The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 8: The Yoga of Action

The famous doctrine of karma yoga is the theme of the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. This is one of the most difficult sections in the whole text and a very important one which provides the key to an understanding of the basic principles of the whole message. It was stated earlier that action should be grounded in understanding. This was the point made out in the Second Chapter. Now, what does it mean? How is it possible to root activity in understanding? This is expounded in the Third Chapter. There are certain misconceptions prevalent in the minds of people in regard to activity. For instance, oftentimes we feel that we are fed up with activity. We can withdraw ourselves from action as such, and remain inactive and do nothing. There are occasions in life when people feel like doing nothing. And the Bhagavadgita’s answer is that this is an impossibility. There is no such thing as doing nothing, because of a very important reason, viz., the activity of the universe. The universe is ever active, and it can never be inactive. A person, any individual, anything for the matter of that, which is a part of the universe, has no freedom to maintain an independence over the prescriptions of cosmic laws. The way in which any individual has to conduct himself, the manner in which anything has to behave in this world, is decided by the law that operates in the universe as a whole. And for you to say or for me to say that I shall do this, or, I shall not do that, would be a misplacement of the understanding. The universe is not separable from the individual, and vice versa. Inasmuch as there is nothing inactive in the universe and no individual can be inactive, there is no chance of any person maintaining a silence in regard to activity. The idea of inaction arises on account of a misunderstanding of the nature of action. We feel that, if our hands and feet do not move, or if we do not speak a word, we are inactive. But action does not necessarily mean the movement of the physical limbs. It is a vibration that we set up in ourselves and in our atmosphere by the process in which the constituents of our individuality conduct themselves. Every cell of the body is active, and our mind is never inactive. To think is to act. And to be really inactive would be to cease to think. And even in the so-called mental inactivity of deep sleep the mind is subtly active in a different manner. The psychology of sleep will reveal that the mind is not really inactive even in sleep. There is no occasion conceivable when we can be totally inactive. Right from the minutest atom up to the highest conceivable galaxy one cannot see anything sitting idle or being inactive. This is one of the aspects of the reply of Krishna to Arjuna’s decision not to act. There is no such thing as ‘no action’; your action is inseparable from your being. Every finite entity is active on account of the very finitude of itself. Action is the necessary consequence of the finitude of entities.

One would wonder why should everything be active. Why is it that the whole universe is evolving and moving towards something? What is the matter? The matter is simple. The finite struggles to overcome its limitations, because the essential nature of the finite is not finitude. We are not finite entities, really speaking, and the consciousness of finitude is attempted to be overcome by the activity so-called, involving what we know as evolution. No action can be isolated from finitude. The vibration set up by every finite individual or entity is the action thereof. We are made up of various layers of personality and every layer is vibrating with a tendency to overcome the limitations of finitude, with an urge to move onward, forward, for the realisation of a wider finitude, a more comprehensive one, with the final intention of a total abolition of all finitude by an establishment in the Infinite. Until we are established in infinitude, we shall be active and, therefore, there is nothing in all the universe that can be regarded as really inactive. Inaction is a misnomer, and the absence of initiative in action in a physical form cannot be regarded as inaction. To be thinking actively and to be inactive physically is condemned vehemently in the very beginning of the Third Chapter. It is not only a hypocritical attitude on the part of the individual but a false approach to realities in general. That would be the opinion of the Teacher of the Bhagavadgita in regard to people who are physically inactive but mentally active. Mental action is real action. Our bondage or our freedom is in the way in which our mind works, and not in the manner of the movement of the physical body, merely. So, the substance of this essential point about action is that everyone is active, and everyone has to be active, on account of the very structure of the universe.

