Two lifestyles and two sAdhanAs for moksha

There are four ashramas(stages) of human life according to Vedic tradition. They are brahmacharya (student life), grihastha(householder), vAnaprastha(gradual withdrawal from family), and sannyAsa ( renunciation). They are compatible with four purushArthas (human goals): artha(wealth), kama(desires), dharma (morality and ethics), and moksha (liberation). Moksha is the ultimate goal. It has two aspects, namely, freedom from suffering in the present life and freedom from rebirth. Two important spiritual sAdhanAs(disciplines) for moksha are karma yoga and jnAna yoga. As the name suggests, karma yoga is action-oriented and jnAna yoga is knowledge-oriented. For the purpose of simplicity, karma yoga is taken to include all action-based disciplines, e.g., rituals and upAsanA (meditation). Brahmacharya is preparatory to grihastha and vAnaprastha is preparatory to sannyAsa. Accordingly, grihastha is taken to include brahmacharya and sannyAsa includes vAnaprastha. Thus, there are broadly two lifestyles: grihastha and sannyAsa, and two sAdhanAs: karma yoga and jnAna yoga. Sri Krishna praises both karma and jnAna in Bhagavat Gita (BG)

Sri Krishna praises knowledge: verses 2.11, 2.52, 2.54, 2.55 and 2.72
2.11. Sri Krishna questions Arjuna that he grieves for those who need not be grieved for and at the same time he speaks as if he is wise. A wise person does not grieve for the dead or for the living. Here, Sri Krishna is seen praising wisdom, i.e., knowledge.

2.52. When the intellect is free from delusion about what is important and what is unimportant in life, then one attains dispassion towards all known or yet to be unknown external dependencies. He becomes independent. Here again, the value of knowledge is stressed.

2.54. Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to describe sthitpragyAn, a wise man who is established in the Self: how does he speak, sit and walk?

2.55. Krishna says sthitpragyAn is one who has got inner contentment by giving up all desires originating in the mind. Such a person is said to be of firm knowledge.

2.72. Krishna describes brahmsthitiḥ. It is the state of a person who has a clear understanding of his/her true nature as consciousness. S/he is not deluded and attains oneness with Brahman.

3.6. A deluded person mentally dwells on sense objects even if s/he physically restrained the sense organs. S/he is called a hypocrite.

Sri Krishna praises action in verses 2.47and 2.48
In verse 2.47, Sri Krishna describes the essence of karma yoga. A karma yogi knows that he has a choice over action and not over the result of the action. The result depends on many factors and not only on the doer’s action. If the result of the action is not in one’s control, there may be a tendency to not perform the action. It is not desirable. One must perform the action. In 2.48, it is advised that action should be performed without attachment to the result of the action. It additionally means that the doer maintains equanimity whether the result is favourable or otherwise.

Arjuna’s confusion- verses 3.1, 3.2, 5.1 and 5.2
Sri Krishna has highlighted the importance of both action and knowledge. Arjuna is therefore confused. In 3.1, he asks Krishna: If according to Sri Krishna, knowledge is
superior to doing the action, then, why He is asking Arjuna to engage in a war full of cruel deeds of killing, etc? Therefore in 3.2, Arjuna says to Sri Krishna that he is bewildered by Sri Krishna’s seemingly conflicting statements. In 5.1, Arjuna raises the same question to Sri Krishna in a different way: You are praising karma-sannyasa and karma yoga. Arjuna has no choice but to plead with Krishna to clarify in clear terms which is better, knowledge or action so that he can attain the supreme.

Krishna’s replies: verses 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.7,4.15,4.38, 5.2,5.4,5.5,5.6 and 5.11
3.3 Along with the creation of the world twofold disciplines have been taught by Him in the form of jnAna-yoga for those who have discriminative knowledge and in the form of karma yoga for performers of work, i.e., action-oriented.

3.4. By avoiding action or mere renunciation a person does not attain liberation.

3.5. Sure enough, no one can remain without action even for a moment, because
everyone is helplessly made to engage in action by the force of gunAs.

3.7 One who engages in karma-yoga using the organs of action (controlled by the mind) and is unattached excels.

4.15 Having known thus, works were performed even by the ancient seekers of liberation. Therefore, you too undertake action as was done by the ancient ones.

