It might seem difficult to accept the Vedāntic assertion that knowledge is the one and only direct path to mokṣa. It might be difficult for some to accept that meditation isn’t a direct path to mokṣa, that yoga isn’t a direct path to mokṣa, that living a devotional lifestyle with prayer and hymns and attending temple / mosque / church isn’t a direct path to mokṣa. Too much has been invested in following these practices. So hearing that knowledge alone is what ultimately frees one from self-ignorance is something that raises resistance, because what’s meant by ‘knowledge’ is usually misunderstood. ‘The path of knowledge’ is seen as a dry undertaking that is suitable only for scholarly types, characterised by the need to understand Sanskrit, to follow convoluted arguments and study countless obscure texts.
Some may ask why, if there was only one path, are the chapters of the Gītā given names like ‘The Path of Meditation’, ‘The Path of Action’, ‘The Path of Devotion’. The simple answer is that this is a mistranslation of the word ‘yoga’ in the titles ‘Dhyāna Yoga’, ‘Karma Yoga’, ‘Bhakti Yoga’, etc. The word ‘yoga’ in this context means ‘concerning’. This we have a chapter concerning action or concerning meditation or concerning devotion. By dismissing them as direct paths to mokṣa, however, does not mean that they have no place in the life.
Dharmic action, the practice of meditation, devotional practices do have their place in preparing the mind and thus should not be abandoned. But for them to actually play a role in the journey of enlightenment, they are not enough o their own. But there is a master key to unlock the potential in all such activities: the transformative factor is knowing that mokṣa is the ultimate goal that every person, knowingly or unknowingly, aims for.
However erudite a person may be, if there is no strong desire for mokṣa their mental gymnastics might at best deliver some intellectual pleasure but will not lead to mokṣa. However deeply a person meditates, however intense their yoga practice or heartfelt their devotion, the result might be peace, fitness or emotional comfort but, without the desire for mokṣa, there will be no preparedness for mokṣa. Without a desire for mokṣa even the karma yoga lifestyle (so highly praised in the Gītā as one of the two legitimate lifestyles) will merely deliver some merit that leads to ‘higher realms’ or results in relative contentment on earth.
Some may object: ‘But I do largely live a karma yoga lifestyle (as described in part 1 of this essay): I am god fearing, I do my duty, and I study with a teacher. Surely that will eventually lead to mokṣa without my having to go through the sannyāsa stage.’
The response to this person is to point that their statement indicates two things: first that it appears unlikely that they really understand what the ‘sannyāsa stage’ actually entails, and secondly that the value of a commitment to the pursuit of mokṣa is not fully appreciated. The reason the karma yoga lifestyle is recommended is for its unique ability to quell the agitated and desire-driven mind. Without a steady and pure mind there cannot be mokṣa. This unique potential of karma yoga lifestyle is delivered ONLY if there is clarity that the purpose of living the life is to free oneself from the mistake of identifying oneself with the mind-body-sense complex. Merely wanting to live an ethical stress-free life in pursuit of security and relative happiness is not the idea. This lesser life (albeit preferable to a pleasure seeking, security driven life) will not deliver the additional benefit of mental tranquillity and steadiness. And mental tranquillity and steadiness is vital condition if we wish to understand the subtle teachings of Vedānta śāstra.
The same teaching will be heard differently according to the aspirant’s mental preparedness and thus will not necessarily lead to mokṣa. A mind that still needs to be purified and steadied through karma yoga is still likely to misunderstand the vision of Vedānta, however well taught by one who is versed in scriptures and rooted in the vision of the oneness of individual and Brahman. Conversely, a prepared mind of one who lives such a life with understanding of its ultimate purpose will grasp the subtle teaching relatively quickly and will contemplate deeply the truth of one’s true identity that is known thereby. In this sense there are two kinds of knowledge as far as aspirants are concerned: the poorly understood and the correctly understood.
