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Ashtanga Yoga â" The Intermediate Series
Mythology, Anatomy, and Practice
By Gregor Maehle, Monica Gauci, Toby Gibson, Adrian Kat
New World Library Copyright © 2009 Gregor Maehle
All rights reserved.
Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma: The Three Forms of Yoga
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In this chapter we look at the three basic forms of yoga — Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma — exploring how they differ and what they share in common. Essentially, Jnana Yoga is the yoga of knowledge; Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion; and Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. All modes or expressions of yoga can be classified under these three disciplines. The yogi needs to understand that they are complementary. They suit different temperaments; some people may practice one form for a period of their lives and then switch to another. The subject of this book, Ashtanga Yoga, falls under the umbrella of Karma Yoga, but it incorporates certain aspects of the other two forms.
We also look at the different modes of Karma Yoga, the form of yoga most widely known and practiced in the West. This includes a more detailed look at the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. This knowledge will enable you to sift through all the diverse information you hear about yoga and put it into the context of your own practice.
Yoga in its various forms crystallized out of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures known to humankind. The Vedas are considered to be of divine origin. They contain eternal knowledge (the term Veda comes from the root vid, "to know"), which is revealed anew during each world age to those who are open to hearing it. Those who receive this knowledge and record it are called Vedic seers, or rishis.
Because the Vedas are voluminous, they are divided into categories to make them more accessible. Well known are the four main Vedic texts, the Rigveda,Samaveda,Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda; each of these categories represents a set of family lines (gotra) that was entrusted to preserve that particular set of scriptures. The Vedas are also commonly divided according to the subjects the passages deal with. These divisions are called kandas (portions). The three kandas are the Karma kanda, which pertains to performing actions; the Upasana kanda, which concerns itself with worship of the divine; and the Jnana kanda, the portion pertaining to self-knowledge. As you may have guessed, the Karma kanda became the basis for Karma Yoga, the Upasana kanda led to Bhakti Yoga, and the Jnana kanda laid the foundation for Jnana Yoga.
The term Jnana comes from the verb root jna, to know. In fact, both the Greek word gnosis and the English word know have their origin in the Sanskrit jna. Jnana Yoga is the most direct path to recognizing yourself as a manifestation of divine consciousness, but it is considered to be the most difficult. In the days of the Bhagavad Gita, Jnana Yoga was called Buddhi Yoga (the yoga of intellect) or the yoga of inaction, because one practices it through contemplation alone. This form of yoga is the one predominantly taught in the ancient Upanishads, the mystical and philosophical section of the Vedas. In the Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad this yoga is described as consisting of three steps: shravana (listening), manana (contemplating), and nidhidhyasana (being established). The practitioner first listened to a teacher who had attained the illustrious self-knowledge that all is in fact nothing but Brahman (consciousness). He then let go of all his desires, such as wealth, success, pleasure, fame, and family; retired to a quiet place; and contemplated the words of the teacher. After due consideration, he recognized the eternal truth of the teaching and was then permanently established in that truth.
From this short description, you may understand why this path is considered short and direct but also very difficult. It is short because there are very few steps involved. After finding a teacher, there is really only one step: the contemplation, in a solitary place, of your unity with the Supreme Self. It is a difficult path for many reasons. It requires that a self-realized teacher accept you as a student. Such teachers were considered hard to find even in the ancient days, and they are much rarer today. It then requires that you completely let go of all attachments to wealth, success, pleasure, fame, family, and so on. Modern Western teachers who prefer to communicate to their students that they can "have it all" do not drive this point home enough. Traditionally this highest path was taught only to renunciates and ascetics, those who had taken a vow to forsake all the worldly attachments mentioned. The reasoning was that one had to let go of all external attachments if one was to surrender all one's inner attachments in the process of merging with the Supreme Self.
Also, the path of Jnana Yoga requires an intellect so pure, powerful, and intense that from the mere instruction of a self-realized teacher it can understand and accept the truth and become permanently established in it, free of duality. Such intellects are exceedingly rare. Understanding is easy, but what about remaining grounded in the truth even in moments of doubt, when one faces one's inner demons?
For this reason the path of Jnana Yoga is considered fit for only a select few. As the ancient Vedic text the Samkhya Karika puts it, only those whose intellects are entirely free of erroneous cognition can attempt it. There are only a few Indians today who consider themselves fit for Jnana Yoga, and we may take this as a sign of the great humility and maturity of the Indian culture. On the other hand, many modern Western practitioners believe they deserve everything, including spiritual liberation, immediately and without having to give up anything. Thus they tend to view as a nuisance the preparations and qualifications that are asked of traditional Indian students.
