The Path to Enlightenment: karma & jnana

Moksha is a Sanskrit word meaning “free, release, liberate“.  This word is related to the Sanskrit word mukti meaning “liberation”.The root word of both is muc meaning “to be free” * .

In his commentary on the Upanishads, 8th century CE philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara speaks of Moksha. Shankara tells us that the Upanishads, the Gita, and the scriptures establish a path to Moksha. Sankara says:

“The Upanishads exhaust themselves simply by determining the true nature of the Self, and the Gita and the scriptures dealing with moksha have only this end in view” [Intro to the Isa Upanishad].

The Upanishads ‘liberate’ the soul through the removal of spiritual ignorance. Shankara explains:

“So, these mantras remove the ignorance of the Self (enlightening us) through revealing the true nature of the Atman (Self) and thereby produce in us the knowledge of the oneness, etc., of the Self,—the means of uprooting grief, delusion, etc., the concomitants of Samsara (mundane existence)” [Into to the Isa Upanishad].

The Isha Upanishad is one of the earliest Upanishads, composed in the 1st half of 1st millennium BCE.*  The Isha Upanishad reveals the two paths to enlightenment: jñāna and karma.

Mantra 1 of the Isha Upanishad reveals the direct path, as knowledge (jñāna) of the supreme Self or supreme Reality (Isha) and a subsequent detachment to protect such realization. Mantra 1 says:

Om Isha vāsyam idam sarvam yat kiñ ca jagatyam jagat | tena tyaktena bhuñjitha ma grdhah kasyasvid dhanam

“Om. All this, whatever moves on the earth, should be covered by the (innermost) Self. Protect your Self through that detachment. Do not covet anybody’s wealth. Or – Do not covet, for whose is wealth?”

Jñāna is revealed in the phrase Isha vāsyam idam sarvam: “all this, whatever moves on the earth, should be ‘covered’, ‘enveloped’, ‘dwelling in’, ‘inhabited’ by the Self.” If you understand the eternal truth that is revealed in this mantra, then you are qualified for the path of jñāna. Protect that knowledge through detachment. (For further contemplation of Mantra 1 please read my post Covering, revealing, inhabiting the Self: Isa Upanishad, mantra 1). For those who do not realize the eternal truth hidden in mantra 1, there is another path, as Karma, revealed in Mantra 2:

kurvanneveha karmani jijivisecchatam samah || evam tvayi nanyatheto’sti na karma lipyate nare

“By doing karma, indeed, one should desire to live for a hundred years. For a man, such as you (who wants to live thus), there is no way other from this, whereby karma may not cling to you.”

“Jñāna and karma” make up the two great paths to Moksha. Shankara maintains, if you are unable to realize the nature of the Self, then you should consider the path of Karma. Through the path of Karma, you can live in such a way that karma does not cling to you. In support, he cites the Narayana Upanishad:

“Following the creation of the cosmos, verily these two paths did emerge: the path of Karma and the path of Saṁnyāsa [detachment in pursuit of jñāna]. The path of Karma being the earlier one, and the other being renunciation, consisting of giving up three kinds of desire (for son, wealth, and worlds) in accordance with the latter path of detachment. Of these, the path of Samnyasa is more excellent”[Comment on Mantra 2, Isa Upanishad].


Jñāna ज्ञान is a Sanskrit a term for “knowledge,” The word is related to the root verb ज्ञा ‎jñā meaning to know, be aware of, and the Proto-Indo-European ǵneh₃- ‎ meaning to know. * The path of jñāna is Prajnanam iti Brahman, meaning the supreme wisdom or knowledge of Brahman *.

The path to jñāna always entails Saṃnyāsa, a sanskrit word meaning ‘putting or throwing it all down’ or ‘renunciation’. Saṃnyāsa is a composite of the words: saṃ-  meaning “together, all”, ni-  meaning “down”, and āsa from the root as, meaning “to throw” or “to put”.*  

In the context of the Upanishads, the path of Saṃnyāsa entails a renunciation, a putting down of object seeking, and a taking up of the pursuits of spiritual knowledge (jñāna). The spiritual aspirant renounces or ‘puts down’ all other obligations, dedicating their life solely to knowledge of the eternal truth of the Self. In his commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad, Shankara speaks to the path of renunciation:

“Renunciation is verily the best of all means to moksha. He alone who has renounced all can know It, his own Inner Self, the Supreme Abode.  “Give up dharma and adharma, and likewise the true and the false.” And so the Taittinya-sruti also says: “Renunciation is Brahman.”  The disciple should, therefore, see that whatever is brought about by works is perishable; and then, equipped solely with the renunciation of works, he should strive for knowledge of the Inner Self.”

The path of detachment is aimed solely at knowledge of Brahman, as one with the Inner Self.  The path entails unwavering meditation and contemplation on the true nature of the Self. In the Vivekachudamani (254-255), Shankara states:

“That which is beyond caste and creed, family and lineage ; devoid of name and form, merit and demerit; transcending space, time and sense-objects;—that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

That Supreme Brahman (Self) which is beyond the range of all speech, but accessible to the eye of pure illumination; which is pure, the Embodiment of Knowledge, the beginningless entity;—that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.”

In these passages, Shankara speaks to the path of renunciation. The path entails a detachment from the object world: “beyond caste and creed, family and lineage ; devoid of name and form, merit and demerit; transcending space, time and sense-objects.” This detachment sets up the right conditions so that through meditation we may gain knowledge of Brahman (eternal Truth). Shankara informs us that the nature of the eternal Truth is known only to “the eye of pure illumination.” This is not an eye which sees the world of sense objects, but an eye of illumination which can see the Self which exists beyond name (nāma) and form (rūpa). Realization or knowledge of Brahman is Moksha.

