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Right Knowledge & Jnana Yoga: It Comes from the Heart Not the Head

Posted by on Feb 5, 2013

Jnana Yoga Uses the head to Get to the Heart

Jnana Yoga Uses the Head to Get to the Heart


Jnana yoga is communion with God by means of knowledge. ~ Sri Ramakrishna

You’ve seen the articles, “Guru. . .1931. . .Guru. . .1487. . .Guru. . . . 1753. . .and so on.”  We can stack book upon book about the ‘truth’ as evidenced by one scholar or another, in a polyglot of mother tongues, until they stand as tall as an NBA player on circus stilts, but ‘knowledge’ is often just an anecdotal chimera. We fill our brains with so much rubbish to make us feel important or learned. Often, these ‘learnings’ are not something that bring us closer to the Truth; however, that BIG Truth we’ve been yearning for.


Jnana Yoga Uses the Head to Get to the Heart of the Matter

My head has rarely brought me this kind of insight (as in seeing rightly). It is my heart that gives way to the big blossoms – those fragrant, silk petals that are bursting with so much love I can’t help but to breathe more deeply.  Those blooms are more heady than reading a hundred ancient texts. That being said, sometimes the only way I can get my heart to open is through my head. It’s like a back door with a secret key.

This is called jnana yoga, or the yoga of intellect, and Patanjali, the yogic sage, talks about it a bit in a sutra, oddly, about right knowledge. His wisdom on the subject was so great, that he defines it in one Sanskrit phrase.

In the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavan Patanjali states simply, “Direct cognition, inference, and testimony are the sources of knowledge.”[1]

Sutra I.6


[HA]: Pramana, Viparyaya, Vikalpa, Sleep and Recollection

[IT]: (They are) right knowledge, wrong knowledge, fancy, sleep and memory.

[VH]: They are: evaluation, misperception, conceptualization, sleep and memory.

[BM]: They are valid judgment, error, conceptualization, sleep and memory.

[SS]: They are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.

[SP]: These five kinds of thought-waves are: right knowledge, wrong knowledge, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.

[SV]: (These are) right knowledge, indiscrimination, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory.


Jnana yoga is an understanding of nonduality that eventually leads to an experience of absolute Truth.


What is True Wisdom?

How often have we overlooked the light of true wisdom, and instead inferred some truth (that isn’t true at all)? How often have we gotten in our own way, or limited our own radiant ideas, our own ability to give and receive love (the only Truth there is)? We can come up with lots of reasons – justifiable ones, for certain, that we don’t need to love with abandon. This is just a fraction of the wild imagination – of the million and one reasons – whether they are people, situations, or circumstances, that keep us from grasping the BIG Truth. Jnana yoga is a means to access true wisdom.

True Wisdom is a knowing so deep, that it transcends intellect. It is no longer the domain of the head. It comes straight from a bottomless perception that can only be described as heart-centered.


The Heart as the True Brain

The intellect is tricky – it can be used by Ego or the Divine, so you can’t trust it as much as the heart. This is part of the reason that Patanjali urges us to use direct cognition, inference and testimony to deduce real from the unreal. When the intellect fails us, we can always rely on the heart. Further sutras talk about this in more depth.

In fact, the heart is considered the true ‘brain’ in many traditions for this very reason. In Sanskrit Anahata, the heart chakra,can be translated to mean ‘unstruck note.’ The heart center is utilized in the yoga of Naropa to purify the entire body. The Sephirah, or Tree of Life, in Kabbalist texts, is associated with the intelligence of the heart. In Sufism, the Qalb is the ‘heart of the mystic.’

The heart is considered the gateway between the lower, material realms, and the upper, spiritual realms with profundity among many schools from Taoist to Tantric, Polynesian, American Indian, Mayan, Tibetan, Yogic, Aboriginal and Shamanistic. It is responsible for turning shen, or qi energy into spirit energy in martial arts, and is called the ‘sacred’ heart of the Christian mystic, part of the holy trinity necessary for understanding the ascended Christ Consciousness. An unstruck heart does not obey the laws of fear. It loves as if it was never hurt.

The testimony portion of Sutra 7.i refers to the many saints and yogic sages who live as their hearts are unencumbered by ego. We can be inspired with true thought by observing their actions in the world. When you are near a true master, you can tell there is something different about them. They radiate an unconditional acceptance and love that is rare. Yogis at this level of heart-consciousness have a different physiology.

