There are four principal paths of yoga: karma yoga or the path of action, bhakti yoga or the path of devotion or love, raja yoga or the path of psychic control and jnana yoga, the path of self-analysis and knowledge. Just as the same coat will not fit four different people, one path will not suit all people. However, all lead to the same goal: the attainment of the ultimate reality.
The divisions between the different paths are not hard and fast. There is no specific line of demarcation between them and one path does not exclude the other. For instance, karma yoga is suitable for an active temperament; bhakti yoga for an emotional temperament; raja yoga for a mystic temperament; and the path of jnana yoga or Vedanta for one of will or reason. Each path blends into the other and ultimately they all converge and become one. Thus it is hard to say where raja yoga ends and jnana yoga begins. All aspirants of different paths meet on a common platform in the long run.
Spirituality must educate and develop the whole person. One-sided development is not recommended. Therefore, one must practise the yoga of synthesis. A human being thinks, feels and wills. Thus he must develop his intellect, heart and hands. Then alone can he attain perfection or integral development. Everyone should have one yoga as a basic yoga and then combine all the other yogas. This is integral yoga.
The four paths indicate that the different methods of the yoga system are in harmony with each other. Karma yoga leads to bhakti yoga which in its turn leads to raja yoga. Raja yoga brings jnana. Supreme devotion is jnana only. Bhakti, it should be borne in mind, is not divorced from jnana. On the contrary, jnana intensifies bhakti. Karma yoga removes the tossing of the mind, raja yoga steadies the mind and jnana yoga removes the veil of ignorance and brings in the knowledge of Self. Every yoga is a fulfilment of the preceding one. Bhakti is the fulfilment of karma, raja yoga of bhakti, and jnana of all the preceding three.
The practice of karma yoga prepares the aspirant for the reception of knowledge of the Self. It moulds him into a proper adhikari (eligible one) for the study of Vedanta. Ignorant aspirants jump at once to jnana yoga without any preliminary training in karma yoga. That is the reason why they fail miserably to realize the truth. The impurities still lurk in their minds. They only talk of Brahman or God, indulging in useless discussions, vain debates and dry, endless controversies. Their philosophy is on their lips only. In other words, they are lip-Vedantins. What is really needed is practical Vedanta through ceaseless, selfless service.
In the practice of karma yoga, you give your whole heart, mind and soul to the work being performed. This is very important. Half-hearted service is no service at all. Some people have their body in one place, mind in another place, and soul in another place. This is the reason why they do not achieve any substantial progress on the path.
The mind is so framed that it always expects something in return for a small piece of work. When you smile you expect a smile from your friend. When you raise your hand in salutation, you expect a salute from other people. Even when you give a glass of water to another person, you expect him to be grateful to you. When such is the case, how can you perform nishkama karma yoga, selfless work?
Those who follow the path of karma yoga should do work for works sake, without any motive. Two things are indispensable in the practice of karma yoga. One, a karma yogi should have extreme non-attachment for the fruits of his works. Two, he should dedicate all his actions at the altar of the divine with the feeling of Ishwara arpana, surrender to the Indestructible One. Non-attachment brings freedom and immortality. Attachment is death; non-attachment is eternal life. Non-attachment makes a person absolutely fearless. When you consecrate all your actions to the Lord, you naturally develop devotion towards Him, and the greater the devotion the nearer you are to the Lord. You slowly begin to feel that God directly works through your body and senses. You feel no strain in the discharge of your works now. The heavy load you felt previously on account of your false egoism has now vanished out of sight, never to return.
The doctrine of karma yoga forms an integral part of Vedanta. It expounds the riddle of life and the universe. It brings solace, satisfaction and happiness to one and all. It is a self-evident truth. Every sensible individual will have to accept it. The adage As you sow, so shall you reap holds good not only on the physical plane, but also in the spiritual realm. Every thought and deed of yours generates certain tendencies in you which affect your life. If you perform actions in a selfless spirit, you will naturally soar high to regions of bliss and peace.
