Duality and differentiation are the bedrock of relativity and delusion, and human beings desperately cling to them to preserve their beloved illusions and maintain their false independence from Spirit–a condition that produces nothing but suffering, yet is desperately held on to. How is this? Because the Self has been pushed out of the way by the ego which has taken control. By keeping our consciousness in duality and differentiation the ego perpetuates its power–even its very existence, for the consciousness of Oneness that is the truth will dissolve the ego. So although I have said that “we” cling to delusion, that is one of the lies of the ego we have come to believe and follow. It is the ego that is holding on “for dear life”–not us. Only when we break that hold will we truly begin to live.
Even as we progress in consciousness we find the habit of duality persisting, and we often drag it into our attempts at spiritual reasoning. More than once in the Gita Arjuna presents Krishna with an either/or question that mirrors this illusion. Krishna explains the truth of the matter, and in doing so reveals the error of the question itself. We have come to one of those points. Arjuna asks–not without a hint of complaint and accusation: “You praise renunciation of actions, and again You praise [advocate] yoga. Which one is the better of these two? Tell this to me definitely” (5:1).
In other words: “Which one of these can I throw away?” In our intellectual laziness we demand a simplistic, streamlined outlook so we can avoid the effort of combining two seeming contradictions in order to find out the truth that lies between them–and includes them. We demand a false unity so we can perpetuate our false duality! Fortunately for Arjuna and us Krishna never concedes to this intellectual indolence (and cowardice), but reveals the whole picture, refusing to serve up to us the Truth Lite we crave.
So Krishna replies: “Both renunciation and the yoga of action lead to incomparable bliss. Of the two, however, the yoga of action is superior to the renunciation of action” (5:2).
Action is rightly renounced when we refrain from an action because it is negative, useless, or foolish. Action is also rightly renounced when we act, but in a calm and detached manner, wishing only to do the right and not demanding any particular result. This, of course, is “the yoga of action” (karma yoga). Both bring us freedom and are superior to merely not acting because we are unsure or afraid and merely want to avoid shame and pain, not taking into account the right or wrong of the situation. Such a motivation is centered fully in the ego, not the buddhi (intelligence).
The inner state
“He is to be known as the perpetual renouncer who neither detests nor desires, who is indifferent to [or: beyond] the pairs of opposites. He is easily liberated from bondage” (5:3).
He “who neither detests nor desires” is free from raga and dwesha–attraction and repulsion, both rooted in ego instead of understanding. When we see with the eye of the spirit rather than feel with the compulsions of egoism, we neither like nor dislike an action, though we do value the doing of our duty. In that perspective our detachment will not waver and we will not hesitate to do that which is right to do. This is the path to freedom.
In what follows in this chapter we must keep in mind that the simple term “yoga” means karma yoga.
The way of the wise
“‘Sankhya and yoga are different,’ the childish declare–but not the wise. Even with one of them, practiced correctly, one finds the fruit of both. The place that is attained by the followers of Sankhya is also attained by the followers of yoga. Sankhya and yoga are one. He who perceives this, truly perceives” (5:4, 5).
There is an amazing phenomenon that has existed in the world for ages beyond calculation. In all religions the teachings of great masters and scriptures are praised and adulated–yet hardly ever really followed. These two verses are truly “honored only in the breach” in India where the vast majority insist that the way of knowledge is incompatible with the yoga of action. The Gita is chanted there daily by tens–if not hundreds–of thousands, yet its clear message is assiduously disregarded. As I have pointed out before, Adore the Messenger and Ignore the Message seems to be the motto of all religion.
Only the ignorant say that jnana is incompatible with karma. What about Shankara then? His many works seem to affirm this incompatibility. When Shankara speaks of karma he is referring to the karma-khanda, the ritualistic part of the Vedic tradition, as well as of busyness with ego-inspired action. Krishna is speaking of the doing of right action in the right manner, right action being the duty, the swadharma of the individual. “Better one’s own duty [swadharma] though deficient than the duty of another well performed. Better is death in one’s own duty [swadharma]; the duty [dharma] of another invites danger” (3:35). Without fulfilling that duty through right action, there can be no spiritual release for anyone.
Knowledge and action are one when action is the manifestation of knowledge. An individual may choose to view life more in the aspect of intellectual knowledge or in the aspect of duty and right action. The viewpoint may differ, but the actual living will be the same whichever view is chosen. That, too, is a matter of the natural condition of the aspirant’s mental energies, and is of no great consequence, for moksha (liberation) is the inevitable culmination.
The necessity of both
“Renunciation, indeed, is difficult to attain without yoga. The sage who is disciplined in yoga quickly attains Brahman” (5:6).
Sri Ramakrishna often said: “The mind is everything.” This is especially seen to be true in this part of the Gita. It is not action that is either the problem or the solution–it is the state of mind, including the attitude and the perspective, that determines whether an act is a hindrance or a help toward liberation. It is important for us to realize that Krishna is not advocating “good behavior” as a means to self-upliftment, but is intent on the psychological condition of the seeker as he engages in action. At all times the aspirant must strive to “see true” throughout daily life; then he can “live true.”