In fact, from a physiological perspective, the heart sends many more messages to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. Even the rhythm of the heart changes in accordance with our emotions, and can have a profound effect on the nervous system, and our overall sense of well-being. The Heart Math Institute is conducting many studies on these types of phenomenon involving the heart.

Emotions like fear, anger, and frustration make the heartbeat erratic. However, when we feel happy and peaceful, the heartbeat looks more like a gentle and even wave, with equal peaks and troughs. If you think of the heartbeat as a standing wave that speaks to the rest of the body, you can imagine that a smooth, even beat would be much more peaceful than a rhythm with no consistent baseline.

It is for the same reason that people respond so positively to music with the same or similar beats-per-minute as the typical resting heart rate (with most people’s resting heart rate falling between 60 to 100 beats-per-minute) although advanced yogis can slow their heart rates even more considerably. We instinctively know this is a good rhythm for our bodies overall, and modern DJs and music producers use this phenomenon to speak to us through musical composition in the same way ancient composers of music did, even when it was made on the carcass of a turtle shell or the bones and skin of a deceased animal instead of on laptops and midi machines.


Approximation of Truth Through Experimentation

Even some of the most brilliant brains of our time, though, have admitted that ‘laws’ are invented. Jnana yoga notwithstanding, the intellect is still a slippery eel. The ‘laws’ that govern our existence are, in fact, so very mutable. In Richard P. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, he states, “ The principle of science, the definition almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment.” Isn’t he saying the same thing that the ancient yogic sage, Patanjali, is putting forth?

Feynman, the great physicist continues, “Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. . . Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth. But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints, the great generalizations [the inference portion of Sutra 7.i] – to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess.”[2]


Meditation as Experimentation

Bhagavan Patanjali The Compiler of the Yoga Sutras

Bhagavan Patanjali The Compiler of the Yoga Sutras

Yogic sages and arhats of the past several thousand years preceding our own time, conducted this very specific task of experimentation, of scientific inquiry. Their tools were not microscopes, telescopes, or super colliders, but meditation. The methods of their experimentation are outlined in as much detail as the lectures meant to teach graduate students at MIT. They are detailed in The Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabhrata, the Upanishads, the Vedas, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. And just as scientists in modern inquiry, no matter the field, often share their questions and insights with other scientists, yogic knowledge has been compared to other wisdom traditions, and their own methods of experimentation have supported the findings of an inquiry into consciousness – which is the primary means of dissecting one of the most curious specimens in all of archeological, biological, psychological, quantum, mechanical and spiritual study.

The Bhagavad Gita calls Jnana yoga a means to complete liberation and utter bliss.

Interestingly, though, are the repeated urgings of yogis who have become ‘realized’ to support a person in their own inquiry. These people rarely tell you that you should just take their word for it. They persuade a practitioner of yoga to find wisdom through their own study and recourse, even while offering ‘testimony’ (Sutra 7.i. again) of yoga’s efficacy.

Sri Aurobindo, the contemporary sage who attained full enlightenment in his lifetime suggests as much,

“You say that this way is too difficult for you or the likes of you and it is only “Avatars” like myself or the Mother that can do it. That is a strange misconception; for it is, on the contrary, the easiest and simplest and most direct way and anyone can do it, if he makes his mind and vital quiet, even those who have a tenth of your capacity can do it. It is the other way of tension and strain and hard endeavour that is difficult and needs a great force of Tapasya. As for the Mother and myself, we have had to try all ways, follow all methods, to surmount mountains of difficulties, a far heavier burden to bear than you or anybody else in the Ashram or outside, far more difficult conditions, battles to fight, wounds to endure, ways to cleave through impenetrable morass and desert and forest, hostile masses to conquer — a work such as, I am certain, none else had to do before us.

