jñānena tu tad ajñānam yeṣāṃ nāśitam ātmanaḥ | teṣām ādityavaj jñānaṃ prakāśayati tat param
“As the sun dispels darkness and illuminates everything, so divine knowledge destroys ignorance and reveals the transcendental Absolute Truth.” — Bhagavad-Gītā 5.16    

Three paths of knowledge

Karma-kāṇḍa, jñāna-kāṇḍa, upāsana-kāṇḍa are three paths of knowledge dealt with in the Vedas. They are also called Karma-yoga, Jñāna-yoga and Bhakti-yoga respectively. People who follow the karma path are called Karmis; people who follow the Jñāna path are called Jñānis and people who practise Bhakti-Yoga are called Bhaktas and Bhakti-Yogis. Of these three groups, the Karmis are materialists and the Jñānis and Bhaktas are transcendentalists.

➤ Karma-kāṇḍa teaches the improvement of life circumstances, attainment of material happiness, elevation to heavenly planets through karma, viz. pious actions such as the performance of religious duties in the varnāśrama-dharma, yajña ( conducting sacrificial acts), worship of the devas (demigods), dana (giving donations to worthy persons), pilgrimage, hospitality, ahimsa (non-violence), brahmacarya (sexual intercourse only with one's wedded partner and only for the procreation of righteous offspring), tapasya (renunciation), vows, among others. Even the worship of the Supreme Lord for the sake of material goals is materialistic.

➤ Jñāna-kāṇḍa is meant for people who seek liberation from saṃsāra-cakra (“wheel of life”; cycle of birth and death) through jñāna (knowledge; philosophical analysis of material nature). For Jñānis, liberation means dissolving individuality and becoming one with brahman, the all-pervading spiritual energy. To achieve this, they take upon themselves great renunciations (vairagya). They must gradually give up all desires and activities that bind them to the material world and identify with brahman to reach their goal. It may take several lifetimes to reach the goal, provided the jñāna-yogin is determined and does not fall under the influence of Māyā, the illusory energy of the Supreme Lord. This yoga path is dry, extremely arduous and the attainment of the goal is uncertain.

Mantras used by Jñānis include: neti, neti (“not this, not that” – “I am not the body, not the mind, not the intelligence. . . .”), aham brahmāsmi (“I am brahman”), tat tvam asi (“this is you”). The word “you” in tat tvam asi actually refers to the Personality of Godhead, for He is ultimately everything. But Jñānis refer it to themselves as brahman. The individual spiritual souls are tiny particles of the whole, but not the whole itself. With aham brahmāsmi I make myself aware that by my very nature I am spiritual energy like brahman. But I am only a tiny particle of brahman, like particles of light are a part of the sun. Jñānis also say: brahma satyam jagan mithya – “brahman is real, the world is unreal”.

Jñānis are called impersonalists because they are not interested in the Personality of Godhead. One type of impersonalist is called Māyāvādī because they consider the Supreme Lord to be a product of Māyā, the illusory energy. This is the greatest sacrilege against the Lord. Some Māyāvādīs even recite mantras by which Vaiṣṇavas (devotees of God, devotees of Viṣṇu, Kṛṣṇa) worship the Personality of Godhead. But since the Māyāvādīs take these mantras as a means to become one with brahman and since they consider the Supreme Lord to be a product of Māyā, they are doomed to be reborn in hellish forms of life.

Some jñāna-yogis are aware that there is a Supreme Lord from whom brahman emanates. They know that brahman is an aspect of the Absolute Truth. Other Jñānis are not aware of this. If a Jñāni associates with bhakti-yogis (devotees of the Supreme Lord) and gradually acquires a higher taste, he may give up his tendency to merge with the brahman and become a devotee of the Personality of Godhead as well, and lovingly engage in His service.

➤ Upāsana-kāṇḍa teaches the process by which one develops devotion to God. The goal of people who surrender to this process is the Personality of Godhead and ultimately to return to the spiritual world, the eternal kingdom of God. People who follow upasana-kanda are called bhaktas (bhakti-yogis) or Vaiṣṇavas. There are many Vedic scriptures in which Bhakti-Yoga is taught, e.g. Bhagavad-Gītā, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, Brahma-Samhitā. Every living entity is by its nature an eternal servant of the Supreme Lord, and love of God is eternally present in the heart of every living entity. The human form of life offers the opportunity to awaken this dormant love through bhakti-yoga. If a spiritual soul has received the human form of life and does not use it to learn to engage in the loving service of the Supreme Lord, it may take a very long time before it gets the opportunity again. The human life form is like a treasure that should not be left unused.

bhaktyā mām abhijānāti yāvān yaś cāsmi tattvataḥ | tato māṃ tattvato jñatvā viśate tad-anantaram
“Only by devotional service can one truly understand Me. And when one is fully aware of Me through such devotion, one can enter the Kingdom of God.”
— Bhagavad-Gīta 18.55

