The Hierarchy of Yoga Systems

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The Bhagavad-Gita describes various yoga systems called karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. Each of these yoga processes is based on a scientific understanding of reality, but since this view of reality is not widely understood, there is often a misconception that there are “many paths” to the same truth, which are equally good. This post discusses the differences between the various yoga systems and how these systems are part of a single understanding of reality. With this understanding, we can also discern which of the yoga systems is superior to the others, thus constructing a hierarchy of yoga systems. The key purpose of this post is to describe this yoga hierarchy.

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 the actions caused by that freedom, and (2) given the understanding of free will, what the correct use of that will is. The correct use of free will cannot be understood unless we understand the nature of the responsibility and begin acting in ways that do not create unwanted consequences of our actions. Yoga cannot be practiced unless we understand what our free will is, and how it has to be used.

As seen in an earlier post, our free 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 of choice 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.

In a simple sense, yoga means the full restoration of free will, without the conditions of past habits or the consequences of past actions. The process of yoga in turn depends on the understanding of how we are free and yet forced by past habits and consequences of previous actions. If the nature of our conditioning is understood, then the process of rediscovery of free will would also be apparent. The guna include three energies—bhūti-śakti (the relation to the world), kriya-śakti (meanings we seek in life), and māyā-śakti (pleasures we seek in life).

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

  • Aśtangayoga changes the consciousness from 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. Thus, of the three things limiting free will—kāla, karma, and guna—nothing can be done about kāla except leaving the material world. Owing to this fact, 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 Origins of Hierarchy in Yoga

In the material world, sat is higher than chit which is higher than ananda. Accordingly, the aśtanga-yoga system is the highest in the material world. Conversely, in the spiritual world, ananda is higher than chit which is higher than sat. Accordingly, bhakti-yoga is highest from a spiritual viewpoint. It is noteworthy that if one aspect of the soul (namely, sat, chit, or ananda) is uplifted, the others are uplifted too. Therefore, there is no fundamental opposition between the different systems of yoga. The difference merely is the choice of what we uplift first such that other aspects of the soul’s energy can follow.

For example, should we begin our spiritual journey by a theoretical and conceptual understanding of the highest form of reality before we aspire for a conscious experience of that reality? Or, should we try to experience that reality and then bring a theoretical and conceptual explanation of that experience later? Should we change the nature of pleasure from self-service to the service of the Supreme before we seek a direct face-to-face experience? Or, should we first obtain a direct face-to-face encounter before our attraction to that Supreme leads us to the relinquishment of all forms of selfishness?

As we can see, these are questions of personal priority and preference, and they don’t entail a fundamental contradiction in the paths so long as we don’t deny the viability of the other yoga processes. Grave mistakes are committed in any process if one denies the usefulness of the other processes thinking that their path is the best universally. The fact is that different paths can be used by different people to arrive at the same destination, and the same person can also learn the merits of different paths and integrate it into their lives. A true practitioner knows how different kinds of stumbling blocks are removed by the application of detached action, theoretical knowledge, mind control, and loving devotion.

The paths are not identical or equal, and no path is ultimately complete without the other. For example, theoretical knowledge is useless if the mind is not controlled, the actions are not detached, and life is devoid of happiness achieved from devotion. Similarly, shedding tears in devotion is incomplete without the full knowledge of reality, the detached performance of duties, and consummate control over the mind and senses. The different forms of yoga should be viewed not as conflicting or contradictory paths, but as different perspectives that have to be integrated into a practitioner’s life.

Just as the body has both head and legs, and both are necessary for the successful functioning of the body, and yet the head is more important than the legs, similarly, all forms of yoga are important and necessary. Doing one perfectly naturally brings success in the others, and therefore they are not mutually exclusive. And yet, these paths are not completely identical in either their practice or their focus. This nuanced understanding of yoga is the basis of the unity of religious practices which might differ in their relative emphasis but a fuller understanding of religion brings one to the conclusion that they are all important, organized in a hierarchy, and incomplete without the other.