4.38 There is nothing as purifying as knowledge. One who is perfected by karma yoga realizes the Self in course of time.

5.2. Both sannyAsa and karma yoga are conducive to liberation. However, of the two, karma yoga is better than sannyAsa.

5.4The fools alone, not the wise, regard the path of knowledge and karma as different. One who properly undertakes even one (of them) gets the result of both. 

5.5The status reached by sAmkhyAs is also reached by yogis. He who perceives so correctly perceives, i.e., both are the same.

5.6 It is difficult to attain renunciation without karma-yoga.  Equipped with yoga, the silent sage attains Brahman without delay.

5.11 Yogis perform work, without attachment, merely through the body, mind, intellect, and organs, for their own purification.

There are two broad disciplines, namely, karma yoga and jnAna yoga. According to Advaita, human problems of suffering and bondage are because of ignorance of one’s true nature (Self) that is Sat, Chit, and Ananda. Since ignorance is the cause, the solution is Self-knowledge. In other words, jnAna yoga is the ultimate means of moksha. This knowledge is not ordinary knowledge of worldly objects. It is about oneself, the subject. As it is subtle and has to take place in mind, it requires a mature and prepared mind. Karma yoga is the means to prepare the mind. Therefore, karma yoga is as important as jnAna yoga. Though karma is necessary, it is insufficient. If moksha is the goal, karma yoga is incomplete without jnAna yoga and conversely, jnAna yoga is not possible without karma yoga.
The two broad lifestyles are grihastha and sannyAsa, the former is primarily action-based, and the latter is knowledge-based. Does it mean that for moksha, a seeker has to necessarily take to sannyAsa to pursue jnAna yoga? The answer is no. Janaka was a king and he was a jivanmukta. There are also examples of sages who have pursued knowledge while living a family life. It means that in grihastha ashrama a seeker can purify and prepare the mind by following karma yoga and then pursue jnAna yoga as a grihastha, i.e., the objective is to become a grihastha jnAni. Verse 4.20 is relevant: remaining ever satisfied and independent, and renouncing the attachment towards the result of the action, he never performs any action, though very much engaged in action. There is a second option. A mature grihastha instead of continuing in grihastha ashrama, can at some stage take up sannyAsa for spiritual pursuits of knowledge. There is a third path that is suitable for a minority of seekers. A seeker can skip grihastha and directly take up sannyAsa. In this case, a seeker has to purify the mind by following prescribed karmas of a sannyAsi and become an adhikAri (prepared) to pursue knowledge, the goal being sannyasi jnAni. It is a risky path and is meant for very few seekers who are mature enough to navigate through the challenges of a sannyAsi. Verse 4.21 is relevant: after renouncing all possessions and restraining the mind and body and being free from desires, a seeker is engaged in the minimum activity required for the maintenance of the body without attachment. Such a seeker does not incur sin. He is free from karmAs.
It is worth mentioning that both grihastha and sannyAsi lifestyles have merits and demerits. In grihastha life, there is security whereas there is minimal security in sannyAsa. Furthermore, a sannyAsi is not permitted by scriptures to return to grihastha. In grihastha, there are distractions that are absent in sannyAsa.

Conclusion A seeker has a choice to choose between the two lifestyles: grihastha and sannyAsa. S/he has no choice as regards two sAdhanAs: karma yoga and jnAna yoga. S/he has to undertake both serially, first karma yoga primarily to purify and prepare the mind and then jnAna yoga. It seems that Sri Krishna recommends the path of a grihastha jnAni because it is suitable for the majority of seekers, Arjuna included.

Primary source: Swami Parmarthananda’s lectures on Bhagvat Gita, available on






11 thoughts on “Two lifestyles and two sAdhanAs for moksha

  1. “The two broad lifestyles are grihastha and sannyasa, the former is primarily action-based, and the latter is knowledge-based. Does it mean that for moksha, a seeker has to necessarily take to sannyasa to pursue jnana yoga? The answer is no. Janaka was a king and he was a jivanmukta. It means that in grihastha ashrama a seeker can purify and prepare the mind by following karma yoga and then pursue jnana yoga as a grihastha, i.e., the objective is to become a grihastha jnani.”

