What is Jnana Yoga?

Introduction to Jnāna Yoga


The one whose mind is not under control has no self-knowledge and no contemplation either. Without contemplation one can have no peace; and without peace, how can one have happiness?

                                                                                -- Bhagavad Gita


Jnāna Yoga is often called the path of Knowledge, and appeals to the rational and philosophically minded. The meaning of knowledge in this context is more than simply the limited knowledge we can acquire from books; its scope is much wider and deeper.


Much as a conqueror likes to accumulate land, our ego likes to accumulate things, including knowledge. But the knowledge referred to here is not knowledge acquired for the ego’s sake. It is knowledge of the infinite consciousness that lives in our own hearts and unites all.


It is knowledge that translates to wisdom born of insight from self-observation. It is the accumulation of knowledge gained over time through deep self-knowing – in essence it is wisdom on the highest metaphysical level. This wisdom can transform our entire being, connecting us to our true identity and leading us to understand the ultimate truth – that we are all one with pure consciousness.


The idea of oneness is of course very appealing, yet not always so easy to put into practice. When we embrace the ones we love, admire those that are great and virtuous, and enjoy the beauty of nature, it’s no stretch to feel unity. But what about when we have to deal with a barely tolerable co-worker, lose a parking space to an irritable driver, or read about a mass murderer?


This is where the teachings of divine unity are at their most valuable. The difficulty in our lives comes from separating ourselves from the matrix, the web of being. Duality is a misperception since it implies that something other than the divine consciousness that envelops us exists.


"The Self is everywhere," say the Upanishads, the ancient yoga scriptures. "Whoever sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, hates none. For one who sees oneness everywhere, how can there be delusion or grief?"


The ancient yogis spoke of “neti neti” – which translates to “not this, not that.” They explain that, “…self is not this, not that. It is intangible, for it cannot be grasped. It is incorruptible, for it cannot be corrupted. It is unattached, for it does not attach itself. It is unbounded. It is not agitated. It is not injured.”


Neti neti is a core guideline of Jnāna Yoga in that the teachings instruct the aspirant to remove thoughts that are obstacles to the one Reality. This one Reality is pure conscious awareness that always stays the same and is infinite, immortal and absolute. Therefore, the approach of Jnāna Yoga is one of negation in order to allow the light of the true self to shine and realize the one Reality. Anything else is purely a projection of the mind and is considered “māya,” an illusion.


In Jnāna Yoga, Swami Vivēkānanda speaks of the one Ātman, one Self, eternally pure, eternally perfect, unchangeable and unchanged.


In The Four Yogas, Swami Ādiswarānanda writes, “According to Jnāna yoga, Ultimate Reality has two faces: absolute reality, which is real for all time and under all conditions, and relative reality. When the Absolute is not realized, the world of relative values becomes delusive and self-destructive. The universe of beings and things appears real only because it reflects the light of the absolute…Māya not only conceals the Ultimate but projects an apparent reality in its place.”


In a discussion of māya, Vivekananda declares, “…the [Jnāna] philosophy is neither optimistic or pessimistic…it takes things as they are…this world is a mixture of good and evil, happiness and misery…there will never be a perfectly good or bad world, because the very idea is a contradiction in terms. The great secret revealed…is that good and bad are not two cut-and-dried, separate existences…the very same phenomenon which appears to be good now, may appear to be bad tomorrow… Life without death, and happiness without misery, are contradictions, and neither can be found alone because each of them are manifestations of the same thing…the philosophers found something which is not bound by māya; and if we can get there, we shall not be bound by māya.”


What the philosophers of Jnāna Yoga have uncovered is a way of living based on non-dualism and the acceptance of this seeming contradiction. There is no right or wrong, only action and inaction. Value judgments do not reflect the one Reality. When māya is unconscious, it’s destructive. When it is seen for what it is, with all its contradictions, it carries the power of the infinite.


Māya is ignorance, the illusion which conceals our true nature. The misinterpretation of identifying with the mind, the body and the ego causes ignorance and pain. They can be likened to clouds covering the sun. Once the clouds – our ego, selfishness, greed, lust, anger – pass, the sun shines on us again. These clouds move away thanks to our own steadfast commitment to truthfulness, purity, unselfish action, and the like.


