“Action is inferior by far to buddhi yoga. Seek refuge in buddhi! Pitiable are those who motives are based on the fruit of action” (2:49).
I really do not like saying this, but the truth is that most yogis and “Hindus” of East and West are cracked on delusions about “karma yoga,” thinking that mere good or right action is a path to God. This is not karma yoga at all, as our study of the Gita will reveal later on. I cannot count the opportunists that get slave labor out of sincere seekers by exhorting them to “karma yoga,” “seva,” or “selfless service.”
In writing this there comes to mind a woman I met in India who had a very stressful profession and was literally on the move constantly. When we met again in America she told me that the evening before she had gone to hear a lecture by the latest piece of spiritual driftwood from India washed up on the Pacific shores. She told me the “swami” had really pressured her, saying over and over: “You must come to me in Bhopal and do some karma yoga!” She was feeling guilty over not being able to do so–and not wanting, to, either. What could I say? What she really needed was to go into solitude and meditate as much as possible whenever she had free time. But she was brainwashed by all she had read and heard in America and India about “karma yoga.”
In my first trip to India I was sent to the holy city of Hardwar by Sri Anandamayi Ma, who told me to engage whole-heartedly in tapasya. I was doing so, when a disciple of another bit of driftwood (this time washed up in Venezuela), who was staying in the same ashram, kept badgering me to go to the ashram manager “and ask for some karma yoga to do.” Each time she said “karma yoga” she raised her voice and bleated it out like it was a stick to hit me with. When I explained that Ma had given me specific instructions as to how I should spend my time, she simply parroted: “You must do some k-a-r-m-a y-o-g-a.” It was noble of me to not point out that she was not doing a lick of work herself, but was just eating, sleeping, wandering around the ashram and bothering me. She had some mimeographed sheets of her guru’s instructions in strenuous breathing exercises, so after a while “You must do some k-a-r-m-a y-o-g-a” got alternated with “You must do some p-r-a-n-a-y-a-m-a…,” even though I explained that Mataji had been insistent that I personally should never do pranayama. Some people are an endless source of annoyance. In a later visit I heard her extolled by a woman sadhu as “absolutely a saint.” This surprised me till I learned the lady sadhu was doped to the eyes on tranquilizers and other pills.
Karma yoga is acting with the mind fixed on God–not on the action. This is the real purpose of all action: the perfection of awareness. That is, by outer action we affect our internal state of consciousness. When we understand this and live out our life with this perspective, contentment is assured. Activity with desire is egocentric, whereas desireless action is spirit-oriented and results in freedom. No wonder Swami Sivananda-Hridayananda (Doctor Mother) told a bunch of Chicago “karma yogis” that Swami Sivananda was only karma yogi she had met in her life.
Action is inferior by far to buddhi yoga
How to do it? By Buddha yoga–yoking our consciousness with the buddhi, the principle of enlightenment, our highest mind. Buddhi can also mean the intelligent, thinking mind, or reason, but in the Gita it almost always means the enlightened intuition which can be translated down into intellectual terminology. When the awareness is centered in–not just pointed toward–the divine consciousness that is common to both the individual Self (jivatman) and the Supreme Self (Paramatman), then we have peace, both because the Self is transcendental and beyond all possibility of agitation and because in the enlightened state we understand all that is going on as well as the roots of what is taking place. Having perfect peace and perfect understanding, we abide in perfect tranquility. In just a few verses from now Krishna will begin describing exactly what that state is and how it manifests in the illumined individual.
Seek refuge in buddhi!
Krishna does not bother with short-sighted strategies, but tells us to literally “shoot for the top,” saying: “Seek refuge in buddhi!” In this instance buddhi means in the state of consciousness that is attained through–and is–buddhi yoga. (Actually the Sanskrit word is buddhau, which means the consciousness that is the buddhi.) The buddhi is the source of both thought and intuition. So we take a thought–the holy syllable Om–and link our consciousness to It. “The Self is Om, the indivisible syllable. This syllable is unutterable, and beyond mind. In it the manifold universe disappears. It is the supreme good–One without a second. Whosoever knows Om, the Self, becomes the Self” (Mandukya Upanishad 12). Then we will become ready for the ultimate intuition that is Brahmajnana, the knowledge of Brahman.
For what other refuge is there? Any conditioned state of mind must by its very nature be temporary. However beneficial any external condition, place, or object may be, still it, too, cannot last forever, but Brahman does. Most importantly, the upanishads tell us the paramount truth: “He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman. He passes beyond all sorrow. He overcomes evil. Freed from the fetters of ignorance he becomes immortal” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.9). “He who knows Brahman attains the supreme goal. Brahman is the abiding reality, he is pure knowledge, and he is infinity. He who knows that Brahman dwells within the lotus of the heart becomes one with him and enjoys all blessings” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:3).
