An Analysis of the Brahma Sutra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Controversy Over Action and Knowledge

The Brahma Sutra throws light on the bondage of the soul and its passage through various stages of spiritual development – one passage leading to enjoyments in heavenly region and then subjecting oneself to rebirth; another way of ascent through the solar orb by the passage of the rays of the sun, which is a blessing that is accorded to highly purified souls, who are shining inside in their purity, desirelessness and ardent love for God; such persons are chosen to travel through the rays of the sun and gradually reach Brahma Loka, leading further to salvation.

What are the means to moksha? What are we supposed to do for that? The age-old royal paths to spiritual freedom have been the paths of action and knowledge, traditionally known as karma and jnana. There have been historical controversies and endless discussions on the meaning of action and knowledge, and even today we cannot say that people have come to a conclusion as to what action means and what knowledge is.

Among the six schools of philosophy, a prominent school which advocates ritualistic sacrifices and karma for the freedom of the soul is called Purva Mimamsa or Karma Mimamsa. Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa or Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta are the six schools of philosophy.

Purva Mimamsa is the system of the study of the Veda Samhitas, discovering the true meaning of the mantras of the Samhitas and their application in sacrificial deeds as expounded in the ritualistic portion of the Vedas known as the Brahmanas. The whole system is concerned with this subject – satisfying the gods in heaven for benefits of every kind. Brahma Sutra points out the inadequacy of sacrificial rituals as means to ultimate freedom, moksha. Action is a process, and process is not an immutable reality. Action has a beginning, and so it has an end. Action, karma, or sacrifice is perishable, and the perishable cannot lead to moksha. Action is a purification process.

What is the purpose of the Veda and the Karma Kanda of the Brahmanas? The satisfaction of the gods is the purpose. If the gods are satisfied, we shall also be satisfied. How would you satisfy the gods? By yajna Reference to this is made in the Bhagavad Gita also:

God created – Prajapati created – human beings with a sense of duty and proclaimed, 'Worship the gods (Devas) and in reciprocatory gesture, the gods will bless you.' Here is the seed of the Karma Kanda, which is adumbrated in great detail in the Purva-Mimamsa.

But mere sacrifice in the form of pouring ghee into the fire is not what is intended, because the word deva is used as an intermediary principle responsible for the fructification of the results of the performance. We have been discussing earlier on certain other occasions that the subject and the object are related to each other by a third principle called adhidaiva, a divine Superintending Principle.

The perceiving and cognising consciousness is adhyatma and the object that is perceived is adhibhuta – the world. How does perception take place? It is effected by the action of an intermediary principle which is the transcendent consciousness known as adhidaiva. This adhidaiva is what you call 'god' and there are endless gods as there can be endless varieties of the relationship between a subject and an object.

People sometimes ask 'Why are there so many gods?' They are not so many gods as crude village folk may think; it is not like that. They are necessary interlinking processes of consciousness in every act of perception. If there are infinite types of perception of objects in the universe, there are infinite gods also, as there can be any number of triangles whose apex is like the god and the two points of the base are the subject and the object.

The varieties of perception are known to everybody. We do not perceive things in the world in a uniform manner, and added to this, there is another complication. There are degrees of the ascent of perception. We are now in the lowest and crudest form of the perceptional process of the physical world. We know only the physical world and nothing below or nothing above. But there are seven planes of existence mentioned in the Puranas and epics – Bhu-loka, Bhuvar-loka, Suvar-loka, Mahar-loka, Jana-loka, Tapo-loka, Satya-loka. These are all higher degrees of Reality, where perception continues in a more and more ethereal form reducing the distance between the subject and the object until the subject merges with the object in Brahma-Loka.

But until that state is reached, the perceptual process continues and this intermediary principle also continues to act and there are so many varieties of perception in varieties of levels of being. So, it looks as if there are endless gods.

However, the point made out by Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is that merely offering objectively some sacred stuff in the holy fire will not satisfy the gods. The gods will have to be invoked in the middle of the performance. 'I have to be grateful to the gods who are making it possible for me to perceive that you are sitting here.' Gratitude to gods is the greatest sacrifice. We cannot hear, we cannot sense anything, we cannot breathe, we cannot eat, we cannot even exist as individuals unless the gods co-operate with us.

