In our introductory post on yoga, which focused on Patañjali’s Yoga system, I promised to introduce the three principal forms of yoga as discussed in the Bhagavad Gītā. The following therefore attempts to make sense of the Gītā’s discussion of bhakti-yoga, karma-yoga, and jñāna-yoga. It is certainly is possible and perhaps best to practice all three yogas, although in keeping with the karmic and psychological consequences of “guna” theory (see below for the meaning of this concept), an individual will be inclined to elevate one of the three yogas over the others in his or her life owing to a particular psycho-physiological temperament or character type in which one of the three gunas predominate. [subscript diacritic dots missing]
Bhagavad Gītā: ‘Song of the Lord’—a spiritual and philosophical story in verse consisting of a dialogue between Krsna, as an incarnation of Visnu, and Arjuna, the brave warrior who was the offspring of Pāndu’s wife, Kuntī, and the god Indra (the gods, at Pāndu’s request, having sired his five sons with his two wives). Krsna appears as Arjuna’s charioteer just prior to the start of the great Bhārata war to counsel the courageous warrior who is having second (and last minute) thoughts about participating in a battle in which the two sides are closely related to each other, and which is certain to result in enormous carnage for both parties. The Gītā is but a comparatively small section of the epic Mahābhārata (‘the great [war of] the Bhāratas’). Commentaries on the Gītā have been penned some famous Indian philosophers, including Śankara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva in the Vedānta tradition, and Abhinavagupta in the Kashmir Śaiva tradition. Gandhi left us with a Gujarati translation and commentary (trans. into English by Mahadev Desai) of the work he called his ‘dictionary of daily reference.’ Among the topics covered in the Bhagavad Gītā we find dharma (including svadharma), karma, reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, yajña (sacrifice), vairāgya (free from attachment or detachment), anāsakti (selfless action), dama (self restraint), samnyāsa (renunciation), bhakti (love and devotion to God), and the various paths (mārgas) to liberation (moksa): bhakti-, karma-, and jñāna-yoga.
bhakti-yoga (or mārga): the yoga or path of love and devotion; devotional worship, including pūjā, to one’s personal deity. Bhakti is the most popular and accessible religious practice among Hindus, although the likes of Rāmānuja and Madhva have accorded it theological and philosophical authority and respectability. In addition to pūjā, devotional singing and dancing, as well as pilgrimages to holy places, are conspicuous expressions of this spirituality. An inner surrender to and love of the chosen god or goddess complements the above religious practices. Bhakti-yoga is perfectly compatible with simultaneous fidelity to other yogas. Devotionalism is a recurring theme in the Epic literature and the Purānas. Cf. Bhagavad Gītā XIV. 26: ‘He who serves Me with the unswerving yoga of devotion, transcending the gunas, gains the fitness to become like unto Brahman.’ Bhakti may in part be the fruit of God’s grace, and can assume attitudes and roles analogous to various relationships: master/servant, parent/child, husband/wife, and so forth.
karma-yoga (or –mārga): the yoga or path of ‘works’ or selfless social service; one of the three yogas to spiritual fulfillment or moksa. It is the path to God through selfless action and service to others. Devotion to God through such works means one must learn non-attachment and renunciation regarding the fruits of one’s actions, effectively surrendering oneself to God. Cf. Bhagavad Gītā III.3: ‘Men may pursue either of the two paths I have taught in former times, that of yoga through contemplation of the Truth, as expounded by the sāmkhya, and that of yoga through devotion to disinterested action, as exemplified by the yogins.’ In Gītā II.7 we learn that karma-yoga involves the use of our mind to control the senses and acting without becoming attached to sense-objects. Generally speaking, a karma yogin acts in a dispassionate manner, without attachment to the ‘fruits’ of action, meaning those consequences of actions in and for the agent: for instance, pleasure or pain, success or failure. Thus the karma yogin performs dharma without desire for personal pleasure, success, reward and the like, proper motives being on the order of something like Mohandas K. Gandhi’s satyāgraha (nonviolent resistance; relentless search for truth) or sarvodaya (social good, public interest; universal welfare) or, in a different cultural context, the impersonal motives that inspire members of The Catholic Worker Movement founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Indeed, Gandhi is best thought of (and thought of himself as) as karma-yogi. The Hindu nationalist politician Bal Ganghadar (Lokamanya) Tilak (1856-1920) wrote a commentary on the Gītā in which the text is taken to uphold the value of karma-yoga over both bhakti and jñana yoga. Gandhi read Tilak, and in spite of their clear moral and political differences, it’s not unlikely that Tilak’s interpretation had some influence on Gandhi’s own rather idiosyncratic rendering of the text’s meaning. The Gītā, and the notion of karma-yoga, was also central to the life and thought of another Hindu nationalist who later founded ‘Integral Yoga’ and his own āśrama, namely, Śri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). In fact, Karmayogin was the title of one of the early journals Aurobindo founded. But Aurobindo could never endorse Gandhi’s whole-hearted commitment to the theory and practice of nonviolence, and it seems unlikely that Gandhi would have countenanced Aurobindo’s later critique of the Gītā (that said, Gandhi was firm in his belief in the need for rational and critical interrogation of religious texts). Tilak, Gandhi and Aurobindo together represent the plausibility of according primacy to karma-yoga vis-à-vis the other yogas, as well as some of the varieties of moral and political practice that follow different interpretations of the Gītā’s discussion of karma-yoga. B.K. Matilal well-summarizes the karma-yoga ideal as elucidated by Krsna in the Gītā: ‘He must possess perfect knowledge of the nature of things and persons, but this knowledge would not lead him to non-action [as is alleged to occur in the śramana traditions like Jainism and Buddhism]. He would do whatever is expected of him by society [within the bounds of reason and ethics] and he would exercise unbiased reason to decide conflicting alternatives, but he would be completely free from any selfish desires, motives or preferences. If he acts of no selfish desire of his own, such acts will not produce any result that may cling to the agent and create further bondage.’
jñāna-yoga: (sometimes, jñāna-mārga or path of knowledge); the yoga of knowledge or wisdom. The path to God through the yoga of wisdom; cf. Bhagavad Gītā IV. 38, 39: ‘Verily, there is no purifier (pavitra) in this world equal to Divine Wisdom. He who is proficient in yoga discovers wisdom within his own soul in the progress of time.’ And, ‘He who is full of faith gains Divine Wisdom, seeking after it with supreme devotion and mastery over his senses. Gaining Wisdom, in no long time he enters the state of supreme peace (parāśānti).’ In Advaita Vedānta, jñāna-yoga is a mental-spiritual discipline the goal of which is moksa (freedom) from karma and the cycles of birth-death-rebirth, in other worlds, awareness of (nirguna) Brahman. In this school, the paths or yogas of bhakti and karma, in the end, subserve jñāna-yoga, which means they are not unimportant, in fact they can and do play an essential role in Advaita. As the most arduous and spiritually fulfilling of the yogas, jñāna-yoga is reserved for those few aspirants possessed of the proper psychological disposition and temperament. The would-be practitioner must evidence four spiritual capacities or abilities (sādhana catustaya): 1) some degree of ability to discriminate (viveka) between the spiritual and the conditioned, between the real and the provisionally real; 2) the renunciation of or indifference to (vairāgya) petty desires and all strivings for sensuous self-satisfaction; 3) attainment of mental tranquility (śamā), self-control (dama), dispassion (uparati), perseverance (titiksā), mental resolve or intentness of mind (samādhāna), and faith (śraddhā; but with connotations of trust, and to be progressively vindicated by knowledge and experience); 4) a positive longing for wisdom and freedom (mumuksutva). Broadly, jñāna-yoga entails the study of Vedāntic texts, sustained reflection upon the philosophical principles of Advaita (under the guidance of a guru), and ‘constant meditation’ (nididhyāsana).
