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What Makes the Four Yogas Work. Swami Vivekananda's Philosophy of Advaitic Pluralism

  • By Dr. Jeffery D. Long
  • February 15, 2024
  • A simply told way of how to make the four Yogas work. In a deeper sense it is profound.

The question I am posing in this essay is, ‘What makes the four yogas work?’ It is well known that, according to Swami Vivekananda, the four yogas—karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, bhakti yoga, the yoga of loving devotion, jñāna yoga, the yoga of knowledge, and rāja yoga or dhyāna yoga, the yoga of meditation—are effective and independent paths to what is variously termed God-realisation, Self-realisation, enlightenment, salvation, or liberation (that is, mokṣa).

My question is, ‘What is the mechanism by which these four sets of practices bring about their shared goal?’ If mysticism refers to the direct experience of divine realities, how do the yogas lead us to experience the realisation of non-duality? How do they culminate in the Advaitic experience?

Answering this question requires us to delve into the nature of realisation itself. What is it that is being realised? Who is realising it? From what are we being liberated? And to what are we being liberated? That is, if our current state is one of bondage, what would it mean to be free? Of what does that freedom consist for which we are striving?

In order to answer these questions, we need to understand how we became bound in the first place. This will take us back to the mystery of creation itself. Why is there anything at all? In particular, why do we exist as we do now, in the kind of universe in which we find ourselves?

The Many Emerge from the One

A quick note about creation: When we speak of creation in the Vedāntic sense, we are not referring to a specific moment in time—a beginning point at which reality as we know it started. 

In the traditions of India, as in those of many other parts of the world, it is understood that creation is an ongoing process. Creation is happening right now, at this very moment. We tell stories about it as something that happened long ago because we are accustomed to thinking and speaking within our current frame of reference, which is shaped by the phenomena of time, space, and causation. We, therefore, think in terms of things having a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we tend to understand things through narratives that are shaped in just this way.

The Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions all invite us, however, in various ways, to think differently, and to see our linear, narrative way of constructing reality as just one frame of reference, one possible way of organising what we know. We need, therefore, to understand that this way of thinking, while it is convenient for us, is not necessarily a perfect or complete representation of the nature of reality.

The Daoist tradition of China, as well as much of contemporary physics, is very much in line with this traditional Indic way of thinking, as is the thought of many modern philosophers. In the Daodejing of the 6th century BCE Chinese sage Lao Tzu, it is said that all that exists emerges from an eternal reality which Lao Tzu terms the dao, or the Way. He tells us that, ‘The Way that can be named,’ or described, ‘is not the Eternal Way.’ He then says that ‘The Nameless,’ that is, the indescribable, ‘is the origin of the myriad creatures.’ 

That, at least, is the translation from scholar Victor Mair. In other translations of this text, the phrase, ‘the myriad creatures’ is rendered as ‘the ten thousand things.’ There are of course many, many more than ten thousand things even in our relatively tiny corner of the universe, but this was how philosophers referred to the phenomenal world in ancient China.

Similarly, the Upanishads, the textual fountainhead of the Vedānta tradition, speak in many places of the emergence of the many from the One. In the fourth section of the first chapter of the Bṛhadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, it is said that the One became the many by dividing itself into countless beings, playfully suggesting this was done out of a desire for companionship on the part of the One, or out of the fear, which can arise when we are in a state of solitude, as the One is as an utterly unique being. Now, one might object that a perfect being such as the infinite One from which all beings emerge would surely not feel emotions like loneliness or fear. The suggestion that the many emerge from the One for reasons such as these points to what an infinite mystery this emergence is. We can only begin to comprehend by approaching it through the lens of experiences to which we can relate: that is, primal experiences, like loneliness and fear, as well as love, such as the love of the creative process which drives an artist to create. In the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta, it is affirmed that the One does not literally feel loneliness or fear. Nor does it even literally divide itself to become the world. Rather, it only appears to do so.

This process of creation through appearance, or manifestation, is known as maya, a term which is cognate with English word magic. Maya is the power of creation, through which the One—the infinite Brahman, the nameless and indescribable dao—gives rise to and manifests as the manifold world of phenomena: the cosmos which we experience as our reality. In the words of Sri Ramakrishna, ‘Those who realise Brahman…find that it is Brahman that has become the universe and its living beings.’1

We ourselves are of course manifestations of the One infinite Reality: infinite number of finite centres of an infinite Consciousness. This is what it means when the Upanishads state that we are That: that the true Self, or Ātman, shares the same nature as and is ultimately identical with Brahman.

The Process of Differentiation and the Ego

The process of creation, the maya, by which the One manifests as the many is a process of differentiation. The infinite One projects from itself the infinitely many. Our sense of individuality is therefore closely bound up with the process of creation itself.

As it is described in the Sankhya system of Indian philosophy, we become differentiated from one another and from the rest of the realm of nature, or prakriti, by something called ahaṁkāra. Ahaṁkāra, which literally means ‘the I-maker,’ is the mechanism by which we come to perceive ourselves as individual beings distinct from one another and from the rest of the cosmos. The Latin equivalent of ahaṁkāra, which has found its way into the English language as well, is ego. And analogously with ego, ahaṁkāra has come to refer, in modern Indic languages such as Hindi, to pride, or to an excessive attachment to our individuality as the most important thing in the world, overriding even our sense of compassion and empathy for other beings. This ego, importantly, is not our real identity.

We are not prakriti, but purusha, or spirit, a term which is more or less equivalent with Ātman. This is our first clue to the answer to our main question, ‘What makes the four yogas work?’ Might the yogas have something to do with pointing us beyond the ego and back to our original true nature?

Individuality itself is not an evil thing. Indeed, it is integral to the process by which the one infinite reality has manifested itself as this wonderful universe. Individuality, we could say, is an essential element of the divine plan. The question is often raised, ‘Why does the infinite One choose to appear as the many? If it is already perfect and self-sufficient, what need does it have to manifest itself as the myriad beings making up the cosmos? As us?’ Many answers to this question are, of course, possible, and all of them probably bear some truth. We have already heard the suggestions that the One was lonely or fearful, or that the One simply loves to create. This would mean that the cosmos is the divine līla, or play, and that the Infinite One simply takes delight in manifesting and experiencing itself as all of us, the beings which constitute this vast universe.

We also sometimes hear the speculation that, as the ground of all being, and as consisting of infinite being, consciousness, and bliss (anantaraṁ sat-chit-ānandam), the One needs to divide itself into the many in order fully to become what it is in its pure infinite potential. Consciousness is an experience, and thus requires one who is conscious and one of whom one is conscious: a subject and an object. Bliss, or joy, is an experience, and thus requires an enjoyer and that which is enjoyed.

So, the One becomes the object of its own awareness by dividing into infinite centres of awareness—us. Similarly, it literally enjoys itself by becoming, in the same way, infinite centres of enjoyment: again, us. As non-dualism teaches us, the consciousness and bliss which make up the One are, in reality, nondual, and without subject and object. But, when the veil of maya, the matrix of space, time, and causation, is projected onto them, they manifest as infinite beings, striving for infinite consciousness and infinite bliss. Yet another answer is that this entire process is a mystery with no rational answer. It cannot be known with the finite mind, but only realised, or experienced directly, as we ourselves are the One which has manifested as these myriad beings.

The problem with individuality is not that it is ‘bad,’ but it is a kind of Self-forgetting on the part of the infinite One. It involves a sense of being cut off from, of being other than, our true Self, and a corresponding alienation from our fellow centres of consciousness, our fellow beings.

Part of the process of the One’s Self-manifestation as this vast cosmos is this very sense of Self-alienation. It is this alienation from our true Self, our entrapment in what becomes the prison of the ego, which we instinctively wish to overcome. This is the essence of what we refer to as our sense of bondage, a bondage that we wish to overcome. We experience this mumukṣutva, or desire for freedom, initially as a desire for happiness, rather than unhappiness.

In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, ‘The purpose of life is to be happy.’2 My late father-in-law was also very fond of this expression. ‘The purpose of life is to be happy.’ One is of course free to disagree, but I am firmly convinced that this is the case: that, in fact, everyone wants to be happy. One could, of course, point to people who seem to enjoy being unhappy. I would argue, though, that it is this unhappiness that makes them happy, at least in the short term. 

We all do the things that we do because we want to be happy. We can act either for immediate happiness—immediate gratification—or we can act for our long-term happiness, sometimes by taking on very difficult work and a lot of short-term unhappiness, or at least discomfort, in the name of this longer-term happiness. This is true whether our aim be material or spiritual: whether we are aiming for what I would call the true and lasting happiness of realising our oneness with the infinite, or for a finite goal, such as getting a raise or promotion at work, or winning an award in whatever field we have chosen to pursue, or earning the friendship and affection of others whose love we crave.

