The Four Yogas of Vedanta

The following excerpt from Principles and Purpose of Vedanta by Swami Paramananda (1884-1940), outlines the 4 Yogas that have as their highest aim: union with the Divine. It is intended as a companion piece to “The Wisdom of Vedanta”, posted on 06/02/2021.


“The practical part of the teaching of Vedanta is called Yoga, which literally means “joining” or union between the lower self and higher Self. It offers certain methods for the training of mind and body to make them fit instruments for the manifestation of the perfection already in every human being. When the limited apparent man finds his limitless Self within and unites himself with it, he becomes illumined. Jesus expresses the same idea when He speaks of “communion with God.” This method of communion with the Divine is what is meant by Yoga. There is no mystery in it, as many suppose. It is a science entirely based on the direct observation and experience of perfected Yogis, or illumined souls, and is a clear, logical system for the unfoldment of our spiritual nature. It teaches us how to stop frittering our energies unnecessarily and to use them properly for our greatest good. Its main object is to unite all our mental and physical forces into one strong current, which will carry us to the realization of the Supreme.

Yoga is divided into four principal paths to suit different temperaments:

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga is the path of work and teaches us how to perform all our duties without creating bondage. Activity is an inherent tendency in every living being, but to learn to direct it through the proper channel without waste is the aim of Karma Yoga. A faithful follower of this path works like others, but he gives up all selfish desire and attachment and thereby avoids reaction and suffering. His ideal is to work for the love of the work, without any ulterior motive. If good result comes, he does not take the credit of it, neither does he take on himself the discredit if he fails; but he offers all the fruits of his actions, both good and bad, unto the Lord, who is the real Doer of all action. This is the secret taught by Sri Krishna in the Gita when He says: “To work we have the right but not to the fruits thereof.” 1 He who knows this secret, to him every action becomes an act of worship and leads him to the highest realization.

Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga teaches us how to control both our internal and external nature. The first step is to govern the forces which manifest through our physical body and focus them into one. Through this we gain proper balance or perfect health in our outer nature. Health is absolutely necessary for our spiritual growth, since the body is the instrument for the manifestation of the spirit and if not in proper condition, becomes an obstacle. Therefore the Yogis have prescribed certain postures and methods of breathing, through which we may purify our system and prevent disease.

The next and more important step is to control our mind and senses, or internal nature. This is done through the practice of concentration and meditation. The study of Raja Yoga thus leads us gradually from the grosser to the subtler forces of our organism and shows us how to bring them under our control and unite them into one concentrated energy. The purpose of this, however, is not merely to bring health or psychic power, but to gain absolute self-mastery.

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion. It is the most natural path to follow, because we all have love in our hearts. As long as this love is given to the changeable and ephemeral things of this world, so long it causes us disappointment, suffering and bondage; but when it is withdrawn from these and turned towards God, then it becomes Bhakti. Hence Bhakti Yoga teaches us how we can direct all our emotion and feeling toward the Supreme, who is the source of all beauty and bliss. Since He is the one eternal and unchangeable Being, in Him alone we can find unbroken happiness. Thus Bhakti means devotion to God; attachment to any worldly object is not Bhakti. This ideal love is almost inconceivable as long as there is thirst for money, name, fame, power, or sense pleasure; but when all trace of selfishness and worldly desire is wiped out, we realize that nothing external or transitory can satisfy the hunger of our heart, but that He is the only object worthy to be loved.

To a devotee God is not a mere theory or abstract ideal, but an actual living Being, with whom he communes and with whom he bears a definite relation, such as of child, or friend, or servant. All these relationships are established in order that we may feel that we have a claim on God and a sense of nearness to Him. Love has wonderful uniting power and when this Divine love dawns in the heart of the devotee, he feels in direct touch with the Ideal and his every thought, word and action is offered as a service to the Beloved.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the path of philosophic discrimination and is especially suited to those of intellectual tendency. Its aim is to find the luminous spirit within, for a Jnani does not accept any other God than his own Self, which is the Self of all. This is accomplished through the process of “Neti, Neti,” “Not this, not this,” or by distinguishing the real from the unreal, the true from the false. In order to find this cosmic ego or universal Self, he first removes all limited egoism, differentiating himself from the body, mind, senses and all the gross objects of this perishable world. This can only be done by the constant rigid denial of the lower self, but he who perseveres with earnestness and determination will gradually leave behind him all the unrealities of the phenomenal universe and find his true Self within. Then he is able to declare with conviction, “I am He,” “I am the Truth,” “I am the Absolute Brahman,” “I and my Father are one.”

It does not necessarily mean that because there are four distinct methods, we cannot combine all in our practice of Yoga. No character is perfect which is lacking in any of these. In fact, we cannot follow one successfully without the help of the others. Nobody can be a true worker without having discrimination, self-control and devotion to his work. Neither can one become a true lover without possessing properly directed activity, right judgment and self-control. Therefore all these must go hand in hand. But in every character one tendency invariably predominates and that determines the special path. But we must bear in mind that all these paths lead to the same goal.”(23 – 31)

For more in-depth reading on these four yogas, Swami Vivekananda’s books Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, Raja-Yoga, and Jnana-Yoga are available through the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, as well as other Vedanta Center bookstores throughout the United States.

1Swami Paramananda, translator. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, 40. (Vedanta Centre Publishers, 1974).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.