The Aśtanga-Yoga System

The aśtangayoga system is meant to change our consciousness—i.e. what we are aware of—and bring higher and higher aspects of nature within our experience. The material world is an inverted tree in which subtle reality exists at the top (towards the root) while the 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.

To achieve this, one must understand the structure of the tree, and the aśtangayoga system teaches us that the structure of the universe is analogous to the structure of the nerves in the body through which the prāna flows. All these nerves are connected to the central nerve (in the spinal cord) and in order to raise our consciousness, one must first withdraw it from the other parts of the body into the center. Once the consciousness sees the center, then it can move upwards. In short, first inwards, then upwards.

This understanding of aśtangayoga is based on a semantic space in which the perfect object exists at the center. For instance, 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 these perfect ideas are derived top-down vertically. In other words, 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 towards 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 a 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 about the original idea, belief, intent, and moral, and climbs up the tree of meanings seeing the forms of Aniruddha, Pradyumna, Saṅkarṣaṇa, and Vasudeva. Once he reaches the top, he can exit the universe. Alternately, he can stay in meditation upon these forms of Lord Viṣṇu, and when the universe is destroyed, he will be automatically 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 four forms of Lord Viṣṇu are collectively called the Paramātma. The meaning of ātma is an individual, and in matter, these individuals exist as atomic objects. Every part of the universe is comprised of these atoms; that is, even the senses, mind, intellect, ego, and morality are atomic. However, not all atoms are the same; some atoms are “higher” while other atoms are “lower” because the “lower” atoms are produced by detailing the ideas represented by the “higher” atoms. The term Paramātma indicates the highest (param) individual (ātma). Since there are many kinds of individuals (atoms), Paramātma appears as the highest (i.e. original) individual. He is therefore the beginning and the highest.

Sometimes, the term Paramātma is restricted to Aniruddha in the mind, because relative to the other senses (intellect, ego, and moral sense), the mind wanders the most, and if the mind can be made steady, the intellect, ego, and moral sense can be made steady quickly. The symptom of understanding these forms is that they become visible as the original objects underlying every other object. Thus the enlightened soul can see that everything is a distortion produced from the original idea, belief, intent, or moral—i.e. God.

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 (because everything is God plus a distortion) and yet none of those things. Similarly, due to “both”, he sees how everything is in God (because the set contains all alternatives). The above statements that “I am in everything” and “everything is in Me” refer to the center of the space, but this center has two kinds of entities—“neither” and “both”—with different meanings.

The modern practice of aśtangayoga has almost no relation to the real aśtangayoga because it has been made impersonal by removing Lord Viṣṇu from the meditation. People are meditating on emptiness and they can never find the center, nor can they locate the top-down hierarchy of the tree, nor can they climb up the tree. Such a meditation ultimately yields no spiritual benefits. The world has adopted aśtangayoga while removing Lord Viṣṇu from the meditation—ostensibly to detach yoga from “Hinduism”—and attach it to various forms of materialism such as bodily wellness. Such practitioners must understand that this meditation is devoid of the scientific understanding that the mind is a space of concepts and if you want to exit this space, then you must go to the center—the original concept—where the road to the next higher space is.

The Karma-Yoga System

The aśtanga-yoga path is difficult, and it requires one to renounce the world, go to a secluded place, perform meditation—with the purpose of advancing your perception—so that you can see how the universe is built up of subtle paths. 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, doesn’t require one to go to a secluded place, or meditate. Rather, karma-yoga is a path in which you can become perfect simply by performing your 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. It is easy to say that we should do our duties even without the desired results, but how do you practically achieve it? As we have seen earlier, the soul has innate tendencies for chit (meaning) and ananda (pleasure). How do we discard these tendencies? Doing some activities without a goal or purpose is just like asking us to empty the mind and make it thoughtless. How do we achieve this impersonal work?

