A Study of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The Karma Yoga Principle of the Bhagavadgita

This universe was considered as the ground on which we based our consciousness of our duty in life. We can know what we ought to do only if we know where we are actually located in this world. Unless we know our circumstances – where we are standing, internally as well as externally, at any given moment of time – we will not be able to take even one step forward in any direction.

So duty as an action incumbent upon people is based on the consciousness of one’s own being in relation to the circumstances of existence in this world. That is to say, Karma Yoga is based on Buddhi Yoga, as told in the language of the Bhagavadgita. When karma is based not on buddhi, proper understanding, then karma, action, becomes a meandering movement with no proper direction. You can move anywhere, in any direction, and do whatever you like, but that cannot be called right action.

The philosophy of the Bhagavadgita is actually the science of right activity. That which is proper on your part is right action. But what is it that is proper on your part? The propriety of your behaviour and your action depends upon the extent to which you fit in a state of harmony to the atmosphere of creation as a whole. This is the reason why it became necessary for us to go into the details of the cosmological creative process as adumbrated in the Sankhya philosophy.

In what manner are you connected to this world? That is the manner which will decide how you have to act. Are you on the surface of the Earth? Are you on a hilltop? Are you in the desert? Are you on the sea? Are you in the midst of friends, or otherwise? What is also happening to you internally, at the same time?

The internal and external setup of things in the context of the existence of a person or an individual is explained in the cosmology of the Sankhya. We went into great detail about it already so that you will have some idea as to where you are actually sitting at this moment. You are not sitting on any particular isolated location at all. In this great cosmological scheme of which you are one single evolute, you seem to be connected to everything. The entire space-time and the stars, the whole of creation, Prakriti and Purusha, whatever it is, are all strung, as it were, on your own body and, conversely, you are strung on the body of this Universal Being. Hence, you are not an ordinary individual.

“Arjuna, you are not a single body or son of Pandu. You are not sitting on the field of Kurukshetra as a geographical location. You are not facing the Kuru family as people connected with you. There is something else altogether behind the entire situation in which you are placed just now.” Even if you are going to Rishikesh market or the railway station here, it is not a small action that is initiated by you. It is a cosmological incident. The whole world knows what you are doing. Going to purchase a ticket from the station to go to Delhi or some place looks like a silly action, but it is nothing of the kind. The whole world knows that you are purchasing the ticket – not just the whole world, but the whole creation up to Purusha and Prakriti knows it, just as the tiniest movement of a little finger is known by the whole body. The finger cannot say the body does not know what it is doing, that it is just moving independently. It does not move independently. The entire system of the physical organism is aware of every little scratch, touch or movement.

There is no such thing as private action in this world. All activity, whether done secretly or otherwise, covertly or overtly, visibly or invisibly, is public. Everything that you think, feel and do is recorded in the documents of the skies. The very space-time canvas will spontaneously record whatever you are feeling, thinking and doing. Do not say that you are doing something privately in a corner of the room and nobody knows. There is no such thing as something which nobody knows. Every movement, every activity, every procedure, event, location and historical process is a cosmical movement. Therefore, in the context of the conflict that has arisen between you and the atmosphere outside called the Mahabharata battle – which is also your battle between you and the world outside and the society of people – what is your opinion, finally?

You have a dharma, a duty. Svadharmam api cā ’vekṣya na vikampitum arhasi (Gita 2.31). Do not shrink from doing, because doing as an act of obligation in this context of the world is something so incumbent that no one can desist from it.

As I mentioned by way of an analogy, every part of the body is correlated to other parts of the body, every action of every limb is the action of every other limb, everyone’s action is also everyone else’s action, and whatever anybody does is also something everybody else does. No independent, individual action is permissible, as is the case with the physical organism. Nobody does anything in this world, even as no limb in the body acts independently. The whole organism acts, and you feel as if some particular limb is working. When I speak, it looks as if the tongue is speaking, but it is not so. My entire setup in all the five koshas is working even when I speak, even when I see.

