predispose us towards certain types of choices in the present and future. Not only are our choices not entirely free—because they bring a responsibility which we have to suffer and enjoy as the consequences which may constrain our choices—but the choices are also predisposed towards a certain direction due to the past habits of choice making.

The purpose of yoga is to attain freedom from guna and karma. The former entails exemption from habit formation, such that present choices are free and not forced due to previous repetitions. The latter involves an understanding of the moral use of choice, such that our future choices are not constrained by the consequences of previous choices. The guna includes three energies—bhūti-śakti (the relation to the world), kriya-śakti (the power of knowledge and action), and māyā-śakti (the power to enjoy).

Based on the three types of energies are three types of yoga systems:

  • Aśtangayoga changes the consciousness from a lower level to a higher level; it is based on bhūti-śakti or the power of consciousness
  • Jñāna-yoga changes our life’s meaning; it is based on kriya-śakti or the pursuit of meaning in life and the understanding of reality
  • Bhakti-yoga changes our life’s pleasure; it is based on māyā-śakti or the pursuit of pleasure through loving exchanges and selflessness

Furthermore, there is a fourth yoga system called karma-yoga which focuses on the cessation of karma.

Nothing can be done about the effect of kāla. Owing to this, all yoga systems are meant for transcendence (not making life better in the material world—e.g. better health or weight loss). Once we recognize that the living entity has to leave the world (because the effect of time cannot be stopped), then there are four kinds of yoga systems based on three features of guna and one feature of karma.

The Aśtanga-Yoga System

The aśtangayoga system is meant to change our consciousness—i.e. what we are aware of—and bring higher aspects of nature into our experience. The material world is an inverted tree in which subtle reality exists at the top (towards the root) while gross reality exists at the bottom (leaves and fruits). These realities are organized into seven tiers for each observer—namely, sense-objects, sense properties (tanmātra), senses, mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva. These tiers exist in the universe as the seven higher planetary systems, and within the body as the different chakra. The aśtangayoga teaches one to rise higher in this material tree, and eventually exit out of the universe.

The aśtangayoga system teaches us that the structure of the universe is just like the control structure of our bodies. Control in our bodies is exercised through the flow of prāna. To raise our consciousness, one must first withdraw it from the other parts of the body into the heart. Once the consciousness is situated in the center, then it can move upwards. In short, first inwards, then upwards.

Aśtangayoga relies on a semantic space understanding in which the perfect object exists at the center from which the imperfect objects are expansions produced by hiding different aspects of perfection to make something imperfect. The center of the mind space has a perfect idea called Aniruddha; in the center of the intellect is a perfect belief called Pradyumna; in the center of the ego is a perfect intent called Saṅkarṣaṇa; in the center of the mahattattva is a perfect moral called Vasudeva. All other ideas, beliefs, intents, and morals are branches produced from these perfect ideas through modifications, while the perfect ideas are derived top-down vertically. Vasudeva comes first as the perfect morality, then Saṅkarṣaṇa as the perfect intent, then Pradyumna as the perfect belief, and then Aniruddha as the perfect idea. To find the perfect objects, we have to move away from the edges towards the center. This involves shutting down the idea branches.

Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one. O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched. (BG 2.41)

When all distorted ideas are stopped, only the original idea remains from which all other ideas were created. By ending the speculations of the mind and the vagaries of the senses, we find the original idea. Similarly, by ending all arbitrary goals, we find the original goal. By stopping all arbitrary moralities, we find the original morality. These original ideas never cease to exist. But they are not visible as long as we see the numerous modifications. As we move from the modified ideas toward the center, we automatically find the original idea as it always exists. That’s how we find the center of the space, and once this center has been found, the vertical path of top-down derivation can be found.

To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kuśa grass on the ground and then cover it with deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogī should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses, and activities and fixing the mind on one point. (BG 6.11-12)

One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life. (BG 6.13-14)

The yogi consecrated in such a practice knows the original idea, belief, intent, and moral, and rises in the tree of meanings seeing the forms of Aniruddha, Pradyumna, Saṅkarṣaṇa, and Vasudeva. Once he reaches the top, he exits the universe. Alternately, he can stay in meditation on the forms of Lord Viṣṇu, and when the universe is destroyed, he will be transported to Vaikunṭha due to his realization.

