Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 5: The Second Chapter Concludes – The Establishment of the Soul in Universality

The impulsion to act arises due to the compulsion of prakritis modes, which always revolve and rotate in a cyclic fashion. Like the incessant movement of the spokes of a wheel in motion, the gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas—keep perpetually moving and never resting. Inasmuch as everybody—myself, yourself, and all things—is constituted of these essentials of prakriti, the mutation which prakriti perpetually undergoes has a direct impact upon our individual existence, and we also undergo the same mutation. Whether we want to or not, we are forced to act in a particular direction. The whole point is: In what direction are we acting?

Action by itself is something like electricity, which is neither good nor bad. Action is a kind of impulsion in some given direction. The effect that action will produce depends upon the direction of the action. The direction depends upon the mind and the reason of a particular individual conditioning the movement—just as a driver steers the vehicle in a given direction though the engine does not know the direction in which the driver is making it go. Prakriti is like an engine which moves; therefore, when it moves, everything also moves, but the direction in which it moves depends upon the intelligence of the driver. In the case of the individual, it is the reason or the understanding, the viveka shakti, that is responsible for the direction.

The direction can be twofold. It can be a movement away from the centre or it can be a movement towards the centre. All movements away from the centre are called centrifugal movements. All movements towards the centre are called centripetal movements. Our activities, our works, our performances of any kind may take us away from ourselves more and more, or they may bring us nearer and nearer to our own selves. That is to say, our works and deeds in this world may be either integrating or disintegrating. When we do work, we may feel exhausted, and feel we have had enough of everything; or we may feel energy, enthusiasm, and we would like to do more work. The energy comes from the integrating faculty operating behind our action. Our soul is the centre of everything. The more is the force exerted by our soul, the greater is the integration that is taking place in our action; it is a cohesive, harmonious action in which we get involved. But if the soul is practically dead, as it is in most people, the sense organs take the upper hand, and instead of the soul motivating the direction of the action, the sense organs start controlling the movement, and they pull us out of ourselves.

The sense organs have only one work, which is to take us out of ourselves and place us somewhere where we are not. That is to say, we are compelled by the sense organs to be continuously conscious of something which is not ourselves; and the more we are conscious of an object, the less we are conscious of ourselves. There is a loss of Self. This is called atma-hana in the Isavasya Upanishad. Asuryā nāma te lokā andhena tamasā vṛtāḥ, tāṁs te pretyābhigacchanti ye ke cātmahano janāḥ (Isa 3). The killers of the Self, as the Isavasya Upanishad puts it, are those people who ignore the very existence of the Self by not being conscious of its existence, and of the role it plays in their life and in the direction of their actions. They depend entirely on the impulses of the eyes and the ears, and the sentiments or the feelings engendered by the power of the sense organs.

Here is the foundation, or the anatomy, of what we call action—individually, as well as cosmically. As I mentioned, there is a cosmic action taking place like the engine of a vehicle which does not know in which direction it is going. Prakriti is not concerned with the direction that we take in our action. It propels us to act, and we may go this way or that way. The direction that we take depends upon our intelligence—buddhi sarathi. In the Kathopanishad, our intelligence is called sarathi. Like Sri Krishna acting as the charioteer for Arjuna who was in the chariot, the buddhi, or the intelligence in us, acts as the charioteer in this chariot of the body, of which the rider is the jiva. This is the image that we have in the Kathopanishad.

Now, having said all this, we go to the great injunction of the Bhagavadgita: karmaṇyevādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana, mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo’stvakarmaṇi (2.47). Our duty is to act—that is karmaṇyevādhikāras—but we have no right to expect any result or particular fruit to accrue from our action. From a cursory point of view, this looks like a very hard teaching, like a cruel employer telling a labourer to work hard without expecting any wages. But does God say that we should go on working and He will give us nothing? God is not a cruel master. The principle behind the obligatory duty incumbent upon every individual is the involvement of every individual in the structure of the universe, to which I made reference when I explained what Sankhya is. The whole universe is one single body, whose limbs are the modes of prakriti, and whose soul is the all-pervading purusha: yena sarvam idaṁ tatam (2.17).

