Exploring Swami Vivekananda’s four paths of yoga: Karma; Jnana; Raja; Bhakti

A/C | Words by Sarah Picton, student of Stewart Gilchrist at ELSY – Written March 2020 as part of ELSY 200hr YTT course 2019-2020

Featured image source: quotefancy

Carl Sagan said “If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.” So, let us make the goal Peace.

Within Sage Vyasa’s [i]epic poem The Mahabharata we discover the Bhagavad Gita (circa 200CE), meaning the Song of God – considered the most influential of all shastras (Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga). Embedded in the 18 chapters comprising this sacred scripture (shastra) are valuable teachings on the four paths of Yoga – all united in the shared goal for Self-transcendence, of journeying inwards to realise true Peace. 

While rooted in the Bhagavad Gita, it was Swami Vivekananda[ii] (celebrated for bringing yoga and the ancient wisdom of eastern philosophy to the West) who introduced to the western mind the four paths of yoga – all interconnected, all leading to the same goal: Peace. 

These paths are Karma Yoga (“The Way of Action”, Easwaran[iii]); Jnana Yoga (“The Way of Wisdom”, Easwaran); Raja Yoga (“The Royal Path” Easwaran); and Bhakti Yoga (“The Way of Love”, Easwaran). 

For the yogi and yogini keen to develop in spirit but not sure how, then following a clear path which resonates with your true self is a good starting point. This is why paths are given (Natasha Chawla[iv]).

Swami Vivekananda | image source: culturalindia.net

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga, “the active path of selfless service” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch3.3) is for active people (Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). “Yogah karmasu kaushalam” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch2.50) is translated as “perfection in action is Yoga” (Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). ‘Perfection’ in this sense means acts driven by joy – other acts, good or bad, are imperfect as they will affect the mind (Swami Satchidananda). 

The Bhagavad Gitatells us not to seek results (Ch2.47); as wretched are the result-seekers who act with a selfish heart, driven by the “fruits of their actions” (Ch2.49). Rather, we are encouraged to renounce the fruits of our actions, as these acts – good and bad – bind us; when renouncing we can accomplish something without attachment and with a clean mind. We perform Sadhana, working not for our benefit, but for the benefit of others; working to bring people together (loka samgraha[v]) advocating the power of love and engaging Karma Yoga (Bhagavad Gita, Ch3.5).

Discipline is necessary for selfless action (Swami Satchidananda). Whatever action you do, make it driven by duty – not desire (Bhagavad Gita,Ch3.8)! With dharma (spiritual duty) as the motivator, action becomes a selfless sacrifice called “yajna” (Bhagavad Gita,Ch3.9). So, let life be your sacrifice, and keep asking yourself “Am I living a sacrificial life?” (Swami Satchidananda). 

Sri Swami Satchidananda inspires us in his book The Living Gitahow a life of selfless sacrifice [to humans and animals!] is one of cause and effect; an idea explored by George Feuerstein who writes “action performed in the spirit of self-surrender has benign invisible effects” (The Yoga Tradition). A key lesson, then, is to always give back. If we just take, we become a thief; we are stealing (steya). Here we see the value of starting our journey with bringing awareness to our first limb – our yamas, like asteya – when embarking on the path of Karma Yoga. 

In order to guide others, we must follow the path of Karma Yoga (Bhagavad Gita, Ch3.20) – as leader, teacher, doer, and giver, we must, therefore, live selflessly. Because Karma comes from Brahma (“creative intelligence”), the circle of Nature moves as such: sacrifice (yajna) –> actions (karma) –> God –> sacrifice (Bhagavad Gita, Ch3.15;16, Swami Satchidananda).

Therefore, Brahma is centred in selfless-sacrifice. We can delight in learning “when we dedicate all actions to God, the mind will rest in the Self” (Bhagavad Gita Ch3.30; Swami Satchidananda). Peace is the goal and the guide; waiting to greet anyone who truly travels the path of Karma Yoga.

The Gita ignites our awareness in distinguishing between what is to be done, what is not to be done, and what is not doing. In other words: learn to see action in inaction, and inaction in action (Bhagavad Gita, Ch4,17). Physically you could appear to be meditating, appear still, but inside, mental deviances (kleshas) – toxic emotions, long-standing, deep-rooted fears – keep the mind in a frenzied state of vritti (fluctuations; waves). Another example: If someone is seeking attention, choosing not to give attention might be the most helpful form of action as this will encourage the individual to turn inwards. 

Jnana Yoga

The “wise” sees both sides, simultaneously (Bhagavad Gita, Ch4.18); acting and observing, witness and actor, always.  And so we see how the paths of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga[vi], which is the “contemplative path of spiritual wisdom” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch3.3; Eknath Easwaran), are essentially one in the same (Bhagavad Gita, Ch5.5)! 