The real answer to this question 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 work, but we will find the perfect work. What is this perfect work? Just like the perfect idea is in the center of mind space, the perfect work is in the center of the senses and sense objects. There is no problem, therefore, with work. However, we must find the center of the material space of objects and then move towards that center. As seen in the previous post, when the trajectory of a person is directed towards 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 sometimes translated differently, leading to varied kinds of conclusions. It is therefore important to understand why buddhi-yuktā is called “devotional service”.

The term buddhi denotes intellect, whose basic property it 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 space of material sounds is produced from an original sound which lies in the center of the material element called Ether. This sound is the sound of silence. Yes, silence is also a sound, although it is neither loud nor soft, neither shrill nor dull. To perfectly work in the material world one must know that all sound is produced from silence, and therefore silence is the original sound. We must understand that for every information there is a carrier and a modulation; the carrier is the wave on which a modification is added. That carrier signifies the soundless sound because the modifications on that soundlessness produce all sounds.

Therefore, buddhi-yukta means hearing the original sound, feeling the original touch, seeing the original form, perceiving the original taste, and experiencing the original smell. You don’t have to leave your work, go to a forest, or renounce your family. If you have the understanding that everything we experience is built on an original property, then just seeking that property (within the ordinary experiences) itself constitutes the detachment from a variety of illusory properties because we can see that only that original property is real, while the other modifications of the original property are temporary. Thus, you can find the eternal and unchanging reality even in the changing world of sensations and objects. Going to the center, in this case, means that even my gross senses can hear the original sound, feel the original touch, etc. Unlike in aśtanga-yoga where we go to the center using the mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva, in karma-yoga, we can go to the center using even the gross material senses, the tanmātra, and the sense-objects.

These original objects are active and yet not needlessly overactive or inactive. For example, you do your job just sufficient, not more and not less. So, you are not lazy, and you are not hyperactive. You do your household duties just as much as required; not more not less. You are not overeager to please anyone, and you are not neglectful of your responsibilities. This kind of activity is also meditation because more or less is a distortion. Just right is the original form of that activity which is by itself the form of God.

Karma-yoga involves a very sophisticated understanding of nature and is probably the least understood. It is a way of realizing God through the controlled execution of your day-to-day activities. Thus, you are doing your karma or duties, but the forms of those activities are not material because matter means distortion away from the center. By doing your job just as much as needed—neither more nor less—you can realize how God is the origin and how His activities are the pure, perfect, and the most balanced activities.

The Jñāna-Yoga System

The jñāna-yoga system is based on the idea that just by doing day-to-day activities, we cannot easily realize the nature of reality. Rather we must put in dedicated effort in a focused direction. The jñāna-yoga system requires that we study why the world is meaningful, understand 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 music which is the form, and the words which are the content. We are attracted to the form, but once we find the form, then we go to the content. For example, we listen to some music, and then we get attracted to the lyrics. The content is deeper than the form. And therefore as we get engrossed in the form, we gradually rise to the content. This is the basic process of jñāna-yoga—move 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 the understanding of 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.

We must note that the three modes of nature (sattva, rajas, and tamas) are not transcendental. However, as the person doing jñāna-yoga progresses, he finds that everything in matter can be reduced to the three logical states (TRUE, FALSE, Neither TRUE nor FALSE) but all this is still form rather than content. Ultimately, I’m either seeing true or false ideas, true or false beauty, true or false power, true or false wealth. So, if I remove the opposites of TRUE and FALSE from this perception, then I should get something that is the original wealth, power, knowledge, beauty, renunciation, and fame. That original form is not material, but even in the material world, we can see it. Transcending the material world means giving up the final form (the three modes) and seeking the content (the six qualities). That knowledge of content over form is the ultimate meaning of life.

In Vedic philosophy, 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 living entity—Lord Viṣṇu—who is the “form” of knowledge. The meaning of the word “knowledge” is, therefore, the entire body 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 deliberately hidden, while other parts are deliberately 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.