Now, why is it that we should act? And why is it that we should not expect the fruits of action? This will be clear to us if we analyse the reason behind our action, and the reason why fruits will not accrue as we desire. Our actions are obligatory on our part on account of our involvement in this psychophysical organism, which is controlled by the movement of the gunas of prakriti. Therefore, as long as prakriti moves, as long as the gunas rotate and revolve in this cosmical process of creation and evolution, we also will be involved in that action. Thus, our activity is a participation in the universal action of prakriti; we are not acting independently. The Sankhya knowledge, which we have had an insight into earlier, tells us that, individually, we do not have any kind of prerogative because we are an organic part of the whole structure of prakriti, of which the ruling principle is the purusha.

Therefore, work is a must. We have to do; we have to act. But why is it that we do not get the result that we expect? The answer to this question is not in the Second Chapter. The answer is in a verse in the Eighteenth Chapter: adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham, vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam (18.14). When we do something, we have a very narrow notion of what result will follow from our action. The narrow notion arises on account of our limitation to our body and social conditions, and our completely ignoring our cosmical relation. The fruit accrues according to the sanction of the involvement of ourselves in the cosmic structure, notwithstanding the fact that we have individually, so-called, initiated the action. The action that we perform is not a stereotyped movement in a simple manner, as we think. Our action is very complicated. It involves many factors. When we take a morsel of food, how many organs in our body act? The entire organism rises up into action. Even if it is only one raisin that we are putting into our mouth, the entire mechanism starts acting. Similarly, any action that we perform sets in motion the whole rotation of prakriti, and it will act and react according to its laws.

The physical body is the adhisthana that is spoken of. The limitations of the physical body are also the limitations of our action. We cannot work like elephants. We can work only to the extent that the frail human body permits. There are many weaknesses as far as our physical body is concerned, and those weaknesses diminish the effect of the action that we perform. Hence, the adhisthana, or the physical lodgement of our consciousness, limits the effect of the action to that extent.

Karta is the ego principle. When we do an action, the ego asserts itself in a particular manner. The manner in which the ego acts at the time of the performance of an action is entirely dependent on the desire which it has on the subconscious level or the conscious level, and the direction of the action will be motivated by the implicit desires. The ego is nothing but a bundle of desires. It has latent desires as well as expressed desires. So when it acts, it will act either for the fulfilment of a very obvious desire, or it will have a thought of the possibility of fulfilling some latent desire in the future. This will be a restriction on the nature of the fruit that accrues, because the restriction is nothing but the limitation of our desire. We cannot desire everything. We have only petty desires. Our desires are so small and so weak that the limitation of the desires, which condition the action of the ego, is another limitation, apart from the limitation of the physical body.

Kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham. The instruments of action also limit our action. What are the tools we employ? A spade, a pickaxe, a gun, a hand or a foot are the instruments that we use. The limitations set by the instruments are also the limitations of our action. Vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā: There are various other distractions in the mind at the time of performing an action. The mind is not very clear. Nobody’s mind is very clear at the time of performing an action because there is suspicion and doubt; there is a fear of not succeeding, or that the right step has not been taken, or that it is not the proper thing at the proper time. These kinds of distractions also limit our action.

Vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam. The last trump card that the Lord places before us is that the will of the Supreme Being is final. At the time of creation, the Supreme Being wills what kind of universe it has to be, and that kind of universe is characterised by certain abilities to provide us with the fruits of whatever kind they be. Therefore, we cannot expect something more or less than what can be available under the conditions of this particular universe willed by Hiranyagarbha, or Ishvara. Whatever be our individual will, it is prompted finally by the Ultimate Will. Though we may will a particular action, we cannot will the particular manner in which we will it.

It is said that a right action should be judged from four angles of vision. Firstly, the intention in doing a thing should be justifiable. We should not have an offensive intention behind our action. Secondly, the consequence that may follow from our action should also be justifiable. Thirdly, the very reason behind our intention—why we developed this intention to do a particular action—has a reason behind it which is superior to our psychological intention, and that also has to be justifiable. Finally, it should not harm any person. If our action does some harm to somebody, knowingly or unknowingly, it will have a reaction.

Actions done either knowingly or unknowingly will produce some reaction. Many times we feel that we have made a mistake unknowingly and, therefore, we should be pardoned. The law does not seem to think exactly the same way. There are one or two interesting stories in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. There was king who had many cattle, and in that country there was a Brahmin who had a cow. One day it so happened that the Brahmin’s cow strayed into the herd of cattle which belonged to the king. As was the custom of ancient rulers, charity of cattle and gold were given to people every day. One day the king gave some cattle in charity to a Brahmin, and it so happened that this stray cow was included. The Brahmin was leading this cow which was a gift from the king, and on the way the real owner came to know about it.

