Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 11: The Fifth Chapter Begins – Knowledge and Action are One

“My Lord, what are You telling me? You say that jnana is the highest. I understand what You say. But sometimes You say, ‘You must act. All actions melt in knowledge.’ If that is the case, where comes the necessity for me to hear from You the instruction that I must act?” Sannyāsaṁ karmaṇāṁ kṛṣṇa punar yogaṁ ca śaṁsasi, yac chreya etayor ekaṁ tan me brūhi suniścitam (5.1). “Sometimes You say jnana, sometimes You say karma. Between these two, which is better for me?” This is Arjuna’s question.

Jyāyasī cet karmaṇas te matā buddhir janārdana, tat kiṁ karmaṇi ghore māṁ niyojayasi keśava (3.1). This question is raised in the beginning of the Third Chapter. If buddhi, understanding, is the root of all activity—as is mentioned in the Second Chapter where buddhi, or knowledge, is extolled as far superior to all actions—where is the need for action? Now, a similar question is being raised by Arjuna in the beginning of the Fifth Chapter. “When You say knowledge is supreme and all actions melt in knowledge, I would certainly be tempted to acquire that knowledge where all necessity to act will melt and actions will get burned.”

A disciple went to a Guru and asked, “Maharaj, who is greater, a disciple or a Guru?

The Guru said, “A Guru is greater.”

The disciple replied, “Then please make me a Guru.”

This is the kind of question that Arjuna raised after hearing the discourse on the interrelationship between yoga and sankhya, jnana and karma. In the language of the Bhagavadgita, sankhya means knowledge. It is also known as jnana. Here yoga means action, karma, or rather the application of knowledge; karma means applied knowledge. Just as there is applied physiology, applied physics, applied chemistry, etc., applied knowledge is yoga which is karma.

“What is this question you are raising once again after having heard so much that I have been telling you?” In light of what we have already studied in the Fourth Chapter, there is some repetition in the Fifth Chapter. The Fourth and the Fifth Chapters deal with the same theme, so sometimes there appears to be a repetition and an overemphasis of certain things.

The verse in the Third Chapter was lokesmin dvividhā niṣṭhā purā proktā mayānagha, jñānayogena sāṅkhyānāṁ karmayogena yoginām (3.3): “I have mentioned to you that there are two ways or approaches to Reality: jnana and karma.” Now in the Fifth Chapter Sri Krishna again speaks practically the same words. Sāṁkhyayogau pṛthag bālāḥ pravadanti na paṇḍitāḥ, ekam apy āsthitaḥ samyag ubhayor vindate phalam (5.4): “Only children think that sankhya and yoga are two different things. Therefore, childish is your query whether jnana is superior or karma is superior, or whether you have to resort to knowledge or resort to action. I have mentioned to you that these two are inseparable.”

The soul is not the same as the body, but yet it is found that God is inseparable from the soul. The implied application of knowledge in the form of action may make it appear that action is different from knowledge, but it is not different from knowledge in the sense that it is knowledge itself applied in daily life. Therefore, karma, or yoga, or action is not to be considered as something quite different from the insight, or knowledge, spoken of earlier. Only children and illiterate, uneducated persons think that sankhya and yoga are two different things, that knowledge and action are different. If we are established in sankhya, we will automatically get established in yoga also. If we get established in yoga, we will automatically get established in sankhya also.

When we go to the furthest limits of the cosmos outside, as has been done by modern physics, for instance, we will find at the farthest distance of the cosmic periphery the same thing that we find in the deepest recesses of our heart. The farthest and the nearest are the same. The Atman in the deepest recesses of our heart is the same as the Brahman that we see beyond space and time. That is why modern physics has slowly found itself on the lap of the Upanishads, and tells us in its own language what the Upanishads proclaimed long before Einstein was born.

Thus, whatever sankhya is, that yoga also is. If we apply ourselves to the right action, we will find ourselves in the state of the highest knowledge that is necessary for doing that action. A person who is established in the highest knowledge is very active in the same way as, perhaps, God is active. Sri Krishna refers to Himself: na me pārthāsti kartavyaṁ triṣu lokeṣu kiṁcana, nānavāptam avāptavyaṁ varta eva ca karmaṇi (3.22). Sri Krishna is saying, “There is nothing that I have not acquired, there is nothing that I want, there is nothing that I need, there is nothing that can impel Me to do action, yet I am very active.”

God does not gain anything by being active. He is not profited by the creation of this world. No benefit accrues to God because He has created the world, yet we say He is very active in the creative process as Brahma, very active in the sustaining process as Vishnu, and very active in the transforming process as Rudra. Supreme Activity will ultimately be found to be inseparable from the Supreme Being.

Intense motion sometimes looks like no motion. If we see an electric fan moving at high speed, it looks as if it is not moving at all. We do not see any motion, though it is at the greatest speed. If we put a finger into the fan to see whether or not it is moving, we will know the answer. Otherwise, from a distance it looks as if it is at a standstill. Hence, intense activity is like no activity; and so-called activity has its visible form when individuals are the medium of movement. The smaller, grosser and more limited the individual, the more visible is the action and the more limited is its effect. But the larger the dimension of the individuality from where the action is produced and proceeds, the less is the reaction, so that when the dimension of the individual reaches the cosmic level, action becomes no action. In the levels which are less than the ultimate cosmic level, there is movement, as it were, on account of a type of individuality maintained by everything that is at a level lower than the cosmic level. Therefore, we feel that something is happening, and something is moving, and somebody is doing something, on account of the limitedness of the personality that is supposed to be the agent of action. But if the agent of action is unlimited, there is unlimited action—and unlimited action is no action.

