Better than the sacrifice of material things is knowledge-sacrifice. All action without exception is fully contained in knowledge (4:33).
To know God is the supreme sacrifice-worship, immeasurably beyond offering material objects in sacrifice. Yet, once more Krishna is warning us away from ignorant snobbery. For he assures us that all action–including ritualistic, material sacrifice and worship–leads to the attainment of knowledge. We must never disdain any endeavor in spiritual life, for such action creates positive spiritual karma that will eventually result in enlightenment. Enlightened people are aware that every attempt to attain higher life will in time uplift the seeker. Remembering their own past struggles, they know that no effort is ever wasted, that the intention will perfect the action. “In this no effort is lost, nor are adverse results produced” (2:40), Krishna has told Arjuna.
Know that by prostrating yourself, by questioning and by serving them, the wise who have realized the truth will therefore instruct you in that knowledge (4:34).
Since this verse is continually misapplied to the cultish slavery of gurudom, we should analyze it very carefully.
First we are told that illumined teachers will instruct us in knowledge (upadekshyanti te jnanam). They will teach us the principles of Brahmajnana, which includes the practice of meditation by which the knowledge of Brahman is attained. This is a wonderful prospect, but it says nothing more than this. There is no word of empowerment or diksha (initiation) being given by the teacher, or his taking on the student’s karma or the forging of some type of eternal bond in which the teacher is obligated to bestow enlightenment. In other words, the manipulative super-parent type of disempowerment and enslavement so current today in guruland is not in Krishna’s mind.
He does tell Arjuna that the seeker must approach the teacher with humble salutation (pranipatena) and must actively question (pariprashnena) him. Moreover, the seeker must render service (sevaya). This is because at the time of Krishna teachers lived in forest ashrams and seekers were expected to live with them for some time to learn the practice of spiritual life as well as its philosophy. Therefore they helped in any kind of work that needed doing.
Krishna was quite familiar with a type of seeker found even today. Approaching the teacher as a virtual equal, they set themselves down in front of him and unload a barrage of metaphysical questions intended to determine whether or not the teacher is worthy of their attention. If they decide the teacher is worthy, they proceed to monopolize his time and attention, disregarding anyone else, expecting to be waited on and supplied with whatever they might want, assuming that everyone in the ashram is a servant whose existence is justified by serving them and the guru.
Krishna points out that the seeker is expected to help out in the ashram and be of benefit to his fellow seekers. Be assured that this has nothing to do with the “karma yoga” projects of ambitious gurus entailing grinding labor and “voluntary” deprivation. The service an authentic spiritual teacher desires is careful attention and the putting into practice of the teachings he imparts. Unlike the ancient Pharaohs, such a teacher has no desire to turn his students into slaves dragging over hot sands the stones with which he will build a monument to himself. Remember: Krishna has in mind the quiet forest ashrams where the teacher and students lived in utmost simplicity. The service expected was equally humble and simple.
Also, since the days when Vyasa wrote the Gita on palm leaves with a wooden stylus dipped in ink made of berries, a wonderful thing has appeared in the world: the printing press. Millions throughout the world can now learn the wisdom of great master-teachers of all ages and traditions. It is still good to find a worthy teacher who will share his accumulated knowledge with us and give us personal advice, but it is not absolutely necessary. “Spirituality cannot be gotten out of books!” some may hasten to say. True. But neither can you get spirituality from any external source, including the greatest of yogis. Spirituality arises from within as a result of spiritual maturation and the personal application of spiritual teachings–teachings that can be gotten from a book as well as a person. Even when reading the writings of a great master we must be respectful and alert, seeking to comprehend the slightest and most subtle of his teachings–and intend to apply them.
True masters never die. We can approach them prayerfully in the depth of our hearts and seek their spiritual assistance. There is no reason why we cannot become the disciple of any master, no matter how long ago he lived on the earth. Like Jesus, true masters can assure us: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Nor need we limit ourselves to inwardly approaching only one teacher.