He said, “This is my cow. Why are you taking it?”

The reply was, “I don’t know anything. It was given to me by the king.”

The Brahmin went to the king and asked, “Why did you give my cow as a gift to somebody else?”

The king said, “I did not know that it was your cow. I never knew that your cow had strayed. Don’t get angry with me. I will give you one thousand cows. Don’t worry about this cow.”

The Brahmin replied, “I do not want one thousand cows. I want only my cow.”

It became a great predicament because the Brahmin who got the gift would not give it back. He said, “King, you have given it to me. Are you going back on your word?”

It is said that this peculiar moral crisis in which the king found himself made him a lizard in the next birth. What terrible punishment is this! This story is found in the Bhagavata. Sri Krishna touched the lizard, and it once again became the king.

There is also the story of Mandavya, the great sage. He was sitting in a corner, meditating. One day there was a theft in the treasury of the king. The priests and the army started searching for the culprit, and the thieves who took the treasure ran helter-skelter. Finally, they became afraid of being caught so they threw away the stolen treasure, and it happened to land near the sage who was meditating. The army found it, and concluded that the sage was the thief. They dragged him away and brought him before the king.

The king said, “Impale him immediately.”

In those days the king was the only judge, and he could pass any sentence. They impaled the sage on a spear. Mandavya was hanging there, but because of the great power of his meditation he did not die.

Finally his soul went to Yama, and he asked Yama, “For what wrong action of mine have you punished me with impalement? To my knowledge, I have never done any wrong action in my life. How has this kind of punishment been meted out to me? You have made some mistake!”

Yama replied, “You cannot recollect. When you were a child, you took a little broomstick and pierced a fly. Therefore, you have been pierced.”

“When did I do it?” asked the sage.

“You were about eleven years old,” Yama replied.

“Oh! You are punishing me for having done something without the knowledge that it was wrong. I was an innocent child. I did not know anything.”

“Innocent or not innocent, the law acts!”

Then, it is said, Mandavya furiously cursed the law and changed it so that in future, from that day onwards, no punishment would be meted out to anybody for a mistake that they committed before the age of fourteen years. This is Mandavya’s rule. Today there are judges to decide these cases. Anyway, the law of karma is very intricate: gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ (4.17).

The reason why the fruit of an action should not be expected by us is that it is not in the hands of any one person. It is in the hands of a big cabinet of forces, as it were, as I mentioned earlier, and, finally, the will of the Supreme. Inasmuch as the fruit comes from all sides though the action proceeds from one side, we should not concentrate our minds on the fruit of the action.

Because our desired fruit is not going to accrue from our particular action, and we are disappointed because somebody is controlling the destiny of our actions, what is the good of doing anything at all? We will keep quiet. We should not be attached to action with the desire for fruit, nor should we be attached to non-action: mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgostv akarmaṇi (2.47). Attachment can be positive or negative. Even if we look at a thing, it is attachment. If we do not look at a thing, it is also attachment. Either way, it is a question of the mind working. Hence, action is a must, and we cannot keep quiet just because our cherished desire is not going to be fulfilled and it is in the hands of somebody else.

Thus, we are placed in a very difficult situation. But the Sankhya knowledge, when applied to the yoga of action, becomes a discipline whereby we free ourselves from this chaotic way of thinking and the fear that our actions may go wrong or our inaction may not be permitted. The discipline that is yoga follows from the knowledge of the Sankhya: eṣā te’bhihitā sāṅkhye buddhir yoge tvimāṁ śṛṇu (2.39). In the Bhagavadgita, yoga means action and sankhya means knowledge. All action should be based on knowledge. But, our actions are not based on the knowledge of the Sankhya. The knowledge of the Sankhya is the knowledge of our organic involvement in the whole of prakriti, in the entire creation. We should not forget this point. But what do we do, actually? When we start doing anything, we have some ulterior motive and an object in front of us. Whenever we think of an object, we have a desire to go near it and possess it: dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsaḥ saṅgas teṣūpajāyate (2.62).

