In the latter part of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna has given us a perfect portrait of a man possessed of the true knowledge of Brahman–Brahmajnana. It is far from that of a devoted warrior in the heat of battle. Wherefore Arjuna asks, protesting:
“If it is Your conviction that knowledge [buddhi] is better than action [karma], then why do You urge me to engage in this terrible action? With speech that seems equivocal, you confuse my mind [buddhi]. Tell me surely this one thing: how should I attain the highest good?” (3:1, 2)
Buddhi means both intellect and intelligence. So Krishna is saying that intelligent insight, or jnana, is far superior to mere external action, or karma. But Arjuna protests that this emphasis on buddhi is confusing his buddhi! Emphasis on intelligence confuses his intellect! But he is not so confused that he does not understand that he needs to know the way to the highest good.
The two paths
In response Krishna begins:
“In this world there is a two-fold basis taught since ancient times by Me: that of jnana yoga, the yoga of the followers of Sankhya, and karma yoga, the yoga of the yogis” (3:3)
Sri Ramakrishna often said that basically there were two yogas: karma yoga, the yoga of action, and mano yoga, the yoga of the mind–buddhi yoga, or jnana yoga.
For some reason through the intervening centuries ignorant people who are not correctly following either path insist that there is only one right or best way of the two: either knowledge or action. But Krishna is not really setting an either/or situation before Arjuna. Instead, he is speaking of two forms of emphasis–some develop better by focussing on knowledge (jnana yoga), and some develop better by focussing on action (karma yoga). But both engage in knowledge and karma simultaneously–it is only in the major focus of one or the other that the difference is to be found.
It is sadly true that through misunderstanding we find people who think that one should be cultivated to the complete exclusion of the other. This is not the intention of Krishna, as we shall see. After all, if each one leads to enlightenment, how can there be a best? In fact, how can they be exclusionary if they lead to the single goal?
Temperament is the deciding factor as to which of the paths to emphasize. It is really quite simple: we should take up the path that seems natural to us. Even more, if further on down the path it seems natural to switch over to the other orientation, that, too, is all right, for in some lives we have to take up more than one unfinished strand and complete them. It is natural for us to move in many directions throughout our life. If there is only one God and therefore only one Goal, then whatever we do will move us forward along THE Path. “In whatever way men take refuge in Me, I reward them. Men everywhere follow My path” (4:11). “I am the Goal” (9:18).
In our evolution through many lives we take up many approaches that we do not complete for some reason. These remain unfulfilled, and it is necessary that we complete them or in some way combine and resolve them. So it is natural to be drawn to differing attitudes and approaches at different phases of our spiritual development. A test of infants found that they instinctively knew exactly what they needed to eat at the time and would go right for those foods, including things with unpleasant taste. The same is true of our own heart. We know the way we should go, and to deny it is to deny our inner divinity.
How not to go about it
“Not by abstention from actions does a man attain the state beyond action, and not by renunciation alone does he approach perfection. Indeed, no one, even in the twinkling of an eye, ever exists without performing action; everyone is forced to perform action, even action which is against his will, by the gunas which originate in prakriti” (3:4, 5).
Here “activity” includes mental action, conscious and sub-conscious. The law of karma. It consists of two forces: the impulse to act and the certainty of reaping the consequences of all acts. It is both cause and effect. And it is underlain by a more profound law, the law of evolution. Evolution is effected by action–action that informs and improves, but action nonetheless. So action is an absolute necessity for all beings.
Krishna assures us that inaction is impossible–it is impossible even for God, so why not for the godlike? When we are in a moving vehicle we may not want to move or see the need for it, but move we shall. In the same way, the moment we enter into relative existence, into prakriti, we begin moving, and we never stop until we transcend relativity and attain the Absolute. Therefore the gunas of prakriti, sattwa, rajas, and tamas, combine to force us to act. In this matter there is no free will–we cannot choose to act or not. The only freedom we have is to decide how we will act. This is why all religions place such importance on virtuous or right action. Act we must, so we must act rightly.
Only those who erroneously suppose the inner and outer, the spiritual and the material, to be not only different but in opposition to one another, think that abstention from action is the way to perfection or that escape is liberation. This is why the Gita is so incredibly important. It shows that right activity is as necessary for inner enlightenment as the more obvious means such as japa and meditation.
