In whatever way men approach Me, even so do I reward them. My path men tread in all ways, O son of Pritha.
(Bhagavad Gita 4:11)
People may reach the same goal by different paths. Just as they can reach Mount Kailash via Badrinath, Almora, Gangotri or Ladakh, in the same way, they can reach the goal of life by the different paths of karma, bhakti, raja or jnana yoga.
Karma yoga is the path of work and bhakti yoga of love. Raja yoga is the path of psychic control and jnana yoga of self-analysis and knowledge. One can reach the goal of life or spiritual destination by any of these four paths.
The four divisions are not hard and fast. There are no marked or rigid demarcation lines among the four paths. They are made in accordance with the temperament or tendency predominant in the individual. One path does not exclude the other paths. The path of action is suitable for a person of dynamic tendency. The path of love is adapted for someone of an emotional temperament. The path of raja yoga is suited for a person of a mystic temperament, and the path of Vedanta or jnana yoga is suitable for a person of will and reason. Each path blends into the other. Ultimately, they converge and become one. It is very difficult to say where raja yoga ends and jnana yoga begins, and, in the long run, aspirants of the different paths meet on a common platform or junction.
Spirituality must educate and develop the whole person, the head, heart and hands. Only then there will be perfection, whereas one-sided development is not commendable. The four paths, far from being antagonistic to one another, indicate that the different methods of the yoga system are in absolute harmony with one another. Karma yoga leads to bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to raja yoga, which brings jnana. Karma yoga removes the tossing of the mind, raja yoga steadies the mind, and jnana yoga removes the veil of ignorance and brings knowledge of the Self. Every yoga is a fulfillment of the preceding one. Bhakti yoga is the fulfillment of karma yoga, raja yoga of bhakti yoga, and jnana of all the preceding three.
Supreme devotion is jnana. Therefore, it should be borne in mind that bhakti is not divorced from jnana. On the contrary, jnana intensifies bhakti. Sri Shankara, the adwaita jnani, was a great bhakta of Lord Hari, Hara and Devi. Jnanadev of Alandi, the eminent yogi of Maharashtra, was a bhakta of Lord Krishna. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa worshipped Kali and obtained jnana through Swami Totapuri, his adwaita guru. Appaya Dikshitar, a famous jnani of South India, author of monumental works on Vedanta, was a devotee of Lord Shiva.
The practice of karma yoga prepares the aspirant for the reception of knowledge of the Self. It moulds him into a proper adhikari, or qualified aspirant, for the study of Vedanta. Ignorant people jump at once to jnana yoga without having any preliminary training in karma yoga. That is the reason why they fail miserably in realizing the truth. The impurities still lurk in their minds which are filled with likes and dislikes. They only talk of Brahman or God, indulge in useless, dry discussions and vain, endless debates. Their philosophy is only on their lips, they are lip-Vedantins, but what is really needed is practical Vedanta through ceaseless and selfless service.
Those who follow the path of karma yoga should do work for the sake of work and without any motive. Two things are indispensable requisites in the practice of karma yoga. A karma yogi should have extreme non-attachment to the fruit of his works, and secondly, he should dedicate all his actions at the altar of God with the feeling of self-surrender. Non-attachment brings freedom. Non-attachment is eternal life and makes a person absolutely fearless.
When one consecrates one’s actions to the Lord, devotion to Him will develop naturally, and the greater the devotion the nearer one will be to the Lord. Slowly, one will feel that God works directly through the body and senses. One will feel no strain in the discharge of the work. The heavy load felt previously on account of false egoism will have vanished out of sight, never to return.
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion or affection. It is suitable for people of a devotional temperament or in whom the love element predominates. Ladies are fit for this path because affection predominates in them. Generally, there is a mixture of the devotional and intellectual temperaments in all persons. Therefore, bhakti yoga is suitable for the vast majority of people. In bhakti yoga the devotee makes absolute and unreserved self-surrender and depends upon the Lord for everything. A bhakta is extremely humble and meek and develops devotion to the Lord gradually but to a very high degree by repeating His name, by studying the holy scriptures and by practising the nine modes of devotion.
Hearing the name of the Lord, singing His glories, remembering His presence, serving His Lotus Feet, bowing before Him, worshipping Him, attending on Him, loving Him as a friend, and surrendering the self entirely to Him, are the nine modes of devotion. The devotee observes austerities, prays frequently and offers mental worship. He serves his fellows, realizing that the Lord dwells in the hearts of all. This is the sadhana for those who wish to tread the path of the yoga of devotion.
