The Bhagavadgita in a Nutshell
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on November 3rd, 1973.)

Salutations, humble prostrations to the Supreme Almighty God, Bhagavan Sri Lakshmi Narayana! May we, on this auspicious occasion, invoke the grace of Bhagavan Sriman Narayana that his all-compassionate eyes may look upon all of mankind with a benignant, gracious compassion. May this be a sacred opportunity for all of us to contemplate and pray to his all-pervading form as the Viratsvarupa in this visible shape of creation. May we be endowed with that understanding and power of wisdom to recognise his presence in all this manifestation as this world, this cosmos, this universe.

May we not be tempted into the false belief that this world is an object of enjoyment for the senses. May we not be led astray into the erroneous notion that this world is our property, that it belongs to us, that this is a field of physical enjoyment and personal aggrandisement in any manner whatsoever. May we be blessed with that knowledge with which we can look upon this vast world as the field of dharma, the field of work and duty and training for the chastening of our spirits for the realisation of God ultimately. May we pray to Bhagavan Sriman Narayana that he dispel the ignorance of our hearts due to which mankind is likely to mistake God for the world and the world for God in an erroneous superimposition of values. May we look upon this world as the body of God, and may we recognise all our activities as worship of God.

I am reminded here of two important, pertinent, pointed teachings of Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita – how we can live a happy life of knowledge and understanding in this world. The Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is precisely a gospel to mankind in its aspect of work, duty and effort in every one of its forms.

Arjuna’s question in the very beginning of the Third Chapter of the Gita was, “Why do you confuse me, Lord? You say understanding is all right, and then you say work is all right. If understanding is all that is necessary, why should there be work, and if you want me merely to work, why do you place stress upon understanding?” In one place, in one chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Bhagavan cursorily made a statement that action is inferior to the motive behind it, and motive, or understanding of the nature of action, is superior to action. Dūreṇa hy avaraṃ karma buddhiyogād dhanañjaya, buddhau śaraṇam anviccha kṛpaṇāḥ phalahetavaḥ (Gita 2.49): “Resort to understanding. Action is inferior to understanding.”

Jyāyasī cet karmaṇas te matā buddhir janārdana, tat kiṃ karmaṇi ghore māṃ niyojayasi keśava (Gita 3.1): “If understanding is superior, well, I will understand and keep quiet. Why do you want me to work? And if work is all that is essential, why comes understanding?” This quandary, this doubt which was in the mind of Arjuna, is in the mind of every one of us. This is the great war between knowledge and action, jnana and karma, as it is usually put. Everywhere this war goes on, and even now it is not ending. Some say jnana is supreme, some say karma is supreme, some say knowledge is needed for moksha, others say action is also necessary, and some say neither of them is sufficient and both have to be combined. There are so many confusions.

The answer Bhagavan Sri Krishna gives to this question of Arjuna is an answer to all of mankind – to me, to you, to everyone, at all times, for all purposes, under every circumstance. What is our duty? How are we to look upon creation and God in their relation to our individual existence and performance?

The answer of Bhagavan Sri Krishna to this question is that motive behind the action is very important. As motive determines the worth, value and consequence of an action, the intention behind a deed is very important, and the deed itself is not all. But that is not the whole truth about the matter. We cannot simply have an intention and be rid of all activity. The difficulty with us is that inaction is impossible for the embodied being. Our body, our personality, our individuality is made up of a network of impulsions to action. That is why some philosophers in the West say that the whole world is a process of becoming, while they call God as ‘being’. We call God the Supreme Being. We do not call Him the supreme becoming. But the world is the opposite of it because it is a process of becoming. Our body, our personality, whatever we are as individuals, is a part of the cosmic process of prakriti: guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate (Gita 3.28). We do not get attached to anything in this world if we understand one simple truth of the structure of this world of which we are a part. When we know the world, we know ourselves also because we are only a thread in the fabric of the structure of the world. So if we understand the world, we will understand ourselves and our relation to it automatically. This understanding is implied in this half sentence, half verse, guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate.

While our duties in this world are intimately connected with the nature of our own individuality, we have also to remember that we are inwardly and outwardly connected with the world of processes. The word ‘process’ is a Western term, but in India, in our Sanskritised terminology it is called the work of the gunas of prakritisattva, rajas, tamas. The whole world is a permutation and combination of the three gunas of prakriti of which the world is constituted, and these three work incessantly. The processes of creation, preservation and destruction of the world go on continuously. It is not that Brahma created the world once upon a time and now he is keeping quiet, and now only Vishnu is working and sustaining it, and Rudra will come afterwards to destroy it. These three processes of creation, preservation and destruction are constant, eternal processes. Every minute there is creation, every minute there is sustenance, every minute there is destruction. The whole world is in a restless movement towards self-preservation, towards God-realisation, and we are caught up in this process of the world.

