Hinduism: The Four Yogas

An Essay By Hannah D. // 9/6/2013

As stated in the first part of this essay, Hinduism offers four paths, or yogas, each made for a different personality type.

For the primarily reflective individual, jnana yoga is made “to convince the thinker that she is more than her finite self” (Smith, 29). An intuitive combination of reason and spirituality, it claims to “turn the knower into that which she forms.”

There are three steps here to discovering the Atman, the first being simply to patiently and quietly learn from your teachers. The second step turns inward to reflect until you have discovered the Atman. In doing this, you must totally disconnect from your finite self and realize that this finitude is but a costume your infinite soul has currently presumed. You – the real, infinite, soulish you – has none of you current finite self’s personality, whims or concerns. This thought and reflection of the second step should lead you to realize the “anonymous, joyfully unconcerned actress that stands beneath” (30). In discovering this joyfully unconcerned infinity you discover your Atman.

The final step is merely a reaction to the last. The jnana yogi shifts self identification from finitude to infinity. In other words, don’t think “I am doing this” or “I will head over there,” but – and I quote – “There goes Sybil walking down 5th Avenue.” (31) Considering yourself (your finite self) in 3rd person helps you to realize that your infinite self is but a spectator to the finite’s everyday life.

This is where things start to get interesting. For the yogi considers himself a mere spectator as “Life’s events are simply allowed to proceed.” (31) This way of thinking sounds dangerous, almost as though you have no real control over the personality, actions and role of your finite self. Once the infinite being has been discovered, you become “joyfully unconcerned” with any actions associated with finitude.

The more emotional approach to being is bhakti yoga, or developing a complete and real love for God. While jnana yogis seek to connect with God, believing him to be an impersonal sort of infinite sea, bhakti yogis see him as separate and personal; instead of trying to unite with him, they simply want to be with him.

These differences, however, are not to be seen as a contradiction; God is seen to be infinite and can therefore be impersonal and personal at once – in fact, he is said to have infinite aspects. All the gods and goddesses associated with Hinduism are not, Smith writes, to be interpreted as evidence that Hinduism is polytheistic. The bhakti yogi realizes that God’s many different forms are there for our convenience. Each individual can choose his own manifestation of God to worship and love. Among the most popular are human incarnations of him, which Hindus believe includes Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Christ.

Here is another point of interest. As bhakti teaches love of God in all possible ways and forms, it is often thought to be much like Christianity. But Christian love and Hindu love are rather different. Consider:

“All we have to do in this yoga is to love God dearly – not just claim such love, but love God in fact; love God only (other things being in relation to God); and love God for no ulterior reason (not even from the desire for liberation, or to be loved in return.)” (34)

Compare this to what the Bible says about love.

“This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

“We love because he [God] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

The Christian and Hindu reasons, then, are very different. Do we do it because we love naturally, for “love’s sake alone,” without desire to be set free or “to be loved in return,” or do we do it because “he first loved us”? But that is not the end of the differences. Consider this quote from a Hindu text, in which God is purported to be speaking:

“As the waters of the Ganges flow incessantly toward the ocean, so do the minds of the bhakti move constantly toward Me, the Supreme Person residing in every heart.” (From the "Bhagavata Purana")

But the Bible teaches, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who could know it?” (Jeremiah 1:17) All throughout the Old Testament, we see God pursuing His people while few ever pursue Him in return. Israel falls constantly into sin, preferring to mimic the pagan nations around them than follow their God. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” So says Jesus in Matthew 23:27. The idea that mankind naturally seeks out God is directly against Scriptural teachings.

Bhakti yogis also believe that everything in the world reflects God’s glory. Everything in it and of it is of God. This, too is unbiblical, as the Bible teaches sin, death, suffering and evil are not things God intended or created. To the Hindu, they are normal, even good in that they teach us.

The best yoga for the active type is karma. While jnana and bhakti divide the two major groups in Hinduism, karma can be used in either sphere. Karma done jnana style will be done without consideration of the finite self; the infinite self, connected to the Atman, is actionless. Bhakti karma will be done through love of God.

