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Way to God - Should it be Karma, Bhakti or Jnana Marga for me?
Which is the best way to God?
Man is on the quest to get the best for himself. Whether it is selecting a pen for writing or a life-partner to share a relationship with, the person seeks the best. The term ‘best’ has different meaning for different people. The ‘best’ pen could mean either the smoothest writing one, the longest lasting one or the cheapest one available depending on the person who is defining that term. So it becomes very difficult to answer the question,
“Which is the best pen?”
In spirituality too, when one asks,
“Which is the best way to God/fulfillment?”, it becomes a tough question to answer because it is difficult to answer what ‘best’ means. Does it mean the fastest way; or the easiest way; or the simplest way?
Traditionally, it has been said that there are three ways to God:
1. The Bhakti Marga (Path of devotion) - Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion and service to God. All actions are done in the context of remembering the Divine. It involves singing the Lord’s glories, hearing them, talking about them, Japam etc.
2. The Karma Marga (Path of action) - Karma Yoga is the path of action where one does the action without being attached to the fruits of action. Therefore, at a practical level, it gets comprised of selfless actions, service to others, mindfulness, and remembering the levels of our being while fulfilling our actions or karma in the world. It involves engaging in serving the needy, helping the less-fortunate etc.
3. The Jnana Marga (Path of knowledge) - Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation. It involves deep exploration of the nature of our being by systematically exploring and setting aside false identities.
There is also another path called as the Raja Marga. But I shall not go into that simply because I have not heard my master, Swami (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba) speak much about it. Also, it is of a later historical origin, possibly in 400 CE and was evolved by sage Patanjali. Therefore, we shall leave it out of this discussion. Even when the three ways have been presented, the question arises,
“Three ways are fine for classification; which one among them is the best?”
Cause for doubt
This doubt arises because of ‘indigestion in the head’ as Swami puts it. Swami has spoken a lot about the power of love and devotion. When one hears it, it feels as the best path. But He has also spoken about service and how it is supreme - hands that help are holier than lips that pray. Again, there have been discourses where He has categorically stated that no amount of service or prayer is of any use if one does not realize that everything is the manifestation of the divine. It appears as though each path is supreme when Swami speaks about it.
Two analogies from Swami throw a lot of light on this doubt. I have not ‘heard’ these directly from Swami but from elders for whom Swami clarified the same.
The first analogy drives home a beautiful point. It says,
“Do not ask which is the best path. Instead, ask - ‘Which is the best path for me?’ “
The analogy, combined with the technique to recognize which part of Swami’s discourse is meant for oneself makes things so clear.
The three-wheeler analogy...
The journey to God or oneSelf is made through a three-wheeler. Each wheel represents respectively the Bhakti Marga, the Karma Marga and the Jnana Marga. Based on one’s inclination and aptitude, one can place either of them as the front wheel. But the other two wheels are important too.
So, one can choose to sing bhajans and do namasmarana. That does not exempt one from doing service and inquiring into the Reality of the Self. The same holds good for one engaged in service or meditation - no exemption from the other two. This is because, all the three are necessary if one has to proceed towards one’s goal - oneself or God.
The corollary to this analogy is that if a person of the path of devotion says that he does not care about serving others or realizing his reality, then, he is actually not on any path! The same way, one cannot lock oneself up in the room saying,
“I will serve none nor worship none. I shall realize the divine within.”
Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest exponent of the Advaita philosophy (non-dualism) is universally regarded to have followed the Jnana Marga. But, he is the composer of many hymns in praise of the Lord - including the Ganesha Pancharatnam which is just a description of the beauty and glory of Lord Ganesha!
M.S.Subbulakshmi renders the Ganesha Pancharatnam
The clock analogy...
The second analogy is very beautiful and powerful. It lays all doubts to rest and shows the harmony that exists between each of these ‘paths’. Swami told this on the 28th of March, 1968 in a discourse at Venkatagiri. He has mentioned it on many other occasions as well. This is how Swami put it.
When you consider a clock, there are three hands on it. One is a second hand, another is a minute-hand and the third one is the hour-hand. The second-hand travels very fast, moving round the 12 numbers in 60 seconds, while, during this time, the minute hand moves through only the little mark or division. After the minute-hand travels through sixty divisions, the hour hand moves through one hour. Sixty seconds make one minute and sixty minutes make one hour.
The second-hand is Karma Yoga or the path of action. It is easy to do a good deed and one has to keep doing them. The minute-hand is Bhakti Yoga or the path of devotion. When one does many good deeds, one gets good and noble thoughts - thoughts worthy of offering to the Lord. The hour-hand is the Jnana Yoga or the path of wisdom. When one is saturated with many good and noble thoughts, one gets an insight.
So, all the three- action, devotion and knowledge are a must. One cannot move without the other and one loses meaning without the other! Swami further adds that because the second-hand and the minute-hand travel relatively fast, we are able to see their motion. The hour-hand travels slowly, we are not able to see its movement. But as long as we do good and get good feelings, we should know that we are progressing.
I felt convinced of one thing, I can never say that I will not serve because I like only singing bhajans. Nor can I say that I shall not attend bhajans because it is enough if I sit in my inner room and meditate. When one is on The Path, one finds joys in all the three - Karma, Bhakti and Jnana - and does all the three too!
And then, I got a confirmation through the above beautiful illustration on the Radiosai website. Nobody can have any doubt for His name itself embodies all the three! :)
There was once an exhibition put up by the students in the Higher Secondary School premises at Puttaparthi and Bhagawan Baba had arrived to inaugurate it. Moving around the different exhibits, He came to a display of the three paths - Karma, Bhakti and Jnana. The exhibit showed a bullock cart, a car and an aeroplane. Swami asked the student who had made the exhibit to explain it.
"Swami, on the path of Karma, the aspirant moves very slow. That is represented by the bullock cart. The path of Bhakti is relatively faster and is shown by the car. The fastest path is that of Jnana and is represented by the aeroplane."
Swami smiled at the boy and his enthusiasm. However, before moving on, He made a quick comment,
"But remember, if one falls out from an aeroplane, there is no getting up at all!", and walked to the next exhibit.
Wow! What a revelation! The path of action may appear slow but it is the safest. The path of knowledge is the fastest but is fraught with great danger. The path of devotion seems to be a happy blend of speed and safety.
Ultimately, as the tricycle analogy showed, it boils down to one's preference and choice. The 'main' path or the 'front wheel' can be chosen. But the other two paths, the 'back wheels' inevitably follow. That would be a good rule-of-the-thumb to judge whether one is on any path.
If I am on a path, I will not detest the other two paths. I will, in fact, appreciate them and put efforts to inculcate them too because they are necessary for me.
After all, was not Adi Shankaracharya, the great Advaithin, also a great proponent of devotion as he composed the famous Madhurashtakam? Was not Tukaram, the inspiring devotee, also an epitome of service? And was not Mother Teresa, a great Karma Yogi immersed in service also a reservoir of wisdom?
Which one would you place as the front wheel of your three wheeler?
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© 2012 Aravind Balasubramanya