Jnana Yoga The Yoga of Wisdom

Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge—not knowledge in the intellectual sense—but the knowledge of Brahman and Atman and the realization of their unity. Where the devotee of God follows the promptings of the heart, the jnani uses the powers of the mind to discriminate between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the transitory.


Jnanis, followers of nondualistic or advaita Vedanta, can also be called monists for they affirm the sole reality of Brahman. Of course, all followers of Vedanta are monists: all Vedantins affirm the sole reality of Brahman. The distinction here is in spiritual practice: while all Vedantins are philosophically monistic, in practice those who are devotees of God prefer to think of God as distinct from themselves in order to enjoy the sweetness of a relationship. Jnanis, by contrast, know that all duality is ignorance. There is no need to look outside ourselves for divinity: we ourselves already are divine.


What is it that prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us? The veil of maya. Jnana yoga is the process of directly rending that veil, tearing it through a two-pronged approach.

An Unreal Universe

The first part of the approach is negative, the process of neti, neti—not this, not this. Whatever is unreal—that is, impermanent, imperfect, subject to change—is rejected. The second part is positive: whatever is understood to be perfect, eternal, unchanging—is accepted as real in the highest sense.


Are we saying that the universe that we apprehend is unreal? Yes and no. In the absolute sense, it is unreal. The universe and our perception of it have only a conditional reality, not an ultimate one. To go back to our earlier reference to the rope and the snake: the rope, i.e., Brahman, is perceived to be the snake, i.e., the universe as we perceive it. While we are seeing the snake as a snake, it has a conditional reality. Our hearts palpitate as we react to our perception. When we see the “snake” for what it is, we laugh at our delusion.


Similarly, whatever we take in through our senses, our minds, our intellects, is inherently restricted by the very nature of our bodies and minds. Brahman is infinite; it cannot be restricted. Therefore this universe of change—of space, time, and causation—cannot be the infinite, all-pervading Brahman. Our minds are circumscribed by every possible condition; whatever the mind and intellect apprehend cannot be the infinite fullness of Brahman. Brahman must be beyond what the normal mind can comprehend; as the Upanishads declare, Brahman is “beyond the reach of speech and mind.”


Yet what we perceive can be no other than Brahman. Brahman is infinite, all-pervading, and eternal. There cannot be two infinites; what we see at all times can only be Brahman; any limitation is only our own misperception. Jnanis forcefully remove this misperception through the negative process of discrimination between the real and the unreal and through the positive approach of Self-affirmation.

Self-Affirmation

In Self-affirmation we continually affirm what is real about ourselves: we are not limited to a small physical body; we are not limited by our individual minds. We are Spirit. We were never born; we will never die. We are pure, perfect, eternal and free. That is the greatest truth of our being.


The philosophy behind Self-affirmation is simple: as you think, so you become. We have programmed ourselves for thousands of lifetimes to think of ourselves as limited, puny, weak, and helpless. What a horrible, dreadful lie this is and how incredibly self-destructive! It is the worst poison we can ingest. If we think of ourselves as weak, we shall act accordingly. If we think of ourselves as helpless sinners, we will, without a doubt, act accordingly. If we think of ourselves as Spirit—pure, perfect, free—we will also act accordingly.


As we have drummed the wrong thoughts into our minds again and again to create the wrong impressions, so we must reverse the process by drumming into our brains the right thoughts—thoughts of purity, thoughts of strength, thoughts of truth. As the Ashtavakra Samhita, a classic Advaita text, declares: “I am spotless, tranquil, pure consciousness, and beyond nature. All this time I have been duped by illusion.”


Jnana yoga uses our considerable mental powers to end the duping process, to know that we are even now—and have always been—free, perfect, infinite, and immortal. Realizing that, we will also recognize in others the same divinity, the same purity and perfection. No longer confined to the painful limitations of “I” and “mine,” we will see the one Brahman everywhere and in everything.


Jnana (wisdom or knowledge) is considered the most difficult of the four main paths of Yoga, requiring great strength of will and intellect. 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 (thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve 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.


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)

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)

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)

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)

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.


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 loose sight of the goal of jnana: to realize the divine oneness inherent in all beings. Obviously, this approach would be contraindicated for anyone with a history of mental disease or emotional instability. It is also highly advised to find a competent teacher before divulging deeply into the path of jnana yoga.