What does Yoga mean in the Bhagavad Gītā? A semantic analysis
By Alba Rodriguez Juan, M.A.
The word “yoga” is extensively used in the BG in a variety of ways. This Indian narrative consists of 18 chapters, with each chapter named as a different yoga. Some scholars divide the BG into three sections, with the first six chapters dealing with karma yoga (the yoga of action), the next six chapters with bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion), and the last six chapters with jñāna yoga (the yoga of knowledge). However, this is not accurate because elements of karma, bhakti and jñāna are found in all chapters. But what do these terms actually mean? And how can we relate them to the discourse and practice of yoga today?
You may have already read in previous Yoga Shāstra’s posts about Traditional Yoga and the Bhagavad Gītā. The present post aims to build upon the information there and enrich our discussions. Please feel free to comment and share reflections or questions if desired.
First of all, the origins of the word “yoga” should be reminded. According to de Nicolás (1976), there are three roots from which the term may be derived: yugir yoge, yuj samādhau and yuj saṃyamane. The root yujir means to join, share in; yug may mean “onepointedness” in the sense of the cessation of mental states and also in the sense of control. According to this scholar, “in the BG the multiple uses of yoga are primarily derived from the root yugir yoge, in the sense of joining, sharing in, and also controlling both the sustained effort of that which is joined in and also controlling that this sustained effort is not deviated from what it intends by restricting the intrusion of anything to which it is not joined” (p.214).
As I stated in my previous post about human crisis and Covid-2019, the dialogue between Arjuna and Kṛṣna is not primarily about fighting in a battlefield but rather about what a person needs to know while engaging in any kind of action. Arjuna’s crisis is a radical crisis about a human life which has lost its footing. In De Nicolas’ words: “it is a life in mind air, surrounded by the anguish of a space which has no solid hold on any ground; it is also an anguish of time because one feels threatened with the extinction of one’s own identity, of no longer being the one believed oneself to be” (p.278). Yoga, in its different ways, is the solution given for this crisis.
There are many appearances of the word “yoga” in the BG. I will next provide some examples from the seven first chapters. These are sufficient for the purpose of the present writing, as they compile the main understandings of yoga within the text.
We can find the word “yoga” for the first time in Chapter 2 verse 39:
This (insight) in yoga is wisdom, as declared in the theory of Sāṃkhya;
Now hear it is applied in arduous practice;
Yoked with this determination Arjuna, you shall rid yourself of the bondage of karma.Bhagavad-Gītā II.39
This is part of chapter II, called the “Yoga of Knowledge”, because the knowledge of Arjuna’s crisis is questioned. In this particular verse, Kṛṣna tells Arjuna that he is going to hear the wisdom of yoga in its applied practice, which will help him to overcome his past karma. Then, in the following verses (40-41), yoga refers to a discipline that brings protection and understanding:
Here (in the yoga doctrine of practice) no effort is lost,
Nor is any loss of progress found.
Even a little of this discipline protects one from great danger.
Here there is a single resolute understanding, Arjuna.
The thoughts of the irresolute have many branches and are, indeed, endless.Bhagavad-Gītā II.40-41
The next time the word “yoga” appears is in verse 47, where Kṛṣna reveals one of the main messages of the BG: the importance of acting without desire for the results of action.
Your right is to action alone, never to its fruits at any time.
Never should the fruits of action be your motive;
Never let there be attachment to inaction in you.Bhagavad-Gītā II.47
Next verse (48) shows another definition of the term “yoga”: a state of mind characterized by equanimity (samatvaṃ):
Fixed in yoga, perform actions, having abandoned attachment, Arjuna,
And having become indifferent to success or failure.
It is said that evenness of mind is yoga.Bhagavad-Gītā II.48
Next verse (49) mentions the yoga of wisdom (buddhiyogād), which is commonly referred as jñāna yoga:
Action is inferior by far to the yoga of wisdom, Arjuna.
Seek refuge in wisdom!
