The Yoga of the Bhagavad-gita

Lord Krishna discusses the major forms of yoga, setting up a hierarchy and saying clearly which one belongs at the top.

When Time magazine ran a cover story on the science of yoga, it reported that "fifteen million Americans include some form of yoga in their fitness regimen—twice as many as did five years ago." Yet one wonders if any of the fifteen million are getting out of yoga what they should. As supermodel Christy Turlington, pictured on the cover as an ardent practitioner, is quoted as saying, "Some of my friends simply want to have a yoga butt." Patricia Walden, a prominent yoga teacher who has made a fortune producing instructional videos, responds to what many would consider a shallow approach to yoga: "If you start doing yoga for those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it's much, much more."

Or do they?

The sad truth is that most people are not studying the Bhagavad-gita, traditionally seen as a yoga-sutra, a treatise on yoga. At least in Western countries, aspiring yogis, intimidated by the Gita's Sanskrit terminology, set the book aside to be studied later. Though that response in understandable, let's look at the Gita's teachings on yoga and see why for centuries it has been, and still is, considered among the most important textbooks on the subject.

It should be noted at the outset that the word yoga itself refers to "linking with God." This implies that any genuine approach to yoga should involve the spiritual pursuit, however varied that pursuit may be. For example, in the first verses of the Gita's third chapter, Lord Krishna introduces two forms of spirituality that might be identified with yoga: the contemplative life and the active one. The people of India in the time of the Gita were given to extreme acts of renunciation. Aspiring spiritualists of the age felt that only by shaking off the burden of active worldly life could one approach a life of the spirit. The Gita seeks to correct this misconception. It takes the doctrine of nivritti, negation, so dominant in ancient India, and augments it with positive spiritual action. Thus, Krishna (who is also known as Yogeshvara, or "the Master of Mystic Yoga") teaches Arjuna not so much about renunciation of action, but about renunciation in action. In later Vaishnava terminology, this is the preferred yukta-vairagya, or "renouncing the world by acting for the Supreme." Krishna accepts both forms of renunciation, but He describes the active form as more practical and more effective as well.

Whichever form, or approach, one chooses, says Krishna, detachment from sense objects is mandatory. The difference, then, lies only in one's external involvement with the world. Krishna asserts that contemplative, or inactive, yoga is difficult because the mind can become restless or distracted. He recommends the active form of yoga, which He calls karma-yoga. This is safer, He says, because one still strives to focus the mind, using various techniques of meditation, but augments that with practical engagement in the material world.

Krishna elaborates on how to perform karma-yoga in the sixth chapter, again emphasizing its superiority to mere renunciation and philosophy:

One who is unnattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no duty. What is called renunciation you should know to be the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, O son of Pandu, for one can never become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification. (6.1-2)

Krishna's instruction here is especially useful for us today, living in the Western world. He is saying that we needn't go off to a forest to contemplate our navel. In fact, He says that such endeavors will most likely fail for most of us. Rather, we can achieve the goal of yoga by learning the art of "detached action," one of the Gita's main teachings. Krishna will explain that art to Arjuna and, by extenuation, to the rest of us. The Gita teaches how we can, in modern terms, be in the world but not of it.

Meditation: Restraining The Mind

Krishna explains that both processes of yoga, the contemplative and the active, begin with learning how to control the mind, which is essentially dhyana, or meditation:

When the yogi, by practice of yoga, disciplines his mental activities and becomes situated in transcendence—devoid of all material desires— he is said to be well established in yoga. As a lamp in a windless place does not waver, so the transcendentalist, whose mind is controlled, remains always steady in his meditation on the transcendent self.

Such meditation, Krishna admits, is difficult, but one can achieve it through arduous effort:

It is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by suitable practice and by detachment. For one whose mind is unbridled, self-realization is difficult work. But he whose mind is controlled and who strives by appropriate means is assured of success. That is my opinion. (6.35-36)

In verses ten through fourteen of the sixth chapter, Krishna elaborates on the "appropriate means," and we begin to see how truly difficult it is to perform this kind of meditation. The yogi must learn to meditate continually, without interruption, in perfect solitude. Free of wants and possessiveness, the yogi must fully restrain his mind. He must prepare a seat for himself in a clean place, neither too high nor too low, covered with cloth, antelope skin, and kusha grass. He must sit in this special place, says the Gita, and learn to make his mind one-pointed, restricting any extraneous thoughts or sensual distractions. The yogi should practice such meditation for his own purification only—without any ulterior motive. Firmly holding the base of his body, his neck, and his head straight, looking only at the tip of his nose, he must be serene, fearless, and above any lusty thought. He must sit in this way, restraining his mind, thinking only of God, Krishna says, fully devoted to the Supreme.

Krishna calls this method raja-yoga, because it was practiced by great kings (raja) in ancient times. The heart of this system is breath control (pranayama), which is meant to manipulate the energy (prana) in the body. Breath control, along with intricate sitting postures (asana), was an effective means for quieting one's passions, controlling bodily appetites, and focusing on the Supreme.

