What is Yoga?


Swami B.S. Govinda

Srila Govinda Maharaj

In the early portion of Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā Krishna explains that yoga means practices for progress in life, practices for sympathetic and harmonious dealings with nature. Krishna begins His explanation of yoga by giving inspiration to everyone to avoid selfish action and instead take up yoga. Krishna says:

dūreṇa hy avaraṁ karma buddhi-yogād dhanañjaya
buddhau śaraṇam anvichchha kṛpaṇāḥ phala-hetavaḥ

“You are an eternal jīva-soul. You have natural capacity for thinking, feeling, and willing. You cannot avoid those aspects of your existence. If you use your natural conscious property to exploit the material nature, you will not be fulfilled; you will be a miser destined to suffer helplessly. By your nature you are always active, so do something positive, otherwise you will always be the cause of harm to yourself and others.”

In this verse Krishna encourages everyone to take up buddhi-yoga [the yoga of wisdom]. Buddhi-yoga is the first form of yoga mentioned in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā, and buddhi-yoga is the basis of all the forms of yoga. Krishna goes on to describe: karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, haṭha-yoga, dhyāna-yoga, abhyāsa-yoga, bhakti-yoga, and so on. Krishna explains:

buddhi-yukto jahātīha ubhe sukṛta-duṣkṛte
tasmād yogāya yujyasva yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam

[“A wise person engaged in buddhi-yoga abstains from both good and bad actions in this world and simply engages in yoga because yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam: yoga is the art of action.”]

Buddhi-yoga is a very wide idea. It is the basis of yoga itself, and all other forms of yoga are expressions of buddhi-yoga.


When Arjuna first asks Krishna how to practise buddhi-yoga, Krishna begins by giving Him advice about karma-yoga [pious activity].

karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr ma te saṅgo ’stv akarmaṇi

Krishna explains that the karma-yogī has the right to perform his prescribed duty but not to enjoy the fruits of his actions. The karma-yogī should not be motivated to do his duty because of the fruits it produces, and he should not be inclined to give up action. Rather he should be motivated by the desire to be in proper harmony with the environment and its Controller.

yajñārthāt karmaṇo ’nyatra loko ’yaṁ karma-bandhanaḥ
tad-arthaṁ karma kaunteya mukta-saṅgaḥ samāchara

Krishna advises that by performing actions as a sacrifice, rather than an attempt to exploit the environment, the karma-yogī will attain great piety and happiness. Action offered as a sacrifice to the Lord is called yajña. Yajño vai Viṣṇuḥ: sacrifice means Vishnu, the Lord. All sacrifice, and therefore all action (karma), is actually meant to satisfy Vishnu, and any action that is not offered to the Lord is the cause of bondage and suffering in this world.

Enlightenment and meditation

After explaining karma-yoga Krishna says:

sarvaṁ karmākhilaṁ pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate

“The perfection of pious activity (karma-yoga) is its culmination in transcendental knowledge (jñān).”

Through karma-yoga one is enlightened and receives proper knowledge. Without practising karma-yoga, that is, engaging in sacrifice and service, transcendental knowledge will not actually appear in the heart. But when someone offers themselves properly and opens their heart then they are enlightened and can practise jñāna-yoga [the yoga of knowledge].

Through jñāna-yoga one understands the entangling nature of material existence and then pursues liberation from saṁsāra [the cycle of birth and death] and realisation of Brahma [the Absolute]. Krishna advises persons who become firmly established in knowledge and the practice of jñāna-yoga to practise meditation through aṣṭāṅga-yoga (dhyāna-yoga). When one practises aṣṭāṅga-yoga one meditates, striving to remove one’s consciousness from the outside world and attain to a vision of the Supreme Soul who is subtly present everywhere throughout existence.

Yoga’s primary form

In this way Krishna explains how selfless action (karma-yoga) leads to the yogas of knowledge, renunciation, and meditation (jñāna-yoga and dhyāna-yoga). After describing these processes Krishna presents His final teaching about yoga practice.

tapasvibhyo ’dhiko yogī jñānibhyo ’pi mato ’dhikaḥ
karmibhyaś chādhiko yogī tasmād yogī bhavārjuna
yogīnām api sarveṣāṁ mad-gatenāntar-ātmanā
śraddhāvān bhajate yo māṁ sa me yuktatamo mataḥ

“A yogī is superior to persons engaged in physical austerities and dry renunciation (tapasvīs), superior to persons of knowledge (jñānīs), and superior to persons of mundane action (karmīs). Therefore one should be a yogī. The best of all yogīs is the devotee, the bhakti-yogī, who holds Me within his heart with full faith, and always engages in My service. He is most intimately united with Me.”

