Jnana Yoga – A Path to Knowledge & Liberation

In my last installment, we eavesdropped on a portion of Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna as related in the Bhagavad Gita. In what we heard, Krishna offered a paradigm of yoga that could reconcile the tender promptings of the prince’s heart toward mercy and the necessity of his duties as a kshatriya, or member of the warrior caste. What yoga, however, could be appropriate for those of us who were not born to such an unbearable honor?

Jnana Yoga
Like Gnosticism, jnana yoga sees knowledge as the key to liberation and to union with God. Photo from Flickr

For us, Krishna offers the path of jnana yoga. Jnana is a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge”. The steel-trap-minded reader may recall from the first installment in this series that India was conquered by Indo-European peoples related to the Greeks and Romans of classical antiquity. Jnana thus comes from the same root as the Greek gnosis, also meaning “knowledge”, which may be recognized in English words like “agnostic” and “Gnosticism”, which has become such a fashionable topic lately in Christian circles.

Like Gnosticism, jnana yoga sees knowledge as the key to liberation and to union with God. The knowledge in question is not, at its base, different from that which the hatha yogi seeks through physical rigors or the karma yogi seeks through selfless action; because jnana yoga, however, proposes to lead to this knowledge by a more direct path, it is often held by its adherents to be a more advanced or complete teaching. To begin his training, the aspiring yogi must place himself entirely under the direction of a guru who can help him first to apprehend the distinction between what is real and what is unreal, which, for the purposes of jnana yoga, is the distinction between what is unchanging and what is changing. The guru is needed because, like all true knowledge in jnana yoga, this is not something one can learn from a book; jnana yoga does not deal in the knowledge of raw facts, but rather in the knowledge of lived experience.

Lived experience, of course, teaches us that all things are constantly changing. This is a commonplace of modern Western physics and it is also a core tenant of Buddhism, underlying much of that religion’s denial of the existence of the self. Jnana yoga, like much of Hinduism, also recognizes this but interprets it differently. In this tradition, faith in the existence of an unchanging basis of reality, from which all the appearances of reality in flux emerge, is taken as a given; this is called brahman. The student, thus recognizing that everything he perceives is unreal, because changing, proceeds to the second phase of his training, in which he learns the denial and avoidance of all worldly things and the overcoming of the “baser” passions. With the whole world presented before him, he learns to say “neti, neti” (not that, not this), seeing that all that he experiences, because it is changing, is not the unchanging reality of brahman that he seeks.

Thus he begins to cultivate mumukshutva—an intense desire for liberation from the illusory changing forms of his experience to the perception of ultimate unchanging reality (what in the West might be called the “beatific vision”). To achieve this, he must cultivate six virtues: sama, the tranquility of the controlled mind; dama, the control of the senses; uparati, giving up worldly activities; titiksha, indifferent perseverance through changing and opposite circumstances, shradda, faith in the guru and in the scriptures, and samadhana, concentration of the mind. At last, by persistent practice of these and attentiveness to study of the Hindu scriptures and the commentaries upon them in his guru’s tradition, the student comes to the threshold of enlightenment.

Now he perceives that all objects are mere appearances engendered by the subjects that perceive them and that the subject is not identical with the object, but includes it in its perception and stands behind it. Thus, one may perceive one’s clothes and, in doing so, know that although the clothes exist in one’s mind, one is not oneself the clothes. After all, the eye cannot see itself. The jnana yogi goes further, however, in realizing that he can likewise perceive his body, and his feelings, and his thoughts, and everything else with which we usually identify ourselves and that, in doing so, he can know that he is not any of these. The ego itself is a changing object of perception to an unchanging universal subject, and the student comes to the visceral realization that, in truth, underneath the illusion of his changing thoughts and feelings, he is himself the universal subject that perceives them. This ultimate subject—brahman—is, by definition, unknowable and incomprehensible to man, as no one thought could encompass the whole of the mind that thought it. In a sense, in a great reversal of Descartes, it is precisely because the jnana yogi thinks his changeable thoughts that he knows that he is not, and that only brahman, which perceives the thoughts, truly is.

The end result, as mentioned before, is not so different from that of the hatha yogi, whose rigorous self-discipline led him, by means of samadhi, to realize his oneness with all that is. Nor is it so different from the achievement of the karma yogi, who withdrew all hope of gain and fear of loss from his actions and offered them to God, recognizing himself as the mere instrument of God’s will. All three yogas are merely alternative paths by which one may realize one’s connection with the ultimate reality. Each offers a way more attractive to some than to others; each has its own simplicities and its own obstacles. One who aspires to the knowledge of God might well be forgiven, however, for looking at all three and thinking all three too involved, too complicated, or too difficult for an ordinary person to follow in our hectic age. These may stand a while before an image of Krishna teaching to Arjuna, which may be found in temples all over the world, and take comfort in the knowledge that, in that very image, there is one more path of yoga open to them, which we will explore next time.

Author: R. Joseph Capet


  1. Resham Virk says:

    great write up Joseph.
    I am of the view that that to follow all these yogas one should have the first two aspects of Yogsutra in place and that is “Yum” and “Niyam”.
    Yum means abstentions and Niyam means observance. So observe purity, contentment and surrender to God and it is for sure that all these yogas would be fruitful.

  2. Various paths that can be followed by a yogi to liberate himself from wordly attractions and forward himself on the way to enlightenment has been explained by you in a great way. I truly admire you for the great write up and your knowledge of yoga and spirituality.

  3. Joseph, Nice and inspirational article about Jnana Yoga. Every human being must follow the principles of Jnana Yoga.

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