The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 9/Lectures and Discourses/The First Step towards Jnana
THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS JNANA*
[A Jnâna-Yoga class delivered in New York, Wednesday, December 11, 1895, and recorded by Swami Kripananda]
The word Jnâna means knowledge. It is derived from the root Jnâ — to know
— the same word from which your English word to know is derived. Jnana-Yoga
is Yoga by means of knowledge. What is the object of the Jnana-Yoga?
Freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from our imperfections, freedom from the
misery of life. Why are we miserable? We are miserable because we are bound.
What is the bondage? The bondage is of nature. Who is it that binds us? We,
The whole universe is bound by the law of causation. There cannot be anything, any fact — either in the internal or in the external world — that is uncaused; and every cause must produce an effect.
Now this bondage in which we are is a fact. It need not be proved that we
are in bondage. For instance: I would be very glad to get out of this room
through this wall, but I cannot; I would be very glad if I never became
sick, but I cannot prevent it; I would be very glad not to die, but I have
to; I would be very glad to do millions of things that I cannot do. The will
is there, but we do not succeed in accomplishing the desire. When we have
any desire and not the means of fulfilling it, we get that peculiar reaction
called misery. Who is the cause of desire? I, myself. Therefore, I myself am
the cause of all the miseries I am in.
Misery begins with the birth of the child. Weak and helpless, he enters the world. The first sign of life is weeping. Now, how could we be the cause of misery when we find it at the very beginning? We have caused it in the past. [Here Swami Vivekananda entered into a fairly long discussion of "the very interesting theory called Reincarnation". He continued:]
To understand reincarnation, we have first to know that in this universe something can never be produced out of nothing. If there is such a thing as a human soul, it cannot be produced out of nothing. If something can be produced out of nothing, then something would disappear into nothing also. If we are produced out of nothing, then we will also go back into nothing. That which has a beginning must have an end. Therefore, as souls we could not have had any beginning. We have been existing all the time.
Then again, if we did not exist previously, there is no explanation of our
present existence. The child is born with a bundle of causes. How many
things we see in a child which can never be explained until we grant that
the child has had past experience — for instance, fear of death and a great
number of innate tendencies. Who taught the baby to drink milk and to do so
in a peculiar fashion? Where did it acquire this knowledge? We know that
there cannot be any knowledge without experience, for to say that knowledge
is intuitive in the child, or instinctive, is what the logicians would call
a "petitio principii".*
It would be the same [logic] as when a man asks me why light comes through a glass, and I answer him, "Because it is transparent". That would be really no answer at all because I am simply translating his word into a bigger one. The word "transparent" means "that through which light comes" — and that was the question. The question was why light comes through the glass, and I answered him, "Because it comes through the glass".
In the same way, the question was why these tendencies are in the child. Why should it have fear of death if it never saw death? If this is the first time it was ever born, how did it know to suck the mother's milk? If the answer is "Oh, it was instinct", that is simply returning the question. If a man stands up and says, "I do not know", he is in a better position than the man who says, "It is instinct" and all such nonsense.
There is no such thing as instinct; there is no such thing as nature separate from habit. Habit is one's second nature, and habit is one's first nature too. All that is in your nature is the result of habit, and habit is the result of experience. There cannot be any knowledge but from experience.
So this baby must have had some experience too. This fact is granted even by
modern materialistic science. It proves beyond doubt that the baby brings
with it a fund of experience. It does not enter into this world with a
"tabula rasa" — a blank mind upon which nothing is written — as some of the
old philosophers believed, but ready equipped with a bundle of knowledge. So
far so good.
But while modern science grants that this bundle of knowledge which the
child brings with it was acquired through experience, it asserts, at the
same time, that it is not its own — but its father's and its grandfather's
and its great-grandfather's. Knowledge comes, they say, through hereditary
Now this is one step in advance of that old theory of "instinct", that is fit only for babies and idiots. This "instinct" theory is a mere pun upon words and has no meaning whatsoever. A man with the least thinking power and the least insight into the logical precision of words would never dare to explain innate tendencies by "instinct", a term which is equivalent to saying that something came out of nothing. But the modern theory of transmission through experience — though, no doubt, a step in advance of the old one — is not sufficient at all. Why not? We can understand a physical transmission, but a mental transmission is impossible to understand.