To have everything is to want nothing. All desires melt in the state where we have all things. Ekam apy āsthitaḥ samyag ubhayor vindate phalam: If we are established in the highest form of activity, we are also, at the same time, established in the highest form of knowledge. There were great sages in India. Bhagavan Sri Krishna was one, and there were many others such as Vasishtha, Vyasa, Suka Maharishi, Jada Bharata, Vamadeva, and Dattatreya. They were all established in the highest knowledge of the Universal Reality and yet looked like ordinary individuals doing nothing at all—though in fact, everything was done by them. A tremendous velocity is assumed by the personality of the person established in knowledge, and so the one who is established in the highest knowledge may appear to be doing nothing at all.

Once somebody went to Ramana Maharishi and asked, “Why are you not doing some good work for people, instead of sitting here?”

Ramana Maharshi replied, “How do you know that I am not working? The highest knowledge is the highest action; therefore, those who are established in the highest knowledge may appear to be doing nothing while they are engaged in the highest action.”

I mentioned the other day about the vibrations set up by that idiot-like Jada Bharata. Dacoits dragged him to the temple in order to offer him to Kali by beheading that poor man. He was the worst of people in the eyes of men because he would do nothing. He sat as if he was sleeping—most lethargic, as it were, to all outside perception. He was completely inactive. Neither would he move at all, nor would he talk. But he was such a vibrant action inside that it touched the very gods in heaven and pulled Durga—Mahakali—from that stone image. He looked like a nobody, and people despised him as a good-for-nothing, but the lords in heaven were conscious of his existence. He had the ability to pull the powers of nature into himself by the tremendous velocity of his internal activity, which looked like no activity on account of his knowledge having expanded to the dimension of cosmic levels.

Yat sāṁkhyaiḥ prāpyate sthānaṁ tad yogair api gamyate, ekaṁ sāṁkhyaṁ ca yogaṁ ca yaḥ paśyati sa paśyati (5.5). Whatever one attains through knowledge in the manner knowledge has been described in the Gita, that very thing is attained by those who are engaged in action in the manner action is described in the Gita. One who knows in identity the goal reached by sankhya and yoga, or knowledge and action, in the end, such a person really sees the truth of things. Others only look at things but do not actually see the truth of things.

Sannyāsas tu mahābāho duḥkham āptum ayogataḥ, yogayukto munir brahma nacireṇādhigacchati (5.6). The word ‘sannyasa’ is used here, implying the characteristics of sankhya, or jnana, while ordinarily sannyasa means renunciation. The highest knowledge calls for the highest renunciation. Now Sri Krishna mentions here that without yoga we cannot have sannyasa. We cannot have renunciation without the practice of this yoga that I have described to you up to this time.

The renunciation of the world implies a mastery over the world. A mastery over the world implies total desirelessness for anything in the world. Can we imagine what renunciation, sannyasa means? He has not abandoned anything that is real. The sannyasin has abandoned only the wrong notion that he had earlier entertained in respect of the world outside. Nobody can renounce the world unless he has renounced himself first, because we are inseparably connected with the structure of the world. We are a part of the structure of the universe. Hence, a person who tries to renounce the world as a whole cannot but renounce himself also. But by wrongly construing the meaning of sannyasa, one may erroneously imagine that renunciation is the abandoning of the physical relationship with the objects of the world while keeping one’s own physical individuality intact. That is not possible. A sannyasi is not physically intact while he has renounced the world. The intactness goes together with the renunciation of the world. When he has renounced the world, he has renounced himself also. When he does not want anything from the world, he also does not want anything from his body. Therefore, it is difficult to practise renunciation, or sannyasa, without a kind of yoga that has to be there together with it—namely, union of ourselves with the Ultimate Reality in some form—either through sankhya, or through pure activity, as described.

Sannyāsas tu mahābāho duḥkham āptum ayogataḥ. In this sense, we may say that a sannyasin is not an inactive person, because here sannyasa is the same as knowledge that has been described earlier. It is highest renunciation on account of the attainment of the highest knowledge. It is not possible to renounce the world unless there is equally a great knowledge or insight. The greater is our insight into things, the greater is our power to renounce them. If we have an attraction to things, they will control us rather than us controlling them. Hence, sannyasa is referred to here as, on the one hand, the process of renunciation of attachment to things that are apparently looking outside the consciousness; and, on the other hand, it means establishment in great knowledge—the highest kind of knowledge.

Sannyāsas tu mahābāho duḥkham āptum ayogataḥ, yogayukto munir brahma nacireṇādhigacchati: If we are established in this kind of yoga where jnana is identical with action—sannyasa, or renunciation, is the same as activity—to be in the world is the same as being in God Himself, and we see no distinction between God and His creation. We see the world as God Himself would see the universe. How does God see the world? At that time, in this state of knowledge that is described here, in this great sankhya and great yoga, we will visualise the universe as the Creator Himself visualises it. Therefore, we have attained Brahman. In an instant, as it were, we have attained the Absolute with this practice.