In reply to the possible objection that the idea that happiness is our fundamental motivation in life sounds selfish, I would respond that this objection presumes that it is possible to be really and truly happy when others are unhappy. I would like to submit that this is not the case, for reasons which should hopefully become clear very shortly. While it is true that many people do pursue happiness at the expense of other beings, or even appear to be most happy precisely when they are making others unhappy, I would like to suggest that this is a very early and immature approach to happiness; for as our soul’s journey unfolds, we find that our own happiness is ultimately bound up with the happiness of all beings.

We all wish to be happy, but because of our alienation from our true Self, and our sense of otherness from the rest of creation and what we mistakenly take to be ‘other’ beings, we typically do not know how to go about being happy.

The most obvious source of happiness is, of course, the gratification of the senses. I see something beautiful, I hear some good music, or I eat a nice meal, and I am happy. This, however, is the most temporary source of happiness. It lasts only as long as there is contact between our senses and their objects, or as a memory of such contact. If we think in terms of the puruṣārthas, or the aims of life described in ancient Hindu texts, this form of happiness, or kāma (which is not to be confused with karma) is the most ephemeral, the most fleeting. A life spent solely in pursuit of sensory gratification is a life in which we experience brief moments of happiness, interspersed with moments in which we are anticipating the next moment of happiness, nostalgically recalling the previous moments of happiness, or feeling frustrated because the next moment of happiness is not coming soon enough. This is, we could say again, an immature state of being. This is not because sensory gratification is an inherently bad thing. Not at all.

Indeed, any happiness we experience, even sensory pleasure, is a glimmer of the infinite happiness of the One we are seeking: of Brahman. But sensory pleasure is the most limited form of happiness, and one that easily leads to unhappiness when we do not get what we want when we want it. Indeed, the Buddha referred to all temporary forms of happiness as being, in truth, a form of unhappiness: as suffering, or duḥkha.

If we follow the scheme of the puruṣārthas, we know that a more enduring happiness can be found if we work hard and achieve the means for enjoying the senses on a reliable and regular basis: by acquiring artha, which means power or wealth. In fact, the dual meaning of artha as both power and wealth is quite ingenious, as it conveys the idea that, in this world, wealth is a type of power. If I have a dollar, I have the ability—the power—to acquire a dollar’s worth of goods that can give me happiness (meaning, of course, temporary happiness). If I have a hundred dollars, I have a hundred times more power to acquire what I want, and so on.

The same problem, however, which attaches to sensory enjoyment also attaches to money and power. In the words of the famous phrase, ‘You can’t take it with you.’ Even the wealthiest people in the world are not able to carry their wealth into their next life.

Also, as we evolve in our spiritual journey across many lifetimes, we realise the happiness money can yield is, like sense pleasure, a temporary thing. Money and power have more utility than a single object of sensory gratification, for they can enable us to come into contact with many such objects. But, at a certain point, we start to realise that the deeper longings of our being are simply not satisfied by material things at all. It is noteworthy in this regard that suicide rates tend to be the highest in the parts of the world that are the wealthiest. We need something much greater than either sensory gratification or the means of acquiring it.

Higher than both of these, in the traditional scheme of puruṣārthas, and typically listed first, is dharma. In this context, dharma refers to our duties toward others. Contrary to what our sense of alienation may compel us to believe, we are not alone in this world. We live among the myriad beings who are all manifestations of that same infinite reality which is the source and essence of our own existence. True and lasting happiness is therefore not to be found in isolation. It involves the happiness of others as well.

Even the solitary sage who seeks liberation alone on a mountaintop works for the good of all living beings. This work may manifest as an invisible influence on the world, but it is nevertheless real. Swami Vivekananda speaks of this when he says, ‘The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown…Hundreds of these unknown heroes have lived in every country working silently. Silently they live and silently they pass away; and in time their thoughts find expression in Buddhas or Christs, and it is these latter that become known to us.’3

As we continue to evolve in our spiritual journey, we start to realise the deep joy that arises from giving joy to others. And, unlike material wealth, you can take the fruits of your good deeds—of your dharmic actions—with you. This is what is popularly known as ‘good karma.’ Now, as we shall see—and, contrary to popular misconceptions—good karma does not lead to God-realisation, at least not directly, although it can create the conditions in which realisation can occur, like being born in a spiritual family. But good karma does not lead, by itself, to true and lasting happiness.

