Friday, March 26, 2021


The Bhagavad Gītā is a text that expounds the three yogas (disciplines), of bhakti yoga, karma yoga, and jñāna yoga. In this paper, I will set out to uphold the claim that practising and engaging in the three yogas will lead to joy and freedom for the practitioner, as well as advocate that fulfilling one’s svadharma (duty) through the three yogas serves as a method for liberation.

Bhakti yoga is the path that encompasses love and devotion to a deity. Devotional worship, singing and dancing, as well as pilgrimages to holy places, are tangible expressions of this spirituality. An internal personal surrender to and love of the chosen god or goddess complements the above religious practices. A recurring theme in the Epic literature of the Bhagavad Gītā is devotionalism, as exemplified in “He who serves Me with the unswerving yoga of devotion, transcending the gunas, gains the fitness to become like unto Brahman.” (Bhagavad Gītā, Chapter XIV: Verse 26, n.d.) 

All through history, people of faith have engaged in forms of worship as well as pilgrimage activities. Recent research has shown participants of different worship practices reporting improved outlooks on life, greater life perspectives and finding existential meaning. Some participants even quit their jobs or change their careers at the end of their pilgrimage journeys (Jørgensen, Eade, Ekeland, & Lorentzen, 2020). 

In a study conducted by Vanderbilt University, subjects’ attendance at worship services was analysed, along with mortality and allostatic load. Allostatic load is a physiological measurement of factors including cardiovascular, nutritional/inflammatory and metabolic measures. The higher the allostatic load, the higher the stress level an individual was interpreted as experiencing. Of more than 5,000 people across different race and gender markers who were surveyed, 64 percent were regular worshipers. Non-worshipers had significantly higher overall allostatic load scores and higher prevalence of high-risk values for three of the 10 markers of allostatic load than did church-goers and other worshipers. People who attend church or other houses of worship reduce their risk for mortality by 55 percent. (Patterson, 2017)

Karma yoga is the path to God through selfless action and service to others. Devotion to God through such works means a practitioner has to practise non-attachment and renounce the consequences of their actions, effectively surrendering oneself to God. One who engages in karma yoga acts in a dispassionate manner, without attachment to the results of their actions, including pleasure or pain, success or failure. 

Interestingly, although karma yoga is to be endeavored with no consideration for its consequences, acting in the spirit of community leads to many benefits for someone who acts in such a manner. For instance, research has repeatedly documented that volunteering leads to boosting general well-being and lowering levels of depression. Even when it comes to money, spending on others correlates to increased happiness compared to spending it on one’s own person. There is now neural evidence from fMRI studies suggesting a link between generosity and happiness in the brain. For example, donating money activates the same (mesolimbic) regions of the brain that respond to monetary rewards or sex. In fact, the mere intent for generosity can stimulate neural change and make people happier. (Pogosyan, 2018) 

In another study, engaging in helpful behavior, along with other types of social interaction, is associated with positive health outcomes, including reduced mortality. The research indicates that helping others predicts reduced mortality specifically because it buffers the association between stress and mortality (Poulin, Brown, Dillard & Smith, 2013). Even though being on the receiving end of these benefits is not the purpose of anyone who engages in karma yoga, they can certainly not deny the physiological effects that a person will experience from it.

Jñāna yoga is the path of knowledge or wisdom. Chapter IV, Verse 39 of Bhagavad Gītā states: “He who is full of faith gains Divine Wisdom, seeking after it with supreme devotion and mastery over his senses. Gaining Wisdom, in no long time he enters the state of supreme peace.” As the most arduous and spiritually fulfilling of the yogas, jñāna yoga encompasses attainment of mental tranquility, self-control, dispassion, perseverance, mental resolve or intentness of mind, and a positive longing for wisdom and freedom. Broadly, jñāna yoga entails the study of Vedāntic texts, sustained reflection upon the philosophical principles of Advaita, and constant meditation. Advaita is the concept that Brahman alone is real and that the world we live in is a transient and illusory appearance of Brahman.

Recent evidence suggests that meditation has neuroprotective properties, with implications for enhancing cognition and preventing dementia. A study carried out at Yale University found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering. The DMN is active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Mind-wandering has typically been associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, and therefore the goal for many people is to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the default mode network, appears to do just this. Even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. (Walton, 2015)

In relationship aspects, analysis has revealed that mindfulness during conflict helped romantic partners not take things so personally, regulate their emotional reactions more quickly, and empathise with their partner more deeply. Researchers infer that while mindfulness helps people remain more engaged during constructive conflict, it also enables them to disengage more quickly from conflicts that become destructive. (Graham, 2016)

Bhakti yoga, or worship, has been found to give people more meaning and purpose in their lives. Some even quit their jobs, signifying freedom and courage to not simply be a cog in the machine. One could say that a majority of the world population are enslaved by systems such as capitalism and oppression, and for believers of a higher being or purpose to rise above that, is a form of liberation. Positive correlation has also been made between worship and health indicators, with worshipers presenting at lower risk for mortality. With comparatively better health, worshipers may have less to worry about, and thus more freedom to enjoy life. Generosity has been linked to happiness and lowered levels of depression, proven through MRI scans. Practitioners of karma yoga therefore have much joy to gain by working for selfless reasons. Helping others usually leads to increased social interaction, also reducing mortality. 

Joy has been defined as feeling good in the moment, and it is an emotion that is a lot more immediate and accessible than happiness (Lee, 2018). People who practice jñāna yoga may reduce their susceptibility for going through prolonged unhappy periods of time, as well as conversely, increasing their propensity for joy, by staying present in every passing moment instead of dwelling in the past or future. Meditators also de-escalate personal situations more effectively and experience increased empathy. Pertaining specifically to the Bhagavad Gītā, one who has faith in the concept of Advaita would also take things less personally when they view this world as an illusion, and therefore may be more liberated from the occurrences in their daily life.  

Even when practised as three isolated factors, each of the disciplines of bhakti yoga, karma yoga and jñāna yoga yields much physiological benefit. It is therefore viable to argue that when all the disciplines are practised simultaneously, the three yogas would naturally lead to joy and freedom for people who observe and practise them.


Graham, L. (2016). How Mindfulness Can Help Couples Cool Down.

Jørgensen, N. N., Eade, J., Ekeland, T., & Lorentzen, C. A. N. (2020). "The Processes, Effects and Therapeutics of Pilgrimage Walking the St. Olav Way," International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 6.

Lee, I. F. (2018). Why The Secret To Happiness Might Be Joy.

Miller, B. S. (2004). The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna's Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books.

Patterson, J. (2017). Worship is good for your health: Vanderbilt Study.

Pocosyan, M. (2018). In Helping Others, You Help Yourself.

Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality

Walton, A. G. (2015). 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain.