The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 7: The Nature of Right Understanding

We have covered practically the whole ground behind the meaning and the context of the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. We had to take so much time in covering the field of this one chapter, as it lays the foundation for all further thought and understanding which will follow through the coming chapters. We had occasion to observe that the background of the First Chapter is not simple and not so very introductory as it is generally made to appear. Rather, it has a value in preparing the ground for the edifice of the teaching.

I am sure you will be able to recollect the various stages of thought through which we had to pass in understanding the profound significance of ‘The Yoga of the Dejection of the Spirit’, which is the title of the First Chapter. The dejection, or the mood of melancholy in which the representative man, Arjuna, found himself, has been described as a spiritual condition. That is why even the so-called dejection is regarded as a part of Yoga. It is not a morbid condition of negativity or an earth-bound attitude, but a necessary condition of positivity in its most initial stage, the task which a spiritual seeker has to take upon himself when he girds up his loins to encounter the universal Reality.

The darkness which one faces at the outset is the cumulative effect of the tremendous inward preparation which has already been made through the earlier stages of self-investigation, study and reception of knowledge from various avenues in the world. But an explanation has to be offered as to why this dejection arises at all, which comes in the form of an answer given by Krishna in a few verses at the commencement of the Second Chapter. The point made out is that the understanding is not clear enough. The knowledge, which is designated as the samkhya, is lacking. There is a turbidity of the intellect and a misdirection of the ratiocinating faculty, which situation supervenes on account of the reason of the human being itself getting contaminated by the prejudices of the psyche, from which it arises, as it were, like a tendril from a seed. Who can gainsay that our rationality or logic is, to a large extent, conditioned by the structure of our personality, which is located in a phenomenal context of the universe, and everything that devolves out of this phenomenality?

The term samkhya that is used in the Second Chapter is the knowledge which is supposed to be in consonance with the nature of Reality, and that which is dissonant with its nature is the opposite of it, the absence of knowledge, or samkhya. What this knowledge is will be told to us in the Third Chapter—what it is to be endowed with samkhya, or correct understanding, alongside of which we will also know what is meant by wrong understanding. The immediate reaction of Krishna, the Teacher, to the predicament of the psyche of Arjuna is metaphysical, and it takes into consideration certain aspects in the course of the argument. The sudden answer which comes as an immediate reaction to the various arguments posed by Arjuna is that the soul of the individual is essentially immortal. The fear of death and destruction and catastrophe which harassed the mind of this human representative in Arjuna—all these problems are out of point on account of the essence of being, or the basic fundamentality of the individual, being indestructible. There is no such thing as destruction, ultimately, of anything that exists. There cannot also be a destruction of that which does not exist. This is simple logic which is the encounter that comes forth as a flash of light from Krishna upon the mind of Arjuna. The fear of destruction was one of the points raised by Arjuna as a counterblast against the injunction that engagement in war is necessary. This argument of Arjuna received a reply in a short passage which makes out that destruction of reality is not possible. That which is, always is; and that which is not, cannot be under any circumstance.

Now, when it is said that something is destroyed, one does not properly understand what one is speaking. There is only a change of form; the name-form-complex undergoes a transformation in the process of evolution in the universe. But even in this transformation, a total destruction of any element does not take place. There is a decomposition of the parts and a rearrangement of the parts in a particular manner under a given condition. And when one lacks the knowledge of this peculiar process through which everything passes, one regards it as a destructive process, or death.

Hence, the fact being that the essence of everything is immortal—we call this essence of things the soul of things—there is no need for entertaining the fear of such a thing as death. If death that seems to be imminent or impending is the retarding factor in one’s engaging oneself in any action, this fear has to be shed immediately because there is no death of the essence of the personality of the individual. But if it is the fear of the destruction of the form or the name-form-complex, it is inevitable, and no one can escape this possibility, because the finite can never rest in itself forever. Death becomes necessary because evolution is a necessity. And death is nothing but a name we give to the process of the passing of a thing from one state into another state, into another thing, as we usually call it. So, there is no fear of the death of the essence of the individual, and there is no escaping the chance of undergoing the transformation of the name-form-complex, which is called the death of personality. Hence, either way, there is no cause for grief. What is inevitable has to be accepted, and to weep over the inevitable is absolutely without any significance and is to no advantage whatsoever. You cannot avert the possibility of this transformation which everything has to undergo as long as it is located as a finite entity in the realm of space-time-cause relationship. But if it is the soul that you are speaking of, it cannot be destroyed. This is a metaphysical point, a highly philosophical issue, which is the answer which Krishna gives to Arjuna’s query. But this is not the only answer.

The individual is not merely a metaphysical entity, though it is also that. We have noted in our earlier studies that the individual is also a social unit. There is a large society of individuals, and the relevance of the individual to this social atmosphere is also to be taken into consideration when any judgement is to be passed at any time. There is a duty of everyone in respect of the atmosphere in which one is placed. This is called the dharma of the individual in respect of society.

