The Yogas of the Bhagavad-Gītā

Introduction: 

Among the many subjects that Bhagavad-Gītā (BG) is known for, one is the synthesis of the different Upaniṣadic yoga practices. Due to their terse and often cryptic style, the Upaniṣads’ discourse on yoga reads more like a gloss on the subject rather than an accessible exposition. This is likely intentional, for this genre of literature was originally meant to be learned by sitting close to the guru and directly hearing and clarifying its intricacies, lest it remain enigmatic. Conversely, the Bhagavad-Gītā’s discourse on yoga is explicit. As such, what emerges is a clear-cut delineation of four distinct yoga systems— karma-yoga (action yoga), jñāna-yoga (knowledge yoga), dhyāna (or meditation yoga, also termed aṣṭāṅga, eight-limbed yoga), and bhakti-yoga (devotion yoga). In three waves—the first six chapters, the middle six chapters, and the last six chapters— Kṛṣṇa, the main speaker of BG, gradually unpacks these four core yogas and finally, unveils the perfection of yoga. 

In the first wave, Kṛṣṇa focuses on the distinction between consciousness (ātmān)1 and matter (prakṛti) and how we can distinguish them through karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and dhyāna-yoga.  In the second wave, the focus profoundly shifts to Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Deity, the origin of consciousness and matter mentioned in the first wave, and the One to whom devotion (bhakti), should be directed. The third wave fleshes out the ideas encountered in the first two and provides a distinct conclusion. 

Although similar in terms of the general focus of realizing the true nature of the self (ātman) and obtaining ultimate bliss,2 each path differs in its respective qualifications, processes, and specific desirable outcomes. This article explores the elements of these four paths that make them distinctive.  

The social context of Kṛṣṇa’s discourse on yoga:

It is important  to note the societal context in which these teachings on yoga took place. Time and circumstance played a significant role in the first six chapters of Kṛṣṇa’s exposition on yoga. 

Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna’s society was organized by the varṇāśrama system that recognized four distinct proclivities/classes (varna) according to psychological makeup (BG 4.13)3— an intellectual/priestly class (brāhmaṇas), an administrator/warrior class (kṣatriya), a business/mercantile class (vaiśya) and an artisan/working class (śūdra). The attributes/modalities (guṇa) inform each person’s caste (varṇa).  Explored more closely in the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gīt, physical and psychological phenomena are viewed in terms of the three modalities—goodness (sattva), passion (rājas), and ignorance (tamas). In terms of its psychological aspect, which is the main concern for a yoga tradition, the guṇas are understood as ropes because they comprehensively bind or condition a person’s mind in subtle ways not apparent to the one who is bound. 

We are in a sense puppets in the hands of three unseen puppeteers that comprehensively control our thoughts and actions. Sattva is characterized by illumination and health. It  binds one to knowledge and happiness (14.6). Rājas (passion; lit. dust,for it has the nature of obfuscating being) is characterized by attachment and craving. It binds one to incessant arduousness (14.7). Tamas (ignorance; lit. darkness, for it eclipses being) is characterized by delusion and binds by carelessness, lethargy, and sleep (14.8). According to the particular natural psychological disposition of a person (varṇa), informed by a particular guṇa, there are stipulated obligatory injunctions or duties (dharma). These societal divisions were set forth by the Vedas, the eternal guide books for humanity, and were intended to make society flow smoothly according to each individual person’s given nature. 

The general idea of varṇa-dharma (duty according to psychological proclivity) or sva-dharma (one’s own dharma) (2.31) is to regulate human nature so that society could prosper materially, and if so desired, act as a viable springboard for the few who want to dive deeper into spiritual pursuits. For this culture, human civilization begins with the application of varṇa-dharma, for without it, “humans are the same as animals,”4 preoccupied with eating, sleeping, fearing, and sexual indulgence. The vast majority of Vedic literature, called karma-kāṇḍa, is preoccupied with the application of varṇa-dharma for the purpose of material prosperity. Thus, our exploration of Kṛṣṇa’s discourse on yoga shall begin here.

