Jnana Yoga

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Jnana yoga is a path in itself and is also complementary to other forms of yoga, especially karma yoga. The techniques of meditation or raja yoga are very important for the jnana yogi as they allow him or her to get a glimpse of the Self or the supreme reality behind appearences. The main classical text on jnana yoga is the "Brahma Sutras".

Definition of jnana yoga

Jnana means knowledge or wisdom. It is not intellectual knowledge or a logical process of deduction but the intuitive or luminous knowledge which emerges from the deepest areas of the personality. Therefore, in jnana yoga, the method towards unity depends on intuitive flashes and requires intense meditation practice or a deepened reflexion on Reality, the Self or the true nature of human beings.
As such, jnana yoga concerns the whole humanity. Socrates has been the jnana yogi par excellence, trying incessantly to stir in his audience the longing for a real reflexion. Nowadays, Ramana Maharshi is a perfect representative of this path of yoga. His famous question "Who am I ?" has become very well-known without yet being understood. In the life of a human being, there is always a moment when one wonders about the reality of things. These questions, which are generally called existential questions, have become more crucial than ever because the decline of religions or their diminishing authority. The present technological world is so busy cultivating attraction to consumer goods that it has not even attempted to meet the fundamental needs of thinking human beings.
Nevertheless, after a painful event or after years of passivity, we eventually question ourselves about the aim of existence, the worth of what we have got or what we have settled in our lives. The questions of death and what comes after death arise in the mind. Behind these crises, there is a deep search for meaning, which has pierced human beings since the most ancient times. This existential questioning exists and will always exist, because our spirit is able to go beyond the limits imposed by the body, sensorial organs, mind and reason. When we are confronted with such questions, each of us has the choice, either to ignore them or to look at the true meaning of life. If we turn our back to these questions due to a nihilistic reaction or due to fear of the unknown, then we will have to find new motivations to live. But if we feel a deep, intense need to go further into this quest of meaning, we will begin to wonder what is permanent in this constantly changing world. If this urge remains and becomes strong enough, it will leads to take the path of jnana yoga, in that we no longer seek to flee using our usual remedies, compensations and makeshifts. This implies looking within ourselves to see the Reality behind appearances, to see our true nature beyond the body, mind and senses.

Jnana and intellect

Jnana yoga is often confused and limited to the study of scriptures and so it is often seen as a means of increasing one's intellectual knowledge. However, jnana yoga is not just a process of acquiring or building up knowledge. It should not be confused with the craving for reading, even if reading traditional texts or stories of saints and sages may give a glimpse of Reality. Lao Tzu said : "The learned people gain everyday, the wise lose everyday". We can make progress in the real process of gaining knowledge by intellectualizing existential questions or by trying to get answers from books or from someone else. On the other hand, jnana yoga does not involve racking your brain, trying to solve questions with intellectual, logical or literary concepts. The fundamental question that a jnana yogi asks himself is unique and the search for a reply takes place within. This field of questioning is therefore very intimate, it involves you in relation with yourself. The only subject that is important is how to discover the eternal, unchanging reality beyond the world of diversity and change. Matters related to lifestyle, behaviours, mental conditionings, beliefs and desires are the concern of other yogic paths and meditation techniques.
A jnana yogi rejects dogmas, preconceived ideas and second-hand answers. He does not believe in anything and only his personal experience can guide him in his search. The jewels of intellect, logic and reasoning are not relevant methods on the jnana yoga pathway. Their scope is limited and they are only based on objective facts. Therefore, they lead us away from the fundamental quest about Reality. Only intuition, the inherent psychic capacity, can reveal the transcendental truth. Sri Aurobindo expressed it very clearly when he talked about his intellectual life. He passed through an essential period when he clearly saw that his intellect was not able to show what is correct or incorrect. He noticed that his intellect could justify at the same time one thing and exactly the opposite thing ! He never admitted a truth in his mind without simultaneously being open to the opposite way of thinking… And as a result, the prestige of his intellect faded away !

Who am I ?

This question is the core of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings. However it was a real experience for him not just mere words ; it was not just intellectual gymnastics producing philosophical and speculative ideas. He did not just ask himself the question once a day, then let go of it after a while and switch over to something else. His whole personality was permanently pervaded with this quest both consciously and unconsciously. The intensity of it was such that his whole being was entered into a specific vibratory frequency. Day and night, he was at the edge of an abyss, the void or shoonya, and he received enlightenment at the very moment when he got out of this depth.
This search for the anwer to the question "who am I ?" must become vital for a real jnana yogi. The urgent, irrepressible need to find the real answer to this question drives the janan yogai on. This question remains always dormant within us and sometimes it begins to vibrate. But it is only when we are free from ego and its definitions that we can really listen to its message.