Know this, and you shall not again fall into delusion. By this you shall come to see all creation in your Self and then in me (4:35).
True enlightenment is a state in which delusion can no longer arise. The enlightened are absolutely incapable of falling back into ignorance. Until this state is reached, however, no matter how highly evolved a person may become he is still capable of being overcome by ignorance and of plunging back into the swamp of spiritual degradation. Therefore we must be wary at all times and aware of our potential for a fall. (It is not a bad idea to keep in mind that this is true of most teachers, as well.)
The sure sign of a coming fall is a yogi’s boasting that he has transcended all evil and is incapable of wrongdoing. No enlightened person speaks in such a manner. Those who have confidence in their attainment are still in the grip of ego, and therefore capable of any evil. This is why genuine humility is a characteristic of the truly enlightened. No boasting or claims are made by the truly wise, nor do the liberated crow about their freedom.
The fundamental trait of enlightenment is stated by Krishna: “By this you shall come to see all creation in your Self and then in me.” Infinity will become the constant interior state. Nothing as petty as psychic powers or fascinating personality traits constitute the profile of the enlightened. Infinite consciousness is the trait of the illumined being. If you had met the great Swami Sivananda you would know what I mean. His infinity and his humility were equally evident.
The enlightened person perceives both his Self and the Supreme Self. He sees them as two and knows them as One. Regarding this he can say, speaking of his Self and the Absolute Self:
That is the Full, this is the Full.
The Full has come out of the Full.
If we take the Full from the Full
It is the Full that yet remains.
This is the authentic advaita vision, not the simplistic monism so common today, especially in the West. Those who study and apply the wisdom of the Gita will avoid much error and outright nonsense.
Even if you should be the most sinful among all the sinful, yet you would cross over all sin by the raft of knowledge alone. As the kindled fire reduces wood to ashes, in the same way the fire of knowledge reduces all karmas to ashes. No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world. He who is himself perfected in yoga in time finds knowledge in the Self (4:36-38).
It is frequently stated that Shankara in his commentaries and other writings seems to overemphasize jnana (knowledge), but when we look at portions of the Gita such as this one we see why he considered jnana the prime necessity. For here Krishna is telling us that jnana is the absolute power of liberation–specifically liberation from the effects of evil action.
Knowledge–the divine knowledge inherent in the Self–frees us from evil in two aspects. It frees us from the psychological conditionings–especially the addictions–resulting from wrongdoing, and it burns to ashes the karmas we have accumulated by past wrong action. In every way, jnana destroys sin (papa) to the uttermost degree. And Krishna assures us that jnana itself can do this–nothing else is needed. Further, he tells us that when we are perfect in yoga we find this knowledge in our own hearts, for it is eternal, inseparable from the Self. So can we fault Shankara for putting such a high valuation on jnana?
Faith leads to knowledge
He who possesses faith attains knowledge. Devoted to that pursuit, restraining the senses, having attained knowledge he quickly attains supreme peace (4:39).
Since knowledge is the last step in enlightenment, there must be many prior steps. The one next to knowledge is faith–shraddha. Now, shraddha is not the weak “faith” of the English language, based on intellectual belief or blind acceptance of another’s words, but is a dynamic force, a spontaneous uprising from within of an intuitive knowledge or conviction. It is a kind of precognition, and is itself an embryonic form of knowledge. So it is knowledge, a foreshadowing of the fully developed vision that culminates in enlightenment, that is enlightenment, the Supreme Peace (param shantim).
The man who is ignorant and without faith, of a doubting nature, is ruined. Neither this world, nor the next, nor happiness is for the man of doubt (4:40).
