The Highest Refuge and Knowledge

The Bhagavad Gita Chapter 18: Part Two

In the search for inner illumination, the Bhagavad Gita advises us against withdrawal from the world. The Gita teaching is not to give up active life, but to let go of attachment to our actions and their results. Giving up attachment to action means not dwelling on thoughts like ‘I am the one who does this and I should get the credit’, and caring only that what needs to be done is done. Not being attached to the results of action means being focused on the task in hand rather than being distracted by fears and hopes about what might happen. Action is to be done with the attitude ‘this is the best I can do now for the general good’.

This is known as karma yoga, the way to illumination through wise action, and it leads to a great success:

Listen to how one attains perfection (siddhi) by constantly doing what one has to do contentedly.

By fulfilling one’s own tasks and responsibilities one worships That which is the origin and support of all beings, and thus one attains perfection (siddhi). [Bhagavad Gita, 18: 45-46]

What is the ‘siddhi’—the success, the perfection—that this leads to? The highest goal of all is the ultimate freedom, enlightenment, knowledge of one’s true Self as the Supreme Being. Does this mean that enlightenment can be attained through action done as an offering?

The preeminent philosopher-sage of non-duality, Shri Shankara, and all those who have confirmed and restated his teachings, remind us that the ultimate truth is beyond action, change and causation. So attainment of the Supreme cannot be the direct outcome of any action or process. What afflicts the unenlightened is nescience, ignorance of the true nature of the Self. And the solution to ignorance is not action; ignorance can only be overcome by knowledge.

How then can karma yoga, the way of action, lead to the final liberation, true Self-knowledge? The teaching is that it does so indirectly. Action done as an offering, without attachment, brings inner purity and clarity, and in that clarity arises the power of discrimination and knowledge of the actionless self. This inner purity and insight is the ‘siddhi’ referred to above. It is sometimes called ‘Jnana-nishtha’, being established in Knowledge. So this ‘perfection’ means having arrived at the stage in life where one is ready to pursue the Truth that transcends life, death and all limitations.

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