Karma-Kāṇḍa

Karma-Kāṇḍa (religious ritual section of the Vedas) involves the application of varṇa-dharma motivated by passion (rajas),5 i.e. informed by material desires for enjoyment (2.42-43). The intellect (buddhi) of such persons is described as “irresolute” (avyavasāyinām) due to being overwhelmed by the countless rituals required for satisfying their unlimited desires (2.41). Due to their strong attachment to earthly/heavenly enjoyment and opulence (bhogaiśvarya-prasaktānāṁ) their hearts are easily stolen by the flowery words of the Vedas which glorify such ends (tayāpahṛta-cetasām), and consequently they never develop the intelligence required to steady the mind for higher pursuits (2.44). Although this karma-kāṇḍa is an authorized section of the Vedas considered to aid human progress, because it is preoccupied with the world of three guṇas (trai-gunya visaya Veda), Kṛṣṇa does not advocate it; rather, he advises that one rise above such materialistic directives and take shelter in the last portions of the Vedas known as Vedānta (viz. the Upaniṣads). 

Karma-Yoga (Action-Yoga)

To this end, there are the systems of karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and dhyāna-yoga. Karma-yoga, like karma-kāṇḍa, involves the application of the varna-dharma system. Thus, externally, it may look quite similar to the karma-kāṇḍa system. The difference lies in the inner motivation, particularly, the force of goodness (sattvam-guṇa) or the modality of nature that generates desire for higher transcendent life.  Due to this fixed transcendent goal, the intellect of the karma-yogī is described as “resolute” (vyavasāyātmikā) or fixed on one point, viz. the desire for self-understanding (2.41). The process involves the performance of prescribed duties with equanimity. That is, devoid of desire to be the enjoyer of the fruits of action that are offered to Kṛṣṇa (3.30) and devoid of the conception of being the ultimate agent of acts. To this latter point, Kṛṣṇa explains the knowledge of the karma-yogī (tattva-vit, lit. knower of truth) (3.28) as one who sees only guṇas (senses) interacting with guṇas (sense objects) (5.8-9) and thus remains ever detached [3.28]. This is contrasted with the ignorant, who are veritably befuddled by false ego and thus think of themselves as the source of their own activity in the world, when in fact all activity is performed by the guṇas [3.27]. 

Jñāna-Yoga (Knowledge-Yoga)

Kṛṣṇa’s discussion of the jñāna-yoga system in the BG is somewhat ambiguous and indirect. It is mostly explained in contrast to karma-yoga, which is the main thrust of Kṛṣṇa’s advocacy in the first six chapters. We first get a sense of a jñāna-yoga system in 2.39, where Kṛṣṇa says that he has spoken so far of sāṇkhya (in 2.11-30) and now he will speak of buddhi-yoga (karma-yoga). Later, in the beginning of chapter 3, where Arjuna expresses doubt about what seems to him to be equivocal instructions (3.1), Kṛṣṇa confirms that he spoke of two paths for persons with different types of nistha (lit. steadiness): jñāna-yoga sāṇkhyanam and karma-yogena yoginam. Thus, the sāṇkhya from chapter 2 is indeed that jñāna-yoga path, and it refers to the awareness of the distinction between the soul (ātmān) and matter (prakṛti) as mentioned in the text’s outset (2.11-30). Sāṇkhya means analysis (or to count) and concerns itself with identifying the various elements of nature (the 24 tattvas)6 and how the ātmān (soul) is ontologically distinct from them. So, part of the jñāna-yoga system is the attempt to see through illusion by such analysis. 

By sāṇkhya being contrasted with karma-yoga, there is an implicit sense that saŋkhya involves a disengagement with the world.  Arjuna requests that Kṛṣṇa definitively tell which of the two paths is more beneficial: engagement in the world through karma-yoga or renunciation of the world by karma-sannyāsa (5.1). When establishing why karma-yoga is a better choice for Arjuna than jñāna-yoga (3.1-8), Kṛṣṇa argues that merely stopping work does not free the individual from karmic reaction, nor by taking sannyāsa does one achieve perfection (3.4). So clearly, [external] renunciation of the world is also a nod to the jñāna-yoga system (along with the analysis aforementioned). 

