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Nondualism, Yogas and Personality Characteristics

by Greg Goode, Ph.D.

Greg Goode is editor of the Nondualism and Western Philosophers,
author of
editor of
Buddhist Numbered Lists.

Greg's articles, No Brakes -- Or, Zen on Wheels, and Nacho Satsang, have appeared in Nonduality Salon Magazine.

Is Spiritual Practice Necessary? and The Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness originally appeared in HarshaSatsangh Magazine.

Karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, jnana yoga, mantra yoga, kundalini yoga -- what do the various yogas have to do with inquiry into nondualism? If “there's nothing to do,” then why are there yogas? Because not everyone follows a nondual course of inquiry. Nondualism is descriptive, not prescriptive. By itself, it never prescribes any course of action. But if one is already on a spiritual path or desires to begin one, the yogas are there. The various yogas all have their own story to tell about liberation, and can be pursued on their own. But as nondualism sees it, the yogas tend to serve as ramp-ups to non-dual inquiry itself. Whether practiced in a phase of life before, during or after one begins nondual inquiry, the yogas assist by developing the character and making the person well-balanced. This in turn decreases the chance that attachments and personality issues will arise that sidetrack one's nondual inquiry. For example, there is often thought to be a tension between the approach of the head and the approach of the heart. An overly intellectual approach can err on the side of dry arrogance and can lack love. An overly emotional approach can err on the side of sentimentality and a proprietary attachment to the deity or guru. Ideally, a balanced approach avoids these extremes.

There are many kinds of yoga. A yoga is basically one's spiritual or developmental path. More formally, yoga is usually interpreted as “union,” whether union with God or a deity figure, or one's true nature, one's guru, one's higher self, or the Self that is the Self of all. Various yogic paths are discussed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Spiritual teachers around the world instruct students in what can be called various forms of yoga. Indeed, in the Hindu tradition, all religions and spiritual paths can be classified as one kind of yoga or another. Four of the most common yogas are karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, and jnana yoga. The nondual inquiry is often associated with jnana yoga, and it tends to view the other yogas as preparatory practices for its own inquiry (actually many paths make similar claims about themselves!). Here are capsule descriptions of the four common yogas:

Four Common Yogas

  • Karma Yoga -- Selfless action, service to God, the Self, to other beings, or one's teacher. Liberation, according to this path, is through through the disappearance of the separate sense of self as the doer and enjoyer of actions, combined with knowledge of one's true nature. The service aspect of Christianity falls under the category of karma yoga, as does volunteer work helping the poor, and the service that meditation retreat-goers render when they wash dishes and pull weeds between sittings. What makes something karma yoga is one's motive. If one is on a work-study program in order to attend a retreat, it is not so clearly karma yoga. One can even be said to be practicing karma yoga by learning to do one's duty in military service. This was the great lesson that Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

  • Bhakti Yoga -- Devotion to one's chosen deity, teacher, principle, e.g., to the Self. Liberation, according to this path, is through the merging of the separate self into the boundlessness of the Lord or chosen deity/guru, combined with knowledge of one's true nature. The hymns, chants, worship services in most religions fall under the category of bhakti yoga. Another important aspect of bhakti yoga is the urge to approach ever closer to the deity or teacher, and perhaps visualizing the deity or teacher in meditation. The Dalai Lama comments on this practice in his Union of Bliss and Emptiness: A Commentary on the Lama Choepa Guru Yoga Practice. More generally, bhakti yoga is acting out of intense love, admiration and respect for someone or something.

  • Raja Yoga -- Control of the constituents of one's mind and body. Liberation, according to this path, is through the absorption of the constituents of the mind and body into divine consciousness, combined with knowledge of one's true nature. Raja yoga begins with the development of ethical and moral restraints, the building of one's character and the sharpening of one's ability to concentrate. It can extend to the acquisition of psychic or miraculous powers, yet these are usually explained as nonessential signs of progress along the path, and not ends in themselves. The canonical text for this path is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. But the context need not be formal or officially yogic. One can be said to be practicing raja yoga whenever one is trying to practice discipline, vigilance, moral restraint, or improve concentration.

  • Jnana Yoga -- Discernment between the real and the unreal. Liberation, according to this path, is through the deep, experiential knowledge of one's true nature as inseparable from the Self or Consciousness. The study of advaita vedanta and other nondual path such as Zen, Taoism, or Sufism can be said to fall under the category of jnana yoga. But one can also be said to be practicing jnana yoga whenever one is heartfully and seriously considering life's great questions such as “Who am I?,” “Why is there suffering?,” “Why are we here?,” or “What is the source of everything?”

While most major spiritual traditions happen to offer a mixture of these yogas, it is often said that active people are drawn to karma yoga, emotional people are drawn to bhakti yoga, those interested in mystical experiences are drawn to raja yoga, and intellectual people are drawn to jnana yoga. That is, a person is often drawn to a path because her particular strengths are emphasized by that path.

