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The Philosophy of the Karma Yoga of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on July 15, 1979.)

It is necessary to be very practical and realistic in our approach to sadhana. While we have to be idealistic ultimately, we have also to be realistic and accept the fact that we are still on the Earth and not in the heavens. Many a difficulty of the seeker is an over-estimation and an enthusiasm beyond the level of the Earth. Our feet are still on the ground. We live in a physical body, we live in human society, and we have the foibles of human nature in general.

It is very clear that we are not Godmen. We have not even a clear idea of what God is, let alone be established in the consciousness of God. We are intensely body-conscious. We are acutely hungry when it is lunchtime or dinnertime. We suffer from the pangs of thirst when the sun is very hot. We get fatigued, due to which we fall into deep sleep. And we have anxieties caused by the operations in human society. We have fears from inside, from outside, and from above, called the three tapas, or the tapatreya. All these are staring at us as realities.

This is because we are in one level of what may be called evolution, and that has to be accepted. Call a spade a spade, as they say. We cannot deny that we are intensely conscious of a world outside, and also intensely conscious that we are a body, despite the fact that we assert the bodiless condition of our essential being from the point of view of the scriptures or in light of what we have heard from teachers in satsangas, etc. We can be put out immediately in one second by the circumstances of life, whatever be the affirmation that we are trying to make in an idealistic fashion.

Hence, the stages of yoga commence right from matters concerning our down-to-earth life. We are not merely conscious of our physical limitations but are also intensely anxious about our social involvements, and we cannot deny this fact. How can we suddenly rise to the universal thought of God? There are occasions when many of us feel that work is a bondage. We have no time due to our being busy in the office or having to do a lot of work in the management of the family, etc. One feels oftentimes tired of this daily routine, and there are occasions when we are impelled by sentiments of renunciation occasioned by the sufferings caused by involvements in work and responsibility.

Here we have to strike a very cautious note so that we may not be mistaken in the assessment of the position we occupy in this world. We cannot deny that hunger and the fear of death are realities. Opprobrium that can be cast on us by society is also a reality. These are all psychophysical effects produced by the whole attitude to life that we are born into. Our joys and sorrows are ingrained in the very constitution of our personality from the time of our birth into this world. We cannot free ourselves from the necessity to concede an amount of reality to the experiences that follow as a result of the limitation of our own physical existence. We are tired of life, we are tired of work, we are tired of responsibility, we are tired of everything. When we are likely to tend towards this conclusion ultimately, we have to be very vigilant. Most of us can be said to be living in the same boat of an inner desire to be free from every kind of duty or responsibility or work in this world, if it could be possible. People resign their jobs and seek isolation in their lives.

All this is an external expression of an internal intention, and the justification of this external expression in this matter lies in the relevance of the intention inside to the ultimate goal of life. There are often negative attitudes of mind due to which we cannot adjust ourselves with anything in this world. We are adverse to the prevailing conditions, we are fed up with political conditions, we are tired of social circumstances, we have sorrows coming from our own families, and there may be occasions when we are disgusted with our own body itself.

Now, all these are the sort of negative attitudes which the mind is compelled to project under the pressure of circumstances. There is a difference between subjection to pressure of any kind and a deliberately chosen rational attitude to things. Positivity has to be distinguished from negativity of every kind. An aversion to something is to be differentiated from a love for something. Sadhana is not an aversion to something. Though it may apparently take a shape of withdrawal, this withdrawal is a conditional act tending towards a positive approach to a larger dimension of life as a whole.

Renunciation is not an attitude of disgust with the world. It is a preparatory step that we take to train ourselves for understanding the very same world in a better manner, like the withdrawal of a laboratory technician in a scientific institute, for instance, who may lock himself up in the darkness of the laboratory, not because he is averse to relationships with things, but because he has to experiment with certain facts of life with which he will be able to face life in a better manner. Renunciation is a necessity, and internal withdrawal from external activity, which is usually called renunciation, may be also regarded as a necessary condition, but they are all preparatory steps and not ultimate values.