The story of the rope and the snake highlight the concept of māya. Walking on a dark road, a man sees a snake; he is frightened, his heart pounds, his pulse quickens. On closer inspection the "snake" turns out to be a piece of coiled rope. Once seen for what it is, the “snake,” and the fear are gone forever.


It is important, then, to learn to discriminate between what is real and what is unreal. This is a process of unwavering self-observation. Ādiswarānanda writes, “the microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan…the individual soul and the universal soul are non-different in essence. The apparent separateness of the individual…is due to māya. The two are identical in essence but different in name and form …the only way to remove ignorance is to focus the light of self on it... liberation is self knowledge…Jnāna-yoga is the process of dehypnotization…[of] expansion…of deepening, widening, strengthening the mind.” Therefore, the Jnāna-yogi “counters the false desires of the unconscious mind with conscious detachment and repeated counter suggestions about the reality of the self…”


The path of Jnāna Yoga is a four-fold discipline:


  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


Discrimination, according to 19th century sage Rāmakrishna, “means to know the distinction between the Real and the unreal. God alone is the real and permanent Substance; all else is illusory and impermanent. The magician alone is real; his magic is illusory. This is discrimination.” 


Renunciation is born from discrimination, and leads the aspirant to give up all that keeps one bound to māya, therefore progressing on the path to enlightenment. Ramakrishna points out, “The one of strong renunciation…has a great inward resolution.”


Mastery over spiritual values includes:

  • faith -  in oneself, in the teachings and in the teacher. This is not blind surrender, but rather trust in our spiritual destiny. This trust comes from a pure heart.  It is this faith that carries us through our darkest hours and most painful difficulties.
  • control of the mind and senses - which is restless and filled with thoughts, feelings and sense perceptions pervading our unconscious.  Self-control becomes a fulfilling practice when it is guided by the spirit of true dispassion toward all sense objects.”
  • cessation of desires -  concentration and meditation are impossible until the mind is stable from the fluctuating desires of the unconscious. These desires distract us until we become aware of them and then learn to detach from them.
  • concentration on the self –  is the constant concentration on the Absolute, not indulgent thoughts. The sages say to first restrain the scattered mind by means of meditation, and then strengthen the “witnessing” aspect of the mind which occurs in the meditation process. Ādiswarānanda writes: “As the witnessing aspect is emphasized, the active mind gradually comes under control until at last the actor ceases to perform for the witness.”


Intense longing for liberation – Only an intense longing for the truth will help the yogi cut through the difficulties on the path.


Vivēkānanda declares that we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us and that we are reaping the results of our own previous actions; this is the concept of karma. The word karma comes from the word “kri,” meaning “to do.” It means action as well as the result of action.


Whatever we have done, whatever we think, it all has consequences, both in our own minds and the world around us. Sometimes we’re aware of this process, sometimes we’re not. Either way, our repeated actions and thoughts create impressions in us, which are called “samskāras.”  Samskāras can become unconscious habits that influence our behavior and reactions. It is only through conscious awareness that we are able to see these habits. If our thoughts are those of love, kindness and compassion, we will have these thoughts returned to us. Positive or negative, all thoughts and actions return to us, like a boomerang.


Therefore, integrating meditation with the four-fold discipline is the way of Jnāna Yoga. One goes with the other, and one without the other is not sufficient. The two processes together are necessary, and the sages have even called one without the other dangerous. As we progress on this path, we will come to what the philosophy declares are two stages of liberation.


Ādiswarānanda says, “These two stages indicate movements of consciousness, one from without to within, and the other from within to without. One is known as ‘Jnāna,’ or realizing the spirit through negation, the other as Vijnāna, or the spiritualization of everything...Jnāna-yoga is ultimately a process of ego-analysis that lays bare the very root of our ego and helps us to discover our common Self. Self-knowledge is not just the knowledge of our own existence but of our common existence.”





  1. Swami Vivēkānanda, 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)
  3. Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)



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