What causes me — who am a soul — to be born with a father who has transmitted certain qualities? What makes me come back? The father, having certain qualities, may be one binding cause. Taking for granted that I am a distinct soul that was existing before and wants to reincarnate — what makes my soul go into the body of a particular man? For the explanation to be sufficient, we have to assume a hereditary transmission of energies and such a thing as my own previous experience. This is what is called Karma, or, in English, the Law of Causation, the law of fitness.
For instance, if my previous actions have all been towards drunkenness, I
will naturally gravitate towards persons who are transmitting a drunkard's
character. I can only take advantage of the organism produced by those
parents who have been transmitting a certain peculiar influence for which I
am fit by my previous actions. Thus we see that it is true that a certain
hereditary experience is transmitted from father to son, and so on. At the
same time, it is my past experience that joins me to the particular cause of
A simply hereditary transmission theory will only touch the physical man and
would be perfectly insufficient for the internal soul of man. Even when
looking upon the matter from the purest materialistic standpoint — viz. that
there is no such thing as a soul in man, and man is nothing but a bundle of
atoms acted upon by certain physical forces and works like an automaton —
even taking that for granted, the mere transmission theory would be quite
The greatest difficulties regarding the simple hypothesis of mere physical transmission will be here: If there be no such thing as a soul in man, if he be nothing more than a bundle of atoms acted upon by certain forces, then, in the case of transmission, the soul of the father would decrease in ratio to the number of his children; and the man who has five, six or eight children must, in the end, become an idiot. India and China — where men breed like rats — would then be full of idiots. But, on the contrary, we find that the least amount of lunacy is in India and China.
The question is, What do we mean by the word transmission? It is a big word, but, like so many other impossible and nonsensical terms of the same kind, it has come into use without people understanding it. If I were to ask you what transmission is, you would find that you have no real conception of its meaning because there is no idea attached to it.
Let us look a little closer into the matter. Say, for instance, here is a
father. A child is born to him. We see that the same qualities [which the
father possesses] have entered into his child. Very good. Now how did the
qualities of the father come to be in the child? Nobody knows. So this gap
the modern physicists want to fill with the big word transmission. And what
does this transmission mean? Nobody knows.
How can mental qualities of experience be condensed and made to live in one
single cell of protoplasm? There is no difference between the protoplasm of
a bird and that of a human brain. All we can say with regard to physical
transmission is that it consists of the two or three protoplasmic cells cut
from the father's body. That is all. But what nonsense to assume that ages
and ages of past human experience got compressed into a few protoplasmic
cells! It is too tremendous a pill they ask you to swallow with this little
In olden times the churches had prestige, but today science has got it. And
just as in olden times people never inquired for themselves — never studied
the Bible, and so the priests had a very good opportunity to teach whatever
they liked — so even now the majority of people do not study for themselves
and, at the same time, have a tremendous awe and fear before anything called
scientific. You ought to remember that there is a worse popery coming than
ever existed in the church — the so-called scientific popery, which has
become so successful that it dictates to us with more authority than
These popes of modern science are great popes indeed, but sometimes they ask
us to believe more wonderful things than any priest or any religion ever
did. And one of those wonderful things is that transmission theory, which I
could never understand. If I ask, "What do you mean by transmission?" they
only make it a little easier by saying, "It is hereditary transmission". And
if I tell them, "That is rather Greek to me", they make it still easier by
saying, "It is the adherence of paternal qualities in the protoplasmic
cells". In that way it becomes easier and easier, until my mind becomes
muddled and disgusted with the whole thing.
Now one thing we see: we produce thought. I am talking to you this evening and it is producing thought in your brain. By this act of transmission we understand that my thoughts are being transmitted into your brain and your mind, and producing other thoughts. This is an everyday fact.
It is always rational to take the side of things which you can understand — to take the side of fact. Transmission of thought is
perfectly understandable. Therefore we are able to take up the [concept of]
transmission of thought, and not of hereditary impressions of protoplasmic
cells alone. We need not brush aside the theory, but the main stress must be
laid upon the transmission of thought.
