The beginning of this chapter introduced us to the lineage of Karma Yoga – or yoga of action. This is commonly referred to as “selfless service and worship”. We’ve come to the conclusion that this is action which is done from a place of less ego, in other words acting without attachment to rewards.
We ended on Verse 18 last time, so let’s begin with verse 19, which begins our exploration into the nitty gritty’s of karma yoga.
Verse 19 sums up what we know so far: “By working constantly without attachment to the fruits of our actions, one can attain the supreme goal of life (liberation from rebirth).” Any questions about this?
Verse 20 explains why, “Through performing his duty, even Janaka attained liberation. Act with the welfare of others in mind, for the sake of all beings you should perform your duty.”
Janaka is a king who reigned during the 7th century BCE (likely) and was known in Vedic literature even before the Gita arose as a great Philosopher King. He is mentioned countless times throughout the literature of India.
Janaka is also a term for all the Kings of the Janaka Dynasty, there were several of them referred to in Indian literature, so it is debated if this is referencing this man specifically or all of them.
Duty in the time of the Gita was based mostly on the lifestyle you were born into. In Arjuna’s case, who Krishna is currently telling all of this to, his duty is that of a warrior – to protect his people. As they are currently standing on the battlefield, Arjuna is hesitant to fulfill his duty as he does not want to kill other people – especially his family and friends.
This seems reasonable, but Krishna goes on to explain throughout the Gita how fulfilling his duty is very important and is considered the easiest path to liberation from samsara – the cycle of rebirth/redeath.
“To fulfill ones duty is to be a great man (or woman as the case may be), and others will follow in your footsteps.” This is Verse 21, which I think speaks more these days to what feels right for us. By that I mean, do what it is you are good at. Most of us aren’t born into a caste system or a family which expects us to perform certain duties. But we all have a role in society to fill, whatever that may be. Finding what that is for us, and acting from this authentic place, allows for us to be truly great. People will see that example and be inspired to follow their own paths.
Verse 22 follows with: “There is nothing in the three worlds to gain. There is nothing I do not have, and nothing I need to attain, and yet I am engaged in work.”
The three worlds are known in Hindu cosmology as the Svarga (heaven) Prithvi (earth) and Patala (the seven lower regions – underworld, etc).
So basically Krishna is using himself as an example by saying that there is absolutely nothing material that he needs or wants, and yet he continues to act for the betterment of the people.
Verse 23: “For, Arjuna, if I did not engage in work, all people would follow my path.” Verse 24 continues this train of thought, “If I stopped working, the worlds would all crumble. It would cause cosmic chaos, and the destruction of this world and these people.”
Since Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, who is considered out of the trinity (Brahma, Vishna, and Shiva) to be the Preserver, he is the one who maintains order. So for him to give this teaching is extremely intentional and relevant.
Krishna, as an avatar, takes on a role of a man in this world, and all men have duties. Krishna’s duty was also that of diplomat and statesman for his brother’s empire. His dharma (duty) was first and foremost to that, and secondly to his own personal desires as a godhead.
Verse 25: “Those who are ignorant of the truth work with attachment to results; those who are wise work for the welfare of the world, for the sake of leading people on the right path.”
I’m curious if “right path” has anything to do with Buddhism which was part of the conversation in India at the time, but it’s hard to say. Buddhism has this idea of the Noble Eightfold Path, composed of Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This could be a direct conversation here, whether intentional or unintentional.
Verse 26: “As a leader, by abstaining from your duty you will confuse the ignorant. Act from a place of devotion, non-attachment to results, and guided from compassion so as to set an example for those less knowledgeable.”
Verse 27 introduces us to the gunas, and another term we may not be familiar with yet. “When one is ignorant, trapped in delusion, they think ‘I am the doer’, but really all actions occur in nature, controlled by the gunas.” Verse 28 continues this conversation: “The wise person will understand this relationship and is not attached to the fruits of their actions, as they know the gunas interact with each other beyond our control.”
Nature is translated from the Sanskrit term ‘prakriti’, which means material and measurable existence. It’s opposite is ‘purusha’ or spirit, the nonmaterial, immeasurable existence. The gunas are the three conditions which arise in prakriti. All things have some degree of all three, whether it’s 33/33/33 or 70/20/10. In other words, these conditions are necessary for things to exist. The gunas are: tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is the low energy, static quality of nature. Rajas is the high energy, fluid quality of nature. Sattva is the in between – the balance which allows things to exist together. Sattva is a moving target, depending on the other conditions surrounding it and the “purpose” or “goal” of such balance. This is where the ratios come in – to find the balance which is right for the particular object.