No matter how many things one has to do, a karma yogi will keep his peace of mind. One Hindu tale tells of such a yogi dutifully rescuing a drowning scorpion, getting himself stung, and repeating the process, so insistent was he on doing deeds for others as they came. Work is the desire of karma yogis, though they must be unselfish, for “Everything I do for my private well being adds another layer to my ego, and in thickening it insulates me more from God” (38). Since “The point of life is to transcend the smallness of the self” (38), actions must be done either through love or in the realization that the infinite self does naught.

The final, often considered royal, road to being and the Atman is raja yoga. But don’t try this at home, folks: Smith admits that unguided raja yoga can easily lead one into insanity.

Raja yoga is for the experimental person, and so is based on what Smith actually describes as empirical mental experiments. With the “hypothesis” that the human being is a “layered entity,” raja yoga’s eight steps are meant to confirm this.

These layers of a human are body, consciousness, subconsciousness, and “Being Itself” (43). Since non-Hindus accept the existence of the first three, the real experimentation lies in proving the existence of the Hindu Being. In this process, the whole of humanity is dredged up to connect with the infinite, the Atman, the Being. The purpose of raja yoga is described as such:

“The call, clearly, is to retreat from the world’s inconsequential panorama to the deep-lying causal zones of the psyche where the real problems and answers lie…The purpose of raja yoga is to demonstrate the validity of this fourfold estimate of the human self by leading the inquirer to direct personal experience of ‘the beyond that is within.’” (Smith, 43)

The first two steps list five forbidden things and five rules to keep, meant to lead the mind away from distraction, be it thirst or remorse or anything else. The things to refrain from are injury, thievery, dishonesty, lust and greed, while the five observances are good hygiene, contentment, self-control, academic focus, and the “contemplation of the divine.” This helps to lay the groundwork for concentration.

The third step is asana, a balance between the extremes of comfort and discomfort. Here is where the origins of the yoga stances are found. Of eighty-four, five are particularly favored by raja yogis for encouraging a contemplative state.

Controlling breath is the fourth step. Health experts say that controlled, rhythmatic breathing steadies parts of the nervous system and relieves stress (Guarneri, 69). The yogi goes beyond even this, however, by reducing the air he needs and practicing cycles of inhalation, holding breath, and exhalation. Smith records that such a cycle of 16, 64, 32 counts can lead to “a stretch during which animation is reduced to the point that the mind seems disembodied” (Smith, 46). Obviously it takes a lot of control and practice to stretch out a single breath to almost two minutes – or however long a hundred-twelve “counts” is.

Now that the first human layer of body has been cast out of sight, it is time to limit the perceptions of the conscious mind. The slightest sound, touch or smell can distract one from meditation. A leaf falls to the ground, a breeze brushes your face, the sun peeks from behind a cloud unexpectedly and showers you with its warmth; none of these things can be perceived, for perception must turn inward. In doing so the important question may find its answers: “Is there, beneath our surface accounting of objects and things, a dimension of awareness that is different not just in degree but in kind?” (46)

Controlling the mind goes beyond outward perception. Step six causes you to focus on a single object and clear your mind of any wandering thoughts or reveries. The object itself can be anything – a burnt match tip, the end of your nose or an endless, infinite grassy meadow.

Step seven begins not by effort, but happens naturally when you meditate strongly enough on that object. After a while, your self – its consciousness – will disappear, and all you know of is the object. “In this moment the duality of knower and known is resolved into a perfect unity” (49).

The final step is the state you are trying to reach – Samadhi, or “together with Lord.” The consciousness slipped away in step seven; now the object leaves notice as well. Your mind has “perfected the paradox of seeing the invisible.” In meditating on “no thing” your “mind is completely absorbed in God” (49).

So there, in a nutshell, are the four Hindu paths to God. Seeking to be one with the Atman through jnana, bhakti, karma or raja, the Hindu believes that this releases the infinite self and fulfills the greatest human desire of being.