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The Teachings of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: Duty – An Empirical Manifestation of True Being

The study that has been conducted up to this time concerning the teaching of the Bhagavadgita would have revealed to us that we are born with a duty, and we can never be free from some duty or the other. It also implies that we have no rights; we have only duties, contrary to what one would expect from the point of view of common human nature. The fight for rights is out of point in a world of duties, which is inescapable under the set-up of things. The duty that we owe to ourselves, as well as anything that is around us, is a necessary conclusion that follows from the nature of our relationship with things in general. The connection that obtains between us and the world at large is such that there is a mutual obligation, as it were, between ourselves and the world. This obligation is not a compulsion, but a necessary conclusion automatically following from the essential character of Being itself. Thus duty is an empirical manifestation of true being. Here is the sum and substance of the great gospel.

Our organic relationship with things is the reason behind the duty that we owe to things, and this also is the reason why we need not expect any fruit from the duty that we perform in respect of anyone or anything. To expect a fruit is a mistake. Mā phaleṣu kadācana, mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo'stvakarmaṇi (Gita 2.47): You have a duty, you have an obligation to do, but you have no right to expect a particular consequence or result or fruit to follow from what you do. This is a very difficult, pithy enunciation in the Bhagavadgita – that we have duties but we cannot expect any fruits from the duties that we perform.

This may look very odd and unpleasant to the selfish individual, but as I have tried to mention earlier, the law of the universe is not necessarily a pleasant dish that is served to the ego of man; it is a principle that operates, and it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Its reactions, under given conditions of personality, appear to be pleasant or otherwise. The duty that we owe to anyone or anything is the homage that we pay to the vastness of the atmosphere in which we are placed, and the grandeur of the relationship that is there between us and the whole of creation. There is a majesty ruling the whole cosmos; and it is this superabundance of magnificence, which is the law of the universe, that inexorably operates and impartially dispenses justice without any favour or disfavour in regard to any person or thing.

It is difficult to understand what all this means if we study this theme merely as an abstract science of logical philosophy. Perhaps I may place before you an analogy or a comparison that is more concrete and visible to our eyes than this pure abstract principle we are discussing in this context. We owe a duty to the body in which we are enshrined, and every part of the body owes a duty to every other part of the body, but no part of the body has a right over another part. This is something very novel that we see in the physiological organism of our own personality. Every limb of our body has a duty which it automatically performs without compulsion or impulsion, without any mandate or governmental enactment; yet, it does not expect anything from that particular limb to which cooperation is extended. If the stomach eats the food, the teeth, which have merely munched it and got nothing out of it, do not complain; and so on, with every other part of the body, there is an excessively friendly cooperation. 'Friendliness' is a poor word we are using to describe this immense unity of purpose that obtains between the limbs of our body. It is oneness in the midst of diversity of the organisational set-up. There is no expectation on the part of a limb of the body in respect of another limb, because the fruit that it might expect automatically follows from the duty that it performs. The privilege that you expect in this world, the right that you are craving for after performing a duty, is something which you need not expect – it will follow. When the sun rises, there will be light. Likewise whatever you need, which is called your expectation or the fruit so-called, will follow spontaneously from the very fact of your having performed your duty. You need not ask for the fruits; they shall drop from the skies, even without your asking for them. And we will be told sometime later in the Bhagavadgita that when one is united with the purpose of the whole creation, he shall be taken care of by the very law of the universe, and need not cry, "Let it come." Ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate, teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmyaham (Gita 9.22) – is a great pendent hanging in the garland of the verses of the Bhagavadgita as a central gospel. God, the universe, the law, whatever you may call it, shall protect you and take care of you more than a mother can do – provided you have that affection which you expect from the world.

Thus it is that we cannot expect any fruit of our actions, because our actions are duties that we owe and are not something grudgingly that we do under compulsion from outside. There is no 'outside' in this world. You have to listen to every sentence that I uttered last time and earlier; otherwise, I may not be able to repeat the same thing again and again because we have to cover a large area of study within a short time. The debts that we owe to things, if we would like to call them debts, are the same as the duties that we have to perform. It is the acceptance of an organic connection between ourselves and all things. It is the cooperation that follows from the very structure of creation. There is no competition possible; it is a word which has no sense under the sun – there is no such thing as that. There is only cooperation; there cannot be competition in this world. One cannot vie with the other, because there is no 'other' in this world. This will be made more clear as we move further on from the chapters of the Bhagavadgita, how there is no other. Your neighbour is an extended form of your own self – so the service that you render to your neighbour, which is the whole world outside you, is a service that you finally render to your own larger existence. This you will know further as you go deeper. This much about the verse: karmaṇyevādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana (Gita 2.47) – Don't expect fruits.