Svadharma is usually regarded as one’s obligation towards the society in which one is placed. And we have observed what society is. It is not merely the human atmosphere that we are referring to as society, but everything that is around us which cannot be exhausted merely by the human world. The whole universe becomes an atmosphere later on, and we seem to be owing a duty towards this vast expanse of the universe, which touches us on our very skin in various degrees of its manifestation, including what we call human relationship.

Thus, from the point of view of the ultimate nature of Reality, from the standpoint of one’s connection with the society around, as well as the interest of one’s own self—from all these angles of vision, if we consider the duty of a person, it appears that no one is free from duty of some kind or other. So, inaction is unthinkable. And, even the decision not to act is also an action. Thus, the action-bound world compels everyone to be active in some way. But wisdom consists in understanding the process of connecting one’s activity with the whole to which it belongs, and any kind of selfishness or emphasis on one’s own particularity or finitude in the process of engaging oneself in an action would not be a Yoga but a passage to one’s bondage. Bondage is the consequence that follows from action which arises from non-understanding of the vital connection of one’s self with the whole to which one belongs. And freedom is the opposite of it.

So, action is finally not an individual’s initiative merely. It is a part of the total purpose of the universe as a whole. And not to understand this would be the absence of samkhya, or knowledge. “I have explained to you what samkhya is,” says Krishna. The details of the samkhya would be touched upon in the Second Chapter. Now we are only getting into a little introduction or inkling of what this samkhya could be. This samkhya has to be applied in daily practice. This knowledge has to become a method or a procedure of conducting oneself in daily life. This implementation of the knowledge of the samkhya in one’s daily life is called Yoga. “Now I shall tell you what Yoga is, after having told you something about samkhya.”

Knowledge is the precedent to action. The way in which we have to behave, conduct ourselves in this world, the method of action, is the knowledge thereof. Theory and practice go together. Knowledge and action are inseparable. Yoga is not merely action in the common-sense meaning of the term, but action proceeding from the being of a person, and the action becoming more and more comprehensive and complete as the dimension of the being expands itself gradually in the process of the practice of Yoga. “Even a little of this practice is a great credit to you”— nehabhikramanaso  sti. There is no loss of any sort in this glorious encounter of the soul with the Absolute. Every bit of endeavour in the right direction is going to be a credit balance, however meagre that balance may be. One should be happy that some good has been done. And everything is good if it is done with an understanding of the samkhya. It ceases to be the good and it becomes a way to one’s bondage only when it is bereft of this background of knowledge.

We have only a duty, and we have no right to expect any fruit out of the performance of duty. This is the great ringing tone of the teaching of the Bhagavadgita. This is something which the modern mind cannot easily understand because it is sunk in the mire of the expectation of fruits even before the seed is being sown. We are always after the rights that we have to expect from the world, minus the duties that we seem to owe to the society in which we are. One cannot expect the fruits of one’s action. There is a great mistake in this expectation because the fruits are not in one’s hands, while action is obligatory. Even to take a common example of sowing the seed in a field, look at the work of the farmer. He does his duty very well, but we cannot say that the fruit is entirely in his hands. Many factors which are out of his bounds go to contribute in the production of the result which is the harvest that he has to reap. There should be rainfall, there should be the proper weather condition, and many other things, as we know very well.

The fruit, the result, the consequence of an action is decided by factors beyond the comprehension of the human individual and, therefore, to expect a particular fruit would be the height of ignorance on the part of any person. We suffer because we expect a particular consequence to follow from a set of actions that we perform, and those results we expect do not follow on account of the simple reason that there are other conditions to be fulfilled for the production of the result than merely the initiative taken by the so-called agent of action. I as an agent, the so-called initiator of the action, may be one of the factors. Yes, accepted. But I am not the only factor, and to consider myself as the sole conditioning principle behind the production of the result of an action would be ignorance, and that would be the absence of samkhya, knowledge.

Hence, we are told again and again, throughout the teaching, that it is highly improper to expect a fruit. All that goes to constitute the universe in its entirety has something to say in the production of the result of even the least of actions, and we are not the only deciding factor. There is a ‘bench of judges’, as it were, and it is not only one judge that decides the case, here the ‘bench’ being a very large one constituted of innumerable judges.

This wondrous knowledge becomes a source of great solace and peace to the mind, and it remains equally rooted in success as well as failure. The words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are applied by us as a kind of judgement upon the nature of the results of action. But we are not supposed to pass such judgements. Success and failure are not to be regarded as the criterion of the correctness of an action, because success and failure are our valuations, from our own standpoints, and not necessarily from the total standpoint of the purpose of the universe. Again, there can be a so-called failure in spite of all the efforts that we have put forth, and that should not be a source of dejection of our mind, provided we have done our best. Nor should there be any kind of unnecessary exultation on account of a so-called success, merely because it is in consonance with our pleasures and predilections. ‘Sukha’ and ‘dukha’, pleasure and pain, should not be the judging factors in the performance of an action. We have to be cautious in seeing that the action is performed in as impersonal a manner as possible, freeing it from the intrusion of individual agency or doership as much as possible. All actions, finally, are cosmic actions, and they appear to be our actions on account of a misunderstanding of the causative factors of any action.