It is a great error to suppose that Krishna is presenting his teaching as a kind of “live right” lesson. Rather, he is speaking to “the sage who is disciplined in yoga,” and to no one else, for the state of mind (bhava) he is advocating is impossible to attain by the non-yogi.
“He who is disciplined in yoga, whose self is purified, whose self is controlled, whose senses are conquered, whose self has become the Self of all beings, is not tainted even when acting” (5:7).
When I was reading through the catalog of university courses before my first semester, I was continually frustrated because all the courses that really interested me had a list of prerequisite courses that had to be taken first, and most of them did not interest me. Now I am a bit more adult and realize the need for such prerequisites in all other aspects of life, also. Childish people get an idea and think they need only jump in, thrash about, and they will achieve what they want. This almost never works. Krishna knows this, so he lists to Arjuna the things needed to really be a karma yogi. Mere aspiration accomplishes nothing of itself.
Disciplined in yoga. The expression in the Sanskrit text is really yogayukta–“united with yoga,” one who is irrevocably, inseparably, engaged in the practice of karma yoga.
Whose self is purified. Good intentions are not enough. There has to be a change of heart-mind in the form of purification. The ordinary Sanskrit word for “pure” is shuddha, but the word used in this verse is vishuddha–supremely pure, totally pure. The intriguing thing is that karma yoga is the way to produce these prerequisites, and yet can only be practiced when they have already been developed. This is the mystery of karma yoga which is obviously itself supernatural.
Whose self is controlled. Not only the mind, but the body must be purified and mastered. Morality is of the essence, for karma yoga is not really a physical process, but a mental-spiritual procedure. Physical purity is also essential, especially in the matter of diet.
Whose senses are conquered. The senses must not just be controlled occasionally, they must be permanently mastered. This mastery will be relatively easy when the heart and body are made pure. Yet, mastery of the senses must not be assumed, for they have their own petty treacheries. The mind, body, and senses have long been in the complete control of the ego and thereby become oriented to its war against the Self and Its revelation. To conquer them and enlist them on the side of right in the form of karma yoga is no easy or simple matter.
Whose self has become the Self of all beings. Brahman is the Self of all, including the individual Self. Therefore when we begin to experience the Infinite and finite Selves, we begin to intuit the unity of all things in Spirit–and therefore our unity with all sentient beings.
Not tainted even when acting. When all these components are in place, karma yoga can take place, ensuring that the karma yogi shall not be ever touched by karmic reactions on any level.
The karma yogi’s perspective
How can we be capable of action that produces no effects on us? It seems impossible. But Krishna explains: “‘I do not do anything,’ thus, steadfast in yoga, the knower of truth thinks, whether seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, talking, letting go, grasping, opening the eyes and shutting the eyes, understanding: ‘The senses abide in the objects of the senses.’” (5:8,9)
Again and again we encounter the profound uniqueness of the Bhagavad Gita as a scripture, even when compared to the upanishads which it greatly reflects. Here, too, we find wisdom that can be found nowhere outside the Gita. We are given a description of the continual experience-insight of the illumined individual.
The enlightened knows that any “happening” occurs only to the body, the senses, mind or intellect–that he is ever, and only, the unacting witness, the consciousness that perceives without acting in any manner whatsoever. In the Gita we find a clearly-drawn distinction between purusha and prakriti, between the conscious witness and the moving energies that are witnessed. Always the perfect karma yogi is in this state of experiential distinction–it is not a matter of intellectual conception, but of the living fact.
In the third chapter we have already found this summation: “Actions in all cases are performed by the gunas of prakriti; he whose mind is confused by egoism imagines, ‘I am the doer.’ But he who knows the truth about the two roles of the gunas and action, thinking ‘The gunas work among the gunas,’ is not attached” (3:27, 28).
Next Krishna tells us that the enlightened live their life devotionally, saying: “Offering his actions to Brahman, having abandoned attachment, he who acts is not tainted by evil any more than a lotus leaf by water” (5:10). This is important, first for its practical application, but it also frees us from the common idea that the life of the wise, of the jnani, is somehow antiseptic in character and devoid of involvement with God in a personal manner. In the Yoga Sutras it is stated that samadhi, the entry into superconsciousness, is the result of Ishwarapranidhana–offering the life to God. This is underscored by Krishna saying later on: “Those who are eternally steadfast, who worship Me, fixing their minds on Me, endowed with supreme faith; I consider them to be the most devoted to me” (12:2).
Not I–but them
Krishna puts it all together by simply saying in conclusion: “With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the yogis perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment” (5:11).
Self-knowledge is the key to karma yoga as well as its ultimate fruition.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Freedom (Moksha)
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.
Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary