The Bhagavadgita's Message of Knowledge and Action
by Swami Krishnananda

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(Spoken on Gita Jayanti in 1974)

In the history of the culture of the world, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita may be regarded as the central spiritual message to mankind. These two gospels of the spiritual ideal offset each other, as it were; they give us the art of life in consonance with the eternal on the one hand, and in consonance with the temporal on the other. The problem of the human being is principally one of reconciliation between the eternal and the temporal or, to put it in modern terms, bringing about a harmony between the religious ideal and the secular call of duty. This has been an age-old problem, a question that has never been adequately answered. And the Upanishads, while holding aloft the banner of the magnificence of life eternal, seem to absorb into their bosom all the values that may be regarded as secular and temporal – so that we are faced with a lion’s den, as it were. The values that we regard as dear and near in this world of visible perception all seem to be transmuted into the heart of that Reality which is the central theme of the Upanishads. But man is man, whatever may be his ideal.

Now, while idealism is good and it has to always be there before us, it is essential that the ideal never remain as a future. One of the errors that we may commit in any type of endeavour or effort in day-to-day life is to place an ideal in the future so that the present stares at us and demands recognition in spite of the fact that the ideal is there before us transcending the values of all that is immediately real to our senses, our body, and our social life.

We have to reiterate here that our mistake lies in regarding an ideal as a future. “Then what about the present?” is the question. If an ideal is ahead of us in the far-off future, what has happened to us at the present moment? The conflict that apparently seems to be there between the ideal and the real is born of a miscalculation of religious values, a misinterpretation of the spiritual sense in life, and a thoroughgoing lack of understanding in respect of that which can be regarded as the organic structure of the values of life.

We as human beings are born with a prejudice. The prejudice seems to have entered into our very blood and vitals, the prejudice which insists that the present and the future are divided by a large and vast gulf which cannot easily be bridged, and this gulf that yawns before us between the future and the present is also the gulf that is between the world here and God above.

As I mentioned, in one sense the Upanishads may be regarded as a complete gospel, but the temporal values which necessitate a particular type of action or activity on the part of man seem to assume a new orientation altogether in the light of the Upanishads, and we are faced with a similar predicament as a child would be faced when confronted with a genius of mathematics, physics or philosophy. We cannot say that the child’s values are ignored by the genius, but the child cannot understand the genius, notwithstanding the fact that all the values of childhood are comprehended in the values of a genius. Likewise, the values held as ultimately real by the Upanishads seem to go over our heads and speak a language which we cannot understand. We want to be told in our own language, in the tongue that we speak, and with a sympathy that is consonant with that which we regard as valuable and dear to our heart.

Here comes the Bhagavadgita to comfort us, to console us, to solace us, and to tell us that everything is all right. Nothing is wrong in this world and there need not be despair either in the religious attitude or in the secular attitude. It may be emphasised that here in the Bhagavadgita we have an eternal message of the reconciliation between the empirical and the transcendental, the secular and the religious, the human and the divine, the relative and the Absolute, the visible and the invisible, the matter of fact that is before us and the glorious ideal that is beckoning us with its relentless and resistless force ever since the creation of the world. Now, what is this reconciliation that the Bhagavadgita offers us? What is its message to mankind, to humankind, to everyone? The message is precisely the message of duty because we are faced with a problem of what we are expected to do in this world after we are born.

The whole of our life is one of action. From birth to death we are in a network of activity, some meaningful, some appearing to be meaningless. Even babies we active, though to the adult it may look childish, senseless, idiotic and meaningless. It is activity that seeps into the very essence of our temporal being and we are expected to do something; we are impelled to act and do something or the other from morning till evening, whether or not we are inclined to intelligently understand the implications of an action.

