Bhakti Yoga & The Other Three Types of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita

Yoga (/ˈjoʊɡə/ Sanskrit: योग, lit. 'yoke' or 'union'

Modernised yoga is continuously gaining traction in the western world. As something accelerates in the mainstream, it’s typical for it to start conforming to the way modern society can make sense of it. Because of this, even a word like ‘yoga’ itself needs to be constantly clarified in conversation. 

‘What yoga do you do?’ is a common question we hear amongst western practitioners. Usually they’re referring to which type of physical exercise practice or isolated techniques they do. But yoga is much deeper than that.

In this article we will briefly overview four types of yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita so that you may have a quick go-to written source of information to refer to when needed. 

This description of yoga, scribed 5,000+ years ago, is represented as an entire system, which provides a lifestyle for day to day action and awareness. The practice of these four yogas, jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga, is a continuously evolving journey, where we arrive at what is considered to be the highest practice of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita: bhakti-yoga. 

Jnana-yoga

The word ‘jnana’ means knowledge. Jnana-yoga is defined in the Bhagavad Gita Essentials as, ‘The path of external renunciation, where outside activity is given up in pursuit of inner enquiry.’ The jnana yogi disentangles oneself from the bondage of the material self through the process of renunciation and introspection. Through this contemplation and analysis, they learn to break their identification with body and mind to realise the Truth.

Jnana-yoga is a method to gain self knowledge (Brahma-jnana). When we successfully perform jnana-yoga , the result is self-realisation. However, Krishna describes jnana-yoga as extremely difficult to achieve, requiring rigorous, strong effort.

Karma-yoga

‘Lord Krishna says: Renunciation of action (jnana-yoga) and karma-yoga, both lead to the highest state. But of the two, karma-yoga is superior to the renunciation of action.’ -Bhagavad Gita, 5.2

The word ‘karma’ means action. Karma-yoga is defined in the Bhagavad Gita Essentials as, ‘The path by which one continues to act in the world with detachment. Such acts, therefore, do not create further consequences.’

Krishna acknowledges the very nature of life causes us to inevitably act. Even enlightened ones are compelled by this nature. Therefore, this method to gain self knowledge and ultimately, self-realisation, is recommended. This selfless action, performed for the welfare of the world, is foundational for the following two yogas.

Dhyana-yoga

The word ‘dhyāna’ means meditation. Dhyana-yoga is discussed in chapter six of the Bhagavad Gita. Once Karma-yoga is successfully practised, this creates a desired state for dhyana-yoga, where the mind is made to focus within and have the direct perception of the atma (soul).

Despite the clear and practical techniques Krishna gives Arjuna to master the mind through the practice of meditation, the chapter on dhyana-yoga concludes with the glorification of bhakti-yoga, as the highest of all.

‘Lord Krishna says: 

But more than all the yogis, he who has faith and worships Me, is deemed by Me to be the highest of all.' -Bhagavad Gita, 6.47

 

Bhakti-yoga

The word ‘bhakti’ means devotion, and is the path of loving devotion to God. It is considered the highest yoga as described by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. 

The main difference between bhakti-yoga and all the previous methods described is the ‘transfer of responsibility’ as recently explained in the lecture ‘Decoding the Bhagavad Gita’ by Swami Vishwarevatikaanta. Unlike the self effort of the previous methods, bhakti-yoga involves the help of another being - the Supreme Being. And it is only sincere love which attracts this being.

‘The bhaktas, the devotees of the Lord, are the true yogis. Devotees who love Him and serve Him are united with Him in yoga. And so, they are the true yogis. The true yogis have a zeal inside of them, a longing; they have an urge inside of them to seek the grace of the Lord, which normal people don’t have.’

- Paramahamsa Vishwananda

As bhakti yoga is an experience of relationship to God, it still requires your genuine participation. In summary, here’s how we can implement what has been highlighted in this article step by step:

  1. Develop a mood of detachment through karma-yoga described in the earlier chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. This includes engaging with the work and daily activity life presents you, free of selfish motive or attachment to outcome.
  2. Fuse this action with bhakti, by remembering to dedicate all actions, big or small, to God.
  3. Sadhana (Atma Kriya Yoga, japa, kirtan) have all been given for the purpose to cultivate this bhakti, and remember God in all we do.
  4. Finally, one will be in a position to truly perform a meditation practice in which consciousness remains absorbed in God.

With this in depth journey through yoga, we begin to see how all encompassing it is, as a way of life. To experience this ‘union’ which yoga infers in its own etymology, there are many methods. But as the river flowing to the ocean naturally takes the path of least resistance, may we be like the river and discover the ease of union through bhakti (devotion), which the science of yoga revealed long ago.

‘Bhagavan is saying that for the ones who recognises God alone as their supreme refuge and constantly bear Him in mind through their speech and controlling of the body; …to the one who can’t control sitting in meditation for 5 minutes, Bhagavan says, “Go and do your work! Do charity! Do your daily chores with great love and surrender.” Bhagavan is saying that this work is also a form of meditation and if you do it with love, if you enjoy what you are doing, it will become an adoration to the Lord, to Bhagavan Himself. It will become a prayer! This is where the expression “work is worship” comes from. For those who can’t sit down to meditate, those that don’t have time, due to many other obligations, or for those who are “very hyperactive”, He says do your duty properly with a mind of surrender, a mind which is constantly focused on Him. Know that with such faith, whatever you do is a sacrifice, a charity, is penance to Him.’

 

-Paramahamsa Vishwananda, Bhagavad Gita Essentials, Commentary

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Discover Bhakti-yoga

The Bhagavad Gita highlights the nature of God in-depth, how to relate to Him, and the nature of this world. It answers questions we all ask about the purpose of life and living your dharma. Discover the answer to how to live your dharma without attachment by downloading the audio below!

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