Each of the six systems of Indian philosophy (Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Viasheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta) highlight that the root cause of all our sorrows and sufferings is our loss of contact with our true Self, caused by ignorance of its sole reality. Ignorance creates a false “I” or ego which blinds us and subjects us to a world of delusion and desire. An unending round of birth and death, pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow seem to govern this world. Since the source of this ignorance was caused by the loss of our contact with our true Self, it cannot be dispelled by any material or psychological solution. Hence, the only possible solution to dispel this ignorance is to remove the false “I” by the attainment of knowledge and union with our real Self. This union with Self is also known as Yoga.
Seers, sages and saints over the ages have categorized four ways of Yoga, primarily based on the means or methods used to dissolve the ego. These paths are: 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.
Below is a brief introduction to the four paths of Yoga, where Yoga means “Union with Self.”
Karma-yoga (“Karma” -action)
The message of this path is “we only have the right to action, not to the results of action.”
We live in a world of constant action, where both participation and non-participation is an act. Yoga by selfless-action seeks to eradicate the ego by means of acting or doing with no attachment to “I”. Actions performed with an attachment or sense of “I” create walls of “Me or Mine” around us, which disclaim the rights of others. These walls not only divide us from others, but also separate us from our true Self within. By practicing our actions in this world in a selfless manner, we can diminish this ego and slowly bring down these towering walls. By this the follower of karma-yoga slowly expands the “I” and realizes the true Self.
The key message of karma-yoga is: Kill the unconquerable laws of karma by karma-yoga. Release yourself from the chains of attachment by practicing nonattachment to the results of action.
Bhakti-yoga (“Bhakti” -devotion)
The root meaning of the word “bhakti” is “to be part of”. The path of bhakti-yoga seeks completeness by being in union with the universal Self by means of Love. Love, is the most basic human emotion and in its purest form it is altruistic and divinely inspired. Pure or selfless love is liberating from any bondage or attachment.
This path starts with devotion and love towards a choice of form or the formless nature of the divine. However, true devotion and pure love only comes when bhakti-yoga is fully realized. Our love becomes selfish due to ego arising from ignorance and is further fueled by lust, anger, jealousy, pride and greed. This causes an obstruction of the free flow of love toward others and the Divine. When pure or selfless thoughts of devotion and service are poured into the mind all negative thoughts are naturally washed out over time. The practice of devotion or surrender to the Divine (true Self) brings out our natural pure love and, eventually, an “intense love” towards the divine leads to union with the true Self. This love encompasses from One to All.
Raja-yoga (“Raja” –royal)
By name it means the “king of yogas”, which seeks union with the Self by means of concentration of mind. Its modern name is also yoga school of philosophy as introduced by Swami Vivekananda. Originally, laid out in the “The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali” it consists of eight limbs (Ashtang yoga), practicing of which is required for restraining or controlling the mind. These limbs are namely “yama” (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, non-greed), “niyama” (internal and external purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and contemplation of true Self), “asana” (postures), “pranayama” (control of vital forces), “pratyahara” (withdrawal of the senses), “dharana” (concentration), “dhyana” (meditation) and “samadhi” (union with the divine/Self).
Here, to control the mind, one first learns to control one's actions (ethical dos and don’ts), body, breath, senses and finally, the mind. In this order, one begins with the gross and works towards the subtle. Raja-yoga asks the seeker to develop strong will power of mind by the relentless practice of concentration and meditation, eventually leading to a state of union with true Self (Samadhi).
Jnana-yoga (“Jnana” -knowledge)
Jnana-yoga is the path of knowledge: realizing Self by discriminative analysis. The premise here being that only the light of knowledge can dispel the darkness of ignorance.
The doctrine of jnana-yoga is "neti, neti" ("not this, not this"), a discriminative analysis by negation of Self from non-Self. It aims at the discrimination of the eternal/imperishable from transitory existence. With this, one realizes one is not their body, mind, or senses, but is something greater: the pure, undivided consciousness that pervades everything, Brahman.
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. This 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.
Traditionally, Karma-yoga has been advised for the active, bhakti-yoga for the devotional, raja-yoga for the strong-willed, and jnana-yoga for the rational. Eradication of the ego through karma-yoga is a long process requiring a strong will and most seekers do not have the patience to endure its sacrifices. Bhakti-yoga requires abiding faith and selfless love for God, which is not always possible for an average seeker. Raja-yoga requires persistent practice for control of actions, body, senses and mind, not easily achieved by all. For practicing Jnana yoga, the aspirant needs to have integrated the lessons of the other yogic paths, for without selflessness and love of God, strength of body and mind, the search for self-realization usually becomes mental gymnastics.
The four paths of yoga are not mutually exclusive. When the means of either path (selfless action, love, controlled mind and knowledge) is in union with Self, the other three paths inevitably follow up as result of the other. The goal of all four is freedom from the assumed bondage of the mind and realization of our true identity—the ever pure, immortal/universal Self, or the Ultimate Reality. In the system of Ramashram Satsang Mathura (RSM), all the four paths/yogas are integrated and harmonized such that the seekers of different tendencies/backgrounds can together move towards the goal of understanding the Self.