The Three Forms of Yoga

Forms of Yoga

The Three Forms of Yoga – Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma:

In this chapter we look at the three basic forms of yoga — Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma — exploring how they differ and what they share in common. Essentially, Jnana Yoga is the yoga of knowledge.

Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion; and Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. All modes or expressions of yoga can be classified under these three disciplines. The yogi needs to understand that they are complementary. They suit different temperaments; some people may practice one form for a period of their lives and then switch to another.

Ashtanga Yoga, falls under the umbrella of Karma Yoga, but it incorporates certain aspects of the other two forms. We also look at the different modes of Karma Yoga, the form of yoga most widely known and practiced in the West. This includes a more detailed look at the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

Yoga in its various forms crystallised out of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures known to humankind. The Vedas are considered to be of divine origin. They contain eternal knowledge (the term Veda comes from the root vid, “to know”), which is revealed anew during each world age to those who are open to hearing it. Those who receive this knowledge and record it are called Vedic seers, or rishis. Because the Vedas are voluminous, they are divided into categories to make them more accessible. Well known are the four main Vedic texts, the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda; each of these categories represents a set of family lines (gotra) that was entrusted to preserve that particular set of scriptures. The Vedas are also commonly divided according to the subjects the passages deal with. These divisions are called kandas (portions).

The three kandas are the Karma kanda, which pertains to performing actions; the Upasana kanda, which concerns itself with worship of the divine; and the Jnana kanda, the portion pertaining to self-knowledge. As you may have guessed, the Karma kanda became the basis for Karma Yoga, the Upasana kanda led to Bhakti Yoga, and the Jnana kanda laid the foundation for Jnana Yoga.

Jnana Yoga

The term Jnana comes from the verb root jna, to know. In fact, both the Greek word gnosis and the English word know have their origin in the Sanskrit jna.

Jnana Yoga is the most direct path to recognizing yourself as a manifestation of divine consciousness, but it is considered to be the most difficult. In the days of the Bhagavad Gita, Jnana Yoga was called Buddhi Yoga (the yoga of intellect) or the yoga of inaction, because one practices it through contemplation alone. This form of yoga is the one predominantly taught in the ancient Upanishads, the mystical and philosophical section of the Vedas.

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion that grew out of that portion of the Veda that deals with worship (Upasana kanda). It is based on the realization that most people have an emotional constitution rather than the cool, abstract, intellectual one that lends itself to Jnana Yoga. Also, it accepts the fact that it is much more difficult to realize consciousness as the impersonal absolute (called nirguna Brahman, the formless Brahman) than to surrender to a divine form (called saguna Brahman, Brahman with form). Bhakti Yoga’s path to freedom is reasonably direct but somewhat lengthier than that of Jnana Yoga. The term bhakti is created from the Sanskrit root bhaj, to divide. Unlike Jnana Yoga, which views the self of the individual and that of the Supreme Being as one and the same, Bhakti Yoga accepts the eternal division between the self of the devotee and the omnipotent self of the Supreme Being 

Karma Yoga

The term karma comes from the verb root kru, “to do,” and Karma Yoga in the original Vedic sense means simply “path of action.” The Karma Kanda of the Veda, which probably goes back more than ten thousand years, contains instructions for actions and rituals that one can perform with a particular goal in mind, such as obtaining wealth or the object of one’s passion, becoming a good person, or achieving spiritual goals. 

Approximately five thousand years ago, the Lord Krishna introduced a new form of Karma Yoga to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. He described it as surrendering the fruit of one’s actions to the Supreme Being. Note the difference between this definition of Karma Yoga and the idea of karma presented in the Karma Kanda. Krishna tells us not to be interested in the result of our actions but instead to “surrender the fruit of your action to me.”

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