The aim of life is ultimately an inclusive attitude of consciousness, and not an attitude of exclusiveness at any time. The withdrawal physically, socially or politically is, therefore, something like a runner in a race who lags back only to rush forward after a few seconds. It is a technique which is called for by the biological conditions of the body, or perhaps even psychologically. We cannot understand God unless we understand the world. “First and foremost make peace with your brother before you make peace with God,” is an admonition which may be applicable to every one of us. We should not go from this world with the idea that we have an enemy. That would be a very disadvantageous circumstance in which we quit the world.

The inimical attitude is to be distinguished from the spirit of renunciation. We do not renounce the world because the world is an enemy. The renunciation is a spirit rather than an action. It is not something that we do, but what we think in our mind. While this new avenue of thought may require a physical changing of atmosphere, the emphasis should be on the thought rather than on the action. The mind has not been able to adapt itself with the conditions of life due to its ignorance of its own relationships with people outside and things in general. The duty that we are expected to perform in the world, the so-called work that we are involved in, is also a training of the mind, and not really a positive call for help for the redemption of the world.

Karma yoga is a system of internal training, an educational career into which we get introduced, and it is much more this than the art of solidarity that we are trying to bring about in the world. The world cannot be changed. It is just as it is. It has not changed for centuries and it is not going to change, but the understanding of it changes. The knowledge that we have about the world increases as the training continues further and further, and we are able to handle situations better. For this purpose it is that we are asked to perform our duty.

Our getting fed up with the work in which we are engaged is, again, a matter to be subjected to internal analysis. We cannot totally be free from any kind of work. This is a fact known to us very well and insisted upon by the scriptures on karma yoga. What we generally do is, we give up one kind of work and enter into another kind of work. We are not really getting ourselves free from work totally. The mind wants a change, and it gets tired of a monotonous routine which it has been following earlier. Change is the spice of life. We require variety at all times, whether it is in outward life or our inner spiritual sadhana.

As I mentioned yesterday, we have to proceed from the physical and social level to the psychological, rational and the spiritual stages. We have to live a life of friendliness, servicefulness and adjustment with the outward circumstances of human society, not because that is going to do any good to society but because of the fact that is an indication of the maturity of our own mind. The harmony or the adjustment or the adaptability of the mind in respect of the world outside is an indication of the extent of the education which has been imparted to us. The depth of the knowledge that we have gained in respect of the realities of the world, and the advancement in life, are more a movement inward towards its profundities rather than an adventure in the direction of bringing about a transformation in the outward conditions of life. The whole universe will be the same way in the future it was earlier. We cannot change a whit its essential constitution.

But there is a so-called growth in the entire structure of the cosmos towards a Self-realisation of itself, which is the moksha of the whole cosmos, we may say. Scriptures sometimes refer to this possibility as the withdrawal of the whole universe into the mind of Hiranyagarbha, the Sutratma or the Cosmic Intellect, and the reversal of the whole procedure of outward manifestation into an inner absorption of the cosmos into the Absolute.

This is a symbolic representation of the spiritual evolutionary process through which every sadhaka has to pass. Everyone has to tread the same road, and all the experiences through which ancient saints and sages had to pass are those through which we also have to pass. The experiences of the Buddha or the Christ are also our experiences. It is not merely a story of ancient history that we are reading when we study the lives of these great men because the stages of evolution are set, and we have to tread the same route, transcending the same stages and passing through the same experiences. We have to lift the same cross which the Christ lifted, and undergo the same sorrows which the Buddha had to pass through. Everything which confronted anyone would also be experienced by every one of us at one time or the other. The law of the universe is inexorable and it has no exemptions. It is universally spread out in a most impartial manner, and our success in any walk of life is conditioned by the extent to which we are able to adapt ourselves to the set law of the cosmos or, we may say, to the law of God.

