Yoga began as a mental practice to discover techniques and methods of using the mind to decrease suffering and to discover and create more contentment, joy, and peace. As yoga continued to be refined, developed and studied, it became more diverse in the types and philosophies of the practice. Yoga developed three and then four main paths of practice: Karma Yoga (selfless service), Bhakti Yoga ( devotion), Raja Yoga (meditation), and Jnana Yoga (self-inquiry). Jnana (wisdom or knowledge) is considered the most difficult of the four main paths of Yoga, requiring great strength of will and intellect.
What is Jnana Yoga?
Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge or wisdom” and Jnana Yoga is the path of attaining knowledge of the true nature of reality through the practice of meditation, self-inquiry, and contemplation. Jnana Yoga can be defined as the “awareness of absolute consciousness,” and is a comprehensive practice of self-study (Svadhyaya).
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In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (self-limiting thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve the union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman). This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination that are defined in the Four Pillars of Knowledge. Jnana Yoga utilizes a one-pointed meditation on a single question of self-inquiry to remove the veils of illusion created by your concepts, world views, and perceptions. This practice allows you to realize the temporary and illusionary nature of maya and to see the oneness of all things.
“Jnana Yoga, or the science of the Self, is not a subject that can be understood and realized through mere intellectual study, reasoning, discussion or arguments. It is the most difficult of all sciences.” – Swami Sivananda
Prerequisites of Jnana Yoga
The Four Pillars of Knowledge (sadhana chatushtaya) are the prescribed steps toward achieving liberation in Jnana Yoga. These practices build upon each other and thus should be practiced in sequential order. Even if one does not have the goal of achieving liberation, practicing these techniques will cultivate spiritual insight and understanding as well as reduce one’s suffering and dissatisfaction of life.
- Viveka (discernment, discrimination) is a deliberate, continuous intellectual effort to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the temporary, and the Self and not-Self.
- Vairagya (dispassion, detachment) is cultivating non-attachment or indifference toward the temporal objects of worldly possessions and the ego-mind. “It is only when the mind is absolutely free from the attachment of all sorts that true knowledge begins to dawn.” – Swami Sivananda.
- Shatsampat (six virtues) are six mental practices to stabilize the mind and emotions, and to further develop the ability to see beyond the illusions of maya.• Shama (tranquility, calmness) is the ability to keep the mind peaceful, through moderating its reaction to external stimuli.
• Dama (restraint, control) is the strengthening of the mind to be able to resist the control of the senses, and the training of the senses to be used only as instruments of the mind.
• Uparati (withdrawal, renunciation) is the abandonment of all activities that are not one’s Dharma (Duty). A simple lifestyle is followed that contains no worldly distractions from the spiritual path.
• Titiksha (endurance, forbearance) is the tolerance of external non-conducive situations that are commonly considered to produce suffering, especially in extreme opposite states (success and failure, hot and cold, pleasure and pain).
• Shraddha (faith, trust) is a sense of certainty and belief in one’s guru (teacher), the scriptures and the yogic path.
• Samadhana (focus, concentration) is the complete one-pointedness of the mind.
- Mumukshutva (longing, yearning) is an intense and passionate desire for achieving the liberation from suffering. In order to achieve liberation, one must be completely committed to the path, with such longing that all other desires fade away.
How to practice Jnana Yoga
It can be difficult to grasp or comprehend the intellectual approach of jnana yoga, and since one can easily overemphasize intellectual attainment it is important to cultivate humility and compassion on this path. It is easy to become entangled in the constructs and thoughts of the mind and lose sight of the goal of jnana: to realize the divine oneness inherent in all beings.
Once you have attained some advancement in the other yogas, begin practicing the four pillars of knowledge. You do not need to feel you have mastered one pillar before moving on to the next, but do resist the temptation to progress forward before you are ready. This is considered an advanced practice and thus would be contraindicated for anyone with a history of mental disease or emotional instability. Working with a qualified teacher or guru is highly recommended to accurately assess your progress, offer individual instruction, and provide guidance for your progression.
