When there is an object to be attained, one seeks the method. There is a always a procedure to carry out any activity to bring out some result. When the process is well-defined we feel comfortable. When the process is not defined, we find ourselves confused and disturbed.
In the spiritual parlance, what is the method to attain spiritual success? What is the process?
Some teachers feel that there is no method. Others think there are methods and list them out. Some others think that the situation is more complicated and that a simple answer is not possible.
In Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā, Kṛṣṇa teaches that there are three well-defined spiritual methods:
1. Karma Yoga - Communion through action
2. Jñāna Yoga - Communion through knowledge
3. Bhakti Yoga - Communion through love
The purpose of Karma Yoga and Jñāna Yoga is to produce self-realization. The purpose of Bhakti Yoga is God-realization.
Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā clearly teaches self-realization as a precursor to God-realization. This is important because unless one knows oneself, it is hard to want God in a genuine way. When one is identified with the body or the mind, one only thinks, "May I have a good body. May I decorate it well. May I present myself well. May I have pleasurable experiences and feel happy." Only when one understand the self, knowing oneself truly, one develops detachment towards other objects and the attention becomes focused on God. This is not because there is some rule book that says that we must want God. It is simply that this turns out to be the greatest good. "Discover yourself truly, and then you will find out what is good for you." The teaching of the Gītā is very straight forward. Without this systematic approach, we will have sudden 'flings' with God which are either very superficial or very mundane.
Let us investigate the methods.
Karma Yoga does not create any artificial constructs. Its role is simply to teach us the truth. Karma Yoga is practising action with detachment. This is not unnatural. We have a right to only engage in action but not a right to the result. We may believe we deserve some results, but there is no natural right to those results. Our only right is in acting. This is not a bad thing. It is a very good thing. By detaching ourselves from the fruits of action, we have the opportunity to remove ourselves from the karmic fruits which lead to suffering. Our action is possible only because of the body, the senses, the mind, ... the manifest world in which we are. None of this is the "I". But action has meaning only in this world of mind, senses and forms. Karma Yoga teaches us to deeply realize this. Through this realization, we form detachment to agency, "I am the sole doer" which breeds identification with the mind or the body, and also removes the notion, "This is my action."
Consider the very simply act of seeing. We think, "I am seeing" and we tend to get very stimulated by sights. But, the blind person cannot see. This simple act is not possible for that person. Yet, we get attached to the action and identify ourselves with mind and form. When we reflect upon the factors in everything, we realize that 'seeing happens to us'. The laws of universe makes our experience possible. We do have an important role in this process. It is the conscious self that sheds its light and illuminates the non-sentient universe. But this freedom is fairly limited. Our actions, their nature and their fruits are not in our control.
So, in Karma Yoga, one understands one's actions as the effect of the modes of nature. However, action is important without which we cannot survive and our civilization will degrade. So, Karma Yoga discourages inaction. Actions are performed and they are offered to God as worship. I am fulfilling a particular state of the universe as willed by God. Work is literally worship. This understanding removes selfishness and attachment in action. Karma Yoga teaches us the truth of who we are, the nature of action and our subordination to God - our minds, bodies and the universe are governed by one set of laws, and we ourselves are tied to this state of experience by another set of laws. Both of these are the laws of God in effect. So, one is fully subordinate to God and every action is a worship of God - not my action for my benefit.
Jñāna Yoga is the method of knowledge that involves deep reflection. One seeks to truly discover oneself through inquiry and reflection. Finding oneself, one rests there firmly.
The method of knowledge is easy(?) when one is alone and without distractions, when one's needs are taken care of. But, for the rest of us who have to engage with the rest of the world on a regular basis for our survival or live in complex situations, the method of action is more helpful. Many wise people who live well by themselves attain downfall because they do not know how to interact with the world. They lose grounding in themselves when nature strikes with a vengeance.
In a way the two methods are complementary. One must have some taste of oneself to even trust that the method of action is meaningful. There is some degree of reflection required to undertake Karma Yoga. Likewise, as one practises Karma Yoga, it eventually shatters the masks and unravels the true self.
The method of love or Bhakti is the stage that comes after self-realization and is a very vast topic. It leads to God-realization and is best appreciated by those who get to the self-realization stage. So, let us take that topic separately later and analyse something else now.
The realization of oneself, and one's dependence and subordination to God provides us clarity in action. It shatters the false ego. It also leads us to ask an important question, "If the situation is such, who is doing the method?" Am I the practitioner of the method? After all, a process or method is not different from action. Who owns the execution of the method?
If one fails to ask these question, there is a vestige of false ego: 'I am a practitioner of Karma Yoga which removes my false ego in relation to action.' This is a meta-false-ego. Sometimes, it can be more dangerous than the more mundane false ego. The meta false ego thinks that it is removing the mundane false ego. But, both are effectively the same entity in two different forms. The false ego likes goals, conflicts and problems. So, instead of self-realization, one ends up strengthening a heavyweight 'spiritual' false ego and goes about defending that false identity.
Getting free of these meta false egos is very difficult and hence the whole process is very slippery. Arjuna was baffled as he realized how tricky the situation is. This is when Kṛṣṇa taught the method of surrender. Surrender to Kṛṣṇa and be without worry. Worry also breeds the false ego; likewise, self evaluation: "Is this method really working for me?" and the meta false ego: "I am all set now because I am doing this method for my own good. Soon, my false ego will fall off and it will be awesome."
Surrender does not mean inaction or compromise. One continues to do all the methods mentioned about but not with the sense that these are methods to some end. They are done out of love to God who creates the situations that lead to self-realization and God-realization. Surrender is directness with God. It is the interplay between God creating the situation and the self responding in the right way. Action becomes service; knowledge becomes self-vision; love becomes the playground for the experience of God. The nature of the methods don't change, what changes is the way we consider them.
Not going through this line of thought leads to (and has led to) endless confusion. Some people ask, 'Is surrender a different method from action, love, knowledge, etc.?' This is again the false ego trying to reassert itself. In the name of philosophical development, some teachers create a further split: surrender as method and surrender as non-method. The poor mind then wants to know if surrender is not the method, then what is? It has to be pacified with the answer that God is the method. Some minds are not pacified here because they cannot understand why God is the method. A method is something that is done, a process. How can God be a process? Again, in the name of philosophical development, we can go on developing new concepts to trick our minds. But, the simplest way is to stick to the truth and develop understanding. Surrender is not a method. It is not even something separate from the three methods mentioned above. It is simply the basic truth which underlies the three methods asserting itself and transforming the methods into non-methods. Surrender is the final death of the false ego.