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion or affection suitable for people of a devotional temperament or in whom the love element predominates. Generally most people possess a combination of devotional and intellectual temperaments. Hence bhakti yoga is suitable for the vast majority of persons. In bhakti yoga the devotee makes absolute and unreserved self-surrender. He depends on the Lord for everything. He is extremely humble. His devotion gradually develops to a very high degree through repetition of the name of the Lord, studying the scriptures and practising the nine modes of devotion, navanga yoga:
The devotee will observe austerities, pray frequently and offer mental worship. He will serve others realizing that the Lord dwells in the hearts of all. Adi Shankaracharya, the great Advaita jnani, was a great bhakta of Lord Hari, Hara and Devi. Jnanadeva of Alandi, a great yogi of late, was a bhakta of Lord Krishna. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa worshipped Kali and received jnana from Swami Totapuri, his Advaita guru. Appayya Dikshitacharya, a famous jnani of South India, was a devotee of Lord Siva. It behoves, therefore, that bhakti can be combined to much advantage with jnana. Bhakti is a means to an end. It gives purity of mind and removes mental oscillation, vikshepa. Sakama bhakti, devotion with expectation, can bring the heaven down for the devotee, while nishkama bhakti, devotion without expectation, brings purity of mind and jnana.
A life without love of the divine is practical death. There is no power greater than love. You can win others hearts, conquer your enemies and tame wild animals through love alone. The glory of love is ineffable. True religion does not consist in ritualistic observances, baths and pilgrimages but in loving all. Cosmic love, the essence of bhakti, is all-embracing and all-inclusive. In the presence of such pure love all distinctions and differences, all hatred, jealousy and egoism are dispelled just as darkness is dispelled by the penetrating rays of the morning sun. There is no religion higher than love, no knowledge higher than love and no treasure higher than love. A heart without love is like a desert without water.
However, while it is easy to talk of universal love, when it comes to the practical field, most people fail. If someone speaks ill of you and uses harsh words, you are thrown off balance instantaneously. You get irritated, display anger and pay him in the same coin. You do not like to part with your possessions when you see people in distress. A person who is struggling to develop cosmic love and realize divinity through love cannot keep anything more than he actually needs. He will willingly sacrifice even this little to serve a needy person, and undergo starvation with much pleasure. He will rejoice that the Lord has given him an opportunity to serve Him. People generally talk of universal love, but are niggardly in action.
Those who believe in universal love should endeavour to develop positive qualities. They should serve humanity untiringly with a disinterested, selfless spirit for many years. They must be prepared to bear calmly insults and injuries. Then only there is a prospect of developing cosmic love.
Lord Krishna preached love through his flute. Lord Buddha was an ocean of love. In one of his incarnations, he gave up his body to appease the hunger of a tigers cub. Raja Sibi gave flesh equal to the weight of a pigeon from his own breast to satisfy the appetite of a hawk. Lord Rama lived a life of love and showed love in every activity of his. Lord Jesus preached and practised love in the fullest measure.
Draw inspiration from the teachings of these sages and tread the path of love. Remember Him. Feel His indwelling presence everywhere. See Him in all faces, all objects, movements, feelings, sentiments and actions. Meditate upon His form with single-minded devotion. Become a peerless devotee of the Lord in this very life, nay this very second.
The student treading the path of raja yoga has to ascend the spiritual ladder step by step, stage by stage. There are eight limbs in raja yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. By practising yama and niyama at the outset the student gets ethical training and purification of mind. By developing friendship, mercy and complacency, he destroys hatred, jealousy and harshness of heart and thereby acquires peace of mind.
By practising asana he steadies his posture and gets complete control and mastery over the body. Then he practises pranayama to remove the tossing of mind and destroy rajas, passion, and tamas, inertia. His body becomes light and elastic. By practising pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses from sensual objects, he gets strength and peace of mind. Now he is fit for concentration which comes of itself. He practises meditation and enters into samadhi. With the combined practices of concentration, meditation and samadhi, he gets various siddhis, psychic powers. By perfecting concentration on the senses, egoism, mind, etc., he gets various other experiences. He now sees without eyes, tastes without tongue, hears without ears, smells without a nose and feels without skin. He can work miracles. He simply wills and everything comes into being.