Bhakti-yoga is not difficult to practise, but one must learn this process from an expert who himself practices Bhakti-yoga and is completely devoted to the Supreme Lord. In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Prahlād Mahārāja lists nine processes of devotional service to God:

śravaṇaṃ kīrtanaṃ viṣṇoḥ smaraṇaṃ pāda-sevanam | arcanaṃ vandanaṃ dāsyaṃ sakhyam ātma-nivedanam || iti puṃsārpitā viṣṇau bhaktiś cen nava-lakṣaṇā | kriyeta bhagavaty addhā tan manye ’dhītam uttamam
“Prahlāda Mahārāja said: To hear [sravanam] and speak (or chant) about Śrī Viṣṇu's transcendental Holy Name, about His form, about His attributes, about His wealth and about His pastimes [kirtanam], to remember them [smaranam], to offer reverential worship to the Lord with sixteen kinds of accessories [arcanam], offering prayers to the Lord [vandanam], becoming His servant [dasyam], considering the Lord as one's best friend [sakhyam] and surrendering everything to Him (serving Him with body, mind and speech) [ātmā-nivedanam] – these nine processes are recognised as pure devotional service. One who has devoted his life to Kṛṣṇa's service by performing these nine procedures should be considered the most learned person, for he has attained perfect knowledge.”
— Srīmad-Bhāgavatam 7.5.23-24

3 Pfade des Wissens This figure illustrates the three paths of knowledge (karma, jñāna and bhakti) with their underlying guṇas (rajas, sattva and viśuddha sattva, transcendental virtue), with their goals, objects of meditation and designations for the practitioners. Bhakti-yoga, devotional service to the Supreme Lord, is perfect in itself, i.e. the goal and the process are one. The fruit of bhakti-yoga is prema, love of Kṛṣṇa. Jñānis strive for mukti (liberation) and the object of meditation is brahman. Those who follow the karma path (karmis) strive for sense gratification (kāma) in the higher realms (svargaloka).

Bhaktas and Jñānis are both transcendentalists, as they are not interested in material enjoyment like the karmis and seek happiness beyond matter. To become established in transcendence (brahman or parabrahman), one must have overcome the three guṇas sattva, rajas and tamas. The Jñānis are assigned sattva-guṇa in this illustration, as they cannot be considered fully purified in consciousness (śuddha-sattva).

A third category of transcendentalists are yogis (hatha-yoga; aṣtāṅga-yoga). Yogis in this category aspire to siddhis (mystical faculties) and meditate on paramātmā, the Supersoul aspect of God in the heart. If they do not get confused by māyā, the material energy, they can enter the Kingdom of God after this life. However, if they use the acquired mystical faculties for material enjoyment, they fall down, i.e. they become a victim of the illusory energy of the Supreme Lord and do not attain perfection.

People who are ignorant of the fact that they are eternal spiritual souls, who are born again and again in various forms in the material world as long as they are attached to it, keep trying to improve the world through technology, social arrangements, politics, protests, demonstrations, revolutions, wars, ideologies, and so on. These attempts have been made for thousands of years and have only ever benefited certain groups of people, not humanity as a whole. Doubtful temporary benefits for certain groups of human society, that is all that comes out of it. Some people have a material benefit from the so-called improvements and others have the detriment. Take, for example, the exploitation of mineral resources for factories, machines of all kinds, vehicles, technical devices, etc., designed to make life more comfortable, etc. Everyone knows that countless problems have arisen from this, for which solutions are sought and tried out, which again lead to other problems. . . . . .

“Simple living, high thinking” and using the short human life peacefully for spiritual progress is the maxim of the Vedic culture. In Vedic culture, most people were aware of karma and reincarnation and did not waste their precious life time building factories, machines, etc. to make life more comfortable. Instead, people tried to ensure a better karma through pious actions, to be reborn in the heavenly realm after death, etc. (karma-kāṇḍa).

More intelligent people understand that this is not a solution to the main problems of life – birth, old age, disease and death – as a living being takes birth again on earth when the fruits of pious actions are consumed. They strive for liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They want to get off the merry-go-round of life. Thus they follow the jñāna path.

Even more intelligent people understand that even this path cannot be a final solution to all problems, as it is difficult to follow and the attainment of the goal is uncertain. So they surrender to the Supreme Lord, Kṛṣṇa, and attain final liberation.

man-manā bhava mad-bhakto mad-yājī māṃ namaskuru | mām evaiśyasi yuktvaivam ātmānaṃ mat-parāyaṇaḥ
“Keep your mind always absorbed in thinking of Me; become My devotee; offer your obeisances unto Me and worship Me. If in this way you are completely absorbed in thoughts of Me, you will surely attain Me.”
— Bhagavad-Gīta 9.34)

Sri Krishna Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the Supreme Lord, who appeared about 500 years ago in Navadvipa, Bengal and who established the saṅkīrtana yajña, the congregational chanting of the Holy Names of God, as the only process by which one can attain love of Kṛṣṇa and liberation in this age, said:

“Devotional service to Kṛṣṇa is knowledge, everything else is ignorance”.