    In contrast to the above, for Shankara and his orthodox followers, entrance into the spiritual path is not wholly a matter of individual choice. Shankara accepts the Brahminical elitism of classical Vedanta and adds a restriction that made the tradition even more exclusive. Shankara admits only a select few male Brahmins as eligible for the path of knowledge. Direct access to moksha is available only to sannyasins whose life is focused on Brahman to the exclusion of all other activity and all social ties (see BSB 3.4.20 and Upadeshasahasri 2.1.2, Mayeda’s translation). Only such individuals qualify for the path of knowledge, which forms the direct means to immortality. Others are eligible only for the paths of selfless action and devotion. It’s easy to see from this that the number of those who can gain moksha in this life is extremely small. Shankara does concede there may be some exceptions to this rule, e.g. Janaka, as noted above (see BGB 2.10 and 3.20). But Shankara is non-committal as to whether or not Janaka is truly a knower of Brahman. The traditional advaitic explanation for the spiritual attainment of non-Brahmins who have either not renounced or not had access to the Veda is that they have done so in previous lives. Those in the active life (the rest of us) have two lesser options-be satisfied with krama-mukti (gradual liberation) and a wait of countless thousands of years until the current world-cycle comes to an end. The other is to hope for rebirth as a male Brahmin. C’est la vie.

  2. Good summary, Bimal! It also cannot be over-emphasized that it is ONLY knowledge that gives mokSha. I.e. not any sort of ‘combination’ of knowledge and action. And one does not have to ‘do’ anything after gaining the knowledge, in order to somehow ‘activate’ it or ‘realize’ it. I.e. it is not the case that the knowledge itself is only ‘intellectual’ and requires subsequent anubhava of some kind.

    Shankara talks about all this at length (samuchchaya vAda) in several places (MuNDaka bhAShya and Upadesha sAhasrI I think).

  3. [Dennis says] “one does not have to ‘do’ anything after gaining the knowledge, in order to somehow ‘activate’ it or ‘realize’ it. i.e. it is not the case that the knowledge itself is only ‘intellectual’ and requires subsequent anubhava of some kind.”

    Trying to understanding the nature and function of anubhava in Advaita has resulted in many a writer on the subject burning the midnight oil in search of enlightenment and, if need be, a publisher. I’ve provided the link to a recent clear and informed discussion that “revisits the debate between those defending the view that Brahman can be known only through the words of scripture (shruti) and those who appear to accord a unique status to experience (anubhava) as a means to Brahman-realization independent of shruti – a debate that to my mind rests on a confusion regarding the nature and function of anubhava as a unique mode of cognition transcending ordinary knowing, which, while undermining the view that it is an independent or alternative means of Brahman-realization or brahmajnana, in no way affects the identification of Advaita as a system of thought whose metaphysical claims can only be fully realized in mystical experience.”


    • If the link provided doesn’t take you directly to Alan Preti’s paper try clicking on ‘Search for another location’. That should do the trick (I hope).

      • Thank you very much, Rick. Managed to download the article and am reading it carefully; very interesting.

    • From the article linked by Rick above – (page 728)
      Is Sankara hinting that “realization” is a moment to moment phenomenon, whether you call it “knowledge” or “experiencing”?
      The value of contemplation is addressed further in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, where Šańkara recognizes that once having attained brahmajnana it may be necessary to keep the insight constantly before the mind, given the role that karma continues to play in fostering the illusion of diversity even after the truth is realized, “for actions that have begun to bear fruit are stronger than knowledge.”’° The point is that Brahman-realization was preceded by a series of actions, both in former lives and the present life, some of which have produced effects; and just as we have to wait for the potter’s wheel to stop once the efficient cause is removed, we like- wise have to wait for the fruit of “wrong knowledge” to run its course even after it has been sublated, as it “Iasts for some time . . . given the impression it has made.”” In such a case, contemplation will serve to keep the mind steadfast and focused on the truth.