Kṛṣṇa appears to esteem this path of jñāna above karma in chapter four wherein he says all acts (sarvam karmākhilam) culminate in jñāna (4.33) and then goes on to unabashedly glorify this jñāna (4.34-40). However, when Kṛṣṇa concludes chapter four by again telling Arjuna to fight, Arjuna, confused, is driven to ask for a second time (3.1 and 5.1) which path (karma or jñāna) is best. In response, Kṛṣṇa first equates karma to jñāna, then places the karma process above the jñāna process, and finally explains that the jñāna path ultimately causes suffering unless supported by the karma-yoga path (5.6). Kṛṣṇa goes on to establish the karma-yogī as one who is internally a sannyāsī (5.8-26) or one who is renounced like one on the jñāna-yoga path, thus cementing his support for the karma-yoga process above the jñāna process.

Dhyāna-Yoga (Meditation-Yoga)

Kṛṣṇa begins his explanation of the dhyāna-yoga system by again glorifying the [inner] renunciation of the karma-yogī. He equates the karma-yogī to a sannyāsī (one who renounces the fruits of work) and a yogī (one who has stopped material desire in the mind) [6.1]. Kṛṣṇa then says that sannyāsa (utter renunciation) and yoga are equal because the former cannot be achieved without the latter (6.2). The dhyāna-yoga system is then divided into two broad categories: the beginning stage (yogārurukṣu) supported by karma-yoga and the advanced stage (yogārūḍha) comprised only of a life of meditational absorption, samādhi (6.3). 

Because yoga in this (dhyāna) system entails stopping the mind’s fluctuations (citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ), Kṛṣṇa emphasizes the essential role of taming the mind from the beginning to the advanced stages (6.5-6). In simple terms, a tamed mind is one detached from sense objects, whereas an untamed mind is one attached to sense objects.7 When one is accomplished in successive stages of mental equanimity—seeing happiness, distress, honor, dishonor, pebbles, gold, friends, enemies, and neutral persons, etc. all with an equal eye (6.7-9)—then he is totally prepared to accept the austere lifestyle of a dhyāna-yogī (6.10-17). Such a lifestyle entails giving up the world, living in total seclusion, and maintaining a rigorous yogic practice with rough strictures on celibacy, how to maintain the seat and how to position the body in meditation, which takes up most of one’s time. The yogī lives a balanced lifestyle—eating, sleeping, and walking (his “recreation”) in a regulated fashion.

When he becomes accomplished, the dhyāna-yogī attains samādhi—total meditational absorption—which is of two types: samprajñāta-samādhi (6.18-19) and asamprajñāta-samādhi (6.20-23), the former having an [external] object of meditation, the latter no external object of meditation. Kṛṣṇa speaks of the determination required to power through the process of achieving samādhi (6.24) as one that is gradual (6.25) and that requires a rigorous and continuous practice of monitoring and reprimanding the mind due to its flickering nature (6.26). However, if the yogī perseveres, he attains a life of unlimited bliss through meditation, directly experiencing the self (ātmān) and higher Self (paramātmān) (6.27-31).