Yoga is the balance of attitude which consciousness maintains on account of the presence of the samkhya buddhi, or knowledge behind the performance of duty—“samatvam yoga uchyate.” And this equanimity, or poised attitude of consciousness in the performance of a duty or action, accelerates the process of the action, and one becomes dexterous due to the element of impersonality that is present there. The more are you unselfish, the more are you capable of executing a deed in the proper manner. Dexterousness or adroitness in action is Yoga: ‘yogah karmasu kausalam’. An expertness in action is Yoga, an expertness that follows from the equanimity that is behind the performance of an action. Thus, Yoga has been defined in a novel manner in the Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, not necessarily in the way in which we people take it, usually. Yoga is impersonality of approach, and not merely the isolated hermit life of an individual performing breathing exercises or sitting in postures of the body, etc. Such is not the Yoga which the Bhagavadgita emphasises, though the importance of this aspect of Yoga also will be touched upon in one of the chapters that is going to be explained later. The Yoga of the Bhagavadgita is very comprehensive. It regards life itself as Yoga. The way in which we have to live in this world is Yoga. And this way or manner of living may involve various requisites or preparations. They may all be necessary conditions in the fulfilment of the vast achievement called duty in life.

We have also noted that rights follow duties automatically. To ask for rights would be redundant in the context of things, because the privileges of the individual are necessary results that follow from the correct performance of duties, and we are anxious about our rights on account of the incorrectness of the performance of duty—a selfishness that creeps into its so-called performance, wherein placed the individual ceases to be performing duty really. The value of the performance in the form of duty lies in the extent of the unselfishness that is behind it, the impersonality of the ground on which it is rooted. The larger the self that performs the action, the greater is the unselfishness behind the action. What we call the selfishness of an individual is the attitude of the limitation of the self involved in the visualisation of things. There are grades of selfishness and grades of unselfishness, too. In comparison with the higher stage, the lower one may appear as selfish.

Hence, in the advance of consciousness through the process of its evolution we will find that there is an ascending degree of the concept of unselfishness. And the particular degree of unselfishness which determines an action will also determine the nature of the result that follows from that action, so that when an utter unselfishness or a total abolition of personality is behind the performance of an action, that action is no action at all. There we see inaction in action, when the action is motivated by an annihilation of the consciousness of individuality. That is called Cosmic Action, if at all we can call it an action. Thus, action and being commingle at a particular stage, so that existence itself becomes action. But this is a very remote possibility, the final end of things, the absoluteness which the self reaches when it is supposed to have attained liberation, by which we mean the freedom of consciousness from finitude of every kind, in which condition placed, the self of an individual becomes the Self of all beings. “Yena sarvam idam tatam”: that Self of ours pervades the selves of all beings. And, therefore, the performer of action, if it is to be regarded as the self, should be considered as the Self of all beings, so that everyone is doing that action, and not ‘you’ or ‘I’ as apparently privileged individuals, encased in a body-mind-complex.

This is the sum and substance of the Samkhya and the Yoga expounded in the Second Chapter of the Gita, amounting to a precise answer to the complicated question which Arjuna raised in the First Chapter. And, inasmuch as the questions of Arjuna arose from the various levels of his personality, the answer also has to be equally relevant to those levels from where the questions arise. That is the reason why the Bhagavadgita is not exhausted merely by the Second Chapter, though, for all practical purposes, it appears as if we have given a suitable and complete answer. We have laid the foundation for a correct and full answer but the details shall follow in the chapters to come.

Our problems do not arise merely from one level of our being, as homeopaths tell us that the disease is not merely in the physical body. It is a total organic condition, and unless the root of it is dug out, the disease is not cured. The whole of the Bhagavadgita is the panacea, the remedy, the medicine that is prescribed as an antidote to the diseased questions which arose from the disintegrated personality of humanity in general, represented in the individuality of Arjuna.

We are also told, towards the end of the Second Chapter, how such a poised person conducts himself in this world, into which details we need not enter here, because they are obvious from what we have studied up to this time. Every one of us would be able to understand how such a perfect person would conduct himself in the world. There is no necessity to offer a commentary thereon. Everything would be welcome, everything would be all right. All shall be for the best for that person who has ceased to be a person any more. That person has become an ‘imperson’ and, therefore, everything is welcome and everything gets absorbed into the impersonality of the person, the genius of an individual. Just as every river is welcome to the ocean and it absorbs all the waters into its bosom, such is the comprehensiveness and the charitableness of the impersonal person, the Sthitaprajna, the perfected individual of the Second Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. One with established understanding, whose consciousness does not flicker or waver when the winds of the world blow over it, such a person is a spiritual stalwart, known sometimes as the Jivanmukta in the language of the Vedanta philosophy.

What a wondrous message we have in a single chapter! And what a wondrous problem we picked up in the First Chapter! Duty is the name of this wisdom-charged admonition of the great Master of the Bhagavadgita, Bhagavan Sri Krishna.