A true yogī observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realized person sees Me, the same Supreme Lord, everywhere. (BG 6.29)

For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me. (BG 6.30)

Such a yogī, who engages in the worshipful service of the Supersoul, knowing that I and the Supersoul are one, remains always in Me in all circumstances. (BG 6.30)

The center of the space has two kinds of entities—the original idea or “neither” of the extremes (as created by the duality of rajo-guna and tamo-guna), and the balance of all the extremes collected into a set (if the extremes are two, then we call this “both”). By seeing the center of the space, the advanced soul can see that which is “neither” and “both”. Due to “neither” the perfected yogi sees how God exists in everything and is yet none of those things. Similarly, due to “both”, he sees how everything is in God. The above statements that “I am in everything” and “everything is in Me” refer to the center of the space, with two kinds of entities—“neither” and “both”—with different meanings.

The modern practices of yoga have no relation to the aśtangayoga because it has become impersonal. If we meditate on emptiness, we will never find the center, or the top-down hierarchy of the tree, nor can we climb up the tree. Such meditation yields no spiritual benefits.

The Karma-Yoga System

The aśtanga-yoga path is difficult, and it requires renunciation of the world and going to a secluded place for meditation. Most people cannot do this. For them, a completely opposite path called karma-yoga is prescribed which does not expect one to leave the day-to-day life. Rather, karma-yoga is a path in which we become perfect just by performing our day-to-day duties without being attached to the results.

The essence of the method of karma-yoga is to bear the fruits of previous karma and not produce new karma, which would entail the cessation of the cycle of repeated birth. New karma is produced when we have a desire for fruits—of meaning or happiness. If we give up desires, then the activities performed by the person do not result in new karma.

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty. (BG 2.47)

Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga. (BG 2.48)

The main question in this process of practicing yoga is how to give up the desire for meaning and pleasure. The answer is not becoming purposeless, but removing the distorted purposes. The rejection of purpose pertains to the distortions because the original purpose always remains. Thus, we are not going to stop working, but we will find the perfect work. Just like the perfect idea is in the center of mind space, the perfect work is in the center of the senses. In the previous post, we saw that when a person is directed toward the center, the production of karma ceases.

Lord Krishna thus refutes the idea of impersonal work (which begs the need of the working itself) and articulates the notion of perfect work. Karma-yoga is thus (in the immediate next verses) defined as performing activities devotionally.

O Dhananjaya, rid yourself of all fruitive activities by devotional service and surrender fully to that consciousness. Those who want to enjoy the fruits of their work are misers. (BG 2.49)

A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad reactions even in this life. Therefore strive for yoga, which is the art of all work. (BG 2.50)

By thus engaging in devotional service to the Lord, great sages or devotees free themselves from the results of work in the material world. In this way, they become free from the cycle of birth and death and attain the state beyond all miseries [by going back to Godhead]. (BG 2.51)

In each of the above verses, a common term buddhi-yuktā is used which Śrīla Prabhupāda uniformly translates as “devotional service”. If one chances upon other translations, the same term is translated differently. It is therefore important to understand why buddhi-yuktā is called “devotional service”.

The term buddhi denotes intellect, whose basic property is to seek the origins or foundations. For example, if you are given a book, the mind comprehends the sentences, but the intellect asks: What are the key ideas here? If you study mathematics, then the mind understands the various theorems and the intellect asks: What are the key axioms or assumptions? When you study physics, the mind describes the various experiments and data, and the intellect asks: What is the basic law of nature here? The meaning of buddhi-yukta is being aware of the origin.

The origin is always the Lord. He governs this world without being attracted to the results. He is neither overactive nor inactive. Being like Him means working adequately, not more and not less. A karma-yogi is not neither lazy nor hyperactive. He is not eager to please anyone, nor does he neglect his responsibilities. Greater and lesser are distortions of the perfect action. Just right is the original form of activity done by the Lord. By working only as much as needed—neither more nor less—we can realize how the Lord acts.

