An essay “Impressions of the book Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda” by Galina Chembayeva

Galina Chembayeva has been practicing yoga since 2008. In 2015, she graduated from the bachelor’s program at International Open Yoga University (IOYU), and in 2023, she completed her master’s degree at IOYU. She has experience conducting yoga classes in the gym and specialized sessions in teacher training courses at IOYU. Currently, she is continuing her education in the doctoral program at IOYU and serves as the curator of the “Jnana Yoga” course.

As part of our studies in the master’s program at the International Open Yoga University, we studied the book Jnana Yoga by the eminent yoga teacher and Advaita Vedanta philosopher Swami Vivekananda. The word “jnana” translates to “knowledge.” Thus, Jnana Yoga works with our intellect, with our ability to know, or in other words – it is the path of understanding the structure of the world and our true nature. Vedanta, like yoga, is one of the six orthodox philosophical systems of India, but while the word “yoga” is familiar to everyone, fewer people are familiar with Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta can be translated to “non-dual conclusion of the Vedas.”

During our study, we thoroughly analyzed each chapter within our group, as it was very important to have someone to discuss with. Without discussions with like-minded individuals, I think it would have been much more difficult for me to delve deeply, my perception would have been more superficial, and perhaps I would have gleaned fewer new insights for myself. I’ve read and reread the course on Jnana Yoga with lectures and seminars by Vadim Openyoga, as well as the course on the axioms of yoga (which is an integral part of Jnana Yoga but was taught separately for us) multiple times. Initially, I developed a general understanding of the topic, but after studying Swami Vivekananda’s Jnana Yoga, I had many questions for contemplation.

Before, my acquaintance with Vivekananda’s works was very superficial; I had not fully read any of his books, only certain fragments on particular topics, although the name Vivekananda is certainly highly respected at the Open Yoga University. The text of the book Jnana Yoga is a collection of his lectures delivered in London over a hundred years ago and recorded by one of his followers. Therein lies some complexity in perception, because it is transcribed live speech intended for the audience that gathered for the lectures over a hundred years ago, rather than meticulously crafted text. The language used is very emotional and expressive. Therefore, I found it difficult to grasp the initial chapters, to organize the content for myself in such a way that I could retell it in my own words without creating a detailed outline. Gradually, you get used to it, and some ideas are also repeated in different chapters with various explanations.

The text is full of vivid and memorable examples. Some of them provoke a desire to argue, evoke internal protest. I will provide one of the examples in the essay below. This, apparently, was the intention of the author – to engage the listeners, not to leave them indifferent, but to awaken emotions and stimulate reflection. It can be compared to the effect of being doused with a bucket of cold water – at first you experience dissatisfaction and outrage, but then you feel a sense of alertness and clarity. And all this shines through, despite the fact that we are reading in translation (sometimes even in double translation, as Vivekananda translated some terms and quotes from Sanskrit to English). Moreover, we have a printed text in front of us; we do not hear the voice, intonations, the emotional charge that was present in his speeches.

One of the sobering thoughts I’d like to start with is that, in reality, we are all atheists. “Only the man who has actually perceived God and soul has religion. There is no real difference between the highest ecclesiastical giant who can talk by the volume, and the lowest, most ignorant materialist.” First of all, this is a reminder that although we all study yoga, we do not become spiritually superior to those who have lived their entire lives honestly fulfilling their duties, causing no harm to anyone, and spending no energy on secondary matters, but who have never heard of yoga or adhered to any religion. I believe all of us know such individuals, especially among the older generation, and in many respects, we are far from them. However, this thought is particularly relevant in our times when the majority of us were raised in an atheist environment. Many have started seeking answers to their questions in religions or philosophical systems in adulthood, but among them few are truly believers, those who have truly discovered something. This is not bad; it is the first step. We just need to be honest with ourselves and with others.

Another idea, which on one hand seems obvious when you read it, but which we somehow haven’t usually thought about in such words before, is the concept of the evolution of God. Perhaps it’s all in the wording, because if you say, “the evolution of perceptions of God,” it sounds understandable, like a phrase from a textbook. It brings to mind what we know – in ancient societies, gods were endowed with human qualities along with all their passions. Later came the idea of monotheism, which developed differently in various religions; one can recall medieval theological debates in Europe. But it has seemed after that like all the canons have been established, and the concept of God has been fixed (if we take Christianity as an example). However, when we talk about the “evolution of God,” it sounds different. Let me provide a less elevated example than the discussed topic. Some time ago, it was a revelation to me that sports disciplines also constantly evolve, and that wrestling or football, as we see them now, are not the same as they were 50 years ago (just like modern cars compared to those from 50 years ago). Although it seems that the rules have not changed, the techniques, requirements, and so on have been greatly improved. God is beyond all definitions and concepts, but if we try to define or imagine Him for ourselves, He changes, evolves as we learn more about this world and improve spiritually.

Vivekananda explains the idea of the evolution of God by referring to ancient Indian texts, saying that originally Devas were simply powerful beings, and nothing more, and describing how this perception changed. For us, who have recently begun studying Indian primary sources, it is often characteristic to perceive everything therein as the ultimate truth, without considering that many ideas in those sources also evolved and underwent a very long process.