Upon hearing of this difficult path, Arjuna doubts the possibility of success, especially considering the “agitating, turbulent, and stubborn” nature of the mind (6.33-34). Kṛṣṇa agrees that controlling the mind is hard work, but reaffirms that it is certainly possible by practice (abhyāsa) and detachment (vairagya) (6.35). Somewhat unabated by this answer, Arjuna again questions Kṛṣṇa as to the destiny of a yogī who at first takes up the path with faith, but later falls away from it due to insufficient discipline and the unbridled nature of the mind. Does not such a person become like a riven cloud with no standing in material life (which he has forsaken) or spiritual life (which he has failed to maintain) (6.37-39)? Kṛṣṇa then assures Arjuna, that for one who –even if for a short time – commits to such auspicious work, there is no question of a bad fate (6.40). Such a yogī is first elevated to “the worlds of the virtuous,” wherein he enjoys his accumulated “good karma” for many years before returning to earth in either a pure and prosperous family (6.41) or a family of wise yogīs (6.42). After taking such rare births (6.42), he reawakens his past-life’s spiritual inclination and realizations and again begins to strive for yogic perfection (6.43). In other words, by that former practice, the yogī is inevitably brought back to the determined practice of yoga (6.44). 

Striving with deep effort and cleansed of impurities, after many years/lives the yogī achieves the highest state (6.45). Kṛṣṇa concludes his discussion on dhyāna-yoga by speaking of the exalted position of the yogī,8 saying he is higher than the ascetic, the scholar, and the ritualist (6.46). Kṛṣṇa thus encourages Arjuna to become a yogī! “But of all yogis,” says Kṛṣṇa, “the one most advanced in yoga (yukta-tama) is one whose inner-self abides in me, and who, replete with faith, worships me” (6.47). In other words, in Kṛṣṇa’s own view (sa me matah), the bhakti-yogī is the most advanced in yoga (yukta-tama) and with this conclusion, the first wave comes to an end.

Bhakti-Yoga (Devotion-Yoga)

This esteeming of the bhakti-yogī above all other yogīs (6.47) becomes the spring board from which Kṛṣṇa dives deep into an exposition on bhakti-yoga. There is a profound shift in Kṛṣṇa’s voice, one that goes from the teacher of yoga to the Supreme Deity of the book– the highest truth of which there is nothing higher (7.7). 

Previous to this shift in voice, Kṛṣṇa hinted at his own supreme divinity throughout his discourse in the first wave. First, one learns in the very outset that Kṛṣṇa is certainly an individual conscious entity as is Arjuna and all the kings (and beings) on the battlefield (2.12). But, how is his individuality unique from other souls? When explaining how to attain enlightenment, Kṛṣṇa speaks of the necessity of dedicating oneself to him (2.60-61), lest one perish due to a mind subject to attraction to the exterior world (2.62-63). Later, when arguing for why even the enlightened should engage in varna-dharma (3.17-21), he cites himself as one who is transcendent to the obligations of dharma (3.22) but who nonetheless engages in dharma, so that normal souls who depend on dharma for prosperity can see his example, follow it, and be saved from ruination (3.23-24). 

When Kṛṣṇa says that he spoke this karma-yoga doctrine to the sun-god (4.1), Arjuna enquires about how this could be possible (4.4) since Kṛṣṇa was his contemporary and the sun-god was millions of years older than them both (apparently). In response, Kṛṣṇa, in a brief and unabashed look at his divinity, reveals himself as a divine descent (avatāra) (4.6) who appears when there is destruction of dharma (right action) and rise of adharma (wrongdoing) (4.7) and who performs the function of delivering the saintly, destroying the wicked, and re-establishing true dharma (4.8). Anyone who understands this truth about Kṛṣṇa (i.e. the nature of his divine birth and acts) never again takes birth upon giving up this body, but goes to Kṛṣṇa (4.9).

Again, echoing his point in 4.9, Kṛṣṇa points out that if one knows how he is transcendent to the karmic reactions of this world, then they too can become free from the bondage of karma (4.14). When glorifying knowledge (jñāna) (4.34-39), Kṛṣṇa mentions that one who becomes freed from illusion shall see all beings in him (4.35). Later in chapter five, Kṛṣṇa mentions that peace is possible for one who understands him as the “great Lord of all worlds,” the “kind friend to all beings,” and “the enjoyer of the Vedic rituals and austerities,” (5.29). Again, when describing the lifestyle of the dhyāna-yogī (6.10-17), Kṛṣṇa specifically mentions the importance of meditation upon and dedication to himself (6.14). When describing the vision of an accomplished yogī fixed in meditation (samādhi), Kṛṣṇa mentions that such yogic vision permits one to see that he is everywhere (6.30). Thus the yogī honors Kṛṣṇa within the heart of all beings (6.31). Therefore, one gets a strong hint of Kṛṣṇa’s supreme divinity in the first wave discourse on yoga. This hint is then unpacked and emphasized in the second wave which predominantly focuses on bhakti-yoga.