  4. About Shankara it is said that his ‘target audience’ is a sannyAsi. In BSB 3.4.20, he says that sannyAsa is indispensable for jnAna yoga. Swami Parmarthananda has some insight into it. Shankara’s view should be understood in the context of contemporary lifestyle (and to the pre-Shankara period- my addition). A grihastha was so occupied with a number of obligatory and non-obligatory Vedic rituals that he had hardly any spare time to devote to the pursuit of knowledge. Rituals were part and parcel of a Vedic grihastha life and the pursuit of knowledge even if one wanted to undertake would have been a remote priority. Therefore, there was a commitment to the rituals. An unwavering commitment is a prerequisite in the path of knowledge. Viewed in this background, a seeker had to necessarily give up grihastha and enter sannyAsa so as to pursue knowledge. On the other hand, in a typical modern-day family, the Vedic ritual is absent or minimal. There is no need to formally abdicate grihastha and take up sannyAsa. There are monks who are active and grihastha who are not so active and engaged in knowledge. In Shankara’s time (and before), it was necessary for a seeker to follow sannyAsa in letter and spirit. In the present-day situation, it is sufficient to adhere to sannyAsa in spirit.

    • Thanks, bimal. Although the rituals may be absent or minimal in today’s households most adults that I know, even those few with a keen interest in studying Vedanta, are too busy dealing with the daily exigencies of family life to devote a significant portion of their remaining spare time and energy to the pursuit of knowledge, especially to the extent stipulated by the tradition. And focusing exclusively on Brahman would most certainly create difficulties for an employee trying to meet a deadline at work!

      But I agree that Advaita changes with the times and must continue to do so if it is to remain a living tradition, even though some may see it as opting out of convenience for a version of ‘Advaita Light’.

  5. Thanks for that pointer, Bimal. I had not encountered the notion that seekers had to become saMnyAsI-s in order to ‘escape from’ the traditional rituals of the gRRihasta. It certainly helps explain why Shankara would have placed so much importance on it.

  6. In the comments on the post, two issues have surfaced: (I)knowledge vs experience, and (II) whether Self-knowledge is to be followed by some action. I can think of a few common sense differences between knowledge and experience: 1 An experience can be described by the experiencer but not transmitted. A possessor of knowledge can describe it and also transmit it as such.
    2 Experience is fundamentally personal even if it is made public. Knowledge ceases to be personal when it is made public.
    3 An experience is by nature temporary and time-specific and immediately lapses into memory. Experience and memory do not co-exist. Knowledge is not time-specific and is permanent.
    4 Conclusion drawn from experience may not be reliable. Knowledge is trustworthy.
    Based on the above, it is easy to decide if Self-realization is knowledge or experience.
    SureswarAcharyA has dealt with the second issue in Naiskarmasiddhi. An extract from my post: Karma, jnAna and moksha (part 3/5) is given below.
    “Samuchchay (continued from Part 2)
    8.31 Knowledge is to be followed by action
    Advocate (K3) of this view holds that Self- knowledge arises in two stages, namely, knowledge through sravan followed by knowledge through meditation. The sravan stage knowledge falls short of realization that is converted by meditation into realization and liberation. K3 also argues that even if knowledge arises at the stage of sravan, the common experience is that it gets weakened gradually with the rise of adverse emotions and ignorance takes over. Therefore, it is argued that knowledge acquired by sravan is not sufficient to destroy ignorance for good. It needs further support by way of karmas, such as meditation.
    8.32 Refutation
    The Acharya does not agree. He says that proper sravan is sufficient to give liberation. No new knowledge is acquired by meditation. Mediation, etc, is needed for sAdhanA chatushtAya sampathi so that a seeker becomes an adhikAri for Vedanta teaching. Sravana is the primary sAdhanA for Self-knowledge and liberation. All other sAdhanAs are subsidiaries. The AchArya is firm that once ignorance is gone, in no way it will come back otherwise it will be in violation of the maxim, namely, ignorance is beginningless. Then the question is why does one entertain adverse notions of duality, and suffering after gaining knowledge? The explanation is that ignorance is not responsible for the emergence of erroneous notions. The vAsanAs are responsible. JnAna destroys avidyA, not the avidyA vAsanAs. The next question is whether any karmas are required to cure adverse vAsanAs. No, says the Acharya. NidhidhyAsana, i.e., Vedantic meditation (not yogic meditation) is sufficient to firm up jnAna vAsnAs so that whenever adverse vAsanAs arise, jnAna vAsanAs should get automatically triggered for a good seeker and neutralize the opposite emotions. He need not deliberately invoke jnAna vAsanA. It is to be noted that nidhidhyAana does not give any new knowledge. Knowledge is full and complete at the sravan stage.”

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