Secondly, while you have to perform duty, the nature of the consequence that follows from the performance of duty is not clear to your mind. So to expect a particular result to follow from a particular action would be like a blind man groping in the dark and catching hold of what he does not know is there. While under the given circumstance of your existence you have an obligation towards things, which has to be clear to your mind, you cannot clearly perceive the result that will follow from that action because results are conditioned by infinite factors, not necessarily the thing that you do from the point of view of your limited understanding. There are other factors which condition things. Again, we shall revert to this theme as we go further towards the chapters that are to come.

You can sow the seed in a field and expect a harvest. In a way, you may be justified in expecting a large harvest to follow the fact of your sowing a seed, putting the manure, watering it, fencing it, guarding it. But do you believe that this is the only thing that determines the harvest? There are other conditions necessary for the harvest to be reaped apart from your tending it, and apart from all that you have done for it – the rainfall, the seasons, and the other natural conditions necessary may be greater conditioning factors than your need to sow the seed and pour manure and water into it; and many other invisible factors also are involved. Because we are not omniscient, we cannot know all the things in the world, we cannot know what result will follow from what action. Hence, it is not proper on the part of the person to expect a particular fruit from any action because the fruit is not in your hands, while the duty is your obligation. You can present a case before a court, but you cannot decide the case yourself – that has to be done by the judge. If you already decided the case, there is no need of presenting the case at all. So, the performance of duty is something like presenting a case, and the judgment is not in your hands, so don't expect the fruits.

"Knowing all this, how is that we seem to be sorrowful, bereaved, and not satisfied? Why is it, O Krishna?" Thus, the question is raised by Arjuna. "I understand what you say, but still I am very unhappy. Man is driven to the wrong, he always performs what is not good for him – he perpetrates error. Even though one can understand what you are saying, what is the reason?" Kāma eṣa krodha eṣa rajoguṇa samudbhavaḥ, mahāśano mahāpāpmā viddhyenam iha vairiṇam (Gita 3.37): The enemy of man is his own inner instinctive impulsions. There are instincts that are emotional in nature, impulsions which are sometimes overwhelming and impetuous in their action. They can even confound the intellect and the reason of man. When a passion preponderates, reason subsides; the intellect will not work when the emotions are too strong. A man perpetuates offences though he knows that there is a law which will not permit the perpetration of this act. A person who does wrong under normal conditions knows that such an action is wrong. But when a person is in height of passion, he is not a normal person – the normalcy is absent there. He becomes a temporary 'out of gear individual' who has lost the common sense that is required of a normal human individual. Like a flood that can devastate villages and destroy people, emotions can rise under given conditions. Then law does not operate, because one cannot be even aware that such a thing as law exists. A person may be hanged for an acute offence due to the operation of a law. It does not mean that the person is unaware of the existence of such a law, but at that particular moment he becomes unaware of it because reason fails. So, while the reason is a great guide indeed, perhaps the only guide that you have, it can get deflected out of its normal course by the vehemence of the flood of emotion which is the impulsion behind the feelings, which can gain an upper hand. These feelings, which are purely personal, selfish and would not take into consideration even the existence of other people, these emotions are called kama, krodha, lobha.

Kama is a very wide word, with a meaning which is capable of covering every form of longing. When desire intensifies itself, we call it passion. In Sanskrit we have many words indicating the same meaning: raga, kama, etc. An intense longing for something, an intense craving to do something, a yearning to possess something in an overwhelmingly powerful manner, is a passion – a kama, a raga. Any obstacle in the direction of the fulfilment of this passion becomes the target of anger of that person. Krodha follows therefore, as a brother of kama – and when one is, the other one also is. These impulsions are the products or the results of a very active manifestation of rajoguna – rajas – that is present in human personality, and no one can subdue them, normally speaking. A higher meditative technique may have to be employed, and there is no other recipe for this illness of man. The meditational technique that is very, very precisely stated in only a few words towards the end of the third chapter is to be dilated upon further on when we go to the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters, indicating thereby the lower can be controlled only by resort to the higher. You cannot employ lower means to restrain these lower impulses. Only a greater force can control a lower force. The reason has to be trained, for a long time, in carrying on correct judgment of things, so that the emotions may not preponderate and take advantage of the position when the reason is out of guard sometimes.