So, to be unaware that there is a difference between prakriti and purusha is to be stuck with the idea that you are in fact controlling the physical conditions of reality, when in a very large way, they are controlling you.
Verse 29: “Those who are stuck in the nature of the gunas become attached to the fruits of their actions. Those who understand the true nature of prakriti should not force this knowledge on the ignorant.”
I find verse 29 to be tricky. Especially the second sentence. But, we can rationalize this by the simple fact that we cannot convince someone of something they are not ready for. Just like you cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. It is particularly hard for those of us who teach yoga and who have practiced consistently for some time to realize this. We know the benefits of the practice, and we want everyone to experience it as we have. But, not everyone is ready for it, or wants it. Those who are ignorant of the things we have learned are not necessarily living their life badly – they could be practicing nonviolence, compassion, etc. and still be unaware of the influence of the gunas. This doesn’t make them bad people. It just means that we have gone ahead in this ocean we are swimming across together, so we know some of the obstacles and the safer paths. As much as we want to warn them, sometimes it is best they learn for themselves.
Krishna reiterates the main teaching of the Gita in verse 30: “Therefore, Arjuna, perform your duties without attachment to the fruits of your actions. Fight, Arjuna, as is your dharma, without being influenced by ego.”
I struggle with the word “ego” because of it’s common use in the Western world. Since Freud, we tend to see the ego as something strictly negative. This was not necessarily his intent when he made his theory public. Freud used the ego to describe the part of the brain which aims for our personal, long term goals. Quite often, this is accomplished by hiding the unconscious mind – or the mind which is more true to the way things are in the big picture. The unconscious mind can be related to the Atman, or the purusha – spirit within us which is like a drop in the ocean of consciousness – still part of the ocean though it may appear separate. Therefore, the unconscious mind usually holds a greater awareness which is less personal. The ego is thought to be the selfish character which keeps the unconscious quiet so “I can get what I want!” But here in the Gita, ego is used a bit differently. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it isn’t something which is battling something else in side of us necessarily (though it certainly can be seen as a battle, i.e. the battle between the Kurava’s and Pandava’s in the Gita), but rather it is a natural ratio of prakriti and purusha.
If you believe that we are here as individual souls by choice to learn of our unity, you could say the ego is our lesson of how to do that. In less esoteric terms, the ego is the selfish, grasping desires we all have, and the goal is to move past it to live a happier, more fulfilled life. When you grasp for things, there is always the chance to lose that which you desire. When you move past the selfish desires, you no longer have the need to fulfill your happiness by external objects, so can remain in happy abiding presence. Then, we are no longer blinded to what is right and what is wrong.
In this previous verse, Krishna is telling Arjuna to let go of his selfish desires and act from this place of less ego so he can fulfill his dharma (duty) to the most success.
Verse 31 follows this logical path, “Those who live in accordance with these truths, and act from a place of devotion to them, are released from karma.”
Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! To be released from karma, is to be released from the results of your actions. This also means that you will no longer be reborn into samsara, but have transcended the physical realm. Cool, huh?
And then, he bluntly tells us the reality in verse 32: “Those who violate these truths and try to control the way things are, are the cause of their own suffering.”
That one is pretty self explanatory, if not hard to act on.
Verses 33 and 34 go together indefinitely. “(33) Every living being, whether wise or ignorant to these truths, acts within the limitations of their nature. All creatures are subject to prakriti; so what good does repression do? (34) Aversion and attraction for sense objects are felt by all living beings. But, do not be ruled by them as they are obstacles to experiencing things as they truly are.”
Wow. This pretty much sums up what this chapter is saying. As living beings in physical bodies we are bound by the conditions of the sense objects – or that which is material. How we interact with the environment we are in, both within and without, does not have to be controlled by this relationship. If we let our senses divulge in the things which appear to be pleasant, we are not always doing the right thing. For instance, eating a whole pepperoni pizza in one sitting may taste delicious, but afterwords your body isn’t going to like you very much. You’ll have an upset stomach, stuffy nose, etc. So, just because it appears pleasant, does not mean it is. Those who are able to see this truth will abide in a place much more satisfying than those who don’t.