This is because the good that comes from doing good—from dharma—is also bound by time. It is temporary. This is something the sages of the Upanishads realised long ago and is why we find criticism of the rituals that lead to finite goods, such as rebirth in heaven, in texts like the Mundaka Upanishad and the Bhagavadgita. It is not that good karma and the works that produce it are bad, any more than sensory objects and wealth are bad. These things are not inherently evil, but they are finite. In order to experience the results of our good actions, we must act again and again and again. It is only with the fourth puruṣārtha, the fourth goal of life—mokṣa, or liberation—that one experiences a joy which is infinite and unending: in the realisation of our own true nature which we have forgotten through being trapped in the shell of our egoistic individuality.

The Four Yogas

How, then, do we reach mokṣa? How do we achieve God-realisation, the realisation of our true, infinite Self, which has manifested in the form of our limited individuality?

First, realisation is not a result of action. Again, good karma does not lead to it, at least not directly. If realisation were the product of action, it would be limited, as all products of action are. You would have to keep doing whatever you did to achieve it in order to sustain it. It would not be the lasting happiness which it, in fact, is. It would simply be a more refined version of good karma.

Secondly, if realisation is not a result of action, this means that we literally can do nothing to achieve it. To refer again to the Daoist tradition, the sage Lao Tzu recommends something called wu wei, which literally means ‘doing nothing.’

However, as Lord Krishna points out in the Bhagavadgita, it is literally impossible to do nothing. Particularly as beings who identify with physical bodies, we find that even if we try to be very, very still, we nevertheless continue to breathe, and our bodily processes continue to operate. Similarly, our minds continue to be active even if we sit still. It takes great effort to still the mind, a process which the Gita compares to taming the wind.4 Even the Lord himself, the infinite One, acts constantly to uphold the world (a process called lokasaṁgraha).5

Doing nothing’, then, does not mean literally doing nothing. As Lord Krishna explains in the third chapter of the Gita, it means acting without a sense of doership, or acting with detachment. It is realising that it is the infinite One who is in fact the doer of all action. All that occurs in all of the myriad universes of existence is the action, the manifestation, of the only One who, in the end, really does exist: the infinite Brahman. To act in this way—not out of attachment to the fruit of one’s actions, out of the desire for temporary happiness, but for the good of all beings—is to surrender one’s sense of doership to the divine reality: to step aside and let Divine Mother, the dao, the infinite Brahman, work through us. To quote from the Star Wars films: ‘Let the Force flow through you.’ Or to paraphrase the apostle Paul, ‘It is not I who acts, but Christ who acts through me.’6

This surrender of one’s sense of doership and of allowing the infinite One to work through us is thus central to the process of attaining realisation and liberation, and brings us very close to the answer to our question, ‘What makes the four yogas work?’

Recall that at the fountainhead of the process by which the One manifests as the many—as all of us myriad beings—is the phenomenon of individuation: the arising of the ahaṁkāra or ego. It is this ego that gives rise to our sense of individuality: this wonderful individuality that enables us to see reality from a unique perspective, and to cultivate the special gifts which we can, in turn, give back to the world. But it is this same individuality which, if we remain caught up in it, if we become attached to it, alienates us from others and from our true Self, and gives rise to all our suffering.

The four yogas work by attenuating, by reducing, this sense of individuality. When we are egotistical, if we are caught up in our individual desires without regard for others and see ourselves as being cut off from the rest of existence or as standing above it, our ego, we can say, is opaque. The light of the infinite Reality that is its true source is getting through to us only dimly, like sunlight concealed by thick, black smoke. But as we open the ego to others, and to the infinite One, as we let it unfold like a flower, it starts to become translucent. More and more light comes in. We feel an increasingly sustainable sense of happiness and real joy in our lives. And when the ego becomes completely transparent, such that there is no visible barrier whatsoever between I, the individual, and I, the Infinite, then realisation has been achieved. The One shines through like the sun on a clear and bright day, until eventually, it is all that we see, and all that we are.

The four yogas function to achieve this very translucency, and ultimate transparency, of the ego. Swami Vivekananda sees these yogas not as mutually exclusive, but as mutually affirming. There are four yogas, and not only one, to suit four basic personality types: emotional, intellectual, active, and contemplative. In Swamiji’s own words: ‘We classify [the yogas] in the following way, under four heads:

Karma-Yoga—The manner in which a man realises his own divinity through works and duty.