The way in which Krishna puts this first sentence, we can see that to him a doubter is ignorant and faithless, that the three qualities of ignorance, infidelity, and doubt are united in such a one and that destruction is the natural consequence for him. Not that the Self is ever destroyed, but certainly the intelligence that is the distinctive characteristic of the evolving human being can be so distorted and fragmented that it can be said to be destroyed–useless and even destructive. It is not impossible for the subtle bodies to become so damaged that they do dissolve and the individual spirit has to begin its evolutionary journey over again–sometimes from the very beginning. But though such a thing may be rare, for all doubters there is no happiness or peace in this or any other world.
Is Krishna agreeing with all the religions that sharply condemn those that doubt their teachings and predict dire consequences for their doubt? No. Krishna is not speaking of someone who honestly questions or wonders if the doctrines of religion are true. Those who have honest doubts or questions need not feel censured by Krishna. Without doubt of the right kind there is no resolution of doubt and the gaining of right conviction. Rather, Krishna is speaking of those in whom doubt is a symptom of willful ignorance, of refusal to accept what they inwardly know is truth. We all know people who reject the truth when it inconveniences, embarrasses, or condemns them. It is this deliberate and conscious denial, this hypocrisy, that later manifests as the kind of doubt Krishna is referring to. Many people actively war against what they know to be right and true. It is these that shall in time find there is no place for them in any world. Having sinned against truth, what is left for them? In contrast:
Action does not bind him whose actions are renounced in yoga, whose doubt is severed by knowledge, and who is self-possessed (4:41).
The core problem
Krishna is not a mere speaker of words, but a knower of the hearts of those to whom he speaks. Going directly to the root of Arjuna’s hesitation in the face of battle, he says to him:
Therefore, having severed with the sword of your own knowledge this doubt that proceeds from ignorance abiding in your heart, arise! Take refuge in yoga (4:42).
Doubting the Self
There are doubts that are rational and doubts that are irrational. Relative experience has dominated us for creation cycles, so it is understandable that we might doubt the glorious truth of the Self–not the fact that it exists, but the fullness of its wonder and its transforming, creative, transcendent power, what to speak of its accessibility through yoga. It is, of course, delusion that hides the reality of the Self from us and makes us doubt the words of Krishna and the sages of the Upanishads upon whose teachings the Gita is based. Yoga, however, directly reveals to us the truth of the Atman-Self and removes doubt as the rising sun dispels even the densest darkness.
Before we experience the Self, however, we must set our will to practice yoga for its revelation. This requires some intellectual conviction. We need to analyze our entire life, and especially our consciousness of it, for that consciousness is our Self. We need to distinguish (discriminate) between that which is experiencing our life and that which is being experienced. One is unchanging and the other is ever changing. We must look to the unchanging and know that as real, and understand the shifting patterns of light and shadow around us as a dream–necessary and instructive, but for all that only a dream. With the sword of our discrimination, then, we can pierce through the veils that hide the truth from us and cast them aside forever.
It is no small thing that Krishna refers to “the sword of your own knowledge,” for nothing but our own realization will erase ignorance and doubt. If we have no knowledge of our own, then any “faith” we may think we have is a fantasy, a delusion. People who believe something merely because some person or book–including the Gita–says so have no faith at all, only superstition. Until they rid themselves of such non-faith they will never know the truth which Krishna speaks. This is why atheism can be a positive thing: we often have to rid ourselves of silly and baseless religion before we can clear our minds enough to come to true faith and knowledge. Once a man told Sri Ramakrishna he was an atheist. Sri Ramakrishna said: “That, too, is a stage” on the way to realization.
We cannot live on the food other people eat, and we cannot live on the knowledge of others–who, if they were real knowers (jnanis) would tell us that themselves.
Positive action is required of us–not a running about and making noise as is the way of so much religion, but an interior activity: meditation. We must express in our outer life the insight meditation has given us. Then we can fight the battle of life from within the fortress of Right Action, of Karma Yoga.
At all times we are Arjuna, needing to heed the life-evoking words of Krishna, words that are the doors to freedom in the Self–in God.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Action–Renounced and Performed