Despicable are those whose motives are based on the fruit of action.Bhagavad-Gītā II.49
In verse 53, yoga has been translated as state of self-realization:
When your intellect stands fixed in deep meditation, unmoving,
Disregarding Vedic doctrine, then you shall attain yoga (self-realization).Bhagavad-Gītā II.53
Next, let’s focus on chapter III. The word “Yoga” first appears in verse 3, when Kṛṣṇa makes a difference between the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of action:
The Blessed Lord spoke;
In this world there is a two-fold path taught since ancient times by Me, o Arjuna:
That of knowledge (Jnāna) – the yoga of the followers of Sāṃkhya;
And that of action (Karma) – the yoga of the yogins.Bhagavad-Gītā III.3
This chapter explains the yoga of action, which refers to the working out of liberation through action. Karma yoga is action without attachment or identification, acting only to hold the world together. As explained through the verses, this condition can only be met if action is engaged wisely, grounded on a pure mind.
Then, we see the word yoga appearing again in verse 6 and 7 when Kṛṣṇa explains that action is superior to inaction:
He who sits, restraining his organs of action, while in his mind brooding over the objects of the senses,
With a deluded mind, is said to be a hypocrite.
But he who undertakes the control of the senses by the mind, Arjuna, and, without attachment,
engages the organs of action in the yoga of action, is superior.Bhagavad-Gītā III.6-7
According to Kṛṣṇa, the whole world is subject to the bondage of action. However, all action is not the action of the ego (ahaṃkāra), but rather is the action of forces of nature alone (the guṇas of prakṛti). Realizing this is the first step for Arjuna to get out of his crisis as he needs not to get identified with turbulent emotions and thoughts to be able to act with detachment. In other words, the realization “I am not these thoughts, I am not these emotions” allow one to act without desire, without expecting certain results, and from this realization arises a glimpse of freedom.
Actions in all cases are performed by the qualities of material nature;
He whose mind is confused by egoism imagines, “I am the doer”.
But he who know the truth, O Arjuna, about the two roles of the qualities and action, thinking,
“The qualities work among the qualities,” is not attached.Bhagavad-Gītā III.27-28
Next, in chapter IV, we see the word yoga in verses 1-3 referring to an imperishable, secrete and ancient message that is being reveled by Kṛṣṇa. Later in verses 25 to 30 the term “Yoga” is linked to the concept of sacrifice (yajñā). Different ways of sacrifices are being described, such us: offering wealth, austerities, yoga and the study of the scriptures and cultivation of knowledge. Yoga might be understood here as a practice of self-restraint (ātma-sanyama). And again in verses 38– 42 “Yoga” is referred back to jñāna yoga, the yoga of knowledge.
What is meant by knowledge has been interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, for Śaṅkara, true knowledge relies on the realization that everything is part of the same ultimate reality (Brahman). According to him, this realization is attained with study and is what ultimately allows liberation (Sharma, 2006). Another perspective is given by de Nicolás (1996), for whom knowledge of the BG is an embodied kind of knowledge that combines action and insight, and allows emancipation.
The following chapter – chapter V – is called the “Yoga of Renunciation of Action” (karmasaṃnyāsayoga). Arjuna seems to need time for reflection upon previous teachings and he asks Kṛṣṇa for clarifications. The main idea transmitted is that action with detachment is superior to the renunciation of actions, clearly stated in verse 2:
The Blessed Lord spoke:
Both renunciation and the yoga of action lead to incomparable bliss;
Of the two, however, the yoga of action is superior to the renunciation of action.Bhagavad-Gīta V.2
The following chapter -chapter V- is called the Yoga of Meditation (dhyānayoga). As defined in the BG, meditation is an intentional exercise to purify the mind that requires sustained effort. From verses 11 to 32, Kṛṣṇa summarizes the concrete practices through which a man may develop a habit of meditation. These practices allow the yogi to find that place in which thought ceases, going beyond the senses into his original ground. For Kṛṣṇa, meditation is necessary to overcome suffering and thus, to attain freedom. Semantically, the main meaning of the word “yoga” in this chapter is meditation itself. It appears in many verses.