But on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, none of the yogas is practiced in isolation. The actual path pursued by most people is usually a combination of activities, a mixture of these yogas, with perhaps one yoga predominating at a time. Even within a two-hour period, a person can sweep the floor in the meditation hall (karma yoga), sit down to meditate chanting the guru's name with love (bhakti yoga), fall into an objectless samadhi transcending body and mind (raja yoga), and then arise with a transformed experience of the eternal and the transitory (jnana yoga).

Qualifications for Advaita?!?

Advaita vedanta recommends the practice of karma, bhakti and raja yoga before one undertakes jnana yoga. In formal advaita vedanta, it is said that the karma-kanda (ritualistic form of Hinduism) precedes the jnana-kanda (non-dual inquiry). Advaita even outlines certain qualifications for the effective study of Truth. And advaita is not alone in this kind of recommendation. In Kabbala (Judaism's non-dual path) it is often said that the incoming student must be 40 years old, married, and “have a bellyful of Torah.” In Madhyamika, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that the student must never be exposed to the sublime teachings on emptiness without already practicing compassion. Not only that, but it should be that “tears come to their eyes at the very mention of the word 'emptiness'.” Age-old wisdom and experience has shown that the personality characteristics one gains in other yogic pursuits greatly facilitate the quiet mind and equipoise that allow the deep experience of one's self as Self.

Qualifications -- Why??

The idea behind “qualifications” is not to bar or reject anyone from the pursuit of a nondual path. Anyone may enter at any time. But the qualifications are to encourage a quiet mind and balanced emotional outlook so that one can focus more effectively on the inquiry into one's nature. The happiness and liberation indicated by the great nondual world teachings are best realized when the only outstanding personal issue is liberation itself. If the mind is busy with other things such as the satisfaction of worldly desires or the attainment of emotional bliss states, then advaita will be derailed and co-opted to serve these other purposes. Liberation must be sought for its own sake (or for the sake of all beings), not as a means to another personal end.

Shankara's Qualification List

Adi Shankara, in his introductory advaita text TATTVA BODHA (Knowledge of Reality/Truth) actually lists four qualifications for the study into the truth of one's nature. Basically, Shankara is recommending a well-balanced approach to inquiring into Truth.

  1. Discrimination -- The ability to discriminate between the eternal and the timebound.
  2. Dispassion -- Dispassion for the enjoyment of the fruits of one's actions.
  3. The Six Accomplishments --
    1. Control of the mind and emotions
    2. Control of the sense organs, restraining behavior
    3. Responsibility, ability to do one's duty
    4. Patience and forbearance towards pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, pleasant and unpleasant
    5. Trust in the words of the teacher and scriptures/teachings
    6. Ability to focus on a single object of mind
  4. The burning desire for liberation

Shankara's List -- Do I Have To?

Perhaps not. But quite often the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If the yogas are practiced in an unbalanced manner, the aspirant will tend to cultivate impressive strengths in some areas while developing weaknesses in other areas. The weaknesses can later arise as the squeaky wheel that turns, calling for attention just when the nondual inquiry is being attempted.

Each of the yogas emphasizes different aspects of the person with all its various strengths, weaknesses, and imperfections. Each yoga cultivates different personality qualities. By the time one has cultivated karma, bhakti and raja yoga, one has developed the equivalents of Shankara's four qualifications. For example, karma yoga cultivates a sense of selflessness, generosity, a moral approach in dealing with others, energy and a motivation to do one's duty. Bhakti yoga cultivates a sense of love, devotion, morality, generosity, gratitude, serenity and joy. Raja yoga cultivates moderation, constraint, morality, discipline, fortitude, meditation, concentration and confidence. Jnana yoga cultivates peace, sharpness of intellect, contemplation, joy, and the ability to see all as the Self.

The four yogas and their personality traits work in a sort of progressive and cumulative way, like Maslow's Hierarchy. Jnana yoga is easier if one has the personality traits from raja, bhakti and karma yoga. Raja yoga is easier if one has the traits from bhakti and karma yoga. Bhakti yoga is easier if one has the traits from karma yoga. All of the yogas interact with all the others, but the main cumulations are in the direction indicated.

Qualifications - How Do I Go About Them?

How are these qualifications attained? According to advaita vedanta, it is by practicing the other yogas -- karma, bhakti and raja yoga. These paths cultivate the qualifications in the form of personality and character traits that help stabilize the mind for the pursuit of a nondual path. The more preparation one has had in these other paths, the more ready one will become like Ramana Maharshi's example of the “dry wood,” ready to ignite in a flash.

The Yogas and Personality Traits (Chart)

The links below will display a chart depicting karma, bhakti, raja and jnana yoga. Each yoga is briefly explained, along with its concept of liberation, the character attributes it cultivates, and the excesses that can happen if at some point that yoga is not balanced with the other yogas.

Yoga Chart (pdf)

Yoga Chart (png)

Yoga Chart (gif)


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Jerry Katz
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