Jñana Yoga: The Path of Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita


Wisdom. We admire it, respect it, and pray for it. On the path of jñana yoga—the path of wisdom—some even work for it. But jñana yoga is probably the least familiar of the paths of yoga, and few of us could explain precisely what a jñana yogi does. From a yogic perspective, what exactly is the path of wisdom?

To begin, jñana yoga is not information gathering. The cartoon characters we are all familiar with—hopeful seekers struggling up mountainsides to reach a guru’s cave—are not simply looking for a guru who knows a lot. Even knowledge of scriptures is just a starting point in the search for wisdom. In jñana yoga knowledge is, at best, the bone around which the flesh and blood of wisdom takes shape.

Dictionaries explain that wisdom is an “understanding of what is true, right, or lasting; the intellectual power to decide wisely.” Wisdom is displayed in “common sense, good judgment, the sum of learning and experience, wise teachings of the ancient sages, and a wise outlook.”

Here’s a simple example. Recently my wife suggested that checking my email before breakfast was unwise. Wisdom, she concluded, was making breakfast a priority. That was good sense derived from a wife’s learning and experience.

A classic Western example of wisdom can be found in Socrates, the Greek mystic and philosopher. Given the choice of escaping from his Athenian prison or facing his own death if he remained incarcerated, Socrates chose to spend his last days in jail, where he discoursed with friends about the meaning of life. He held the conviction that life is meant for sharpening the eye of the soul, a better and more permanent instrument with which to see truth than the eyes of the body, and he believed that an escape would belie the fundamental premise of his teaching.

 This theme is fundamental to the Bhagavad Gita as well. There, Krishna explains to his disciple Arjuna that he “will reveal again a supreme wisdom, of all wisdom the highest.” And so in the final six chapters of the Gita he lays out the makings and characteristics of the path of jñana yoga. 

The Meaning of the Word

Let’s start with the word jñana, which, like many Sanskrit words, can prove difficult to translate.  The problem lies in the tiny root jña. It may mean, variously, to know, perceive, apprehend, understand, experience, recognize, ascertain, or investigate.

Perhaps because these definitions have so many associations, contemporary yoga teachers often describe the path of jñana yoga as a path for intellectuals—for the scholarly among us—and leave it at that. But it is a mistake to limit this path too quickly to those with high IQs or a tendency to inhabit research libraries. We are all searching for wisdom, and at some deep level of ourselves we sense that this is the purpose of yoga.

In other words, in a yogic context jñana is the wisdom derived from direct acquaintance with the Self.

The word jñana is defined more clearly in a dictionary compiled by the great Sanskritist M. Monier Williams. The definition reads: “knowing, becoming acquainted with, knowledge, (especially) the higher knowledge (derived from meditation on the one Universal Spirit).” In other words, in a yogic context jñana is the wisdom derived from direct acquaintance with the Self.

Most people find the consonant combination  awkward to pronounce. Even among Indian speakers there are differing pronunciations. The sound is derived originally from the combination gn (also found, but no longer vocalized, in the English word gnostic). A satisfactory pronunciation of the word jñana starts with a hard g and combines with yawn to produce gyawna.

The Field and the Knower of the Field

Next let’s look at the details. The concept of wisdom implies that there are things to be wise about. Krishna describes two such “things”: first, an individual’s relationship with a “field,” a living body/mind, and second, that same individual’s relationship with the ultimate knower of all fields, the supreme Spirit.

