Karma, Jnana & Bhakti Yoga – part 1
Even before the texts of the Vedas were written down, the three fundamental elements of yogic practice were known as Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Here DAAJI enlightens us on how these three elements arose, and how mastering karma, jnana and bhakti can help us to reach the stage of oneness known as Yoga.
It is fascinating to me that the most unified concept in the world, Yoga, has been subdivided into so many branches. Just as medical doctors specialize in certain organs of the body and certain illnesses, Yoga practitioners often specialize in just one or two aspects of Yoga. And like medicine, these yogic specializations may take us deeper into each area of specialty and provide very useful and important understanding, but the underlying purpose of Yoga has been lost in the process.
The word ‘Yoga’ itself means ‘union’ or ‘to bind’, and the practices of Yoga are all about unification of the lower self with the higher Self; union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness; and the integration of body, mind and soul into a purified whole. Despite this focus on union, Yoga has also traditionally been classified into three major disciplines – Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. What are these three disciplines and how do they fit together? Is there some purpose to this triadic classification? To understand this, we really need to go back to the time of creation.
What was there before the creation of the universe? There was indescribable and infinite darkness. Then, into this absolute state of nothingness came a stir, and that very first vibration caused the big bang. It was also the first manifestation of consciousness, described in Yoga as AUM. The whole world rests upon it. It is the Absolute Base and foundation of all creation.
As a result, the veil of darkness collapsed and time was born. Individual identity arose, the ‘I’, and consciousness experienced fear because it was now separated from the Source. Fear arose because of the feeling of separateness or individuality. But as a result of thinking and understanding, fear disappeared, as it still does today whenever we face fear. The Being that existed at the dawn of time wished to expand, and that wish was the beginning of desire, and it began to grow. From then on it was called Brahman.
That first stir faced no friction; nothing prevented it or slowed it down in any way, and so it found an opportunity for infinite expansion. Thus there was movement or expansion (karma) and thinking (jnana), and before these two existed there was the original connection with the Source (bhakti). These three – karma, jnana and bhakti – have been there since the very beginning of the universe, as fundamental elements of life, and together they dance and weave our existence through the fabric of time. They are inseparable, and dependent on each other.
The first and fundamental element is bhakti. We usually translate bhakti into English as ‘love and devotion’, but it is more fundamental than that. It is the feeling of connectedness with everything through the heart; the link of our individual consciousness with the universal divine consciousnss. Without bhakti, karma and jnana are missing that vital element of enthusiasm and spark; so they become purposeless and futile. In these two articles we will explore all three of these elements, their interplay, and the role of spiritual practice and Pranahuti in refining them towards our purpose.
Karma is action. Why is action necessary? It is the practical manifestation of existence. Without action we cannot infer life, as action expresses life. Karma is the ‘movement’ part or the ath of the atman or soul. Karma was also the movement of that stir at the time of creation that became the ongoing ‘expansion’ part, the bruha, of Brahman or God. This aspect of movement and expansion that is critical to all life is what we call karma.
Karma is the ‘movement’ part or the ath of the atman or soul.
Karma was also the movement of that stir at the time of creation
that became the ongoing ‘expansion’ part, the bruha, of Brahman or God.
This aspect of movement and expansion
that is critical to all life is what we call karma.
So in Karma Yoga we learn to express life through action according to the natural law. If life is expressed in this natural way, without harming anyone or anything, there is neither merit nor wrongdoing in it. When we spend time observing newborn babies, we soon see that there is no consciousness of right or wrong in their actions, or any thought of legitimate or illegitimate. Every action is so natural, in response to the most basic needs and stimuli. The ideal Karma Yogi is like a newborn – so pure that there is no need for ‘right or wrong’ consciousness.
But are we there yet? Instead we are entangled in thoughts of right and wrong, creating bondage and the need for ethics and values. When we act in accordance with mundane desires, we develop a chain of karma after karma, of desire after desire, and we become trapped in that net. Then the need to free ourselves arises, otherwise it would not even enter our thought.
To free ourselves from bondage, we have a number of Heartfulness practices:
- The first is a process of Cleaning – a super effective method for removing the past impressions that created the bondage and limit or distort our consciousness.
- The second is a practice of Constant Remembrance, in which we maintain a base of resonating with the universal consciousness, of being united with the rest of Existence throughout the most part of the day. This way we are not laying down new impressions. That state is possible when our consciousness is purified, and we are able to connect with our Center in Meditation in the morning and then carry that state with us throughout the day.
- The third is a practice of prayerful Continuous Improvement at bedtime, in which we let go of any feelings and emotions we hold about wrongdoings, in a guilt-free way, focusing on positive behavioural change and growth. This brings us restful and carefree sleep.
Another remedy that helps to remove this bondage is to convert any intention into a good intention before acting. The best kind of action is to serve our fellow beings in the world without any selfish motive, personal desire or self-importance. When we do this, we are free from any bondage imposed by karma, and we refine ourselves through Karma Yoga.
The best kind of action is to serve our fellow beings in the world
without any selfish motive, personal desire or self-importance.
When we do this, we are free from any bondage imposed by karma,
and we refine ourselves through Karma Yoga.
Simplistically, we can say that there are two types of action, legitimate action and illegitimate action. Legitimate action brings happiness, and illegitimate action does not. An action is illegitimate if there is fear, hesitation and shame, and an action is legitimate if there is fearlessness, courage and valor. But there are also other influences: education, personal and cultural values, collective consciousness and experience. So to know if an action is legitimate, make sure that the following things are all in sync:
- Your religious or ethical principles,
- The sacred and philosophical texts you follow,
- Your Guide’s teachings, and
- Your own conscience.