Now a father does not transmit thought. It is thought alone that transmits thought. The child that is born existed previously as thought. We all existed eternally as thought and will go on existing as thought.
What we think, that our body becomes. Everything is manufactured by thought, and thus we are the manufacturers of our own lives. We alone are responsible for whatever we do. It is foolish to cry out: "Why am I unhappy?" I made my own unhappiness. It is not the fault of the Lord at all.
Someone takes advantage of the light of the sun to break into your house and
rob you. And then when he is caught by the policeman, he may cry: "Oh sun,
why did you make me steal?" It was not the sun's fault at all, because there
are thousands of other people who did much good to their fellow beings under
the light of the same sun. The sun did not tell this man to go about
stealing and robbing.
Each one of us reaps what we ourselves have sown. These miseries under which
we suffer, these bondages under which we struggle, have been caused by
ourselves, and none else in the universe is to blame. God is the least to
blame for it.
"Why did God create this evil world?" He did not create this evil world at
all. We have made it evil, and we have to make it good. "Why did God create
me so miserable?" He did not. He gave me the same powers as [He did] to
every being. I brought myself to this pass.
Is God to blame for what I myself have done? His mercy is always the same.
His sun shines on the wicked and the good alike. His air, His water, His
earth give the same chances to the wicked and the good. God is always the
same eternal, merciful Father. The only thing for us to do is to bear the
results of our own acts.
We learn that, in the first place, we have been existing eternally; in the
second place that we are the makers of our own lives. There is no such thing
as fate. Our lives are the result of our previous actions, our Karma. And it
naturally follows that having been ourselves the makers of our Karma, we
must also be able to unmake it.
The whole gist of Jnana-Yoga is to show humanity the method of undoing this Karma. A caterpillar spins a little cocoon around itself out of the substance of its own body and at last finds itself imprisoned. It may cry and weep and howl there; nobody will come to its rescue until it becomes wise and then comes out, a beautiful butterfly. So with these our bondages. We are going around and around ourselves through countless ages. And now we feel miserable and cry and lament over our bondage. But crying and weeping will be of no avail. We must set ourselves to cutting these bondages.
The main cause of all bondage is ignorance. Man is not wicked by his own
nature — not at all. His nature is pure, perfectly holy. Each man is divine.
Each man that you see is a God by his very nature. This nature is covered by
ignorance, and it is ignorance that binds us down. Ignorance is the cause of
all misery. Ignorance is the cause of all wickedness; and knowledge will
make the world good. Knowledge will remove all misery. Knowledge will make
us free. This is the idea of Jnana-Yoga: knowledge will make us free! What
knowledge? Chemistry? Physics? Astronomy? Geology? They help us a little,
just a little. But the chief knowledge is that of your own nature. "Know
thyself." You must know what you are, what your real nature is. You must
become conscious of that infinite nature within. Then your bondages will
Studying the external alone, man begins to feel himself to be nothing. These
vast powers of nature, these tremendous changes occurring — whole
communities wiped off the face of the earth in a twinkling of time, one
volcanic eruption shattering to pieces whole continents — perceiving and
studying these things, man begins to feel himself weak. Therefore, it is not
the study of external nature that makes [one] strong. But there is the
internal nature of man—a million times more powerful than any volcanic
eruption or any law of nature — which conquers nature, triumphs over all its
laws. And that alone teaches man what he is.
"Knowledge is power", says the proverb, does it not? It is through knowledge that power comes. Man has got to know. Here is a man of infinite power and strength. He himself is by his own nature potent and omniscient. And this he must know. And the more he becomes conscious of his own Self, the more he manifests this power, and his bonds break and at last he becomes free.
How to know ourselves? the question remains now. There are various ways to
know this Self, but in Jnana-Yoga it takes the help of nothing but sheer
intellectual reasoning. Reason alone, intellect alone, rising to spiritual
perception, shows what we are.
There is no question of believing. Disbelieve everything — that is the idea of the Jnani. Believe nothing and disbelieve everything — that is the first step. Dare to be a rationalist. Dare to follow reason wherever it leads you.
