The Pathless Path – Distilling the Essence of the 4 Yogas
At the very core of yogic philosophy, like a life-giving seed in the center of a sweet fruit, are the teachings on the 4 noble paths of yoga.
Yet, the subtleties and nuances of these profound teachings are often very evasive and often misunderstood, because, like all yogic knowledge, all diversity must ultimately reconcile into Oneness. As such, to really understand and integrate the teachings of the 4 paths, the mature seeker must be able to penetrate into the heart of the teachings by distilling the truth from the appearance.
One must be able to simultaneously hold the vision of Unity, while acknowledging the appearance of diversity.
This divine paradox is everywhere in the life a yogi, and must be confronted in the profound teachings upon how the four are One, and ultimately how the One is everything, yet no-thing at the same time.
An Overview of the 4 Noble Paths
Traditionally the 4 paths of yoga are grouped as the way of self-less service (karma yoga), the way of devotion (bhakti yoga), the way of self-discipline (raja yoga) and the way of wisdom (jnana yoga).
Each path has its own philosophical base, as well as complimentary practices which are designed to bring the sublime philosophy to life. Theory alone is not enough, and only through the continual application of each path’s yogic practices will the direct experiences of its truths be brought about.
Though all 4 paths have the same goal, Self-Realization or enlightenment, they each have a unique set of practices by which to actualize this ultimate aim of human life. The diversity of the practices simply exists to meet the unique temperaments of each human mind.
In the same way that each one of us likes different flavors of ice cream, so too will we have certain spiritual practices that are more paletteable than others. Each one of us is psychologically hardwired differently, having certain preferences and aversions which manifest in our spiritual life.
For example, when any given group of people are asked:
"Who likes vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or rocky road?"
A number of individuals will raise their hands for each taste, and some will even vote more than once.
The 4 paths of yoga are the same – they are like 4 flavors of the same thing. Certain people will be more devotional, contemplative, selfless or apt towards self-discipline. Some people are even capable of having more than one of these virtues manifest simultaneously.
As we mature and evolve, so too do our spiritual taste buds grow to love flavors previously unknown or even learn to love that which was distasteful before.
Yet at the most fundamental level, just like ice cream is simply flavored milk, so too the 4 paths of yoga are actually one homogenous whole. Though these 4 categories appear different and unique, in theory & practices, at their core they are only 4 ways of looking at the same one thing.
Like a chemist who wishes to see the essential make up of a compound, must first distill its parts, to understand the 4 yogas we must do the same. In this way a closer examination of the 4 paths will reveal that they are actually only 3 real paths, then 2, then 1; until even the 1 dissolves into its source.
The Real Role of Karma Yoga
Though karma yoga is traditionally grouped as one of the 4 paths of liberation, it is not exactly a “yoga” per se. In the strictest sense the path of karma yoga is not capable of giving one the sublime experience of Unity, because no action, be it selfish or selfless can produce liberation.
Freedom is completely independent of action (karma) and there is nothing that can be done to bring it about – as it always exists. By definition liberation or the Samadhi state is a state of complete inactivity – not the outcome of any cause, because it is free of karma (the cycle of cause and effect). In this ego-less state there is no individual capable of doing anything – there is no action, no karma. It is a state of complete stillness and rest.
It is for this reason that great sages like Ramana Maharshi, in his brilliant text Upadesa Saram, wrote that:
“Activity is obstructive to liberation, as any results obtained are impermanent, thus creating more bondage”
(Upadesa Saram, Verse 2)
“…only by the knowledge of the Self; proceeded by the renunciation of ALL activities, and not by any other means”
(Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, Chapter 2 | Verses 1-10)
Whether one’s activities are labeled positive or negative, pure or unpure, selfless or selfish is immaterial, as the non-dual Self is unaffected by such distinctions.
Does this then mean that one can do exactly what one pleases with no regard to the outcome of their actions – including those that cause pain and sorrow to others?
Of course not, because the law of karma has it such that every cause has an effect. Any negative (adharmic) action will inevitably have sorrow, suffering and pain as the outcome to be experienced by the doer of such action.
So it is clear that it is in one’s best interests to act out of altruism in order to avoid future sorrow.
As such the teachings of karma yoga, which emphasize the accumulation of punya or good merit (aka “good karma”) are here to help us grow in dharma by planting the seeds (causes) that will one day help us reap the harvest of a pure mind (effect).
It is for this reason that Ramana Maharshi further states in his Upadesa Saram that the path of karma yoga is to purify the mind; that it is only “a means towards liberation.”
“Actions done while remembering the One and without a desire for their intended results, purify the mind and are a means towards liberation“
(Upadesa Saram, Verse 3)
Karma yoga, in and of itself, cannot grant one liberation. It is simply a body of teachings, a means, that help transform one’s egoic outlook into a higher level of perception that purifies the mind.
In this way, karma yoga can only take us to the level of mental purification and is not a “yoga” capable of giving liberation per se.
