The Bhagavadgita – A Synthesis of Thought and Action
by Swami Krishnananda

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(Spoken on Gita Jayanti in 1973)

The culture of mankind may be said to have reached its zenith in the thoughts of the Upanishads, wherein we have an exposition of the quintessential essence of all values that humanity has been seeking through the passage of history. In this groundwork of human culture, we have the perennial inspiration of the soul of man, the cry of the deepest in the human individual, the raptures of what may be regarded as the most valuable part of human nature. Such is the meaning hidden behind the gospel of the Upanishads, which soar into the empyrean of the superhuman and the meta-empirical, rising to levels of such ecstatic heights almost inaccessible to the faculties available to the human individual, making us giddy with the heights that they have reached. It is practically impossible for the modern man especially even to think of their significance except that they are wonderful spiritual messages given to us. While the human mind is always able to very quickly misunderstand things, it is not so easily able to understand things in their proper perspective and context. It is very easy for me to misunderstand you, but it is not so easy to understand you. This is human nature in its simple openness and placid empiricality. To commit a mistake is easier than to pursue the course of truth.

The glorious teachings of the Upanishads contain truth in their simple nakedness, unclothed with vestures of human liking or sentiment. This is precisely the reason why they could not easily become a guiding directive of the practical life of man in the workaday world.

In the Bhagavadgita we are supposed to be given a practical turn to the supreme and ideal loftiness which the spirit of the Upanishads embodies. You will remember that towards the end of each chapter of the Gita is the colophon: iti shrimadbhagavadgitasu upanishatsu. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita are like brothers or sisters born of the same parents – the Vedas, the Srutis and the Smritis – which contain within themselves the wisdom of man in its theoretical as well as its practical aspects.

We have in our own sciences such as mathematics or physics the theory and the practice, the theorem and its corollary, and so on. In one sense at least, though not in every sense, we may say the Upanishads lay down the fundamental theory of the cosmos on which we have to work out the practical application of the doctrine in our day-to-day life. This application of the theoretical dictum or the fundamental principles of the Upanishads is in the gospel of the Bhagavadgita. The Upanishads tell us how to think, and the Bhagavadgita tells us how to act. We always think before we act; but how are we to think? The direction of our thoughts is provided by the Upanishadic gospel but the direction of our action is given in the Bhagavadgita. So we have in the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita a complete science of life.

And today, as we are here to humbly and yet solemnly observe the sacred occasion of the delivery of the Bhagavadgita many thousands of years ago, we may very well confine ourselves to what the Bhagavadgita seems to expect of us in our life – no doubt, on the basis of the wisdom of the Upanishads.

The Bhagavadgita is the science of mankind’s culture and activity, to put it simply and precisely. The Bhagavadgita is not a religious gospel of the Hindus. It is not a scripture in the sense of any sectarian doctrine. It does not teach religion in the popular sense of the term. It does not teach any type of ethics or morals in the common understanding of the meaning of the term ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’. The Bhagavadgita purports to expound human nature in its various aspects. It is not necessarily the Hindu nature or the Christian nature or the Buddhist nature; it is human nature. The problem of Arjuna was a human problem. It was not a Hindu problem or an Eastern problem particularly. It was a problem of the psychology of the human individual, and psychology is the same everywhere, wherever man or woman is. So in this sense, we may say that the Gita is a universal gospel. It is meant for me, and it is meant for you, and for all alike. It has no distinction of sex, colour, caste, creed, state, language or hemisphere. It also does not belong to a particular time in history. It is not a historical document that is given to us. It is a spiritual message. Inasmuch as the spirit has no time and space, this message of the Gita also may be said to be timelessly and spacelessly valid, which means to say that it is going to be a directive in our life at all times – past, present and future.