In his lectures, Vivekananda repeatedly emphasizes his deep respect for all religions, but he consistently suggests that Advaita Vedanta unites them all. “Yet, through all these various conceptions runs the golden thread of unity, and it is the purpose of the Vedanta to discover this thread.” The text quotes Krishna: “I am the thread that runs through all these various ideas, each one of which is like a pearl.” The goal of Advaita Vedanta teachers is to lead to truth not by destroying previous beliefs, but by complementing them instead. Vivekananda repeatedly emphasizes the idea that Advaita Vedanta provides the most comprehensive, exhaustive answers to all questions (similar to the ancient Roman orator Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, who in all his speeches said that Carthage must be destroyed, with the difference being that this thought is elevating, not destructive), and gradually convinces us of this.

Another thought that sounded new to me is the idea that God is within each of us. This thought begins the book in the Song of the Sannyasin and concludes almost every chapter with poetic exclamations: “Thou art That.” The mistake of most people is that we seek God outside ourselves, direct our prayers towards Him, and do not understand how close He is, how He is in everything and within ourselves. In the course about Jnana Yoga and Axiomatics at IOYU, the same is said, but sometimes expressing the same thought in different words clarifies the meaning immediately. In the texts of Open Yoga, it is said that we are under the influence of maya and should realize our higher Self and the Absolute, with the higher Self and the Absolute mentioned separately. In Vivekananda’s lectures, there is no separate mention of the higher Self; there is only the human being who in their potential is equal to the Absolute or, as formulated in the book, the human being who seems to be a potential equal to the Real Man.

As for the theory of Jnana Yoga, this book is by no means merely introductory and motivational; the lectures delve into the deepest theoretical questions. In the chapter “Jnana Yoga: The Absolute and Manifestations,” Vivekananda says: “This Absolute (a) has become the universe (b) by coming through time, space, and causation (c). This is the central idea of Advaita. Time, space, and causation are like the glass through which the Absolute is seen, and when It is seen on the lower side, It appears as the universe.” Further in the same chapter, the connection between time, space, causation, name, and form is discussed. Of course, this issue cannot be discussed in a few words in an essay format; it requires a more prolonged conversation, but I wanted to mention it. Perhaps this will encourage someone to read it themselves and understand it. Vivekananda gives the example of a wave in the ocean. The wave is part of the water that belongs to the ocean, but our mind conditionally delineates a certain form, which exists for a very short time, and calls it a wave. We cannot even precisely define its boundaries. We can mentally freeze this image, capture it on paper, but in life, the wave appears, grows, changes, and disappears very quickly. We can draw the same analogy with our bodies or other objects, only their rate of change is much slower. A person, similar to a wave, takes form and emerges into this world for a certain period of time, influenced by certain causes.This form is also not static; it constantly changes over time. From one perspective, we cannot even precisely define the boundaries of this form, especially if we consider not only our body but also our actions, deeds, and what we associate ourselves with in one way or another. In reality, there is no boundary between us and the ocean.

The complex theory is presented in a concentrated manner, but parables, examples, and images for meditation are provided, which literally make one reflect and contemplate.

Another question that is discussed from lecture to lecture, and which everyone at some point asks themselves, is: “Where does evil come from? Can it be eradicated?” The book discusses whether evolution contributes to reducing suffering in the world, and the answer given is no. Of course, evolution carries much good, but the sum of good and evil is not a constant; rather, the more good there is, the more evil there is. If we look at our time, we may have everything that people could only dream of 200 years ago, but we do not see many happy people. We have never gone hungry, never frozen, received an education, but our fears and anxieties have remained with us. Suffering has shifted from the physical level to the subtle, but it has not diminished. But then Vivekananda says that there is no difference between good and evil at all: “They are the diverse manifestations of one and the same fact, one time appearing as bad, and at another time as good. The difference does not exist in kind, but only in degree. They differ from each other in degree of intensity. ” I can’t say that I was able to unconditionally accept this thought. On the one hand, the famous statement of Paracelsus comes to mind: “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison,” as well as the doctrine of the mean in Aristotle’s philosophy, where virtue is considered the golden mean between two extremes, each of which, when manifested in excess, becomes a vice (for example, balancing recklessness and cowardice yields courage). Many examples can be given from everyday life where the same action in different situations brings harm or benefit. Nevertheless, the mind still tries to find counterarguments. And then Vivekananda says, “Give up what is evil and give up what is good.” Good and evil, Vedanta declares, are not all that we have. “Behind good and evil stands something which is yours, the real you, beyond every evil, and beyond every good too, and it is that which is manifesting itself as good and bad. Know that first, and then alone you will be a true optimist, and not before; for then you will be able to control everything.

“…Go beyond the pale of these laws, for these laws do not absolutely govern you, they are only part of your being… Then alone, the whole vision will change and you will stand up and say, ‘How beautiful is good and how wonderful is evil!’” This is already very difficult to grasp. No matter how hard you try to imagine that such a state is possible, you cannot, and this is a real challenge for meditation.

The book often emphasizes that as long as sin remains within us, we will see it everywhere. In one of the lectures, there is a beautiful metaphor: like a small fish that, unable to change the surrounding world, changes its form and becomes a bird. This is the path, but it is not selfish; it is through compassion and assistance to all living beings. Vivekananda confirms this with his words and actions.

In conclusion, it was interesting to discuss our insights within the group, as each of us was struck by certain moments. The content turned out to be very diverse, although everyone was left with the strongest impression. The book covers a wide range of topics and questions, requiring careful study, and with each new reading, something new is revealed.