The systems of karma yoga, bhakti yoga, etc., are only internal arts of self-adaptation to the conditions that are demanded of us by the existing rules prevailing in the cosmos. Neither excess on one side nor excess on the other side is permitted. Yuktāhāravihārasya yuktaceṣṭasya karmasu, yuktasvapnāvabodhasya yogo bhavati duḥkhahā (BG 6.17). An excessive emphasis on the side of austerity or an excessive emphasis on the side of indulgence, both are equally disadvantageous because truth is in the middle. “'Everything is' is one extreme, 'Everything is not' is another extreme,” said Buddha, “but the truth is in the middle. It neither is, nor is it not.”

So is this path a subtle razor's edge, sharp like the edge of a sword which is invisible to the naked eye. Many a time it is compared to the track of fish in water or of birds in the sky, a track which cannot be seen with the eyes. It is subtle because it is not either a subject or an object. The path of the spirit is laid between the subject and the object. It is between you and myself. It is in the middle as a connecting link, not as a person or an individual looking at the object or as an object that is perceived by an independent subject. It is neither yourself nor myself. It is not anything whatsoever. It is, therefore, most difficult for the mind to conceive of because of its habit to think in terms of externalities such as I, mine, etc.

The path of the spirit is the way of God, or it is the way in which God visualises things, and our adaptation to this way of thinking is the step we take in sadhana. God has no subjects; He has no objects. He is neither me nor you. He is a link between the two. The placement of oneself in this harmonious linkage between the seer and the seen is what is actually called the golden mean or the via media in the practice. You should not take excessive interest either in your own personality or in the personalities of others. To discard others in the interest of one's own personality is an internal form of egoism, and to emphasise the externalities to the neglect of the welfare of one's own self is another form of egoism, which manifests itself or masquerades itself as altruism outwardly in nature. Any kind of emphasis is a mistake, a kind of suicide that you perform. Even in the interest of a so-called sociable nature, it would be an excess of behaviour. You are as important as others, and others are as important as yourself. You cannot destroy yourself; you cannot destroy others either. To kill yourself in the love of others would be on par with killing others in the love of yourself. Any kind of martyrdom deliberately courted would be an error of approach. This is the samatva which the Bhagavadgita has been teaching throughout its chapters – a balance of emphasis on both sides of the matter.

Hence, our duty would be, properly speaking, more in the nature of an understanding of the events of life in an impersonal manner, and taking them in the spirit of their actualities and not in their idealities. What is, is as important as what ought to be. We should not neglect what is because of our over-emphasis on what ought to be. “Oh, it ought to have been like this.” Well, that may be. We would very much wish that the whole Earth is flooded with the joys of heaven, but it is not so. The Earth is what it is. So to invoke the bliss of heaven to the level of the Earth, we have to take our stand on the Earth first, as we build an edifice on the ground and not in the skies.

Thus it is that whenever we are fired up in the spirit of relinquishment of duties, giving up of work and confining ourselves to an isolated adventure in an internal world, we should be vigilant in what direction we are moving. The Supreme Being, God, is not merely an internal reality, as He is also not an outward object. God is not merely inside you, though it is also true that He is inside you; and He is also not outside as an extra-cosmic creator. The difficulty in the comprehension of the ideal of the Spirit lies here, that God is not merely transcendent, though He is also transcendent. He is above the confines of the mind and also of matter, but He is not confined to any individual internality. “God is within and Guru is inside. I speak to Him from within myself,” is often a notion entertained by even sincere seekers. God is not merely inside you, as you are imagining. He is also equally outside, and He can speak to you in an external language.

The undifferentiated spread-out character of our goal of life is our main problem, so neither can we renounce a thing nor can we cling to a thing. Mā karmaphalahetur bhūr mā te saṅgo 'stv akarmaṇi (BG 2.47): Neither can you cling to action, nor can you abandon action, so you are caught from both sides. You cannot say you like it, and you cannot say you don't like it. Both these attitudes are uncalled for and untrue to the nature of things.

How is it possible for a person to neither like a thing nor not to like a thing? We have never heard of such a state of affairs. We always have some opinion of things which is either in favour of it or against it because we have personal requirements, we have needs and desires, and anything that is in conformity with the fulfilment of our own needs appears beautiful and valuable, and therefore, good, ethical. But that which is somehow or other tending towards an opposition towards the fulfilment of our own so-called needs and desires is ugly and undesirable. That is an object of vehemence from our own minds.