But, then, if we are compelled by the law of the universe and have to be acting in some manner or other, we appear to be helpless tools in the machinery of the cosmos. Are we such? Or have we some freedom? What is yoga? If bondage in the form of this compulsive activity cannot be escaped under any circumstance, what for is any endeavour? To this the answer is the principle of karma yoga. While karma or action binds and can bind, karma yoga which is transmuted action cannot bind and will not bind. The binding type of action is a whirling of the individual centre within its own cocoon towards the apparently conceived fulfilment of a personal objective or ulterior motive. But there is another kind of action which shall not bind. And that is designated in the Bhagavadgita as ‘yajna karma’, action performed as a sacrifice. In a mythological style, in the form of a beautiful image, Krishna says that the Creator produced the individuals in the early days of creation, with a message to everyone. The great God who created us seems to have spoken to us thus, at the time of creation, “Children, I have created you, but I have created you together with a duty.” To be born as an individual is also to be born with a duty inseparably. If we are to be free from duty, we have to be free from individuality itself. So, when we were born as individuals at the time of creation, in the origin of things, we have been sent by the Creator with a commission to perform a duty in the form of yajna, “Sahayajnah prajah srishtva purovacha prajapatih; anena prasavishyadhvam esha vo’stvishtakamadhuk”—a famous verse which sums up the principle of spiritual action. Individuals were created together with the principle of yajna, or sacrifice. The obligation to perform a duty is a call to sacrifice. And action performed as a sacrifice becomes a divine worship, and it shall not bind. Any action which is performed without the spirit of sacrifice involved in it but with the selfish intention of the fulfilment of an individual or personal motive shall bind and bring sorrow to the individual.

Now, what is this yajna, or sacrifice, with which we are born, and which is the message given to us by the Creator in the earlier days? What is yajna in whose spirit we are expected to perform action or do our duties? This is something very crucial for us to remember. The concept of Deity is brought forth as an important item in the understanding of the nature of sacrifice. The word ‘Deva’ is used in the following verse which speaks of co-operative action as the form of every type of sacrifice. The Deva is a superintending Deity. “May you be propitiating the gods (Devas) by means of your actions, activities or duties, and in return may the gods bestow upon you their blessings.” This is a mythical form given to an important scientific principle or a philosophical point involved in the performance of any action. The binding character of action consists in the neglect on the part of the performer of the action in regard to a principle that is inseparably involved in the performance thereof. We have noted on an earlier occasion that we are not the sole agents of action and that it is not true that everything is decided by us. The agent of an action is not one single individual, on account of which the fruits cannot be expected by us, solely. The important invisible factor which conditions actions of every kind is what is termed the Deity, or the ‘Deva’, in this context. There is a spiritual guiding element existing as an intermediary reality between the apparent individual agent of action and the fruit that is to accrue therefrom, the motive with which the action is performed and the ideal towards which activity is directed. Our actions are directed towards some end; this is the nature of every action. It is a means to an end. Now, this end is remotely placed away from the agent of action, and there is something in between, in the middle of the agent of action and the end aimed at through that action. That principle which is in between is the ‘Deva’, the Deity, the god, the spiritual conditioning factor, an ignorance of which is the cause of failure in the fulfilment of any purpose. To be ignorant of this principle is to be ignorant of the whole process of right action. The performance of worship, in religious parlance, to gods, deities, angels, or whatever we call them, implies an inward attunement of ourselves with a transcendent principle which lies between the subject and the object, ourselves and the end which we are aiming at. God Himself is descended, as it were, in one degree of reality in the context of our existence, in the level of reality in which we are, and to be ignorant of this fact is to be ignorant of the existence of God Himself. In one degree, in one form of intensity, God is present between us and that which we are aiming at through our performances. But we are ignorant of this secret. As we are involved in space and time, we are phenomenal individuals, our consciousness is not resting in itself, but is moving through the apertures of the senses externally towards the objects located in space and time, we are unable to be conscious of the presence of this spiritual element as a transcendent reality between us and the end of our actions.

