By Harry Parayana Dasa

An analysis of four types of yoga described in the Bhagavad-gita.

Lord Krishna in His teachings to Uddhava classifies action and knowledge (among other things) as being either under the control of the three modes of material nature or under the spiritual energy (Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 11, Chapter 25). Thus the yogic processes explained by Lord Krishna in theBhagavad-gita can be broadly classified into two groups. In one group, the practices are under the control of sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). This group comprises karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, and ashtanga-yoga. The other group consists of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotional service to Lord Krishna and the only yoga process not under the control of the modes of material nature. Bhakti is a purely spiritual process directly under the control of the spiritual energy.

Material processes yield material results. For example, jogging every day for one hour will make the body fitter; that is, it will lead to a material result. But the body will die someday despite all the jogging. In fact, the results of all material actions are temporary, including those of karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, and ashtanga-yoga, which are not transcendental activities.

Conversely, Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (7.14) that by surrendering to Him one can easily overcome the material energy. Srila Prabhupada writes in the purport: “Therefore surrender unto the lotus feet of the Lord is the only means to get free from the clutches of the stringent material nature.” Similarly Lord Krishna says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (hereafter Bhag) (11.14.21), bhaktyaham ekaya grahyah: “I am attained through unflinching faith and devotional service.”

Distinctions Between Karma-, Jnana-, and Bhakti-yoga

To an aspiring transcendentalist the choice between a process that gives eternal, spiritual results and one that yields temporary, material results may seem obvious. Yet some people consider either karma-yoga or jnana-yoga the Gita’s main teaching. Such persistent misunderstanding of the Gita’s message might stem from an ignorance of the practices and results of each yoga. For the aspiring sadhaka devotee, it is also important to understand how bhakti is not covered by karma and jnana. This requires a clear understanding of the differences between the processes of karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. What follows is a discussion of their distinctive features. I have based this discussion on Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura’s commentary on the Bhagavad-gita, known as Sarartha Varshini Tika (translated by His Holiness Bhanu Swami). I have done this because Vishvanatha carefully analyses, in the context of the Gita, bhakti-yoga as both mixed with the other two yogas and as free of their influence. I will conclude with a brief note on Srila Prabhupada’s Gita commentary.


In the Bhagavad-gita the word karma often refers to duties recommended in the Vedic scriptures. These duties are generally of three types: nitya, naimittika, and kamya. Nitya refers to regular duties, such as observing daily sacrifices and rituals.Naimittika-karma are rituals for special occasions such as shraddha (offerings to departed souls), marriage, and the birth of a child. Kamya-karma means scripturally prescribed actions performed with the desire for some material gain.

Karma-kanda, or sakama-karma, refers to the performance of the above types of karma with desire for material gain in this life or promotion to higher planets for enjoying heavenly pleasure in the next life (Gita 9.20). These are no small pleasures. Srila Prabhupada writes in the purport to Gita 9.20: “Once situated on those higher planetary systems, one can satisfy his senses hundreds of thousands of times better than on this planet.” After exhausting one’s “credits,” however, one has to return to earth. Srila Prabhupada writes, “One simply revolves in the cycle of birth and death on higher and lower planetary systems.”

The word yoga means “connection,” and in its highest sense means connection with Krishna. In karma-yoga this connection is established when the performer surrenders the results of karma (duties) to Krishna. If this connection is absent, the word yoga is inapplicable. One’s occupational duties in varnashrama come under the definition of karma. This is evident from Gita 2.48, in which Krishna advises Arjuna to fight while performing nishkama-karma-yoga by being equipoised in success and failure. Samatvam yoga ucyate: “Such equanimity is called yoga.”

Karma-yoga is in the mode of goodness because the scriptural duties are performed without desire for results (Gita 18.23, Bhag. 11.25.23);sakama-karma is in the material mode of passion (11.25.23). Because of the absence of desires for results, karma-yoga is also called nishkama. For reasons that will become clear later, I note two important aspects of karma-yoga here: (1) the activities are first performed, and then the results are given to Krishna, and (2) only scripturally prescribed duties come under the purview of karma-yoga.

Even though karma-yoga is connected with the divine through the offering of activities, it cannot by itself give transcendental results, such as freeing the performer from the cycle of birth and death or giving him love of God. This is because karma-yoga is in the material mode of goodness. Karma-yoga has one benefit: the results of those prescribed activities whose results are offered to Krishna without any personal desire do not bind the performer (Gita 3.9).

Karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, and ashtanga-yoga are arranged in a hierarchy so that the faithful performance of one level results in purification and elevation to the next level. The fruit of nishkama-karma-yoga is jnana-yoga, discussed next.


The word jnana in jnana-yoga refers to the jnana-yogi’s knowledge that he or she is not the body but the indestructible soul (Gita 2.11-2.39). By karma-yoga, attachment for the results of activities is weakened and finally eliminated; one is then able to control one’s senses (samyatendriyah, Gita 4.39). In a heart thus purified, knowledge that one is the soul automatically (svayam) manifests (Gita 4.38). This is realized knowledge, as opposed to knowledge that might be read in a book but not experientially verified. In his role as an observer, a person situated in jnana-yoga does not identify with his senses; he does not claim ownership of their activities, nor is he controlled by them (Bhag. 11.25.16).

Although the realization gained by jnana-yoga is of transcendence – of the nonmaterial soul – the realization is still in the material mode of goodness (11.25.24), as in nishkama-karma-yoga. Therefore jnana-yoga by itself can again not free one from the cycle of samsara, birth and death; it cannot provide liberation, or moksha.

This point may seem inconsistent with the understanding that jnana-yoga awards the liberation of merging into Brahman, the impersonal absolute. Brahman, however, is Krishna?s transcendental effulgence (Bhag. 1.2.11, Gita 14.27), and therefore to achieve even impersonal liberation requires a transcendental process (bhaktyaham ekaya grahyah, Bhag. 11.14.21). Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura explains this surprising subtlety: even the liberation that ultimately accrues (after great difficulty, Gita 12.5) for the jnana-yogi is due to trace levels of bhakti. The jnana-yogi who at the time of death surrenders his jnana itself to Krishna (as Krishna instructs in Bhag. 11.14.21) acquires – by dint of the trace of bhakti that remains – the transcendental result of merging into Krishna’s effulgence.

But the jnani without the trace of bhakti – such as one who considers Krishna?s birth and activities temporary and His deity forms material – gets only suffering (Bhag. 10.14.4, 10.2.32). Instead of transcendental benefit, he undergoes birth and death repeatedly in samsara.

What constitutes the activities of a jnani? Lord Krishna addresses this question in some detail in the Bhagavad-gita, Chapter 5. Thejnani can take sannyasa and thereby renounce all actions and the world itself. Or he can continue to performnishkama-karma-yoga by giving the results of his activities to Krishna. Acting in nishkama-karma-yoga is not a step down for the jnani; rather, in this way he can remain fixed in purity.


The main type of bhakti is called uttama-bhakti, which is on the platform of prema (pure love) for Krishna. Another type of bhakti arises from mixing bhakti with jnana and karma. Sakama-karma-mishra-bhakti is bhakti mixed with a trace of sakama-karma, a desire for some material goal. There are three types of sakama-karma-mishra-bhaktas (Gita 7.16): those who are suffering, those who are inquisitive, and those who desire wealth. Because of the transcendental nature of bhakti, the result of even mixed bhakti is that such devotees, after attaining their desires (relief from suffering, gain of material benefits, or attainment of scriptural knowledge), achieve pure bhakti and enter the transcendental Vaikuntha planets (salokya-mukti, Gita 18.56), predominated by the mood of aishvarya (opulence) and sukha (real happiness, beyond the neutrality of Brahman realization). When bhakti is predominant but is mixed with nishkama-karma and jnana it is called karma-jnana-mishra-bhakti. An example could be cooking and offering preparations to Krishna. Cooking food for Krishna without a desire for the result (to taste the food) is analogous to the activities of nishkama-karma-yoga. But in nishkama-karma-yoga, only the results of scriptural duties (e.g., nitya- and naimittika-karma, or varnashrama duties) are offered to Krishna, while in bhakti all activities are offered to Krishna. Also, the practitioner has knowledge of atma and Paramatma, like a jnani, but is superior to a jnani owing to the knowledge of Krishna as Bhagavan. Therefore this is not nishkama-karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, or uttama-bhakti, but rather karma-jnana-mishra-bhakti. Such a bhakta attains direct service to the Lord (Gita 9.28).