Three core practices of Jnana Yoga
After one has studied and successfully practiced the four pillars, then you are considered ready to begin the Three core practices of Jnana Yoga. These Upanishadic teachings include sravana or “hearing,” manana or “reflection,” and nididhyasana or “meditation”. These lead to Atma-Sakshatkara or direct realization.
- Sravana is the hearing or experiencing the sacred knowledge in the ancient Vedic texts of the Upanishad. Usually, a teacher or guru will guide the yogi through discussions on the philosophy of non-dualism. In this stage, the student should read and study the Upanishads and achieve a deep understanding of the concepts of Atman and Brahman and the philosophy of non-dualism.
- Manana is the thinking and reflecting on these teachings of non-duality. The student is expected to spend many hours thinking and contemplating on the various ideas of svadhyaya and sravana.
- Nididhyasana is the constant and profound meditation on the inner Self. This involves the meditation and reflection on the real meaning of the Maha-Vakyas, the primary mantras or “Great Sayings” of the Upanishads. Through the continuous focus on these seeds of wisdom, a yogi can obtain the union of thought and action, knowing and being.
The Upanishads’ great teachings
The Sanskrit word “Maha” can be translated as great or mighty, and the word Vakya translates as a sentence or saying. The Maha-Vakyas are the most revered and powerful sayings in the ancient Indian scriptures of the Upanishads. The regular contemplation and meditation of the Maha-Vakyas purifies our minds, promotes introspection and insight, and leads to transcendental states of awareness.
There are four main Maha-Vakyas but their contemplation leads one to the same realization. They present different points of view on how to see the indivisible oneness of all things. These four aphorisms also provide the answers to the classic questions of Jnana Yoga. ”who am I?, What is my purpose? What is The nature of this reality?” These can all be answered by meditating on the Maha-Vakyas.
The Four Maha-Vakyas
- Prajnanam Brahma–Brahman (Ultimate Reality) is supreme consciousness.
- Aham Brahmasmi–I am Brahman (the Supreme Self )
- Tat Tvam Asi–Thou art that.
- Ayam Atma Brahma–Atman (True Self) is Brahman (Ultimate Reality).
Jnana Bhumikas: The Seven Stages of Wisdom
Swami Sivananda describes seven stages that yogi will progress through while engaged in the practice of Jnana Yoga. Use this as a roadmap to gauge your progression and steer yourself skillfully towards your destination. You will need to overcome the challenges in each stage to move forward towards becoming one with the higher self.
- Subheccha (good desire). This beginning stage requires one to study the Sanskrit texts and be passionate about discovering the truth. One should strive towards non-attraction or indifference towards all sensual objects.
- Vicharana (Philosophical inquiry). The second stage involves questioning, contemplation and reflection on the principles of non-dualism.
- Tanumanasi (Subtlety of mind). This third stage assumes you have understood
all the necessary knowledge. Tanu means thread, and in this step, The mind “becomes thin like a thread“ as you let go of all external stimuli to focus all of your attention inwards.
- Sattvapatti (Attainment of Light). In the fourth stage, the world appears like a dream And your karma begins to dissolve. A yogi will view all things in the universe equally in this stage.
- Asamsakti (Inner Detachment). In this stage, you become detached and selfless and will experience deep states of bliss. One will feel no difference between waking and dream states.
- Padartha Bhavana (Spiritual Vision). In the sixth stage, you begin to see the truth and understand the nature of Brahman (Ultimate Reality).
- Turiya (Supreme Freedom). During the final stage, you are united in superconsciousness and attain Moksha.
Books to study and practice further
Jnana yoga is a complex and difficult set of practices that can be explored and practiced in great depth. If you are ready to study and dive deeper into this main branch of yoga, consider reading one or more dedicated books on the subject. Below are our recommendations for you to check out to learn more:
- Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
- Jnana Yoga/Method and Attainment by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
- The Yoga of Truth: Jnana by Peter Marchand
- Gnani Yoga or Development of Wisdom Paperback by Yogi Ramacharaka