For students of the Gita, it can seem that karma, bhakti, dhyana and jnana are sort of separate “paths” leading to the Divine. One way to look at the central theme of the Gita is to closely examine karma yoga. Then, the other “paths” can be seen as those that transform or clean the lens through which karma yoga is examined.
As described previously, all of creation is made up of combinations of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. This is true also of our bodies, minds, and intellects. The progression of karma yoga (action) occurs through evolution of our minds (thought forms) from tamas to rajas to sattva. This progression, in reality, is a steady “lightening” (gross to subtle, i.e., tamas to sattva) of identification with the “I” and “my”. However, for self-realization to occur, all identification (no matter how sattvic) needs to be dropped.
1. Prescribed as a way to overcome the duality of likes and dislikes, karma yoga is understood to be “selfless service”. Entire organizations have been built around this understanding, springing from yoga studios to ashrams to high-tech companies. This is the mainstay of volunteering anywhere, to “give back”, a movement from tamasic to rajasic actions.
It is possible to get stuck in this for a whole lifetime (or many lifetimes). This type of practice by itself will not accelerate an aspirant’s progress, since the veils obscuring the realization of the Self are made up of vasanas – deeply embedded impressions resulting from past actions that determine and drive all present and future actions. One can continue to volunteer without care for personal likes and dislikes (the “essence” of vasanas), but this tactic works only upto a certain layer or veil. Sooner or later, one is led to other practices – bhakti, jnana and dhyana (meditation and allied practices).
It is interesting to examine our own motives and actions up to this point. In my own life, I have come to see that absolutely no “selfless” act was ever totally selfless. Whether it was volunteering time, effort, or resources, I was stuck being the “helper” or that this would generate “good karma” (aka, punya karma in Sanskrit). Even the most noble of all of life’s gifts, parenting, was not entirely selfless – I was busy being a good parent so I could feel good about being a good parent. Yes, of course, there may be an element of selflessness in wanting our families’ well-being, but, the attachment to “I” is what dominates all decision-making.
2. The next stage of karma yoga is coming into bhakti or dhyana (or jnana for the ripe few). In attaching to a higher ideal/ishta, we start to give up the root cause of all afflictions of Maya – “I-ness”. As described so beautifully in Chapters III and IV (more about this later), gradually, one starts to give up the notions of doership (kartattvam) and enjoyership (bhoktattvam), with a firm faith that the Ishta is the doer, and also the enjoyer of all actions.
With this, there is a subtle yet discernable shift in the practice of karma yoga – a tangible attenuation of the selfish selflessness… But, now the identity has shifted from being a karma yogi to being a bhakta (“I am the devotee that is allowing my Ishta be the doer/enjoyer”). The subtle shift in the practice of karma yoga (a movement toward sattvic actions) happens in parallel with the subtle shift in identification (aka, spiritual ego).
Here is another place one can be stuck in. We can totally forget that surrender means to let go of it all – all control, all identities.. I’ve spent decades being a devotee of my Ishta (yes, the “I” and “my” are glaring here), looking for all the ways that I could be a better devotee, performing austerities and rituals, all the while expecting spiritual progress (after all, if I give, shouldn’t my Ishta give something in return?)
3. Dhyana yoga or meditative practices greatly accelerate the progression through these stages, by getting to the deeper veils/vasanas directly, transforming our thoughts and actions to becoming more and more sattvic. However, these practices by themselves don’t work either (for most of us), simply because most of us tend to be rajasic by nature, and need to act.
And even as we are attenuating the vasanas and letting go, there can be an even subtler “collection” of spiritual identity markers – now we are the meditators, the yogis, the ones that have all sorts of cool experiences, the ones that do the astral travel or heal remotely, the ones that “choose our actions wisely”, etc etc. And many spiritual traditions consider this identification to be the hardest to discard – because at this stage, we become the ones that know everything.. In terms of karma yoga evolution, one has simply gone from being the tamasic or rajasic helper to a sattvic helper. But one is very much still the helper.
Tamas, rajas or sattva – ultimately it doesn’t matter since they are all still within the realm of Maya.
4. And by sheer Grace, the aspirant (aka, karma yogi, bhakta, and/or meditator) is led to ask the question of all questions – who is this “I” that is doing this? And by sheer Grace alone, that inquiry or jnana leads to finally looking behind the veils, to seeing that he/she is not the doer, and has never been. All identities are dropped, and there is no longer a “helper” and a “helpee”, no longer the karma yogi, the devotee or the meditator – karma, bhakti and jnana merge into a single path and a single moment, the present one. The actions that arise from this are in perfect alignment with what is. There is no more involvement of the dualistic, conditioned mind in conflict with itself – “Should I do this?” “What will happen if I do this?” “Who will be affected by my actions?”, “What will be the consequences if I peform this action?”, etc.
In dropping all identifications made up of the three gunas, the jnani or sthithaprajna (realized sage) goes beyond the body, mind and intellect (BG II 54-72).
Each of us will progress through these (necessary) stages in our own, unique ways, coming into karma, bhakti, dhyana and jnana in any order. What seemed like separate paths to God merge into the single present moment of Being.