Four Yogas in Bhagavad Gita

(An edited version of this article was published in the August 2017 issue of Vedanta Kesari, the monthly magazine published from Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.)

Swami Vivekananda has highlighted four paths to reach the Ultimate Goal. His famous words reflect this: “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion.” (Complete Works, Vol I, page 257) These four are based on the four faculties of a human being – physical, emotional, will and intellect, respectively. Whichever faculty is the core strength of the person, it can be used as the primary means to the Goal. If we go through the details described by Swami Vivekananda, we can see that in each of these paths, Swami Vivekananda adds a bit of the others and thus they are not exclusive.

There are several slokas in Bhagavad Gita where multiple of these Yogas are referred to. Analyzing these slokas will help us to understand the import of Gita about these four Yogas. Often it is not possible to classify various spiritual practices (saadhanas) exclusively into one or the other Yoga. For example, meditation on God can be classified under Raaja Yoga or Bhakti Yoga. Looking upon living beings as manifestations of God and serving them come under Karma Yoga or Bhakti Yoga. In such cases, we can look at the other saadhanas listed and try to spread the list across the four Yogas as much as possible. A partial list is at the end of this article. This way of analysis gives a deep insight into Gita’s way of saadhana.

An exemplary handling of the four Yogas can be found in the slokas 12.3 and 12.4. The sloka 12.3 describing Nirguna Brahman points to Jnana Yoga. The sloka 12.4 points to the qualities that the aspirant will develop by the other three Yogas, which are considered pre-requisites for Jnaana Yoga.

  • Karma Yoga gives: sarvatra sama buddhayah (equanimity in all situations)
  • Bhakti Yoga gives: sarva bhuta hite rataah (engaged in the welfare of all living beings)
  • Raaja Yoga gives: sanniyamyendriya gramam (all sense/action organs and mind under control)
  • Jnaana Yoga gives: avyaktam paryupaasate (pursuit of the Unmanifest)

One of the surprising perspective that unfolds out of this analysis is that Gita often considers “loving service to all living beings seeing the Lord in them” as real Bhakti Yoga. Several slokas like 5.7, 5.25, 6.31, 11.55, 12.4, 12.13 and 18.54 present this perspective.

Another insight from this analysis can answer the debate of Swami Vivekananda’s treatment of the four yogas versus traditional Vedanta’s treatment. Swami Vivekananda says that the Four Yogas can be practiced in isolation or in combination and each of them is capable of taking the spiritual aspirant to the Goal. The traditional view is that all the Yogas are necessary. Also, Jnaana Yoga has the other Yogas as pre-requisite. This is very explicit in the Gita sloka 6.3. This conflict can be resolved when we understand that Swami Vivekananda’s classification is based on the faculties used (action, emotion, will and intellect) while Gita’s and traditional Vedanta’s classification is based on the results achieved (detachment, compassion, self-control and Self Knowledge). Thus, traditional Vedanta says that a person needs to develop detachment, compassion and self-control before venturing into Self Knowledge. Swami Vivekananda says that we can use any or all of the faculties to develop the detachment, compassion and self-control.

From this perspective, the three cardinal virtues of the Yamas of Patanjali Yoga Sutras – satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (non-violence) and brahmacharya (chastity) – can be interpreted as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raaja Yoga respectively. When we have equanimity about success and failure, there will be no reason to be untruthful. Satya will come naturally. When we wish for the welfare of all living beings, ahimsa will come naturally. When we have the sense organs, organs of action and mind under control, brahmacharya will come naturally. Satya, ahimsa and brahmacharya are the cardinal virtues of Buddhism and Jainism also.

The three saadhanaas that Gita repeats in several slokas in many chapters – yagna (constructive activity), daana (charity) and tapas (austerity) – can be, in a way, considered as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raaja Yoga respectively.

The Shatka Sampathi (six treasures) which is the second of the Saadhana Chatustaya (four-fold qualifications for Knowledge) – sama (control of mind), dama (control of sense organs), uparati (doing of one’s duty), titiksha (forbearance), sharaddha (faith in the words of the Guru and scriptures) and samaadhaana (contentment) can be distributed into Karma Yoga (uparati, titiksha, samaadhaana), Raaja Yoga (sama, dama) and Jnaana Yoga (shraddha).

Even the four cardinal virtues of Western Philosophy – Prudence (think before acting), Courage (face uncertainties calmly), Temperance (have inner self-control) and Justice (be fair to all people) – can be grouped into this. Prudence and Courage would be Karma Yoga. Temperance would be Raaja Yoga. Justice would be Bhakti Yoga.

Gita shows how knowledge of the Self, devotion to God and loving service to God through living beings are the same in the slokas 6.29 to 6.32.

  • 6.29: With the heart concentrated by Yoga, with eye of evenness for all situations, he beholds the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self.
  • 6.30: He who sees Me in all the beings and sees all the beings in Me, he never gets separated from Me, nor do I become separated from him.
  • 6.31: He who being established in unity, worships Me who am dwelling in all beings, whatever his way of life, that Yogi abides in Me.
  • 6.32: He who judges the pleasure and pain of all living beings by the same standards that he applies to himself is considered as the highest Yogi.

It is to be noted how Gita neatly replaces “Self” by “Me (God)” from 6.29 to 6.30. That shows how Jnaana and Bhakti are effectively the same. 6.29 shows how Karma Yoga (eye of evenness for all situations) and Raaja Yoga (heart concentrated) result in Jnaana (beholds the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self). 6.31 shows how Bhakti translates itself into service. This whole concept is exactly what Swami Vivekananda packed into the cryptic statement “Shiva Jnaane Jiva Seva” – “Serve living beings, knowing that they are God”. This combines Jnaana, Bhakti and Karma Yogas into one saadhana.