We’ll start with the field—the body/mind. Here is Krishna’s list of its components:

The five elements, the ego, the intellect, unmanifest nature, the five cognitive senses, the five active senses, the lower mind which coordinates the senses, the five fields of sense perception; desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, the aggregate of the body/mind, sentience, and courage: this is the field and its modifications. (Bhagavad Gita 3:6–7)

The five elements are earth, water, fire, air, and ether (or pure space)—constituents of the body that are also reflected in psychological functioning. Ego is the sense of self-identity. The intellect is the higher mind, the part of the mind that is capable of decision-making and self-observation (the buddhi). Unmanifest nature is composed of three gunas, three attributes of energy which are interwoven to form the substrate of all manifest things. The operations of the five cognitive senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing) and the five active senses (manipulation, locomotion, evacuation, procreation, and speech), coordinated with the activities of the lower mind, form the bulk of everyday conscious experience. The fields of sense perception are taste, tangibility, form, smell, and sound. These twenty-four categories are known collectively as prakriti in Sankhya philosophy (the branch of philosophy associated with yoga).

Krishna lists seven more dimensions of personality: likes and dislikes, the experiences of pleasure and pain, the sense of oneself as a whole being (an aggregate of elements contained under one roof of personal awareness), the awareness of oneself as a living, feeling organism, and the presence of states of mind, such as courage (just one example among the many Krishna might have chosen).

Krishna explains, however, that despite appearances, none of these elements of personality are themselves self-aware. Each of them, including the mind, is an object that is known and experienced by the subject—an unchanging, individual consciousness. Within the human personality it alone is the “knower of the field,” called purusha in the Sankhya system.

Every human being, then, is an aggregate of a field (prakriti) and a field-knower (purusha), a body/mind and a consciousness that is woven within it. In the following verse Krishna summarizes the two:

Prakriti is the cause of activity: the doer, the means of doing, and the thing done. Purusha [alone, in its relationship with prakriti] is the cause of the apperception of experience as pleasurable and painful. (13:20)

Thus, while nature weaves an unending fabric of action and reaction, only the life-force (consciousness) senses this experience as pleasant or painful, and thus gives it the semblance of life.

But in what sense can any of us attain wisdom in relation to these components of human life? Krishna responds that the intrinsic nature of consciousness (purusha) is bliss, but that its relationship with prakriti’s ceaseless activity leads it to habitually turn outward—and in the process, it forgets its true nature. This is the fundamental spiritual dilemma. Conditioned by experience, consciousness does not see itself, and therefore it becomes enmeshed in the endless modifications of prakriti. Spiritual freedom is the liberation of purusha from this self-forgetfulness and from its consequent attachment to worldly joys and sorrows.

So now we have some clues about the path of wisdom which Krishna has begun to show us. Wisdom is any choice or action that places our knowledge of the two aspects of human life in the service of the quintessential purpose of life: to lessen, and ultimately dissolve, the bondage of purusha to prakriti.

Sorting Life Out

Suppose, for example, that we have become enamored of tobacco. We think of ourself as “someone who enjoys an occasional smoke.” At a subtle level, however, we treat this tendency as part of our identity and feel that smoking has become intrinsic to us. “I am a smoker,” we declare.

According to Krishna, this is a case of false identification. The qualities of liking and disliking are not inherent; they are attitudes of mind. They can be reviewed, explored, and modified. They are part of the field, not part of the knower of the field.

It takes little imagination to see that if personal likes or dislikes are not inherent to our identity, then other ways in which we form identities may be suspect as well. For example: Am I fat? Or, rather, is my body overweight? As another example: Am I overwhelmed by sorrow? Or, rather, have the events of life and my reactions to them overwhelmed my mind with sadness?

The more keenly we perceive the difference between awareness that “I am” and the experience that “I am passing through,” the more wisely will we direct our thoughts and actions. We may choose not to waste energy in a dark depression when a little sadness will do. And we may whittle down our frustrations regarding what we don’t have, with contentment for what we do have. Increasingly, we learn to enjoy life without depending upon it for happiness, for we know that joy is already ours.

 This is the beginning of the path of wisdom.

Knowing the Self

In the Gita, Krishna describes such a relationship when he declares that pure consciousness is the simultaneous knower of every field. It is the Self dwelling in every self.

