The object of jnana yoga is the same as that of other yogas, but the method is different. Jnana, or knowledge, consists in knowing who we really are: beyond fear, beyond birth, beyond death. Jnana yogis force their way to the Divine by the power of pure reason. They must be prepared to throw away all old idols, all old beliefs and superstitions, all desire for this world or another, and be deter-mined only to find freedom.
After writing Walking the Walk,* it was inevitable that I'd start thinking about a follow-up, and Knowing the Knower is the result. Two more manuals are likely, covering the remaining two yogas of Swami Vivekananda. There is no special reason for the order in which I am attempting to write the commentaries on these four yogas. Each yoga is in itself a complete path to spiritual freedom but, in Vivekananda's interpretation of Vedanta, no yoga is completely independent of the other yogas.
Every one of Vivekananda's four yogas is a set of spiritual disciplines that is woven around a specific function of the mind. The mind has three primary functions: the conative (manifests as will-power), the affective (manifests as the power of emotions), and the cognitive (manifests as the power of reason).
Karma yoga represents practices that purify the will-power by engaging with the external world through work. Raja yoga represents practices which also purify the will-power but by engaging with the internal world through meditation. Bhakti yoga represents practices that purify the power of emotions through love of God. Maria yoga, the subject of our present study, represents practices that purify the power of reason through discernment.
While it is only natural that one or more of these powers may dominate over others in a person's mental makeup, it is also true that none of these powers is totally absent in any mind. Every yoga highlights a specific function of the mind, but other functions do play subsidiary roles in each of the yogas—which is why no yoga can be said to be completely independent of the other yogas. Nor is any of the yogas superior to any other yoga, although such claims are made from time to time. Every yoga is inherently capable of revealing the highest truth to the practitioner who is fit for its practice.
There is also the popular notion that jnana yoga is more "difficult" as opposed to bhakti yoga which is "easy." The truth is that no yoga is difficult or easy in itself. As in most things in life, the level of interest and aptitude are what make the difference. A person who has interest in a specific yoga and sufficient aptitude to practice it will find that yoga "easy." If not, the same yoga will appear to be "difficult."
In the nine volumes of Swami Vivekananda's Complete Works, a set of ten lectures form a section called "Jnana Yoga," which is also available as a stand-alone book. It was first published in 1897 in Chennai as a collection of classes given in New York and London: the book was titled Lectures on Gnana Yoga. In 1902 another version was published in Kolkata with a somewhat different collection of lectures. The Vedanta Society in New York published yet another version in two parts (1902 and 1907). The text of Jnana Yoga as it is available today was put together in 1907 for the first edition of the second volume of the Complete Works. All of the versions were distinct but their contents shared much in common.
It would be a mistake, though, to limit Swami Vivekananda's exposition of jnana yoga to only what is included in the books under that title. His invaluable insights on the subject are spread throughout his Complete Works and all of those must be taken into account while studying the subject. Consider, for instance, his "Discourses on Jnana Yoga" (CW 8.3-35) and "Inspired Talks" (CW 7. 3-104), both of which were given in New York in the spring and summer of 1895, and are not a part of the book Jnana Yoga.
The structure of the present book is simple. The first chapter deals with knowledge, and more specifically with the knowledge of who we really are. The second chapter discusses ignorance and its powers—and how ignorance of our true identity affects our lives. Every one of Swami Vivekananda's four yogas has a "key" to unlock its secrets. Jnana yoga's key is discernment—and that is what the third chapter focuses on. It examines the kinds of questions we ask about God, about the world and about ourselves—and how discernment helps us come to grips with those questions and rediscover who we really are.
All of our problems can be traced back to a kind of forgetfulness of our self-identity. If ignorance is the root problem, knowledge is the obvious solution. It would seem, therefore, that there is nothing really we need to do about it other than just to know the truth. Right, but what if our knowledge remains theoretical and merely stimulates the intellect? What if it doesn't bring about any real transformation in our lives? Then we really need to do something about it. What we need to do is to know the truth so deeply, entering into it fully as it were, that it is no longer limited to having the knowledge but being it. That needs practice, which is the focus of chapter four.
While the first three chapters deal with the basic theoretical structure of jnana yoga, the fourth chapter is really the heart of this manual. All the readings on Vedanta and the discussions that result from them are futile if they are not backed by practice. Not for nothing did Vivekananda say that "an ounce of practice is worth a thousand pounds of theory." My hope is that readers will begin at least some form of practice after reading this book. After all, what we gain from practice is ours forever. What we gain from reading is ours only as long as we remember it.
The last chapter is about the goal of jnana yoga. What does the practice of jnana yoga entail? How are we challenged when we begin the practice? How does our life change as the practice matures? Does attaining the knowledge of the self do any good to the world?—such are the questions addressed in the concluding chapter.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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