Raja Yoga – The Way Self-Mastery
In this way, we have eliminated the path of karma yoga as a method of direct liberation – as it only aids in the awakening to Truth, yet is incapable of directly granting it.
Likewise the remaining 3 paths require deeper investigation.
Upon a closer examination we can see that the path of raja yoga stands alone in its emphasis upon the use of force to bring about spiritual illumination.
In this particular methodology, which highlights the practices of asana, pranayama and meditation, the seeker is asked to perform many heroic acts that require immense self-discipline and will. This can include the application of techniques like forceful breath control, long periods of seated meditation, chakra cleansing and other techniques focused on the direct awakening of kundalini.
As such, this pathway to liberation can be regarded as a solar or masculine approach; as its emphasis on force and self-mastery is immense.
Bhakti & Jnana Yoga – The Way of Surrender
In contrast, the paths of devotion (bhakti) and wisdom (jnana) require no such force. The central teachings of both ask the seeker to softly surrender and yield to what IS.
Bhakti yoga asks for a passive submission to a higher power. It teaches us to focus on an ideal of perfection and worship our Beloved by surrendering into the sublime flow of Divine Grace.
There is no room for the ego to assert itself in bhakti.
Everything is centered upon letting go and falling in love with LOVE itself.
Likewise, jnana yoga also teaches that the ego actually doesn’t exist. As such, there is no individual really capable of controlling or influencing anything.
Everything is the One Supreme Consciousness – One, without a second.
Through deep inquiry into the source of the ego itself, it spontaneously dissolves into the Bliss of Pure Consciousness.
Here too, there is no force used to bring about this awakening. One simply learns to accept Reality as it is; without trying to change or modify anything, including the prana, nadis, chakras, etc.
In this way, we can see that ultimately bhakti and jnana are not different. The devotion of the seeker yields wisdom, and wisdom is actually a state of supreme devotion (para bhakti).
Though at first it may appear that the dualistic teachings of the devotee (bhakta) are radically opposed to the non-dual teachings of a sage (jnani), they ultimately meet.
The main distinction is only upon the object of surrender. The bhakta prefers a form, while the jnani prefers the formless.
Regardless of the approach, they are like 2 wings of a dove that needs both to fly to freedom.
The nature of these 2 pathways is lunar & feminine, and in the final analysis are one and the same. Together, this one path of complete surrender, born out of devotion and wisdom, is the path of the Heart.
Maha Yoga – The Great Union
At this stage whether one takes either the solar path of force (raja) or the lunar path of surrender (bhakti/jnana), again is ultimately immaterial.
The final conclusion all the great saints and sages agree that there is simply one underlying Truth that pervades All.
Though it is commonly said that:
the Truth is One, yet the paths are many
It is important to understand that this idea is simply meant to foster tolerance and highlight the effectiveness of the various techniques to liberation.
So long as one is bound, one will will see diversity and need to find ways to reconcile differences into a harmonious balance. From this relative viewpoint, whereby one feels bound, this teaching is helpful (albeit limited).
However, when One has a vision of Unity, where there is only the absolute view of the Blissful Oneness, where can separation exist?
Where are can multiple paths to Truth exist? Truth is Truth. It itself is the path and the destination.
What initially appears as the 4 noble paths of yoga is exactly that – an appearance. In truth there are no paths, there is only Truth, only One Reality, only Supreme Bliss. Know this and be free.
In the same way that Love is simply Love – one without a second. So too the path of yoga is undividable.
You cannot divide true love. By its very nature it is boundless, inseparable, uncontainable.
We all feel the essence of love in the same way, irrespective of its intensity.
The love that flows from a mother to her child is no different than the love that is shared between a lover and their beloved.
The Sun shines it’s light upon all, indiscriminately.
The path of yoga is the Love – it is the Light. Learn to look through the eyes of love; don’t focus on whether the ray of light has a red, blue or green hue.
See Oneness everywhere, and be free of the sorrow born of separation.
The teachings upon the 4 noble paths of yoga are meant for beginners. For those steeped in the misery of duality and seeking a way to be free. These teachings help us foster tolerance and harmony with each other in the midst of mind-made human diversity.
From the absolute view, there is only One Yoga, One Light, One Love, One Path.
Advaita – The Non-Dual Truth
Ultimately even the concept of Oneness must too be dropped, because to really practice yoga – to be in a state of Unity – no thought, idea nor concept can penetrate into the stillness of Pure Being. From this vantage point all notions of duality and non-duality dissolve; leaving only a blissful silence that is similar to the feeling one has after climbing to the summit of a very high mountain.
There are many ascents up to the top of that mountain. Yet, from the very summit, after the final step has been taken and there is nowhere else to climb that is higher, you stand upon a pathless path.
Looking down at the vast terrain below, watching all the other pilgrims climbing, you realize that what you once called a “path” up the mountain was actually the mountain itself.