Karma, Jnana, and Bhakti


Karma refers to action performed for the sake of the body and its senses. The work we do to earn a living is karma. The work we put into having a good time is karma too. When we eat, that’s karma. When we sleep, that’s karma. When we watch TV, listen to Beethoven, or Ravi Shankar, or Madonna, when we have kids, or drive our car—when we do just about anything—that’s karma.

Karma can be “extended” too. It’s not only what we do directly for ourselves but also what we do for others, in relation to the body and senses. When we help out a friend, give food to the poor, serve in the Army, or show our uncle how to cheat on his tax returns—again, it’s all karma.

Karma may be “good” or “bad” (or, for that matter, mixed). So karma may bring good or bad results (or, again, mixed). These results are also sometimes called karma. (More precisely, they are karmic reactions.)

Sometimes the results of karma are quick and obvious: work hard and get a good grade, overeat and get indigestion. But sometimes the results may take years—or, according to Vedic literature, lifetimes. I may do something this life and get the results in the next—or ten lifetimes from now, or thousands. So karma and its results form an intricate web.

If someone’s born ugly or poor or sick, that’s a sign of bad karma. Or if someone gets in trouble with the police, or gets in legal trouble—bad karma again. And good looks, good money, good health—good karma.

We’re getting reactions now for what we’ve done in the past, and creating future reactions by what we’re doing now. Gets complicated, doesn’t it

The scriptures of the world—the Vedas included—try to warn us away from bad karma and guide us towards good.

But we don’t always go along. And even when we do, the best that we get are good karmic results. And good or bad, we’re still caught in the net, still entangled. Good karma or bad, we’re still tied to the wheel of repeated birth and death.


Jnana is the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, we may pursue any sort of knowledge—how to hammer a nail, or play the piano, or program a computer. Knowledge of history, or business, or medicine. But that’s hardly above karma, and that’s not really what’s meant. Jnana, more precisely, pertains to the ultimate questions in life: Who am I? Why am I here? Why am I suffering? Where does everything come from? What is the purpose of life? What is everything finally all about?

The realm of jnana is that of the philosopher, the intellectual, the thinker. By reflection, by speculation, by logic, intuition, and discourse, by exploring and evaluating ideas, we try to understand what is ultimately what. We may approach those ultimate questions through physics or biology or psychology—or, if we go deep enough, by thinking about almost anything. When somehow or other those questions come upon us, we enter the realm of jnana.

But this too is a world we can get stuck in. We can spend lifetimes in speculation, questing and questing, and still be doing hardly more than playing games in our minds.

The Vedic literature, therefore, offers guidance on the path of knowledge. It gives us access to the thoughts and realizations of sages who have been through this territory before. It aims, finally, to bring us from speculation to knowledge, from wondering to seeing, from seeking to finding.


Early along the path of Vedic knowledge, one comes to understand that he’s a spark of pure consciousness, above the body, above even the mind. He sees that he uses the body and mind—when he tells his finger to scratch his head it does so; when he directs his thoughts, they go from one subject or another—yet the body and mind are distinct from his inner identity, his inner being. This understanding is called self-realization.

Yet self-realization is not the end of it. By further introspection—unless one gets stuck—one comes to understand that his own consciousness, his own spiritual existence, is not ultimate. Even in his own essential identity, he himself is not the be-all and end-all of everything. There are other living beings too, and they’re not just projections of himself. And there’s a material cosmos out there, hard and tangible and unlikely to be something he has merely imagined up. And even if he thinks that in reality such distinctions at last no longer exist, that in truth there is only absolute oneness, and that all else is but an illusion, a dream, he still has to ask himself, “Where does this illusion come from?”

In this way his thoughts bring him to realize that there is an Absolute Truth, a source of all energies, all realities, and he sees himself to be a part of that Supreme Absolute. By considering his own identity as a conscious individual—a conscious person—he ultimately realizes the individual personal nature of that Supreme Absolute. He recognizes the eternal relationship between himself and the Absolute. And in this way he enters the realm of bhakti, the realm of personal spiritual dealings between himself and the Absolute. In bhakti, the individual person joyfully devotes himself to serving the absolute Personality of Godhead, who joyfully and unlimitedly reciprocates. This is the postgraduate stage of self-realization.

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Related Reading:

  1. Narada-bhakti-sutra
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