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IV. The Bhagavad-Gita and the Four Paths

By the end of the Vedic period Hinduism seems to be sending “mixed signals.”  On the one hand, the Upanishads seem to recommend withdrawing from the world.  This path of renunciation and inaction is thought to be necessary for one to realize one’s true nature and to prevent the accumulation of negative karma.  On the other hand, the Vedas along with the Code of Manu insist that one must act in order to maintain society.  One must therefore perform the duties specific to one’s caste regardless of consequences. The solution to this dilemma is set form in the four paths described in the Bhagavad-Gita.

A. The Bhagavad-Gita

 The Mahabharata is an extremely long epic that tells of a period of civil war. It was composed between 400 BCE and 400 CE.   The 18th book of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita ("song of the supreme/exalted one") which tells the story of Vishnu who incarnates as Krishna, the charioteer for Arjuna.  Arjuna reluctant to go to war against members of his own family because of the negative karma that his actions will create. Krishna responds by providing a concise summary of Vedic teachings. In addition to insisting that in every situation one must do his duty, Krishna sets forth four paths that one may follow. Each of these paths is referred to as a spiritual discipline or yoga. i
B. The Four Paths

1. Karma Yoga

  • Description: The way of action: service rendered without any interest in its effects and without any personal sense of giving.
  • This task is accomplished by detachment, namely, the detachment of one's Self (one's atman) from one's actions.
  • In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna advises: “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action.”
  • Goal: overcome negative karma. 

Karma Yoga is exemplified in another epic known as the Ramayana. The Ramayana  was composed between 400-200 BCE. It tells of how Vishnu incarnates himself as Lord Rama to kill Ravana (10 headed demon king of Sri Lanka) and rescue his wife, Sita.  The point of the Ramayana is that Rama and Sita are faithful to the duties imposed upon them – even when logic suggests it would be better to follow a different course. In other words, they perform their duties without concern for the consequences.

(Just for fun! See the Comic book type adaptation of the Ramayana  ) 

2. Jnana Yoga

  • Description: Through knowledge and insight one can distinguish between the eternal Self and the temporary one. Once this is achieved, then there is nothing that separates the Self (the atman) from Brahman.

  • Jnana Yoga is exemplified in the philosophical systems of Hinduism.  Although there are six systems, we will consider only two.

a. Samkhya
  • Considered to be pre-Vedic
  • Two states of reality:
    • Purusha -the Self - eternally wise, pure beyond change. (Notice that purusha is used here to mean something other than the cosmic being whom the gods sacrificed to make the world.
    • Prakriti - cause of material universe
  • Main idea: All suffering stems from confusing the two states of reality. Forgetting the heights from which we have come and becoming intent on the joys and sorrows of earthly life.

b. Advaita Vedanta

  • Based upon the Upanishads
  • Monistic: atman and Brahman are actually one: waves are not distinct from the ocean.
  • Material life is an illusion:  Maya - power by which the Absolute veils itself.

3.  Raja Yoga

  • The way  of meditation, that is, of being able to remove one's own consciousness from its awareness of this world of maya (illusion) and to focus only on the ultimate reality of the cosmos' unity.
  • Ultimate Goal is samadhi "a super-conscious state of Union with the Absoltue.
  • Exemplified in the Yoga Suras of Pantajali. Describe physical and ethical disciplines required to reach samadhi.

4. Bhakti Yoga:

  • Description: Bhakti can be defines as intense devotion to a personal manifestation of Brahman. Thus bhakti yoga is the way of devotion to a god, or, more precisely, the path of the love of a god.

  • The goal is communion with and nearness to the deity. Significantly, intense devotion to a god was thought to somehow "short circuit" the process of karma-samsara:  as a reward for one's devotion, the god would deliver his followers from the ongoing cycle of birth and death.

  • The Bhagavad-Gita considers bhakti to be the best course for the present age: According to Krishna, “Those who worship me, thinking solely of me, always disciplined, win the reward I secure.”

Bhakti is exemplified in a collections of stories known as the Puranas. The Puranas were committed to writing between 500 – 1500 CE. The most important stories of the Puranas describe how Krishna (Vishnu incarnate) as a mischievous, fun loving, youth  wins the love of many women. Their devotion to him and their sorrow in his absence become a model of bhakti.  .

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