Jnana Yoga was popularized mainly by the great Shankara, who lived some two thousand years ago. Shankara is considered a jagat guru (world teacher), a name given to rare teachers of high stature who appear every few centuries or once in a millennium to reinterpret the scriptures and restore their original meaning. This had become necessary in Shankara's time; even though Jnana Yoga had been taught long before Shankara by rishis (seers) such as Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, and Vyasa, it was no longer understood properly because of changes in society and conventional language. Shankara wrote many great treatises and commentaries to present the ancient teachings again in their proper form. From today's perspective, Shankara's achievements look so gargantuan that many view him as a semi-divine or divine manifestation; in fact, he is often seen as a manifestation of the Lord Shiva himself.
In the twentieth century, Jnana Yoga was again popularized through the great example of Ramana Maharshi. Because Ramana was such an exceptional individual, he, too, was seen by many Indians as a divine manifestation — this time of Lord Skanda, the second son of Lord Shiva.
The ancient teacher Shankara and the modern teacher Ramana had many things in common. Both held that true knowledge (Jnana) can be attained only through Jnana Yoga. However, both taught that those who cannot attain Jnana directly — which includes all but a few individuals — can go through a possibly lengthy preparation period and emerge ready to undertake Jnana Yoga. This preparation could consist of either of the other two paths of yoga, Bhakti Yoga or Karma Yoga.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion that grew out of that portion of the Veda that deals with worship (Upasana kanda). It is based on the realization that most people have an emotional constitution rather than the cool, abstract, intellectual one that lends itself to Jnana Yoga. Also, it accepts the fact that it is much more difficult to realize consciousness as the impersonal absolute (called nirguna Brahman, the formless Brahman) than to surrender to a divine form (called saguna Brahman,Brahman with form).
Bhakti Yoga's path to freedom is reasonably direct but somewhat lengthier than that of Jnana Yoga. The term bhakti is created from the Sanskrit root bhaj, to divide. Unlike Jnana Yoga, which views the self of the individual and that of the Supreme Being as one and the same, Bhakti Yoga accepts the eternal division between the self of the devotee and the omnipotent self of the Supreme Being.
Our modern understanding of this difference in thought between these two branches of yoga originated from a teacher named Ramanuja. Many centuries after Shankara had brought about a renaissance of the ancient Vedic teaching, the essence of his teaching was again lost. Shankara had emphasized the complete identification of the individual self (atman) with the infinite consciousness (Brahman). Although this teaching is enshrined in the Upanishads, its opposite — the essential separation between atman and Brahman — is also enshrined. Some of Shankara's followers, taking his teachings to the extreme, had started to portray them as merely an analytical, philosophical, and scholastic path that was bereft of devotion and of compassion for the toiling masses of the population. Ramanuja arose as a great new teacher who could correct this misconception and reconcile the two views. Ramanuja taught the beda-abeda doctrine, which means "identity in difference." He agreed with Shankara that the individual self was consciousness and thus was identical with the Supreme Being. However, he added that the atman (individual self) was always limited in its power, knowledge, and capacity, whereas the Supreme Being (Brahman) was not, and in that regard atman and Brahman were different, hence the name "identity in difference."
Since according to this view there is an eternal division between the individual self and the Supreme Being, Ramanuja held that the right way to approach the Infinite One was not through knowing but through the path of devotion called Bhakti Yoga. Taking this path, the followers of Ramanuja developed an intense love for and devotion toward the Supreme Being and its many divine manifestations.
Today, the Hare Krishna movement, as an example, claims that Bhakti Yoga is the fastest, safest, and most direct way to freedom. However, this path is not as simple as it appears at first sight. Bhakti Yoga will not lead you to freedom unless you practice it with utmost and total surrender, as teachers like Ramanuja have done. It is also not without danger. The danger consists of the fact that devotees may attach egoic notions to the form of the Supreme Being that they worship. They start to believe that their God is better or more divine, and that their devotion to this one true God makes them superior to others. They may even despise followers of other religions and view them as inferior. Sadly, this is far from what Bhakti Yoga at its outset desired to achieve.
Bhakti can work only if you can see the Lord, the Goddess, the infinite formless consciousness (Brahman) — whichever form of the Divine you worship — in every being you encounter as well as in your own heart. The Supreme Being is infinite consciousness, love, and intelligence; it is your divine core. Around this core, which is your true self, various layers such as ego, mind, and body crystallize and form the human being. Since the Supreme Being is undividable, we carry the wholeness of God in our hearts, and all of us are children of God. True Bhakti Yogis see all beings as their Lord and themselves as the servants of all beings. God is not in stone houses with stone images inside. Those houses and images may be helpful for the purpose of meditation, but true religion, true Bhakti, consists in worshiping the Divine in the hearts of all those we meet.