We hear everyday people saying all around us: "I dare to reason". It is, however, a very difficult thing to do. I would go two hundred miles to look at the face of the man who dares to reason and to follow reason. Nothing is easier to say, and nothing is more difficult to do. We are bound to follow superstitions all the time — old, hoary superstitions, either national or belonging to humanity in general — superstitions belonging to family, to friends, to country, to fashion, to books, to sex and to what-not.
Talk of reason! Very few people reason, indeed. You hear a man say, "Oh, I
don't like to believe in anything; I don't like to grope through darkness. I
must reason". And so he reasons. But when reason smashes to pieces things
that he hugs unto his breast, he says, "No more! This reasoning is all right
until it breaks my ideals. Stop there!" That man would never be a Jnani.
That man will carry his bondage all his life and his lives to come. Again
and again he will come under the power of death. Such men are not made for
Jnana. There are other methods for them — such as bhakti-yoga, Karma-Yoga,
or Râja-Yoga — but not Jnana-Yoga.
I want to prepare you by saying that this method can be followed only by the boldest. Do not think that the man who believes in no church or belongs to no sect, or the man who boasts of his unbelief, is a rationalist. Not at all. In modern times it is rather bravado to do anything like that.
To be a rationalist requires more than unbelief. You must be able not only
to reason, but also to follow the dictates of your reason. If reason tells
you that this body is an illusion, are you ready to give it up? Reason tells
you that heat and cold are mere illusions of your senses; are you ready to
brave these things? If reason tells you that nothing that the senses convey
to your mind is true, are you ready to deny your sense perception? If you
dare, you are a rationalist.
It is very hard to believe in reason and follow truth. This whole world is
full either of the superstitious or of half-hearted hypocrites. I would
rather side with superstition and ignorance than stand with these
half-hearted hypocrites. They are no good. They stand on both sides of the
Take anything up, fix your ideal and follow it out boldly unto death. That
is the way to salvation. Half-heartedness never led to anything. Be
superstitious, be a fanatic if you please, but be something. Be something,
show that you have something; but be not like these shilly-shallyers with
truth — these jacks-of-all-trades who just want to get a sort of nervous
titillation, a dose of opium, until this desire after the sensational
becomes a habit.
The world is getting too full of such people. Contrary to the apostles who, according to Christ, were the salt of the earth, these fellows are the ashes, the dirt of the earth. So let us first clear the ground and understand what is meant by following reason, and then we will try to understand what the obstructions are to our following reason.
The first obstruction to our following reason is our unwillingness to go to
truth. We want truth to come to us. In all my travels, most people told me:
"Oh, that is not a comfortable religion you talk about. Give us a
I do not understand what they mean by this "comfortable religion". I was
never taught any comfortable religion in my life. I want truth for my
religion. Whether it be comfortable or not, I do not care. Why should truth
be comfortable always? Truth many times hits hard — as we all know by our
experience. Gradually, after a long intercourse with such persons, I came to
find out what they meant by their stereotypical phrase. These people have
got into a rut, and they do not dare to get out of it. Truth must apologize
I once met a lady who was very fond of her children and her money and her
everything. When I began to preach to her that the only way to God is by
giving up everything, she stopped coming the next day. One day she came and
told me that the reason for her staying away was because the religion I
preached was very uncomfortable. "What sort of religion would be comfortable
to you?" I asked in order to test her. She said: "I want to see God in my
children, in my money, in my diamonds".
"Very good, madam", I replied. "You have now got all these things. And you
will have to see these things millions of years yet. Then you will be bumped
somewhere and come to reason. Until that time comes, you will never come to
God. In the meantime, go on seeing God in your children and in your money
and your diamonds and your dances."
It is difficult, almost impossible, for such people to give up sense enjoyment. It has grown upon them from birth to birth. If you ask a pig to give up his sty and to go into your most beautiful parlour, why it will be death to the pig. "Let go, I must live there", says the pig.