Here Krishna clearly expresses, through direct comparison, that the bhakti-yogī is the highest type of yogī. Within Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā gradual levels of development in spiritual practice and realisation are explained. Krishna explains that yoga is one, but that there is a development within yoga. He explains that yoga, that is, buddhi-yoga, develops through different forms, beginning with karma-yoga, and goes up past jñāna-yoga and aṣṭāṅga-yoga to bhakti-yoga.

Because it is so accommodating and broad in its discussion, Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā explains not only its primary subject, bhakti-yoga, but also explains all the levels of realisation that lead to bhakti-yoga: karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and so on. This is done through the idea of buddhi-yoga. In this way Krishna praises karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and aṣṭāṅga-yoga, but praises bhakti-yoga the most.

Bhakti-yoga is what is truly necessary for all jīva-souls eternally. The other yogas are only necessary for conditioned souls according to their relative stages of advancement. A primary school student will not understand the lessons taught in secondary school. A secondary school student will not understand the lessons taught in a Ph. D programme. Krishna explained different stages of development in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā, and in that way they are all important. But unless a yogī advances through the stages of yoga practice mentioned up to bhakti-yoga, he will not attain the ultimate goal of all yoga.

The ultimate path and destination

Each form of yoga practice has a specific destination. The destination of karma-yoga is Svargaloka [heaven]. The destination of jñāna-yoga is Brahma, the non-differentiated spiritual plane. The destination of haṭha-yoga is Paramātmā-tattva: vision of the Supreme Soul within all things.

All the forms of yoga practice do not lead to the same destination, and all the destinations are not the same. Heavenly enjoyment may be considered very desirable by materialistic persons, but not by spiritualists. Also, the spiritual destinations of Brahma and Paramātmā are Absolute, but there is gradation amongst them. They are not of equal value, and someone travelling east cannot expect to attain something that is found only in the west.

vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam
brahmeti paramātmeti bhagavān iti śabdyate
(Śrīmad Bhāgavatam: 1.2.11)

Beyond the temporary enjoyment of the heavenly plane within the mundane universe there are three primary spiritual destinations: Brahma, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān. Through jñāna-yoga one can go to Brahmaloka, through haṭha-yoga one can realise the Paramātmā, and through bhakti-yoga one can go to Bhāgavatloka, the divine abode of the Supreme Lord, and serve there eternally. In Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā Krishna says:

yad gatvā na nivartante tad dhāma paramaṁ mama

“Through devotion (bhakti-yoga) you can come to My divine abode and play eternally with Me, the emporium of all rasa. From there the illusory environment will never attack you, and you will never have to return to the mundane world again.”

In this way we can understand the position of the Lord’s eternal abode as the supreme destination for all jīva-souls, and bhakti-yoga as the supreme form of yoga practice.

Satisfying Krishna

When any of the different types of yogīs finally collect all of their energy and use it with concentration to serve and satisfy the Lord, they will truly receive their supreme benefit. They will enter the transcendental service world, become free of the influence of māyā, and feel the supramundane joy of engaging in Krishna’s service. One who serves Krishna twenty-four hours a day is really the supreme yogī. Krishna Himself says this in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā. It is His conclusive opinion.

What does a bhakti-yogī actually do? How does he engage in the Lord’s service? The natural property of jīva-souls is the capacity for thinking, feeling, and willing. A bhakti-yogī engages these facilities in Krishna’s service.

yat karoṣi yad aśnāsi yaj juhoṣi dadāsi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam

Krishna lovingly advises us how to practise bhakti-yoga: “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer, whatever you give, whatever vow you keep—do it as an offering unto Me. That is your eternal duty and natural religion.”

This sort of bhakti-yoga is the ideal practice for all jīva-souls. When our practising life will advance to this stage we will be completely satisfied. When we can engage all of our activities in Krishna’s service we will receive His mercy and feel complete fulfilment.

Through bhakti-yoga, we can merge our account with Krishna’s account. If everything we do is for the service and satisfaction of Krishna then we will be established on the spiritual platform of existence. We will live in the transcendental service world and will not be further entangled in karma. This is the highest and best path, as well as the highest and best destination, for all jīva-souls.

