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Way to God - Should it be Karma, Bhakti or Jnana Marga for me?

Aravind Balasubramanya has spent more than 2 decades with Sri Sathya Sai Baba. He has studied under Baba and been His photographer.

Best path to God...

Best path to God...

Which is the best way to God?

Man is on the quest to get the best for himself. Whether it is selecting a pen for writing or a life-partner to share a relationship with, the person seeks the best. The term ‘best’ has different meaning for different people. The ‘best’ pen could mean either the smoothest writing one, the longest lasting one or the cheapest one available depending on the person who is defining that term. So it becomes very difficult to answer the question,
“Which is the best pen?”

In spirituality too, when one asks,
“Which is the best way to God/fulfillment?”, it becomes a tough question to answer because it is difficult to answer what ‘best’ means. Does it mean the fastest way; or the easiest way; or the simplest way?
Traditionally, it has been said that there are three ways to God:

1. The Bhakti Marga (Path of devotion) - Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion and service to God. All actions are done in the context of remembering the Divine. It involves singing the Lord’s glories, hearing them, talking about them, Japam etc.

2. The Karma Marga (Path of action) - Karma Yoga is the path of action where one does the action without being attached to the fruits of action. Therefore, at a practical level, it gets comprised of selfless actions, service to others, mindfulness, and remembering the levels of our being while fulfilling our actions or karma in the world. It involves engaging in serving the needy, helping the less-fortunate etc.

3. The Jnana Marga (Path of knowledge) - Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation. It involves deep exploration of the nature of our being by systematically exploring and setting aside false identities.

There is also another path called as the Raja Marga. But I shall not go into that simply because I have not heard my master, Swami (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba) speak much about it. Also, it is of a later historical origin, possibly in 400 CE and was evolved by sage Patanjali. Therefore, we shall leave it out of this discussion. Even when the three ways have been presented, the question arises,
“Three ways are fine for classification; which one among them is the best?”

Cause for doubt

This doubt arises because of ‘indigestion in the head’ as Swami puts it. Swami has spoken a lot about the power of love and devotion. When one hears it, it feels as the best path. But He has also spoken about service and how it is supreme - hands that help are holier than lips that pray. Again, there have been discourses where He has categorically stated that no amount of service or prayer is of any use if one does not realize that everything is the manifestation of the divine. It appears as though each path is supreme when Swami speaks about it.

Two analogies from Swami throw a lot of light on this doubt. I have not ‘heard’ these directly from Swami but from elders for whom Swami clarified the same.

The first analogy drives home a beautiful point. It says,
“Do not ask which is the best path. Instead, ask - ‘Which is the best path for me?’ “
The analogy, combined with the technique to recognize which part of Swami’s discourse is meant for oneself makes things so clear.


The three-wheeler analogy...

The journey to God or oneSelf is made through a three-wheeler. Each wheel represents respectively the Bhakti Marga, the Karma Marga and the Jnana Marga. Based on one’s inclination and aptitude, one can place either of them as the front wheel. But the other two wheels are important too.

So, one can choose to sing bhajans and do namasmarana. That does not exempt one from doing service and inquiring into the Reality of the Self. The same holds good for one engaged in service or meditation - no exemption from the other two. This is because, all the three are necessary if one has to proceed towards one’s goal - oneself or God.

The corollary to this analogy is that if a person of the path of devotion says that he does not care about serving others or realizing his reality, then, he is actually not on any path! The same way, one cannot lock oneself up in the room saying,
“I will serve none nor worship none. I shall realize the divine within.”

Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest exponent of the Advaita philosophy (non-dualism) is universally regarded to have followed the Jnana Marga. But, he is the composer of many hymns in praise of the Lord - including the Ganesha Pancharatnam which is just a description of the beauty and glory of Lord Ganesha!

M.S.Subbulakshmi renders the Ganesha Pancharatnam


The clock analogy...

