Now hear from me of the threefold happiness that one enjoys through practice and by which one attains to the end of pain (18:36).
It is said that everyone wants to be happy, but happiness is not the same to everyone. So Krishna now takes up that subject, for people differ greatly in “the pursuit of happiness” owing to the predominance of one of the three gunas.
That happiness which is like poison at first, but like amrita in the end, born of the light of one’s own Self [atmabuddhi], is declared to be sattwic (18:37).
Sri Ramakrishna often remarked that rock sugar (not refined sugar) is a cure for certain liver ailments, but to those with such disorders sugar tastes bitter, so they avoid it. The same thing is true of certain other substances. A naturopath once gave me a cup of warm liquid to drink. I swallowed it down and remarked that it tasted good. “If you had said it was nasty tasting, I would have known that you have liver trouble,” he said. It is the same with those (us?) who have spiritual disorders: that which cures them seems distasteful to them and they avoid it. This is a very problematical situation. People have to pervert their bodies to develop addictions to poisonous substances, and in time their addictions seem normal and even healthy, and abstinence seems miserable and harmful. It is the same with the mind and heart.
A friend of mine once spoke with a young man who was utterly addicted to immorality and alcohol. When he pointed out the misery those things caused, the man countered with: “Living like you do would be like living in a prison!” He had no idea how free the other man was, and how content as a result of his abstinence and spiritual outlook. Krishna is speaking of this here. In the beginning that great happiness and fulfillment which is atmabuddhiprasadajam–arising from the tranquility, purity, and brightness of the union of the buddhi with the Atma–seems like a pipe dream or even death. But those who pursue it will find it is the joy of immortality.
Nevertheless, an important principle is set forth in this verse. In the beginning it is normal for spiritual practice to be boring or even annoying. But at the end it will be all sukha: happiness and ease. For it never really is poison, but only seems so to the distorted mind-mirror of those bound in ignorance.
That happiness arising from the contact of the senses with their objects, which in the beginning is like amrita but changes into that which is like poison, is declared to be rajasic (18:38).
Here we have the opposite of the previous verse. Those things that to the ignorant seem like the nectar of immortality (“This is really living!” “This is the way to live!” “I like it: give me more!”) will in time be seen as deadly poison, but then it is often too late. That is why the Bible says: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). The happiness of rajas is simply fool’s gold.
An interesting point: In this and the previous verse the word pariname is found. It means “when transformed,” the idea being that in time the two kinds of happiness transmute or ripen into either amrita or poison. Actually, they reveal their inner nature–they do not really change, but it seems so to the sadhaka.
That happiness which in the beginning and as a result is delusive of the Self, arising from sleep, indolence and heedlessness, is declared to be tamasic (18:39).
Krishna describes tamasic happiness as mohanam–deluding, addicting, and confusing–arising from spiritual “sleep” (nidra), idleness and outright spiritual laziness (alasya), and negligence and confusion (pramada). Notice that, unlike sattwic and rajasic happiness, tamasic happiness does not transform into anything other than what it is at the beginning. It does not lead to anything, but remains utterly inert. Sattwic and rajasic happiness leads to conclusions about their merit or demerit. Tamasic happiness, on the other hand, simply lies there and wallows in its own inertia. It goes nowhere.
There is a lesson for us here. We need not worry about sattwic people because they will become increasingly established in sattwa. We need only wait for rajasic people to wake up and move up to sattwa. And we need not even give a second thought to the tamasic: they are going to stay right where we see them. The essence of this is that sensible people do not go around trying to change others. The sattwic are already what they should be, the rajasic are moving toward sattwa, and the tamasic are simply that: tamasic. They “come from the nowhere and go to the no-place.” (I am only speaking of the present birth. They, too, progress in time, but very slowly and it takes a great deal of time for them to crawl out into even half-light.) The wise bless others and keep on working on themselves. Certainly they will encourage those with them on the path and even assist them, but they cannot put anyone on the path or keep them there. Experience proves this over and over.
We are all in it together
There is no being either on earth, nor yet in heaven among the gods, that can exist free from these three gunas born of Prakriti (18:40).
There we have it. All are caught in the net woven of the gunas. However, sattwa leads to liberation from that net, to the state known as trigunatita–“beyond the three gunas.” But until that state is reached we will live according to the guna dominant in us. This is the real basis of authentic caste, and Krishna now takes up that subject:
Of the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas, as also the Shudras, the duties are distributed according to the qualities of their swabhava (18:41).
In this section of verses, “duty” is the usual translation of “actions” (karma), and cannot be objected to. But in these verses it also means the actions that will be done by the different castes, impelled by their innate nature (swabhava). In other words, these are the things that will be done, and the qualities revealed, spontaneously by the various castes. Caste is not determined by action, but action is produced by the innate caste-nature, the swabhava.