The Bhagavadgita will tell us in a half-sentence, as it were, towards the end of the third chapter, that the final panacea for this great illness of man is only refuge to the great Atman or the Self that transcends even the reason of man. This is like a theorem that is being stated, whose explanations have to be provided for a little later. Yet, man seems to be helpless. There is a subtle feeling in every one of us that in spite of this glorious teaching, we seem to be somehow helpless, in some mysterious manner, and we cannot entirely be confident that we can be successful in this great adventure of the putting into daily action of this philosophical principle.

There is a subtle weakness in man which speaks in its own language, and whispers in a tone which is distressing at moments. "After all, you puny fellow, you cannot achieve this glorious, cosmical success. Though it may be true that there is some heritage in you, at the present moment all this is like a phantasm, and you should not be under the impression that you have the strength in you to face the storm that the world may kick up when you actually tread the path of the spirit." And each one knows one's own weaknesses; each one knows to what extent one can understand things; each one knows one's own strength, capacity – but, each one knows also one's own weaknesses. Oftentimes, the weaknesses may outbalance our strengths. This is a suspicion that may be in our minds, and "Doubts are our traitors," says the poet. The traitor in us is the doubt that we are incapable of achieving this perhaps – there is perhaps something due to which we cannot achieve success in this path. Though we may not know what is the reason behind this feeling, that feeling is there, and the feeling has a reason of its own which reason cannot know. "Whatever you may say, I have something to say, finally, and this is this." This is very unfortunate. This doubt may arise in the mind of Arjuna that, "After all, I think I'm not for this." Many seekers, ardent students of yoga, may receive a setback in their practice, and receive such a blow from outward society and nature and even the physical personality of one's own, by illness or other conditions, that one may be disappointed to the core and throw the bow and arrow down – "This is not for me," as Arjuna did. All these tools and implements that you have gathered for the practice of yoga psychologically will be cast aside. "I'm fed up. I've done so much, but I've achieved nothing." Let this doubt not enter your mind! "O, ye of little faith," says Christ, "if you have faith as much as the size of a mustard seed, tell this mountain to move and it shall be cast into the ocean, but have faith at least as the size of a mustard seed." This is the great solacing message of Christ; and Krishna said the same thing many, many centuries back, before Christ was born. This was told us that confidence is that which will pave the way to success. Never say that "I am unfit." Why should you not be fit? "What one has achieved others also can achieve," is a sentence often repeated by Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. If one Shankaracharaya could have achieved that, why not you? In what way are you less? "If there was one successful adept, why should I not be successful? If he has succeeded, why I should not succeed? If he could overcome all the obstacles, why should I not?"

This solacing message of hope, and not of despondency, is accentuated and re-enforced at the commencement of the fourth chapter, where the Lord declares Himself as ready to help anyone, at any moment of time, by an incarnation that He will take, into which He will descend instantaneously, because God is instantaneous existence and He does not take time to incarnate Himself. What can be more solacing to us than this message – that God can be at your beck and call; if you call Him just now, He is there. "Do you think that God cannot send an army of angels to protect me, if only I ask," said Christ, when Peter cut the ear of a priest who was all ready to arrest Jesus Christ. "If I ask merely, an army of angels will descend to protect me, do you know? But I don't ask," said Christ.

