The Twelfth Chapter of Bhagavad Gita addresses this topic directly. Prior to the 12th chapter, Kṛṣṇa repeatedly extolled the merits of both withdrawing from material activities and contemplating the divine and engaging in “material” activities because of their connection to the divine. The 12th Chapter begins with Arjuna asking Kṛṣṇa to clarify which is better?
This is not the first time Arjuna has asked the question. He asked it at the beginning of the 5th chapter, for example. Kṛṣṇa has answered it many times, too. But if there is one thing any writer, speaker, or teacher knows it is this: If you have an important point that you want to make sure people understand, you have to repeat yourself in slightly different ways many different times.
So the 12th Chapter revisits the question. In text 1 Arjuna asks, “You mentioned those who actively engage in divine activities; and you mentioned those who withdraw from such activities and only engage in divine contemplation. Who is more perfectly realized in yoga?”
Text 2, Kṛṣṇa answers, “The people who engage in divine activities are also engaged in divine contemplation. But the people engaged in divine contemplation lack divine activities. Therefore those whose contemplation results in action are more perfectly realized in yoga.”
Arjuna has a doubt, “What then, is the position of those who are less perfectly realized? Are they completely useless?”
Text 3-4, Kṛṣṇa answers, “Not at all! By making the difficult effort to understand how the divine exists beyond all material limitations of shape and sound eventually these people can become fortune to also become connected to the divine forms and sounds which allow them too to become active yogis (not just contemplators).”
Another doubt in Arjuna’s mind: “Oh. Then there isn’t really much difference between the two?”
Text 5, Kṛṣṇa answers, “Ultimately there is no difference, but know that the path of contemplation without action is extremely long and difficult. They too eventually attain perfect, but it is not easy at all.”
Arjuna wonders, “Isn’t divine activity also very difficult?”
Text 6, Kṛṣṇa answers, “No, not compared to inactivity. Those who contemplate me in my transcendental form, and devote their actions to pleasing me find their path very quick and easy.”
Why is it so easy?
Text 7, Kṛṣṇa answers, “Because, since they personally reach out to me in their meditations and actions, I personally reach out to them as well.” This is not the case for those who meditate on an impersonal, indefinable conception of divinity. Thus their path is infinitely more troublesome.
Now, with the 7th text, the first thematic section of the Gita comes to a close, and the second begins. The first section (texts 1-7) established that bhakti-yoga (the yoga of personalist meditation and action) is the most perfect form of yoga. Now Arjuna wants to know, succinctly, how to practice bhakti-yoga.
In texts 8-12 Kṛṣṇa succinctly explains how to practice bhakti-yoga.
Text 8 describes the perfect way to practice it. Technically it is called rāgānuga practice. The trademark of this practice is that our minds, intelligence and hearts naturally rush towards the divine, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. This natural rushing of the inner self is the trademark of perfect bhakti-yoga practice. It occurs when we really have a sincere inner interest in being connected with Śrī Kṛṣṇa in yoga. It is the result of emotion (rāga). Perfect bhakti-yoga practice results from emotional desire to be linked to Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
The doubt: What if I don’t have this desire?
The answer: get it!
Text 9, Kṛṣṇa explains: Practice pushing your mind, intelligence and heart to the divine, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, by force. Technically this imperfect yet practically crucial method of practicing bhakti-yoga is called vaidhi practice. The trademark is that we impose rules (vidhi) on our mind, intellect and emotions, to force them to contemplate Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The fruit of doing so is that very soon we develop emotional attachment to the delightful Śrī Hari and thus quickly elevate to the perfect method of practice described in text 8.
Doubt: If I cannot force these rules upon myself, what then?
Text 10, Kṛṣṇa explains: If you cannot force rules upon your mind, intellect, and emotions – then force rules upon your body and physical behavior. It is easier to control the body than the mind. Therefore first control the body, that will make it easier to control the mind. So – follow rules that engage you physically in connection with Śrī Kṛṣṇa. By thus controlling your physical self, you will gain better control over your mental self. Thus by working for Kṛṣṇa you can more successfully force your mind, intelligence and heart towards Śrī Kṛṣṇa. And, in turn, by so doing, you more quickly develop a true emotional need for absorbing yourself in a link with Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Thus works for Śrī Kṛṣṇa serve the cause of perfect bhakti-yoga practice.
Doubt: Maybe I cannot always engage my physical actions directly in divine service. What then?
Text 11, Kṛṣṇa answers, “When you cannot directly engage your actions in my service, be sure not to engage in your own selfish service. Forego your own ambitions and desires and dedicate your actions to helping others fulfill their needs. This will make you less selfish, and that will allow you to more easily engage in divine actions, etc.”
Doubt: It is not easy to forego personal ambitions and desires. How can I do it?
Text 12, Kṛṣṇa answers, “Start by cultivating true knowledge – know your true self and your true place in the cosmic scheme. Then, deepen this knowledge by meditation – changing it from theory to realization. Finally, realizing what you really are in the grand scheme you may still be pushed by habits and karmas to pursue your own ambitions and desires, but at least you will be able to give up part or all of the fruit of those actions for the service of the needs of others.”
First let’s identify the steps, in ascending order
- Knowledge – know who and what you are in the cosmic scheme
- Meditation – turn those theories into perceptions and realizations
- Fruitlessness – Follow your karmic ambitions and desires, but give the fruits to serving the needs of others
- Pure Action – Renounce your ambitions and desires, do whatever is needed to serve the needs of others
- Devotional Action – Do whatever is needed to serve the desires of the divine
- Devotional Contemplation by force – Force your inner self to link with Śrī Kṛṣṇa in devotion.
- Devotional Contemplation by love – Allow your heart and mind to always flow into Śrī Krsna
Each lower step must be strong before the higher step can be taken. Each step facilitates the next. Do not stall on any step. No step is a goal. The entire thing is a ladder to higher realization. Don’t build a nest on any rung of the ladder. Always aim for the higher rung. Always reinforce your strengths on the lower rungs.
So doing you will attain what comes beyond the 7th step – Bhāva Bhakti and Prema Bhakti.