This was exactly what Bhagavan Sri Krishna told Arjuna: You have to act and you will act, whether or not you have an inner inclination to be for it or against it. You have not the right to say, “I shall act”; you also have not the right to say, “I shall not act.” And in a similar vein, the great lawgiver Manu tells us in his Smriti: Neither are you to say, “How beautiful is life, how grand is life, how dear is life,” nor are you to say, “How stupid is life, how idiotic is life, how ugly is life,” because both these statements are born of a misunderstanding. Life is neither beautiful nor ugly, it is neither dear nor dreadful; it is an impersonal presentation of values which we have to take in the way in which it is presented before us at any given stage of life under any given moment or circumstance.

One of the difficulties in understanding the gospel of the Bhagavadgita or any such message is that we are expected to think here in an absolutely reoriented fashion. A new educational value is presented to us. One of the things, or perhaps the most important thing that the Bhagavadgita tells us is that we have to think in a new fashion altogether, and the greatest knowledge conceivable is perhaps the art of thinking correctly. Knowledge does not mean the study of Plato or Kant or Sankara or Ramanuja. Knowledge is the system of thinking correctly, and we are masters of not thinking correctly. Why? Because we have been caught up in a muddle of circumstances whose values we cannot properly understand; and the relationship we bear with whom, we understand much less.

To come to the crux of the whole matter, we cannot easily understand our relationship with the world. This is our difficulty; and therefore, we cannot understand our relationship with other people in the world. Therefore, also, we cannot understand our relationship with God. Everything is a confusion, and this confusion is called samsara. In Sanskrit we have a very beautiful word – samsara. “I am caught up in samsara” means, “I am caught up in a mess, a muddle, a mire, a confused state of affairs,” which is what Arjuna cries out at the very outset in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. “I am confused. I cannot understand what is right, what is wrong, what is proper and improper. What am I to do now?” This is the question which Arjuna posed before Bhagavan Sri Krishna, and every one of us is posing the very same question. What is my duty here? There is only one question before us into which we can boil all other questions of life: the question of what we are supposed to do in this world after we are born. What am I to do, what are you to do, what is anyone to do?

The Bhagavadgita is the answer. It is very difficult to give a complete conspectus of everything the Bhagavadgita says, but we can pinpoint the essential emphasis of the Bhagavadgita in this context, namely, our duty is to harmonise ourselves with the environment in which we are living. Harmony is called yoga – samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (Gita 2.48) – and the action that proceeds from our personality on the basis of this understanding is called karma yoga.

What is karma yoga? It is an intelligent action, not a foolish action; it is an action that is engendered by a correct understanding of all the factors involved in our relationship with the entire atmosphere in which we are placed. This is a very difficult thing. You may be thinking, “What is it that you are saying? How am I to understand the implications of all the aspects of my relationship with the total atmosphere in which I am placed? What is this atmosphere?”

The Bhagavadgita tells us sankhya is to precede yoga or, in other words, knowledge is to precede action. In the terminology of the Bhagavadgita, sankhya means knowledge and yoga means action. We should not do anything without understanding what we are doing, but how are we to understand what we are doing? What is the meaning of understanding? Everybody understands what he is doing. Don’t we know what we are doing? When we get up in the morning, take our tea, go to the bazaar and purchase something, quarrel with somebody, we are doing so many things with an understanding of what we are doing, so what is the Bhagavadgita for? Everyone has knowledge of what he is doing, so in that sense the Bhagavadgita is useless.

Well, this is not the type of understanding that is expected of us. Whenever there is tension in our action, it means we have not understood the nature of our action. If an action that we perform, even if we regard it as a so-called duty, brings about an adverse reaction or sorrow as a result, it means we have not understood it, because the good cannot bring a bad result. Similia similibus curentur, as medical people tell us. There is similarity, harmony, between the means and the end. If good proceeds from us, how can the result of it be bad? How can we cry and grieve as a consequence of what we have done? “Oh, I have done so much good and yet people are abusing me and throwing stones at me.” We have not done good. We may be thinking that we have done good, but there has been a small error creeping into our goodness, on account of which Nature has revolted against us.

