8.4 Jnana Yoga

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Paramarthananda and James Swartz.
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In the previous module we learnt about the 3 Bodies, the 5 Sheaths, the 3 states of mind, Atma, and the creation theory of Vedanta. All the above can be called “Knowledge” (Jnana), Knowledge of our true nature. We call this Self-Knowledge or Atma Jnana.

In this sub-module we will discuss:

1. The means of gaining Self-Knowledge.
2. And the benefits of gaining Self-Knowledge.

The means of gaining this knowledge is called Jnana Yoga or Knowledge Yoga. Jnana Yoga can also be called Self Inquiry.

The Means of Gaining Self-Knowledge

Jnana Yoga is course of discipline involving 3 stages:

1. Shravanam (Listening to the teachings)
2. Mananam (Resolving doubts)
3. Nididhyasanam (Assimilation of the teachings)

1. Shravanam

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Shravanam can be defined as “the systematic and continuous listening to the scriptures or teachings for a length of time from a competent teacher.”

Each word of this definition is important.

Systematic Study

The word “systematic” is used because the study must be a gradual build up from beginning to the end. It should not be a chaotic study of unconnected topics.

The study should be systematic in the sense that between one topic to the next there should be a gradual build up with a connection.

The study of Vedanta can be compared to building a house with bricks. A house is built by arranging and cementing bricks in a systematic and orderly manner. When the same number of bricks are dumped in one place, it won’t make a house, it becomes rubble.

Similarly gathering stray ideas by reading various books here and there, without connecting the diverse topics, and without building up the knowledge gradually, our mind will be full of cluttered ideas just like a rubble of bricks.

This knowledge will not be of any use, and won’t provide any spiritual growth. In fact it becomes an obstruction to spiritual growth.

Vedantic study will be beneficial only when there is a systematic study.

Continuous Study

The second point is that the study should be continuous.

To continue with the house example.. I cannot lay a few bricks and then come after 6 months and start again. A house is not built in fits and starts.

Similarly a continuous study is also important. And the study must be for a length of time until the knowledge of Vedanta is properly and completely understood.

Just as a certain length of time is required to build a complete house, a complete study of Vedanta requires a certain length of time. Therefore the time factor is also essential.

So Shravanam is a systematic, continuous study of scriptures for a length of time under a competent teacher.

Another important point to be noted about Shravanam is that during this stage, I only gather the ideas, I avoid asking questions. The reason for this is that for a person new to Vedanta every topic can throw up a number of questions. One may encounter a number of “seemingly” contradictory statements.

Most of these questions get answered automatically over time as the student studies the other topics. So until I complete a comprehensive study of all topics, I avoid asking any questions.

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2. Mananam

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In the 2nd stage Mananam, I connect all the ideas of Vedanta so that every idea fits into the grand building of Vedanta.

Every brick, every window, every tile has a role to play in the house. Similarly every idea of Vedanta should become part of the grand design of the knowledge of Vedanta. No idea or topic, however small, should be ignored. Every idea and topic is important.

The study of the individual, the study of the total, the unity of the individual and the total, the qualifications, every topic should be well connected in my mind.

I should know how the topics are linked and what is their role. What is the role of Karma Yoga, what is the role of Upasana Yoga, what is the role of any Sadhana (practice). Everything should fall in its place.

When I take a topic individually, it may be understood clearly. But when I try to connect the topics I may see some “seeming” contradictions, I may have doubts.

So I have to resolve all my doubts through understanding the teachings more carefully. Some of the doubts and questions are answered by independent reflection. For others I need the help of my teacher.

Therefore Vedanta encourages questions from the students. Vedanta is not a faith or belief, Vedanta is knowledge. In a system of faith questions are discouraged. Questions are considered disrespectful to the teacher or the teachings. However Vedanta being a body of knowledge, questions are encouraged.

And how long should one ask questions?

Until all questions or doubts about the teachings are resolved.

And how do we know there are no more doubts?

I must be able to say “Aham Brahmasmi”, I am Brahman. I am immortal. I am all-pervading. I survive the death of the body. The world cannot affect me.

I must be able to make each of these statements with total conviction. This conviction should be based on knowledge, not belief.

So Mananam is the process of conviction. It is about solving intellectual obstacles to Self-Knowledge because doubts belong to the intellect. Therefore Mananam is an intellectual process.

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3. Nididhyasanam

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The 3rd stage is called Nididhyasanam, which is solving our emotional problems in the light of Knowledge.

Nididhyasanam is about getting emotional strength because even though Samsara is a problem of ignorance, the ignorance is appearing or expressing in the form of emotional turmoil.

The basic problem may be ignorance, but I am experiencing problems in the form of my likes (raga), dislikes (dvesha), desire (kama), anger (krodha), greed (lobha), delusion (mada), jealousy (matsarya), fear (bhayam) etc. All these emotional problems are born out of ignorance.

Therefore unless all my emotional problems are solved, I have not assimilated the knowledge totally. If on one hand I say “I am Brahman”, and on the other I keep getting worried, irritated and angry, then the knowledge is of no use.

Self-Knowledge should give me practical benefits, it should make my day to day experience better.

This transformation of intellectual knowledge into emotional strength is called Nididhyasanam.

And how do I accomplish this transformation?

All problems in life can be divided into two situations:

a. Choiceless situations &
b. Choiceful situations

a. Choiceless Situations

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In a choiceless situation there is no other option but to accept the situation. You should have the emotional strength to accept these kinds of situations without resistance.

In a choiceless situation a weak mind keeps on saying “Don’t accept it. Don’t accept it.” Which means I go on grumbling, brooding, worrying, fidgeting over the situation, all the time knowing that it will not help change the situation one bit.

Therefore making the mind emotionally stronger means the mind saying “I accept.” There should be no resistance to the situation. I should use Self-Knowledge to accept situations which cannot be changed.

And by acceptance we do not mean a negative acceptance like “what cannot be cured must be endured” with a sense of being a victim. The kind of acceptance Vedanta talks about is a balanced, cheerful acceptance, which will not lead to bitterness, hatred, a sense of victimisation, sense of injustice or produce a negative reaction.

This is a healthy, positive acceptance. Life will become beautiful when I am able to positively accept all choiceless situations.

If the doctor says you have diabetes and you’ve to live with it your entire life, you adjust to the new circumstances. You diet, walk, avoid sugar, do whatever is needed to maintain your health. What use is worrying over that your diabetes cannot be cured?

If something is permanently lost, if you get divorced, then going on brooding over your ex-partner is not going to bring him or her back.

Therefore we may worry over the situation for a little time, but eventually the mind should be resilient enough that it says “I cannot change this situation, so I’m not going to worry over it any more. I accept and forget.”

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b. Choiceful Situations

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In a choiceful situation, the circumstances can be changed or improved. In such situations the mind should not obstruct our efforts to improve the circumstances.

If the mind is weak and preoccupied with worrying over the choiceless, then it will not be available to improve situations that can be changed.

Worrying over the choiceless becomes an obstacle in improving the choiceful. Therefore emotional strength is when I accept and forget choiceless situations, and work on situations that can be improved.

And this emotional strength is possible only when Self-Knowledge is governing my decisions in day to day life.

The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is very apt:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

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So the process of gaining emotional strength through the power of Self-Knowledge is called Nididhyasanam.

And once I have removed doubts at the intellectual level through Shravanam, once I have removed emotional weaknesses through Nididhyasanam, then the knowledge is called assimilated knowledge. In Sanskrit it’s called Jnana Nishtha.

Importance of Assimilation

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We should always keep in mind that just as eaten food will not give nourishment, only assimilated food will. Similarly only assimilated knowledge will make a practical difference in our daily life.

Shravanam is like eating food, and if a student only does Shravanam, it won’t provide him or her the full benefit of knowledge. And if a student then complains that Vedanta has not improved their lives, then it’s not a defect in Vedanta. The fault lies with the student.

Krishna warns in the Bhagavad Gita that no amount of study will be of any use unless it is assimilated through Mananam and Nididhyasanam.

A student once complained to Swami Chinmayananda that he had read all the 10 major Upanishads, but it had yet to give him any benefit. Swami Chinmayananda replied “You have gone through 10 Upanishads, but how many Upanishads have gone through you?”

So all the 3 stages are needed to assimilate the knowledge.

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Application of the Knowledge

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Shravanam is done with the help of the teacher, Mananam is done independently and also with the help of the teacher, whereas Nididhyasanam has to be done independently. The teacher cannot help in this stage.