We learn that actions which are selfless purify the mind and facilitate true renunciation to occur from within (Bhagavad Gita, Ch5.4;6), and “those on the path of wisdom, offer up the fruits of their knowledge [their jnana] to God” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch9.15; Swami Satchidananda). 

Those who possess a curious mind – always questioning, asking “Who am I?” – might find sanctuary in choosing to follow the path of Jnana Yoga[vii]. Closely linked to Karma Yoga – to yajna– the path of discerning wisdom will guide those pure in their actions to the truth (Bhagavad Gita, Ch4.19). A beautiful expression of truth can be found in chapter 4, verse 23 of the Bhagavad Gita: “When you let go of all attachments and experience liberation, your mind becomes absorbed in the truth. Then everything you do becomes a sacrifice (yajna), and all your karma melts away” (Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). 

So how do we live every moment in sacrifice? Sri Swami Satchidananda offers a wonderful example – particularly relevant in modern-day yoga. Our breath – constantly inhaling, exhaling – can be our sacrifice. Our prana is already happening, we merely need to bring our awareness to it. And so we discover asana (the third limb) – when linking with breath (our fourth limb) – becomes a sacrifice. 

The Bhagavad Gitateaches us the offering of knowledge is a sacrifice better than giving wealth (Ch4.33). When such sacred knowledge isshared it becomes Jnana Yajna (Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita) – a sacred transaction which serves to remind us of the value in remaining forever students; surrendering, seeking, and sharing jnana with humility. 

Because only with humility can receiving knowledge be possible (Bhagavad Gita Ch4.34).  So, we adopt an attitude of humility! “To understand, you have to stand under,” delights Swami Satchidananda in The Living Gita, who goes on to make an important observation on jnana and selfless service (seva): “through service, teacher imparts teaching.” 

Books aside, the biggest teacher in life we can all attest to is life itself. Beyond the pages, beyond the scriptures: we truly learn through practice. Even a little goes a long way!Proper receptivity requires an empty, clean mind[viii](Swami Satchidananda). And patience. And a shift in perspective. First, we must understand time is not linear: it is cyclical (Natasha Chawla). 

A great analogy is given by Swami Satchidananda, who writes that while imparting wisdom can indeed take only 12 minutes, the scrubbing of the mind takes time. Realising the truth therefore takes time (The Living Gita). The Bhagavad Gita (Ch4.37) attributes realisation of truth to a fire – like tapas (our third Niyama, meaning ‘to burn’; to sacrifice), fire burns away past karma and toxicity. The truth will burn away doubt (Bhagavad Gita, Ch4.41) 

Indeed! We take refuge in learning that “With the keen blade of knowledge, [we can] sever any doubts caused by ignorance [Avidya]…” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch4.42, Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). 

The truth of Self-realisation, dear friends, will set us free. True Karma Yoga – rooted in devotion and void of doubt – leads to the awakening of true knowledge and liberation in life (jivan-mukti). “Both paths lead to freedom!” (Bhagavad Gita Ch5.2, Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita

Like Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, the path of Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga), will also set one free. 

Raja Yoga

Sri Swami Satchidananda writes: “most valuable is the truth of wisdom” (The Living Gita). The chapter titled “Regal Science and The Royal Secret” compels us to learn “when you combine sacred knowledge with personal realisation, you will be completely free of wrong-doing” (Bhagavad Gita Ch9.1; Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita) This is royal secret! This is the regal science! 

This blending of theory into practice is the essence of Raja Yoga[ix]aka Integral Yoga (Swami Satchidananda); this “Royal Yoga of the Mind” flows in harmony with the meditative [x]Hatha yoga path of modern-day – a path of contemplation, sacred meditative practice and surrender. (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition

With constant practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya), we observe and act; we are actor and witness. Rooted in devotion, abhyasa brings us to realise God is in everything – good and badwe are a part of him and he lives in us (Bhagavad Gita, Ch9.15;29).

So, if God is in others and in ourselves, then surely we are in others and others are in us too?! This understanding is liberating! Regardless of our conditional make-up, we are able to see with purer eyes – we find unity flowing through everything. True vision is seeing both sides as the same. 

Then the many contradictions – Yoga is the goal and the means; God is Life and Death (Bhagavad Gita, Ch9.18;19) – begin to make more sense. The next question, friends, is as old as time: Who – what – then is God? Simply put, it’s just a word to help us understand something much more universal. God is PEACE (Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). And realising God – peace – is in us already is the essence of this royal secret shared with us in the Bhagavad Gita. The Path of Raja Yoga is another route to Joy, to Peace. 

Scientific in its logical approach: We follow Patanjali’s eight-limbed path[xi]; we “do the work and Yoga happens” (Gilchrist). 