The gods are the cosmic counterparts of individual functions. Meaningless chanting of some slokas and throwing some ghee into the fire does not mean sacrifice, according to Purva Mimamsa or even the Bhagavad Gita. The performer of the yajna should be conscious of the divinity which is being invoked in the offering. The offering physically in the form of charu, ghee etc., is symbolic of a prayer offered to the divinity which is the presiding principle over the mantras of the Veda. With this we can reach celestial freedom is the contention of the Purva Mimamsa.

But the great commentator Sankaracharya, during his exposition of the Brahma Sutra, while touching upon this subject, cautions us. Action can bind you and liberate you, also. The binding action is that which you do for the sake of somebody else, or one's own personal benefit.

People do not like work! 'Why should I do, unnecessarily, drudging for the sake of somebody?' That feeling of dislike for the performance of any kind of work which wrongly is interpreted as the work for somebody else is binding in its nature. But action is not always for the sake of other people. Actually, it is never for the other people because there are no other people in the world. This subject also we have been touching upon earlier on different occasions.

The idea of the 'other' should be shed, first and foremost, while stepping into the spiritual path. Who are the 'other people'? Are you not one of the 'other people'? Knowing that you are one of the 'other people', how would you call anybody as 'other'? So when you say, 'I am working for others' – who are the 'others'? You yourself are included in the conglomeration of people called the 'others'. Everyone is an 'other' to someone. If this principle is borne in mind and you do not commit the mistake of isolating yourself from people in the world whom you regard as 'others' – but include yourself also among the 'others' – then working for the sake of the 'others' would mean working for the total humanity. You are not doing the work for somebody else because you are included in that 'somebody else'! This is a subtle point.

A person performs sacrifice, serves people as they call it, for the sake of other people as it is said – in social welfare circles – "you work for humanity". Who is the humanity? A person who is working also is a part of humanity. This is never borne in mind by any person. The externalising ferocity of the sense organs is so intense that it always sees things as something 'outside', and oneself as 'inside'. This is a tragic experience which everybody passes through in utter ignorance of not knowing that one is also included in the objects of perception.

Each one who seems to be perceiving objects is also an object of perception. Therefore, there is no such thing as 'objects'; there is only a total inclusiveness. This is what Bhagavan Sri Krishna instilled into the mind of Arjuna – 'Look at Me, who I am!' – all the objects were in the subject itself!

Action performed in this spirit of total objectivity is liberating. That cannot bind.

Kurvanneveha karmani jijivishet satam samah
Evam tvayi nanyathetosti no karma lipyate nare.

(Isavasya Upanishad 2)

Isavasyam idam sarvam, this is the first word of the Isavasya Upanishad. Based on the consciousness of the all-pervasiveness of Ishvara, if one starts acting, it does not become an individual action.

The first two verses of the Isavasya Upanishad are a prescription for the combination of jnana and karma, Knowledge and Action. These two verses or mantras of the Isavasya Upanishad, we may say, sow the seed for the whole discourse in the Bhagavad Gita. The entire Bhagavad Gita's Gospel of Karma Yoga is in these two mantras. Live a long life, for a hundred years. The doer of the action is not me, is not you or anybody else. It is the total blending together of the so-called 'perceiver' and the so-called 'object' and the divinity combined operating; it is an unthinkable majesty of the principle of Action – World-Action! There is only one thing that does everything.

When you act, when you speak, when you operate anything through the sense organs, all the three factors combine together and there is a Total Action taking place. Spiritual Action is Total Action – it is not your action or my action or anybody's action. So, karma or action is not done for 'other' people. The idea must be shed immediately. If the 'otherness' is introduced into the action performed, it will certainly bind. But if the 'otherness' is removed and it becomes a Total Action, it is liberating. Thus, there is a grand connection between action and knowledge.

Mere intellectual, paroksha jnana, conceptual knowledge is not Real Knowledge. There are professors who are 'embodiments' of knowledge. Well, it is beautifully said that they are professors only, not possessors. You can profess but not possess. So, this professional knowledge is of no use. We must be possessors of knowledge. That kind of knowledge, theoretical, is condemned in the Isavasya Upanishad as useless – it will lead to further bondage because it instils egoism into one's nature (Isavasya Upanishad 9). Learned people – panditas – professors can be boasting of their knowledge while that knowledge is outside their personal being and does not touch them at all. Professorial knowledge or intellectual comprehension of the subjects of philosophy and science and religion etc. – all these are something like a beautiful shirt that you put on making you look beautiful, but you know you are not the shirt; you are something else inside. Panditas are mostly miserable in their personal lives; they complain more than you complain!