The second analogy is very beautiful and powerful. It lays all doubts to rest and shows the harmony that exists between each of these ‘paths’. Swami told this on the 03rd June 1990, during the Summer Course in Indian Culture and Spirituality. He has mentioned it on many other occasions as well. This is how Swami put it.

In this connection, let us consider the example of the wall-clock over there. It has three hands to indicate seconds, minutes, and hours respectively. There are sixty points, and twelve hours marked along the circumference of the clock. When the second-hand moves across all the sixty points, the minute-hand moves by only one point. When the minute hand moves over sixty points or the full circumference, the hour-hand moves by only one hour-mark or one-twelfth of the circumference. Now, the second-hand may be compared to our actions. If a large number of good actions are done, the minute-hand, which represents chitta suddhi (the purity of mind), will move by one point. Chitta suddhi is the stage of upasana when one engages himself in loving God and worshipping Him in various ways over a period of time, leading to Atma viswaasam (Self-confidence), which represents the hour-hand. The perceptible movements of the second-hand and the minutehand should bring about the imperceptibly slow movement of the hour-hand. Otherwise, no purpose is served by the second-hand and minute-hand. So also, unless your good actions, worship and love of God, lead to Atmaviswas or Self-confidence, the former two will be futile.

So, all the three- action, devotion and knowledge are a must. One cannot move without the other and one loses meaning without the other! Swami further adds that because the second-hand and the minute-hand travel relatively fast, we are able to see their motion. The hour-hand travels slowly, we are not able to see its movement. But as long as we do good and get good feelings, we should know that we are progressing.

SAI is the culmination of The Three! :)

SAI is the culmination of The Three! :)

I felt convinced of one thing, I can never say that I will not serve because I like only singing bhajans. Nor can I say that I shall not attend bhajans because it is enough if I sit in my inner room and meditate. When one is on The Path, one finds joys in all the three - Karma, Bhakti and Jnana - and does all the three too!

And then, I got a confirmation through the above beautiful illustration on the Radiosai website. Nobody can have any doubt for His name itself embodies all the three! :)

A picture is worth a thousand words. Just imagine a video then!

Concluding thoughts

There was once an exhibition put up by the students in the Higher Secondary School premises at Puttaparthi and Bhagawan Baba had arrived to inaugurate it. Moving around the different exhibits, He came to a display of the three paths - Karma, Bhakti and Jnana. The exhibit showed a bullock cart, a car and an aeroplane. Swami asked the student who had made the exhibit to explain it.

"Swami, on the path of Karma, the aspirant moves very slow. That is represented by the bullock cart. The path of Bhakti is relatively faster and is shown by the car. The fastest path is that of Jnana and is represented by the aeroplane."

Swami smiled at the boy and his enthusiasm. However, before moving on, He made a quick comment,

"But remember, if one falls out from an aeroplane, there is no getting up at all!", and walked to the next exhibit.

Wow! What a revelation! The path of action may appear slow but it is the safest. The path of knowledge is the fastest but is fraught with great danger. The path of devotion seems to be a happy blend of speed and safety.

Scroll to Continue

Ultimately, as the tricycle analogy showed, it boils down to one's preference and choice. The 'main' path or the 'front wheel' can be chosen. But the other two paths, the 'back wheels' inevitably follow. That would be a good rule-of-the-thumb to judge whether one is on any path.

If I am on a path, I will not detest the other two paths. I will, in fact, appreciate them and put efforts to inculcate them too because they are necessary for me.

After all, was not Adi Shankaracharya, the great Advaithin, also a great proponent of devotion as he composed the famous Madhurashtakam? Was not Tukaram, the inspiring devotee, also an epitome of service? And was not Mother Teresa, a great Karma Yogi immersed in service also a reservoir of wisdom?

If you enjoyed this article based on Baba's teachings, you will also enjoy:

1. What is Karma Yoga?

2. Thus Spake Lord Sai - 4 (on importance of regular and intense sadhana or spiritual practice)

3. Meaning of Aarti or Arati done by waving camphor at the Lord.

4. 3 poignant stories of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba full of insight

© 2012 Aravind Balasubramanya


Akash Kumar from LAKHISARAI on June 25, 2018:

You are trying to understand these thing and meanwhile exploring the idea in front of mass . Great job

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on June 15, 2014:

@Sairam - Thank you for the correction you made. The same correction was made during a talk I delivered several months ago. After that, it just slipped my mind to make the correction in this article.