So from this point of view of the restlessness of the cosmos taken in its totality, we are also restless because we are part of the world. This is why Bhagavan Sri Krishna says, “Arjuna, you cannot keep quiet. The whole world cannot keep quiet. The whole universe is active, and you are a part of the world which is so active. How can you keep quiet?”

Now, we cannot keep quiet; that is one side of the matter. But we cannot foolishly be active; that is another side of the matter. Mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgostv akarmaṇi (Gita 2.47): Do not be attached to the fruits of action, and also, at the same time, do not be inactive. Sri Krishna is catching us from both sides. We cannot keep quiet, and yet we cannot do whatever we like. A disciplined form of activity, action, is our duty. This Third Chapter is wonderful. The more we think about it, the more wonderful it appears to be. Everything is done by prakriti.

Prakṛtiṃ yānti bhūtāni nigrahaḥ kiṃ kariṣyati (Gita 3.33). “Ah, is it so?” Arjuna is a very shrewd man. He wants to catch Krishna at every point. “If everything is done by prakriti, whatever I do, even if I go and hit somebody’s head, it is prakriti’s action only. I can abuse somebody, I can do a sinful action because you say everything is done by prakriti, and who can restrain prakriti? If prakriti does everything, then even simple actions are prakriti’s only, and I may do anything. Is it so?”

“No.” Now, here is a very subtle distinction drawn by Bhagavan Sri Krishna between the causes of sin and the nature of prakriti. Prakriti does not make us commit sin. This is a very subtle point. The Bhagavadgita is very difficult to understand, and not everybody can know its implications. It is very hard, perhaps the hardest of gospels that we have in the world. If everything is done by prakritiguṇā guṇeṣu vartante – then we have no agency in any action. “I have no agency even in murder,” Arjuna may say. “I can tell lies, and it is prakriti telling lies.”

No. There is a mixture of two elements in every action. That mix-up is not clear to Arjuna’s mind, and it is not clear to any one of us. Therefore, we sometimes put a question: “If murder is done, prakriti or God is doing it.” There are some people who say that, but it is not so. The action of prakriti, or the action of God, as we may call it, is different in its structure and pattern and meaning from the individually driven motivated action of an individual. This is the difference between individual psychology and the cosmological significance of prakriti. Cosmology and psychology are two different subjects, and they should not be mixed up with one another. Prakriti’s activities are cosmological, whereas the individual’s activities are psychological.

Kena prayuktoyaṃ pāpaṃ carati pūruṣaḥ (Gita 3.36): Arjuna put a question, “Who drives a man to sin?” Kāma eṣa krodha eṣa rajoguṇasamudbhavaḥ, mahāśano mahāpāpmā viddhy enam iha vairiṇam (Gita 3.37): Sri Krishna replied, “My dear friend Arjuna, the sin-incurring forces are not prakriti’s gunas, but what are called kama and krodha.” Mahāśano mahāpāpmā: Insatiable, fire-like forces are there in the individual. They are the causes of sin. While the activities of prakriti are impersonal, the psychological impulses of the individual are personal. Prakriti has no individualised desires of its own. While individuals desire personal satisfaction of the body, the senses and the mind, prakriti has no such desires. Prakriti has no friends and enemies, whereas you and I, individuals, have friends and enemies. We like something and dislike something, but prakriti does not have likes and dislikes. Cosmic prakriti cannot have likes and dislikes because when what is liked and what is not liked are both within prakriti, how can it have likes and dislikes? And when prakriti has no like and dislike, how can it have a motive?

It is very difficult to misconstrue even great gospels. Ramakrishna Parmahamsa used to quote on occasion that the Atman is indestructible and nobody can kill it: ajo nityaḥ śāśvatoyaṃ purāṇo, na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre (Gita 2.20). Somebody heard it in a lecture, and he started fishing in the river, killing all the fish. Then someone came and asked, “Hey, you are killing fish?” Ajo nityaḥ śāśvatoyaṃ purāṇo, he said. “It does not die. It is said in the Gita that it does not die. I heard this from the Guru.” Then Ramakrishna said, “This stupid fellow! This is how he understands the Gita.”