When we contemplate an object—which is the only thing that we are doing every day, as some object or the other is on our mind—we do not think of the Universal principle involved in the object. Very few can do that. We think mostly in the exteriorised fashion of the sense organs working in terms of an object outside. The moment we think of an object, the desire of the sense organs increases. They want to possess it. Saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ (2.62). The desire to possess that particular object many a time comes in conflict with a similar desire that others may also have to possess it. There is some land. We want to possess it, and another person also wants to possess the same land. There is a clash. So there is a possibility of our coming in conflict with other people and other forces operating in the world due to our clinging to a particular object or a particular set of objects; and when there is an intervention from outside, we get angry: kāmāt krodho’bhijāyate (2.62). When we get angry, our intellect ceases to function: krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ (2.63). When our intellect ceases to function, we become bewildered in our understanding; saṁmohaḥ takes place. Sammohāt smṛtivibhramaḥ, smṛtibhraṁśād buddhināśo (2.63): We become idiots, as it were. Then there is a perishing of the very aim of the human individual.

There is a necessity, therefore, to maintain a balance in our attitude to things. Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (2.48); yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam (2.50). These are two definitions of yoga in the Second Chapter. Balance of attitude is yoga; dexterity in the performance of action is yoga. The balance that is spoken of as yoga arises on account of our being rooted in the sankhya, or knowledge—which is to say, we are cosmically determined, and not individually motivated. This is the fault that Sri Krishna found in Arjuna: “You lack sankhya!” When our sankhya, or knowledge, is absent, we do not have a comprehensive vision of the things involved. That is to say, we never think in terms of universals; we think only in terms of particulars. The balance that is required in the practice of yoga arises automatically from the knowledge of our involvement in the cosmic structure of things; and then we become able, very dexterous and adroit in the performance of action. We will never make a mistake in the deeds that we do, because we have a comprehensive vision of the pros and cons of our actions. This is because our yoga, our action, is based on sankhya, or knowledge.

Such a person is a siddha purusha, a person established in perfect understanding. His understanding does not waver; it does not flicker. It is like the flame of a lamp in a windless place. Arjuna put the question: “What kind of person is this?” Prajahāti yadā kāmān sarvān pārtha manogatān, ātmanyevātmanā tuṣṭaḥ sthitaprajñas tadocyate (2.55): A person of stable understanding is one who wants not anything. Again, if we come to sankhya, or knowledge, the question of wanting is redundant in this world where everything is ours finally, and also nothing is ours, from another point of view. In a family of which we are a member, we cannot possess everything for ourselves, though everything is ours in one way. In a family we have the freedom to take whatever we want, yet we do not have the freedom to arrogate everything to ourselves. There is, therefore, a freedom together with a restriction.

The ability to perform right action is the same as the ability to maintain a balance of consciousness. No one can be an expert in the performance of action. Expertness means not committing a fault, taking into consideration all aspects of the matter, as I mentioned just now: the consequence, the intention, the reason behind the action, etc. An action that we perform should not be deleterious either to ourselves or to others. Sometimes we may ruin ourselves in the interest of the welfare of other people. Sometimes we may ruin other people in the interest of our own personal welfare. Neither of these things is permitted. Killing ourselves and killing another should be considered as equally culpable offenses. We have no right to kill ourselves, because as individuals we are as sacred as any other person with whom we can interfere. This is the judicial point of view of the spiritual outlook.

A sthitaprajna is a person who has become stable in understanding because of the absence of motivating desires. Kāmān sarvān pārtha: He abandons all the motivation for desires toward particular ends. When we desire the acquirement of particular ends, we forget that we are ignoring the other factors which also condition the fulfilment of our desire, about which I mentioned just now. So there will be resentment from other parts of nature which we have ignored in our attachment to the particular limited objective, and then we will suffer because of our action. Hence, all aspects of the action—the past, present and future aspects of the action, we may say—should be taken into consideration, and then we will feel that our participation as a duty in whatever station we are placed in society will automatically bring the desired fruit from the cosmic forces, and we need not have to dig the earth in order to cultivate fields. God, Who is the Supreme, will see that our stomachs are filled and our thirst is quenched, and we need not even think of the morrow because the morrow will take care of itself. Thinking of the morrow is thinking in terms of time, and we have already decided that thinking in terms of time is to invite death because time is the killing medium in life.