This is because in this stage one has to apply the knowledge in day to day situations. This application is dependent totally on the student, and his or her diligence depends on their commitment to Moksha.

So the means of gaining Self-Knowledge is called Jnana Yoga and it consists of 3 stages called Shravanam, Mananam and Nididhyasanam.

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Jnana Yoga

Benefits of Self-Knowledge

In this section we will discuss the benefits of Self-Knowledge, also called Jnana Phalam in Sanskrit.

The scriptures present the benefits of assimilating Self-Knowledge in 2 forms:

1. The first is a practical benefit to our daily life called Jivan Mukti, which means liberated while living.
2. The second is a metaphysical benefit called Videha Mukti, which means liberation after death.

1. Jivan Mukti

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Jiva Mukti is the benefit enjoyed while we are still alive; it is the benefit of Self-Knowledge enjoyed at the mental level in various forms. It is purely at a mental level and not physical level, because the effects of knowledge are derived only at the mental level.

A Jiva who has attained Jivan Mukti is called Jiva Mukta or a Jnani (enlightened person).

The benefits of knowledge are:

a. Independence (Svatantram)

The first and the most important benefit is independence. I become mentally, emotionally and psychologically an independent person.

The absence or presence of objects does not affect me emotionally. Only when I am dependent on external factors for my happiness will they affect me emotionally.

A Samsari (worldly person) is dependent on his health, relationships, financial security for happiness. When these change, he gets emotionally disturbed.

Knowledge gives me independence from such dependencies. Whether it is a person, object or situation, I don’t depend on any of them.

Loneliness and lack of companionship will not affect me because I am independent. I am not afraid of company either, but I don’t need company to be happy.

So independence means psychological independence. Physically we have to depend on the world since the body needs food, shelter and clothing. We can never have complete physical independence, but complete psychological independence can be achieved through Self-Knowledge.

b. Fullness (Purnatvam)

The 2nd benefit is the sense of fulfillment or completeness in life. Because I know I am the Self, which is not confined to this body, I am free from all sense of limitation.

There is no sense of rejection or isolation. If I am a person, I can be rejected. But as the Self nobody can reject me because I am all-pervasive.

Just as space cannot be rejected by anyone, I the Self cannot be rejected by anyone.

c. Equanimity (Samatvam)

Samatvam means the emotional strength to face the ups and downs of life with equanimity.

Assimilated Knowledge becomes a great shock absorber in life. Just as a car which is driven through a pothole ridden road. We cannot do anything about the potholes because it’s not under our control.

But I can put a shock absorber in my car, which is under my control. The potholes are still there, but they don’t trouble me too much now because of the shock absorber.

Similarly in life I cannot control many situations. There are many factors beyond my control. How my partner will behave with me the next moment, whether I’ll lose my job tomorrow due to company downsizing, or whether I’ll lose money in the stock market. I don’t know what tomorrow holds for me.

Instead of trying to control the whole world, I put a knowledge shock absorber. So even in unpleasant and undesirable situations, I am not affected much because Self-Knowledge cushions me from emotional disturbances.

Krishna says that even in the greatest tragedy a Jnani (enlightened person) may perhaps be affected slightly, but the situation will not overwhelm him. Like a cyclist losing his balance slightly, but he adjusts and brings it back under control.

So the benefits of Jiva Mukti can be understood as independence, fullness and balance of mind.

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2. Videha Mukti

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To understand Videha Mukti we have to understand what happens to an Ajnani (unenlightened person) after death.

As we saw in the sub-module on “The 3 Bodies“, a Jiva comprises of 3 bodies: Gross, Subtle and Causal Body. When an Ajnani dies the Jiva discards the Gross Body, and the Gross Body decays and merges into the 5 elements (see sub-module on Creation to understand the 5 elements).

But even though the Gross Body perishes, the Subtle and Causal Body continue to exist. And this Subtle & Causal Body transmigrates and acquires another Gross Body.

So after death, an Ajnani travels and acquires another physical body here on Earth or any other world. This is called reincarnation (Punar Janma).

And the cycle repeats itself for an Ajnani. He or she goes through life ignorant of their true nature, they die, and are reborn again in another body. And this cycle goes on repeating until they acquire Self-Knowledge.

What happens in the case of a Jnani’s death?

