The Razor’s Edge

From On the Wings of the Swan, Volume IV, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Is there any difference between Vedanta and jnana yoga or are they the same? Why is jnana yoga called the razor’s edge?

Vedanta, tantra, Samkhya, and so on, are philosophies, but they have a practical aspect as well. Religion and philosophy are different. Philosophy is an ideal. Jnana, or wisdom, is the basis of everything and is known as sophia in Greek. Philos means to love.

The word philosophy means ‘the love of knowing’ or ‘to love the known.’ You could also say that it means to appreciate the seen. The entire process of appreciation and loving is an extension of the process of knowing. There is a totality of wisdom in the process of knowing through experiment, experience, logic, deduction, rationality, normal interaction and feeling.

Jnana yoga is a process of remembering what is already known. At present, you know, but you do not live what you know. You know many things but you cannot live up to them. When we add the word ‘yoga’ to the word jnana it means to have the living experience of knowing, or to live the knowledge. That is the true meaning of jnana yoga, and the basis of jnana yoga is wisdom, common sense to begin with, openness of nature to end with, and through the process of applying the wisdom, putting into action what is known. Although yoga talks about jnana and gives methods for experiencing jnana yoga, real jnana yoga does not begin until you achieve the state of dhyana. Jnana yoga is not intellectual, it is experiential, and in order to develop the experiential faculty, dhyana, or meditation, has to be perfected.

Vedanta is a system of thought, a philosophy in its own right. The followers of Vedanta can reach great heights by following its principles; however, it is simultaneously an open school of thought which says that the whole of creation can be seen as God: Sarvam khalvidam Brahman – “The whole of the visible and invisible creation is God.” Vedanta speaks of experiencing the existence of God in each and every thing. Jnana yoga is an inner process which begins at whatever level you may be, not necessarily with God and creation. It can begin with your mundane personal problems also. You do not need to have high-flying thoughts to practise jnana yoga. The thoughts can also be very material, physical and sensual.

Personal difficulties and handicaps can act as a catalyst for discovering our limitations, creativity, force of will and clarity of mind. If you are aware that all these little changes are happening, it is part of the process of jnana yoga. Whether it is jnana yoga, complete yoga or a different system of thought like Vedanta, Samkhya or Nyaya, the underlying factor in all these is the application of wisdom. Knowledge gets converted into wisdom when applied practically in life.

There are different levels of jnana yoga. Each level of yoga in its basic form can be practised at any level. Just as basic asanas, shatkriyas, bhakti yoga, kirtan or meditation can be practised by anyone, jnana yoga in its most basic form can be practised by everyone. As far as the statement of jnana yoga being called the razor’s edge, at one level it holds true, because when we begin to apply our understanding and wisdom in life, the aspect of ego is also stimulated, which can become the cause of either our fall or our upliftment. However, if you make a general statement that jnana yoga is like a razor’s edge, I would not agree with you. Rather, I would say that our present lifestyle over which we have no control is the razor’s edge.

We do not have control over our mind. We fall down left and right. Trying to deal with our own nature and mind is a much sharper razor’s edge than jnana yoga, which is totally blunt compared to our present life experience. It does not cut at all, but material life is a very sharp razor, it can bleed a person to death. Many people lose their mental and emotional balance at one time or another. Some people fall into a depression from which they cannot recover. Some people become addicts and cannot break the habit. I think that is a much sharper razor’s edge than jnana yoga, because we can transcend the negative conditions with the help of jnana yoga and we have the support of a guru if we are sincere.