Bhakti-Yoga

According to the BG, material nature (prakṛti) and the souls entangled within it are different energies (śaktis) of Kṛṣṇa (7.4-5) and it is Kṛṣṇa alone who is the creator, destroyer and maintainer of the manifested universes (7.6-7). Kṛṣṇa is the essence of everything. He is the taste in water, the fragrance of the earth, the effulgence of the sun and moon, the wisdom of the wise, the strength of the strong, and more (7.8-11). Indeed, all material phenomena encountered is only a small portion of his grand splendor (10.41). Everything emanates from him (7.12) and is pervaded by him as the indwelling soul of the universe (paramātmā) (9.4, 10.42), and in this sense he is everything (11.40). 

If he is so present, why then aren’t more people aware of him? Kṛṣṇa says this is due to his māyā (illusion) composed of the guṇas (7.13, 7.25) which can only be surpassed by surrender or devotion to himself (7.14, 14.26). Those who act badly (duṣkṛtinaḥ) do not surrender (7.15) or surrender to lesser beings (7.20-23, 9.23-25), or simply misunderstand Kṛṣṇa’s divinity (7.24, 9.11). This is certainly due to Kṛṣṇa’s māyā in which they remain entangled (9.3), baffled by absorption in dualities (7.27). Those who act properly (su-kṛtinaḥ), worship Kṛṣṇa (7.16). Such people generally fit into one of the following demographics: the distressed, those inquiring into the nature of truth, the seekers of wealth, the wise (7.16), those desiring freedom from old age and death (7.29), or those whose minds are directly attracted to Kṛṣṇa himself (7.1, 8.14, 9.13). Although those with pure motives for their devotion are esteemed by Kṛṣṇa (7.17-18), all souls who worship Kṛṣṇa are considered great souls – mahātmas (7.16, 719). Indeed, the BG has reserved the term mahātma only for Kṛṣṇa (11.13, 20, 37,50) and his devotees (7.19, 8.15, 9.13), especially his intimate friend and devotee, Arjuna (18.74). 

The mahātmas, specifically those whose only motivation for bhakti is Kṛṣṇa (9.13, 8.14), have minds that only think of Kṛṣṇa. Indeed, their minds and very life air (prāna) are absorbed in and dependent upon Kṛṣṇa as living beings depend upon food in this world (10.9). This internal mental culture is evidenced externally by their constant singing or glorification (kīrtan) of Kṛṣṇa, by endeavoring for Kṛṣṇa’s satisfaction with firm vows, and by offering homage to Kṛṣṇa constantly (9.14).  These devotional activities, which they perform amongst other devotees, and from which they derive great satisfaction and bliss (10.9), bolster their habit of exclusive devotion. These activities follow the principle that “whatever nature one remembers, having absorbed oneself in it throughout their life [by their actions, thoughts and words], one attains after quitting this body” (8.6). Thus, these great souls transcend death by remembering Kṛṣṇa at all times, with minds and intellect fixed on Kṛṣṇa even while enduring life’s vicissitudes (8.7).

How does Krishna respond to such unalloyed devotion?