Here we want to introduce a Sanskrit term called Jiva Atman. As we saw in the Atma sub-module, Atma or Atman means the Self. When Atma is reflecting through the 3 Bodies, i.e the Jiva, it gets the name Jiva Atman. Even though there is only one Atma, this reflected consciousness is called Jiva Atman. The original consciousness is Atma, the Self.

According to the scriptures at the time of a Jnani’s death, all the 3 Bodies merge into the Total (Samashti).

The 3 Bodies merge into total matter. The Gross Body merges into the Gross Universe, the Subtle Body merges into the Subtle Universe, and the Causal Body merges into the Causal Universe. (See the sub-module on Creation to learn about Causal, Subtle and Gross Universe)

That means the Jnani does not survive as an individual, but he survives as the Total (Samashti). And he’s no more called the Jiva, since the word is applicable only when the 3 Bodies exist.

When the 3 Bodies is gone, he is one with the Self. So the Jiva Atman is now the Atman, losing its individuality. Just as a river loses its individuality when it merges with the ocean. The reflected consciousness becomes the original consciousness.

The word “becomes” can be misunderstood here. The reflected consciousness was always the original consciousness since consciousness is non-dual. Only ignorance hid the fact of its true nature from it. This is very important. It’s not as if a part of consciousness split off from the original consciousness to become the Jiva Atman.

Now since there is no Subtle and Causal Body surviving to acquire another Gross Body, there is no question of reincarnation for the Jiva.

Therefore Videha Mukti is nothing but freedom from reincarnation, freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

So an enlightened person (Jnani) is called Jivan Mukta while alive, and he or she becomes a Videha Mukta after death.

Self-Knowledge and Karma

And how does Self-Knowledge bring about Videha Mukti?

The scriptures say that Self-Knowledge provides liberation after death by destroying all Karmas accumulated by the Jiva.

There are 3 types of Karma, and they are destroyed when a Jnani dies. We’ll discuss the Law of Karma and the different types of Karma in the next sub-module called the “Law of Karma”.

If I gain Self Realization and then die, will “I” cease to exist?

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Let’s say that a person called Tom becomes a Jivan Mukta. So after death, does “Tom” cease to exist?

Yes. The apparent Jiva called “Tom”, created by the association of the Jiva Atman with the 3 Bodies ceases to exist. But, the Jiva Atman, which is an eternal principle continues.

Even if “Tom” does not die a Self Realized person, Tom would anyway cease to exist. Because a new “Tom” would appear in the next birth to work out the un-fulfilled Karma. It would be a new “Tom” because the personality called “Tom” is created out of the combination of existing unresolved Vasanas and Karma.

The particular Jiva that you are is always only an apparent entity (Mithya), so it is as good as dead to you even when it is present as it is now. So if you have a particular fondness or attachment to your Jiva, it would be good to see it as Mithya (Mithya discussed here) or it may cause rebirth.

Although it doesn’t really matter because the “Jiva” in the next life will be a different one, not “you” as you think of yourself.

Self Realization negates the sense of doership, i.e. Tom-ness. Tom knows that next time around will be exactly like this time around with a few different details, and he has not particular interest in returning. Although Tom may have developed a fondness for life, there is no reason for him to return as Jivas are only here to get free of “here”.

This doesn’t mean that all one’s efforts to be free are wasted. It seems Isvara needs a handful of enlightened beings in this earthly plane, so the Jnani may be reborn at the behest of Isvara, the needs of the Total.

But even in that case the Jnani, like the Samsari (Ajnani), does not remember that he was a guy called Tom in his last life. Or in the event that he did – anything is possible in Maya – it would not mean anything to him, because he would know that that his past incarnation as well as his present incarnation is Mithya

From the absolute perspective of the Self, “you” are already free of the Jiva and always have been, so the death or loss of your Jiva is inconsequential.

You never had it, didn’t create it and don’t sustain it. Isvara created the Jiva to fulfil an unfulfilled set of Karmas. Jivas come and go as per Isvara’s will, like all objects. However because the person-object is so subtle and is pervaded by Awareness, it seems to be living and seems to be “me”, so there is attachment to it. It is virtually indistinguishable from Awareness.

There is no reason to fear death or non-existence because it’s not possible. Everything is always only Awareness. What is born is always dead (Mithya) even when it appears to be alive.

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Does a Jnani have Desires?