[Here Swami Vivekananda explained the story of the fishwife: "Once a
fishwife was a guest in the house of a gardener who raised flowers. She came
there with her empty basket, after selling fish in the market, and was asked
to sleep in a room where flowers were kept. But, because of the fragrance of
the flowers, she couldn't get to sleep for a long time. Her hostess saw her
condition and said, 'Hello! Why are you tossing from side to side so
restlessly?' The fishwife said: 'I don't know, friend. Perhaps the smell of
the flowers has been disturbing my sleep. Can you give me my fish-basket?
Perhaps that will put me to sleep'."]*
So with us. The majority of mankind delights in this fish smell — this world, this enjoyment of the senses, this money and wealth and chattel and wife and children. All this nonsense of the world — this fishy smell — has grown upon us. We can hear nothing beyond it, can see nothing beyond it; nothing goes beyond it. This is the whole universe.
All this talk about heaven and God and soul means nothing to an ordinary
man. He has heaven already here. He has no other idea beyond this world.
When you tell him of something higher, he says, "That is not a comfortable
religion. Give us something comfortable". That is to say that religion is
nothing but what he is doing.
If he is a thief and you tell him that stealing is the highest thing we can do, he will say, "That is a comfortable religion". If he is cheating, you have to tell him that what he is doing is all right; then he will accept your teaching as a "comfortable religion". The whole trouble is that people never want to get out of their ruts — never want to get rid of the old fish-basket and smell, in order to live. If they say, "I want the truth", that simply means that they want the fish-basket.
When have you reached knowledge? When you are equipped with those four
disciplines [i.e. the four qualifications for attainment discussed in
Vedantic literature: discrimination between the real and the unreal,
renunciation, the six treasures of virtue beginning with tranquillity, and
longing for liberation]. You must give up all desire of enjoyment, either in
this life or the next. All enjoyments of this life are vain. Let them come
and go as they will.
What you have earned by your past actions none can take away from you. If
you have deserved wealth, you can bury yourself in the forest and it will
come to you. If you have deserved good food and clothing, you may go to the
north pole and they will be brought to you. The polar bear will bring them.
If you have not deserved them, you may conquer the world and will die of
starvation. So, why do you bother about these things? And, after all, what
is the use of them?
As children we all think that the world is made so very nice, and that
masses of pleasures are simply waiting for our going out to them. That is
every schoolboy's dream. And when he goes out into the world, the everyday
world, very soon his dreams vanish. So with nations. When they see how every
city is built upon ruins — every forest stands upon a city — then they
become convinced of the vanity of this world.
All the power of knowledge and wealth once made has passed away — all the
sciences of the ancients, lost, lost forever. Nobody knows how. That teaches
us a grand lesson. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity and vexation of the
spirit. If we have seen all this, then we become disgusted with this world
and all it offers us. This is called Vairâgya, non-attachment, and is the
first step towards knowledge.
The natural desire of man is to go towards the senses. Turning away from the
senses takes him back to God. So the first lesson we have to learn is to
turn away from the vanities of the world.
How long will you go on sinking and diving down and going up for five
minutes, to again sink down, again come up and sink, and so on — tossed up
and down? How long will you be whirled on this wheel of Karma — up and down,
up and down? How many thousands of times have you been kings and rulers? How
many times have you been surrounded by wealth and plunged into poverty? How
many thousands of times have you been possessed of the greatest powers? But
again you had to become men, rolling down on this mad rush of Karma's
waters. This tremendous wheel of Karma stops neither for the widow's tears
nor the orphan's cry.
How long will you go on? How long? Will you be like that old man who had
spent all his life in prison and, when let out, begged to be brought back
into his dark and filthy dungeon cell? This is the case with us all! We
cling with all our might to this low, dark, filthy cell called this world
— to this hideous, chimerical existence where we are kicked about like a
football by every wind that blows.
We are slaves in the hands of nature — slaves to a bit of bread, slaves to
praise, slaves to blame, slaves to wife, to husband, to child, slaves to
everything. Why, I go about all over the world — beg, steal, rob, do
anything — to make happy a boy who is, perhaps, hump-backed or ugly-looking.