The Brahma Sutra has many things to tell us on the relationship between action and knowledge. Purva Mimamsa is set aside as an inadequate process of spiritual liberation as it has set aside Charvaka, Bauddha, Pasupata, Sankhya, and even the personalistic conception of God. The prescription of Brahma Sutra is very severe, severe in the sense that your notions of God do not always coincide with God-Being.

Action and Knowledge are the two great paths, but the Bhagavad Gita mentions that they are not two paths – they are one and the same. Properly understood Action, Universal Action, is the same as Contemplation or Meditation.

People generally speak of 'Contemplation in Action' and 'Action in Contemplation'. We are body-bound individuals; we cannot see 'Contemplation in Action'. Contemplation is Action in a universal sense and Action is Contemplation also in a universal sense. The Path of the Spirit is Universal Inclusiveness.

I mentioned to you that the path of the gods leading to Brahma Loka is marked with various stages of ascent through the divinities of every element in the universe – earth, water, fire, air, ether; space, time, causation – you have to traverse higher and higher. Earth is a divinity; water is a divinity; fire is divinity; Wind-air-vayu is a divinity; Space is divinity; Time is divinity; Causation is divinity; the impulse to create and be individual is a divinity – all these have to be traversed. These are the passages through krama mukti, 'Gradational Salvation', taking a long time.

But there is another way, the Path of Immediate Salvation. It is a terrifying thing even to think what it could be. You attain salvation at once, not struggling through various stages like the crawling of an ant. There are two paths known as 'Ant's Path' and the 'Bird's Path', pipilika marga and suka marga as they call it; pipilika is the ant, suka is the bird. If the ant is to reach a particular destination, it has to crawl little by little with its tiny legs – it will reach of course but it will take a lot of time; but the bird will fly straight to that destination without any obstacle. The 'Ant's path' is Yoga; the 'Bird's path' is Immediate Identity with Brahman.

A great passage in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which is the final instruction of sage Yajnavalkya to King Janaka, states that those who have no desires, those who have obtained everything connected with their desires, those who desire only the Universal Self – their pranas do not depart. They merge in Brahman at once. Where will the water of the ocean 'depart' in order to find the water? If the wave or bubble on the surface of the ocean wishes to become the ocean, what long a distance has it to travel? No travelling is necessary!

Atraiva samavaliyante, the dissolution of individuality takes place just now, here itself. Being the Universal, one becomes the Universal, with no time process and no spatial distance!

Can you understand what it could mean? Would it not make you feel a shudder inside yourself? The nerves will crack, the muscles will twitch inside even to hear such a thing, because it is the liquefying process of the whole hardened ego and individuality. These are great promises given to us, and we should be happy that the promises have been given, and one day we may reach that state!

But to desire It, to want It and to contemplate only That and to be merged in That thought day and night, in spite of the activities one is engaged in – can anyone feel that Blessing is available to any one of us?

If there is anyone of us who has the time to think only This and find only This in everything which you call 'external' – if we can see the Universal in the internal as well as the external and also that which is in between the internal and the external and plunge into the Sea of such a Universality of Perception even when we are busy in this world, even if you are selling vegetables in the market – then action does not bind. "We do not want to do any work; we will close the eyes and merge." There is no necessity to say such a thing. You need not close the eyes; you can open the eyes; you can walk! You can do anything but 'all these things are within Me, the Compass of this Oceanic Pervasiveness of Total Action'.

If anybody's heart is so pure as to understand this Truth and feel a tremor in the whole system by the very thought of It, such a person will not take another birth; such will attain the Supreme Being. This is called sadyo mukti – Immediate Salvation.

Great Blessing! Great Blessing! Even the hearing of it is a great sadhana. What you have done now is sravana – you have heard; it has inundated you with the possibility of a Great Achievement ahead of you. Go to your room and sit; "What have I heard today? Oh! Is it like this? Is it like this? I must think like this! I must do like this! Oh! I want this; I want this" – go on analysing what Krishna says, what Brahma Sutra says, what Mimamsa says, what Isavasya Upanishad says – "Oh! Oh! Oh!" – Go on ruminating within yourself 'This is what it is.!' "Oh! How happy! How happy I am! Wonderful!". Go on thinking That only, "Oh! How will I get It? How will I get It? I want It, I want It. How will I get It? How will I get It? I want only This; I want only This!" – go on telling it to yourself. "Oh! What to do? What to do? How will I get? How will I get?" Go on with this affirmation until it sinks into your being.