The heart of the jñana yoga path carries us even further. It evolves out of the relationship between purusha and what is often referred to as the Self (with a capital S). In the Gita, Krishna describes such a relationship when he declares that pure consciousness is the simultaneous knower of every field. It is the Self dwelling in every self. Krishna frequently speaks about it in the first person:

In whatever form the many beings are born, Arjuna, know that I am the Father whose seed, planted in the great womb of nature, gives life. (14:4)

A spark of my eternal Spirit becomes in this world a living soul; and this draws around its center the five senses and the mind resting in nature. (15:7)

Krishna likens the relationship between individual consciousness and the Self as one between a virtual reality and a deeper awareness in which individuals have their being.

God dwells in the heart of all beings, Arjuna. And his mysterious power moves all things. (18:61)

Writers on jñana yoga often liken ignorance of the Self to a factory manager who fails to communicate with the owner of the factory. The manager begins to behave as if he, himself, were the owner, and in the process the relationship between the manager and owner is undermined. Out of ignorance, the manager becomes arrogant, selfish, and blind to the real purpose of the factory’s work.

In the human personality, the ego serves as the manager. It is the ego which must ultimately coordinate the functions of the mind and body, and in the process it must expand its own vision of reality. When the ego is blinded by attachment and unable to disengage itself from its own sense of self-importance, our perceptions of a higher reality dim.

But the path of jñana yoga leads toward realization of the Self. It restores balance and harmony to the ego and nourishes the individual consciousness in a manner in which the world cannot.

Meditation and contemplation both foster realization of the Self. In meditation we create a strong inner center from which we are able to witness the distinctions between consciousness and the field of consciousness. In contemplation we reflect on the temporary nature of life and clarify for ourselves the nature of consciousness. Each method reduces the painful enmeshment of Self and non-self, and leads to a direct experience of reality.

But perhaps now we should let the Gita speak for itself. Two selections from its final chapters follow, each illustrating the manner in which the mind is made transparent and a union with higher consciousness is achieved on the path of jñana yoga.

Humility, sincerity, non-violence, patience, virtue, devotion to the spiritual teacher, purity, stability, self-control;

Dispassion toward the objects of the senses, absence of egotism, keeping in view the sorrows of birth, death, old age, disease, and suffering;

Non-attachment, not clinging even to one’s child, wife, home, and the like; and a constant even-mindedness regarding pleasant or unpleasant experiences;

Unswerving devotion to me, relying upon yoga, preferring solitary places, and disliking the excessive company of others;

Constantly engaged in the knowledge of the Self, keeping the goals of truth and Self-knowledge in sight; this is the path of wisdom. Anything opposed to this is ignorance. (13:7–11) 

United with a pure mind and inner life, and firmly maintaining self-control; renouncing the objects of the senses beginning with sound, and rejecting attachment and hatred;

Dwelling in the solitude of the spirit, eating in proportion, bringing control to thoughts, words, and actions; perpetually devoted to the yoga of meditation, taking refuge in dispassion;

Relinquishing egotism, violence, and self-centered arrogance; abandoning craving, anger, and the selfish power of possessiveness; unselfish and resting in the peace of the supreme vision—such a person is fit for oneness with Brahman.

One with Brahman, serene within himself, he does not grieve nor does he crave; equally impartial in his love for all beings, he attains supreme devotion to Me.

By his devotion he comes to realize the fullness of who I am; then, having realized the truth of My Being, he enters into Me in that fullness. (18:51–55)

We have just seen the two grand themes of jñana yoga. The first shows us how wisdom develops through discrimination between the field and the inner knower of the field, between the body/mind and individual consciousness. The second shows us how the limited sense of I, reflected by the ego, is gradually replaced by a limitless vision of the Self.

With these two themes in mind you will be able to follow Krishna’s words in the final chapters of the Gita.  But it would be a mistake to imagine that we have exhausted Krishna’s teachings. There are many more discoveries to be made, and since this column is devoted to practice, I will leave it to you to make them. I hope you will read chapters 13 through 18 of the Gita, and discover the path of wisdom for yourself.

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more