In the same manner, even without your asking perhaps, angels are ready to protect you. The Yoga Vasishtha says in one place, "The gods shall take care of you, as they are protecting the corners of the world, if only you are friendly with them. It is the duty of the angels and the celestials in heaven to guard you from moment to moment and they shall do it, without fail, in the same manner as the planets are moving around the sun, the world is being taken care of – why not you? Look at the lilies in the fields and the sparrows that fly who are taken care of by God. Are you less than they?" These are great solaces to man, indeed. Yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānir bhavati bhārata abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṁ sṛjāmyaham (Gita 4.7) These words are to be written in golden script in the history of the spiritual adventure of man. Why should you weep and cry? Is God dead? He can never die! He is an omnipresent succour! He is alive and awake with infinite eyes! There should be no occasion for grief on the part of man! "Here I am to render service to you, and shall take care of you ever!" The protecting hands of God are moving more powerfully than all the evils that can be conceived in this world. All the mountains of error, blunder, corruption and sin that you can think of in this world can be set at naught by the power of God's majesty, and when the sun rises, the thickest darkness cannot stand before it. Such is the power of the Almighty. So, this is another reinforcing factor behind the message that man is bound to succeed in the end. "He is heir apparent to the throne of immortality," to put it in the language of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. You are all heirs apparent to the throne of immortality, and heir apparent cannot lose his heritage. A prince is to be a king one day or the other. This is very comforting. We feel healed-up at once – our wounds are no more there. The cuts have been healed and our sorrows seem to be departing gradually, as the night recedes when the sun rises.

Now I revert for a few minutes to what I told you a little earlier – that we are born with a duty, perhaps we die with a duty. We need not be frightened about the word 'duty', as we might be, due to a mistaken understanding of the meaning of the word 'duty'. This is the reason why we are asking for privileges and rights rather than be willing to do our obligation to others, or do our duties. We have created a feeling in our minds that a duty is something imposed up on us by others. "This is something which I will not do if I am entirely free." But you cannot be entirely free until you do your duty – here is the answer to your question. Don't say, "I shall not do anything if I am totally free." That freedom cannot be bestowed upon you; it is unthinkable if you are not to do your duty. Duty and freedom go together – I have mentioned it already, sometime back.

Now, the duty that you are expected to perform in the world is not something imposed upon you by a government, or a social mandate from outside. It is the law of your own nature expecting you to do what is necessary, under the very structure of your own individuality, or jivatva – your personality. I go back to the analogy of the limbs of the body. You cannot even exist unless there is cooperation among the limbs of the body; there will be dismembering of your body, there will be a complete dislocation of the limbs, and there will be total destruction and an end of your existence itself. Na hi kaścit kṣaṇam api jātu tiṣṭhaty akarmakṛt, kāryate hy avaśaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛtijair guṇaiḥ (Gita 3.5): No one exists without doing something. The world is active, perpetually – every atom is active. You will not see anything static in the world – not one cell of the body, not one electron – everything is vibrating terribly. Why should they move in this manner? The evolution of the universe is the answer. The world is active without remission of effort, for the achievement of a goal which is self-realisation of the cosmos. It is the universe attempting to be aware of its own majestic existence. What you call 'evolution' is only the process of the ascent, of the lower degrees of reality in the direction of the higher degrees. Unless the 'Absolute Reality' is contacted and made one's own, evolution cannot cease.

The activities, the duties so-called, fulfil themselves in the realisation of the Absolute – God-realisation. Then there is no expectation on your part, and nobody expects you to do anything; the universe frees you from its clutches, and no law operates there because your being and the law become one. The will of the cosmos and the will of the individual get united, and actually, what you call 'democracy' is nothing but the union of the individual will with the national will. If there is no such unity, there is no democracy. Likewise, when the Universal Will and the individual will seem to be working in harmony, karma yoga is being performed by you – every action becomes yoga, because it is a perpetual union of your being with the Being of the Universe. Karma yoga is action transmuted into the yoga of meditation. A meditation is the precedent of every right action. Ideas precede activities – thought comes first, action afterwards. Yoga is the union that is anterior to the action that follows from this union. You meditate first, think first, place yourself in an orderly position in respect of the universe, and then act, and then it becomes Yoga. So karma yoga is action which is yoga, and yoga is action – action is Yoga – they mean the same thing. All life becomes yoga. Even your breathing becomes yoga, provided you can connect this activity of your existence and your performance with the purpose of the cosmos, with the intention of God. This union of your will with the Cosmic Will is a yajna that you are performing – a sacrifice, a glorious performance which is also yoga. Yoga is sacrifice, sacrifice is yoga – yajna is yoga. This is the theme of some of the portions of the fourth chapter.