The Lord’s merciful appeal

Krishna gave His guidance to the conditioned souls in different stages throughout Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā. He presented the knowledge of karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and aṣṭāṅga-yoga to bring all the jīva-souls whose minds and mentalities are attracted in different ways to the devotional platform. Finally He showed His greatest mercy in His very happy conclusion:

sarva-guhyatamaṁ bhūyaḥ śṛṇu me paramaṁ vachaḥ
iṣṭo ’si me dṛḍham iti tato vakṣyāmi te hitam

“Because you are so dear to Me I will now tell you the most hidden treasure that I have to share with you. Hear My advice with full faith and you must be super-benefitted.”

man-manā bhava mad-bhakto mad-yājī māṁ namaskuru
mām evaiṣyasi satyaṁ te pratijāne priyo ’si me

“I am the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Whatever you do, do it for Me. Think of Me always, devote yourself to Me, worship Me, and bow to Me, and surely you will come to Me. Your whole account will come to Me. I promise you this because you are dear to Me. Other practices will not be truly fruitful for you. The practice of bhakti-yoga must be fully fruitful for you and will give you supreme benefit.”

The inner quality of all yoga

Within bhakti-yoga all the rules and regulations of the various forms of yoga merge together for the satisfaction of Krishna. In bhakti-yoga all actions and their results go to Krishna. Here we find the full meaning of buddhi-yoga and yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam: “Yoga is the art of all activity.” That is, through bhakti-yoga, everything is perfectly adjusted for the satisfaction of Krishna.

When I translated Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā under the guidance of Śrīla Guru Maharaj I found that Śrīla Bhakti Vinod Ṭhākur, who was a very expert translator, put great emphasis on Krishna’s teaching of buddhi-yoga. He wrote that what is explained as buddhi-yoga in the beginning of Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā is actually a covered form of bhakti-yoga, and that Krishna actually begins teaching bhakti-yoga from the very beginning of Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā under the covering of buddhi-yoga.

There are eighteen chapters in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā, and externally they are named Karma-yoga, Jñāna-yoga, and so on. What is actually inside those chapters? We see that within all eighteen chapters of Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā the fully enlightened form of Krishna consciousness, expressed as bhakti-yoga, is present. All the other forms of yoga—karma, jñān, and so on—are actually dependent on bhakti-yoga.

ei saba sādhanera ati tuchchha bala
kṛṣṇa-bhakti vinā tāhā dite nāre phala
(Śrī Chaitanya-charitāmṛta: Madhya-līlā, 22.18)

“Without the presence of devotion, that is, Krishna-bhakti, the practices of karma, jñān, and so on will not be fruitful. They have no power on their own.”

In every chapter of Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā Krishna connects the jīva-souls’ activity within the different forms of yoga with bhakti. The results the jīva-souls may get from the various lower forms of yoga—karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and so on—are actually produced by the presence of bhakti within those practices. The practices of karma-yoga and jñāna-yoga are actually mixed with bhakti-yoga.

The main heart of all the jīva-souls’ spiritual activity is always bhakti-yoga. Everything Krishna explained in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā from beginning to end, is actually about bhakti-yoga. This means that nothing within Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā can be ignored: every chapter is important for everyone, including those who practise bhakti-yoga.

I have been reading Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā and practising bhakti-yoga all my life, and through that I have understood that everything within Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā is important for everyone. I have read Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā so many times, and every time I read it new meaning comes to me. But the general meanings of the verses do not become suppressed. Rather, more and more meanings continue to overflow. I am so satisfied with that. From deep to deeper to deepest, everything is presented in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā. It is necessary for everyone to read Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā every day attentively. Day by day I am more and more enthusiastic to preach the conception taught in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā because it is very essential for the primary religious education of all people.

Abandon all religions

Question: I read in Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā that Krishna says, “Abandon all religions and come to Me.” Can you clarify the meaning of this?

Swāmī BS Govinda: Yes. All religions are actually one: the jīva-souls must be attracted to their Lord, who is like an all-attractive magnet. The purpose of all the different kinds of religion practised within this material world is to give the jīva-souls consciousness about this, their main religion, their natural religion: divine attraction and service to their Lord.

We are not actually Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or anything. We are all actually jīva-souls who are covered by the illusory environment. As jīva-souls we have the capacity for thinking, feeling, and willing. And when our natural conscious capacity will come into its own clean, transcendental position, then we will automatically feel attracted by the Lord’s divine form and be inspired to engage in His service. That is the main and real religion of all jīva-souls, and in remembrance of that eternal, spiritual religion, Krishna said to Arjuna:

sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śuchaḥ
(Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā: 18.66)

“I shall give you the supreme in life if you take shelter at My lotus feet. Give up all other forms of religion and surrender exclusively to Me. I will liberate you from all sin. Have no fear.”

What Krishna means is that the different kinds of religion practised in this material world are not perfect forms of religion’s actual nature, and that actual religion is to surrender to the Lord’s lotus feet and engage eternally in His service.

(excerpt from ‘Revealed Truth’)