I will do every wicked thing to make him happy. Why? Because I am his
father. And, at the same time, there are millions and millions of boys in
this world dying of starvation — boys beautiful in body and in mind. But
they are nothing to me. Let them all die. I am apt to kill them all to save
this one rascal to whom I have given birth. This is what you call love. Not
I. Not I. This is brutality.
There are millions of women — beautiful in body and mind, good, gentle,
virtuous — dying of starvation this minute. I do not care for them at all.
But that Jennie who is mine — who beats me three times a day, and scolds me
the whole day — for that Jennie I am going to beg, borrow, cheat and steal
so that she will have a nice gown.
Do you call that love? Not I. This is mere desire, animal desire — nothing
more. Turn away from these things. Is there no end to these hideous dreams?
Put a stop to them.
When the mind comes to that state of disgust with all the vanities of life, it is called turning away from nature. This is the first step. All desires must be given up — even the desire of getting heaven.
What are these heavens anyhow? Places where to sing psalms all the time. What for? To live there and have a nice healthy body with phosphorescent light or something of this kind coming out of every part, with a halo around the head, and with wings and the power to penetrate the wall?
If there be powers, they must pass away sooner or later. If there is a
heaven — as there may be many heavens with various grades of enjoyment —
there cannot be a body that lives forever. Death will overtake us, even
Every conjunction must have a disjunction. No body, finer or coarser, can be
manufactured without particles of matter coming together. Whenever two
particles come together, they are held by a certain attraction; and there
will come a time when those particles will separate. This is the eternal
law. So, wherever there is a body — either grosser or finer, either in
heaven or on earth — death will overcome it.
Therefore, all desires of enjoyment in this life, or in a life to come,
should be given up. People have a natural desire to enjoy; and when they do
not find their selfish enjoyments in this life, they think that after death
they will have a lot of enjoyment somewhere else. If these enjoyments do not
take us towards knowledge in this life, in this world, how can they bring us
knowledge in another life?
Which is the goal of man? Enjoyment or knowledge? Certainly not enjoyment.
Man is not born to have pleasure or to suffer pain. Knowledge is the goal.
Knowledge is the only pleasure we can have.
All the sense pleasures belong to the brute. And the more the pleasure in
knowledge comes, these sense pleasures fall down. The more animal a man is,
the more he enjoys the pleasures of the senses. No man can eat with the same
gusto as a famished dog. No man was ever born who could feel the same
pleasure in eating as an ordinary bull. See how their whole soul is in that
eating. Why, your millionaires would give millions for that enjoyment in
eating — but they cannot have it.
This universe is like a perfectly balanced ocean. You cannot raise a wave in one place without making a hollow in another one. The sum total of energy in the universe is the same throughout. You spend it in some place, you lose it in another. The brute has got it, but he spent it on his senses; and each of his senses is a hundred times stronger than that of man.
How the dog smells at a distance! How he traces a footstep! We cannot do
that. So, in the savage man. His senses are less keen than the animal's, but
keener than the civilized man's.
The lower classes in every country intensely enjoy everything physical. Their senses are stronger than those of the cultured. But as you go higher and higher in the scale, you see the power of thought increasing and the powers of the senses decreasing, in the same ratio.
Take a [brute], cut him [as it were] to pieces, and in five days he is all
right. But if I scratch you, it is ten to one you will suffer for weeks or
months. That energy of life which he displays — you have it too. But with
you, it is used in making up your brain, in the manufacture of thought. So
with all enjoyments and all pleasures. Either enjoy the pleasure of the
senses — live like the brute and become a brute — or renounce these things
and become free.
The great civilizations — what have they died of? They went for pleasure. And they went further down and down until, under the mercy of God, savages came to exterminate them, lest we would see human brutes growling about. Savages killed off those nations that became brutalized through sense enjoyment, lest Darwin's missing link would be found.
True civilization does not mean congregating in cities and living a foolish
life, but going Godward, controlling the senses, and thus becoming the ruler
in this house of the Self.
Think of the slavery in which we are [bound]. Every beautiful form I see,
every sound of praise I hear, immediately attracts me; every word of blame I
hear immediately repels me. Every fool has an influence over my mind. Every
little movement in the world makes an impression upon me. Is this a life
So when you have realized the misery of this physical existence — when you
have become convinced that such a life is not worth living — you have made
the first step towards Jnana.