Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 9: The Fourth Chapter Continues – The Performance of Action as a Sacrifice

Incarnation is the descent of God for the ascent of man. This has been briefly touched upon in two verses which we studied yesterday: yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānir bhavati bhārata, abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṁ sṛjāmyaham; paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṁ vināśāya ca duṣkṛtām, dharmasaṁsthāpanārthāya saṁbhavāmi yuge yuge (4.7-8).

In two verses, the great mystery of incarnation has been stated. Still, this incarnation is a mystery. It is supposed to be a response of the cosmos to the demands of the individual, but only when the demand arises from the deepest recesses of the heart of the individual. Otherwise, the response will not come, just as a radio can receive the signals that come from the broadcasting station only if its heart, which is the receiving capacity, is on the same frequency as the broadcasting station.

When the heart cries, God is supposed to come. What is the meaning of the heart crying? We usually do not have such an experience in this world. Our hearts never cry, because we are—at least most of us are—not in such an urgent need of God. “It does not matter if He comes after ten days. I have the capacity to get on without Him for ten days.” Do we not have such subtle thoughts? Is it so urgent that He must come just now? It shows how shallow our hearts are, and how foolish our thoughts are, and how inadequate is our understanding of what God is. To say that God may come tomorrow or the day after is like saying, “I can breathe after ten days. Today I need not breathe.”

God is a greater necessity than our daily diet. The only comparison that I can make is to the breath of life. We cannot say, “Let me breathe after ten days. It doesn’t matter if I do not breath now.” Breathing is an immediate necessity. The necessity of God as an immediacy is not felt by the ego-ridden individuality, which feels self-conscious and not God-conscious. The karmas of the individual bind it so fast with the ropes of its own desires that even the coming of God may not be recognised.

Avataras of God, incarnations of God, are supposed to be a perpetual occurrence—not something that took place centuries back and something that will take place later on, after another few centuries. It is a perpetual occurrence, like the rays of the sun perpetually falling on the earth. There is a perpetual inundation of the earth by the light of the sun, day in and day out, somewhere or the other. So, in many ways, the coming of God into this world is an avatara for, without this, we would not be able to walk on this earth. We would not be able to lift a finger; we would not be able to digest our food; our lungs would not function; our hearts would not function; our breath would not be there; our brains would not be there. It is the coming of God in a particular form through our individuality, the cosmic operation through the individual in some form unknown to the individual, that is the reason for the very existence of the so-called ego-ridden individual.

The karmas which bind the soul are such intricate processes of relativistic association in this world that it is not easy to know what is actually happening when a karma binds. Kiṁ karma kim akarme’ti kavayo’pyatra mohitāḥ: Learned people, very advanced in knowledge, are also bewildered as to what karma actually is. What is karma? What is akarma? Many a time even people with great insight are also confused. Kiṁ karma kim akarme’ti kavayo’pyatra mohitāḥ, tat te karma pravakṣyāmi yaj jñātvā mokṣyase’śubhāt (4.16): Now I shall tell you what kind of thing karma is. Karmaṇo hy api boddhavyaṁ boddhavyaṁ ca vikarmaṇaḥ, akarmaṇaś ca boddhavyaṁ gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ (4.17): It is necessary to know not only what karma is, but also to know what non-karma or inaction is, and what wrong action is. Therefore, what is right action, what is wrong action, and what is inaction? It is necessary to know all these things.

Karmaṇo hy api boddhavyaṁ boddhavyaṁ ca vikarmaṇaḥ, akarmaṇaś ca boddhavyaṁ: Very difficult is this peculiar, intricate way in which karma works. There is no such thing as karma sitting outside on a tree. It is not a thing whose existence we can visualise somewhere. Just as we consider diseases to be a peculiar maladjustment of the physical functioning of the body rather than a thing that is sitting outside the body and existing separately, so also the karma is not sitting outside, waiting to harass us.

Karma is the peculiar automatic reaction set up by the cosmic forces in proportion to the action performed by an individual. The reaction will be exactly in proportion to the action that we perform. In a way, it looks like tit for tat—and in a crude way, we may say it is like that.