When these are in agreement, an action is legitimate; if they differ, it is illegitimate.
In religious and spiritual texts, and the philosophy of ethics, a lot is made of the principles of right action. In fact, right character is considered to be the cornerstone of most value systems, such as the Buddha’s eightfold path, Confucius’ aphorisms, Plato’s Republic and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Sovereignty of Ethics. Probably the most famous slokas from the Bhagavad Gita, which can be recited by most school children in India, are slokas 47 and 48 from chapter 2, in which Lord Krishna tells Arjuna:
Your authority is in action alone, not in its fruits.
The motive for any action should not be in its fruits, nor should you cling to inaction.
While abiding in Yoga, engage in action!
Let go of clinging, and let satisfaction and frustration be the same;
for it is said that Yoga is poise.
But with this ethical guidance comes an apparent paradox of karma to be resolved in our hearts: on one hand we have the above statements by Lord Krishna, and also his instruction to live life like a lotus in a muddy pond – unaffected by the dirt and sludge around. The great sage Ashtavakra also speaks about the importance of contentment as one of the five great qualities to be imbibed.
On the other hand, Patanjali advocates intensity and sincerity in our approach to Yoga. He says that if this intensity in practice, intensity of love, is not there, then we will not achieve the spiritual goal. We cannot have a lukewarm relationship with anyone let alone God. Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur also advises us to have restlessness and intense craving for God; he invites us to say goodbye to peace. We will come back to this in part 2, when we explore the interplay between karma, jnana and bhakti.
The real enlightenment comes
when we have full consciousness of the condition
that has been enlivened in us at each chakra,
and we become one with it.
Jnana is knowledge. Just as karma is the practical expression of life, knowledge is its essential aspect. Knowledge is the way we perceive and understand the reality of our life, and this is the distinguishing quality of human beings. Even the word ‘man’ comes from the Sanskrit word manas, meaning mind. Understandably, we place a lot of importance on the mind and knowledge.
The real knowledge of existence is not learnt through books and lectures, however, but through observation and direct experience. We also see this in newborn babies: even from the beginning, knowledge is constantly being absorbed, and they develop a set of cognates that help them survive in this world of experiences.
Knowledge is no doubt enlightening, but it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end; it always has some purpose. This is so evident in worldly life, for example, reciting C6H12O6, the molecular formula for glucose, is not going to elevate my blood glucose level when I am hypoglycaemic, although repeating the formula shows that I have the knowledge of the formula for glucose. And reciting the formula for water – two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, H20 – is not going to quench my thirst! Similarly, to make a wooden chair I will have to practice carpentry and wood turning; and to learn swimming I will have to get into the water.
But what is it that human beings are supposed to achieve apart from the smaller mundane goals of life? What is our ultimate purpose, for which we need knowledge? In Yoga it is to become one with the higher Self, the absolute Reality, which is also that same state that was there before creation. So Jnana Yoga is the process of enlightening the way on that journey back to our Source. Our awareness of the destination is Jnana Yoga, and that is purposeful knowledge.
The word Jnana is usually applied so vaguely in the spiritual field that it is used to describe the range from bookish knowledge to the highest level of inner enlightenment. So a person who has learnt a few scriptures, another who has read many books, and yet another who recites philosophy or the scriptures in a very erudite way, may claim to be enlightened, irrespective of their inner state.
In fact, true Jnana is an ever-changing state, because the spiritual journey is an ever-expanding journey. We become enlightened up to a certain stage. In the real sense Jnana refers to the inner condition of the mind that develops as we pass through the different states at different points or chakras on the spiritual journey. Jnana is the practical realization of the condition prevailing at each chakra, and so our knowledge will vary according to the level we have reached on the journey.
The real enlightenment comes when we have full consciousness of the condition that has been enlivened in us at each chakra, and we become one with it. We merge into its consciousness, and so we become enlightened up to that particular stage. This mergence carries with it a blissful state that encourages our heart to keep going ahead on the journey.
Jnana allows us to think, reflect, make wise choices and exhibit right behavior; it allows us to differentiate and draw a line between good and bad; it is the exclusive quality of the heart. As we progress on our journey, those abilities continue to become more and more refined until we reach a stage characterized by purity, discernment and wisdom. Eventually we transcend the need for knowledge to reach a higher state, which is at one with the condition before creation.
When the heart’s attention also goes to the third stream,
where it settles on the subtlest region,
then our higher purpose comes into focus,
and the teaching is known as upasana.
For this we need bhakti,
which is our lifeline for the upward journey.
Karma and Jnana are joined by the middle link, which is the human heart. The heart sends its currents into our material existence, on one side, leading to action. The same heart sends its currents into the subtler regions of the mind for knowledge. While it lies in both knowledge and action, it enjoys the bliss of both, but if it leans completely towards one or the other, it is no longer balanced.
Now, when the heart’s attention also goes to the third stream, where it settles on the subtlest region, then our higher purpose comes into focus, and the teaching is known as upasana. For this we need bhakti, which is our lifeline for the upward journey. In part 2, we will explore bhakti, as well as the interplay of all three elements, along with the practices that support them.
To be continued.
Article by KAMLESH PATEL (DAAJI)
October 31, 2018
October 31, 2018
October 01, 2018