Four Yogas cover

The Four Yogas

A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Meditation, and Knowledge

Swami Adiswarananda. A practitioner's guide to the four spiritual paths of karma-yoga, bhakti-yoga, raja-yoga, and jnana-yoga. In this comprehensive and accessible book, Swami Adiswarananda outlines the message and practice of each of the yogas as well as its philosophy and psychology, preparatory practices, methodical spiritual disciplines, common obstacles and ways to overcome them. This book will prove invaluable to spiritual seekers wishing to follow a yoga practice in order to reach the ultimate goal of Self-knowledge.

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From the Introduction

The philosophy of yoga tells us that the root cause of all our sorrows and sufferings is loss of contact with our true Self. This Self is called by various names, such as Atman, Purusha, and God. Our loss of contact with the Self is due to ignorance of its sole reality. Ignorance creates spiritual blindness and subjects us to a world of delusion and desire. The world becomes governed by the seemingly unending rounds of birth and death, pain and pleasure, and happiness and suffering. No material or psychological solution can dispel this ignorance. Our recovery is possible only by reestablishing contact with our true, inmost Self, the Reality of all realities. The message of yoga is that there is no escape from the Self-whether or not we are conscious of it-and that knowledge of the Self is our only savior.

No one can help us on this journey toward the Self except ourselves. Yoga philosophy prescribes four spiritual paths to attain knowledge of the Self: karma-yoga, the path of selfless action; bhakti-yoga, the path of devotion; raja-yoga, the path of concentration and meditation; and jnana-yoga, the path of knowledge and discrimination. The purpose of this guidebook is to introduce the reader to each of these paths, its message, philosophy, psychology, and practices, as well as the obstacles that may stand in the way of one who walks it.

Karma-yoga, or the yoga of selfless action, seeks to face the problem of ignorance by eradicating the ego. It is the ego, born of ignorance, that binds us to this world through attachment. The ego creates a dreamland of separative existence that disclaims the rights of others. It wants to achieve the impossible, and it desires the undesirable. Karma-yoga says that our egotistic, selfish actions have created walls around us. These walls not only set us apart from others, but they divide us from our true Self within. By performing actions in a selfless manner, we can break down the walls that separate us from the Self. The key message of karma-yoga is: Beat the inexorable law of karma by karma-yoga. Release yourself from the chains of attachment by practicing nonattachment to the results of action.

Karma-yoga believes that the ego is the sole troublemaker. But when transformed through yoga, the same ego becomes a friend and troubleshooter. The follower of karma-yoga faithfully performs his or her actions and renounces their results by making an offering of them into the fire of Self-knowledge. Swami Vivekananda, the great teacher of yoga and Vedanta, teaches us two ways of practicing karma-yoga and nonattachment:

One way is for those who do not believe in God or in any outside help. They are left to their own devices; they have simply to work with their own will, with the powers of their mind and discrimination, thinking, "I must be non-attached." For those who believe in God there is another way, which is much less difficult. They give up the fruits of work unto the Lord; they work but never feel attached to the results. Whatever they see, feel, hear, or do is for Him. Whatever good work we may do, let us not claim any praise or benefit for it. It is the Lord's; give up the fruits unto Him.[i]

Bhakti-yoga is the process of inner purification. The message of bhakti-yoga is that love is the most basic human emotion. In its purest form, love is cosmocentric and divinely inspired. But because of the intervention of the ego, love becomes egocentric, obstructing the free flow of love toward the Divine. Lust, anger, jealousy, and greed are the negative emotions created by the impure ego. Bhakti-yoga asks us to purify and transform our egotistic self-love by pouring holy thoughts into our mind and transferring all our love and emotions to God, knowing that God is the only one who truly loves us. Pouring holy thoughts into the mind is accomplished through prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of holy words, keeping holy company, and studying holy texts. When such holy thoughts are poured into the mind, all unholy and impure thoughts are naturally washed out. The follower of bhakti-yoga establishes a loving relationship with God and eventually realizes God in everything and everywhere. As Swami Vivekananda says:

We all have to begin as dualists in the religion of love. God is to us a separate Being, and we feel ourselves to be separate beings also. Love then comes between, and man begins to approach God; and God also comes nearer and nearer to man. Man takes up all the various relationships of life-such as father, mother, son, friend, master, lover-and projects them on his ideal of love, on his God. To him God exists as all these. And the last point of his progress is reached when he feels that he has become absolutely merged in the object of his worship.[ii]

Raja-yoga seeks to attain the Divine by igniting the flame of knowledge of the Self within. Since it is ignorance that binds the human soul to the world of dreams and desires, only Self-realization can dispel this ignorance. To attain Self-knowledge, raja-yoga asks the seeker to develop strong will power by the relentless practices of concentration and meditation on the Self, with the support of pranayama, or control of breath, asana, or control of posture, and an uncompromising adherence to austerity and self-control.

According to raja-yoga, eradication of the ego through karma-yoga is a long process, and most seekers do not have the patience to endure the sacrifice it calls for; bhakti-yoga requires abiding faith in the love of God, which is not always possible for an average seeker. Raja-yoga contends that the mind is generally too weak and perverted to follow the path of reason, or jnana-yoga (see below). Impurities of the mind are too deeply imbedded and cannot be uprooted simply by reason. Raja-yoga asks the seeker to confront the deep-rooted tendencies and restlessness of the mind by cultivating a single thought reminiscent of the Divine. Swami Vivekananda says:

When, by analyzing his own mind, a man comes face to face, as it were, with something which is never destroyed, something which is, by its own nature, eternally pure and perfect [the Self], he will no more be miserable, no more be unhappy. All misery comes from fear, from unsatisfied desire. When a man finds that he never dies, he will then have no more fear of death. When he knows he is perfect, he will have no more vain desires. And both these causes being absent, there will be no more misery; there will be perfect bliss, even in this body.[iii]

Jnana-yoga is the path of knowledge. The darkness of ignorance can only be dispelled by the light of knowledge. Knowledge, according to jnana-yoga, has two aspects: fire and light. The fire of knowledge burns all the impurities of our mind, and simultaneously, knowledge enlightens our inner consciousness. But Self-knowledge does not come by itself. It calls for the practice of discrimination between the real and the unreal, renunciation of all desires-both earthly and heavenly-mastery over the mind and senses, and an intense longing for Self-knowledge.

The psychology of jnana-yoga tells us that we cannot generate spirituality by artificial means. The mind does not give up its attachment to worldly pleasures unless it has tasted something greater and higher. The Self is revealed in the mirror of the mind that has become purified through self-control and austerity. The method of jnana-yoga is to persuade the seeker that his or her sole identity is the Self. By hearing about the Self, reading about the Self, thinking about the Self, and meditating on the Self, the mind gradually realizes that the Self is the only reality in this universe and that all else is unreal.

As the seeker in the path of jnana-yoga progresses toward the Self, he or she begins to taste the bliss of the Self and gain faith in its reality. Self-knowledge, according to jnana-yoga, is true liberation. As Shankaracharya, the foremost proponent of nondualistic Vedanta, describes in his "Six Stanzas on Nirvana":

Death or fear have I none, nor any distinction of caste;
Neither father nor mother, nor even a birth, have I;
Neither friend nor comrade, neither disciple nor guru:
I am Eternal Bliss and Awareness - I am Siva! I am Siva!*

I have no form or fancy: the All-pervading am I;
Everywhere I exist, and yet am beyond the senses;
Neither salvation am I, nor anything to be known;
I am Eternal Bliss and Awareness - I am Siva! I am Siva![iv]

Each seeker is called upon to decide which yoga best corresponds to his or her natural disposition. Karma-yoga is advised for the active, bhakti-yoga for the devotional, raja-yoga for the strong-willed, and jnana-yoga for the rational. Traditionally, the seeker may ask for the guidance of an illumined teacher already perfect in yoga; an enlightened teacher will be able to advise which path a seeker is to follow and prescribe specific practices suitable to his or her natural disposition.