The Bhagavadgita says that we must act in such a manner that there is no revolt from any side as a consequence of the action that we perform. What type of revolt can we expect? God Himself can revolt against what we are doing, Nature can revolt, our own conscience may revolt, and human society may revolt. These are the four types of opposition that we can have. We must be harmonised: samatvaṁ yoga ucyate. What is the meaning of samatvam? What is harmonisation? We have to be harmonised with what is visible as well as invisible. The principle of right action is mentioned in the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, which also tells, at the same time, what is wrong action.

As we are concerned with the principle of right action, we may consider what the Bhagavadgita tells us in respect of this issue. What is right action? It is that motivation and activity which is based on a proper assessment in proper proportion of the factors that are involved, factors that are contributory to the success of an action. An action becomes successful when the causes of that action are properly harmonised. If the causes of the action are not properly harmonised, there will not be success of the action. There will be only failure.

What are the causes of an action? The Eighteenth Chapter tells us this in one of its verses. We are wrongly under the impression that we are the causes of the action. Everyone thinks, “I do this work. I go there, I come here, I say this, I want this, I do not want this,” and so on. This is egoistic action, as the Bhagavadgita tells us. If we are convinced that we are independently, individually the source of all the activities that proceed from us, we are egoists because we have disregarded all the other factors that were contributory to the action.

Medical people know that 450 or so muscles are working when we stand up on our two legs. When we stand up, these 450 muscles are very active and very conscious that we are standing; otherwise, we will fall down. But who is aware of this fact? We think we are standing, but it is not so simple an affair. Not merely this, the brain is active, the heart is active, the lungs are active, the alimentary canal, the respiratory system – everything is active when we are merely standing up. In that simple act of standing, so many factors are involved that we are unaware of. And to understand the various factors of an action is even more difficult.

The Bhagavadgita tells us that action does not wholly proceed from our personality, though our personality is the channel of the projection of the action. It is only a channel of the motivation of a wider force which is invisible to the senses. An electric bulb is shining here. Can we say it is only the bulb that is responsible for the light? There is a filament inside which is heated up by a force which is called electricity. Where is the electricity? It is coming through a wire. From where has the wire come? It was manufactured by somebody. And who has fitted it? Somebody else. What is its connection with the powerhouse, and who is working there? So many people. What are they doing? With so many machines, many things are done. And how is electricity generated? So many other scientific factors are involved. With all these considerations, we have a little twinkling of light here.

And the Bhagavadgita tells us, “My dear friend, so many things are involved in a single action of yours, of which you are unaware; therefore, you are mostly not successful in your actions.” Adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham, vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam (Gita 18.14). At least five factors are mentioned among the many others that can be conceived in this context. Adhisthana is the complex of this psychophysical organism. That must be in proper order. The body should be healthy, the mind should be sane. If there is a sick body with jaundiced eyes and an insane mind, what will happen if activity proceeds from it? We know very well the consequence. The adhisthana, or the basis or repository, should be well prepared. And karta is the individualised form of consciousness which is the medium through which action is manifest. In our case it is the intellect from which the ego is inseparable. The intellect should have made a proper judgment beforehand, prior to the conclusion that such and such a step has to be taken in the form of an action. Judgment precedes action. We do not suddenly rush in where angels fear to tread.

Karaṇaṁ ca pṛthagvidham: The various instruments of action are also to be correct. Suppose a scientist in a laboratory is using a very powerful microscope in order to study atoms, electrons, and so on, and goes on peeping into the microscope very carefully throughout the day. But if the microscope is not properly made, and he himself has cataracts in his eyes, what will he see through the microscope? He will come to a very wrong scientific conclusion, and will proclaim this wrong conclusion to the newspapers. Blunderous results will follow. His eyes must be healthy, and his instruments should be properly fitted. Karana is the instrument. It should be healthy and properly made.

Vividhāś ca pṛthakceṣṭā: The motive behind the action also comes. Why are we doing this action? The motive is the moral force, meaning or significance that is behind an action, and it colours the action to a large extent, if not entirely.

Daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam: There is a very, very important fifth factor. As Shakespeare has put it, there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how you will. Whatever be our effort, whatever be our sweating, there is something else that decides the fate of our action. Whatever be the argument of an advocate in a court, the deciding factor is the judge. The judge will hear the arguments from both sides and finally, he is the deciding factor. Now, we will have a doubt in our mind: “Will God decide against my motive? Then it is very pitiable. Suppose I do something and God simply disposes of the entire motive of my action; what is the good of my doing anything? This is a sorrowful state of affairs.”

Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate: Again the same principle of action, harmony, is here called yoga. Harmony is the will of God. This is an essential factor in any kind of successful action. God will not act against us if our will is united with the divine will. The law will not punish us if our action is in consonance with the law. Why should the law punish us? It is because we go against it. We curse the law. “Oh, stupid thing, the law is harassing me.” Why does it harass us? Because we do not know what it means and we do not want to follow its mandates. We have a law of our own, contrary to the prevailing law, so why should it not trouble us? Whose mistake is it?

Therefore divine will, God’s dispensation, is not against man’s motivation of action, and God’s will is the ultimate fruit-yielding factor in all activities of the individual. We sow the seed, manure the sapling, take care of the plant and see that the tree grows, but the fruit comes out of the tree due to the will of a universal power, with which our will has to be united.

What is meant by saying we must be in harmony with the atmosphere and environment of our action, with all conceivable factors, in order that our action may be successful? Can we conceive all the factors? No. We are not sufficiently educated. Therefore, we fail in our action. We cannot exercise our mind to such an extent that we can understand the operation of all the factors involved in an action and, therefore, many of our actions go abortive, producing no result whatsoever. Not merely that, sometimes the result of the action that we performed comes back upon us like a boomerang and we cry, “Oh, what has happened to me? Is this the result of my good deeds?” Well, we must have done a very good deed from our own limited point of view, but we have forgotten to put on the ultimate switch. The powerhouse is working, the wire is there, the bulb is fitted, but we have forgotten to put on the switch, so how will there be illumination?

The ultimate switch is the will of God, and the function of God’s will may be hampered by the obtrusive factor of our egoism. This is what we call Satan in religious language, Mara in Buddhist terminology, or Maya in Hindu parlance – self-affirmation. In biblical parlance we are told that Satan fell from the Garden of Eden. How did he fall? By the affirmation of his ego. “I am equal to God, if not greater than God.” He immediately fell into the nether regions. The greatest devil conceivable is the ego. The Yoga Vasishtha says that ahamkara is the self-affirmation of the individual, contradistinguishing it from the universal will of God. But why should we forget the simple truth that anything that is universal should be inclusive of all that is particular? How comes the need for the affirmation of the individual factor called egoism when the universal is operating? Do we want the ego to operate independently of the universal? Wonderful is this knowledge.

What do we mean by universal? That which is inclusive of all the particulars and individual factors is the universal. When that is operating, why should the individual assert itself separately? That very fact of the operation of the individual independently is a denial of the operation of the universal. This is the mistake that we commit in the performance of any of our actions.

So the gospel of the Bhagavadgita clinches the matter by telling us in its clear-cut language that ignorance of the law is no excuse. “Oh, I did not know it. I am sorry.” We should not say that. If we are sorry, well, we have to bear the fruit of it. We touch the live wire and say, “I am sorry; I didn’t know it is a live wire.” Well, all right, if we didn’t know it is a live wire, now we know it.

To reiterate the gospel of the Bhagavadgita, knowledge, sankhya, should precede yoga, action. The reaction of good and bad does not impinge upon the individual when there is rootedness of the individual in buddhi marga, the yoga of understanding. But we do not want to understand because an understanding in the correct or proper manner goes against the pleasures of the ego and the senses. We are more slaves of the senses and the ego than devotees of God. Though we are chanting through the lips, “O Lord, Thy kingdom come,” how will it come? Nothing will come. Only our sorrow will come. Why? Because what we have sown, that alone can we reap. We sow the seed of thistles and expect a beautiful mango to come out of the plant. Nothing will come. Śreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etas tau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ (Katha 1.2.2) says the Katha Upanishad. Sreyas and preyas are two different things altogether. The pleasures of the senses and the satisfactions of the ego are not always in consonance with the delight of divinity or the bliss of God.