Nonetheless, this contemplative form of yoga, systematized in Patanjali's yoga-sutras and popular today as hatha-yoga, is too difficult for most people, at least if they are going to perform it properly. Krishna says this directly by the end of the sixth chapter.

Still, He recommends elements of contemplative yoga along with the yoga of action, or karma-yoga. And for most readers of the Gita, this can get confusing. Just which is He recommending—the austere form of disciplined sitting and meditation or action in perfect consciousness? Does the Gita recommend hatha-yoga, or doesn't it? Does this most sacred of texts accept the path of contemplation, or does it say that one must approach the Supreme through work?

Indeed, Arjuna himself expresses confusion in two chapters of the Gita: Is Krishna advising him to renounce the world, Arjuna wonders, or is He asking him to act in Krishna consciousness?

A thorough reading of the Gita reveals a hierarchy, a yoga ladder in which one begins by studying the subject of yoga with some serious interest—this is called abhyasa-yoga—and ends up, if successful, by graduating to bhakti-yoga, or devotion for the Supreme. All the stages in between—and there are many—are quite complex, and at this point most modern Western practitioners become daunted in their study of the Gita.

Stages Of Yoga

The question may legitimately be raised why the two approaches to yoga—the contemplative and the active (and all their corollaries)—seem to be interchangeable in one section of the Gita and a hierarchy in another. The answer lies in the Gita's use of yoga terminology, a lexicon which, again, can be confusing. The whole subject becomes easier to understand when we realize that the Gita uses different words for yoga that actually refer to the same thing: the various yoga systems are all forms of bhakti-yoga. The differences are mainly in emphasis.

Bhakti-yoga is called karma-yoga, for example, when, in the practitioner's mind, the first word in the hyphenated compound takes precedence. In karma-yoga one wants to perform work (karma) and is attached to a particular kind of work, but he wants to do it for Krishna. Karma is primary, yoga secondary. But since the work is directed to God, it can be called karma-yoga instead of just karma. The same principle can be applied to all other yoga systems.

Bhakti, the first word in the hyphenated compound bhakti-yoga, means devotional love. In love, one becomes selfless, and thus, instead of giving prominence to one's own desire, one considers the beloved first. So the second part of the compound (yoga) also becomes prominent—linking with God takes precedence over what the individual wants. The first and second words of the hyphenated compound become one: Real love (bhakti) means full connection (yoga). This makes bhakti-yoga the perfection of the yoga process.

Karma-yoga emphasizes working (karma) for the Supreme, jnana-yoga emphasizes focusing one's knowledge (jnana) on the Supreme, dhyana-yoga involves contemplating (dhyana) the Supreme, buddhi-yoga is about directing the intellect (buddhi) toward the Supreme, and bhakti-yoga—the perfection of all yogas—occurs when devotion (bhakti) is emphasized in relation to the Supreme. The main principle of yoga, in whatever form, is to direct our activity toward linking with God.

Climbing The Ladder

We may first of all, then, observe that the Gita accepts all traditional forms of yoga as legitimate, asserting that they all focus on linking with the Supreme. Yet the Gita also creates a hierarchy: First come study, understanding, and meditation (dhyana-yoga). These lead to deep contempla-tion of philosophy and eventually wisdom that culminates in renunciation (sannyasa-yoga). Renunciation leads to the proper use of intelligence (buddhi-yoga), then karma-yoga,and finally bhakti-yoga.

All of this involves a complex inner development, beginning with an understanding of the temporary nature of the material world and of duality. Realizing that the world of matter will cease to exist and that birth all too quickly leads to death, the aspiring yogi begins to practice external renunciation and gradually internal renunciation, which, ultimately, comprises giving up the desire for the fruit of one's work (karma-phala-tyaga) and performing the work itself as an offering to God (bhagavad-artha-karma). This method of detached action (karma-yoga) leads to the "perfection of inaction" (naishkarmya-siddhi), or freedom from the bondage of works. One becomes free from such bondage because one learns to work as an "agent" rather than as an "enjoyer"—one learns to work for God, on His behalf. This is the essential teaching of the Gita, and in its pages Krishna takes Arjuna (and each of us) through each step of the yoga process.

The Top Rung

The Gita's entire sixth chapter is about Arjuna's rejection of conventional yoga. He describes it as impractical and "too difficult to perform," as it certainly is in our current age of distraction and degradation (known as Kali-yuga). Since the goal of yoga is to re-connect with God, bhakti-yoga rises above all the rest. According to Krishna, Arjuna is the best of yogis because he has devotion to the Supreme Lord. Krishna tells His devotee directly, "Of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all."

This brings us back to the basic definition of the word yoga. The word comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means "to link up with, to combine." It is similar in meaning to religio, the Latin root of the word religion, which means "to bind together." Religion and yoga, therefore, have the same end in mind: combining or linking with God. This, again, is the essential purpose of the yoga process, and the end to which the Gita hopes to bring its readers.