In the life of Bhagavan Sri Krishna we have a pictorial representation of what the Bhagavadgita ideal of life should be, ought to be. We have in the glorious life of Bhagavan Sri Krishna a representation of the doctrines of the Bhagavadgita in practical life. The understanding of the nature of life is a presupposition of understanding the meaning of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita. It is very difficult to make out what is actually the sense that the Gita ultimately conveys to man, on account of which hundreds of commentaries on it have cropped up like mushrooms – not one giving the entire meaning of it, and not any one of the commentaries being capable of being regarded as redundant. Every commentary gives an aspect of the truth of it, but not the whole of it. The Bhagavadgita is such a totality of approach that even Bhagavan Sri Krishna declined to tell it a second time when Arjuna requested him to speak it once again after the war was over. That comprehensive approach cannot be summoned into consciousness constantly in human life. Very rarely do we rise to such heights of human understanding. For Sri Krishna himself to say that he could not speak it a second time would give us an idea as to the meaning hidden behind the whole gospel.

We may say it is God speaking to man. When God speaks to man, He speaks from every corner of the world. He does not speak only from the front or from behind or from any particular direction, because the existence of God is not a local, objective station. The presence of God is not like the presence of an object. It is not here or there or somewhere. It is everywhere. And therefore, the message of God should come from every direction. When it comes from every direction, it touches every aspect of life. It does not merely touch every aspect of life, but solves every question and every problem. Thus we are told that the Bhagavadgita is sarva shastra mayi, which means to say the essence of every teaching is in the Upanishad and the Bhagavadgita. Whatever question may arise in one’s mind, that question can be answered in one way or the other in a word, in a phrase or a sloka of the Bhagavadgita. There is no mental trouble or psychological complex which is not touched in the Bhagavadgita, and there is no remedy for the psychological ills of man which cannot be unearthed from some place in the Gita gospel.

Thus, as the teaching of the Bhagavadgita is of universal significance, to study it is to study man himself, to study life. If we can chant with the poet who said the proper study of mankind is man, we can also say in the same strain that the proper study of the Bhagavadgita is man. But the understanding of the real purport of the Gita gospel is almost a superhuman task. It is difficult to make out what it actually teaches. Some think that it teaches the principles of action or activity in the world. There are others who think that it teaches the way of devotion to God, the creator of the world. There are still others who are of the opinion that it is a political gospel. It is also a guide light for social life, for individual discipline, for even the sciences of civics and economics. These standpoints have given rise to various expositions of the Gita, as I mentioned a few minutes before. All these aspects may be regarded as true, inasmuch as we have to accept that the Gita touches all sides of life in its generality. But when we try to apply its knowledge in our day-to-day existence, we have to take it very seriously and apply it in a manner consonant with the various difficulties that we face from morning to night.

It may be reiterated that the Bhagavadgita is not such a gospel of any religion as to be consecrated in a puja room or only for certain occasions of festivity, ceremony, etc. It is our vade mecum, our pocket guide for every problem, even in our prosaic earthly life – maybe in an office or a factory or the fields of our vocations. If the Bhagavadgita cannot give us piece of mind, it would mean that the Bhagavadgita has not helped us, which would also mean that we have not understood it. We cannot read all eighteen chapters of the Gita and then start crying, cursing and complaining. It is to prevent this erroneous, ugly attitude of the human mind that this gospel has been introduced to us.

Every verse of the Gita points to a particular corner of human life and tries to throw a floodlight into that corner. While our activities are manifold, they can be classified under certain primary heads or groups so that a study of these principle heads of our activities would be tantamount to a study of the entire life of every one of us. As I pointed out a little earlier, we have to think before we act. It would not be proper for us to act first and repentantly think later on. Most of us try to go headlong into an activity without proper thought being bestowed upon the nature of the activity before us. We are emotional too much, sentimental beyond a permissible degree, and that is why we act first and think afterwards. Generally, the thought that comes after the action is one of grief, repentance, melancholy, and intense unhappiness. “Oh, I have made a mistake!” But why did we rush into activity so hurriedly without considering the pros and cons of the action? This requires self-control. Unless we have a control over our own nature, we cannot restrain our emotions; and unless the emotions are restrained, thought cannot precede action because we must have time to think, but the emotions will not allow us any time to think even once. They start speaking and acting suddenly, at the spur of the moment, without laying the foundation of proper thought over the issue that has arisen.