So what is the role that one plays in this world of such a location and such an involvement in the cosmological scheme? Knowing that at least, you should not desist from doing, and do not be a coward, do not be despondent, do not be melancholy, do not say “I will not”. The question of “I will” and “I will not” does not arise in this world. No one has the right to say “I will”, and no one has the right to say “I will not”. You cannot say “I shall do”, nor can you say “I shall not do”. There is something imposed upon you by the very fact of your connection with things. And what is the connection? That is what you have studied last time – the whole Sankhya doctrine.

Every person is placed in some particular context in this world. The relativity of the finite existence of an individual is conditioned by the relativity of other similar finite things. A wave in the ocean may look like a single upsurge of water, but there is a tremendous movement at the root of this body of water which so adjustably causes the simultaneous rise of several other waves also that you may say that even the movement, size and force of a single wave is not merely something taking place locally in that particular place; it is connected to the activity of the other waves also because all the waves are surged forth, brought up to the surface by an intention of the body of water at the root.

So, in a way, the relativity of the rise of a particular wave in the ocean – relativity in the sense that it is of a particular character, particular shape, particular size, particular direction, and so on – is due to the particularity of other waves that are equally responsible for this characterisation of a single wave and, vice versa, this particular wave also determines the movement of other waves. If the hand moves, the eyes move or the tongue speaks, they are all so-called differentiated movements, but really they are not differentiated because of the fact that all these actions of the different limbs taking place simultaneously, as it were, are one act of the will of the person. It should be done like that, and it is done in various ways through the different means of the body.

So our duty in this world is like the characterisation of a particular wave in the vast sea, not independently motivated by itself. It has no intention of its own, though it may look that it is independently acting. Nobody acts with particularised intentions. The so-called particularity or individuality that you are assuming in your action is called egoism or ahamkara, krita bhavana, the feeling that “I am doing”. It is like the wave thinking that it is solely responsible for what it is doing, not knowing the fact that it has been conditioned by other waves also on the basis of the orders issued by the bowels of the ocean. So do not say you are doing anything. The whole Bhagavadgita clinches its teachings here when it says the word ‘I’ should not be projected in your behaviour in this world. The I is only one in the cosmic sense; the Ahamkara-tattva of the cosmos, the Mahatattva, the Purusha and Prakriti to which we made reference can be considered as the I. The other I’s are only fragments, split parts, as it were, of this Cosmic I. Even in the split parts, it is only the Cosmic I that is operating. Even when you appear to be doing something, the Universal I is operating through you. But due to the attachment of this particular consciousness of the individual to the body and to the ego, each one of you feels wrongly that “I am doing it”.

So your duty in this world is not actually doing something, but participation in the cosmic scheme of things. Your duty is to participate in the requirement of the whole cosmic setup, and not to independently do whatever you like from the point of view of your own egoistic personality. Svadharma is one’s own duty; svabhava is one’s own character or constitution.

Your duty in this world is dependent on what kind of person you are, and how you are fitted to your own self as well as to society outside. Therefore, the duties that are required on the part of any individual cannot be uniform. It is not that everybody should be a businessman, everybody a driver, everybody a professor, everybody a yogi – nothing of the kind. That is not possible because whatever you are expected to be in this world and in what manner you are expected to participate in the scheme of things will depend upon your constitution.

This svadharma, this duty on your part, which is based on your own nature, actually means the dependence of your call of duty on the structure of your own individuality, which is made up of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. Prakriti operates in everyone right from heaven to earth, in the plant kingdom, in animals and in stones. Na tad asti pṛthivyāṁ vā divi deveṣu vā punaḥ, sattvaṁ prakṛtijair muktaṁ yad ebhiḥ syāt tribhir guṇaiḥ (Gita 18.40). Right from heaven down to the lowermost creation there is nothing which is not constituted of the three gunas, so we are of that character. Sattva is purity, equilibrium, transparency, understanding, intelligence, and capacity to decide things in a right manner. Rajas is distraction, motivation in the external direction for more and more agitation, and restlessness. Tamas is rigidity, fixity and wanting nothing. All these three qualities are operating in us, but they are not operating in an equal proportion. It does not mean thirty-three-and-one-third percent of each quality is present in us always. As there is a larger wave and smaller wave in the ocean, so also there is a wave-like movement of these three gunas, the properties of Prakriti, in everything, including our own selves.