The world is supposed to be something like a mirror through which we see our own face. We see our contour in our relationships with the world. If we smile at the world, the world smiles at us; if we get angry with the world, it gets angry with us; and if we denounce it, it will denounce us also. It will treat us in the same way as our body treats us. We cannot know how the body acts and reacts in regard to our own individual existence. The body is not outside the soul. It is inseparably acting on our consciousness, which is our individual soul. Automatic action takes place through the body, and that experience of an automatic reaction set up by the body is the pleasure or the pain that we speak of.

In a similar manner, there is a spontaneous action that is taking place in the cosmos when any activity, any action, takes place anywhere. The reaction is not created by somebody, such as God in heaven. God does not sit there and say, “So-and-so is doing something. I shall react in this manner.” It is an automatic action of the cosmos. When something happens to some part of the body, an automatic reaction is set up by the entire organism in relation to the particular event taking place in the limb of the body. There is no third person who pushes the button.

The difficulty in understanding what karma is arises on account of our difficulty in knowing what our relationship is with the world at all, and finally, with God Himself. There is an inveterate habit of the sense organs to compel us to feel that the world is totally outside, and God is very far away. Even the most learned in scriptures cannot escape this difficulty of suddenly feeling that the world is outside and God is away, and is not as near as their skin. This erroneous apprehension of the relation of oneself with the world and God is the cause of the reaction set up by what reality is in the form of the world or God, and this error itself is a karma.

The wrong apprehension of our relation to the world and to God is the karma that we perform. Our consciousness is our action. Actually, the physical movements are not action. How we modulate our consciousness, how we direct our thoughts, and how we feel things around us—this is the action that we are performing day in and day out. Every moment we feel something, and think something, and understand something. This psychological activity perpetually taking place inside is the perpetual action in which we are engaged, and this is also the reason for the perpetual reaction that is being set up. Karma is supposed to get accumulated in our psyche, in the sense of a propensity of the reality outside, to give the individual that has motivated this wrong action his due. And if this impact goes on continuing again and again—if we persist in wrong thinking, wrong feeling, and wrong understanding—the cosmos persists in giving us a blow again and again, in the same way that if we persist in having a wrong diet and living a wrong life, nature will persist in tormenting us with varieties of illnesses.

The piling up of impacts coming repeatedly from the cosmos on account of our repeated wrong actions every day becomes thick—like a cloud, as it were. Inasmuch as it is a force that is acting upon us from the cosmological side, karma cannot be regarded as a substance. The action engendering a reaction from another source is a kind of experience, and the karma residuum which causes rebirth, etc., is also a potentiality for experience in the future. The repeatedly occurring impact of cosmic forces upon individuals becomes thick like a cloud, and it becomes what we call the unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels of the mind. These three layers are: the thick and turbid residuum at the bottom, like the thick layers at the top of clouds; a slightly thinner layer further down; and a thinner layer further on, like the layer which slightly illumines the sunlight even in the rainy season when the clouds are thick.

The thickest part of our karma is in the anandamaya kosha. This is what psychologists called the unconscious level. The slightly thinner part is in the subconscious, which we experience in dream many a time, and the thinnest part is in the waking condition. Because of its transparency, consciousness is reflected so clearly that even through that karmic residuum we begin to perceive things in the world as clearly as if it were in the waking state. But we perceive things dimly in the dreaming condition because it is subconscious and not as clear as the waking condition. And we know nothing in the sleeping condition because the cloud is very thick and consciousness does not penetrate through that cloud—just as during the monsoons we will not see the sun even at midday, and it will be like night due to the thick clouds covering the entire sky.

This is the difficulty in knowing what karma is. Gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ: “The way of karma is indeed very hard to understand,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. But karmas loosen their grip upon the individual who does not act entirely according to the preponderance of the demands of the sense organs, but acts in the spirit of a yajna, to which reference is made in the Third Chapter. Gatasaṅgasya muktasya jñānāvasthitacetasaḥ, yajñāyācarataḥ karma samagraṁ pravilīyate (4.23): The person who is totally detached, gatasaṅga, and free from attachments, mukta, and established in the wisdom of life, jñānāvasthitacetasaḥ, and who performs action as a sacrifice as detailed in the Third Chapter—for him every action melts as ice before the sun.