The Jñāna-Yoga System

The jñāna-yoga system is based on the study of why the world is meaningful, understanding higher and higher meanings, and the source of all meanings—Lord Viṣṇu. As we have discussed previously, Lord Viṣṇu has six prominent qualities—knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth—which are manifest in this world too. Thus, everything in this world is a combination of the six qualities.

In this regard, it is important to recognize the difference between form and content. The sensations such as taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight are forms; they are not content. For example, when you listen to a song, there are two things—the musical form, and the words which are content. We are attracted to the form, but once we find the form, then we go to the content. The content is deeper than the form. This is the basic process of jñāna-yoga—moving from the superficial to the profound, from the surface to the core.

When your mind is no longer disturbed by the flowery language of the Vedas, and when it remains fixed in the trance of self-realization, then you will have attained the divine consciousness. (BG 2.53)

All the qualities in the material world are manifest as dualities or opposites called rajo-guna and tamo-guna. Thus, meanings are not always true—because these meanings (which originally exist unified under sattva-guna) are divided into opposites (under the influence of rajo-guna and tamo-guna). The job of the person who pursues jñāna-yoga is to discard rajo-guna and tamo-guna and be pursuant to sattva-guna alone because under this one can understand the nature of meanings. As Lord Krishna says:

I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable OM in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man. (BG 7.8)

I am the original fragrance of the earth, and I am the heat in fire. I am the life of all that lives, and I am the penances of all ascetics. (BG 7.9)

O son of Prtha, know that I am the original seed of all existences, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the prowess of all powerful men. (BG 7.10)

I am the strength of the strong, devoid of passion and desire. I am sex life which is not contrary to religious principles, O Lord of the Bharatas [Arjuna]. (BG 7.11)

All states of being—be they of goodness, passion or ignorance—are manifested by My energy. I am, in one sense, everything—but I am independent. I am not under the modes of this material nature. (BG 7.12)

The pursuit of jñāna-yoga is the pursuit of understanding the essence of everything. This process is not very different from ordinary scientific quests where scientists attempt to reduce the variety in the world to a very small set of ideas or “essences”. What are these essences? In Vedic philosophy, these are the six qualities of Lord Viṣṇu. These six essences are not merely abstract ideas (in a Platonic world); they rather have a personal form. For example, when we speak about knowledge, this is not a Platonic idea, but a person—Lord Viṣṇu—who is the “embodiment” of knowledge. The meaning of the word “knowledge” is, therefore, the form of Lord Viṣṇu, and different parts of His body are different ways to comprehend “knowledge”. His face represents the ways (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting) in which “knowledge” can be acquired. His four hands represent the ways this knowledge can be used or applied. His weapons are the symbols by which the applications of knowledge are expanded. His legs represent the methods by which knowledge is transferred from one place to another. His clothes are ways in which knowledge has to be presented—i.e. some parts are hidden, while other parts are exposed. The signs and symbols on His legs are different subdivisions of how knowledge is transferred. The signs and symbols on His hands are a different subdivision of how knowledge is applied or used. There are six qualities and 24 main Viṣṇu forms. One who is involved in jñāna-yoga actually meditates on the various forms of Lord Viṣṇu as the form of the six qualities.

Jñāna-yoga should not be confused with mental speculation, as evidenced by the Bhagavad-Gita. It is rather a method to focus the mind away from superfluous details, and onto the essence. For example, if Krishna says that “I am the taste of water”, we all know that water is neither sweet nor sour; it is not bitter and it is not astringent. Then what is the taste of water? It is a beautiful taste, but it is not any of the dualities. The jñāna-yogi tastes the water and meditates on this taste to find Lord Viṣṇu. He is analyzing the material world, but looking for that essence, not for all the other unnecessary modifications.

Similarly, when Krishna says, “I am the light of the sun and the moon”, the jñāna-yogi is eager to understand what light is. In modern times this is studied as quantum theory and is considered a material phenomenon. But a jñāna-yogi is looking for Lord Viṣṇu. This is because there are many sources of light—e.g. electricity, fire from firewood, and even light from stars and other planets. But these forms of light are not the “original” forms. The “original” forms are the sun and the moon. Understanding the nature of light means understanding how there is an original form of light that is distorted and modified in other forms.