These three properties of Prakriti’s gunas, which are distributed disproportionately in everyone and are never in equilibrium, decide the difference in one’s call of duty. If you are predominantly sattvic in nature, you will be fitted for one kind of work in this world; one type of participation will be expected from you in the scheme of things. If you are predominantly rajasic for some reason or the other, then you will be assigned some job, some work, some duty according to your particular temperament. But suppose you are basically unfit for other physical reasons, such as the preponderance of tamas, etc.; then, you will have to be taken care of in a different way altogether.

Everybody in this world has a duty to perform. You can ask me what this duty is, and why you should do anything. You should not put such questions such as why should you do and why should you not do. Your duty depends upon your automatic involvement in the cosmic setup of things, and so you are not simply saying you shall do or you shall not do. The cosmic setup itself decides in what manner you can be called upon to do your duty. There are degrees and variety in the participation of an individual in the universal scheme, and each person seems to be different from every other person. No two individuals collide or unite to become one individual, though there are similarities. For instance, when we work in a single office, factory or organisation, it may appear we are all doing one uniform type of work, but that is only on the superficial level. Basically there is an independence and a distinction – without difference, we may say – even in a common setup like an office or an organisation, etc. You are all students here. In a way, you are all uniform in your outlook, in your requirement and in your daily duty, but still you have an individuality of your own. One person does not totally merge into another person. Similarly, there is a tremendous variety in the call of duty, and yet it is rooted in a single unity of perspective.

In this call of duty, which is your participation, you should not connect your performance with any fruit or result that may follow from it. Here is a difficulty in understanding the gospel of the Bhagavadgita. We are always prone to think that everything we do should yield some result: “What shall I get if I do this?” The Bhagavadgita will not permit you to raise such a question. Can the legs ask what they will get by walking? If the hands raise a morsel of food and put it in the mouth, do they ask what they get by doing that? “Somebody is eating, and I lift the food.” Would you like to carry somebody’s luggage for nothing? And why should the hand lift the food for somebody else’s satisfaction? But does the hand put such a question? The spectacles are for the eyes, but the nose bears the burden. Why does the nose bear somebody’s luggage? Does the nose refuse? Why does each limb not demand satisfaction for itself and ask what it will get by doing this work? What does the nose get by smelling? The nose does not get anything by smelling. Something else gets it; and something else getting it is equal to the nose getting it, or much more than it expects.

The more you give, the more you receive. This is the philosophy of spirituality. But if you grab, always demand what you want, you will get nothing. The receiver gets nothing; only the giver gets. This is a difficulty in understanding the psychology of spiritual existence. It is not business mathematics, the striking of a balance sheet, or arithmetic of the commercial type. It is a non-commercial, super-mathematical arrangement. The more you give, the more you get. How is it possible? You will not understand such a thing. You never see that by giving more you get more. It looks as if you are losing by giving more and more. The more you give out of the abundance of your own personality, the less is the attachment that you will have for the personality and the more you will be able to participate in the universal setup.

The giving aspect – I am just digressing a little from the main subject – is emphasised because of the fact that in giving, you are not giving some object; you are giving your own self, giving your satisfaction. The charity is in giving a part of your own joy. If joy is not there in giving, you have given nothing. Suppose you give a useless old coin to a beggar; you have done no charity because even by giving, you have lost nothing. You are still a millionaire. The charity has not been done in the proper proportion.