If you misunderstand Bhakti Yoga, you can believe that the Krishna you read about is more sacred and true than the Krishna in the heart of the being across from you. You may then conclude that this being is inferior because he or she worships the Supreme Being not in the form of Krishna but rather as Shiva, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, or some other deity. Certain devotees of the Lord Vishnu in India, for example, profess widespread contempt for the Lord Shiva, although the scriptures teach that Vishnu and Shiva are one and the same. A truly strange world this is. In cases such as this, the interest has shifted from recognizing the Supreme Being behind its manifold forms to taking pride in oneself based on the particular form that one's own devotion takes.
Bhakti Yoga requires not only fervor but also the self-reflectiveness of a clear intellect. Otherwise the intensity of one's experience of the Divine can easily lead one to be less compassionate toward others. Indian folklore is full of warnings of such erroneous views. For example, the learned Narada, a full-time attendant of the Supreme Being in the form of the Lord Vishnu, was once jealous of the Lord's love of a particular peasant. Narada asked the Lord what was so special about this peasant who was pronouncing the Lord's name only once per day, just before he fell asleep. The Lord asked Narada to fill a cup to the brim with oil and then carry it around his throne without spilling a drop. As Narada did so, he focused completely on the task. When he had completed it, he called out proudly, "Done! And no drop wasted!" The Lord then asked him, "And how often did you think about me? That peasant has to toil all day to extract from the soil a meager life for his family. But however hard his day is, he never fails to remember me just before he falls asleep in exhaustion." Narada realized that his devotion had caused him to be prideful, a potent danger on the Bhakti path.
One of the great advantages of Bhakti Yoga is that it generally enables one to continue with most of everyday life; it changes only one's focus. After choosing the Bhakti path you no longer perform your daily duties striving for gain or advantage; instead, you surrender or offer all your actions, including their results, to your chosen image of the Divine.
Generally all forms of yoga contain a Bhakti component, emphasizing service to the Supreme Being. Patanjali states, "samadhi siddhi ishvara pranidhanat," or, "The power of samadhi can be obtained by surrendering to the Supreme Being."
The term karma comes from the verb root kru, "to do," and Karma Yoga in the original Vedic sense means simply "path of action." The Karma Kanda of the Veda, which probably goes back more than ten thousand years, contains instructions for actions and rituals that one can perform with a particular goal in mind, such as obtaining wealth or the object of one's passion, becoming a good person, or achieving spiritual goals.
Approximately five thousand years ago, the Lord Krishna introduced a new form of Karma Yoga to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. He described it as surrendering the fruit of one's actions to the Supreme Being. Note the difference between this definition of Karma Yoga and the idea of karma presented in the Karma Kanda. Krishna tells us not to be interested in the result of our actions but instead to "surrender the fruit of your action to me." In the Vedas, on the other hand, action (karma) is always used to achieve a particular effect. Lord Krishna actually criticizes the stance of the Vedas when he says, "traigunya vishaya veda nistraygunyo bhavarjuna," which loosely translates as "The Vedas deal with accumulation only; be you without desire for gain." Today, following on this idea, the term Karma Yoga is commonly used to refer to selfless service to others, such as going to an ashrama and chopping the veggies without pay. In this book I will use the term Karma Yoga only in its original Vedic sense and not in its more recent meaning as taught by the Lord Krishna.
An important difference between Karma Yoga and the other two forms of yoga revolves around this issue of renouncing gain. The path of Jnana Yoga is traditionally taught only to those who have renounced the desire for any form of gain or success. Similarly, Bhakti Yoga requires one to internally renounce any gain that may accidentally come one's way and surrender it to one's chosen divine form. Karma Yoga, in contrast, requires its followers to give up the idea of gain and success only once the state of "discriminative knowledge" or "knowledge of the difference between self and nonself" is attained. This state is reached only after approximately 95 percent of the journey has been completed. Although many of its higher techniques are difficult and demanding, in this regard Karma Yoga is a more "novice" type of yoga; it has lower entry requirements than Jnana and Bhakti Yoga and addresses those who are not yet ready to give up the pursuit of gain for themselves. (It is important here to remember that spiritual gain stands in the traditional Indian view on the same level as material gain; it is still just an attempt to get ahead.)
Excerpted from Ashtanga Yoga â" The Intermediate Series by Gregor Maehle, Monica Gauci, Toby Gibson, Adrian Kat. Copyright © 2009 Gregor Maehle. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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