No action will produce a reaction in the case of a person who acts as if in a yajna, or a sacrifice—i.e., as a participation in the cosmic purposes and not as an individual actor for the purpose of reaping an ulterior fruit. Expecting a fruit is a special characteristic of selfish action, and there is no expectation of fruit in an unselfish action. It is work for work’s sake, duty for duty’s sake, as they say. The moment there is an intention in the mind to reap a consequence, or a fruit, tomorrow or the day after or in the future, as the result of karma, or action, done today, that person is actually thinking in terms of the time process because the fruit of an action will accrue only after some time. The expectation of the fruit of an action, therefore, is tantamount to involvement in the process of time, and time is equal to death; and such a person is bound by karma. But one who performs actions as a yajna, as a duty, does not expect any fruit. Ulterior motive is totally absent in the case of unselfish action.

We may wonder: if we expect nothing from a work, why should we work at all? These are the stock arguments of modern thinkers, and even of very well-read people. What should be the prompting behind us to do anything at all, if we get nothing out of it? This question arises on account of our total ignorance of the nature of our relation to the world which is, once again, the wrong apprehension of the world as being totally outside us—a field where we can grow a crop and eat the fruit thereof, with God somewhere in heaven, Who will bless us with salvation after death. This is the peculiar, crude, illiterate argument of even the most learned people these days. Hard it is for a person to appreciate that there is an organic, living connection between us, the world, and God.

An individual must have performed great punya, great merit in the previous birth or in several births, to be able to appreciate this great truth of the identity of ourselves with the atmosphere in which we are stationed. Therefore, unselfish action is itself a fruit thereof. If we become healthy, do we ask what we get if we become healthy? Health itself is the fruit thereof. Similarly, unselfishness is nothing but a healthy relationship that we maintain with the world, and perhaps with God. And what we call selfish action is an unhealthy relationship that we maintain with the world and with God—an alien relationship, as it were. We treat the world and God as foreigners, as if we have no connection with them. If that is the case, they will also treat us as foreigners. This is a tit-for-tat action that nature does unto us. But we can be free from this predicament of getting kicks from nature and from God if our actions are motivated by a consciousness that we are an agent, an instrument, a medium of action of cosmic powers, and that we do not do anything.

Shakespeare wrote all the plays with his pen, but we cannot say the pen wrote the plays. Though it is true that the pen actually wrote the plays, we do not say that the pen wrote them; we say that Shakespeare wrote the plays. This is the manner in which we have to understand our position in this world. We are like a fountain pen in the hand of God, an instrument in His hand. We are a tool, as it were: nimitta matra.

The brain will not accept these arguments on account of the turbid karmas that are lying latent in the unconscious and subconscious levels. So in the beginning stages, spiritual practice cannot rise to such heights of this kind of comprehension. It has to start with citta shuddhi—the practice of yamas, niyamas, viveka, vairagya, shad-sampat and mumukshutva—qualities which are mentioned in the Vedanta Shastras. We must be good persons before we become God-persons. We cannot suddenly become godly individuals unless we are good individuals first and foremost. There is very little of goodness in most of us. We are the same brutes when the time for it comes, and this is something that we can know through a little bit of investigation, instead of actually landing ourselves in the predicament where we have to behave like that. We need not fall sick in order to know what sickness is. A doctor can understand. A good physician can know what sickness is, how it acts, without actually falling sick himself.

Hence, it is essential for us to educate ourselves in this art of spiritual living by a graduated ascending process of self-purification, before we go into the meditations of the Upani-shads and the Bhagavadgita. Even when we become students of Vedanta, for instance, we do not start with the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, and so on, because they will look like a jungle, and we will not know where what is. Everything is found in a forest, but we will not know what is found in which place. This also applies to the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. Therefore, the Vedanta Shastra commences with introductory Prakarana Granthas like the Vedanta Sara, the Vedanta Paribhasha, the Laghu Vasudevamanana, and the Panchadasi. Then we study the Upanishads. Only after these, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahma Sutras should be studied. We should not suddenly jump into them unless we are already a prepared soul, by the grace of God.