Joy is shared in giving. Inasmuch as your joys are egoistic in nature, body-conditioned and not actually universally placed, it is good that you share your joy with other people. In sharing the joy, you are also sharing a little part of your ego, because joy and ego go together. The ego it is that is happy, for whatever reason. Let its happiness go a little bit. It pinches. Nobody likes to give anything. You feel sorry that something is going. The ego feels that at bit of it is also going, and feels great grief. Let it feel the grief so that the more you give as a sharing of your own joy, the more also is the ego part that goes with it. The less is the ego, the more is the universal aspect that will enter into you, the more spiritual you become, the more godly you become, and the less human, finite and drab your existence becomes.

So here is a point in the expectation of no result. When you give charity to somebody, do you give it thinking what that man will give back to you? That is like a brother-in-law giving to a brother-in-law. It is not charity. If a father is educating his son under the impression that he will take care of him in old age, he is not doing any charity. It is some kind of social work or family work. Total joy has not gone. He expects something. If charity is given with the expectation of return, it is not charity. When you arrange a banquet, a large feast, it is said not to invite only your friends because you know they will also invite you to a banquet one day. This is no good. If you give a banquet to your own relatives and invite all your friends and relations, know the motive behind it. Your ego swells more and more on account of the expectation of a very good result. If you arrange for a function in your house and your relatives come and pour gifts upon you, they will also expect you to give the same when they arrange for a feast or a function in their own homes. Otherwise, what will they feel? “This fellow has not given anything.” This is not charity; this is not giving. This is not spiritual action at all. Hence, mere giving in a mechanical or commercial way is not to be considered as charity.

Thus, the Bhagavadgita doctrine of duty, giving, participation, is minus expectation of a recompense that will follow. You may be very worried as to what kind of work you are being asked to do, and do not want to simply drudge for no purpose. I have already given you the knowledge of the organism of the body. The participation of the limbs of the body to the body’s requirement also provides their own necessity, as the body sustains the legs, the eyes, the hands, and the nose, etc. If the stomach eats food, the legs and fingers also get strength, the eyes will shine, and the cheeks will bloom. Why should the cheeks say they have no connection with your eating? If this universal principle is maintained behind your every act, the Universal Being will protect you. How it will protect you will come in the later chapters of the Gita. The introduction is laid here, in the Second Chapter. Your duty is to be the motive, and say not anything else; and in this participation of yourself in the scheme of things, which is your dharma based on your svabhava or your inner constitution, you will lose nothing and will gain everything. Ne’hā ’bhikramanāśo ’sti pratyavāyo na vidyate (Gita 2.40): In doing duty one loses nothing. One only gains.

You will not easily understand how you will gain a thing by expecting nothing from your work. It requires a new type of education to appreciate how it is possible that you can be happy and secure while you get nothing out of your work. It is not actually the work that is the source of your satisfaction; it is the connection of this work with the consciousness of your identity with the whole cosmos. That is why I am again repeating that karma is based on buddhi. It is not merely the work that brings results; it is the consciousness of your participation in the setup of the whole thing.

For instance, even an ordinary fitter in a factory may not be divested of the consciousness of his organic relation with the whole setup. He is not merely doing something independently, unconscious of why he is doing it. A consciousness of unity of purpose is there even in an organisation such as a factory, a government, etc. If that consciousness of unity of purpose is not there, it is a mechanical action that is being done, and he will be suffering, crying and cursing everybody, “How long will I work?” But if he knows the output will sustain him also, he will joyously work in a family, in an organisation.

In this great world of duty, no one is exempt from action. Na hi kaścit kṣaṇam api jātu tiṣṭhaty akarmakṛt (Gita 3.5); karmaṇy evā ’dhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana (Gita 2.47). Your duty is to act, and not to expect the fruit of an action. Here is the essence of the whole matter. Karmaṇy evā ’dhikāras te: you have the right to work. You have duties, but no privileges. You will be shocked to hear this because you feel, “Why should I work? I will get what I want at the end of the month.” People sit outside factories, banks and offices: “I will get my salary whether I work or not.” This attitude arises on account of not understanding the connection of your very existence in this world with the atmosphere around. Do not go for visible satisfactions. The Gita will tell you that immediate, visible satisfaction will be the source of sorrow afterwards. In the beginning, life looks very hard. It pricks like a thorn, but it will give you fruit. All good things look bitter in the beginning but they will yield the sweetness of honey later on, whereas all things that bind you will look like honey poured into the mouth, but later on they will strike, and you will repent for it.

