Yoga Ladder

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    Manya Gaur

    Hare Krsna

    Sir in one of your articles you have described the yoga ladder as:

    • Jñāna-yoga is the lowest,
    • Aśtānga-yoga is the next higher,
    • Karma-yoga is the next higher,
    • Working for Kṛṣṇa is the next higher,
    • Regulated bhakti-yoga is the next higher,
    • Full absorption in Kṛṣṇa is the highest.

    But Srila Prabhupad writes in a letter:

    Astanga Yoga is better than Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga is on the level of Astanga Yoga. But the Bhakti Yoga is the ultimate goal of all Yogas.

    In a conversation also he speaks that Karma yoga is higher than Bhakti yoga:

    Prabhupāda: Yes, vaidhī-bhakti means regulative principles, and when you are accustomed, automatically you perform, that is rāga-bhakti.

    Makhanlal: So vaidhī-bhakti is considered superior to karma-yoga then.

    Prabhupāda: Huh?

    Makhanlal: Vaidhī-bhakti is considered superior to karma-yoga.

    Prabhupāda: No. Karma-yoga is better.

    Makhanlal: Karma-yoga is better?

    Prabhupāda: Yes.

    Yaśomatīnandana: Pure bhakti is superior.

    Prabhupāda: Pure bhakti is śravaṇaṁ kīrtanam. Śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇu-smaraṇaṁ pāda-sevanam, that is pure bhakti. [break]

    Yaśomatīnandana: …formed by anybody.

    Prabhupāda: Eh?

    Yaśomatīnandana: Karma-yoga.

    Prabhupāda: Unless one is inclined to take to devotion, it is not possible to take to karma-yoga. Who can sacrifice the profit?

    Yaśomatīnandana: Does karma-yoga mean to follow exactly the śāstras?

    Prabhupāda: Karma-yoga means yat karoṣi yaj juhoṣi kuruṣva tat mad-arpaṇam [Bg 9.27].

    Yaśomatīnandana: Doing only for Kṛṣṇa.

    Prabhupāda: Yes. That is karma-yoga.

    I request you to explain these contradictions Sir. Thank you!

    Ashish Dalela

    The yoga ladder given in Bhagavad Gita is top-down rather than bottom-up (as most of us think of ladders). You don’t have to start at the bottommost level and then rise to the highest level. Rather, you try to do the highest level and if you cannot do that, then try to go to the next lower level. If you cannot do that, then you go to the next lower level. In this way, you step down 5 times if you cannot do the highest-level process. But don’t make a show of doing the topmost level while not truly doing it.

    Prabhupada tried to give the highest process to everyone, asking everyone to surrender to Krishna. But since that was not likely to work, therefore, he gave everyone a devotional practice. Since that was not working, he advised everyone to do the work of spreading the Krishna Consciousness movement. But most of the time, these three things were not working. Therefore, he had to go down to even lower levels. This is in accordance with the ladder given in Bhagavad Gita.

    The basic problem was that people who were a little sincere in practicing the rules and regulations became extremely puffed up and developed personal ambitions for fame and glory. Those who were not so successful, and were struggling with the rules and regulations, called this process too much austerity. Finally, there were people who were neither great at practice, nor even struggling to follow the rules and regulations, but simply trying to intellectualize the process by arguing incessantly about what should be done by citing some quotation somewhere.

    To curtail personal ambitions, Prabhupada would talk about karma-yoga, which means just doing the work without personal ambitions. Since people were falling down because of sex and drugs, therefore, he prescribed various kinds of austerities such as waking up early, fasting on numerous days to reduce the passion in the body, reducing the amount of eating, and living very simply and frugally. Since people were trying to intellectualize everything by citing some statement, without checking if that statement applied to that situation, hence, he asked everyone to study the books deeply rather than the superficial scholarship of quotations.

    The children of this generation are not aware of Prabhupada’s challenges, because the generation that followed him does not talk about their shortcomings. Prabhupada’s disciples did not understand the level of seriousness required for spiritual progress. Many of them were interested in personal glory, going to heaven without sacrifice, or trying to become a preacher by reading some tidbits. Due to a lack of seriousness, Prabhupada’s program of giving everyone the highest level process had more or less failed. Therefore, he was asking everyone to go down the ladder, quite similar to how Krishna prescribes ladder descent in Bhagavad-Gita.

    When he says karma-yoga is better, he is talking to people working for personal ambition. When he says ashtanga-yoga is better, he is talking to people who want success without hardships. When he says jnana-yoga is better, he is talking to people who think they are already enlightened without studying anything seriously.

    Prabhupada was telling everyone: “This is not good enough, do some more”. He was sometimes chastizing people, sometimes calling them Kanistha Adhikari, and sometimes saying that their practice was not even on par with people on the other paths such as jnana-yoga, astanga-yoga, or karma-yoga. He was not making universalist points. His points were all made out of his personal experience trying to deal with a wide variety of people struggling to do what he was asking.

    Instead of trying to universalize what he is saying, try to understand the ladder, why one has to go down the ladder, why going down is considered better than making a show of being superior, and yet, after going down, one also goes up eventually. It will come if you practice because by practice one realizes one’s own problems and then understands why so much complexity exists. The complexity exists because we are not ready to do the best thing. Either we find simple things very hard, or we are distracted by the sideshow rather than the main show, or we want success too easily. When these situations arise, then complexity arises. It is not because the path is complex. It is because we are very complex and so it becomes complex for us.

    Manya Gaur

    Thanks for explaining it to me Sir.

    Srila Prabhupad also writes in the purport to Bg 12.12:

    Devotional service in Kṛṣṇa consciousness is the direct method, and the other method involves renouncing the fruits of one’s activities. Then one can come to the stage of knowledge, then to the stage of meditation, then to the stage of understanding the Supersoul, and then to the stage of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

    He also writes in the book “Renunciation Through Wisdom”:

    The actual yogīs are the karma-yogīs, the jñāna-yogīs, the aṣṭāṅga-yogīs, and the bhakti-yogīs. Factually they are the same, although named differently. The yogic process is like a ladder one ascends gradually toward the final goal of the Absolute Truth. Niṣkāma-karma, or renunciation of the fruits of one’s labor, is the first step on this ladder. When knowledge and austerity are added to it, it becomes jñāna-yoga, the second step in this ladder. And when meditation on the Supreme is added to jñāna-yoga, the third step is reached, namely aṣṭāṅga-yoga. Finally, when loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord is practiced along with aṣṭāṅga-yoga, it is transformed into bhakti-yoga. This entire successive process is yoga.

    I request you to explain these passages sir. In both of them Srila Prabhupad puts Karma yoga as the first step, why?

    Ashish Dalela

    Niṣkāma-karma is the beginning of the end of a sinful life. All the sins are done because one desires some material results. Many people want results without working, so that is also sinful because they will indulge in stealing, lying, and killing. But even those who want to get results by their efforts don’t always get results proportionate to their effort. Then they start lying, cheating, stealing. Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad-Gita 3.37:

    kāma eṣha krodha eṣha rajo-guṇa-samudbhavaḥ
    mahāśhano mahā-pāpmā viddhyenam iha vairiṇam

    It is lust alone, which is born of contact with the mode of passion, and later transformed into anger. Know this as the sinful, all-devouring enemy in the world.

    Niṣkāma-karma is the freedom from this lust. It is the beginning of detachment from this world. It is the beginning of sattva-guna. Once a person gets detached, then knowledge comes quickly, meditation is successful, and then bhakti is attained. In many places in Vedic texts, a triad of vairāgya, jñāna, and bhakti is described. The first step is said to be vairāgya or detachment. This is also called Niṣkāma-karma. One is prescribed the acquisition of knowledge after one has attained vairāgya, which means that he has decided to leave this world and is now seeking jñāna of transcendence. After gaining theoretical knowledge of transcendence, he pursues that transcendence, and it is called bhakti. So, this is not a strange concept. It is given in many places in Vedic texts; the first step is vairāgya, the second step is jñāna, and the final step is bhakti.

