Jñana, Karma & Bhakti | The river of Yoga

by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

The spiritual journey of Yoga can be compared to that of a river. A river gets born in a little spring and slowly separates itself from its source. Then it winds its way meandering through mountains, valleys, cities, towns and caves, finally merging into one big gigantic ocean.

The evolution of Yoga, not just as a philosophical system, but a more in a metaphysical notion mirrors the journey of such a river. The concept of Yoga took a wonderful journey through the history of time. All the great seers of the past saw this clearly and categorised it into three different kinds - Jñana-yoga, Karma-yoga and Bhakti-yoga. Even the Bhagavad Gita and its commentators confirm this view. Take for instance the great Yamunacarya, whose composition called Gitartha Samgraha (The Summary of Bhagavad Gita) succinctly crystallises the essence of this divine text in a mere 32 verses. In this poem he divides the Bhagavad Gita into three parts and proclaims that each of these parts postulates the teachings of Jñana-yoga, Karma-yoga and Bhakti-yoga respectively.

While it is tempting to look at these three as kinds of Yoga, it is also possible to look at it more as an evolution of the concept of Yoga itself. Care must be taken when we understand the term 'Yoga' in this context. Although Yoga itself is a system, which is put forth by Patanjali through the Yogasutra-s, when the term yoga is used as a suffix in the compound words Jñana-yoga, Karma-yoga or Bhakti-yoga, the term takes the meaning 'to connect' or 'to link'.

It is made quite clear that the Jñana-yoga system refers to the Samkhya school of philosophy, while the Karma-yoga represents the teachings ofthe Great Patanjali. Bhakti-yoga in turn symbolizes the Vedanta teachings of the great Vedavyasa. 

The three schools of Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta are part of the Vaidika Darsanas and are considered among the most important disciplines. It is also widely accepted that among these three,Samkhya was the earliest, which was followed by Yoga of Patanjali, and then concluding with the Vedanta system of Vyasa.

The main tenet of Samkhya philosophy is that there are two distinct entities called as Purusa (Consciousness) and Prakrti (Matter). They are different and each have their own inherent nature, while Prakrti mutates,Purusa does not. While Purusa is considered conscious, Prakrti is considered inert. However the nature of the natural order is such that in order for a being to manifest there needs to be a synergy between Purusa and Prakrti and therein forms the union of the two.

This union called as the Purusa-Prakrti Sambandha is what defines all living and conscious beings such as humans, animals, plants or even microscopic organisms. Conciseness brings life to the matter, while matter provides consciousness a medium to exist and discover its own potential. 

Owing to the great proximity between the two the Samkhya system postulates that there is a confusion of understanding in the human mind of what is conscious and what is not. And it is this confusion that leads to suffering. This is why Samkhya propounds that the quest for knowledge of the essential nature of Purusa, Prakrti and the essential difference between the two is the means to freedom from suffering.

It is the reason why this approach is called as Jñana-yoga, as through the emphasis is 'to connect' to the knowledge of the difference between Purusa and Prakrti. One must not misunderstand that Jñana-yoga refers to accumulation of informative knowledge (jñana). But rather it refers to gaining the experiential knowledge of matter, consciousness and the distinction between the two.

The Yoga system of Patanjali wholly embraced this idea of Samkhya and took this theory in its entirety. However, Patanjali was not just convinced that merely this knowledge would satisfy the spiritual quest.His conviction was that this union between matter and consciousness was existing for a reason, or rather to be more precise two. He called them Bhoga and Apavarga. Bhoga represented the best manifestation of material potential, as every construct of matter has an inherent predisposition, potentials and patterns that could support it. Apavarga on the other handis the expression of spiritual evolution into a state of intuitive clarity, where all actions were spontaneous responses to the environment we are connected to.

Patanjali left the door open for each individual to choose which option to pursue - Bhoga or Apavarga. He did not insist that there was only oneway. This is why he dedicates an entire chapter to Bhoga, while another to Apavarga. 

Having said that he also leaves a clue for us to consider. He subtly advocated that for either path to work two aspects were critical. One is that every practitioner required a solid state of mind that was steady and focused. Second, there needs to be a connection to a principle he defines as Isvara, or the supreme principle. The second aspect is a key differentiator between the Yoga system and the Samkhya system, and also the reason why Yoga is often called as Sa-Isvara-Samkhya (Samkhya with Isvara). 

If Isvara was removed from Yoga, its teachings would basically revertback to Samkhya and this is why a connection to the supreme principle is an essential aspect of Yoga. So in a certain way Yoga went one step further than Samkhya in its evolution by introducing and subtly insisting on the idea of Isvara. 

On a close analysis of Patanjali's teachings, whether the path of Yoga is pursued for the purpose of Bhoga or Apavarga, it is revealed in, and defined by our actions. This is why Patanjali's approach is called as Karma-yoga, where the term Karma means 'action'. So essentially Patanjali's method is to help the knowledge gained through Samkhya,express itself into daily actions. This is also another reason why many call Yoga as the Practical aspect of Samkhya. So essentially Yoga is away of 'connecting with our actions' so that our full potential is expressed. 

The system of Vedanta went one step further. The Vedanta of Vedavyasa is presented through the text called as Vedanta-sutra or Brahma-sutra.Through Vedanta, Vyasa postulates that all forms of consciousness that both the Samkhya school and the Yoga school advocate, must come from a divine source. The Samkhya and Yoga schools advocate that there are multiple conscious entities, each being unique and distinct. Although Yoga and Samkhya call it Purusa, Vedantins call it the Jivatma or individual consciousness. 

Vyasa took one step further and addressed the question of the origin ofall of these Jivatma-s. He inferred that there must be a source fromwhich all of these consciousnesses come from. He called it Brahma, whilehis followers called it Paramatma. Although Patanjali introduces this idea in Yoga, it was Vyasa who gave this entity a complete definition and purpose. 

In the system of Vedanta, the journey of each individual is to finally integrate with this divine ocean of consciousness called Brahma. Thus Vedanta not only advocates it as a source of every consciousness, butalso the final destination. Thus the approach of Vedanta is to serve this divine consciousness with great love  and devotion. This is the reason why this system is called as Bhakti-yoga, 'to connect through devotion' and be embraced by this divinity.

So just like the river separates itself from the earth at its origin, and forms a spring, Samkhya or Jñana-yoga talks about the distinction between Purusa and Prakrti. Then the river moves along in its journey and encounters life through cities, mountains, valleys and other interesting places. This phase is perhaps mirroring the philosophy of Yoga or Karma-yoga, which is talking about integrating knowledge into actions of daily life. Finally the river joins the ocean, where it merges itself into a giant water body that is perhaps connected to all the rivers of the world. Similarly Vedanta or Bhakti-yoga preaches us to connect with the divine and be cradled by supreme consciousness.