The two wings to take off and fly

The two essential qualities of a jnana yogi are viveka, discrimination, and vairagya, non-attachment. They are like the two wings of a the bird, both are necessary for the bird to take off and to be able to fly higher and higher.
Viveka is the capacity to distinguish the real from the unreal, the self from the non-self, the eternal from what is destined to death and decay. Although this quality of discrimination exists in every human being, most of the time it only manifests itself later when it is all over ! With viveka, the adept of jnana yoga naturally turns towards the philosophy of Vedanta because its concepts of Brahman (the absolute) and Maya (the illusion of the manifested world) are in perfect tune with his or her quest. Introspection or vichara is advised to develop the quality of viveka. It is an intense reflexion which has to be practised upon oneself only about spiritual questions and not about usual activities of daily life. Vichara is a process of analysis and separation such as we remove the grits of pebbles and impurities from cereals before we cook them.
Vairagya, non-attachment, is a state free of craving. It does not mean artificially turning our back on our family ties, job or personal wealth. But if one day these things disappear from our lives, we are not touched by it. Non-attachment is an exceptional quality and the highest yogic attitude: the jnana yogi does not feel attraction for the enjoyments of life, it is the objects of please which have the opportunity to be offered to him or her. A jnana yogi is not indebted to any object. Such a philosophy is very positive because it does not imply any rejection or artificial renunciation.

The six virtues of a jnana yogi

Shama, quietening of the mind : the jnana yogi should avoid anxiety and excitement, because he has to channel the mental forces and to use them for a higher purpose. He must then find a way to set his mind at rest, for instance the technique of yoga nidra or chanting mantras which calm down the mental realm, the senses activities and the nervous system.
Dama, limiting the mental fluctuations : the jnana yogi should know how to curb his desires intelligently, restrict his senses, body and mind, without yet going through a sterile struggle with himself. Dama was always used in the different religions with more or less success as we know.
Uparati, indifference : it is essential to keep the mind steady, lose interest in other people's opinions and free oneself from their influence. With this quality, a jnana yogi is able to look at the game of life and interactions without any troubles, he bears easily what he cannot change and he accepts the things as they are, without trying to solve the world’s problems.
Titiksha is the ability to endure the pairs of opposite, hot and cold, love and hatred, pleasure and pain, recognition and scorn, success and failure… This quality allows him to gain endurance, strength and courage in the physical, mental, sensorial and nervous dimensions.
Shraddha, faith : it is the underlying support of the jnana yogi in his quest. This profound conviction is a matter of confidence in the Master and sadhana, a matter of faith in the eternal and universal spirit which is present in the core of each and everyone. Often a true jnana yogi does not want to give a form to the transcendental Reality. Therefore, his tendancy is to reject any expression of adoration. He does not accept, as others are doing, to direct the flow of bhakti on one exclusive aspect of the divine, the Ishta Devata, or on an enlightened person. However, it is difficult to believe in something that has no form. So, the jnana yogi can also feed a feeling for some aspect of God without going against his search. It will help him to keep the mind calm and focused.
Samadhana, doubtlessness : it is the complement of faith. If somebody is overwhelmed with doubts, his mind cannot move deeply towards the discovering of the Self.

The desire for liberation

This desire is called mumukshutva. It is the last attraction we will have to overcome to attain liberation. But this driving force is also essential and rare. It allows us to untiringly carry on our search, to make as many improvements as necessary while keeping the freshness and enthusiasm of our first inspiration. This desire for liberation must be intense enough to keep our aim in focus, to prevent the mind and senses to take us off the path, to know how we can take advantage of our mistakes and failures, to accept to leave the useless and face the unknown. This desire for liberation is probably what makes all the difference ! Furthermore, it cannot be learned nor passed on. According to Buddha, only suffering can bring about this feeling of extreme urgency which does not let us any choice.

The witness attitude or Drashta

Increasing the witness attitude, the drashta, is an obligation for the jnana yogi in order to express his qualities in his behaviour. Without knowing ourselves, without being the dispassionate witness of the internal and external manifestations of our personality, we cannot use the qualities of viveka and vairagya, we cannot calm down the mind, curb our desires or remain indifferent when facing the circumstances of life. The preliminary work is therefore to know better our mind, body and senses, and develop a friendly attitude with ourselves. Most of the time, we want to become something else and there is neither knowledge nor acceptation. Swami Niranjanananda has expressed this point through a beautiful joke : "If an elephant fantasizes and tries to live like a goldfish, or if a peacock fantasizes and tries to live like a cow, then it would be a very disharmonious expression of their natural being. In fact, one would classify them as ridiculous. Do you see any such correlations in yourself ? We are often like the elephant trying to become a goldfish or the weak mouse trying to become a roaring lion."
It is necessary to develop self-awareness in daily life to let the vision of the Self arise. The cornerstone of jnana yoga is the drashta, the witnessing attitude which combines sincerity, awareness and acceptation. The techniques of hatha yoga and raja yoga help us to awaken this faculty of neutral observation. And this effort of knowledge may also be supported by a remarkable practice of Satyananda Yoga, antar mouna, the inner silence. In this meditation technique we learn to listen to each external sound and inner mental "sounds" in the form of thoughts, images, concepts... before allowing the inner silence to imbibe the whole personality.
Only a man with iron will can consider that he will exclusively follow the process of jnana yoga. For most of the seekers, to consider the world as non-existing is actually something very difficult or impossible. We are all in the hands of maya, we are part of the illusion. And to get out of it, we need another "illusion", the philosophy, the techniques and the paths of yoga. To progress harmoniously, to avoid disappointments and to open the gate on the infinite dimension of our being, let us use the set of tools given in the millenary wisdom of yoga and develop in the same time the qualities which will ultimately transform us into a true jnana yogi.
This presentation is inspired by Paramahamsa Satyananda's talks made in 1984 at Morgins - Switzerland.