For the Leader of the Way in a work like ours has not only to bring down and represent and embody the Divine, but to represent too the ascending element in humanity and to bear the burden of humanity to the full and experience, not in a mere play or Lila but in grim earnest, all the obstruction, difficulty, opposition, baffled and hampered and only slowly victorious labour which are possible on the Path. But it is not necessary nor tolerable that all that should be repeated over again to the full in the experience of others. It is because we have the complete experience that we can show a straighter and easier road to others — if they will only consent to take it. It is because of our experience won at a tremendous price that we can urge upon you and others, “Take the psychic attitude; follow the straight sunlit path, with the Divine openly or secretly upbearing you – – if secretly, he will yet show himself in good time, — do not insist on the hard, hampered, roundabout and difficult journey.”[3]

Aurobindo lovingly tells us to find our own way, but to look to the wisdom of those who have studied hard and long to offer us a clearer path. This is true of all great minds of their time. They offer their Truth, and then allow us to counter it with our own, well earned through diligent inquiry and also often, at a tremendous price. Who among us, though, can very often take the advice of someone who has already been down a path we are about to take, even an arduous one, without testing the waters ourselves? There is often no other way to compare the accepted wisdom with our own Truth, except through the experience of it personally. This is why so many lessons are often learned ‘the hard way.’


Question Everything

If we return to Patanjali’s sutra again, it aims at teaching us to question even that which we take in by our senses, even with astute scientific inquiry, or experiential knowledge. Even science is learning that the outcomes of their own experiments are affected by consciousness, so that the study of some material phenomenon itself is changed merely by observing it!

This is not just as simple as the unconscious bias of a scientist swaying the results due to overlooking certain data or being selective about publication results, but is the curious phenomenon that has been recorded repeatedly, such as the Hawthorne effect where subjects of an experiment tend to act in accordance with the expectations of the experimenter.

Even more odd, it has been found in experiments with super colliders that the smallest particles behave differently when they are observed. Even finding these particles in the first place was probably due to observation bias. When physicists determined it was possible there were smaller elements of matter than atoms, billions of dollars were spent to make machines that could detect them.  We built very expensive machines, and sure enough, found smaller particles.

The Super Colliding Particles at High Energy

The Super Colliding Particles at High Energy

This could conceivably go on ad infinitum, depending on what we ‘suppose’ we will find, such as smaller and smaller particles. In fact, we have gone from declaring the smallest particle the atom to the quark to neutrinos to photons (which have no mass) to even smaller particles in the span of merely a few decades! And anti-matter – that’s a whole other discussion. Let alone the wave-particle theories that show these particles can act in very interesting ways.

The placebo effect is another example of the mind being a huge influence over reality. When we refer to a placebo in modern terms, we mean a sugar pill, or some inane, pharmaceutically devoid ‘medicine,’ which isn’t really medicine in the conventional sense at all. Interestingly though, the placebo domino were singers hired to ‘please the lord’ with song when someone was ailing or dying in the Middle Ages. They sang over the beds of a departing body, as it left this world to go to another. It was not used as a pejorative phrase for many centuries (around the late 1700s) when it became the term for a medical cure that lacked true medicine. Placebos often work better than actual medicine, though. Our minds are tricky things, and so are our senses.

One example of when our senses fail to give us accurate information is in the case of a desert mirage. While it is hot air that makes us think we see water, a desert lake isn’t really there. In some of the ancient yogic texts, another example is used. We can be walking along a path, and think we see a snake, but all that is really present, lying in wait, is a piece of rope, and not something that is ready to strike us. Our egoic minds would often have us believe that everywhere we look there is danger, when really there is none.

Direct cognition only happens when we scrutinize our indriyas, a Sanskrit word meaning senses. These are the subtlest layers of thought that we come into contact with in deep meditation. When the yamas and niyamas are presented in yogic texts, they are given so that a practitioner can compare the thoughts that arise from meditative practice and compare them to the positive thoughts which promote the attainment of higher levels of spiritual development, or if they are contrasting to those thoughts, and therefore, need to be discredited, or seen as an illusion, like the mirage in the desert or the snake in the grass.


Becoming a Witness and the Indriyas

Almost every True wisdom tradition asks its participants to become a witness – to surgically dissect, as scientists do in experimentation, the quality of their thoughts. In yogic parlance, the indriyas, or senses, inform the consciousness. There are 10 kinds. Five of these are called karmendriyas, meaning they are a means of expressing oneself, and five are called jnanendriyas, meaning they are a method of cognition.