The Upanishads are the basic building bricks of the basis of the structure of thought to precede human action in general. I do not mean any particular action specifically. Human action in general, whatever be its nature, is to be preceded by a type of thought, which is beautifully represented in the Upanishads. We cannot go into the vast details of this scientific subject in the few minutes available to us here, but suffice it to say that while the thoughts of the Upanishads lay the foundation for a universal approach to things, the Bhagavadgita gospel brings into high relief the daily operation of this thought in every nook and corner of the world through each and every action of the individual.

The problem of Arjuna was a sentimental and an emotional one, sentiment and emotion having overpowered his understanding, preventing him from thinking in the right direction and urging him to take a decision contrary to what was justifiable under the circumstances. How are we to decide upon the yes or no of an action? Is an action right or wrong; how are we to know? This is the question that the Bhagavadgita tries to answer. Whenever we embark upon a line of action, we are likely to think that it is the right course. Each one thinks that he or she is right and others who oppose that line of action are wrong. Now, is this a permissible course of thinking? Can I say that whatever I do is right and anything contrary is wrong? If each one starts saying this, who is right and who is wrong?

For this, a standard of reference is provided by the Bhagavadgita. Whenever we say that something is right or something is wrong, we have a standard of reference in connection with which we pronounce this judgment. How do we know that something is wrong? Because we have in our mind an idea of the right. Wherefrom has this idea of the right arisen in our mind? This idea might have arisen on account of various factors, but those factors should be based upon an unshakable principle. If the very principle itself is to be shaken and if it is going to be susceptible to changes in the course of time, then our idea of the right will also go on changing every day. The Bhagavadgita provides a permanent standard of reference for judging whether a particular course of action is right or wrong. From this standpoint, Arjuna could decide whether what he thought in his mind was proper or otherwise.

The rightness or the wrongness of an action does not depend upon the pleasure or the pain of the individual concerned in the action; this is the first warning given to us in the Bhagavadgita. We are likely to think that what brings us satisfaction is right and what brings us sorrow or grief, unhappiness, is wrong. This is an unfortunate, hedonistic approach which cannot be ultimately justifiable from the scientific point of view. A scientific principle does not care for our pleasure or pain. When we talk of a scientific principle, we speak of a truth that holds good for every person under all circumstances, irrespective of the emotional condition of the individuals concerned. So our joy or sorrow, personally and individually speaking, cannot become the standard of reference for the rectitude or otherwise of an action.

Arjuna thought that it was a horror before him in the form of a war presented before his terrified eyes. He was not happy. “Krishna, I am very sorry. I think what I am going to do is wrong.” He thought that the action upon which he was about to embark was going to be wrong, inasmuch as it shook his emotions and tore his personality. He was intensely grief-stricken. So you intend to judge actions from the point of view of your personal happiness – if you are happy, it is all right; otherwise, it is not all right. This is not the correct approach, says the Bhagavadgita.

Now, again we go back to the Upanishads. Why should the rectitude or the otherwise of an action not depend upon the pleasure of the individual or the otherwise? The Upanishads give an answer to it. The nature of existence itself is contrary to holding such an opinion. The structure of all phenomena is of such a character that it will not permit us to hold such an individualistic opinion in respect of any action whatsoever. The universe does not belong to you or to me particularly. It does not belong to anyone. As such, we can say that nothing in this world belongs to us because everything belongs to the universe. It is a part of the world. And as the world is the basic repository of even our own personal existence – we belong to the world rather than the world belongs to us – nothing can belong to us. If nothing can really belong to us in the proper judgment of values, on an impartial judgment of things, how can anything give us pleasure or pain? The pleasure or the pain that we seem to be receiving from the context of particular objects or groups of objects outside – this pain or pleasure which is a reaction to the stimulus from objects outside – arises on account of our possessiveness or the establishment of a specific relationship in respect of the objects of the world, which is unjustifiable, scientifically speaking. We are not permitted to establish particular relationships with anything in the world, as nature is a wholly unselfish entity bearing no positive or negative attitude towards any content thereof.

