“Better than the sacrifice of material things is the wisdom sacrifice [jnana yajna]. All action without exception is fully comprehended [contained, completed] in wisdom [jnana]” (4:33).
To know God is the supreme sacrifice-worship, immeasurably beyond material offerings or 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.
Wherever we find supposedly enlightened people who disdain “lesser” or “ignorant” attempts to elevate the seeker, we can know that we are in the presence of persons whose personal ignorance–like their ego–is colossal. 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. “Here [in this yoga] no effort is lost, nor is any loss of progress found” (2:40), Krishna tells Arjuna.
“Know this! Through respectful salutation, through questioning, through service, the knowing ones, the perceivers of truth, will be led to teach you knowledge [jnana]” (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 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. It would only be reasonable to give practical assistance in the daily work and maintenance of the ashram.
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 only “service” an authentic spiritual teacher really needs 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 and simple forest ashrams where the teacher and students lived in utmost simplicity. The service expected was equally humble and simple. It is a crime to interpret this verse in any other context.
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 at all 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. 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 longer 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.
“Knowing that, you shall not again fall into delusion. And by that knowledge you shall see all beings in your Self, and also 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.
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 that knowledge you shall see all beings in your Self, and also 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. Nothing less than 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.
Even at Krishna’s time there were fake jnanis whose “enlightenment” took the form of negating awareness of anything but their ego-minds which they, of course, called their “self.” Their false self-awareness crowded out any reality, leaving only the self-congratulatory madness of egomania. They, like their modern descendants, vociferously announce that “God” is a myth and that there is no one beside their “self” to know or perceive. But Krishna carefully tells Arjuna that the enlightened person finds all existence “in your Self AND also in Me.” The enlightened 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, as those who study and apply the wisdom of the Gita will discover.
“Even if you were the most evil of all evildoers, you would cross over all wickedness by the boat of knowledge. As the kindled fire reduces firewood to ashes, so the fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes. No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world. He who is himself perfected in yoga in time finds that 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 [knowledge], restraining his 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, 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 does not have faith, who is of a doubting nature, is destroyed. Neither this world nor that beyond, nor happiness, is for him who has a doubting nature” (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 self-destructive. It is not impossible for the subtle bodies to become so aberrated 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 other 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 past refusal to accept what they knew at the time was 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 who has renounced action through yoga, whose doubt is cut away [severed] by knowledge, and who is possessed of the Self” (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 cut away with your own sword of knowledge this doubt that proceeds from ignorance and abides in your heart, resort to yoga. Stand up!” (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 really only reasonable 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, and 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 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 “your own sword of 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 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 so 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
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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