The ideal of sacrifice
In every religion we find the idea of sacrifice, of making offerings to God Who, being infinite and all-encompassing, and therefore all-possessing, cannot really be offered to. Yet, in the training film we call samsara, the act of will involved in offering to God is essential to the development of each of us. For we can make offerings to our own Self–and hence to Brahman–in the form of acts which purify and evolve the vehicles of the Self. Krishna is now going to enumerate the various forms of sacrificial elements and acts.
Before studying this and the next verses it is necessary for us to understand that all described here are yogis, that Krishna is not denigrating anyone, nor he is propounding a narrow vision of what is acceptable sacrifice to the Divine. He is, instead, showing us that there are many ways to offer unto God, and that all are legitimate and worthy of regard. Certainly, some are more sophisticated than others, yet every step in the stair, every rung on the ladder, is important for it leads us on to higher realities.
This is particularly seen in the following verse, where Krishna presents as viable two approaches that today are almost universally viewed as antithetical to one another, the first usually being considered useless and ignorant.
Gods and Brahman-Self
Some yogis offer sacrifice to the gods alone, while others offer the [individual] Self as sacrifice unto the [Supreme] Self into the fire that is Brahman (4:25).
Here we find two approaches to Divinity: that which sees it as object–gods or God–and that which sees it as Subject–Brahman or the Atman-Self. Both approaches are legitimately yogic. Certainly worship or meditation directed to God as a separate being is not as on target as meditation on the identity of the yogi’s Self with Brahman. Nevertheless such meditation leads the consciousness of the yogi upward and will eventually bestow on him the wider vision of Divinity as one with him. To despise the lesser approach is as silly as to despise learning the alphabet because it is superseded by reading. The latter cannot occur without the former. The offering of the first type of yogis is devotion of the heart–no small gift. The second type of yogi offers his Self by merging it into the greater life of Brahman. Brahman is called fire because such a union purges the yogi of all extraneous matter, of all that is not eternal and divine. Yet, the first form of offering will culminate in the second form if persevered in.
Yajnam yajnena is an interesting expression: “sacrifice by sacrifice.” The original sacrifice (yajna) was the projection of all levels of relative existence along with the entering into it of Brahman as the Witness of All. That is, Brahman dreamed the dream of creation and of incarnating within it as its all-experiencing Self. Brahman is dreaming the same dream we are, but without loss of control or consciousness. This is an important fact for us to know. In Sanskrit terminology formulated later than the Gita, the witnessing consciousness of Brahman within creation is called the Mahat Tattwa, the Supreme Principle, Ishwara.
The great Christian esotericist James Ingall Wedgwood, a leading figure in the Theosophical Society and founder of the Liberal Catholic Church, wrote the following prayer: “We lift our hearts in adoration to Thee,… Who, abiding unchangeable within Thyself, didst nevertheless in the mystery of Thy boundless love and Thine eternal sacrifice breathe forth Thine own divine life into Thy universe,…. Omnipotent, all-pervading, by that self-same sacrifice Thou dost continually uphold all creation,” referring to it as “the enduring Sacrifice by which the world is nourished and sustained.”
Just as we experience a series of incarnation in bodies, so Brahman, in Its extension as Ishwara, experiences a series of incarnation through an unending series of creation cycles–days and nights of Brahma. Seeking for union with Brahman in an intelligent and orderly manner–in other words, through the practice of dharma and yoga–is our way of engaging in “sacrifice by sacrifice.”
Others offer senses such as hearing into the fires of restraint; others, sound; and others objects of the senses into the fire of the senses (4:26).
It is significant that the sense of sound (shabda) which arises from the subtlest level of our being, the akasha (ether), is mentioned specifically here. Yogis employ subtle sound in and out of meditation in the form of japa: mantra repetition.
Once again we encounter a duality. See the eminent wisdom of Krishna. He does not disdain one and exalt the other just because one may be more disciplined and consistent with ultimate spiritual principles than the other. He affirms the value of both. There can be sectarianism of discipline as well as of doctrine, and Krishna is leading us away from that error.
Some yogis cut off and avoid all sense-experience beyond what is inevitable in the maintenance of a simple life. Many refuse to look around them but always look down so as not to be distracted by the sense of sight. Others contrive to avoid enjoyment of the taste of food in various ways, such as mixing ashes with their food (not a very healthy practice) or mixing all the types of food together in a kind of hodgepodge, combining even the sweet with the salty. (This latter is more common among Indian yogis, Yogananda even having done so in his youth.) To such yogis “senses are the offering, and self-discipline the sacrificial fire” (Prabhavananda).
A completely opposite course is allowing sense-impressions without avoidance, keeping vividly in mind that all things are manifestations of Brahman. We must not misunderstand this approach. It is not “living life to the full” by romping around greedily pursuing and delighting in mere sensory experience, wallowing in the mire of material consciousness while claiming that “all is God.” This is the perversion of ignorance. Rather, Krishna is speaking of those who willingly experience natural beauty and the enjoyment of simple and beneficial things such as food, the warmth of shelter, the ease of good health, and suchlike. Even these yogis would be considered much too disciplined and ascetic for the hedonistic “spirituality” of the incurably worldly.
This second type of yogi freely employs the senses in spiritual devotion. They offer the fragrance and beauty of flowers, the perfume of incense, the light of lamps, and the taste of food (prasadam) in worship. They also enjoy the beauty and inspiration of divine imagery and of devotional music. In this way they consciously offer Brahman to Brahman.
There is a third way in relation to the senses:
Some offer all the actions of the senses and the functions of the life force (prana) into the fire of the yoga of self-restraint, which is enkindled by knowledge (4:27).
Whereas the two types of yogis mentioned before have some identity with the senses, this third type “renounces” them and their functions. The way they do this is described in the next chapter of the Gita in these two verses: “‘I do not do anything;’ thus thinks the steadfast knower of truth [while; when] seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing, speaking, releasing, and holding, opening and closing his eyes–convinced that it is the senses that move among the sense-objects” (5:8-9).
We will look into this more later in considering the next chapter. But we should seriously consider that Krishna tells us this form of offering is “kindled by knowledge,” indicating that this discipline is established only in those who have begun to already experience or intuit the Self within themselves through buddhi yoga. He also is telling us that discipline is a result of wisdom. So when we encounter a “sage” who freely imparts his “knowledge” we should look at how disciplined he is, and thereby know whether his knowledge is real or mere words.
Renunciation, discipline, and knowledge
Those whose sacrifices take the form of yoga offer material possessions and tapasya as sacrifices; while ascetics with stringent vows offer self-analysis [swadhyaya] and knowledge as sacrifice (4:28).
Dravyayajnas means those who sacrifice through material things by either using them for higher purpose, or by renouncing them. For example, a person might give away all or much of what he has in good causes, or he also might renounce by refusing to engage in a form of livelihood that will bring in much money but distract him from spiritual life by making too many demands on his time. Refusing to do something unethical that would have resulted in material gain is also a form of renunciation-sacrifice.
Spiritual discipline and practice, especially yoga, is a very high form of sacrifice. And those who are intensely serious will ruthlessly study and analyze their inner and outer actions as well as their mental states in order to detect any hidden negativity or ignorance and cut them off, objectively diagnosing their present spiritual status. The knowledge they offer is threefold: that gained from self-study, that attained through intuition developed by meditation, and that found in the study of sacred texts and the teachings of the wise. They also may extend or intensify their disciplines and spiritual practices.
The pranas (life forces)
Some offer inhalation into exhalation, and exhalation into inhalation, restraining the paths of inhalation and exhalation, intent upon control of the breath (pranayama) (4:29).
The senses are merely instruments of perception powered by various forms of subtle life force known as the pranas. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras we are told that meditation consists of several ingredients. One is pranayama.
It is usually thought that pranayama is composed of the words prana and yama, which mean breath (or life-force) and restraint (or control). But it really comes from prana (breath) and ayama, which means lengthening, expansion, and extension. In meditation the breath becomes subtle, refined, and slow (lengthened, expanded, and extended). Yoga Sutra 2:50 says that pranayama “becomes measured or regulated [paridrishto], prolonged [dirgha], and subtle or attenuated [sukshmah].” “Prolonged and light [subtle],” says Vyasa. Sometimes it is long and slow and sometimes it is slow but short. Whichever it may be, it is always spontaneous and not controlled–or even deliberately intended–in any way. Pranayama, then, is an effect, not a practice. This can be accomplished through objective observation of the breath, or even by simply sitting in right posture (asana) in a relaxed manner and being inwardly aware in meditation. However it is accomplished, if it is offered to God pranayama becomes a factor for the yogi’s upliftment. This verse is also about the pranayama called “circling” in which the inhaling and exhaling breaths are seamless, smooth and continuous. That is, there is no deliberate pause between them, but the moment the inhalation ends the exhalation begins, and vice versa. When the yogi is truly relaxed this is his natural way of breathing.
Others who have restricted their food offer the pranas into the pranas [since all the forms of prana are derived from food] (4:30a).
That is, they offer the prana of the food they eat into the present pranas of the body.
The food we eat nourishes and conditions the various streams of life-force, of prana, in the body, so diet is also a means of controlling prana. Regulation of food includes moderation in the amount of food eaten, and also discrimination in the type of food eaten. The yogi must adopt a diet that conduces to health of body and stability of mind. Consequently he must absolutely avoid all meat, fish, eggs, alcohol, nicotine, and mind-altering drugs. At the same time the food he eats must be beneficial to the body and not whimsical or faddish. Krishna will discuss this at length in the beginning of the seventeenth chapter.
The various sacrificers
All these are knowers of sacrifice whose wrongdoings have been annihilated through sacrifice (4:30b).
Kalmasas means evils or wrongdoings–the negative karmas (including mental effects) accruing from negative actions. By the many sacrifices listed by Krishna, the negative karmas and conditionings produced by past negative action are dissolved and the yogis attain freedom.
Eating the amrita of the sacrificial remains, they go to the Eternal Brahman. Even this world is not for the non-sacrificing–how then the other worlds? (4:31).
The entire life of the knowers of sacrifice is prasadam–that which has been first offered to God and is thus holy and purifying to the partaker. Such a life leads to participation in the life of Brahman.
But those whose lives are not sacrifice, are not worship of the Eternal, will find that there can be no lasting peace or meaning for them in any world, because all worlds are manifestations of God whose sole purpose is the life in God–nothing else. Those who live selfishly and godlessly alienate themselves from the entire cosmos. Where, then, can they find any rest? It is hopeless. But those who live sacrificially in the spirit of worship find themselves at home everywhere.
Sacrifices of many kinds are spread out before the face of Brahman. Know them all to be born from action. Knowing thus, you shall be liberated (4:32).
Once more Krishna points out the necessity of action and the impossibility of inaction for the adept yogi.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Worship of Brahman