The philosophy of the Bhagavadgita is not merely work, but participation in the production of a value that is transcendent to the action itself. When a large machine is working, every little part works and contributes to the machine’s output, the output being transcendent to the machine itself. The machine is an instrument, and the parts are also participants. Something is automatically produced as a transcendent result by the participation of the parts in the work of this large machinery of the world.

What follows from all this? You cannot sit quiet, nor can you motivate action by your own self independently. You are wound up inextricably, warp and woof, as in the fabric of a cloth, in the arrangement of things in this universe. Again to repeat, every individual is a cosmic representation, a little avatara, an incarnation, as it were, of God Almighty Himself. Remember the cosmic scheme which we described previously – Purusha, Prakriti, Mahat, Ahamkara. These adhibhuta, adhidaiva, adhyatma, etc., are all simultaneously working in you now at this very moment. Just now, under the roof of this building, near the desk at which you are sitting and the way in which you are positioned, the whole cosmos is working though you. And so you will feel secure in this world. You will not feel dejected: “What is there? Nobody talks to me. I get nothing in this world.” Do not say that. You have everything in this world. Your feeling that you have nothing is your sorrow. When you are vitally connected with the life of the whole universe and are joyously participating in its requirement, how would you say you have nothing? You can touch the source of the world, and it will fall to you. The abundance of the universe will be in your hand. The world will be at your beck and call. You need not cringe before the world; the world will cringe before you. It will fall at your feet. Why should you fall at the feet of other people? There are no other people in this world. You are connected to everything else.

The mind is so tricky that it will not allow you to think like this. The moment this session is over, you will get up with a feeling as if nothing has happened. You have heard nothing. It is all gone, as water poured on a rock. This should not be. It should sink into your feeling. These discourses, this teaching, this academy is not a diversion from your daily duties or routine; it is a transmuting process of your very personality itself. It is intended to make you a new person altogether. When you return from this place, you will not be the same person that you were. You are a super person, a higher person, a slightly transcendent person, you may say. You have enlarged your being itself.

Therefore, the Bhagavadgita gospel of duty hinges upon two factors: In the universal setup of things everybody has to participate in some way or the other according to their proclivity, due to the predominance of the gunas of Prakriti in one’s nature; and this participation should be based on the nature of one’s consciousness of one’s unity with the cosmos – dharma based on buddhi, karma based on jnana, in a state of equilibrium, or poised attitude of the mind. You will never be disturbed afterwards. Nothing can shake your will. Nobody can cause you sorrow, and nothing will cause you unhappiness. Is the body not maintaining a balance? It is always in the state of harmony. The world will, in a state of harmony, see that you are also placed in that harmony.

Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (Gita 2.48): Equilibrium is Yoga, harmony is Yoga, adjustment is Yoga, adaptability is Yoga, unity is Yoga, the blending of the subject and the object in harmony is Yoga. In everything that you do, you must be in a state of harmony. You should not come in conflict with anybody – neither with nature nor with people. The moment you set up an atmosphere of conflict and you are not able to adjust your personality with the object, the adhibhuta, there you have failed in Yoga. Yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam (Gita 2.50) is another great dictum. Yoga is harmony, and it is also expertness in action. Expertness means the ability to see unity in everything that you do, and in every position in which you are placed.