Hence, any attitude, any judgement that we pass in regard to things outside as valuable or otherwise should proceed from a precedent analysis of the justifiability of our own needs and requirements. What is the spring of action behind the projection of a particular desire in our mind? What motivates the mind in a particular direction of like or dislike? That has to be the object of analysis first. If the basic motive behind is partitioned and is not in a position to take into consideration the extraneous circumstances, then the universe, the law of nature, will set up a reaction of a similar nature. As you judge a thing, so also you will be judged. Ye yathā māṁ prapadyante tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham (BG 4.11). Tit for tat is the law of nature. Whatever you do to the world, that the world will do to you one day or the other. Whatever you think about the world, that the world will think about you. Whatever you give to the world, that the world will give you. In one sense at least, we may say that the whole world is like a mirror in which your face is reflected. You see your own self there. So whatever grinning you do in front of the mirror, that is reflected back upon you and you see it.

This happens because the world is not outside you. The basic error of our approach is to spring upon the world as if it is an outsider, take it by surprise, and try to conquer it or abandon it. The necessity to set up a balance, samatva, between ourselves and the world in karma yoga arises because of our involvement in the world. The world is neither a friend nor an enemy, just as I am not my own friend and I am not my own enemy. We cannot have such attitudes towards one's own self when the world is involved in the very structure of our being, and vice versa, so much so that any kind of judgement would be an unwarranted attitude of ours. Judge not lest ye be judged, is a universal maxim because only God can judge things, because He alone isomniscient. Judgement is passed by a person who has knowledge of every bit of the matter. He has a comprehensive knowledge of the entire circumstance of the case. Then only the judgement can be passed. But if one is a partisan, such a person is unfit to pass a judgement. And we are partisans, it is very well known, because we belong to our own selves, our own families, our own country, our own nationality, our own species, humanity. So how are we fit to say anything about the things in the world? We are not impartial either towards the complainant or towards the defendant. We belong either to that side or this side.

Hence, again we come to the point of the Bhagavadgita concerning the freedom that we have to attain in respect of our own personal predilections, a fact that has been emphasised in the verse that we have been studying: nirmānamohā jitasaṅgadoṣā adhyātmanityā vinivṛttakāmāḥ, dvandvair vimuktāḥ sukhaduḥkhasaṁjñaiḥ gacchhanty amūḍhāḥ padam avyayaṁ tat (BG 15.5). In one verse many things are said. Adhyātmanityā vinivṛttakāmāḥ: The establishment, either in the Self, or we may say in God, whatever name we give to it, is possible only when we are nivṛttakāmāḥ, that is, we have no personal idiosyncrasy in respect of anything. This is possible when we are dvandvair vimuktāḥ: Free from a tendency to take part in either side of the matter. We should not say we belong to this party or that party, because then it is very clear what opinion we will have about the other party. The world has no parties. All the parties are contents of this world.

This is the final structure of the constitution of things. As an umpire witnesses the game that is played in a field without belonging to either side, we have to be a spectator of all time and existence. What is the meaning of being a spectator of all time and existence? It is to be a spectator of ourselves as well as of others, and bear all these pairs of opposites.

The greatest pair of opposites is the pair of the seer and the seen, myself and yourself. These two constitute the central pair of opposites, and then everything else follows. Like, dislike, heat, cold, hunger, thirst, etc., are all secondary. The opposition between me and you is the pair of opposites. I cannot fully agree with you, and you cannot fully agree with me. Here is the ultimate irreconcilability of nature: the structure of things and the structure of the mind that beholds the things. Mind cannot reconcile itself with matter; matter cannot reconcile itself with mind. This is the philosophical or the metaphysical irreconcilability of opposites which descends in the form of lesser irreconcilabilities between parties in political fields, etc. Therefore, light has to be thrown on the various degrees of irreconcilability that we feel in our lives in order to understand what it is to be a dvandva mumukta.