Tranquility, self-restraint, tapasya, purity, patience, uprightness, knowledge, realization [vijnana], belief in God–these are the duties of Brahmins, born of their swabhava (18:42).
It is time for vocabulary-building and review.
A brahmin is one striving for brahmajnana, so we must cultivate the qualities listed for them assiduously if we really plan to succeed in our spiritual quest. Here they are:
Shama is calmness, tranquility, and control of the internal sense organs.
Dama is self-control, control of the senses, and restraint.
Tapas (tapasya) is austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline; spiritual force.
Shaucha is purity and cleanliness, including physical and mental purity. Physical shaucha involves purity of diet–abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, alcohol, nicotine, and any mind-altering drugs.
Kshama is forgiveness, patience, and forbearance.
Arjava is straightforwardness, honesty, and rectitude.
Jnana is knowledge, especially knowledge of (or about) Reality or Brahman, the Absolute.
Vijnana is the highest knowledge, beyond mere theoretical knowledge. It is transcendental knowledge or knowing, a high state of spiritual realization in which all is seen as manifestations of Brahman. It is final knowledge of the Self.
Astikyam is piety and belief in God.
What is to be noted about these traits is the fact that they are the prerequisites for spiritual life–they are not spiritual life itself, which is something even higher, the state of yogayukta, of continual uniting of the consciousness with God through yoga. It is sad to see that in most religions the things needed for being a beginner are considered the highest attainments.
Most important is the fact that these traits are not artificial or imposed modes of thought and deed, but are a manifestation of the brahmin’s swabhava–his inherent state of mind, his state of deep inner being. A brahmin is not one who acts like a brahmin, but who is a brahmin and therefore acts accordingly.
Valor, splendor, steadfastness, skill, not fleeing in battle, generosity and lordliness of spirit are the duties of Kshatriyas, born of their swabhava (18:43).
These are traits needed by us, too, for as a person passes from lower to higher caste he retains his positive qualities. So we should consider the qualities of all the castes as necessary for us.
Sauryam is heroism, valor, and strength.
Tejas is radiance and brilliance of mind and spirit.
Dhriti is the quality of being steadfast, constant, firm, patient, and endurant. It also means one possessed of the ability to engage in sustained effort.
Dakshyam is skill, virtuosity, and dexterity. One who is daksha is expert, intelligent, wise, and able.
Apalayanam is not fleeing battle or trying to avoid conflict.
Danam is generosity, charity, and a giving disposition, as well as self-sacrifice.
Ishwarabhava is a lordly disposition or spirit; nobility and dignity.
All these reveal the swabhava of a kshatriya.
The vaishyas and shudras
Agriculture, cow-herding and trade are the duties of the Vaishyas, born of their swabhava, and the Shudras’ duty is doing service, born of their swabhava (18:44).
This is quite straightforward. It is interesting that only physical actions are listed, whereas both the brahmins and kshatriyas require many psychological factors. Obviously vaishyas and shudras require ethical principles as much as anyone else. In fact, all that has been said in the previous chapters of the Gita applies to all the castes.
Krishna now speaks of humanity in general, saying:
Satisfied in his own duty, a man attains perfection. Hear how he who is happy in his own duty [swakarma] finds perfection. By worshipping with his swakarma him from whom all beings have their origin, by whom all this universe is pervaded, a man [manava: human being] finds perfection (18:45-46).
We have already encountered swabhava and swadharma–the inmost disposition of the Self and the dharma (usually translated “duty”) that reveals the Self or makes attainment of the Self possible. In these two verses we meet the word swakarma: action that reflects or manifests the Self–at least in its present state of evolution. To follow or engage in our swakarma is to worship God, for spiritual, evolutionary principles are not to be merely ascribed to or discussed, they are to be lived. That is how we evolve, and evolution is the sole purpose of creation.
Swakarma is an inseparable part of swadharma, so Krishna continues:
Better is one’s own swadharma, though imperfect, than another’s duty, though well performed. Performing the duty prescribed by one’s own nature (swabhava) produces no fault (18:47).
We are not talking here of “God’s will” in the negative, fear-filled way of Western religion. We are talking of our own nature, which has been put into our hands and which we alone can perfect. If we violate our nature by work alien to that nature, however good it may appear or how much it may be praised by others, we incur evil, for we sin against ourself. Therefore:
The duty to which one is born should not be abandoned, although faulty, for all undertakings are enveloped by defects as is fire by smoke (18:48).
Two expressions in this verse are very important: sahajam karma and dosha. Sahaja means that which is innate, actually inborn. Karma is action. So sahajam karma is that kind of action, that way of life, which is a natural expression of our innate character, of our deep mind. This must be engaged in, even though, as Krishna points out, all relative existence and action are obscured to a greater or lesser degree by dosha–dosha being imperfection, blemish, fault, or shortcoming. This is because of the innate nature of relativity itself, which fundamentally is Maya, or illusion.
We do the best we can with what we have. The reward is infinite.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Freedom