Bhakti-Yoga—The realisation of the divinity through devotion to, and love of, a Personal God.

Raja-Yoga—The realisation of the divinity through the control of [the] mind.

Jnana-Yoga—The realisation of a man’s own divinity through knowledge.7

Ultimately, there are, according to Swami Vivekananda, as many yogas as there are individual beings seeking liberation. We can think of the four yogas as four clusters of practices, and the yoga of each individual as a highly specific combination of these practices unique to the individual’s personality. The classification of the yogas as four in number is thus a matter of convenience, done for the sake of typology. It is not meant to be restrictive—to imply that there are four and only four ways to realise God—nor are the yogas to be seen as mutually exclusive.

Among four yogas, Rāja yoga and Jñāna yoga—the yogas of meditation and knowledge—can sound quite similar, given that both are focused on the mind. 

The approach of Jñāna yoga, however, is cognitive: the elimination of false identifications of the Self, such as with the body or the mind, aimed at giving rise to the certain knowledge (jñāna) that the ātman (Self) and Brahman are one.

The approach of Rāja yoga is, one could say, more phenomenological: we still our thoughts with the aim of directly realising our divine nature, through the experience of samādhi.

In Jñāna yoga, we use the mind to go beyond the mind by negating our dualistic mental constructs. In Rāja yoga, we restrain the mind and still it with the aim of experiencing that which is beyond it. In both these practices, the ego is attenuated. Jñāna yoga does this through its intellectual deconstruction of the ego, the process of neti, neti: I am not this, I am not that. Rāja yoga does this by quieting the ego, removing one’s attention from it—for attention adds fuel to the waves of the mind—and stilling the vibrations of the mind and simply allowing the true Self to shine through. This is what the sage Patañjali means when he defines this form of yoga as citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ: the calming of the waves of the mind.8

If we attain realisation through these methods, we may experience it as an awakening to our true Self, a recovery of an identity that was only apparently lost, but that was in fact there all along. We were always enlightened. We were always free. We just didn’t know it yet.

Bhakti yoga, on the other hand, melts the ego, as it were, in divine love. Through opening ourselves up to the infinite One as a being of infinite love and allowing ourselves to experience our utter dependence upon this loving divine Reality, the ego’s illusion of independence comes to be dissolved, and with it, its stranglehold upon our consciousness. In the end, the divine beloved, in whatever form it has drawn us to itself, is all that matters, and we are willing to sacrifice even our very sense of self to be nearer to that One who is at the heart of all our deepest aspirations. We give up the ego by giving up even the idea that it is we who liberate ourselves. We allow ourselves to be liberated, rather, by divine grace. If we get realisation through bhakti, we will experience it as a loving union, a communion with the divine beloved: less of a dissolution of self than a completing of self.

Finally, Karma yoga is living a life of service to the other suffering beings with whom we share the world. This yoga attenuates the ego because it involves our putting the needs of others ahead of our own. As in Bhakti yoga, our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for others, is a sign and an expression of the dissolution of egotism. It is this dissolution of the ego that enables the light of the true Self—the infinitely loving, infinitely blissful, infinitely conscious divinity who resides in all beings, and in whom all beings reside—to shine forth in its fullness. This is the realisation that liberates us from the prison of the ego and enables us to be truly free. For one who attains through Karma yoga, it might be experienced as a profound solidarity with all beings, as a restoration of relations among the beings making up the cosmos from whom we had been alienated: a harmony in which we have surrendered our selfish ego, placing the good of all beings before our own, and making it our highest desire.


One of Swami Vivekananda’s many great contributions to our understanding of Advaitic mysticism is his insight that many yogas can lead to the liberating realisation of non-duality. The mechanism by which the yogas lead to this liberating realisation is through the attenuation and the eventual annihilation of the ego as a principle of separation from the rest of existence. We move from being centres of selfishness and fear to being centres of love, with our being eventually mingling and becoming one with that of all beings, and with Being itself, whether through intellect, meditation, devotion, or service. Thus do we move, in the words of the Upanishads, from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.


1. M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 104.

2. https://www.dalailama.com/messages/transcripts-and-interviews/the-purpose-of-life-is-to-be-happy, accessed 20 Aug. 2023.

3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.105.

4. Bhagavadgita 6:34.

5. Gita 3.20-21, 25.

6. Galatians 2:20.

7. The Complete Works, 5.292.

8. Yoga Sutra 1:2.

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This article was first published in the January 2024 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

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