Sukha and dukha, from which we have to be free according to the teaching of the Gita, arise because of this dvandva or the clash of opposites. The whole creation seems to be arranged in such a manner that a tendency to irreconcilability has been planted in the very seed of creation itself. We are unable to comprehend this mystery, of course, but we have somehow or other to adjust ourselves to the existing conditions. When, as the scriptures say, God willed that He should become many, it appears as if the Universal Subject willed to become the objects, and we know what it means: the I becoming the you. First the I becomes the me, then the me becomes the you. The you becomes the friend and the foe, and everything that follows as a consequence thereof, to the level where we are today.

One who is not caught up in the delusion of this so-called irreconcilability of dvanvdas is one who is not stupid, and to be stupid is to believe in the ultimate irreconcilability of yourself and myself. Can we be really friends? Let us ponder over this matter a little. Can you be a real friend of mine always, till the end of life, under every circumstance, at every place, even at the point of doom? It is doubtful if this is a practicable proposition. We are told that a real friend is one who will follow us till the doom. But have we seen such a friend throughout history? It is not possible because we have a personality of our own. Because I assert myself in the same way as you assert yourself, we can never be friends. We can never be friends as long as we are individuals, as long as I am what I am and you are what you are. But if I can become you and you can become me, there is a chance. Is it possible that you can become me and I become you? Maybe. It is a strange proposition indeed. How is it possible that I can become you?

This is sadhana. It is not merely the rolling of the beads in a physical fashion but the rolling of the bead of the mind, as the saint Kabir used to say, man ka manka. The mind has to perform a sirsasana, which means to say, the top has to become the bottom, and the bottom has to become the top. That is sirsasana. The object has to become the subject; the subject has to become the object. What I see should become myself and I should be there in what I see. Then the real Bhagavadgita gospel begins to operate like a flood that is rushing over our heads. Then God is at our beck and call. God becomes our servant. He is not merely our master. Wonderful! God becomes our servant as Krishna became a tongawalla – unthinkable! If you read the lives of saints, you will realise how God became even a servant boy in the house of great masters. He will sweep the floor, wash your cloths and purchase vegetables for you from the market. This is possible only if you are the servant of all, and not the master of anyone. As I mentioned yesterday, if you are the humblest conceivable, you are the master of everything. He who is nothing has control over all things. He who wants nothing will be bestowed with everything, and he who is the last will become the first for God.

An abolition of individuality, ego-personality and what not implies the worship of God in the circumstances of things. As Krishna is present in the whole field of the Mahabharata and Rama was present in the entire Ramayana warfare, God is present in this series of events we call life. The whole of life is a series of processions of events which is the drama played by the central will of God. He is the dramatic personae as well as the audience. He is Himself in this arena of movements, in this stage of life where men come and go and have their entrances and exits. But all these are to be taken in their central perspective and we have to learn the art of seeing things as the Supreme Being Himself sees.

Truth is, really speaking, what God sees with His eyes, goodness is that which God loves, and righteousness is that which God does. We cannot do what God does, we cannot think what God thinks, and we cannot see things as God sees. It is true, but we can take one step in that direction. Even if we move one inch in the direction of holy Badrinath, we are on the journey towards Badrinath, though it is only one step that we have taken. We have not even reached Lakshmanjhula, but still we say that we are on the journey towards holy Badrinath. Likewise is our journey towards God. It may be millions of miles away or hundreds of births ahead; it does not matter. We have taken a step, and it is a step in the proper direction.

Thus, one has to be always infinitely patient with the confidence that one has taken the right step, just as a farmer is happy even if he has merely sown the seed in the field and he does not know whether the crop will come up or not. It is beyond him, and he is not worried about it. The kisan, the person who works in the field, is satisfied because he has done his duty. He has done it in the proper manner, and therefore, it brings him satisfaction. What makes us happy is not the expected fruit which is out of our reach and beyond our control, but the consciousness of having done what is proper with the light of the highest understanding available to us.

Here is, in a small outline, the whole philosophy of the karma yoga of the Bhagavadgita, which is the prerequisite to the higher contemplations on God with the final aspiration of unity with God.