In Hinduism, jnana yoga [Sanskrit jnana: the path of spiritual knowledge] is the yoga of knowledge.
This is not merely learned, conceptual or intellectual knowledge. Instead, the goal of believers is to gain knowledge about the true, eternal self and its identity with the Godhead.
Jnana yoga may involve scholarship and discursive knowledge. But these are seen as tools to achieve illumination instead of ends in themselves.
The dharma (sacred duty) of jnana yoga is about overcoming the ignorance [Sanskrit: avidya] which obscures true spiritual knowledge. And for believers, this kind of knowledge involves realizing that our changing world and ephemeral desires are illusory, as well as discerning that the personal ego is not the true self.
When the aspirant reaches this stage of awareness, she or he may be confused and even wonder if they’ve gone insane (as did Sri Ramakrishna on occasion). But with a healthy transition, a seeker eventually understands that the ego is not the root of consciousness, and the atman (soul) and brahman (Godhead) are one and the same.
Traditionally associated with the Brahmin caste, the meaning of jnana-yoga would be closer to wisdom instead of erudition. But prominent figures like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Ramacharaka are both quite learned and (allegedly) illuminated.
As a final point, readers may wonder why I say that “the goal of believers is to gain knowledge about the true, eternal self and its identity with the Godhead.”
Isn’t this a contradiction in terms? Do we really believe if we gain knowledge? Isn’t knowledge superior to belief?
Well, many would say so, including the depth psychologist Carl Jung who once said he didn’t believe but knew (about the Godhead).¹
However, I see this as a flawed perspective, one held by philosophically immature minds. To me, practically everything involves belief at some level. Even if we have exalted, transcendental experiences, we still interpret the meaning of those experiences after the fact. And this is where, I believe, human bias potentially distorts our understanding of our interior perceptions, epiphanies, and revelations.
For me, it is much healthier and probably more accurate to say we have “reason to believe” (instead of “I know”) if we have compelling transcendental experiences.
This kind of belief is not totally blind or unfounded. But at the same time, it remains open to ‘updates,’ as it were.
By way of contrast, when we say “I know” we’re limiting ourselves to where we happen to be, developmentally speaking, at that moment.
¹ Ironically, Carl Jung warned against this with his discussion about psychological inflation. But it seems Jung came to identify with the idea of the Wise Old Man, perhaps not all the time but certainly sometimes.