In the Yoga Vasishtha, Vasishtha mentions to Rama: ārdhaprabuddhasya sarvaṁ brahmeti yo vadet, mahānarakajāleṣu sa tena viniyojitaḥ: If you even talk of the immortality of the soul and the absoluteness of God to a half-baked mind, both you and that man will go to hell – the teacher and the student both. So do not tell truths which cannot be grasped, and this is precisely the warning given by Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavadgita. Na buddhibhedaṃ janayed ajñānāṃ karmasaṃginām (Gita 3.26): Do not disturb the minds of people by telling great truths. It may be a great truth, but you have spoiled the man by your truth. It is like allowing a man to catch fish by saying the Atman is immortal, or you go and hit somebody’s head and say there is no reaction at all. That is, he mistakes cosmical implications of action for personal implications of desire, comfort, etc. As the two are always together, it is very difficult to distinguish between them. Wisdom or knowledge is the tendency to the realisation of impersonality, whereas ignorance, avidya, is the opposite of it, the tendency to personality, desire, attachment, etc.

God and prakriti are inseparables. Prakriti is the face of God, the multitudinous spread-out fingers of God operating everywhere. And in our humble endeavour to be karma yogins, we have to be instruments in the hands of prakriti or Isvara, and not instruments in the hands of kama, krodha, lobha. If our actions are driven or impelled by kama, krodha, lobha, they cannot be called prakriti’s actions or Isvara’s actions because in Isvara, in prakriti, no kama, no krodha, no lobha can be there. Jiva-srishti is distinguished from Isvara-srishti. Read the Panchadasi.

A Guru is essential. These great scriptures have to be learned under a Guru. You cannot simply purchase an edition from Gita Press and then say you have understood the Gita. It is very difficult, and even Arjuna could not understand it. Krishno janati vai samyak kinchit partho dhananjayah: Krishna alone knows the meaning of the Gita. Arjuna knows a little of it. And what about us?

This is why Guru upadesha is essential. It is very easy to misconstrue and misunderstand even great truths, and to wrongly apply them for our personal prejudices. The world before us is the body of God, but it is the body of God as the impersonal, cosmical prakriti. The individual impulses are to be very carefully distinguished from the cosmic urges of prakriti.

So we are expected to be karma yogins in the sense that we are parts of the universal prakriti and integral parts of Isvara himself, but we cannot be karma yogins if this movement process urged by the cosmic prakriti is mixed up with individual predilections of kama, krodha, lobha, etc. By a careful thought bestowed upon our own conscience, we can know whether we are working for the satisfaction of the impulses within or as a duty-bound soul. Duty is different from desire. Duty is an ought, a must, an imperative, a categorical imperative. The philosopher Immanuel Kant even went to the extent of saying that if a work brings us satisfaction, it is not real karma yoga; it is not a liberating action. This is a little extreme of course, but he said it with a purpose. Though he was partially right, it is not wholly true. When we do karma yoga we have another kind of satisfaction within us. It may not be an impulse-ridden satisfaction of the senses, but it is a satisfaction which is super-normal, super-physical, engulfing us from all sides with a broader perspective. It cannot be explained, and only one who experiences it will know what it is.

While there is pleasure out of the fulfilment of a personal desire, there is a divine bliss out of performance of a duty. When we perform a duty we feel a satisfaction, but it is not sensory satisfaction and cannot be explained in language. It is bliss, ananda. Ananda is different from kama vasana and prayers.

This is in some way a sequel to the subject of how The Divine Life Society founded by Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has endeavoured, struggled hard to maintain this spirit of the teaching of the gospels and of the mahatmas, the incarnations, saints and sages, and how in order to be even the last of the disciples of Gurudev, we have to endeavour to be as much impersonal in our attitude of conduct as possible. The most impersonal personality was Sri Gurudev. He had no personality. People used to tell me, “When you see Swamiji, you cannot know whether he is a man or a woman.” That idea of gender does not come. When we see a man, we immediately know that he is a male, and when we see a woman, the idea of female comes. But when we saw Swami Sivananda, we could not think he is a man. We never had the idea of ‘man’. Something was coming. In Tamil, they use the pronoun ‘it’: “That has come. It is sitting there.” We cannot say, “He is sitting there,” because he is not a man, and we also cannot say ‘she’. So we say ‘it’. God is It, That. We do not use the words ‘he, she’, and so on for God, and even saints are referred to as ‘it’ only. I like that term very much.

Impersonality is the character of God, impersonality is the character of prakriti, impersonality is the character of the whole creation, and impersonality should be the character and attitude of ours also. To the extent we are successful in the development and manifestation of this impersonality of character in even the humblest of proportions, to that extent we are disciples of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, to that extent we are devotees of God, and to that extent only will we succeed in our spiritual pursuits. This is the Bhagavadgita in a nutshell.

With these few words I invoke the blessings of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, the grace of the Almighty Bhagavan Sriman Lakshmi Narayana for the prosperity of all mankind, for the success in the undertakings of all seekers of truth everywhere, for their health and long life, so that they be fitting instruments in the invisible hands of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, fitting receptacles for the grace of Bhagavan Narayana. “God bless you all” is my prayer.