Thank you for the Ekadasha Skandham of the Bhagawatham which lends another dimension for the three paths.

Sairam on June 15, 2014:

One clarification - Adi Shankara did not compose Madhurashtakam. It was done by Sri Vallabhacharya.

Only pointing this out because in such a perfect article, why even a single error?

In the Srimad Bhagavatam in the Ekadasa Skandham, Bhagawan says he created three paths for a purpose

a) for those disgusted with the world, Jnana

b) for those still attached to it, Karma

c) for those neither disgusted nor completely obsessed with it, Bhakti

Therefore, like you said, there is no best path - simply a path that suits the individual, depending on these qualifications, listed above

Aarron Saini from Ahmedabad on July 18, 2013:

All the three Margs (paths) are correct, but there is another Marg called the Akram Vignan: Akram Vignan is the current unique short-cut path to Self-realization, introduced to the world by the Gnani Purush Dada Bhagwan, Traditionally, for liberation, people have to renounce their family, their worldly life and all worldly possessions. They then withdraw into isolation to practice disciplines of dissolving the ego and the inner weaknesses of anger, pride, deceit, greed, attachment and aversion. When all forms of inner passions are destroyed, the Self is attained. However, with Akram Vignan, the Self is attained within an hour through the Gnani's grace. Concurrently, the root cause of the ego, the belief in "I am John", is completely annihilated. Thereafter, nothing remains to be attained or renounced. You continue living your worldly life as before, except now You have the inner light (pragnya-shakti) of the awakened Self guiding you as you sail across the life's ocean, all the while maintaining equanimity.

If you would like to learn more about this path, click

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on May 05, 2013:

@ Seethrough - We both are stating different things. I agree that one should not mix the paths. But I vehemently state that when one is truly following a path, traits of the other path also occur naturally.

A Jnani has devotion and does acts of service. A truly devoted person also is blessed with wisdom. And a person of service automatically develops devotion.

If you do not agree to this, we can agree to disagree and leave it at that. :)

If any person says that I do not care about society... because am on the Jnana Marga, one cannot be more ignorant than him! That is what my Master has taught me.

and as I said - HISTORY HAS NO EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE WHO WERE FIRM ON ONE PATH AND CALLOUS ABOUT THE OTHER TWO. Follow any path sincerely, the other two will also automatically come.

And guess what, to become an observer to one's actions is not easy! It becomes very demotivating. That is why the scriptures tell us - Sarva Karman Bhagwat preethyartham. - Do everything to make God happy. So what you are holding on to vehemently and what am saying about service are actually the same.

:) Thank you for the dialogue.

seethrough on May 05, 2013:

When following the path of karma the objective is to do your karma in such a manner that you become an observer to your own actions. To achieve this objective if you adopt a 'service' atitude - so be it..... if you don't it does not matter.

seethrough on May 05, 2013:

The very fact that they are classified as 3 paths shows that they are different. They donot converge but meet at the goal. Just like three totally different roads going from one place to another. It is true that after one arrives at the goal one and understand and appreciate the other paths also and so an observer should not be able to ascertain by which path a person has reached his goal. But if during the journey if one person mixes the paths or oscillates between them then one gets totally confused and reaches nowhere. Before starting ones journey one must be absolutely clear what is his goal, then only if makes sense to discuss which path will be most suitable.