Here is a brief outline of the Karma Yoga principle of the Bhagavadgita. Therefore, Arjuna is asked to take a particular step under the prevailing circumstances, out of which he could not extricate himself. He is bound to do whatever is expected of him. Even if you think you will not do, you will actually be ruminating over that, and your ‘not doing’ is also a kind of action. Do not be attached to doing, and do not be attached to not doing. When you are doing some work, you may feel you are getting attached to it, and so you may desist from action under the impression that you are not going to be attached. But you are going to be attached to the other, negative aspect of it, namely, cessation from action. Your consciousness of action may be attachment, but your consciousness of non-action is also attachment. Mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo 'stv akarmaṇi (Gita 2.47): Do not cling to your duties and works as if it is your performance. It is not yours; it is a universal action. Also, do not cling to non-action. You are caught from both sides. Neither can you have the so-called independent privilege of doing what you like, nor the option of not doing, under some circumstances.

But how will you adjust yourself to this condition? This is exactly the difficulty. It was not easy for even Bishma to decide what was proper under the given conditions. Even Drona, the great master, slipped under conditions which were very critical. Arjuna was a lesser man. His mind was reeling in a state of confusion.

No saint can be a saint all the time. There are a few moments when he comes down; he has difficulties and is unable to decide what is to be done. It is difficult to maintain God-consciousness all twenty-four hours of the day. Not even the greatest of saints can do that. Sometimes they act like human beings; but they rise up to God-consciousness afterwards, of course. Incarnations also do not always behave in a universal, uniform manner. There are ups and downs in their behaviour, whatever the reason be.

So with spiritual freedom, moksha, being the ultimate aim of existence, it becomes necessary on your part to be cautious. Yoga is not merely harmony, samattva, and it is not merely expertness in action. It is also caution. Vigilant is the Yogi. Apramattas tadā bhavati (Katha 2.3.2), says the Katha Upanishad. Heedfulness is the watchword of the Yoga student. If you are heedless and not able to catch the situation that is presented before you, you become mistaken in your attitude. Caution is the watchword. What is the caution? You must never forget that your particular behaviour and action that you perform is not disconnected from the consciousness of unity of purpose. This is the caution. You have to be vigilant to see that your behaviour and action at any given moment of time is not out of context with the unity of purpose that is to be at the back of it. Otherwise, it will be a drab, desultory work which will please nobody – neither you, nor anyone else.

So in this outlook of life you will find there is no such thing as secularity or spirituality isolated from one another. Nowadays people talk of secular existence, political existence, social existence, and spiritual existence. There is nothing of the kind. These are all unnecessary departments that we are creating psychologically in a single, seamless arrangement of life. That which is predominantly extrovert looks secular, but that which is predominantly extrovert is also not spiritual; nor is it an introverted action, or merely a political administration – all which, of course, are capable of being blended into a great Yoga of existence. A person can be a great statesman and politician, and also be a great Yogi. Lord Krishna himself is an example. He was a master statesman, master warrior, master Yogi, master politician, master sannyasin, master householder, and master incarnation of God. He blended together every aspect.

Thus, you can be a very good servant in any walk of life, and there is no such thing as menial labour or better work, a white-collar job. They do not exist. Every work is dignified because of the fact that every work is connected to a spiritual connection of your life with the whole godly arrangement of things. So ‘spirituality’, ‘secularity’ and so on are words that have to be used in the proper sense. There is only one action, all divine in its being; and only one person acts – it is the supreme Purusha and Prakriti. There is one purpose, the unity of existence, the blending of adhyatma, adhibhuta and adhidaiva in which you are involved.

It is all joy. You seem to be in a kingdom of heaven even when you think of all these things. You are not living in hell. You are actually living in the heaven of God even now. The illusion of hell is only a temporary makeshift or a trickery of the mind, as in the end of the Mahabharta, Yudhishthira was made to see a kind of hell which was really not there; it was heaven itself. His perspective, his vision was distorted for some reason, and he began to see hell even in heaven. But the hell vanished, and heaven started shining before him.

In this very world, at this very place, in this very context, you will see all trouble vanishing in one second as if you have woken up from sleep, from a phantasm of dream, and you see a new world altogether. The awakening of the spirit, which is the intention behind the teaching of the Bhagavadgita, is instantaneous action of rising from hell to heaven, from mortality to immortality, from finitude to infinitude.