Gatasaṅgasya muktasya jñānāvasthitacetasaḥ, yajñāyācarataḥ karma samagraṁ pravilīyate: All actions melt then and there. What is the jñānāvasthitacetas condition? What is actually the gatasaṅgatva; and what is actually the yajna karma, finally? When there is a hailstorm, little balls of ice form; and the moment they fall on the earth, the balls of ice melt and become liquid. Likewise, the fire of knowledge will burn up the solid masses of karma that we have accumulated, provided that our actions are totally unmotivated in terms of the fruit that is to accrue in the future.

Brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahmakarmasamādhinā (4.24). This verse is itself enough for us to meditate on the great God of the cosmos. When we offer a sacrifice, the offering is nothing but a face of the Ultimate Reality itself. The performer, the process of performance, the instrument of action, and the result that follows are all various modifications of a single Reality, in the same way that the ocean waters—whether they are like foam or bubbles or ripples, whether they are solid or liquid, or whatever be the form—are just modifications of a single mass of water.

Even the offering of the sense organs in terms of objects of sense, this crude activity that we are performing as sense perception, is actually an action of the Cosmic Power. The means, or the instruments, that we use in this process of perception also come from that Supreme Force only. That is the havis that we offer—the yajna of action. The fire into which we offer the oblation is only that Supreme Being manifesting as fire; and the aim that we have in our minds, the goal that we want to reach after the performance of this yajna, is also only the Ultimate Reality. The path and the goal coalesce in the highest realm of spiritual experience.

Brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahmakarmasamādhinā. There is a similar verse in the Yoga Vasishtha—tat chintanaṁ tat kathanaṁ anyonyaṁ tat prabodhanam, eta deka paratvaṁ ca brahmābhyāsaṁ vidur budhāḥ (Y.V. 3.22.24)—in which it is told to us that we have to practice brahmabhyasa. The Yoga Vasishtha prescribes three kinds of sadhanaprana nirodha, chitta-vritti nirodha and brahmabhyasa—which are prana-yama, control of the mind, and meditation on the Absolute.

Tat chintanaṁ: Thinking only that day in and day out. A person who has been given the death sentence will always be thinking of the gallows, and the executioner’s noose will be in his mind even before it actually takes place, or a person who is expecting a great promotion will always wait for it to come, anticipating the increased salary, and so on. Just as we constantly keep in our minds the great goals in this world in some form of material possession, in a like manner we should brood over this Reality, always thinking That.

Tat kathanaṁ: When we speak to people, we should not talk about unnecessary things. We should enlighten ourselves and the other by a discussion on this subject. We should prompt the person to talk only on this subject, and we should also talk only on this subject. This is actually a satsanga that is taking place between two persons, or any number of persons. Tat chintanaṁ tat kathanaṁ: Always thinking that, and talking and conversing only about that.

Anyonyaṁ tat prabodhanam: Mutually enlightening only on that particular theme. When we meet anybody, we should ask, “What have you studied? What is the progress that you have made? I would also like to have the benefit of knowing something.” As students sometimes compare their notes in schools and colleges, we can compare notes and compare experiences even among our colleagues. That is mutual illumination that we engender among ourselves, and that also becomes a kind of meditation. In a family, in a community where there are many people, we should not talk nonsense. We should always be talking on this great subject, which is the great health of the body, of society, and finally, liberation itself.

Anyonyaṁ tat prabodhanam, eta deka paratvaṁ ca: Depending on that only for our life and death. This is our life, and this is also our death, and we cannot have any other thought in our minds. Eta deka paratvaṁ ca brahmābhyāsaṁ vidur budhāḥ: This is called the practice of Brahman.

There is a little book by Brother Lawrence called Practice of the Presence of God. You can all read that book. It is very interesting. His experience was that everywhere—in the shoes, in the kitchen and dishes, in the broomstick—everywhere is God only. Similarly, there is another verse: tadbuddhayas tadātmānas tanniṣṭhās tatparāyaṇāḥ, gacchantyapunarāvṛttiṁ jñānanirdhūtakalmaṣāḥ (5.17). We will discuss this verse later on.

Today we drew certain conclusions about our wrong apprehension of our relation between ourselves and the world and God, which creates binding karma, and the necessity to perform unselfish action in the form of yajna. What yajna is has been described. Yajna is actually brahmabhyasa—total dependence on God. This is, finally, unselfish action.