If the world is a single unity, of which we are also an integral part, accepted, no object or person in the world relates to us in any personalistic fashion and, therefore, no one in the world can bring us happiness or sorrow. Our individualised happiness or grief is an immediate outcome of our so-called relationship with certain persons and things in the world which ultimately does not exist, and cannot be justified.

The Upanishads speak of the ultimate truth of things. Yo vai bhūmā tat sukham: The Plenum is felicity. And what is the Plenum? What is this Bhuma which is the source of real bliss? The Chhandogya Upanishad tells us: yo vai bhūmā tat sukham, nālpe sukham asti (Chhandogya Upanishad VII.23.1); yatra nānyat paśyati nānyac chṛṇoti nānyad vijānati sa bhūmā (VII.24.1). Where you are not permitted to look on any object as an external something, that is the Supreme Plenum. But where you are drawn down to the level of an individualistic perception of such and such a thing being personally related to you, that is finitude of consciousness. It is not the true nature of things. Satyam eva jayate nānṛtam, satyena panthā vitato deva-yānaḥ, yenākramanty ṛṣayo hy āpta-kāmā yatra tat satyasya paramaṁ nidhānam (Mundaka Upanisahd 3.1.6), says the Upanishad. Truth succeeds; untruth will never succeed. And what is the truth? The Plenum is the truth. And what is the Plenum? Wherein you are not to look upon anything as an isolated something or a disjointed object separated from your own existence, that is the Plenum.

If this is the truth, all your pleasures and pains should be untruth. Therefore, Arjuna, pleasure and pain cannot become the standard of judging the rectitude or otherwise of an action. That would be to base the action on a false foundation. You have to base your action on the concept of duty rather than on the concept of pleasure.

Now, what is duty? Duty is the obligation that an individual owes to the world outside, and we cannot know what our duty is unless we know what the world is because, as I mentioned in this simple definition of duty, it is an obligation that we owe to the world as a whole. But how do we know what is our obligation to the world if we do not know what the world is? The world is not made up of mountains and rivers. It is not a conglomeration of earth, water, fire, air and ether, sun, moon, stars. The world is a fabric of forces. It is a pattern of energies which work everywhere uniformly both in organic and inorganic substances. We are told today that the universe is made up of energy. It is not made up of substances or things. The world is not made up of things of our taste. The ultimate stuff of the world is something different from the tasty, delightful objects that the senses behold in the structure of space and time. The world is different from what the senses perceive, and therefore we cannot understand the world by merely opening our eyes and seeing it. The five senses of perception cannot give us an understanding of what the world is made of.

Arjuna looked at the world with the five senses. This is not Sankhya, as the Bhagavadgita tells us. Arjuna, you have to look upon the world with the Sankhya knowledge. The Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is an exposition of the Sankhya understanding that is to become the basis of our attitude towards the world. And without this Sankhya, yoga will not come. Yoga is the practical application of Sankhya or, in the terminology of the Bhagavadgita, Sankhya is knowledge, yoga is action. So unless you have a knowledge of the nature of the world, you cannot act in the world properly. You will make mistakes in every one of your approaches. Now, this Sankhya which the Bhagavadgita speaks of is the knowledge of the world, which is going to be the foundation of the methodology of action in the world in every field, in every occasion.

Arjuna’s standpoint of knowledge was erroneous because it was sensory, empirical, externalised, personalistic and, therefore, false; so he was in sorrow, whereas Sri Krishna expected Arjuna to rise to the level of the Sankhya, which means to say the uniformity of knowledge which is at the basis of the structure of the world. We are under the impression that the world is outside us; therefore, we have a peculiar attitude towards things which is, again, to come down to the level of our own perception, the attitude of pleasure and pain in respect of things.

“This is wonderful.” “This is very nice.” “This is no good.” We pass such remarks on persons and things on the basis of a sensory evaluation of them. But this is an incorrect attitude. The world is not made up of good things or bad things, pleasurable things or miserable things, our things or other things. It is made up of things in general. It is not our things. They are there even if we are not there. We too belong to it. It is very difficult to conceive what the world is. When the world starts thinking, it is not you or I who thinks. This is Sankhya – the nature of the world in its essential being, quite different from what it appears to us in our sensory perception.