Shankara tells us that “the antithesis between Knowledge (jñāna) and Karma is a fact unshakable like a mountain”. Let us now explore the path of Karma, seeing if and how this unshakable division might be reconciled.


Karma is a sanskrit word meaning ‘work, deed or action’. Karma as the second of the two paths of Jñāna and karma, is as Sankara has said, an outward path. Karma as a path is intended for those who have not yet realized the eternal nature of the Self.

Karma speaks to our actions within the object world; jñāna is the eternal truth that exists ‘beyond’ the world of objects. Shankara says that these two paths may not “cohere in the same person successively” (comment on Mantra 18).  

It is all too human to seek a reward for our actions. For those on the spiritual path the desired reward is often a literal reward such as heaven, fame, status, power, or the role of being a spiritual master. Shankara says:

“Those people treading the path, tell us that man is qualified for karma when he hankers after the results of Karma—be they of this world in the form of spiritual eminence etc., or hereafter in the form of heaven etc.”

Mantra 2 of the Isa Upanishad is a reminder that literal rewards are limited rewards. If one is on a literal path, then the Isa Upanishad says, with perfect irony, then one should at least wish to live long enough to eventually want to leave the literal behind. If karma is one’s path, then one should hope to live long enough to someday give up karma. If you must wish, then wish “to live a hundred years.”

A sacred text, written in the 1st millennium BCE, offers us at this late age some much needed ironic humor. With a long enough timeline there lies the potential for a shift in perspective. In living a hundred years, we may have a chance to realize the futility of our wishes and desires for results, thereby opening to the eternal truth of the Self.

To know the Self we must move beyond wishes and results all together. Only then may we come to know the true nature of the Self. Shankara says:

 “the true nature of the Self is not a thing to be created, transformed, achieved, purified; nor is it of the nature of a doer or enjoyer so that it may be connected with Karma.”

Karma involves “work, deed, or action” within the world of “sense-objects.” Karma seeks modifications within the world of “name and form”.  Jñāna is knowledge of the eternal Truth which is beyond the world of “sense-objects”, beyond “name and form”.

The path of Karma seeks “merit and demerit” within the world of temporality, finitude, necessity. The path of jñāna seeks knowledge of the eternal truth of the Self, beyond the realm of even “merit and demerit”.

Nonetheless, the path of Karma may be of great benefit to those who might begin to seek an awareness of the eternal truth of the Self. The Bhagavad-Gita (Chapter 2, v. 48) tells us that if we are on the path of karma, then we may perform our actions from the perspective of the Self; we may act in the world and yet still remain “rooted in intelligence of being”. Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna:

karmany evadhikaras te ma phalesu kadacana || ma karma-phala-hetur bhur ma te sango ‘stv akarmani

You have the right to perform an action, but you can never determine the fruits of the action, its outcome.  When you never consider yourself to be the cause of the outcome of your activities, then you will experience the joy of not being the ‘doer’ of your actions.

yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya || siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate

Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Being rooted in intelligence of being, perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure.

The path of karma leads to the threshold of jnana. Through a practice of ‘detachment’ in action, in which one “abandons all attachment to success or failure” as well as to “outcome”, karma yogis reach toward Self-knowledge.

Through the practice of detachment, one loosens one’s attachments to the object world moving ever closer to realization of that which exists beyond the object world:

Prajnanam iti Brahman

Brahman is the supreme knowledge



  1. Translation of Isha Upanishad, Mantra 2: Kurvan eva iha, certainly doing or only by accomplishing; karmani, karma; jijiviset, one should desire to live; satam samah, a hundred years. Evam tvayi, for you such that you have this hankering for life; nare, the individual self; anyatha, any other mode.; itah, other than this present life in which one performs karma, as a method by which karma na lipyate, karma may not cling to you. (based on Swami Gambhirananda and Sitarama Sastri)


  2. Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, translated by Swami Gambhirananda
  3. Wikimedia
  4. The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at
  5. Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, translated by Sitarama Sastri
  6. The essence of Bhagavad Gita By Suryanarayana Raju

5 thoughts on “The Path to Enlightenment: karma & jnana

  1. Thank you for sharing your work and insight. There is functional underlying connection between the 4/8 Jhanas and the western tradition of Gnostic cosmogonic aspirations.

    1. Stephen, Thank you for your comment. Indeed, there is a underlying functional connection.

      Due to a focus on the material sensuous object world, many do not realize the importance of the inner Self. The mystic traditions, art, enlightenment, psychoanalysis are all paths toward a realization of this importance. Every person participates in the functional relation between self and the object world. In psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud noted that there are some important functions of the body ego in relation material existence: “homeostasis” and “life demands”. He also noted some functions of the psyche in relation to object world: “pleasure/unpleasure” and “the reality principle”. Freud is speaking to the functions of psychic life, of the relation between the self and/or ego and the object world and/or its representations.

      The mystic goes deeper into psychic life, beyond the object world all together. For the mystic, the functional relation is between the soul and God, seeking union as ecstasy and/ or gnosis (knowledge). For the yogi, the functional relation is between the individual self (soul) and the supreme Self, seeking union through realization and jñāna (knowledge.)

      In the Buddhist notion of Jhana, a state of meditation is defined as a kind of functional relation between various factors or conditions. Buddhist meditation lays out a path from the sensuous object world toward that which transcends the object world. In functional terms, we might say a relation exists between the conditions of consciousness and the realization of supramundane consciousness.

      This may be one way of looking at the functional connection. I would be interested in hearing other perspectives as well.

  2. Jenna, thank you. There is always something in your post that resonates with me. I sincerely appreciate your work and the path you’re on.

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