The soul does not think in terms of space and time and, therefore, we should not invite this unnecessary suffering by expecting a result of a particular action. “Today if I do something, tomorrow I will get something”—this idea must go because there is no tomorrow for our soul. All teaching is centred in this involvement of the soul in our action. That is called sankhya. Sankhya is nothing but the continuous action of our soul in every kind of action that we do. If the soul is outside and does not at all participate in our activities, and if our activities are only physical and sensory, then we will be like logs of wood in the ocean thrown here and there, not knowing which direction they will take.

That is a sthitaprajna, a person so established in yoga that he wants nothing because he has everything. When we have everything, we do not want anything. It is because we do not have everything that we have a particular desire for certain things. This sthitaprajna is one whose consciousness is established in the Soul of the cosmos and, therefore, he wants nothing. The question of wanting does not arise on account of his soul being everywhere: yena sarvam idaṁ tatam (2.17).

To him, this whole world looks like a dark dream, as it were. Where we see values, he does not see values; and where he sees values, we do not see values. For us, this world is the only reality, and God is a possible conceptuality. For him, God is the only reality, and the world is only a conceptuality. Yā niśā sarvabhūtānāṁ tasyāṁ jāgarti saṁyamī, yasyāṁ jāgrati bhūtāni sā niśā paśyato muneḥ (2.69): This world is a dream for him, while for us it is a hard, waking reality. For him, the Ultimate Supreme Essence is the final waking, but not for us who, like owls in the daytime, know not that the sun is shining. In the bright light of the solar orb, the owl sees nothing but darkness; similarly, in this dazzle of the Supreme Being everywhere, in this pervasive action of the soul of all things perpetually, we are totally blind. The very existence of it is obliterated, as it were. The soul’s existence is completely obliterated from our perception because our perception is sensory, whereas spiritual perception is an insight into the soul. Parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhūs tasmāt parāṅ paśyati nāntarātman: kaś cid dhīraḥ pratyag-ātmānam aikṣad (Katha 2.1.1). The Kathopanishad says that God has cursed us, as it were; Brahma cast an imprecation on every one of us by piercing the sense organs in an outward direction.

Why has he cursed us like that? It is an imprecation, the compulsion of the sense organs in the direction of what is not the Self. That is, the anatman, or the object, is so intense that we live in the world of the sense organs only. Therefore, we are in a world of death and destruction. Anityam asukhaṁ lokam (9.33); duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam (8.15). Anityam is the word that is used in the Bhagavadgita for what the world is. The world is not at all permanent, and we should not expect any permanent value in this world. It is engendered by sorrow from beginning to end. Asukhaṁ lokam, duḥkhālayam: This is the house of sorrow.

In a cloth shop, we can get cloth. In a cutlery shop, we can get cutlery. In a grocery shop, we can get groceries. But we cannot get what is not there. This world is the shop where there is sorrow—duḥkhālayam—and, therefore, we will reap only sorrow if we are tethered to the demands of the sense organs. The whole of yoga is nothing but the restraining of the powers of the sense organs, which compel us to think in terms of the anatman, and centring it in the Atman. It is a movement from the centrifugality of the sensory activity to the centripetality of the soul’s contemplation on itself. Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam; vṛtti sārūpyam itaratra (Y.S. 1.3-4). These are Patanjali’s sutras: When you are established in your own Self, the vrittis of the mind cease; but when you are not established in the Self, the mind operates in terms of the vrittis and compels you to know the world as an outside object, and at the same time compels you to want it or not want it. Ᾱpūryamāṇam acalapratiṣṭhaṁ samudram āpaḥ praviśanti yadvat, tadvat kāmā yaṁ praviśanti sarve sa śāntim āpnoti na kāmakāmī (2.70). Who will have peace in this world? Only that person can have peace into whom all desires conceivable in the world enter, like rivers enter into the ocean. “Let there be millions of desires; I shall absorb them into myself, into the Universality that I am, like the ocean.” Any number of rivers can touch the ocean, and the ocean is not tired of absorbing them. All the desires, together with the objects of desire, are melted down into this oceanic consciousness of the realisation of the sthitaprajnata. As the ocean is filled with the waters of all the rivers, so is the sthitaprajna filled with all the values that we can think of, earthly or heavenly. Most blessed is this state of being a realised soul—that is to say, a soul that has established itself in its own Universality, and therefore wants nothing, and therefore is the happiest person.