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on May 05, 2013:

@seethrough - And also, it is not correct to think that the 3 paths are totally different! How can they be? They lead to the same destination/goal right? And when one is at the goal, one must be able to see the 3 paths converging and an observer should not be able to tell which path did one arrive by! :)

That is why Bhagawan Baba says that though the path of choice is based on circumstances and one's liking, the best way to know if one is progressing on the path is to see whether one is developing traits of the other two as well! There is no case in the history of the world where a realized soul, a jeevanmuktha, exists having followed any one of the paths but not having traits of the other two as well! :)

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on May 05, 2013:

@seethrough- I agree that an extrapolation has been done. But it cannot be called "wrong" as you put it. The path of karma requires one to do actions without being attached to the results of the action. The actions that we mostly do, however, are purely based on the results they fetch us- selfish! Doing everything as an act of service- with love, humility and selflessness- then seems to be the perfect way to do action. Maybe I will add this clarificationin the article without assuming that the reader will decode it!

seethrough on May 05, 2013:

The descriptions of the three paths is not correct. Path of karma doesn't mean service. It is an extrapolation of the basis of the basis of the Geeta, ie. be so engrossed in doing your job that you relinquish your attachment with the job. Bhakti is personified by Mirabai devotion to Krishna without any guru in between. For following the jnana marg you should have the ability to question whether you should question. So the choice of path should be decided by your personality and your circumstances. You have to follow any one path as the paths are based on different principles.

Avadhani.N.R on August 24, 2012:

Thank you. Very much educative msg.

poornimasrinath from Midrand, Johannesburg, RSA on August 23, 2012:

My argument is that the cycle only can have two wheels. :D B and K. J is the destination. Once the destination J is reached (we would have reached God - dwaita) you will get self realization which is the understanding of oneness.. God and I are one (Adwaita). I agree karma is a marga..bhakthi is also a marga. By showing devotion we only end up doing karma (good karma). When breathing itself is an action (karma) can we say dharma and bhakthi are the marga?

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on August 22, 2012:

@ Poornima - You have asked the same questions that the hub was meant to address - :)

In fact, you have answered yourself in your question.... You can start with any objective - B, K or J but you will end up doing all 3.

For example, if your intention is " I want to move the hour hand - J" then automatically, the other two have to move.... SO also, if your intention is, "I care only about the second-hand. I don't care about the other two ", then also, whether you want it or not, the other two move.

The hub only highlights the fact by starting with the supposition of 3 paths and concluding that there is only a single path with different views!

poornimasrinath from Midrand, Johannesburg, RSA on August 22, 2012:

Correct me if I am wrong...How can Jnana be a path? Is Jnana(self realization) not achieved by doing Karma and bhakthi? In Gita is it not the last set of six chapters which you will understand only if we have performed karma and tried the path of devotion? How can one attain Jnana straight away? Once you attain Jnana(self realization) are you not liberated? In the clock analogy is the hour hand not moving towards God after attaining Jnana slowly by the actions performed and showing devotion? If Jnana is the last step, how can you justify the last two wheels can vary? Is not what the rishis strive for after the act of penance and devotion not jnana? We work only towards illumination of our intellect (jnana) by menas of Gayathri mantra and Asathoma and veda mantras isn't it? These thoughts just flashed..Would like to know some clarification :)

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on August 22, 2012:

@ Darell Roberts - I share your opinion. I feel Bhakti is the best way. I remember an episode. An exhibition had been put up in which Karma Yoga was depicted as a bullock cart, Bhakti Yoga as a car and Jnana Yoga as an aeroplane. My Master and Guru is Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. When the boy who made the exhibit explained this concept to Him, He replied,

"But do not forget that if there is a fall from the aeroplane, there is no getting up!"

I too feel that Bhakti has the right mix ... and it is the most joyful of the three!

Thank you for your insightful comment

Darrell Roberts from North Carolina on August 22, 2012:

I think Bhakti is the best path though the other two process with get you there as well. Bhakti yoga teaches love and devotion to God, but it also is great for love and devotion in our personal relationships. Great hub, best wishes.

Sai Santosh from knoxville, USA on August 21, 2012:

@Debarshi Thanks Dada for your valuable insights! ..

@Aravind - Thanks for this post. Though I never pondered upon this question as I always thought all the three paths (my three) are one and the same. It was refreshing to read Swami's analogy.

