Three main branches of yoga defined in the Bhagavad Gita thousands of years ago, before the many diverse styles and branches (and focus on physical asanas) of modern times. They apply universally to any faith or path as the three main aspects of spiritual practice:
- Alignment with divine love and compassion (bhakti yoga, devotion, worship)
- Wisdom through knowledge and realisation or direct experience (jnana yoga)
- Practical application of mindfulness and values through selfless action and service (karma yoga)
How can we utilise these principles to nurture and practice them in our modern lives?
Bhakti Yoga (The Path of Love and Devotion)
Bhakti Yoga, the way of love or devotion, can be well suited to modern life. Easwaran in his Gita companion book says it is “natural to forget ourselves for those we love.” (p.125). The challenge is to deepen our understanding and experience of love. Love is a term applied to so many deep and superficial things these days, that it is almost too crude or too common a term to apply to a more rarely experienced deep and profound consciousness that is the essence of our spiritual nature. Real love and compassion in the conscious sense, go beyond emotional or mental needs and preferences to become a state of consciousness also transcending self will.
The sanskrit word bhakti means a state of consciousness in which you forget your (ego) self. A common counsel to those practicing bhakti yoga is to practice the art of unconditional love with one relationship (a partner, intimate friend or close family relationship), then extend that love genuinely out to others and ultimately to all life.
A spiritual or religious view helps by providing a sense of a shared source and destiny of life and consciousness as the means of connection and unity with others. A transcendent foundation to reality helps one understand inherent unity beyond the conflict and diversity of the material world. Authentic love and devotion to a divine or universal being (bhakti) must come from a deep personal truth and connection which requires spiritual effort and the ability to get past the conditioning of differences in appearance, gender, culture, religion and ideologies.
If we can regularly connect from within to a presence or field of love in and around us, with no labels attached, then we can better learn to consistently identify with it in place of identification with the little ‘self’ by consistently aligning our actions and state of consciousness in this state, in the present moment, throughout all that we do on a daily basis. This in turn produces the ability to remain in the flow of universal or connected consciousness. In A New Earth, Ekhart Tolle describes in depth, three states that allow this connection and flow: enjoyment, acceptance or enthusiasm. Bhakti is possible anytime by connecting within in the correct state of consciousness that we are capable of at the time and situation.
Therefore, while religious chanting, singing and dancing are traditional and common practices for surrendering into a bhakti reverie, so to can quiet and private worship or meditating, walks and time in nature, as well as quality time and intimacy with friends and loved ones. Intimacy here means communication and connection that is truly an authentic sharing of each other in a selfless way, where we have the safety and understanding to be frank in sharing values or uplifting views and heart felt thoughts with each other.
Bhakti is not about a purely moralistic universal love or a romanticised emotional ideal. It is a transformative and heart felt experience of a profound connection and oneness of divine love that expands ones view, understanding and compassion for all life. It is spiritually significant where it includes a sense of a greater reality and presence than the material world before us. Thus, relationships gain a deeper meaning when their purpose includes affirming and expressing this universal sense in each other for the benefit of all.
Jnana Yoga (The Path of Wisdom through Realisation and Knowledge)
Jnana Yoga, the path of wisdom or knowledge, is not just about intellect . Easwaran describes it as “direct, experiential knowledge of the unity of life, attained by progressively seeing through the layers of delusion that glue us to the body and mind – something that is simple to talk about but almost impossible to do.” (p.118). (also see the Gita 12:3-4)
Scripture and teachings in spiritual traditions can be a means of obtaining tried and true guidance, especially with guidance from a teacher. For most people in modern times, access to quality information is now huge from many channels, but still requires discrimination of quality. However, jnana is really about the inseparableness of knowledge and experience. Especially when it comes to authentic states of consciousness, our own nature of being (spirit and consciousness) enables us to recognise truth when we experience it. There is a deep capacity of recognition of profound reality and divine truth when we experience it. The deep wisdom of masters is not from dry intellect but hand in hand with love of God: “to know is to love, and to love is to act” (Easwaran, p.119, also see the Gita 18:54-56).
Karma Yoga (The Path of Spirituality through Action and Service)
Karma Yoga is the path of selfless action. It is more than service, which is most important, as service becomes yoga “when we forget ourselves in that work and desire nothing from it ourselves, not even recognition or appreciation.” Therefore, the quality of consciousness in which an act is done, is an integral part of the spiritual value of performing actions and service to others. Many who receive great recognition have done great things for the world, so this distinction is not at their expense. Rather, it highlights the importance of people doing acts in ways that shrink or dissolve egotism and separateness. “The question is what effect this work has on them [the doer]. If it loosens egotism, pride, and the bonds of separateness, it can be called karma yoga, but not if it is making these bonds stronger.” (Easwaran, p.120).
Sri Krishna says true selfless actions alone will help free us from the results of past karma (Gita 4:22-23) which is why this approach of service is called karma yoga. In his autobiography, Gandhi spoke about how difficult it was to tirelessly work for others without getting attached to things turning out his way. Since we can’t control so many factors in life, Sri Krishna affirms it is in our power to act wisely, but wise not to be anxious about the outcomes so we may live and act with an evenness of mind (Gita 2:47,48). Caring about our actions and motivations without getting entangled in our own personal investment of the outcomes is a fine line to walk. Gandhi summarised this famously with: “Do your best, then leave the results to God.” This is the secret to Karma Yoga – using the right means to achieve the right end without attachment to the outcome.
Dhyana yoga or meditation is the foundation of all yogic paths in order to train our minds to get to deeper levels of consciousness. In these busy times of materialistic distraction, such a regular practice becomes all the more valuable. It is our own personal and direct connection to spirit or the divine that really determines the spiritual quality of our life. It can only be found by being fully aligned in the present moment. Krishna in the Gita says:
Meditation is superior to asceticism and the path of knowledge. It is also superior to selfless service. May you obtain the goal of meditation, Arjuna! (Gita 6:46)
Love, wisdom and service exercised throughout life from deep consciousness and connection to the whole, obtained through worship or meditation, is our ultimate purpose in being here and all we do. So, create a little checklist and see how you exercise these three aspects in your life.
Essence of the Bhagavad Gita -; A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation and Indian Philosophy, by Eknath Easwaran (Nilgiris Press, Tomales, CA, USA, 2011)
God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, by Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship, USA, 1999, Second Edition)
The Bhagavad Gita, translation & commentary, by Sri Swami Sivananda (The Divine Life Society, India, 2015, Fifteenth Edition)
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle (Penguin, 2008)