Giving Up and Letting Go

The Bhagavad Gita Chapter 18, part one.

The final chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the eighteenth, is the culmination and summary of the whole teachings.

It is one of several chapters that begin with a question. Here the student asks, what is the precise meaning of and difference between ‘renunciation’ (sanyasa) and ‘letting go’ (tyaga)?

We might wonder why the exact distinction between two such similar words should be important to the student at this point. But there is a reason why he wants to be clear about this, which we can understand by reviewing what came before.

The Gita begins with a situation that will feel familiar to many of us. The student is facing a crisis and feels that all the options are bad. He is paralysed by indecision and thinks it would be better to live on alms than to suffer or cause suffering in his present course.

The teacher advises him not to abandon the situation in which he finds himself, because it will not solve the difficulty. The fundamental problem is not in the world situation, but in his understanding of it, and of his own nature. The real solution to the student’s problem is to know the truth of his own being, that is, the reality in all.

The truth, we are told, is that there is one universal Self-Reality, untouched by divisions, conflicts, limitations or sufferings of any kind. It is the mind and senses that create separations, vulnerabilities and suffering. The way to the liberating knowledge is not to give up the world, which is not possible because the body cannot be removed from the process of cause and effect. The right step is to mentally let go of attachment to passing phenomena and events, including the results of our own actions. Living in this way will purify the mind and establish us in knowledge of the true Self. This is the essence of the teachings given in chapter two of the Gita.

The student does not fully understand what he has been told, and chapter three begins with him asking a question: ‘If you believe that knowledge is better than action, why are you advising me to continue in this terrible worldly activity?’ (He is caught up as a combatant in war.)

It has already been taught that it is action done in the right way which leads to knowledge, but as the student has evidently not understood, the teacher gives a further explanation. He says that how we should proceed on the path to Self-knowledge depends on our current standpoint. There are, he says, two standpoints, and two paths proceeding from them.

One standpoint is that of seekers who have the indirect knowledge that Self is fundamentally distinct from all mental and physical forms and is not limited by them. Their path proceeds on this basis, and so it is called the way of knowledge, Jnana-yoga (also sometimes called ‘Samkhya’ in the Gita.)

The other standpoint is occupied by those who aspire to liberation but currently have the conviction and experience that they are individuals and are bound to act in the world and undergo the consequences of actions and events. So their path is called the way of action, Karma-yoga.

At some places in the Gita, Karma-Yoga is called simply Yoga, meaning action done as a way to make progress on the path, in contrast to Jnana-Yoga which is based on the conviction that the true Self does not act at all. And ‘Yoga’ may also refer to all or any of the methods and steps leading to Self-realisation. Whether ‘Yoga’ means Karma-Yoga or ‘all of the ways’, is usually clear from the context.

It is sometimes suggested that in the Bhagavad Gita and related teachings there is a third main form of Yoga. The idea is that Jnana-Yoga means practices appropriate for people who are intellectually-oriented, Karma-Yoga is for physically active types, and that there is also ‘Bhakti-Yoga’ or the ‘Way of devotion’, for those in whom the emotions predominate.

It is true that the Gita teaches ways of training and refining all the intellectual, emotional and active elements of human nature. But the Gita does not distinguish types of aspirants and prescribe different forms of Yoga in this way. An intellectual type who still feels him or herself to be an individual acting in the world, must necessarily practise Karma Yoga, the way of action. A person who works with their hands, who has come through their practice to know with intuitive certainty that the true Self does not act, is a Jnana Yogi, a practicant of Knowledge-Yoga.

So in the Gita itself we do not find the teaching that there are three forms of Yoga, action, devotion and knowledge, for active, emotional, and intellectual types respectively. It would be more in keeping with the text to say that in the Gita, devotion is the way and the way is devotion. Devotion means giving all one is and has to the ideal, and the way to realisation of the ideal is to give all one is and has. In practice, this Devotion-Yoga takes one of the two forms: devotion through Knowledge for those who know the true Self to be transcendent, partless and unchanging; and devotion through action for those who feel identified with the body and mind that act in the world.

Some aspirants may be more or less consistently grounded in one of these standpoints; others may find themselves alternating between them at different times, for example when practising meditation or engaged in daily tasks. The essential point is that one cannot be simultaneously in both; we cannot be convinced that the Self is actionless, and at the same time feel that we are the one who does action and gets the results. If we are identified with our actions, the best we can do is offer them and the results to Truth. If we are convinced that our true Self transcends forms and action, then we have no actions to offer and the practice is to reinforce and maintain the sense of identity with the True Self.

Shankara, the great philosopher-sage, shows in his commentary how this distinction makes all the Gita teachings consistent with the principle of non-duality. Where the Gita advises some aspirants to act, and to dedicate their actions to Truth, this is not to contradict the principle of non-duality by making a real distinction between the actor and the one to whom the action is dedicated. The teaching simply recognises the level of the aspirant’s understanding, and advises what will lead to inner purification and through that to higher knowledge.