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on August 21, 2012:

Thank you for the encouragement and love Dibu Tshering Yolmo, anushree surbhi and Sai devotee...

@ An Impressed reader - That is a beautiful summary and lovely presentation... Thank you so much for penning your inspiration... :)

An Impressed Reader on August 21, 2012:

Brilliant post!

It is so true that all three paths are required in our journey towards God .. I loved the clock and three wheeler analogies .. They were so profound .. That Swami has all three margas in his name was a great revelation for me ..

My views are -

The Bhakthi marga is for us to enjoy the beauty and sweetness of the Lord .. Once we have tasted this amritha, it ensures that at least to some extent, we do not pay heed to unimportant and petty things in life .. It is a great tool for bringing in Shanthi into our hearts and mind ..

The karma marga has another important aspect to it .. Dedicating everything to Swami ensures that we do not get caught by the binding consequences that always lurk around any action we perform .. It also rids us of the pride that we sometime get because of our talents and abilities .. It brings humility into our character ..

The jnana marga makes us experience those 'eureka moments' that gives us a peek into the mind boggling big picture that God has painted .. It makes us feel oneness with the entire creation, even if only for a few moments following the dawning moment ..

Thanks for yet another thought provoking post :)

sai devotee on August 21, 2012:

Thank you so much. I used to joke Iam in Sai Bermuda triangle of hospital,Kulwanth hall and home. Now I can describe them as Karma Bhakthi and Jnana segments.And I am trapped only due to Divine Grace

anushree surbhi on August 21, 2012:

swami is simply ultimate...the way he explains such big things...he made it so simple to understand....pranams to my SAI.thanks bhaiya for putting up in is words!!

Dibu Tshering Yolmo on August 21, 2012:

Thank u very very much for u r beautiful and simple articles that always touch the heart, and I always enjoy u r post now it has been a habit to read u r articles on swami and hope u keep on writing these articles

Dr.Vasantha Nair on August 20, 2012:

A great truth put so simply by Swami. I am simply blown over.

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on August 20, 2012:

Those are some profound thoughts you have put in Debarshi! Thank you for that valuable input. The final statement, the tree is in the seed makes it so magical....

Reading you comment makes me feel good having written this article! :)

I received something very profound....

Debarshi. on August 20, 2012:

In another analogy to this triune paths of Bhakti-Karma-Jnana, Swami in His own inimitable way compared it to the three aspects of a Mysore Pak- its shape, its mass and its taste. We cannot separate the three from each other. Just as we cannot really separate Bhakti, Karma and Jnana. And just as the three aspects of the Mysore-Pak fills us with sweetness, the three aspects of spirituality, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma, fills us with Bliss! Isn't it?

How can I "Love" God, if I do not "Know" what God is?

How can I "know" God, if I cannot try to get involved into the "act" of Knowing?

Not only are the three paths not different, but it is a little absurd to think of them to be different.

Bhakti is the seed, Karma is the tree with all the leaves and the branches, Jnana is the fruit.

But then the entire tree is again contained in the seed. Isn't it?

Aravind Balasubramanya (author) from Puttaparthi, India on August 20, 2012:

@ poornimasrinath - You are so correct. One path itself expands into the other two when done correctly! The 'front wheel' of the person can vary - either K, B or J. But the other two back-wheels are compulsory!

poornimasrinath from Midrand, Johannesburg, RSA on August 20, 2012:

Excellent! One thing that touched me is the fact of analysing "which is the best path for me?" This becomes the front wheel to lead us towards the goal of reaching God. Regarding bhajan singing(group) which is very much part of Sai way Swami gives beautiful analogy of individual @home sadhana as illumining a small room with a single candle and the group singing as with less effort illumining the entire street with help of each of the participant holding a candle. Both seva and bhajan singing fall under this category of illumining the street. To advance in gaining illumine the self, strong support of two back wheels called karma and bhakthi are equally important..

This post is simple yet you have made it very profound with the collation of analogy and detail with good reflection! Well done.

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