Then, chapter VII is called the Yoga of Wisdom and Understanding (jñānavijñānayoga). After covering the yoga of meditation, Kṛṣṇa continues by explaining wisdom and understanding (jñānavijñānayoga) which lead a person into the knowledge that discriminates manifestations from reality, the lower from the higher. It is the knowledge which supports the world and the conditions of beings known as the guṇas. The chapter describes how this insight comes from meditation and allows the yogin to distinguish the ground or true self from the external and changing world. The word “yoga” only appears twice in this chapter. Interestingly, we find it with two other words (māyā and samāvṛitas).
“yoga-māyā-samāvṛitaḥ” is a Sanskrit compound that has been translated as “Yoga magic covered”. Here, Kṛṣṇa explains that he is not manifest to all, those who are deluded or confused (mūḍho) cannot recognize that he is birthless and changeless. In other words, yoga practice in its diverse forms (action, meditation, study, etc.) helps the person to know truth and go beyond ignorance (māyā).
It is worth mentioning that some scholars consider that chapter VII, together with the following chapters, focused on devotion (bhakti) as means to liberation. Bhakti, in Hinduism, refers to devotion and the love of a personal god or a representational god by a devotee (Pechilis, 2011). In the BG, it connotes one kind of yoga – bhakti-yoga – as one of the possible paths of liberation (Lochtefeld, 2014).
To sum up, these are the different meanings of the word yoga that have been found in the first chapters of the BG by doing a semantic analysis of the term: discipline, equanimity of mind, action with detachment for the results, study of wisdom, state of self-realization, sacred, secret and imperishable knowledge, self-restraint, meditation, and devotion.
As we can clearly notice, these understandings differ from the popularized view of yoga in the west as a series of postures used to keep a healthy body. For many practitioners of yoga-asana, the practice of yoga is reduced to physical exercises that are not related to spirituality. There are others who approach yoga as a life style, being postures only one step on a much broader journey of self-exploration. In any case, it is a fact than when we used the word yoga in the west, we mainly refer to asana-practice.
If we talk about meditation, we refer to “meditation” itself but we do not usually use the term dhyānayoga. The situation is similar with the rest of the meanings that the word “yoga” has in the BG. For example, when studying and reading books about yoga, who says “I am practicing jñāna yoga?” Or when bringing into daily life some of the main teachings of the BG, to act without expecting certain results, who considers this “doing yoga”? As far as devotion is concerned, it might even get more complex. Who considers in the western society that “doing yoga” is dedicating one’s practice to an inspirational teacher or symbol, or to sing devotional songs?
We realize that, unfortunately, the meanings of the word “yoga” have often been reduced in the current discourse. This is the reason why is so important, as modern practitioners, to gain a thoroughly understanding of the term from its origins. The study of Sanskrit results very helpful in this task and that is why the original verses have been included here. The more acquainted with this ancient language, the less we have to rely on others’ interpretations and translations when we immerse ourselves in ancient literature jewels, such as the BG.
An analysis only of the first chapters reveals a variety of meanings. Hopefully, this semantic richness surpasses any prior concepts about the word and contributes to create a better understanding of yoga. After all, as De Nicolás already noted, the journey of the Gītā is radically a journey to eliminate ignorance, remember lost memories, reaffirm one’s orientations, and remove doubts. By doing so, we will be ready to overcome human crisis and venture into the world. If this analysis can offer some light in this direction, the purpose is well served.
De Nicolás, A. T. (1996). Avatara. New York, United States: Nicolas Hays, Ltd.
Lochtefeld, J. G. (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M (Vol. 1). New York, United States: The Rosen Publishing Group.
Pechilis, K. (2011). Bhakti Traditions, in The Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies (Editors: Jessica Frazier, Gavin Flood), Bloomsbury, pp 107-121.
Sargeant, W. (2009). The Bhagavad Gītā: Twenty-fifth–Anniversary Edition. New York, United States: SUNY Press.
Sharma, A. (2006). The Hindu Gita: Ancient and classical interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita. London, United Kingdom: Open Court Publishing.