The last verse of the Bhagavadgita, which figuratively tells us that Bhagavan Sri Krishna and Arjuna jointly take up arms against the evil forces of the world, incidentally points out that the individual should be united with the universal. In every one of its actions, in every stage of its evolution, at any given moment of time, we are always in a state of yoga. Yoga is not only in the temple or in the meditation hall. It is also in the marketplace, in the shop, and in the bathroom because we may die in the bathroom itself. Do we think we will die only in the meditation hall? That is a very good thing if it happens, but we may die in the marketplace. What will happen then? We are thinking of stupid things in the shop and at that time our prana goes. What will happen? They say the last thought determines the future life of a person.

Nityayukta is the word used in the Bhagavadgita: Permanently united with that which is true, such a person is called a yogi. Who is a yogi? That person who is hiddenly, perpetually united with the real, that which is true, is a yogi. What is true? What is it that we call the true with which we are supposed to be permanently united? Anything that is contributory to the revelation of the next higher stage of the universal in our consciousness, that is the true as far as we are concerned.

There are stages of truth. There are degrees of reality. And every next degree, every higher stage of it is to be regarded as true from the point of view of the immediately lower one. Ultimately, the largest universal is God-consciousness which, again, is not a bifurcation of the religious or the spiritual from the temporal but a recognition of the union of the transcendent and the immanent at the same time – a difficult thing to conceive, once again. Our culture, our religion, our spirituality always insists on a union of the transcendent and the immanent, God there and God here. He is not only in the heavens or in Vaikunta, He is also in every atom of creation. He is the farthest of the far and the nearest of the near. Tad dure vad antike (Isa 5), says the Isavasya Upanishad. And unless we learn the art of this reconciliation, which is the most difficult thing to do, there will be no joy in life.

Samsara becomes moksha. The very thing that is before us becomes divinity shining before us. The veil is lifted when the sensory interpretation of values gives place to a spiritual interpretation of the very same values. The particularised interpretation gives place to the universalised interpretation. ‘I’ and ‘my’ vanish; He or It takes possession of us totally. Like camphor vanishing in the radiance that its flame shoots forth, leaving no residue, the individual will melt into the Universal. Arjuna will melt into Krishna so that he may finally be the only deciding factor and the Reality. Paśya me yogam aiśvaram (Gita 11.8) says the Viratsvarupa: Look at Me. I am everywhere, and in Me is everything contained. Both the Pandavas and the Kauravas are also there – the friends and the enemies are included, the positive and the negative factors are all fused into a single focus of divine radiance.

Thus, the outcome of all this seems to be that yoga is a very difficult thing. It is not for Tom, Dick and Harry. It is a tremendous sacrifice that we perform and a dying to our little self so that we may live in the Eternal that is in us. Die to live, as Sri Gurudev used to say. And we need not despair in a mood of misunderstanding that when God takes possession of us we shall lose the joys of life. Nothing of the kind. The joys of life are reflections of the eternal bliss, and the reflection is naturally contained, if not completely transmuted, in the original.

The Bhagavadgita anticipates, as it were, the famous saying of Jesus Christ: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” All these things shall be added. They are not going to be removed from us. This is the gospel of true religion, the real spirituality of godliness manifest in humanity, the implanting of the Universal values in every little bit of particular action, mode of thought and speech. This is to bring God down to the Earth, as it were, and to live the life spiritual in the most secular conceivable form of our life. In this sense it is that it can be said that the Bhagavadgita is a universal gospel, not meant for any particular ism or religion but for every created being which aspires to go back to its original source – the gospel of God to man.

With these few humble words may I conclude, simultaneously offering my prayers that the invisible seeing multiple eyes of the Supreme Being bless us all with His abundant grace that we live true to our own selves, which is at once to live true to the values that everyone else also holds as dear, and to the ultimate value that God Himself regards as finally Real.