Obviously, such knowledge is not just a day-to-day activity for everyone. A special class of people called Brahmana was formerly designated in society to pursue and present this knowledge to everyone. While all classes of people (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra) can perform karma-yoga, only the Brahmana is considered suitable for jñāna-yoga.

The person practicing jñāna-yoga ultimately goes to one of the Vaikunṭha planets where He comes face to face with Lord Viṣṇu and realizes the same form of knowledge that He has previously seen in the mind and the intellect. It is noteworthy, that Lord Viṣṇu also appears in the material world in four different forms—Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha as the ideal morality, ideal intent, ideal belief, and ideal concept. Understanding these ideals is the goal of jñāna-yoga. While the jñāni is after ideas, the jñāna-yogi is after ideals. The result of this practice is called “liberation”—i.e. Vaikunṭha.

The Bhakti-Yoga System

Unlike jñāna-yoga which relies on the development of chit, bhakti-yoga relies on the development of ānanda. In the spiritual realm, ānanda is superior to chit, and chit is superior to sat. Therefore, bhakti-yoga is superior to jñāna-yoga which is superior to aśtanga-yoga in the spiritual world. The primary difference between jñāna-yogi and bhakti-yogi is that the jñāna-yogi offers God meanings, whereas bhakti-yogi offers God happiness. This seems like a strange idea because we are used to the exchange of meanings, such as knowledge, wealth, power, etc. But, we are not used to the idea of giving and taking pleasure, because pleasure doesn’t seem to be a material entity.

The difference between meaning and pleasure is simple: I do meaningful things because I feel satisfied by my doing them, and I do pleasurable things because others feel satisfied by my doing them. For example, a thirsty person might require a glass of water, but we might give them a glass of milk thinking that milk is better than water. The service of meaning is like giving a glass of milk to a person needing a glass of water. We feel good about that service because we think a glass of milk is more nutritious than a glass of water. However, the thirsty person doesn’t want milk; he or she might just want water. There is hence a subtle but important difference between serving others such that we feel satisfied with the service, and serving others such that it meets the requirements of the person who is being served.

The service in which we feel satisfied with our service is that of meaning—such a service gives meaning to our lives and we feel good about the fact that we did some important service. The service when the others are satisfied with our service is the service of pleasure—such a service gives them happiness. In the former case, we are giving the most meaningful thing possible but it may not be the most desirable thing for the receiver. In the latter case, we are giving pleasure but perhaps that pleasure is not based on the most meaningful thing.

If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit a water, I will accept it. (BG 9.26)

Bhakti-yoga is about offering to God what He wants to receive. Even as God doesn’t need anything from anyone, He wants things from everyone. Since God doesn’t have needs but He has wants means that this is a relation of love rather than selfishness. Hence, He doesn’t ask for fancy things—just a leaf, a flower, or a fruit will suffice.

Because you are My very dear friend, I am speaking to you the most confidential part of knowledge. Hear this from Me, for it is for your benefit. (BG 18.64)

Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend. (BG 18.65)

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear. (BG 18.66)

Bhakti-yoga is the highest form of yoga because it delivers the deepest understanding of the Lord. By aśtangayoga, we can understand how the Lord controls everything. By karma-yoga, we can understand how the Lord acts. By jñāna-yoga, we can understand how the Lord looks. But by bhakti-yoga, we can understand how the Lord feels.

Yoga is Personalism

While some forms of yoga are higher than others, all forms of yoga are personalist.

In jñāna-yoga, we search for God in the form of the original sound, taste, touch, smell, and sight, obtained through our senses, and the original idea, belief, intent, and morality in the mind. These are the original essence of all knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth. In aśtanga-yoga, we search for how God controls everything by the movement of His consciousness. In karma-yoga, we search for God as the original actor who controls everything. Finally, in bhakti-yoga, we understand how God feels. In every yoga, we are searching for a form rather than formlessness. We are looking for a person rather than the impersonal. There is nothing impersonal about Bhagavad-Gita.