Ignorance, which is considered by Vedānta and Yogic traditions alike to be the main rope binding selves to this world, is destroyed by Kṛṣṇa who personally responds to these acts of devotion. He enters into his devotee’s heart to remove the darkness of ignorance with the light of the lamp of knowledge (10.11) thus bestowing the intelligence by which they can come to him (10.10). Unsurprisingly, the ultimate fruit of this divinely bestowed intelligence is the attainment of Kṛṣṇa’s eternal, blissful nature (8.5) – i.e. a state beyond the cycles of the material world (14.2) – and/or the attainment of a divine realm, what Kṛṣṇa describes as “his own abode” (8.20-22). Although looking upon all beings, both virtuous and vicious, with an equal eye, Kṛṣṇa is moved from his neutral state by bhakti (9.29) in congruence with his nature to respond according to one’s approach to him (4.11). So attached is he to his devotee, that he personally takes responsibility for carrying what his devotee lacks and preserving what they have (9.22) and personally comes to deliver his devotee from the ocean of birth and death (12.5-6). 

Bhakti’s Supremacy amongst the four paths

In conclusion, the BG’s presentation of the yoga systems, for the most part, makes explicit the different paths by name, by their requisite qualification, and by highlighting the central elements of each path. As such, the presentation does not lend itself to the popular, but frivolous, notion that the different paths are just different options to be selected according to one’s own taste. One has to see what their bearing is (niṣṭhā, lit. steadiness from 3.3) and act accordingly.  Furthermore, devotion to Kṛṣṇa or “bhakti” was shown to serve a crucial role in all systems.

Finally, when concluding his discourse on yoga, Kṛṣṇa presents a synopsis of  the systems of karma-yoga (18.45-49) jñana, dhyāna-yoga (18.50-53) and bhakti-yoga (18.54-56), before advising Arjuna how he should personally apply this teaching (18.57-62). Kṛṣṇa then requests Arjuna to fully deliberate on the secret (guhya) and more secret teachings (guhya-tara) he had just summarized and then to do as he (Arjuna) likes (18.63). As if concerned that Arjuna might miss the actual point, Kṛṣṇa makes clear that his highest teaching, the most secret (guhya-tama) teaching (18.64) is devotion to himself (18.65-66).  

This is a conclusion that is often missed, due to the influence of māyā (7.25-26) – because it is the most secret (9.1, 18.64) teaching and therefore will not be fully revealed to those who are not devoted to him (18.67). Indeed, Kṛṣṇa himself chooses to reveal the highest secret (rahasyam uttamam) to Arjuna because Arjuna is his devoted friend (4.3); he offers similar benefits to all who approach him (18.68). In any case, due to the clarity and relative brevity of the text (say, compared to the Upaniṣads), along with its amazing insights into human psychology and philosophy concerning the ultimate meaning of life, it is clear why the BG has withstood the test of time as a luminary guidebook for humanity – appreciated by some of history’s most beloved teachers, including– Shankaracharya, Einstein, Gandhi, and Thoreau.

All glories to Bhagavad-Gītā.

  1. Throughout this essay the Sanskrit words or phrases connected to the English will be placed in parenthesis. This is to encourage investigation of the direct meaning of words and statements and to avoid overly poetic readings that blur the intent of a verse or idea.
  2. brahma-nirvana, padam, mad-bhava are 3 of several terms used for expressing an ultimate and transcendent attainment that is understood to be inherently blissful
  3. For the purpose of intellectual rigor, statements in this essay that are directly linked to verses from the Gītā (BG) when be shown with chapter number and verse number separated by a period, e.g. 4.13 means chapter 4 verse 13 of the Gītā.
  4. Hitopadeśa, dharmena hinah paśubhih samāna
  5. The passion modal gives rise to a psychological disposition of longing for and attachment to self-serving material ends (14.7).
  6. “Elements” in sāṇkhya does not refer to the periodic table of modern science. It refers to nature (prakṛti) and its various evolutes called tattva or that-ness because it represents “that world” external to conscious being.
  7. This definition of a tamed mind can be found in the Amṛta-bindu Upaniṣad, referenced by several premodern and modern commentators on the Gītā.
  8. It is not clear from the Gītā if this yogi is specifically the astānga yogi or refers also to the other yogis in the karma and jñāna processes. In the view of the author, it refers to all three for Krishna is concluding his discourse on these three systems.