It is true: “Pitiable are those who motives are based on the fruit of action.”
How to be free
“He who is united with the buddhi casts off, here in the world, both good and evil actions. Therefore devote yourself to yoga [yogaya yujyaswa–yoke (join) yourself to yoga]! Yoga is skill in action” (2:50).
The buddhi yogi “casts off, here in the world, both good and evil actions.” It is not a matter of “pie in the sky” after death. The buddhi yogi attains right here in this world.
The concept of casting off both good and evil actions is often misunderstood, so we should give it a careful scrutiny.
Right away we must comprehend that Krishna does not mean that enlightened people are beyond the rules and can do any stupid or evil thing that crosses their minds, that somehow it is all right for them but not for us. This idiocy has produced the contemporary situation in both the West and the East in which we do not expect from the abounding “gurus,” “masters” and “avatars” the basic decency and good sense that we demand from ourselves and everyone else. Simple civility is not even expected of these miscreants, much less the conduct that Krishna will be telling us is the infallible mark of the illumined individual. There is no need for me to outline their iniquitous and preposterous minds and conduct. Krishna will unmask them by informing us as how the really enlightened act. Then if we do not get the idea it is because we do not want to.
If you want a perfect example of a true master–and daily life with him–read the chapters in Autobiography of a Yogi that deal with Yogananda’s life in the ashram of Swami Sri Yukteshwar Giri.
All right, now let us return to the concept of freedom from virtue and vice. Liberation (moksha) includes freedom from all conditioning. Unhappily, most religion is nothing but conditioning, based on fear and greed–do what is wrong and you will be punished, and do what is right and you will be rewarded. Since fear and greed are instincts formed and rooted in our past incarnations in the subhuman levels, they are unworthy of human beings, much less those that aspire to divinity. Right conduct must be a free choice. A compulsion to do good and a compulsion to avoid evil is instinctual, not intelligent–not a matter of buddhi yoga. No matter how well-intentioned the formation of such compulsion might be, the aspiring yogi must eliminate all such instinctual reactions.
Buddhi yoga arises from deep within the individual. Any external influence or coercion militates against this. Consequently we must be free from any external factors such as “the scriptures say” to do it or not to do it. Any outside authority must become irrelevant to us, and yes, this includes all such, including groups and teachers.
A few verses previously we were told:
“Be indifferent toward the pairs of opposites” (2:45).
Why? Because they are inherent in one another, they are inseparable. Anyone with experience or observation knows that love and hate easily morph back and forth, for they possess the same root–the ego. The same, then, is true of virtue and vice, good and evil, when based on the ego-personality of the conditioned individual. We often accuse people of being hypocrites, when actually they are under the sway of the dualities. We cannot cling to one and hope to be free of the other, for they are one and the same–only the polarity is different. True goodness, true virtue, has no opposite, but Krishna is not speaking of this higher level, but rather of that on which Arjuna, in the grip of egoic emotion, is presently functioning.
Unity on all levels is the goal of the yogi, and that transcends the classifications of good or evil. The good of the enlightened, on the other hand, is not just relative good–it is the embodiment of divine consciousness.
Back to the heart of things
Krishna, like any worthy teacher, again points us to the very core of the matter, saying: “Therefore devote yourself to yoga.” There is really no other way to achieve anything true or real in spiritual life. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you,” (Matthew 6:33) said Jesus. We need not concern ourselves with a multitude of spiritual goals, but fix our intention on the single purpose of all relative existence, union with Brahman. This is why Jesus also said: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41, 42).
The “skill in action” which Krishna declares to be yoga is action performed with ourselves “yoked to yoga,” “united with Union.”
The way of the sages
“Those who are established in the buddhi, the wise ones who have abandoned the fruit born of action, and are freed from the bondage of rebirth, go to the place [abode] that is free from pain” (2:51).
The “place” or “abode” is our very Self, for that alone is free from pain or the possibility or pain.
Surely no comment is needed on the next two verses:
“When your intellect [buddhi] crosses beyond the thicket of delusion, then you shall become disgusted with that [in the scriptures] which is yet to be heard and with that which has been heard. When your [buddhi] stands fixed in deep meditation, unmoving, disregarding scriptural doctrine, then you shall attain Union [Yoga]” (2:52, 53).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Wisdom About the Wise
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