guna(s): quality; attribute; characteristic; constituent; rope; in Sāmkhya philosophy, three gunas (gunasāmyāvasthā) exist in equilibrium with prakrti (primordial matter) until disrupted by the presence of purusa (pure consciousness). The disturbance in equilibrium causes the manifestation of determinate things and the separation of the three qualities or strands: sattva or ‘brightness’ strand, rajas or ‘force’ strand, and tamas or ‘mass’ strand. Guna theory has psychological (better: moral psychological) and epistemological ramifications as well, as sattva denotes eudaimonia and knowledge or the essence of higher mental functions, rajas denotes the will or energy and passion, and tamas denotes dullness, indifference and lethargy, mental inertia. This theory rules out any sharp separation between the metaphysical and the psychological, the epistemological and the ethical, and has been used to account for varying psycho-physiological states, temperaments, and character types (cf. Plato’s tripartite soul). It is comparable in function to the use of yin/yang and qi (or ch’i) in classical Chinese worldviews. In Nyāya-Vaisesika, gunas are qualities that inhere or subsist within substances (dravya). The number of gunas differs canonically from seventeen to twenty-four, and once more indicates an effacement (or at least a lack of sharp boundaries) of the material and the mental, the list including qualities of both types, and even qualities of ‘relation’ (e.g., remoteness and proximity, conjunction and disjunction). Relative to a ‘universal’ or ‘generic property’ (sāmānya or jāti), gunas are ‘abstract particulars,’ that is, particular spatio-temporal occurrences of colors, tastes, dimensions and so on: a particular that instantiates a universal (e.g., the particular redness of this tomato is an instance of universal redness as a property common to all red colors). In this system, the dravya-guna-sāmānya ontology is illustrative of realist metaphysics. In order to make clear that guna instantiation is non-repeatable, guna has recently been translated as ‘qualia,’ as qualities and properties are traditionally repeatable features. According to Gangeśa (Navya-Nyāya), guna ‘is a verdicality-grounding causal condition with respect to awareness’ (Stephen Phillips).
Incidentally, it is commonplace in the Indic religio-philosophical environment to formulate core doctrinal teachings and practices in a triune structure (there is not, however, a strict one-to-one correspondence): the Gītā’s three yogas thus worthy of comparison to the threefold division of the Eightfold Path of the Buddhists and the Triple Gems of the Jains, all three involving the mutually reinforcing practices of mind-heart training, moral virtues or ethics, and intuitive insight or wisdom.
Suggested Reading (I’ve highlighted my favorite translations of the Gītā):
- Aurobindo, Sri. Essays on the Gita. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1949.
- Aurobindo, Sri. The Life Divine, 2 Vols. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1977 (1955).
- Aurobindo, Sri. The Synthesis of Yoga. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1976 (1948).
- Bartley, Christopher. The Theology of Ramanuja. London. Routledge Curzon, 2002.
- Buitenen, J.A.B. van. Rāmānuja on the Bhagavadgītā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.
- Carman, John B. The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.
- Chari, S.M.S. Vaisnavism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.
- Chatterjee, Margaret. Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
- Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu, HI: University Press of Hawaii, 1971.
- Feuerstein, Georg. Introduction to the Bhagavad Gītā: Its Philosophy and Cultural Setting. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1983.
- Feuerstein, Georg. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997.
- Feuerstein, Georg (with Brenda Feuerstein), trans. The Bhagavad Gītā: A New Translation. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2011.
- Gandhi, M.K. (Mahadev Desai, trans.). The Gospel of Selfless Action or the Gita according to Gandhi. Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1946 (1930).
- Gonda, Jan. Visnuism and Śivaism: A Comparison. London: Althone Press, 1970.
- Hardy, Friedhelm. Viraha Bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
- Iyer, Raghavan, ed. The Bhagavad Gītā with the Uttara Gītā. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1985.
- Larson, Gerald James and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. XII, Yoga: India’s Philosophy of Meditation. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008.
- Lester, Robert C. Rāmānuja on the Yoga. Madras: Adyar Library and Research Center, 1976.
- Lipner, Julius. The Face of Truth: A Study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Rāmānuja. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.
- Matilal, Bimal Krishna, ed. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahābhārata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.
- Minor, Robert N., ed. Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gītā. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.
- Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
- Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
- Sargent, Winthrop, trans. The Bhagavad-Gītā. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994 ed.
- Sharma, Arvind, ed. Essays on the Mahabharata. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005.
- Sharma, Arvind, ed. Advaita Vedanta: An Introduction. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.
- Singh, R. Raj. Bhakti and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.
- Vivekananda, Swami. Jnana-Yoga. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.
- Vivekananda, Swami. Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga. New York: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, 1982.
- Werner, Karel. Love Divine: Studies in Bhakti and Devotional Mysticism. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1993.
- Zaehner, R.C. The Bhagavadgītā with a Commentary Based on the Original Sources. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1973 (1969).