Swami Vivekananda emphasized that any seeker may become established in one of the four paths or harmonize them in everyday practice. The goal of all four yogas is freedom from the assumed bondage of the mind and realization of our true identity-the ever pure, immortal Self, which is non-different from the universal Self, or the Ultimate Reality. Sri Ramakrishna, the prophet of nineteenth-century India, says, "The mind of the yogi is always fixed on God, always absorbed in the Self."[v]

Yoga must be practiced vigorously and fearlessly. Swami Vivekananda advises:

[The] various yogas do not conflict with each other; each of them leads us to the same goal and makes us perfect; only each has to be strenuously practiced. The whole secret is in practicing. First you have to hear, then think, and then practice. This is true of every yoga. You have first to hear about it and understand what it is; and many things which you do not understand will be made clear to you by constantly hearing and thinking. It is hard to understand everything at once. The explanation of everything is after all in your self. No one is ever really taught by another; each of us has to teach himself. The external teacher offers only the suggestion, which arouses the internal teacher, who helps us to understand things. Then things will be made clearer to us by our own power of perception and thought, and we shall realize them in our own souls; and that realization will grow into intense power of will.[vi]

Be not afraid of anything. You will do marvelous work. The moment you fear, you are nobody. It is fear that is the great cause of misery in the world. It is fear that is the greatest of all superstitions. It is fear that is the cause of our woes, and it is fearlessness that brings heaven even in a moment. Therefore, "Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached."[vii]

The present book describes in detail the philosophy, psychology, and methods of practice in the four yogas. It offers a comparative study of the four yogas, their points of agreement and their differences. Special attention has been paid to the pitfalls, roadblocks, and obstacles a seeker is likely to encounter in his or her practice of yoga and also the means to overcome them and realize the goal.

* Siva is the destroyer god, the third person of the Hindu Trinity. Siva is also the symbol of the sannyasin, of renunciation, and of Brahman (Ultimate Reality), whose nature is that of Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.


[i] Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: Yogas and Other Works (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1996), p. 499.

[ii] Ibid., p. 454.

[iii] Ibid., p. 582.

[iv] Quoted in Swami Nikhilananda, trans., Self-knowledge (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1989), p. 217.

[v] Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 2000), p 113.

[vi] Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: Yogas and Other Works, 1996, p. 493-4

[vii] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 3 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1973), p. 321.

About the author

Swami Adiswarananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order of India, is the Minister and Spiritual Leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. A noted writer and speaker, he is the author of The Spiritual Quest and the Way of Yoga: The Goal, the Journey and the Milestones; The Vedanta Way to Peace and Happiness; and Meditation and Its Practices: A Definitive Guide to Techniques and Traditions of Meditation in Yoga and Vedanta (both SkyLight Paths). He is also the editor of Sri Ramakrishna, the Face of Silence and Sri Sarada Devi, The Holy Mother: Her Teachings and Conversations (SkyLight Paths).


The clearest, most user-friendly and most practical exposition of Hinduism's four spiritual paths that I have ever read. Profound and exceptionally articulate ... leads the reader, step by step."— Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies, Florida International University

A precious spiritual transmission with the power to help you live a more conscious, fulfilled life. With clarity and precision ... makes ancient yogic principles thoroughly accessible for modern times. A gift to the world."— Joan Borysenko, PhD, author of A Woman's Journey to God

Approachable and compelling ... dispels many myths about the Yogic way.... Combines the keen observation and analytical skills of a scientist with the transcendent wisdom of a spiritual master."— Ray Kurzweil, inventor, scientist, and author of The Singularity is Near

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