Bhakti is a means to an end. It gives purity of mind and removes mental oscillation or tossing of the mind. Sakama bhakti or devotion with expectation brings swarga, heaven, for the devotee, while nishkama bhakti or devotion without any expectation, brings purity of mind and jnana.
The student treading the path of raja yoga has to ascend the spiritual ladder step by step. There are eight limbs in raja yoga. They are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. By practising yama and niyama at the outset, the student attains ethical training and purification of the mind. By developing friendship, mercy and complacency, he destroys hatred, jealousy and harshness of the heart and finds peace of mind. By practising asanas, he steadies his posture and develops control and mastery over his body. He removes the tossing of the mind and destroys inertia by practising pranayama. The body becomes light and elastic. By practising pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses from sense objects, strength and peace of mind are obtained. The aspirant is fit for concentration, which will come by itself, and he will practise meditation and enter into samadhi.
By the combined practice of concentration, meditation and samadhi, known as yogic samyama, various psychic powers arise. By concentration on the senses, egoism and the mind, the raja yogi acquires various powers and experiences. He is able to see without eyes, taste without tongue, hear without ears, smell without the nose and feel 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, shatsamapatti and mumukshutva.
Viveka is discrimination between the real and unreal. Vairagya is indifference or dispassion towards sensual objects. Shatsamapatti is the six fold virtues, namely, 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.
Having acquired these ‘four means of salvation’, the students of jnana yoga should approach a Brahmanishtha guru, who has fully realized the Supreme Self, and hear the scriptures directly from his lips. They should reflect and meditate on what they have heard and attain self-realization. As liberated souls they will see the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self.
A karma yogi does self-sacrifice to kill the little self. A bhakta practises self-surrender to annihilate egoism. A jnani practises self-denial. The methods are different but all want to destroy the little, self-arrogating ‘I’ which is the root cause of human suffering. Once this is done, they reach the same goal.
Karma, bhakti and raja yoga are means to the end. Jnana is the end. Just as rivers join the sea, so also karma, bhakti and raja yoga join the ocean of jnana. Karma yoga prepares the mind for the reception of knowledge. It expands the heart and breaks the barriers that stand in the way of unity or oneness. Bhakti and meditation are also mental karmas. There can be no jnana without raja yoga. The fruit of bhakti is jnana. Therefore, one has to understand the nature of the four yogas and their interrelation in this manner.
One should have an ideal in life and exert oneself in the accomplishment of this ideal. People vary in their capacities, mental and intellectual calibre, and physical and mental strength. Therefore, different people should have different ideals in order to evolve quickly and have sure and rapid progress. The ideal of one person will not suit another. If one keeps an ideal that one cannot realize, an ideal that is beyond one’s reach and capacity, there will be disappointment, the effort will be given up and one will become tamasic.
It does not matter much if one realizes the ideal this moment or after ten years with faltering steps. Every person should endeavour to live up to the ideal and put his whole energy, mental power and will into its realization. One can chalk out the ideal according to one’s standard.
One person may say, “My ideal in life is to teach the village boys and give them free education.” Another may say, “I will serve the sick, join a charitable institution and give my service till the end of my life.” A third person may say, “My ideal is to beg from door to door and start a feeding scheme for mendicants and sannyasins.” A fourth person may say, “My ideal is self-realization. I will go to Gangotri, live in a cave and do sincere meditation.”
All are quite correct according to their individual capacity and standard. Gradually, you must change your ideal to the realization of truth or Brahman. The highest ideal is self-realization. Service and worship eventually result in the realization of the inner self. The ideal to have ethical perfection is just below the ideal of self-realization, but it leads to self-realization.
The vast majority of people have no ideal at all. Educated people do not cherish any ideal but lead an aimless life. Therefore, they drift hither and thither like a piece of straw and make no progress in life. It is very difficult to obtain a human birth and yet people do not realize the importance of keeping an ideal and living up to it. The ideal of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ has countless followers and the number is increasing by leaps and bounds. This ideal will lead a person only to misery and sorrow.
However, you should not treat a person who has a low ideal with contempt. He may be a baby-soul who is just crawling on the moral or spiritual path. Your duty is to help him in all possible ways in the realization or accomplishment of his ideal. You should give him encouragement in his sincere endeavour to live up to his own highest ideal. The person who keeps his ideal and struggles hard to live up to it will attain God-realization.