The student in the Gita has heard all these teachings and distinctions in the preceding discourses, and now, at the beginning of the last, he is evidently thinking carefully about what he needs to do. He has been told that he should not renounce the world or his situation as a soldier, but that he should dedicate himself to the supreme Truth and let go of attachment to actions and their outcomes. Apparently he notices that in the teachings on renunciation and letting go, two words have been used almost interchangeably, and now, with a sincere wish to understand clearly what is required of him, he says, ‘I want to know the truth about sanyasa and tyaga, distinctly.’ The answer given is:

Sages say that sanyasa is to give up (ny-as) actions arising from desire; the learned say that tyaga is to give up (tyaga) the results of all actions. (18: 2)

This seems clear enough, but to put it into practice we have to understand what is meant by actions arising from desire. Some desires are legitimate and necessary. So what exactly are the ‘actions arising from desire’ that are to be given up? For example, should we give up acts of self-sacrifice, charity and discipline? The answer given by the teacher (Truth incarnate) is unambiguous:

Acts of self-sacrifice (yajna), giving (dāna) and discipline (tapas), should not be given up (tyaga); they are necessary, they purify the wise. But even these actions are to be done letting go (tyaga) attachment and the results. This is my firm and highest thought. (18: 5-6)

The wording makes clear that actions are to be done without attachment to the results, or to the act itself, that is, without holding on to the idea ‘I am a sacrificer’ or ‘I am a giver’.

A point worth noting is that we might expect the Gita to say in verse five that there should not be sanyasa of self-sacrifice and the rest which are not to be given up, but in fact the text uses the word tyaga again, apparently ignoring the distinction just made. In explanation it may be said that the usual reason for making sacrifices and gifts is a desire (perhaps unconscious) to gain some personal reward from them, and that this should be given up (tyaga). But the real reason (even if unknown) why acts of sacrifice, charity and discipline should be done, is that they purify, and this result cannot be given up.

Shankara says that these teachings must be intended for Karma Yogis, those who feel themselves to be individual actors in the world, and not for those established in Jnana, knowledge of the true Self as actionless. It is inconceivable, he says, that the latter could give up their duty out of delusion or pain, so this teaching cannot be addressed to them. Theirs is the highest form of giving up action, the knowledge ‘I do nothing at all’ because action is done by forms of matter and energy (the ‘gunas’), while Self, Atman, is Brahman, the transcendent Absolute.

The Gita teaches that to give up an action that belongs to one’s duties and responsibilities is renunciation based on delusion (tamas guna), and harmful consequences must follow. And if an action is given up because of the trouble or discomfort involved, then this renunciation is based on desire and aversion (rajas guna), and it will bring the practicant no closer to liberation. If an action is done simply out of need and responsibility, without attachment to the action or the fruit, then it comes from inner light and clarity (sattva guna). (18: 9)

When the mind is purified, full of light and clarity, discrimination between Self and not-Self arises. It is in this way that Karma Yoga—fulfilling one’s responsibilities without attachment to actions or the results—leads through purity of mind to knowledge of the actionless Self. For Shankara and teachers who follow him in the non-dual tradition, this is a central point in the philosophy and practice. (18: 9-12)

The teaching in this chapter so far has focused on renunciation and letting go, in response to the student’s initial question. It has been shown how all action, done as an offering, can and should be a way to purification and knowledge. So the teaching now turns to action in general.

First it is pointed out that action involves various factors, including the body, objects and motives. The Self cannot be or have any such factors, so this shows clearly that it is a mistake to think of the Self as one that acts. (18:13-17)

Actions and events are formed of matter, energy and the laws of nature, or the ‘gunas’ as they were understood when the Gita was composed. As we have seen, what is important is that our actions should be ‘sattvic’, that is, characterised by inner light, clarity and balance. The Gita goes on to further analyse the components of action, showing how they can be sattvic and thus helpful, but may also be rajasic or tamasic. The components of action include the knowledge (or at least the belief) on which it is based, the one who acts, the understanding (buddhi), will-power, and the pleasure expected from the action. (18:18-19)

Sattvic knowledge is said to be knowledge that sees the one Reality abiding in all, while rajas sees differences and the tamasic view is totally one-sided. A sattvic doer is unselfish and unaffected by success and failure; the rajasic agent is passionate and pleasure-driven; the tamasic is obstinate and lazy. A right understanding of duty and freedom is sattvic; rajasic understanding is mistaken, and the tamasic understanding is perverse. Sattvic will-power controls the mind and life-energies for the way; rajasic will-power holds on to methods, pleasures and wealth for their results; tamasic will-power clings to sleep, fear, grief, desire. Sattvic pleasure involves restraint at first but is like nectar in the end and arises from purity of mind. Rajasic pleasure springs from sense-contacts, it is like nectar at first, but often turns sour afterwards. Tamas takes pleasure in delusions and laziness. (18:20-39)

The Gita goes on to say that the aptitudes and vocations of individuals also have their roots in the play of causality and natural forces that bring us into being. Constantly fulfilling one’s own responsibilities with contentment leads to success. By doing the duties that life presents to us, we give reverence to That which is the source of all, and this brings the inner purity in which Self-knowledge arises. (18: 40-46)

We are advised that it is better to fulfil the roles and responsibilities presented by our own aptitudes and circumstances, however imperfect they may seem, than to try to take on those of another, even if they look superior. Such initiatives incur unforseen consequences and anxiety. Nothing is absolutely perfect in this world. No censure comes to us if we do our own duties as an offering. (18: 47-48)

The Gita has now explained in detail how through right renunciation—doing one’s duty as an offering without attachment to actions or the results—we can attain what is called the highest perfection (siddhi). This is the perfection of being free of action (naishkarmyasiddhi), established in the Knowledge that the true Self is totally transcendent and free of all actions, causes, effects, desires and duties. And next the Gita proceeds to teach how one who attains this perfection thus also reaches Brahman, the supreme Knowledge. (18: 49-50)

to be continued


This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.