The Essence of Gnana Yoga

The Essence of Gnana Yoga July 12, 2022

The word Gnana (sometimes spelled Jnana) means wisdom or knowledge. Gnana Yoga is the path of self-discovery and self-knowledge. Yoga philosophy claims that the highest goal is to know one’s core, the Self, the Witness, the Spirit, Atman. Worldly knowledge is represented with the number zero, while self-knowledge is represented with the number one. Only when worldly knowledge (0) is preceded by self-knowledge (1) does worldly knowledge become valuable (10).

For Logical People

Gnana Yoga is a perfect path for intellectual people swayed toward logic. It’s the philosopher’s yoga. Practitioners of Gnana Yoga use their minds as laboratories. Their main goal is to peer beyond the unreal to discover everlasting truth. They use the words Neti, Neti (not this, not that) to dive deep into the nature of existence.

Ultimate Reality

The first assumption of Gnana Yoga is that for Ultimate Reality to be real, it has to be permanent. If it changes, it is not the ultimate reality, merely relative/changing reality. Practitioners of Gnana Yoga attempt to expose the part of themselves that was never born and will never die.

Modern physics clearly shows us that material is never destroyed, only transformed. At its core, all material is energy and at the core of energy is consciousness.

When you burn a stick, you are not destroying it, only transforming it into ashes and air particles. What then is at the core of the stick? Is it wood, heat, air, ashes, energy, consciousness, or something else?

Layers of Depth

With a quick exploration of the world around us, we find that not everything is as it seems. Our senses deceive us. From our standpoint, we see a rug. When that rug is put under a microscope, we discover a forest full of organisms. If we peer deeper, we find pure energy. Being sensible (using the five senses to perceive and analyze the surrounding world) is a limited way of exploring the permanent or unchanging nature of things.

Questions to Ponder

What is real in the world? What underlying core never changes even though matter is constantly being transformed? Gnana Yoga aims to uncover this core through introspection using questions such as: Who am I? What is the nature of my mind? Where did I come from? What is ultimately real and permanent?

Gnana Yoga Prayer

Asatoma Sadgamaya
Lead me from the unreal to the real

Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya
Lead me from the darkness of ignorance
to the light of knowledge

Mrityorma Amritamgamaya
Lead me from the fear of death to
the acknowledgment of immortality

Maya = The Cosmic Illusion

What prevents Gnana Yoga practitioners from knowing their core instantly?

According to yoga philosophy, it is the seductive power of the material world, also known as Maya. Long before Albert Einstein theorized about the nature of the universe, the ancient rishis (seers) discovered that the world is a mirage, a play of lights and shadows. Today’s physicists use similar verbiage to describe the world. The material we perceive to be solid is really pure energy or 99.9999% emptiness. From a limited, time-bound standpoint, the material world is real; from a permanent or absolute standpoint, the names, forms and definitions we attach ourselves to daily are a mirage and ultimately unreal (temporary).

The seductive power of this play of lights and shadows hides the underlying truth. Our senses deceive us every waking moment. Everything we can see, touch, hear, smell or taste is bound to the impermanent constraints of time and space. Gnana Yoga focuses on peering through these mirages and discovering permanence or ultimate reality.

Courage and Discipline

At first glance, Gnana Yoga may appear simple and easy, but it takes courage and discipline to constantly face the deceptions that the mind and body perceive as true. Peering into ultimate reality may even lead to desperation and indifference. What is the point in living if everything is unreal and the world is an illusion?

Still Need to Eat and Sleep

Gnana Yoga is not about denying relative material reality. All practitioners adhere to relative natural laws, such as going to the toilet, sleeping, eating, etc. The point is to peer deeper and become aware of the underlying ultimate reality. That is why it is good for the Gnana Yoga practitioner to have a teacher or spiritual guide who has already traveled along this path. It is also wise to use the synergy of a holistic yoga practice. The love of Bhakti Yoga, the action and work of Karma Yoga and the discipline of Raja Yoga can ease the struggle when practitioners are peering through mirages to discover ultimate reality.

Awakening From a Dream

When Gnana Yoga practitioners see clearly, they awaken from a dream and find themselves to be actors on stage in a play called life. At that point, they are faced with a choice. Do they keep on acting, now aware of their real identity, or does the discovery cause them such anguish that they sit down and stop acting?

Many people have used the discovery of Maya, the world of illusion, to turn away from life and stop playing their roles. But Karma Yoga reminds us to stick to our roles, keep working without attachment, adhere to our duty, and be ever mindful that we are simply playing a role.

The role of a parent is to look after his offspring, the role of a spouse is to support his mate, the role of a child is to play and learn, the role of an employee is to work, and the role of a teacher is to teach and so on. We need all the roles to be played fully in relative reality.

Holistic Gnana Yoga practitioners keep working while simultaneously inquiring deeply into their existence.

Two mantras are specifically used in Gnana Yoga. One is So Hum, which means ‘I am that,’ and the other is Ahum Brahmasmi, which means ‘I am Brahman.’

Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Coach, and Columnist

p.s. I have taught yoga since 19998, studied with Yogi Shanti Desai and Sri Yogi Hari, and am registered at the highest level with Yoga Alliance. This article was curated from my book titled Know Thyself: Yoga Philosophy Made Accessible

Picture: CC0 License

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