“Factually, bhakti-yoga is the ultimate goal, but to analyze bhakti-yoga minutely one has to understand these other yogas. The yogi who is progressive is therefore on the true path of eternal good fortune. One who sticks to a particular point and does not make further progress is called by that particular name: karma-yogi, jnana-yogi or dhyana-yogi, raja-yogi, hatha-yogi, etc.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 6.47 Purport)
Question: Why are there so many different yogas? Are they all the same? Do not all paths lead to the same destination?
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada says that real yoga is bhakti-yoga. This is due to the nature of the two objects being joined. The literal definition of yoga is “union.” It refers to the linking of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. Each side has its respective properties, and when one is aware of them it is easy to see how bhakti-yoga is the only valid definition. The prefix “bhakti” is applied only for the understanding of the individual soul who is temporarily in a state of ignorance due to mixing with conditioned life.
The other prefixes represent checkpoints, progress markers if you will. If running a marathon, it’s nice to know how far along you are. The goal is the same: to reach the end. The participant has to run 26.2 miles to complete the race. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve run one mile or ten. In both cases the race is still incomplete. At the same time, anyone who is making progress is still considered a valid participant. I am still taking part in the race, even if I have not finished.
Another comparison is to look at the different belts awarded in martial arts. Black belt is the highest, but it is not the point at which the student starts. The goal is to be expert in defending using the particular art in question. The person with a lower belt is just as much a participant as one with the black belt. Yet the black belt represents perfection; the distinctions still serve a purpose.
The individual soul is unbreakable. There is something called shatterproof glass. There is the bulletproof vest. These things are highly resistant to blows and thus it seems like they can’t be destroyed. Still, anything that is part of the material creation is subject to destruction. The lone exception is the spirit soul. What we see at death is simply the passing of the individual, who is soul. They can never be destroyed.
na jāyate mriyate vā kadācin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śāśvato ‘yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
The travels through the various species, the coming together of the elements in the creation, their maintenance and eventual dissolution – these are managed by a higher soul. This soul is singular, but it exists in every single living thing. The individual soul is different; its influence is limited to the local sphere. Therefore I can’t tell what you are thinking and you can’t tell what I’m thinking. Perhaps through past experiences we can guess. Maybe through advancement in mysticism, I can enter your mind and get a peek. But I can never be inside of every single mind. Only the Supersoul can do this.
Yoga is the meeting of these two amazing entities. Both are similar in quality in that they cannot be destroyed. They are both knowledgeable and blissful as well. Aside from one being localized and one all-pervading, the other notable distinction is in the quantitative value of the inherent qualities. The Supreme Soul is always full of knowledge, while the individual can sometimes have its knowledge covered up. The same goes for blissfulness.
Due to this potential for being covered up, we see the different yogas in material life. Mind you, to even take up yoga in earnest is rare. The material nature has such a strong influence that the default mindset is to live like the animal. Eat, drink and be merry – the actual meaning to this phrase is “live like the animal, where you perpetually remain in the dark about your true nature.”
When we analyze yoga minutely, we get the different prefixes. At the beginning, there is karma-yoga. This is trying to unite with the Supreme Soul through work. Basically, you do things to maintain the body, but you don’t get attached to the results. We can think of it like going to work every day but not worrying so much about how much money is earned. Instead of focusing your mind on what things you will buy with your money, you’re more concerned about advancing in consciousness.
When there is an increase in knowledge and renunciation, jnana-yoga has been reached. Here you study the aforementioned qualities of the two kinds of soul and you get further detached from the animal way of life. You’re living spiritually and trying to think spiritually also. You’re doing this for the same purpose: uniting with the Supreme Soul.
When you increase your meditation by physical means, you’re in ashtanga-yoga. Here you are doing specific exercises to eliminate the influence of the body. You’re not killing yourself. You’re practicing a subtle technique that allows you to maintain your body but also eliminate its influence in degrading your consciousness. The exercise system of yoga generally practiced today is rooted in ashtanga-yoga, but since the goal is not the Supersoul it is not part of this progressive system.
Bhakti-yoga is the culminating stage. The notable distinction here is the recognition of God the person. The Supersoul is but an expansion of the original Personality of Godhead. The sign of the presence of bhakti-yoga is the absence of the conditions in the preceding steps. For example, there is no desire to specifically advance through renouncing the fruits to action. There is no focus on an objective to increase in knowledge or remove the effects of the material body.
Pure bhakti-yoga is unmotivated and uninterrupted. When looking at the example of Shrimati Radharani, we see that God Himself is incapable of stopping the love and affection flowing from the pure devotee. Bhakti-yoga can be attempted right at the outset, and based on the impurities present, one is considered to be at a specific checkpoint. The goal is always the same, even if the person practicing yoga is not aware of it.
Yoga for connecting with the one,
For progression through many paths done.
But representing just a checkpoint is each,
Turning to bhakti when destination to reach.
Devotion yoga’s definition true,
To be with God meant are me and you.
So strong that Supreme Lord can’t repay,
In purity Radharani showing the way.