The Four Paths of Yoga
Jnana, Raja, Karma & Bhakti
 
From ancient times, people of the Indian subcontinent have practiced spiritual disciplines designed to clear the mind and support a state of serene, detached awareness. The practices for developing this desired state of balance, purity, wisdom, and peacefulness of mind are known collectively as yoga. It means “yoke” or “union” — referring to union with the true Self, the goal described in the Upanishads. While to many Westerners the term “yoga” may evoke images of stretches and poses for relaxation, the forms of yoga developed in India involve far more.
The sages distinguished four basic types of people and developed yogic practices that are particularly suitable for each type, in order that each can attain the desired union with the Self. For meditative people, there is raja yoga, the path of mental concentration. For rational people, there is jnana yoga, the path of rational inquiry. For naturally active people, there is karma yoga, the path of right action. For emotional people, there is bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. (Living Religions, 89)
 
The path of rational inquiry — jnana yoga — employs the rational mind rather than trying to transcend it by concentration practices. In this path, ignorance is considered the root of all problems. Our basic ignorance is our idea of our selves as being separate from the Absolute. One method is continually to ask, “Who am I?” The seeker discovers that the one who asks the question is not the body, not the senses, not the mind, but something eternal beyond all these. The guru Maharshi explains:
 

After negating [one’s identity with the body, the senses, and the mind] as “not this,” “not this,” that Awareness which alone remains — that I am. ...
 
 
The thought “Who am I?” will destroy all other thoughts, and, like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization. (Living Religions, 91)


II. Raja Yoga
The “Royal” Discipline

The term Raja Yoga refers to various systems (such as those described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the later system known as Kundalini) that focus on the use of techniques (including the adoption of physical postures, breath control, mantras and visualization) to bring the mind to a state of one-pointed concentration, known as samadhi, in which union with the absolute is attained.
 
The ultimate goal of yogic meditation is samadhi: a super-conscious state of union with the Absolute. Swami Sivananda attempts to describe it:
 
Words and language are imperfect to describe this exalted state. ... Mind, intellect and the senses cease functioning. ... It is a state of eternal Bliss and eternal Wisdom. All dualities vanish in toto. ... All visible merge in the invisible or the Unseen. The individual soul becomes that which he contemplates. (Living Religions, 90)
 
In contrast to [the] ascetic and contemplative practices [of Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga], another way is that of helpful action in the world. Karma yoga is service rendered without any interest in its fruits or results and without any personal sense of giving. The yogi knows that the Absolute performs all actions, and all actions are gifts to the Absolute. This consciousness leads to liberation from the self in the very midst of work. (Living Religions, 91)
 

At the heart of Karma Yoga is the varnasrama-dharma system, which focuses on the performance of actions in accordance with the duties (dharma) associated with one’s caste (varna) and stage of life (asrama). By acting in accordance with the principles of varnasrama-dharma, one gradually works through the four stages of life (student, householder, forest-dweller, renunciate) and four modes of rebirth (shudra, vaishya, kshatriya, and brahmin) towards ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth (moksha).
 
 
Duties of the Four Castes
Anthology of Living Religions, 70-1 (Manu Smrti)
For the sake of the preservation of this entire creation, [Purusha], the exceedingly resplendent one, assigned separate duties to the classes which had sprung from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet.
Teaching, studying, performing sacrificial rites, so too making others perform sacrificial rites, and giving away and receiving gifts — these he assigned to the brahmans.
Protection of the people, giving away of wealth, performance of sacrificial rites, study, and nonattachment to sensual pleasures — these are, in short, the duties of a kshatriya.
Tending of cattle, giving away of wealth, performance of sacrificial rites, study, trade and commerce, usury, and agriculture — these are the occupations of a vaishya.
The Lord has prescribed only one occupation for a shudra, namely, service without malice of even these other three classes.

The Four Stages of Life
Ashramas

The process of attaining spiritual realization or liberation is thought to take at least a lifetime, and probably many lifetimes. Birth as a human being is prized as a chance to advance toward spiritual perfection. In the past, spirtual training was usually available to upper-caste males only; women and shudras were excluded. Spirtual training for men has historically been preceded by an initiation ceremony in which the boy received the sacred thread, a cord of three threads to be worn across the chest from the left shoulder.
       A Brahmin male’s lifespan was ideally divided into four periods of approximately twenty-five years each. For the first twenty-five years he is a chaste student at the feet of a teacher. Next comes the householder stage, during which he is expected to marry, raise a family, and contribute productively to society. After this period, he starts to detach himself from worldly pursuits and to turn to meditation and scriptural study. By the age of seventy-five, he is able to withdraw from society and become a sannyasin. 
(Living Religions, 97)

As with the other three disciplines, Bhakti Yoga is based on the fundamental Upanishadic insight, namely the identity of the individual  soul (atman) and the Universal Soul (Brahman). However, while the paths of “wisdom” (Jnana Yoga) and “meditation” (Raja Yoga) require intense effort, and the path of “action” (Karma Yoga) ultimately requires relinquishing all attachment to the self, Bhakti Yoga relies only on devotion to a chosen deity. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna presents this devotional approach as the ideal path to liberation from the cycle of rebirth (moksha), for it is open to all (regardless of caste or gender) and requires only that the devotee (bhakta) perform all actions in a spirit of service to God.
 
 
I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form. All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them. Behold my divine mystery!
... The foolish do not look beyond physical appearances to see my true nature as the Lord of all creation. The knowledge of such deluded people is empty; their lives are fraught with disaster and evil and their work and hopes are all in vain.
       But truly great souls seek my divine nature. They worship me with a one-pointed mind, having realized that I am the eternal source of all. Constantly striving, they make firm their resolve and worship me without wavering. Full of devotion, they sing of my divine glory. ...
       Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart
a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water — I partake of that love offering. Whatever you do, make it an offering to me — the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.
       I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. But those who worship me with love live in me, and I come to life in them. ... All those who take refuge in me, whatever their birth, race, sex, or caste, will attain the supreme goal; this realization can be attained even by those whom society scorns. ... Therefore, having been born in this transient and forlorn world, give all your love to me. Fill your mind with me; love me; serve me; worship me always. Seeking me in your heart, you will at last be united with me.
(Anthology of Living Religions, 66-8 [Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9]; cf. BG/9)
Although the Four Yogas are not mutually exclusive, most Hindus focus primarily on the path of devotion to a personal deity, such as Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, or Kali. Such devotion is manifest as an intense feeling of love for God that is frequently expressed through poetry and song, such as the following offering from Mirabai:
 
Everything perishes,
sun, moon, earth, sky, water, wind,
everything.
Only the One Indestructible remains.
Others get drunk on distilled wine,
in love’s still I distil mine;
day and night I’m drunk on it
in my Lover’s love, ever sunk ...
I’ll not remain in my mother’s home,
I’ll stay with Krishna alone;
He’s my Husband
and my Lover,
and my mind is
at his feet forever.
(Living Religions, 91)
 
Since Bhakti Yoga is more easily pursued than either Raja or Jnana Yoga, it is by far the most common form of Hindu practice. Its appeal is nicely expressed in the following quote from Ramakrishna:
 
As long as the I-sense lasts, so long are true knowledge and Liberation impossible. … [But] how very few can obtain this Union [Samadhi] and free themselves from this “I? It is very rarely possible. Talk as much as you want, isolate yourself continuously, still this “I will always return to you. Cut down the poplar tree today, and you will find tomorrow it forms new shoots. When you ultimately find that this “I cannot be destroyed, let it remain as “I the servant. (Living Religions, 93)
 

What is the connection between
these four paths of Hinduism?