“The world is not outside us,” says the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita in a very pithy, pointed half verse: guṇā guṇeṣu vartante iti matvā na sajjate (Gita 3.28). The perception of the world is not the perception of an object, really speaking. The world is not an object. It is a set of forces impinging upon another set of forces within us, called the senses. A group of fabricated structure, a bundle of energy outside, produces an impact of another bundle of energy in our own individuality, called the sensory structure. The colliding of forces from outside in respect of the very same forces inside produces a reaction. That reaction is called perception. The gunas are nothing but forces of nature, prakriti’s attributes – sattva, rajas, tamas, as we call them – present equally in objects outside and the senses inside, and these gunas present in the individual as the forces of sense and mind become responsible for the cognition of the objects outside, whose embodiment are also the very same gunas.

The gunas perceive gunas. We do not perceive the world. Forces come in contact with forces. Energy collides with energy. Nature perceives itself. We do not perceive nature. Therefore, in this cognition of nature by its own self there cannot be any such thing as pleasure or pain. There is only an impersonal demand for duty on the part of every individual, irrespective of caste, creed, colour, sex, age, etc. What nature demands of us does not depend upon our age, our culture, our understanding, etc. It is universally applicable, like the law of gravitation. The law of gravitation does not apply only to old people or young people or learned people, etc. It is for all and sundry. The law of gravitation is one of the forces of nature, and hundreds of others exist in its bosom.

Thus, on the basis of this Sankhya knowledge of the uniformly applicable structural pattern of nature, our actions have to be gauged. Arjuna became giddy. “Very difficult, sir! What are you saying? I cannot act. My mind is giddy. I cannot understand what you are saying.” Then Arjuna's thoughts are raised step by step from one stage to another stage through the various chapters of the Gita until the apotheosis or the apocalypse is reached in the Universal Viratsvarupa in the Eleventh Chapter. Unless we have the cosmic vision of the Absolute, we cannot understand the world. “Arjuna, you cannot even lift your finger unless you see the Universal Form.” And after the Universal Form was visualised, the proper location of the individual was known. The correct position of each person in respect of the Universe was understood. My status is known only when I know what the Universal is. So Arjuna could not take a single step until the Vision Supreme was bestowed upon him – Sankhya, knowledge, melting into an experience of the very basic creative will and power of the cosmos.

It is in this basic foundation of the cosmos that we have an answer to the question of the relation between matter and spirit of the individual and the world and society. All antitheses get reconciled in the Vision Supreme. The Bhagavadgita takes us through action to knowledge, though it goes from knowledge to action, thus blending knowledge and action in a beautiful synthesis so that knowledge and action cease to be two different approaches. We have not here the conflict between knowledge and action, as both mean one and the same thing. When action understands itself, it is called knowledge; when knowledge starts moving, it is called action. They are one and the same.

Such is the basic implication of the Bhagavadgita gospel, knowledge and action combined, providing a simple rule of judgment of values in our day-to-day life – God speaking to man and God blessing man perennially with an inspiration that can be explained only in terms of that vast unfoldment of Realisation we have in the Eleventh Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. This unfoldment of Realisation concretising itself into manifold activity is expounded in the remaining chapters from the Thirteenth onwards until it reaches the Eighteenth Chapter where all social problems are also touched upon and explained, concluding with a resounding message that God and man should work in unison. Yatra yogeśvaraḥ kṛṣṇo yatra pārtho dhanur-dharaḥ, tatra śrir vijayo bhūtir dhruvā nītir matir mama: Human effort and divine existence are to work in synthesis, in collaboration, in unison, so that when man thinks, God thinks, and when God thinks, man thinks. They are not two different thoughts. When one acts, the other also acts. Where such unity of action rises from a correct understanding of the structure of creation, success is bound to come. “You will certainly succeed in your life; there is absolutely no doubt,” says Sanjaya towards the end of the Bhagavadgita gospel.