Whatever you do, though, make it an offering (Bhagavad Gita, Ch9.27). Then action becomes worship! Then it’s Yoga! A life of selfless sacrifice – living with sincerity, acting from a place of dharma – leads to Peace. Therefore, act selflessly, live for others, devote your life to God (Peace) and peace will surely find you; “Thus you become steady on the path to the supreme [royal] goal, and come unto me.” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch9.34; Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita)

So, if I may, I would like to add one more ‘P’ to the list: Practice, patience, perseverance and peace! 

Bhakti Yoga

We begin to see that devotion to God is the uniting thread in all paths of yoga – Karma, Jnana, Raja all follow a path, a practice, rooted in selfless devotion and sacrifice. All paths are paths of bhakti; of devotion. A spiritual practice fuels all journeys – whatever the route, the goal is the same. And that goal is God. Which is Peace. Which is rooted in loving kindness (maitri) and devotion (bhakti).

So, let us surrender our egos and worry no more! The Bhagavad Gita encourages us to abandon to God what is possible – whether that be the mind (manas), practice (abhyasa), actions (karma), or ego (ahamkara) (Ch12.8-11). 

“Knowledge certainly is better than a mindless practice…” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch12.12; Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita). So we do our best, knowing change is a constant in life, and thus our practice is constantly changing; progressing, step-by-step (Yoga Krama).

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, composed “sthira sukham asanam” meaning steadiness, ease and presence of mind. In the Bhagavad Gita, a steady mind and devotion (bhakti) live side-by-side. With self-control and firm convictiona life of devotion means constantly practicing compassion (karuna), patience, forgiveness, ahimsa, inclusivity and aparigraha (Bhagavad Gita, Ch12.12;13). 

With a steady mind and a faithful heart (Bhagavad Gita Ch12.19), the devoted yogi “maintains equanimity during praise and blame, takes refuge in silence, is content [no matter what], hates no creatures…[is] not excited by joy, nor [is] victim to [his/her] own envy, fear or worry” (Bhagavad Gita Ch12.13;15, Swami Satchidananda, The Living Gita).

Whether devotion through action, knowledge, practice or ego – all efforts become practices of devotion on the path of Bhakti Yoga. Intention is all-encompassing (Gilchrist) – devotion is thus a matter of the heart. And the real wisdom to realise – to act upon, to share, to devote – is learning a life of knowledge is nothing without faith. When sacred knowledge and faith take flight, the mind, body and soul become one. 

Then the journey begins. 

[i]Vyasa, through the words of Lord Krishna in the Gita, looked to bridge the gap between the Samkhya tradition (Classical Yoga; dualist in approach) and Yoga, speaking not of their differences but of their common ground. “Resorting properly to one [or the other], one obtains the fruit of both. (5.4)” (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)

[ii]Vivekananda brought his teachings of yoga and Vedanta philosophy to the western world during his talk at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago (Pathways to Joy), where he opened with “the brothers and sisters of America” – setting a tone of oneness, of unity (of Yoga, essentially.) He also wrote extensively – with books including Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, 

[iii]Source: The Bhagavad Gita, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran

[iv]Inspired by discussion – teachings – on yoga philosophy by Natasha Chawla.

[v]In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna speaks about the karma yogi “working for the welfare of the world”, using the phrase “loka-samgraha” which means “world gathering” or “pulling people together.” (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition) This is yoga. This is uniting. This is authentic love. And this is the means and the goal! 

[vi]Jnana Yoga is virtually identical to the non-dualist spiritual path of Vedanta in the Hindu tradition. (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)

[vii]Equated to Buddhi-Yoga by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavid Gita; Feuerstein denotes buddhi to mean “wisdom faculty”, and says “it signifies illuminated reason”. Thus Jnana Yoga is the path of to realising the Self by applying discriminative – illuminated reason, buddhi – to all situations and conditions in life. (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)

[viii]Yoga is “chitta vritti nirodhah”; yoga stills the cessations of the mind. We purify the mind by following the eight-limbed path; through practice, breath, pratyahara and meditation we begin to move inwards – to a place of stillness in which our mind is clean.

[ix]Raja Yoga, or Classical Yoga, became popular in the 16thcentury CE (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)  

[x]Ha (Sun), Tha (Moon) – HaTha Yoga, describes Mark Stephens, are “physical purification practices first described in written form in the 14thcentury CE in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.” 

[xi]“Raja Yoga* refers specifically to the Yoga system of Patanjali, crated in the 2ndcentury CE and is most commonly used to distinguish Patanjali’s eightfold path of meditative introversion from Hatha-Yoga.” (Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition). *It is worth noting that Ashtanga Yoga is sometimes called Raja Yoga (source: Stewart Gilchrist, Yoga TT workbook), and that Patanjali’s system is a three-way road of Vedanta (non-dualist), Jainism (extreme non-violence; honouring ahimsa), and Buddhist (Yamas, Niyama). 

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