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Desire is born of superimposition of happiness on the object of desire. An object is desired because it is thought to give happiness. A Jnani knows that happiness does not belong to any object but is his own nature. Therefore how is it possible for a Jnani to have desires?

Answer: While the desire of an Ajnani (unenlightened person) is born of ignorance and superimposition, the desire of a Jnani is born of his Prarabdha Karma. (We’ll discuss Prarabdha Karma in more detail in the next chapter. For the moment, understand Prarabdha Karma as fructifying Karma. Prarabdha Karma is responsible for the current life and life experiences of a Jiva.)

A Jnani may have Prarabdha that engages him in action. The Prarabdha responsible for the Jnani’s body will determine the Jnani’s actions. If a Jnani’s Prarabdha produces an inclination for performing action, he will be engaged in greater activity. If it produces an inclination for avoiding action, he will be engaged in minimal activity.

Action is not possible without a desire for the result of the action. Therefore the same Prarabdha that engages a Jnani into action also produces the desire for its result.

However unlike the Ajnani, the Jnani understands that this desire is Mithya (discussed here) and a property of the Subtle Body. He also understands that neither will the fulfilment of the desire produce happiness, nor will its non-fulfilment obstruct happiness.

Therefore the source and understanding of a Jnani’s desire is different from that of an Ajnani. However it is possible for a Jnani to have desires.

If it is possible for a Jnani to have desires, why is a Jnani described throughout scripture as one who is free from desire?

Answer: Because a Jnani understands that the desire is Mithya, and neither its fulfilment nor non-fulfilment affect him, he is not bound by the desire. In contrast, an Ajnani is bound by his desires because he considers their fulfilment the source of happiness.

Therefore a Jnani is said to be free from desire not because desire does not occur in his Subtle Body, but because he is not bound by them.

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The Importance of the 3 Yogas

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Although Jnana Yoga in the one that gives Moksha, it should be remembered that all the 3 Yogas (Karma Yoga, Upasana Yoga and Jnana Yoga) are mandatory if one has to gain Moksha.

Everyone requires all the 3 Yogas, and the culmination of the practice of these 3 Yogas is Self-Knowledge. If someone comes to Jnana Yoga without Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga, then the person will not be successful in attaining Moksha.

And if there is a rare case when someone comes directly to Jnana Yoga and gains Moksha, then the scriptures say that such a person must have purified their mind by doing Karma and Upasana Yoga in their past life.

The Ashrama scheme of the Vedas was designed for the pursuit of these 3 Yogas (We discussed Ashrama stages in the sub-module Overview of Vedas).

The 2nd stage, Grihastha or householder stage, is meant for practising Karma Yoga. The 3rd stage, Vanaprastha or retired life, is for Upasana Yoga. And the 4th stage, Sannyasa or renounced life, is for Jnana Yoga.

In modern society, even if we do not go through these 4 stages, we have to make appropriate lifestyle changes depending on which Yoga one is predominantly practising.

And therefore adjust your lifestyle, practice the 3 Yogas, and be free.

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1. Jnana Yoga is defined as the means of gaining Self-Knowledge. Jnana Yoga involves 3 stages:
a) Shravanam
b) Mananam and
c) Nididhyasanam.
2. Shravanam is defined as “the systematic and continuous listening to the scriptures or teachings for a length of time from a competent teacher.”
3. Mananam involves connecting the diverse topics of Vedanta, and resolving all doubts until we are able to say with total conviction “I am Brahman”.
4. The final stage Nididhyasanam is about converting intellectual knowledge into emotional strength, in other words assimilating Self-Knowledge.
5. The benefits of Self-Knowledge accrue in two forms:
a) Jivan Mukti and
b) Videha Mukti.
6. Jivan Mukti is the practical benefits a Jnani (enlightened person) enjoys while living. The 3 benefits are:
a) Psychological independence from objects
b) A sense of completeness in life and
c) Equanimity of mind under any situation.
7. Videha Mukti is liberation after death. A Jnani, after death, sheds his 3 Bodies and becomes one with the Total. The Jiva Atman becomes the Atma, the Self. A Jnani has not need to reincarnate again.
8. And lastly all 3 Yogas are needed to assimilate Self-Knowledge. The 3 Yogas are not alternate paths, they are all mandatory if one has to realize the Self.
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