The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 18: The Yoga of the Liberation of Spirit

The concluding chapter of the Bhagavadgita, which is the Eighteenth, is a sort of sequel to the whole of the message which has been delivered in the earlier sections. By way of a summing up of the teaching, the essentials are precisely stated in a classified manner. After everything has been said, it appears that point which the Gita is driving home into our minds is that we should not shirk duty. This seems to be the ringing tone of its message. And in the context of the description of the nature of duty, several other philosophical and ethical aspects also are touched upon incidentally.

The outlook of the Gita is wholly realistic. And inasmuch as the realism of life is rooted in a grand idealism of aspiration, the gospel becomes most comprehensive in its approach. When we touch one point, we begin to realise that it is connected with another, and the second one with the third, and so on, until the revelation comes that nothing can be explained unless everything is explained. Such is the organic structure of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita.

The Eighteenth Chapter starts by recounting the principle of action, Karma Yoga, which is many a time regarded as the establishment in a kind of knowledge free from action, and at other times as the performance of action free from clinging to the fruits thereof. Two significant terms are used at the very outset: samnyasa and tyaga. Though etymologically the two words mean almost one and the same thing, they are used here with a special meaning attached to each one of them. When all desireful actions are abandoned and we perform only actions free from desire, we are supposed to be in the state of samnyasa, a relinquishment of everything that is associated with personal motive or desire. But tyaga, which is also abandonment, is defined as the giving up of the desire for the fruit of the action and not the giving up of action itself. There is, thus, a difference between the giving up or relinquishment of action and the giving up of the consequence of the action. These are not easy things to understand, though it would appear that we have studied a lot on the subject throughout the course of the teaching.

It would be hard for us to make out what action is, situated as we are in a human complex working through the medium of social relationships and entertaining an outlook which is secretly motivated by some form of desire. We cannot imagine a state of affairs where we can be entirely free from all desires, whatever be the gospel, whatever be the teaching. This is a great handicap before us. And so it requires a Herculean effort on our part to rise to that level of understanding where it would be possible for us to live without motivated outlooks or desires which are directed to particular ends. It is not possible for anyone to live without doing some kind of action. This is one of the great points made out in the Bhagavadgita. It is futile on the part of anyone, whatever be his knowledge or wisdom, to imagine that he can be without any activity, because the world is nothing but action; it is a field of movement, enterprise and effort. It is Kurukshetra, an arena of activity; but it is also  Dharmakshetra, a field of action regulated by law, and not merely of some chaotic activity. Here is the problem before us: neither can we be free from action, nor can we perform action with any motive behind it. If this could enter our heads in its true significance, we would have understood the message of the Gita. As this is a difficult point to grasp, it is further explained in some detail for the purpose of the elucidation of its meaning.

There are certain actions which are unavoidable. Among the many types of action, three specific ones are pinpointed as inviolable and impossible of avoiding under any circumstance. These three types are designated as yajna, dana and tapas, terms which have a wealth of meaning behind them. Literally translated, yajna would mean sacrifice, dana would mean charity, and tapas would mean austerity. These are not injunctions of a religious type that are imposed upon us by the Gita. This is not a ritual that we are expected to perform by way of yajna, dana, or tapas. These are tremendously significant cosmic requirements on the part of every individual, whatever be his vocation. There is a universal meaning behind these great mandates.

In our relationship to the Supreme Being, God, the Absolute, we have to be perpetually performing a sacrifice on our part by ascending degrees of perfection and in increasing dimensions. God-Being is the greatest of sacrifices in the sense that it is the state of the abolition of all individuality and egoism. The state of God is the apotheosis of sacrifice. Often, in Indian scriptures, God is referred to as yajna, or sacrifice. ‘Yajno vai Vishnuh’: ‘Narayana is yajna’, or sacrifice himself. By this what is intended is that even the least of individuality is wiped out in that conflagration of universal knowledge or realisation.

To approach God would be to perform a sacrifice on the part of oneself, because the highest state of egolessness is God-Being. And to approximate this Great Being would be to sacrifice or surrender the ego, little by little, by degrees, which is the sacrifice that is intended. To surrender and sacrifice our own self is the principle of true abandonment or relinquishment—samnyasa or tyaga. From the point of view of our aspirations for God, our duty would be sacrifice, surrender, relinquishment of personality and egoism, the principle of the ‘I am’ in us. We are bound to perform a duty in our relationship to God, and our duty towards God is sacrifice.

Likewise, we have a duty towards the world, and that is charitableness, dana. We cannot be possessors, accumulators or hoarders of any kind of property when we live in a world of cooperative action and mutual respect. Respect for others’ welfare and recognition of the value of another’s existence is the principle of charity, which does not merely mean parting with some material goods that we may possess, but an inward attitude of respect for others, inasmuch as the Self is present in others to the same extent as it is present in us. The feeling of love and affection, and a spontaneous sense of giving rather than taking is the essence of dana, or charity. We perform charity not because we are rich and others are poor. The reason is different,  viz., that the others are equally important and they have as much right to exist as we ourselves have. The principle of the recognition of the Selfhood of all beings is behind the performance of charity or the extension of good will with regard to others. This is our duty towards the world of beings, even as we have a duty towards God, the Supreme Creator.

We have also a duty to our own self, in a similar manner. Self-control is one’s own duty in respect of oneself. Austerity, tapas, is our duty from our own point of view, the opposite of the indulgence of the senses. The pampering of the ego, the mind and the senses is deleterious to the health of the personality. The more are we self-controlled, the more are we able to restrain our senses, the mind and the intellect, the larger do we become in the content of our being. Tapas is a great duty of everyone in respect of oneself. Indulgence is the violation of this duty. The more we restrain ourselves from indulgence or satisfaction of any kind, the richer we become in righteousness and virtue. The more we begin to satisfy the ego and indulge in the demands of the senses, the farther we are from righteousness. So, austerity, self-control, restraint of the senses, mind and the intellect, is our duty in regard to our own self. Charity is our duty in regard to the world outside. Sacrifice is our duty towards God. These three duties are incapable of abandonment under any circumstance.

Now, when we speak of duty, naturally we are reminded of activity of some kind. Duty is ‘to do’ something, in some way, in respect of something; and doing is action. The moment we think of action, we think of the actor or the agent, the performer of the action. Under ordinary circumstances, it is difficult to free ourselves from the idea of agency in an action. ‘I do’ is the inherent notion behind every individual, whether one performs a sacrifice, does a charity or is engaged in austerity. Whatever be the thing that we do, we cannot avoid the feeling that we are doing it. “I sacrifice, I do charity, and I perform austerities.” This is a mistake, again, and we are warned against this blunder.

We are not the doers of anything, because the so-called ‘I’ or ‘we’ is an illusion, finally; it does not exist at all, on account of the ultimate Reality which reigns above all things, eternally transcending and including all particular agents. Every event is the cumulative effect of the collaboration of many factors, and it is not caused by any particular individual.

Why go so far? Look at this little phenomenon of digesting the food that we take every day. Look at the cooperation of the limbs and organs of the body, the various physiological functions involved in the digesting of the meal that we eat. Any good physiologist will know how the whole body functions in a systematic manner. Every cell is active. There is no part of the organism which is inactive while there is the process going on of the digesting of the food. We cannot say that the food is digested by the stomach only. The heart and lungs, the bloodstream, even the brain and the other organs that go to constitute this body have an important role to play in this performance of the common action known as the digestion of food. Every action is a total action and a cooperative action. There is no such thing as individual action even in this body of ours. This is only to give an example of how things work anywhere in this world.

Even as there is no such thing as isolated action in the physical organism, there is no such thing as isolated action in human society, in the international field, in the whole cosmos. Every event is a universal event, every situation is a cosmic situation. If anything happens anywhere, it happens everywhere, at the same time. We are not accustomed to think in this manner. We are poor weaklings in intellect as far as the truths of life are concerned. The prejudice of the ego has caught hold of us to such an extent that it prevents us from opening our eyes to the facts of life. The Bhagavadgita, in an important verse, says that many factors contribute to the causation of a particular event or the performance of any single action. The body, of course, is one of the instruments of action. The sense of individuality, or the principle of the ‘I’ is also a contributory factor. The sense organs also contribute enough in the performance of an action. The intention behind any kind of enterprise is also an important contributory factor. We know very well how significant these aspects are. But, above all things, there is the final deciding factor, and that is the nature of creation itself, the structure of the cosmos, the Will of the Creator, the Plan of the Absolute, the Providence, as we may call it, which no human being can understand, and no one is given to understand. Such being the case, how blunderous would it be on the part of anyone to imagine that he is the sole doer of anything?

Krishna goes further in delineating these points a little more for a clarified understanding. There are varieties of knowledge, varieties of the application of the will, varieties in the function of the emotion, and varieties of methods of the performance of action. When we speak of knowledge, we are not always clear in our minds, usually, because knowledge, to mention the least, is at least of three kinds. The highest knowledge, the mediocre, and the lowest type, are distinguished. When one is able to recognise the presence of a single, uniform, common denominator behind every event and every form, or object, one is supposed to be endowed with the highest kind of knowledge. The recognition of a common principle in the midst of the varieties of sense perception is the supreme form of knowledge. Though many things are seen by the senses, the internal faculty of wisdom would tell us that there is, behind these varieties, a uniform principle of reality. Ultimately, there is only one thing appearing as many things. When we are convinced of the fact that we are able to view things in this light, we are blessed with the loftiest form of wisdom.

But when we are only academic persons, rationalists, working merely through the logical intellect, accepting that there is variety, while, at the same time, conceding that there is a relationship among things, so that there is a kind of relativity of all objects, one hanging on the other, we are in a state lower than the one already mentioned. In spite of the fact that we are recognising the interrelationship of things, we are also accepting the varieties at the same time as valid in their own forms. This is the so-called philosophic, rational, academic, or scientific understanding of these days, good enough for all practical purposes, but not ultimately valid.

But the lowest kind of knowledge is that whereby one clings to a particular object only, as if it is everything. We cling to money, we cling to status, we cling to name and fame and power of various types, attach ourselves vehemently to some point which we identify with the entirety of the values of life. A passionate clinging to any particular thing is the lowest type of understanding. And most people in the world are of this type; very few can have that lofty elevation by which they can grasp the interrelatedness of things in a cosmical sense, what to speak of the highest knowledge. People in the world are in the lowest category of understanding, because everyone clings to something only, and not to all things. Thus, here, we have a categorisation of the three types of appreciation, or knowledge.

So is the case with will, or volition. When our will power is able to decide upon the supreme value of life and maintain this consciousness continuously, in a state of self-restraint through Yoga, we are endowed with the most powerful form of will, the sattvika form of volition. Moksha is the goal of life, and everything is contributory towards this supreme attainment. If the will can rest on this conclusion perpetually, we may be said to be possessed of the highest form of will power. We should be able to connect every little thing in the world with that ultimate purpose of the liberation of the soul. But if our will is muddled, is mixing up values, and we are unable to come to a decision as to what is the ultimate principle that guides life, go on quibbling about dharma, not knowing what it is, do not know what is the final purpose of things, shift our points of decision from one to the other at different moments of time—that indecisive will is rajasika or distracted. The lowest kind of will is that which clings to wrong ways, lives in unrighteousness, is engaged in vicious activities, considering them as noble, worthwhile and meaningful.

Likewise is emotion. The feeling of pleasure or satisfaction which impels all emotions is also of three kinds. The highest kind of the satisfaction of emotion is that which is permanent and abiding in the end, though requiring some painful effort in the beginning. Generally we seek pleasure at the very outset. We do not want to work hard because work is pain; we hate effort of every kind. “Why should I do anything?” Because, to do anything is unpleasant to the ego. But we do not understand that all worthwhile things in life are preceded by some exertion. That which is painful in the beginning but pleasant in the end, perpetually—that satisfaction or pleasure is sattvika. But that which is pleasant in the beginning due to sense contacts and bitter in the end is rajasika, and we would repent for having sought this kind of satisfaction. We jump into an immediate delight of the senses by contact with objects, but, then, reap sorrow as a consequence. This is not wisdom. The lowest kind of happiness is that which revels in the crudest indulgence of the senses, bereft of understanding and reason, making one wallow like an animal in rubbish, totally ignorant of the values of life, and drowned in tamas, or inertia.

In regard to action, enough has already been said. That which is engendered with unselfishness and an impersonality of attitude is sattvika. That which is motivated by desire is rajasika. That which is done without any sense of proportion, and is bereft of the consideration of the  pros and  cons is tamasika. These are the broad outlines which the Teacher of the Bhagavadgita draws in the Eighteenth Chapter for the purpose of clarifying certain concepts and teachings which were delivered earlier in the foregoing chapters.

The Bhagavadgita is not merely a metaphysical gospel. It is not just a philosophical discourse in the sense of an idealism lifted above the values of life. It has something to say about social existence and the values which are empirical and realistic. In a very few words, the nature of cooperative social living is mentioned. With reference to what has been already said by way of the description of knowledge, will, emotion and action, we may say that our endowments are practically these four.

Our social life is an outward expression, by way of mutual cooperation, of these faculties with which we live in this world. No one is endowed with all knowledge. No one has all power. No one is clarified entirely in emotion. No one knows the secret of all action. Hence, there is a necessity to share what one has with others. In order that society may be a perfectly organised living body, even as there is a cooperative activity among the limbs of our own physiological system, it is necessary to apply this principle of cooperation to human society also, if it is to exist, and if it is to be in peace. Else, there would be dissension among the members forming society and mutual self-regard would be absent, which may culminate even in battle and war, a scene which threatens people at a time when the welfare of another is completely blotted out from one’s vision, and each one is for oneself and the devil takes the hindmost. If this is to be the fate or the policy of life, what would happen to human society? If each one dislikes the other, and everyone likes one’s own self, there would be chaos and an impending destruction of life. But this should not be on the very face of things.

In the light of the purpose of the universe, which is a gradual evolution into the realisation of the freedom of the Spirit, from this point of view at least, all stages of evolution are a rise from an organic completeness of one type to another of a larger dimension and comprehension. War, battle, destruction, annihilation is not the purpose of Nature. Growth, evolution, constructive activity, and purposeful movement towards the ultimate realisation is the aim of the universe. Hence, we have to share knowledge, feeling, emotion and work among ourselves.

These categorisations of social groups into classes are sometimes called castes in a wrongly intentioned manner. We have heard of the caste system, which is cowed down by people as a curse upon humanity. Yes, anything can become a curse and a blot, a shame, if it is distorted and misconstrued and read in the wrong place. Even if we eat our meal at a wrong time, it can be a curse to the body, and anything can be evil if its meaning is not understood and is misconstrued, abused, or exploited in any manner. The classification of society into the groups of knowledge, etc., is for the constructive, cooperative, wholesome existence of society. These are, in traditional terms, the classes of Brahmana,  Kshatriya,  Vaisya and  Sudra, whose purposes have been lost sight of these days, while the real intention here is super-individualistic and is meant for social welfare in the light of the true nature of things. They represent the blend of spiritual power, political power, economic power, and manpower necessary for social solidarity and a wholesome existence.

The Great Teacher is winding up his message when he says that everything is controlled by God, personally as well as impersonally. The whole universe revolves round Him, and there cannot be anything which is outside the purview of His knowledge. Our duty, therefore, is to surrender our individuality to That All-Being we call the Almighty. Our blessedness lies here. The more do we assert ourselves, so much is the worse for us, and the more we are in a position to affirm the existence of the Almighty as the all-comprehensive Being, the less would we be there as significant entities.

“Drown your mind in this thought, devote yourself to the fulfilment of this ideal, perform every action for the purpose of receiving this Divine Grace from God. Surrender yourself, and prostrate yourself before this Great Creator. You shall reach Him, the Supreme Being; there is no doubt about this. Whatever you think deeply in your mind, that you shall become; whatever you feel in your heart, that is going to be your destination and goal; whatever you shall ask, that you shall be given.”

In this blazing fire of knowledge, all sins are burnt out at once, and there would be no such thing as sin, ultimately. Sin is an error of understanding; it is not a thing that exists outside us like a terrifying devil. It is as darkness—it is not there substantially, it is just the absence of light. And, so, when the Sun of knowledge rises, this darkness shall automatically vanish; you need not worry about it. When the self surrenders itself wholly to the Omnipresence of God-Being, there cannot be a trace of evil or sin any more; there shall be the glow of enlightenment. It will be the possession of all existence at once, instantaneously, the possession of knowledge which amounts to an experience of delight, the ambrosia of immortality. You become possessed of Existence-Knowledge-Bliss at one stroke, in its infinitude and eternality.

Again, to reiterate, the Bhagavadgita is cautious of the values of the various degrees or levels of self-advancement in the process of evolution. We have to emphasise again, tirelessly, that no stage in life is so unimportant as to be rejected or abandoned wholly. There is a relativity of all levels of existence, and, therefore, there is a necessity to blend together the phenomenal and the noumenal, the relative and the absolute. Man and God have to work together. This is the principle behind Arjuna and Krishna sitting in one chariot and driving forward in the field of the battle of the universe, which spiritual message is the connotation of the last verse, in the Eighteenth Chapter. Where man and God work in collaboration, there shall be victory; there shall be success; there shall be happiness; there shall be prosperity; there shall be righteousness ruling everywhere. Righteousness is the harmony between the individual and the Absolute, and this is Arjuna and Krishna working in union, seated in one vehicle. That vehicle may be this body, it may be human society, it may be the whole universe. Any field of operation is the chariot, and in every such field there should be this cooperation between the individual and the universal. In every bit of the relative or the particular, the universal is immanent, and the recognition of this universality in every particularity is the wisdom of life.