Challenges in Jnana Yoga

The firm control of the senses is what is called yoga. One must be vigilant; for yoga can be both beneficial and injurious.

                                                                    -- The Upanishads


As Jnāna Yoga appeals to the rational and philosophically minded, this same seeker often comes upon difficulties inherent on the four-fold path, the path being:


  1. discrimination as to what is real and what is unreal,
  2. renunciation, or sacrificing that which stands in the way of self-knowledge,
  3. mastery over the spiritual virtues of faith, control of the mind and senses, cessation of desires, and concentration on the Self,  
  4. intense longing for liberation  


The Jnāna Yogi must be vigilant in order to stand up to the issues that unfold at each stage. Common obstacles on the four-fold path are:


  • Argumentation
  • Egotism
  • Loss of faith
  • Intellectual understanding
  • Selfishness
  • Four obstacles in meditation: lethargy, restless mind, satisfaction with a lower bliss, and aversion to meditating


Argumentation – In the practice of discerning what is real and what is unreal, it’s common for the seeker to succumb to arguments about the subject. Habitual arguing for the sake of arguing can become a pattern. This, of course, is the antithesis of preparing the mind for meditation. Ādiswarānanda reminds us that, “For this reason, a seeker is advised not to express his or her philosophical views unless asked, and to refrain from the habit of contradicting others. One should scrupulously avoid all gossip and also those who indulge in it. The yogi must maintain an inner composure and tranquility at any cost to stay on the path of yoga.”


Egotism – Egotism, like a shape-shifter, takes on many forms and can be one of the most daunting adversaries of the Jnāna yogi. Blinded by egotism, the seeker may find himself becoming intolerant, regarding others and their worship as inferior, and behaving from a sense of self-righteousness, which some consider the worst form of self-deception. Vivēkānanda speaks of self-knowledge through meditation as the way of burning through these weeds along the path, as self-knowledge burns away all prejudices and vanities.


Loss of Faith - Vivekananda declares, “the jnānis follow the path of discrimination. Sometimes it happens that, discriminating between the real and the unreal, one loses faith in the existence of God. But devotees who sincerely yearn for God do not give up their meditation even though they are invaded by atheistic ideas. A man whose father and grandfather have been farmers continue his farming even though he doesn’t get any crop in a year of drought.”


Intellectual Understanding – When the yogi mistakenly views intellectual understanding as actual understanding of the self, this is a form of māya, or illusion. Understanding which reaches the core of the soul is far from the understanding one thinks about solely from the head.  The yogi must not be satisfied with only intellectual understanding but must continue on towards true and deep understanding.


Selfishness – In an effort to shield themselves from worldly temptations, seekers sometimes cut themselves off from others, calling everything in the world a distraction. This repressive attempt breeds egotistic self-absorption, different from true knowledge of the Self. Using this defense mechanism cuts us off from the heart and soul of humanity, not only taking us away from others but from our deepest selves. The sages recommend the remedy of karma yoga, or the selfless service to others, for this obstacle.  Helping others can help bring more compassion to the yogi, and is helpful in renouncing the selfish egotistic aspects.


Four Obstacles in Meditation:


1. Lethargy – (Laya) A kind of sleepiness, or laya, can come over us while meditating. This does not happen when the mind is concentrated on pure consciousness (or Brahman,) or concentrating on the present moment in the world. According to Vivekananda, one who seeks good company, behaves unselfishly, studies holy books, and visits holy places, will overcome laya.


2. Restless mind – (Vikshēpa) The vacillating mind, or vikshēpa, is a hindrance. Vikshēpa has many forms, such as idle imagination, aimless mind wanderings, jealousy, lust, rage, depression, dwelling on long forgotten memories emerging, futile talk, restless body, and dreaming of sense enjoyment, all of which throw the mind out of balance. Patience, perseverance, spiritual thoughts, positive affirmation, mantras and renunciation all help minimize vikshēpa.


3. Satisfaction with lower bliss(Rasavada) When we overcome a long-standing difficulty, such as the struggle with a persistent attachment, we might dwell on the joy of our conquest and mistake this joy as having reached the ultimate goal, or samādhi. This is called rasavada. The aspirant hangs on to the experience of the new freedom and forgets the highest goal of the one self, eternally pure, eternally perfect, unchangeable and unchanged. This mistaken idea prevents us from continuing and attaining true samādhi.


This idea is illuminated by the story of a man who seeks a treasure chest hidden under a stone. Just as he reaches the chest, he’s challenged by a fierce dragon. A life and death struggle ensues and finally, through all his effort, he slays the dragon. Dancing with glee, the man is so happy that he slayed the dragon, he forgets to actually go and get the treasure chest.


In order to overcome rasvada, seekers are urged not to mistake the very seductive intoxication of a newfound freedom as samādhi, and instead persevere further.


Vivekananda notes, “Meditating on this reality [the one consciousness] always and reminding the soul of its real nature are the only ways in this Yoga. It is the highest, but most difficult. Many persons get an intellectual grasp of it, but very few attain realization.”


4. Aversion to meditating – (Kashaya) Sometimes the seeker, after much meditation, begins to have a dislike of meditation itself. The sages say kashaya is a more subtle form of  deeper, hidden desires emerging to sabotage the way. The yogi is advised to be patient and use our will power to persevere, having unflinching faith in the path.


Above all, only awareness of all the above obstacles, combined with earnestness, patience and perseverance, will lead us toward the Ultimate.  An ancient yogic text declares: "I am spotless, tranquil, pure consciousness, and beyond nature. All this time I have been duped by illusion." Once we realize this truth, we can see the divine light in ourselves and others.





  1. Swami Vivekananda, The Yoga of Knowledge: Jnāna Yoga, (Kolkata, India: Advaita Āshrama, Publication Department, 2005)
  2. Swami Ādiswarānanda, The Four Yogas, (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2006)


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