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Jnana Yoga and Jnana

Jnana yoga is the path of nondual realization that leads to an experience of absolute truth. The word 'jnana' (pronounced 'gyan') means knowledge. This is of two kinds:

  1. Shabdatmak jnana -- theoretical knowledge
  2. Anubhavatmak jnana -- practical knowledge

Both theoretical and practical knowledge are found in the material field as well as the divine field.

For example, imagine a student who has memorized how to assemble a computer. He is familiar with the all latest peripherals, microprocessors, networking and communications options. He can even give a lecture on the subject of computing, but he has actually never used a computer. On the other hand, someone who knows less theory, but can type his homework lesson using a word processor has practical knowledge of computing.

Similarly, in the area of spirituality, you could memorize scriptural verses, and even give lectures on abstruse metaphysical topics. Practical spiritual knowledge is gained by following the path to God as established by the scriptures and receiving God's grace.

Theoretical and Practical
Spiritual Knowledge

One who pursues the spiritual path of jnana (jnana yoga) is called a jnani (or gyani).

Jnanis have been described in a multitude of ways by the scriptures, from very dear to God to extremely foolish and unwise.

Wherever knowledge and those pursuing it have been criticized in the Hindu scriptures, it refers only to theoretical knowledge. If a person has only theoretical knowledge, and if that doesn't lead to practical knowledge of God, he will develop a false and misguiding pride about his intellectual accomplishments. This, in the end, damages his spiritual progress.

If knowledge is used correctly, it leads to devotion, and with devotion, we can attain our ultimate spiritual aim of authentic divine happiness. In fact, the practical experience of God is absolutely dependent on theoretical knowledge, because this knowledge is needed for steady progress in devotion.

Just as it is compulsory for bhakti (devotion) to be added to karma for it to become karma yoga, so it is compulsory for bhakti to be added to jnana for it to become jnana yoga. Knowledge without devotion is incapable of giving a practical experience of God.

Goal of Jnana Yoga

Although any seeker of spiritual knowledge could be called a jnani, in particular this refers to those who follow 'jnana yoga', the path of jnana.

The ultimate spiritual aim of a jnani is to realize or attain practical and experienced knowledge of the impersonal or formless aspect of God (or brahm) or absolute truth.

Practical knowledge of this aspect of God is called brahm jnana. (brahm - God, jnana - knowledge). The bliss associated brahm jnana is called 'brahm-anand' (anand - divine bliss). This realization is also referred to as absolute liberation, mukti or kaivalya moksha, because it liberates the practitioner forever from the bondage of Maya.

This is also the ultimate goal of the teachings of the Yoga Darshan of Maharishi Patanjali, which is accomplished through the perfecting all eight limbs of ashtanga yoga.

In fact, yogis and gyanis share teachings and practices from both their traditions. Through the discrimination developed through jnana of what is truth and non-truth, a yogi overcomes any confusion or pride he may develop from attaining yogic powers or siddhis and which could be a distraction to or stop his spiritual progress in jnana yoga meditation.

Without the practices of yoga meditation, a jnani can't fully establish true knowledge in his heart exclusively through intellectual discrimination.

Practices of Jnana Yoga

The original propounder of the path of jnana was Adi Jagadguru Shankaracharya. As such his teachings of advaita vedanta form the base for its philosophy and practice.

The two main qualities of a practitioner who desires to enter path of jnana are:

  • Complete renunciation
  • A deep desire for absolute liberation from Maya

For such a practitioner, Shri Shanakaracharya outlined eight steps of jnana yoga.

These processes of self-discipline and yoga practice are for establishing the non-dual experience of formless divinity (advaita jnana), a very state of liberation that ultimately culminates only in ending one's ignorance, not in guaranteeing an eternal experience of bliss.

The final step of the path of jnana yoga, nididhyasana, is for establishing nirvikalpa samadhi, the final stage of jnana.

Jnana Yoga Realization is Incomplete Without Bhakti

That gyani who has received the stage of self realization (atma jnana) has not yet attained divine realization (brahm jnana). This state of partial attainment is called "brahm-bhoot".

A jnani is unable to cross the final stages two stages of Maya on the base of his own strength or quality of spiritual practice. His spiritual development is stopped at this point, within the pure satvik quality of the mayic field.

This means that he is still under the influence of Maya and he could lose his spiritual accomplishments due to a wrong mayic association or from his own sanskars (conditioned mental reflexes of the past) that could deviate his mind towards materiality.

The Yogshikopanishad explains how much effort was involved in actually arriving at the stage of nirvikalpa samadhi:

Even after arriving at the stage of nirvikalpa samadhi, the jnani or yogi is still in danger of losing everything. Veda Vyas explains in the Bhagwatam (10/2/32):

As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita (7/14),

In other words, absolute liberation will not and cannot happen through jnana yoga.

The only way to attain absolute liberation is when jnana is transformed into jnana yoga. Krishna clarifies this point in the Bhagavad Gita (18/54):

Krishna explains the atma jnani secures and perfects this knowledge only through bhakti (devotion) and grace (Gita 18/55):

Through devotion and grace, an atma jnani becomes a brahm jnani, a realized and true knower of the impersonal aspect of divinity.

Liberation from Maya or Attainment of Happiness?

Regardless of who we are and the type of actions we perform, we all work because of some inner motivation. You know from your own experience that whatever inspires you to action always changes. Plus, what inspires you to act changes from one minute to the next.

This same inner motivation inspires our spiritual journey.

The fact is there is one universal aim for all of us, regardless of belief, culture, language, gender or any of our other distinguishing factors. We are searching for happiness and happiness alone in everything that we choose to do. This is our true aim and the hidden motivation behind all actions.

You may say we are motivated to have perfect health, prosperity, good relationships, longevity, freedom, or whatever your heart desires, but these are only means of fulfilling what is your ultimate and original desire: perfect happiness.

Why do you want money? To be happy. Why do you wish to live forever? To be happy. Why do you desire knowledge? To be happy. Why are you reading this paragraph? You, too, are looking for happiness.

In the Vedic tradition, this aim is addressed in the Darshan Shastras, six schools of theistic philosophy. In Hinduism, a scripture is described as theistic if it is based on the principles of the Vedas and Upanishads.

Five of these schools (Poorva Mimansa of Jaimini, Nyaya of Gautum, Vaishaishik of Kanad, Sankhya of Kapil and Yoga of Patanjali) state that our deepest desire is freedom from suffering.

Suffering has three main forms:

  1. Physical and mental suffering
  2. Suffering inflicted upon us by others
  3. Suffering caused by the environment

Happiness, according to these systems, is achieved when one is liberated from suffering, and this happens when one is completely free from Maya. As we have been discussing in this section, this is the aim of jnana yoga.

The sixth school of philosophy, the Brahma Sutra by Ved Vyas, takes a different position. This philosophy is the most extensive and the most important of all the theistic systems. Jagadgurus and Saints have written extensive commentaries on this scripture, and they give two perspectives on its spiritual meaning.

The first perspective describes the ultimate divine reality as a nondual, impersonal, absolute existence. This is realized through jnana yoga. As you learned earlier in this section, this school of philosophy is referred to as advaita vedanta or nondualism.

The second perspective describes the ultimate divine reality is dual, meaning there are two. You and God are two, and you realize the truth of this relationship through bhakti yoga. There is you, God and the process of experiencing Him with your mind and all your senses. You can see Him, serve Him and love Him. This school of philosophy has a few variations, but in general they could be referred to as dvaita vedanta or dualism.

The original philosophy of advaita held that our ultimate aim was to attain absolute liberation from Maya, and realize and merge into the bliss of nondual divinity through jnana yoga.

The Saint philosophers who revealed dvaita took this one step further and described a realization beyond liberation and nondual bliss: the attainment of God realization and the bliss of the personal form of God.

Isn't liberation from Maya and the absence of material suffering and limitation the same as the eternal attainment of bliss? The answer is no. However, the attainment of bliss includes liberation from suffering.

Even in your own life the absence of sorrow does not equate to the presence of happiness. If someone is standing on your foot, while that pressure is being applied, you feel pain. If they remove their foot, you may refer to the relief you feel as 'happiness', but it is really just the absence of pain.

friendshipA more true definition of happiness for us corresponds to joy... after your foot feels better, you see your dear friend and from that meeting you feel your heart is bursting with joy. This is more like it!

Similarly, in a spiritual sense, absolute liberation from Maya and the experience of nondual bliss is a divine accomplishment. In contrast to mayic bondage, this is unlimitedly blissful.

Amazingly, there is still a more enriched and permanent experience of divine bliss beyond this attainment related to the personal form of God.

By attaining liberation, you don't automatically receive this bliss, but by attaining God realization, not only do you receive this bliss, but you are also automatically liberated from Maya and all mayic suffering.


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