    Niṣkāma-karma is also called karma-yoga. But it is doable only by people who are already in sattva-guna. What about people in rajo-guna and tamo-guna? What is the process for them? Krishna gives ashtanga-yoga for those in rajo-guna and jñāna-yoga for people in tamo-guna. It means that those who want materialistic enjoyment should perform severe austerities so that when they get enjoyment they will not misuse that opportunity and degrade themselves. Similarly, those who are in tamo-guna, which means laziness, ignorance, and arrogance are given the path of jñāna-yoga to baffle their mind so that they will realize that there is so much more to reality than they have imagined. In these cases, karma-yoga becomes the third step in the ladder of yoga.

    You can imagine the act of building a car. Someone will first make the wheels, someone will first make an engine, someone will first make an attractive body, and someone will just make a paper drawing. Ultimately, to make a car you need all the things. But for some person, one thing is more attractive, and for another person something else is more attractive. The attraction toward one thing over another is why they might say that something is lower or higher. It is based on their personal preferences.

    Prabhupada spent most of his life doing business, which was sometimes not doing so well. But he kept doing it to support his family. He did not abandon his family and did not dedicate himself to deep study or austerity but he did his family duties without expecting results. So he is talking about his practical realization where karma-yoga is the lowest. Then slowly he focused on knowledge and meditation. This is also a practical thing for many people with a family. It means first learning to be a moral person by giving up lust, greed, jealousy, pride, anger, and attachment. Then you will slowly become qualified to acquire the understanding of Vedic texts. Then you do meditation. Ultimately, you can devote your whole life to the service of Krishna. Prabhupada did this in his life and because he has practiced and perfected it, therefore, he is advocating it. He did not follow the path given in the Bhagavad Gita, but he followed a different path sincerely. He built a different part of the car before other parts.

    There is flexibility in the Vedic system that you don’t even have to strictly follow what Krishna says. You can also make your own path but if you are sincere then you will get the results. Ultimately, one who understands the big picture, knows that he has to do many things but right now he is able to do only one thing. That one thing he is able to do becomes the first step for him. It is not universally the first step for everyone. Many paths have been given for many types of people so that whoever can do whichever path will gradually advance using that path. They will build some parts of the car before building other parts. It is better than always trying to build a wheel, not being able to build the wheel, and then not building anything in the car.

    Beyond a certain point, it is not helpful to keep asking “What does it mean?” The right question is: “What should I do?” The key operative word here is “I”. We can say that jñāna-yoga is the lowest step but you may not be intellectually inclined. Then the door for you would be closed. Or, we can say that the first step is yama and niyama but your body and mind may not be able to handle the rules and regulations. Then again the door for you will be closed. Similarly, we can say that you must give up all your material desires and act with complete detachment but you won’t be able to give up your attachments and desires. Then again all the doors for you will be closed.

    Therefore, all these paths have been marginalized for this age. A new path has been given which you can follow. In that path, you stop sinful activities by following the four regulative principles, chanting Hare Krishna, and reading the Vedic texts. You will not get perfect knowledge immediately. You will not become capable of austerities immediately. Your desires will not be over immediately. But you will progress from the current state to a better state. If instead, you try to implement statements from various places, then you will not even be able to start yoga and you can forget about progress.

    Your questions about which yoga is better or worse are theoretical questions because the reality is that people of this age cannot do any type of yoga. Their intellect is not developed, so they cannot do jñāna-yoga. Their body and mind are weak, so they cannot do ashtanga-yoga. Their desires are too great so they cannot do karma-yoga. Their abilities are so limited that they cannot do Krishna’s work. Their mind is so dirty that they cannot do regulative bhakti-yoga. Each person is so selfish that they cannot surrender. The situation is so degraded that nobody can do any yoga. Hence, the yoga for this age is chanting the name of the Lord. Everything else is good to have, and will be had once we progress, but not a disqualification if you don’t have it at the start.

    These questions about higher and lower forms of yoga will not change the fact that we are incapable of all of them. The day we are asked to do a little sacrifice, we will forget about yoga. The day there is a little risk to our life security, we will forget about yoga. The day we fear that society will abandon us, or our friends will leave us lonely, we will forget about yoga. Therefore, the right question to ask is: What am I really capable of doing? Try to find out what minimum you can do and get better over time.

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