Ramana Maharshi: The 4 paths to freedom (the 4 yogas)

In this passage below Ramana Maharshi talks about the four traditional Hindu paths to ending suffering or moksha (liberation/freedom). The four paths are traditionally called the paths of knowledge (jnana), love or devotion (bhakti), meditation (raja yoga), and doing good works (karma).

Almost every spiritual tradition around the world will fit into one of more of these four paths – eg. Buddhism is a variation of Raja Yoga and also encompasses some aspects of the other 3 paths, and Jesus’s teachings are typical of a Bhakti path. Different people, each with different temperaments tend to gravitate to one path initially more than the others, but as they progress and the ego wanes, the four paths merge and fuse together.

Often you will see these being called jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga and karma yoga. Yoga means union of the person with the Ultimate or Divine (Brahman), so any practice that leads to this singular end goal is called yoga. Alternatively the suffix marga can be used in place of yoga, marga meaning path.

One of the foremost activities of jnana yoga is determining that all aspects of the mind, body, senses and world are constantly changing. This means they will never lead to lasting satisfaction. A deep realisation of this leads to not being interested in these things (ie. dispassion or vairagya). In the passage below Ramana just refers to this process of jnana yoga as enquiry or vichara.

What in the West we commonly refer to as yoga, ie. the compendium of physical postures and breathing/meditative exercises, all fall under the path of Raja Yoga. Ramana refers to this path simply as ‘yoga marga‘ or ‘the path of yoga’, his emphasis being on breath control (pranayama) which is one of the 8 steps of this path.

“An examination of the ephemeral nature of external phenomena leads to vairagya [dispassion; non-attachment]. Hence enquiry (vichara) is the first and foremost step to be taken. When vichara continues automatically, it results in a contempt for wealth, fame, ease, pleasure, etc. The `I’ thought becomes clearer for inspection.The source of `I’ is the Heart – the final goal.

If, however, the aspirant is not temperamentally suited to Vichara Marga (to the introspective analytical method), he must develop bhakti (devotion) to an ideal – may be God, Guru, humanity in general, ethical laws, or even the idea of beauty. When one of these takes possession of the individual, other attachments grow weaker, i.e., dispassion (vairagya) develops.

Attachment for the ideal simultaneously grows and finally holds the field. Thus ekagrata (concentration) grows simultaneously and imperceptibly – with or without visions and direct aids.

In the absence of enquiry and devotion, the natural sedative pranayama (breath regulation) may be tried. This is known as Yoga Marga. If life is imperiled the whole interest centres round the one point, the saving of life. If the breath is held the mind cannot afford to (and does not) jump at its pets – external objects. Thus there is rest for the mind so long as the breath is held. All attention being turned on breath or its regulation, other interests are lost. Again, passions are attended with irregular breathing, whereas calm and happiness are attended with slow and regular breathing.

Paroxysm of joy is in fact as painful as one of pain, and both are accompanied by ruffled breaths. Real peace is happiness. Pleasures do not form happiness. The mind improves by practice and becomes finer just as the razor’s edge is sharpened by stropping. The mind is then better able to tackle internal or external problems.

If an aspirant be unsuited temperamentally for the first two methods and circumstantially (on account of age) for the third method, he must try the Karma Marga (doing good deeds, for example, social service). His nobler instincts become more evident and he derives impersonal pleasure. His smaller self is less assertive and has a chance of expanding its good side. The man becomes duly equipped for one of the three aforesaid paths. His intuition may also develop directly by this single method.”

Sri Ramana Maharshi from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 27 (4th February, 1935)

Some purists insist that there are only two paths according to studies of the classical texts, namely the path of knowledge (jnana) and the path of action (karma), and that devotion (bhakti) is required for both of these paths, and that yoga marga is to purify one in readiness for jnana, the final goal.

Ramana himself often said there are two ways to final liberation: through self-enquiry (atma vichara) and through self-surrender, and they both fuse and lead to the same end.

Where does your heart lead you? Which path are you most drawn to?

Also see:
How yoga works
The essence of yoga

The paradox of yoga
Ramana Maharshi: The 4 paths to freedom (the 4 yogas)

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