In the next chapter Krishna will speak of the royal seers (rajarishis), the holy kings who administered kingdoms and yet attained the knowledge of Brahman are the ideal he puts before us. He does this for two reasons: 1) so we will not think that avoiding activity and involvement is the way to enlightenment, and 2) so we will not use our earthly responsibilities and ties as excuses for not exerting ourselves to the utmost in the pursuit of liberation. How many times have spiritual layabouts talked to me about how God had given them “all these responsibilities” and consequently they were dispensed from seeking God. It is just the opposite. God intends for us to seek and find Him in the midst of those responsibilities–that is their purpose. They are not barriers or obstacles, but doors to pass through into higher life. One man actually told me that he could not look after his spiritual life because God had given him children whose spiritual lives he was to cultivate! Having nothing himself, he was going to supply them. He also overlooked the fact that God had done no such thing–he had traveled all the way to Asia and brought them back, another form of Great White Hunter who now had a menagerie to amuse himself with and use as pretexts for neglecting his own evolution. As Yogananda said: “Human beings are so skillful in their ignorance!”
The essence is this: since we are forced to act, we should act in a freeing manner, not in a binding manner.
What we are really thinking and wanting
Yet, no matter what we do, our inner intention and desire will determine the ultimate result. That is why we see people who do a tremendous amount of good and religious deeds yet remain not just ignorant but really flawed or even evil. No matter what they are doing, what they are really wanting is a completely other thing. Some people doing “good things” are always getting assailed by “temptations” and “setbacks” so they really go nowhere at all spiritually. This is true in the material world. We see people frantically scrambling for material advancement only to continually undercut themselves and create failure. In their inmost minds they either do not want to succeed or are convinced that they should not (do not deserve to) succeed.
So Krishna says:
“He who sits, restraining his organs of action, while in his mind brooding over the objects of the senses, is self-deluded, a hypocrite” (3:6).
And we will see that what he really wants will eventually come to him. Then he will no longer be a hypocrite, unless he hides his involvement with them. Sometimes a “fall” is really a matter of honesty.
Nearly all religions threaten, cajole, and persuade people to join their ranks and “be good.” True Dharma, in contrast, says: “Study yourself carefully, and if you do not want what we have to offer, then do not bother–you will not get anywhere anyway. But when the time comes that you really want the higher life, come see us.” Sri Ramakrishna said that by always being truthful a person ascends to higher life, even liberation. There must be honesty in all things, including religion. Of course, there does come a pivotal moment, a midway point, where the individual must say: “I really want what is bad for me, but even more I want to rid myself of such a foolish ‘want.’ Henceforth I will cut it off and cultivate the right kind of ‘want.’” That is not hypocrisy, because he openly admits his inner desire, but is liberating discipline. Yet it must be self-initiated, not an effect of any external factor, including another person.
We are “it”
The only Savior we will ever have is ourself–our own creative will. Later Krishna will say: “The Self alone can be a friend to oneself” (6:5). This is because it is our will–not God’s will except insofar as the divine and human wills are essentially the same–that creates our entire life in all its aspects. As the Buddhist texts says: “I have nothing but my actions; I shall have nothing but my actions.” This is why Krishna also said: “Brahman is to be attained by him who always sees Brahman in action” (4:24). What you will is what you (really) want; what you want is what you (really) will. Hence, Krishna says:
“But he who undertakes the control of the senses by the mind and, without attachment, engages the organs of action in the yoga of action, is superior” (3:7).
When we understand–really understand–that every action has union with God as its core purpose and carry out each action with that perspective, then everything we will do is genuine yoga, uniting us with God.
“Perform your duty; for action is indeed better than non-action, and even the mere maintenance of your body could not be accomplished without action” (3:8).
“Aside from action for the purpose of sacrifice [yajna–offering to God], this world is bound by action. Perform action for the purpose of sacrifice, free from attachment” (3:9).
Up and Doing should be our motto. But up and doing for God, for the Higher Self and the Supreme Self.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: From the Beginning to the End
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.
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