In the slokas 12.6-7 and 10.9-11, Gita says that if a person develops the three virtues – equanimity in situations, seeking the welfare of all living beings and control of the sense/action organs and mind – then the Lord will give Knowledge and save the person from Samsaara. When we read this carefully, we can understand that we wrongly interpret the experiences of life because of lack of equanimity caused by biases and desires that cloud the intellect. With these three virtues, our intellect will be clear and we will be able to see things as they are. Knowledge will shine from within as Gita says in 10.11.

Here are some of the slokas or groups of slokas which have more than two of the Yogas mentioned as a part of a list. As mentioned earlier, some topics can be placed in multiple baskets. The reader’s opinion of where to place them may differ from what is presented here. The placement is approximate. This list can be used for reference and for further analysis by the reader.

SlokasKarma YogaBhakti YogaRaaja YogaJnaana Yoga
Dhyaana slokaprapanna paarijaataaya (to the wish-fulfiller of those who have surrendered), krishnaaya (to the Lord in the form of Krishna)totra vetraika paanaye (to the one holding a cowherding stick in hand)jnaana mudraaya (to the one showing the gesture of Knowledge)
4.10veeta raga bhaya krodha (free from desire, fear and anger)maam upaashritaah (surrendering to me)manmayaa (absorbed in Me)jnaana tapasaa putaah (purified by the fire of knowledge)
5.7yoga yukto vishuddhaatma (mind purified by immersion into Yoga)sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa (considering the self of all living being as his own self)vijitaatma (mind under control), jitendriyah (senses under control)
5.25kshiinakalmashaah (imperfections removed)sarva bhuta hite rataah (engaged in the welfare of all living beings)yataatmanah (senses and mind under control)cchinna dvaidhaah (doubts dispelled)
6.29sarvatra sama darshanah (seeing with equanimity everywhere)yoga yuktaatmaa (with mind steadfast with meditation)iikshate (sees) sarva bhutastham aatmaanam (Self abiding in all living beings) sarva bhutaani ca aatmani (and all beings residing in the Self)
9.34, 18.65mad yaaji (do all actions for Me)mad bhakto (fill your heart with Me)man manaah (fill your mind with Me)maam namaskuru (surrender your individuality to Me)
10.9, 10.10tushyanti ca ramanti ca (satisfied and delighted)kathayantasca maam nityam (always talking about Me), bhajataam pritipurvakam (serving with affection)maccittaah (mind absorbed in Me), madgatapraanaah (senses absorbed in Me), satata yuktaanaam (ever steadfast)bodhayantah parasparam (enlightening each other), dadaami buddhi yogam (I will give Knowledge)
11.55matkarmakrut (does work for Me)madbhaktah (devoted to Me), nirvairah sarva bhuteshu (bearing no enmity to any living being)sangavarjitah (free from attachment)matparamah (has Me as the goal)
12.3, 12.4sarvatra sama buddhayah (equanimity in all situations)sarva bhuta hite rataah (engaged in the welfare of all living beings)sanniyamyendriya gramam (all sense/action organs and mind under control)avyaktam paryupaasate (pursuit of the unmanifested)
12.6sarvaaani karmaani mayi sannyasya (surrendering all actions to me)ananyenaiva yogena (having single-minded devotion to Me)maam dhyaayanta upaasate (meditating on Me and worshipping Me)matparaah (having me as the Supreme Goal)
12.13, 12.14santhushthah satatam (always contented),  sama dukkha sukhaha kshami (forbearing all situations by seeing pain and pleasure equally)adveshthaa sarva bhutaanaam maitrah karuna eva ca (without enmity towards any living being, with friendliness and compassion)etaatmaa (mind under control), mayyarpita mano buddhih (emotions and intellect having offered to Me)nirmamo (free from possessiveness), nirahankaaraha (free from self-centeredness), dridha nischayah (with firm conviction)
13.24karma yogena (see by Karma Yoga)aatmaanam aatmanaa (see the Self by purified heart)dhyaanena aatmani (see by meditation in the mind)sankhyena yogena (see by the Yoga of Knowledge)
15.5jitasanga doshaah (conquered the defect of attachment), vinivrutta kaamaah (desires subsided), dvandvair vimuktaah sukha dukha samjnaih (free from the duality of pleasure and pain)adhyaatma nityaah (established in the Self)nirmaana mohaah (free from delusion of individuality)
16.1yagnah (contribution)daanam (charity)damah (sense control)swaadhyaayah (study)
18.5yagna (contribution)daana (charity)tapas (austerity)
18.49asaktabuddhih sarvatra (unattached intellect everywhere)jitaatmaa (controlled mind), vigatasprahah (free from desires)sannyaasena (by renunciation)
18.54prasannaatmaah (tranquil minded)sama sarveshu bhuteshu (same to all living beings), mad bhaktim labhate paraam (attains supreme devotion to Me)na sochati na kaankshati (does not grieve nor desires)Brahma bhutam (having grounded in Brahman)
Patanjali Yoga SutrasSatya (truth)Ahimsa (non-violence)Brahmacharya (self-control)
Saadhana ChatustayaUparati (doing one’s duty), Titiksha (forbearance), Samaadhana (contentment)Sama (mind control), Dama (sense control)Shraddha (faith in the words of Guru and Scripture)
Western PhilosophyPrudence (think before acting), Courage (face uncertainties calmly)Justice (be fair to all people)Temperance (have inner self-control)


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