We cannot see God with our eyes because of the fact that God is Absolute-Consciousness and ‘our’ consciousness is thrown out of ourselves with the force of desire which rushes with a tremendous velocity towards the object of desire. Desire is our bondage, action is not the bondage. Any desireful action is binding, desireless action is free. To be desireless, again, is not an easy thing, because even as every finite entity is inseparably involved in some kind of activity, it is also involved in some sort of desire. The desire of the finite is engendered by the incapacity of the finite to rest in finitude. We ask for freedom from finitude, that is our desire, and we have no other desire even when we ask for small things—it may be a cup of tea—what we are asking for is not that little drink but a freedom from the agony of finitude, the sorrow in which we are sunk by the limitations of our personality. That we cannot tolerate. We want to overcome the limitation by some means. So we run to shops, go on trekking, climb mountains, go to circus and cinema, and we do all sorts of things not for their own sake—to think so is a mistake in our minds—but for the sake of achieving an illusory freedom from finitude. It is illusory because we are here following a wrong course of action, and even this illusion of the little transcendence of finitude gives us a titillation of satisfaction. That is why we are running after the things of the world. We are fools of the first water. And so we are after the things of the world, and we obey the orders of the senses. But we cannot be conscious of what we are really intending at the base, at the root of our personality. We are not asking for the objects of the world. That is not our intention, that is not our desire. Our desire is infinitude, nothing short of that, but the senses cannot allow us to think in this manner, they are dupers of a very strong type, they are dacoits who pull us in erroneous directions. And the consciousness is caught up in this vehement activity of the dacoity of the senses. And that is the source of bondage, not action. Krishna enlightens the mind of Arjuna, “You are mistaken, my dear friend, in saying ‘I shall not act.” What does poor action do to you? It cannot harm you. It is an impersonal requisition of the law of the cosmos and in the obedience of yours in respect of it, you shall not be bound, you shall be rather liberated, because the activity of the cosmos is towards the liberation of the spirit. It is not intended for binding you, for the whole of creation moves towards Self-realisation, finally. We may call it the realisation of the Absolute; towards that end the universe is evolving and we are dragged on as when we are in a railway train which is moving. The whole cosmos is a vehicle rushing in a tremendous speed towards Universal Selfhood, the great Atman of the Cosmos, the God of Creation, the Absolute, Brahman. This being the case, it will be highly improper and unbecoming on the part of a person to think in terms of little finite desires, and to work for the fulfillment of those tinsels or petty ends forgetting the great purpose behind even our little desires and actions. Hence, perform action with this consciousness of its being a sacrifice of your individuality, gradually, by degrees towards the larger purpose of the consciousness of the Deity that is transcending both you as an agent and the end as the limited object outside. This synthesis between the subject and the object is the Deity.

There are degrees of Deity. That is why, sometimes it appears that we have many gods in religion. They are not many gods, for they are the many degrees of the same God in various levels of manifestation. The gods of religion are not really gods. They are various levels of the appearance of the One Supreme Godhead operating as a synthesising principle at different levels of synthesis between the subject and the object. When we practice yoga, in the sense of the requirement of the yoga of the Bhagavadgita, we are moving from a lower level of finitude to a higher level of it. The finitude gets diminished gradually as we ascend further on. But we cannot step over the present state of finitude and enter the higher dimension of it until we enter the Deity which is transcendent to our present state of finitude. That is the meaning of worship in the religions of the world. This is the adoration that we offer to God, and that is what we call the ‘Devata’, or the ‘Deity’, of worship. It is a higher consciousness of our own self. It is our own higher self calling us, it is not some other god sitting in the heavens and beckoning us. There is no outside god. The true God is inside us. And our own higher level is wanting us to rise up, to wake up, and enter into it. If we are conscious of this higher principle present in us, as a transcendent element containing within itself not only our present finitude but also the finitude of the objects we are wanting to acquire through our desires, we have overcome the limitations of the present opposition between the subject and the object. We have won a victory in the war of the Mahabharata, and there are eighteen days of the war, says the Epic. Maybe there are eighteen stages of the ascent, and it is difficult to imagine what stages they are, how many steps we have to climb to win the last battle.

So, at every step we confront one deity on the way. At every step we are performing a sacrifice, or yajna in the form of the surrender of our present finitude. “Arjuna! My dear friend! O humanity! Children of God! This is the principle of correct action, or right action, here is explained karma yoga in its essentiality, when you perform an action as a necessary condition of overcoming your present finitude in the interest of the realisation of a higher reality in the form of the ‘Deity’, the Deva, and it shall bless you.” Religions tell us that we should worship gods, and that the gods will bless us. This blessing is nothing but the union of our lower consciousness with the higher, transcendent one, which includes our present finitude as well as its finite environment. Here is the philosophical significance behind the doctrine of yajna propounded in a few verses of the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. This action, this yoga of the performance of duty takes off the edge of sorrow in one’s life, because, here one does action as a dedication rather than as a means to an ulterior end. Again, here, we are brought face to face with an understanding of the nature of the fruits of action. There is no such thing as fruit of action in the sense we conceive it. If action is selfishly performed the fruit thereof shall be a reaction, and every such reaction of action is unpleasant in the end, for every selfish action is an interference with the balance of things, the harmony that exists amongst the objects. And Nature as a whole tries to maintain its equilibrium; it cannot tolerate any kind of interference from its parts; it resents all interference, and the moment we touch it in the form of an action selfishly motivated, it expresses its resentment in the form of a reaction that recoils upon us as the karma-phala or the fruit of the action, which, is grief and rebirth. We suffer due to our own deeds.