Poorly understood knowledge takes several forms: one doesn’t really believe that mokṣa is the only valid aim of life; there is no concept of Īśvara, and thus action is not dedicated to the Lord; one doesn’t really believe that ‘I am not the producer of the fruits of action’; it is impossible to let go of one’s erroneous assumption about who I am and how I need to go about activities because ‘my life’ might fall apart if I change; sannyāsa is erroneously equated to shaved heads, saffron robes and isolation from society; one believes that silence is the ultimate path or that god saves those who are highly devout; there is no trust in the guidance of a qualified teacher; the inner teaching of śāstram is misunderstood in the belief that self-study and meditation are capable of delivering ‘realisation’.
Karma Yoga is meant to purify and steady the mind by engendering dispassion. Such a lifestyle will inevitably challenge one’s conduct on two levels: one’s unexamined beliefs about ‘how things are’ (ontological assumptions) and, springing from these ‘truths’, ‘how one lives one’s life’ (existential behaviours). If the so-called karma yoga lifestyle has no ontological or existential impact it is not the fault of karma yoga: it is a failure to embrace it fully, born of a fear of letting go of ‘my life’ and strong emotional entanglements with ‘my responsibilities’. Without total detachment from ‘my life’ and ‘my responsibilities’, there is no mokṣa .
This is what Ādi Śaṅkara repeatedly emphasises throughout his Gita commentary:
‘In the case of him who thinks that the Self is the doer of actions, there will necessarily arise the idea that he has this or that thing to do. A man who possesses this sort of knowledge is qualified for actions, and on him actions are enjoined. Such a man is unenlightened… the man who has seen the immutable Self and the man who is eager for emancipation have only to renounce all works.’ (my italics) (Bhagavad Gītā. Śāstry translation,. p45)
‘Devotion to action is a means to the end, not directly, but only as leading to devotion to knowledge; whereas the latter, which is attained by means of devotion to action, leads to the goal directly, without extraneous help.’ (BhG3.3 commentary, ibid p93)
‘Action should be performed by the ignorant man… till he attains the qualification for Devotion to the knowledge of the Self…’ (BhG3.16 commentary, ibid p102)
‘Saṅkhyas are those who are devoted to knowledge and have renounced the world. They reach the state called mokṣa. The same state is reached by Yogins also – but indirectly through the attainment of true knowledge and renunciation…” (BhG5.5 commentary, ibid p162)
‘This assigning of the two paths to two distinct classes of people would be unjustifiable if the Lord had intended a simultaneous conjunction of knowledge and Vedic rites.’ (This is the conclusion of a detailed argument refuting the conjunction theory, ibid. p23-25).
From these quotations not only are we appraised of the distinction between the two lifestyles for two different seekers, but also that the karma yoga lifestyle is a preparation for the path of knowledge. It is knowledge alone that leads to the dispelling of self-ignorance. And the dispelling of self-ignorance is mokṣa. Meditation, worship, yoga, prayer, good acts, ethics, etc can all be seen as delivering a sharp mind. This sharp mind is what cuts through the ignorance. If, after all the sharpening, the mind is not applied to knowledge, then how can ignorance be dispelled? It is like a hungry man who sharpens the knife in advance of chopping vegetables in order to prepare the meal that ends the hunger, but instead of using the sharp knife, he keeps on and on sharpening but never cutting the vegetables. He will die hungry.
The bottom line is this: the pain of life comes from self-ignorance. Self-ignorance is removed by self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is supported by devotion to knowledge as the fundamental aim of the life. All other activity is in support of this end. One pursues security and happiness in conformity with righteousness for the sake of self-knowledge. One does the needful because not doing so disturbs the mind and a disturbed mind is no good for the subtlety of self-knowledge. So, if the ultimate end is clear, all those activities that are taken for distinct paths all lead to one end: a prepared mind, and only indirectle to self-knowledge. And this prepared mind needs to be applied to the understanding of Self through study of the master teachings with a qualified teacher for self-ignorance to be dispelled.
All paths thus lead to one path and that one path alone leads to enlightenment.