In short, the body of the Lord is the personification of knowledge in its full resplendence. 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. So, to comprehend the theory of light, we have to treat the sun and the moon in a special way. We cannot treat them on par with the stars, or other planets (as modern science does). Nor can we equate the light from the sun to the light from burning firewood. 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 every person. It needs a special kind of intellect to perceive the essence of the world and teach it to others. Therefore a special class of people called Brahmana was designated in society to pursue and present this knowledge to everyone else. While all classes of people (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra) can perform karma-yoga, only the Brahmana is considered suitable for jñāna-yoga, because it is a very advanced form of scientific knowledge.

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 ananda. In the spiritual realm, ananda 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 rather strange idea because we are used to the exchange of meanings, such as knowledge, wealth, power, etc. But, we not very 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. Giving happiness involves a heightened form of unselfishness.

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 expensive, and richer in nutrients than a glass of water—i.e. by every standard of measurement, milk has more meaning than 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 perhaps it is not very pleasurable. 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. Now, one might ask: Why does God want to receive anything? Doesn’t God already have everything in the world? The answer is that God has everything and therefore doesn’t need anything from anyone. However, he still wants things from everyone. The fact that God doesn’t have needs but He has wants is an indication that this is a relationship of love rather than selfish desires. In fact, He doesn’t ask for fancy things—just a leaf, a flower, 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 considered the highest form of yoga because it is the highest form of unselfish action. The living entity in Brahman is not selfish to exploit others, but he is an individualist; he doesn’t take anything from anyone, but he doesn’t give anything to anyone either. The living entity in Vaikunṭha serves others based on their estimation of meanings; these living beings feel happy about the fact that they are giving meaning to others, although they might be giving milk to one who wants water. The living entity in Goloka serves water to those who want water, and milk to those who want milk. There is more variety in this work, and the act is the least selfish kind of act we can think of.

Yoga is Personalism

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

In karma-yoga, we search for God in the form of original sound, taste, touch, smell, and sight, obtained through our senses. In aśtanga-yoga, we search for God in form of an original idea, belief, intent, and morality. In jñāna-yoga, we seek God as the essence of all knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth. Finally, in bhakti-yoga, we offer to God what He desires, rather than what we might want to give. In every yoga, we are searching for a form rather than formlessness. We are looking for a person rather than the impersonal. There is simply nothing impersonalist about Bhagavad-Gita.

Many unscientific and impersonalist descriptions of yoga are taught and practiced today, especially in the West. The reason is that many people would like to take on some “spiritual practice” because they don’t find the religion of their birth satisfying, in one way or another. However, most such practitioners have an anathema to “religion” and they don’t want their “spiritual practice” to even remotely resemble a “religion”. One of the things that they want to get rid of immediately is the notion of a personal God, mostly because their prior exposure to their own 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 of the 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 first understand the nature of reality and our position in that reality. Then the yoga practice can be used to transforms our life in that reality. Unless we have a scientific understanding of the reality and our position in it, the much-touted promises of yoga would never be found, and rather than find the answers for which a person sought a “spiritual practice”, he or she would be even more frustrated.

The Necessity of a Guru

Lord Krishna, therefore, highlights the need for a guru who can initiate a person in yoga through the knowledge about the nature of reality and yoga. What is this “initiation”? 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 within us. 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 massive hunger and desperation for knowledge of 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 knowledge. 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 on inquiry it would not be accepted because there is no urgency and desperation. Further knowledge is not to be imparted to such people as they can only be disturbed by it and they cannot benefit from its reception.

The conclusion is that yoga should not be begun without a proper understanding of the nature of reality from a guru. The guru imparts knowledge by showing a glimpse of the reality beyond the parochial boundaries of the material existence, and this glimpse (although fleeting) into the nature of the truth is called “initiation”. The symptom of having received an initiation is that the person develops a strong desire to acquire knowledge, which manifests as repeated inquiry and acceptance of the answers. If the inquiry and acceptance are missing, the desire is missing, and if the desire is missing then the vision of the outside reality has not been received, and hence “initiation” hasn’t occurred. The initiation of a guru is therefore not an ordinary act. It is to awaken a deep desire, and when that desire engulfs us, we seek knowledge and accept it when it is imparted. With such knowledge, the practice of yoga becomes enlivening at every step of life.