But it is not necessary that all our deeds should bring only sorrow. We can also be happy and our deeds can be vehicles in which we can ride over the finitude of ourselves and rise above to the higher realm of the Deity which is situated beyond the ken of our sensory perception and which is a greater reality than the imagined reality of the state of our present finitude. The senses move towards the objects, and this movement of the senses is usually regarded by us as action or activity. We imagine that we do something. We have always a feeling that we are doing something and we have to do something because of an absence of right knowledge, Samkhya, the wisdom that should guide all activity. The senses move towards the objects outside not because of a real desire for the objects as such, but because of an inherent affinity existing between the senses and the objects. Outwardly it appears as if we are desiring the object, but inwardly the intention of Nature is different. Only, we are unconscious of this inward intention of the movement of the senses in space and time. There are the three gunas, or properties, of what is called Prakriti—sattva, rajas and tamas. These gunas are the building bricks of everything in the universe, whether in our own self or outside in the world. All these five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—all the physical objects in the world, and everything that we are in ourselves in the physical body, even our mind and the sense organs are constituted of sattva, rajas, and tamas. These properties which are the constituents of Nature as a whole, individually as well as externally, try to maintain a balance among themselves. This is the reason why the senses within which are the products of the three gunas try to commingle with the very same gunas present as objects outside. “The properties move among the properties (gunah guneshu vartante).” It is not we that touch an object, it is not the sense organs that crave for a thing outside; it is the gunas that are trying to commune with the gunas that are outside. It is one wave in the ocean dashing against another wave, as it were, in the very same ocean. In this ocean of forces known as sattva, rajas and tamas, the individuals are like waves, and every object is such a wave. One wave collides with another wave due to the affinity one has with another on account of the basic similarity of structure which is the ocean at the bottom. Our actions, our activities, our deities, whatever they are, are not really our actions, our duties, our performances. They are the performance of the Cosmic Powers, sattva, rajas and tamas. They are doing all things in an impersonal manner for a universal purpose. And we, unnecessarily, ask for a credit for this impersonal activity of someone else! We are a result of the commingling or the permutation and combination of sattva, rajas and tamas in some degree, and all the objects of the senses also are of a similar nature. Thus, the whole universe is working without any sense of individuality within itself. It is doubtful if the universe is aware that we exist at all as isolated pieces. But we are hard-boiled ‘persons’ demanding total independence of our individuality. This is perhaps the meaning of the Biblical story of the Fall of the angel from the Garden of Eden. It is the assertion of the individuality; Lucifer became Satan. The angel has become the individual with a flint-like egoism asserting independence from God and claiming equal rights with God Himself. This is the travesty of affairs in the history of the individual. One who knows this secret cannot be bound by action. But people have no awareness of the inner meaning of action. In the verses of the Third Chapter we have the basic principles of karma yoga stated; how we have to conduct ourselves in this world. We have to move in the world not as human beings at all; a true Yogi, in the sense of the Bhagavadgita at least, is not a human being, a spiritual seeker conceived in the light of the Bhagavadgita is a spark from the divine conflagration of God-Being, seeking union with its universal Selfhood, or absolute comprehensiveness and our conduct has to be in consonance with this great purpose of our existence here. Our existence in this world is teleologically conditioned by the purpose of the cosmos and we are here for the fulfillment of this great purpose, the divine design that is behind the entire panorama of Nature. I do not exist for myself and you do not exist for yourself. Nothing exists for itself. Everything exists for everything else. This consciousness of the fact that we exist for everyone and that everyone exists for everything else is perhaps the height of the consciousness of the democratic administration prevailing in the universe. When everything is for everything else, and nothing, is only for itself, where, then, comes the binding character of activity? The question does not arise. Neither is it possible for one to sit inactive, doing nothing, for the reasons already mentioned, nor can action bind one if one is truly awakened and has an insight into the meaning of existence.

Why are we worried, then, asked Arjuna. What sorrows us? Why does one commit sin? How are we anxious at every moment of time in spite of this great truth that is revealed by you, Krishna? What is the mystery of this sorrow? What is the secret of the grief of anyone, not withstanding this universal fact of all things? “Desire is the secret behind the sorrow of the individual.” We have no other enemies in the world; our desires are our enemies. We attract enemies from outside on account of the magnetic activity of our own desires inside. As a magnet pulls iron filings toward itself, a particular distracted form of the psyche attracts positive or negative reaction from outside. Our friends and foes are the inward conditioning of our own psychic fluctuations, they are not out side us. Unless, desire is subdued, sorrow cannot be averted. How can we overcome desire? This question is answered in a precise manner in two important verses.