Many unscientific and impersonal descriptions of yoga are taught and practiced today. These practitioners have an anathema to “religion” and they don’t want their “spiritual practice” to remotely resemble a “religion”. One of the things that they want to get rid of is the notion of a personal God often because their prior religion conjures up images of God that they don’t want to accept (e.g. eternal heaven vs. eternal damnation). Also, owing to social pressures, they don’t want to appear as having “converted” to another religion, in the eyes of the society they live in, because, every society is built on some notion of superiority. Thus, yoga practices have been modified to “fit” the socio-cultural needs of the people. Some modifications are acceptable and some are not. Most modifications currently applied to yoga—e.g. meditating on emptiness in aśtanga-yoga—are so profoundly misleading and contrary to the spirit of yoga that they cannot be useful.

There are other ideas such as the belief that jnana-yoga concerns the knowledge of the impersonal knowledge of Brahman when the fact is that the impersonal cannot be known, except through rejection of all knowledge. It is also interesting that while there are many kinds of knowledge in the world, many of which might be temporary, “knowledge itself” is not temporary. Yes, there is something called “knowledge itself” or the original form of knowledge. Vedas describe that all forms of knowledge are modifications of “knowledge itself”, all forms of beauty are modifications of “beauty itself”, etc. And these ideas are not impersonal, but rather personal forms. Therefore, all knowledge ends in understanding “knowledge itself”, and that understanding is the personality of Lord Visnu. The study of all beautiful forms culminates in the understanding of “beauty itself”. There is nothing impersonal about this study; we can reject illusions but not pure forms.

All yoga practitioners should understand the nature of reality and our position in it. Then yoga practice can be used to transform our life, which means our position in that reality. Without this scientific understanding, the much-touted promises of yoga would never be found.

The Necessity of a Guru

Lord Krishna, therefore, highlights the need for a guru who can initiate a person into a specific kind of yoga practice. In Vedic texts, it is described that God “impregnates” material energy with His “seed” and the seed then becomes a tree. This “seed” is the knowledge of God, and when this knowledge is received in the proper manner, through a person who has the correct understanding, a natural desire to pursue yoga is automatically created. The Vedic knowledge is so pure and so perfect that simply by listening to this knowledge from an enlightened source, a desire is naturally created. You don’t have to endeavor artificially, because yoga comes from a strong desire after the reception of true knowledge. If a strong desire has not arisen, it means that knowledge has not been received, and the “initiation” is not done.

Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth. (BG 4.34)

The meaning of “initiation” is the reception of knowledge due to which a strong desire naturally emerges. This can be illustrated with an example. A frog in the well knows nearly all parts of the well, and he thinks that whatever he doesn’t know would be very similar to what he knows. If somehow magically he sees a glimpse of what is outside the well, then he immediately understands that what he knows on the inside is nothing compared to what lies on the outside. The meaning of “initiation” is that the frog obtains a glimpse of the world outside the well. With even a fleeting glimpse he can understand that what he knew inside the well is insignificant as compared to what is outside.

The limited glimpse of reality leads to a hunger for the outside reality. The frog realizes that his life is useless with the knowledge that he had on the inside, and he has to discard everything and be prepared to learn afresh. With a strong desire, a natural inquisitiveness develops, and with that, humility arises. With this humility, the genuine student can accept the knowledge imparted by the teacher.

Krishna uses two words—pranipatena which means surrender or acceptance, and pariprashnena which means inquiry—to highlight the process of learning from a guru. Learning involves two things—inquiry and acceptance. One who is not desperate to know, will either not inquire, or even if the knowledge is imparted, it would not be accepted because there is no hunger. The guru shows a glimpse of reality beyond what everyone can see and this glimpse (although fleeting) is called “initiation”. The symptom of initiation is that the person develops a strong hunger for what is seen in a glimpse. The initiation is therefore not an ordinary act. It is to awaken a desire. With such hunger, the practice of yoga becomes enlivening at every step of life.