Those who follow the path of jnana yoga or Vedanta should first acquire the four means of salvation: viveka, vairagya, shat-sampatti and mumukshutva. Viveka is discrimination between the real and the unreal. Vairagya is indifference or dispassion for sensual objects. Shat-sampatti are the sixfold virtues: sama (calmness of mind), dama (restraint of the senses), uparati (satiety), titiksha (power of endurance), shraddha (faith) and samadhana (one-pointedness of mind). Mumukshutva is intense longing for liberation. Then they should approach a Brahma-nishtha guru, one who is established in Brahman or God, who has fully realized the Supreme Self, and hear the scriptures directly from his mouth. Then they should reflect and meditate on what they heard. This brings self-realization. Now the jnani exclaims in exuberant joy: The Atman alone is, One without a second. Atman or the Self is the one reality. I am Brahman, Aham Brahmasmi. I am Siva, Shivoham. I am He, Shivoham. He, the liberated soul, sees the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self.
There are also three other forms of yoga in addition to the four mentioned above. These are: hatha yoga, mantra yoga and laya yoga or kundalini yoga. Hatha yoga relates to the physical body through asanas, bandhas, mudras, pranayama, mouna or vow of silence, trataka or steady-gazing, crystal-gazing, etc. Hatha yoga is not separate from raja yoga. It prepares the student to take up raja yoga. Hatha yoga and raja yoga are, therefore, the necessary counterparts of each other.
No one can become a yogi of a perfect order without a clear knowledge of the practice of the two yogas. Raja yoga begins where properly practised hatha yoga ends. A hatha yogi starts his sadhana with his body and prana; a raja yogi with his mind. A hatha yogi gets different powers when the mighty kundalini shakti reaches the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head; a raja yogi gets psychic powers by the combined practices of concentration, meditation and samadhi at one and the same time. Mantra yoga relates to the recitation of certain mantras, sacred words to which definite powers are ascribed, such as Om Namo Narayana, Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya and Om Namah Shivaya. Laya yoga is kundalini yoga. It is concentration on the sound emanating from the heart-lotus. Laya is dissolution. The mind is dissolved in God just as a lump of ice is dissolved in a tumbler of soda water.
A jnana yogi can practise his sadhana even while walking, eating and talking. He is not in need of any asana or room. But a raja yogi wants a room and an asana for his practice. A jnana yogi is always in samadhi. He is not affected by maya or illusion. There is no in samadhi and out of samadhi for a jnani, whereas a yogi is affected by maya when he comes down from his samadhi. A raja yogi plugs his mind, as it were, through effort, just as you plug a bottle with a cork, and thus stops all mental activities. He tries to make the mind quite blank. He remains as a silent witness of all the activities of his mind and intellect. A raja yogi commences his practice with his mind. A jnana yogi starts his practices with his will and reason.
A karma yogi does selfless service to kill his little self. A bhakta or devotee of the Lord practises self-surrender to annihilate his egoism. A jnani practises self-denial. The methods are different, but all want to destroy this self-arrogating little I, the root cause of bondage and suffering. Karma yoga prepares the mind for the reception of light and knowledge. It expands the heart. It breaks all barriers that stand in the way of unity and oneness. Bhakti and meditation are also mental karmas. There can be no jnana without yoga. The fruit of bhakti is jnana. Have you now understood the nature of the four yogas and their interrelations?
There is a verse in Sanskrit the gist of which runs as follows: The shastras are endless; there is much to be known; time is short; obstacles are many; that which is the essence should be grasped just as the swan does in the case of milk mixed with water. I therefore want you to start doing some kind of spiritual practice or the other, realize the goal of life and justify your existence.