The question has been raised as to what it is that obstructs our endeavours in the right direction in spite of our having grasped, to some extent, the structure of the cosmos, such that we are inseparably connected with the whole creation and any notion of agency in action individually is a misplacement of values. There is no such thing as an individual action inasmuch as the universe is an organic whole and there is a ‘total action’ taking place everywhere. The so-called individual efforts are part and parcel of the effort of the cosmos towards the realisation of its great purpose. Having understood all this, how is it that we seem to be prevented from moving in the right direction? What is this mystery? Krishna’s answer is that desire is the obstacle, anger is the obstacle, greed is the obstacle. This is another way of saying that the intensity of the ego-sense is the obstacle, because desire, anger, greed, etc. are various modus operandi of the ego of the individual. How could we get over this problem, if this is the case? If the ego is so hard, if it is bent upon having its own way, and desires are so insatiable, and anger is unavoidable, greed is a part of our nature, what is going to be our fate? This is another question that follows from the earlier one. Again, the great answer comes from the Master.

It is difficult to control the senses by ordinary means. Any effort at the subdual of the sense-organs by force of will, will not be successful, ultimately. Like restive horses which are unwilling to pull the vehicle, like violent bulls which cannot be horned with ease, like ferocious beasts which we cannot approach with impunity, are the senses impetuous, wild in their behaviour, incorrigible in their character. And if we apply force, they may appear to be controlled for the time being, but suppression or repression of desire is not control of desire. The so-called repression will have a reaction in an undesirable manner. The unfulfilled desires will wreak vengeance one day and catch us by the throat and demand their dues in a more vehement manner than they would have done under ordinary circumstances. What is the way? The sublimation of desires by the art of yoga; not the repression or pushing down the impulses into the sub-conscious—that is not the way of yoga.

Higher than the senses is the mind. Higher than the mind is the intellect. Higher than the intellect is the Atman, the pure Spirit within us. By a resort to the higher faculty the lower can be restrained. But a lower method cannot be applied to the lower impulses when they are working parallelly. A little bit of psychological satisfaction born of understanding is necessary in order that the impetuosity of the senses can be mellowed down. The senses are vehement on account of the fact that their movement towards the object outside in space and time is due to a reason quite different from the one which they have in their minds. Mainly, it appears that our problem is lack of sufficient understanding. We rush towards the objects of the senses with a wrong intention, a wrong view about the objects. It has been observed earlier that the properties of Prakriti are pulled towards the properties of Prakriti. It is a kind of balance that the properties of Prakriti are trying to maintain among themselves, in which process the movement of the properties within the individual towards the presence of the very same properties in the object appears to be a desireful action on the part of the individual. An understanding of this truth has not been driven properly into the perceptive and cogitative faculties of the individual. Hence a deepening of the understanding, the samkhya, that we have referred to, is necessary. Meditation is this effort of ourselves to resort to our higher levels in order that the lower may be absorbed into the higher, which process is called sublimation. The senses are, in a way, the functions of the mind itself, which forcefully ejects its tentacles through the apertures of the sense organs as a heavily filled pot with the holes at the bottom may permit the flow of the liquid inside it with a force equal to the volume of its content. The mind is tremendously energetic. And the energy of the mind cannot be bottled up. It has to express itself either by way of sublimation in the process of its ascent to the larger dimensions of its being or it has to exhaust itself by moving horizontally towards objects outside. But it cannot rest quiet without doing anything. The movement of this energy towards external objects is not the proper utilisation of this force. We become weaker by sense activities by way of contact with objects, by indulgence in enjoyment. But we become strengthened by the sublimation of the force; and the higher we go the stronger do we become. The instruction of the Teacher is that the senses have to be sublimated in the mind, the mind has to be drawn back to the intellect or the reason and the reason is to be rooted in the Atman, finally. The rootedness of ourselves in the Atman which is the Spirit of the Cosmos, is the ultimate panacea for this malady of sense-activity, desire, anger, and the like. We come to this conclusion that we have to take refuge in the ultimate Reality of things. The Spirit of the Cosmos, which is also the Spirit within us, known as the Atman, is the remedy for the ills of the senses, the mind and the intellect. The Third Chapter concludes with this message to us. But we are still highly dissatisfied. We are not consoled adequately. All this is a terrible process, indeed. We felt that it is not easy for us to feel our unitedness with the cosmos outside, the internal relationship that we bear to things externally. Now we are told something more difficult, still.