Why is offering what we eat to Krishna not uttama-bhakti? Uttama-bhakti involves more than just offering the final result (cooked food). Rather, the entire activity of cooking is done to satisfy Krishna (Bhag. 7.5.24).* For example, one may specifically select Krishna?s favorite preparations, cook with the desire that they turn out tasty for Him, offer them to Him with love, and then accept the remnants as His mercy. To only offer the results to Krishna but not be conscious of Krishna during the entire activity is mixed bhakti, not uttama-bhakti. This is an important metric for sadhakas to determine whether they are practicing uttama-bhakti or bhakti mixed with karma and jnana. Additionally, uttama-bhaktas reject karma-yoga, considering it a distraction in their worship of Krishna, despite the risks associated with neglect of such duties. (Bhag. 11.11.32, 11.5.41)

A corollary is that all bhakti-yoga activities meant only to satisfy Krishna are transcendental and come under uttama-bhakti. These include traveling, using the Internet, making movies, making devotional art, and a long list of other activities in which Srila Prabhupada engaged devotees to spread Krishna consciousness.

If sakama-bhakti becomes nishkama, the result is jnana-mishra-bhakti. The jnana-mishra-bhakta enters the shanta-rasa. Known as the neutral state of love of God, it is characterized by overwhelming awe of Krishna. The sages called the four Kumaras exemplify shanta-rasa. Some jnana-mishra-bhaktas, such as Shukadeva Goswami, progress to the more mature stage of prema (pure love) for Krishna through the association of pure devotees (Bhag. 1.7.10, Gita 18.54).

Yoga-mishra-bhakti refers to the mixing of bhakti with ashtanga-yoga (Gita 8.9-10). Fixing the life air in the ajna-cakra (between the eyebrows) at the time of death, the yoga-mishra-bhakta attains the Lord?s abode (salokya-mukti) (Gita 8.13).

Is there no jnana in uttama-bhakti? Uttama-bhaktas like Srila Prabhupada and Srila Rupa Goswami clearly are storehouses of knowledge, so it is not that uttama-bhakti is devoid of knowledge. Rather the knowledge in uttama-bhakti is specifically about Krishna, such as His form, opulences, and pastimes. This knowledge is transcendental to the three gunas because it is about the transcendental Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore it is not considered jnana, but rather bhakti (Bhag. 11.25.24). What is rejected from uttama-bhakti is the trace of the jnani’s desire to merge into the impersonal Brahman.

In summary, uttama-bhakti is both nishkama and nirguna. Nishkama because there are no material desires to fulfill; rather, the only goal is to fulfill Krishna?s desires. Nirguna because it is not under the control of the material energy. As a result, because ofbhakti’s transcendental nature even a new devotee performing sadhana-bhakti is connected with transcendence. He is above the gunas, and becomes quickly purified (Bhag. 10.33.39, 2.8.5).

Srila Prabhupada’s Commentary on the Bhagavad-gita

Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is conveys the urgency to preach the mission of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Srila Prabhupada’s mood is to give the reader transcendental bhakti on every page. Today’s readers have neither the time nor the patience to go through a book from cover to cover, so they are unlikely to discover the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita. Rather, they just pick and choose from the Gita’s pages whatever justifies their way of life.

My understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s treatment of the Bhagavad-gita is that he treats each yoga as a limb of bhakti. His translations and purports highlight the fact that the actions of bhakti, the knowledge of bhakti, the faith of bhakti, and the happiness of bhakti are all transcendental to the modes (Bhag. 11.25.23, 11.25.24, 11.25.27, and 11.25.29 respectively). Given the unique mood of Srila Prabhupada’s preaching movement, as well as his intimate connection with Krishna, we can understand why he translates karma-yoga as “action in Krishna consciousness (bhakti)” or jnana-yoga as “transcendental knowledge,” rather than “knowledge in the material mode of goodness.” This gives us a window into the unique rasas (emotions) of a devotee on the highest platform of prema.

Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura defined nishkama-karma-yoga and jnana-yoga to refute the prevailing scholarly opinion at his time (primarily of the impersonalist school), and to establish the supremacy of bhakti. Both these acharyas lived and propagated Krishna consciousness in their own ways according to time, place, and circumstance. Given that Krishna is infinite, His words have infinite and infinitely sweet meanings, and according to their individual rasas with Him, our acharyas have presented infinitely sweet commentaries. Although they may differ superficially, the ultimate goal of their commentaries is the same: Krishna prema. Therefore, Srila Prabhupada’s title for his translation is apt: Bhagavad-gita As It Is. As it is – not covered by the effects of mundane yogic processes such as karma-yoga or jnana-yoga, but meant solely for developing Krishna prema. And by his mercy, his devotees understand these yoga processes in the same way.

*Sridhara Swami, considered the original commentator on the Bhagavatam, explains Bhag. 7.5.24: In ananya-bhakti (pure bhakti), actions should be offered to the Lord before being performed, rather than performing the acts and then offering them later.