Karmendriyas – these are referring to the actions of the physical body primarily through the hands, feet, speech, excretory and reproductive organs. These organs are also related manas tattva or solar energy. They can be brokwn down as such:

1.   Payu – the excretory organs account for our connection to the earth element as well as the root chakra.

2.   Upastha – the sexual organs account for our creative abilities and generative organs.

3.   Pada – the legs and feet allow us to be mobile – to get from one place in ‘time’ to another.

4.   Pani – In the understanding of karmendriyas, the hands are considered the most active organ of the senses due to the fact that they can feel, touch, and also express (as in gestures, or Mudra).

5.   Vak – the speech organs allow us to communicate.

Jnanenriyas – these refer to the five sense organs themselves. They are:

1.   nose

2.   tongue

3.   eyes

4.   skin

5.   ears

We need to understand how indriyas work so that we can start to disassemble the cycle of suffering. Our thoughts and experience are colored by our senses to such a degree that something could be as bright and blue as the heavenly skies, and still we would see only black. Colored patterns of thought are called samskaras in yoga, and this word translated means habit of thought. These habits come from our past tendency to be dishonest, steal, covet, be greedy, be fearful, act on possessiveness, or any other injury to others, and therefore, ourselves. When our senses are uncontrolled – we see only an endless cycle of the illusion of these hurts played out again and again.

Here’s the sticky part. No one who has been through a horrible trauma deserves to keep replaying that for the rest of their lives, but that is very often, exactly what happens. When someone endures a traumatic, indeed, even a horrific event, the effects of that experience start to color their thoughts. They are less trusting, more fearful, they withdraw into themselves, and may even start to perpetrate the same misery on others unwittingly.

An example of this is evident in those who commit sex crimes, or violent murders. Psychologists can argue about whether it was the result of a person’s upbringing and environment or the constitution they were born with, but inevitably, the murdered are the murderers, and the wounded inflict wounds. This plays out on the grand world stage in war and poverty, but also in our own personal relationships.

We’ve all been guilty of engaging in this rotation to some degree or another. This is what causes the endless cycle of karma, a yogic term which simply means ‘action, effect, or fate.’ Our actions cause an effect, which determine our fate. This is the usual cycle, but it can be broken. This is achieved by removing our own ignorance. We all are ignorant to different degrees, myself included. A clouded mind continues in this ignorance, but with the tools of yoga and meditation, as well as countless other acts, like eating healthfully, spending time with people we love, participating in random acts of kindness, and shifting our perspective on purpose, a new consciousness starts to dawn.

Like the movement in psychology to study ‘positive’ human conditioning, instead of mental illness solely, the cognitive shift, allowed a different perspective. Instead of looking at how a patient was broken and wrong, we started to look at ways broken people became, well, sheer genius. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that high-level human functioning and thriving families and communities often sprung up from within individuals who had some of the most traumatic experiences one could imagine, such as watching their parents be bludgeoned to death before the eyes as young children. Instead of perpetuating ‘mental illness,’ these people chose a radical path of peace. Somehow they understood that though the pain of what they endured was atrocious, they could perpetuate it through their own actions, or they could engage in, let us say, an abnormal response to pain, misery, atrocity, fear, greed, etc. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of karma and suffering, they stopped it in its tracks, and determined a new path for themselves and others.

In the case of this peculiar type of individual, the indriyas, or his senses would tell him there was a big snake. He should recoil. His eyes might have been burned with the image of suffering to such a huge degree, that seeing the snake is just a rope might seem impossible, but somehow the mind is cleared, and the atrocity is made into a past experience, and not a never-ending loop of perpetuating pain. He has seen the mirage for what it is, a bunch of hot air.

This is right knowledge as Patanjali would have defined it. It is information taken in through the head (via our senses), but made right through the heart with discernment. Once we learn to observe our senses, scientifically, that is, through meditation, or Jnana yoga, we can start to observe Truth. That Truth is Love.


About the Author

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World.

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.


[1] Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. 1976-2006.

[2] Feyman, Richard P., Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher. Helix Books, Addison-Wesley Publishing. California Institute of Technology, Reading Massachusetts, 1963-1995.

[3] Sri Aurobindo. “On Himself” (pg. 463) 1976, Volume 26 Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, India.

[4] The Heart Math Institute.  Coherence: Bridging Personal, Social, and Global Health Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., Doc Childre Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2010; 16 (4):10-24.

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