Verse 35 is perhaps my favourite. I know, how can I chose just one! But, this is definitely in the top of the list. “It is better to follow one’s own (dharma) path than to follow the (dharma) path of another. Nothing can be lost from following your truth, but following the words or actions of another is dangerous.”
We see this so often in this world. And, evidently, they saw it when the Gita was written, too. People who strive to be “just like that other person”. You see someone who is very happy and at ease and you can’t help but think, “I want to be them,” or “I want what they have.” Why do you think they got so happy? And no, I’m not talking about the person with the big mansion and fancy cars. I mean true happiness. We all know of someone who has this. They walk in the room and everyone feels at ease around them. They can be powerful even in the most vulnerable situations, because they are at peace with themselves. How does one become peaceful? By following their truth. We all have a path to take that will really speak to us. It’s that thing you’ve always wanted to do, that leads to that next thing, and the next thing. It’s that thing that is sometimes the hardest to do because saying yes to one thing inevitably means saying no to another thing. Maybe that other thing is a relationship, or a job, or a certain education. Maybe it’s a family, a team, or a dream. But, despite having to let go of something, we just feel that it’s right. Maybe it means losing the security of a steady income, or a place to call home. But, if it’s true to us, there can be no regrets later as it will only better our understanding of truth, and what it means to us.
The danger is when we try to follow someone elses’ path. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite right for us, but we haven’t taken the time to sit down in the quiet and find out what is true for us, so we are trusting their word. Or maybe we have, but we love the person so much that we are willing to give up anything. I think to a certain extent this is okay, but if it means leaving behind what you know to be true for you, then even Krishna says “No!”. This is true with teachers, too. Even the Buddha said to take everything he said as a grain of sand and examine if it’s true for you. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Not even mine. Except about this. (haha)
The next verse has Arjuna asking the final question for this chapter. Verse 36: “What force is it which binds us to selfish deeds even against our will, Krishna?”
We’ve all had that conversation in our head where we have a choice to make, and we know which one is the right choice, but something takes over and we make the wrong choice anyways. We end up kicking ourselves after, saying, “I knew what to do, why didn’t I just do it?” This is what Arjuna means.
Krishna responds beginning with Verse 37. “It is the emotions which arise from the guna of rajas, such as anger and lust, which bind a person to this life.” Verse 38 I’m going to quote directly from Eknath Easwaran’s translation, because I think he did a great job: “Just as a fire is covered by smoke and a mirror is obscured by dust, just as the embryo rests deep within the womb, knowledge is hidden by seflish desire. (Verse 39) Thus, the truest part of who we are is hidden by our greatest enemy – this unquenchable lust for self-satisfaction.”
So, now that we’ve labelled what it is, how does it actually affect us? Well, let’s read Verse 40 to find out. “This selfish desire is found in the realms of the senses, mind, and intellect, which buries any understanding in delusion.”
Because selfish desire is found in so many layers of our being, it is of course very difficult to overcome. But, in verse 41 Krishna tells us to anyway, “Fight with all your strength, Arjuna, to control your senses and conquer your enemy – the destroyer of knowledge and realization.”
In other words, this battle is hard, and will take much perseverance, but it is possible! Don’t give up now, when you have only just begun!
Verse 42 and 43 reminds us of our higher selves, “The body is the lowest self, the senses are above that. The mind is higher than the senses and the intellect is even higher than the mind. But higher than the intellect is Atman. (verse 43) Since we know the Atman is the highest self, let it rule over the lower selves, rather than the other way around. Use your strength to slay the enemy of selfish desire which resides in the lower selves to make this more clear.”
I do believe that this speaks for itself also. This could be related to the koshas, or perhaps the kosha’s emerged from this. The Kosha’s are the sheaths of our being. There are five koshas that cover our Atman, or individual selves. From the most gross to the most subtle they are: anamayakosha (food body), pranamayakosha (breath/energy body), manamayakosha (mind body), vijnanamayakosha (wisdom body), and anandamayakosha (bliss body).
I could probably write a whole post on these alone, so will just leave it at that for now. But you can draw your own connection if you see fit.
That brings us to the end of chapter three!