The Bhagavad Gita says Karma-yoga कर्म योग (Yoga of action) and jnana yoga ज्ञान योग (Yoga of knowledge or wisdom) are two stages on the path of self-growth, which is the path to freedom. Karma Yoga, the first stage, enables one to acquire freedom from raga-dvesas राग द्वेस, likes and dislikes. Jnana is the subsequent stage, in which one gains freedom from the rest of the obstacles on the path to self knowledge.
The mind consists of three gunas (गुण qualities); sattva सत्त्व, rajas रजस , and tamas तमस्. Rajas and tamas result in raga-dvesas. As likes and dislikes get subdued, the mind becomes sattvika सात्त्विक. It enjoys poise and equanimity. Karma-yoga helps us achieve a sattvika mind, one that is cheerful, contemplative, and able to think clearly. It is a mind in which there is desire for knowledge. Jnana removes ignorance and enables us to attain our true nature. It thus leads to the ultimate freedom from ignorance. Therefore, freedom is a two-step process, the first step being karma-yoga, which provides freedom from raga-dvesas, and the second step being jnana, which leads to freedom from ignorance and the sense of doer ship or the ego. Hence, we do not look upon karma and jnana as separate paths.
In karma-yoga, it is not so much actions that count, as the attitude behind the actions. This attitude is also of the nature of knowledge; we have to have a sense of duty and recognize the harmony between the world and ourselves. We have to be aware of how the universe is supporting us and our actions should therefore become a means to return this favor. All this requires pr0pe; understanding.
A life of karma-yoga results in a progressive growth 0f maturity and understanding. When karma is performed with the right attitude, it becomes a means of knowledge Thus, karma-yoga is not merely action or having the right attitude. It is also the knowledge by which we progressively grow in our understanding of ourselves and the realities of life. Jnana-yoga is the subsequent knowledge of the true nature of the Self. Each stage serves to bring us closer to an awareness of our true Self. Karma-yoga removes the bigger obstacles in this quest and jnana-yoga removes the finer obstacles.
It is like the two tuning knobs of a radio. Karma yoga may be likened to the big knob, which let us hear the music near the desired frequency. Jnana yoga is like the other knob, which helps in fine-tuning, so that we can hear it properly. Karma-yoga makes the mind sattvika or contemplative, so that we can experience the Self, which is happiness. Progressively, there is a desire to understand this Self. This is when jnana-yoga helps with the ’fine-tuning,’ to reveal that happiness is the very nature of our true Self. Therefore, just as the two knobs of the radio serve the same purpose, so also, karma-yoga and jnana-yoga are not two separate paths, but two stages on the path to self-realization.
Swami Viditatmananda Saraswati