Bhagavad Gita Chapter 12: Doing our Best

An important question for seekers of wisdom is whether we should take as the focus of our dedication, the absolute, all-transcending Truth, or a more tangible and conceivable form, such as the source and sustainer of the world, the origin of all power and beauty. The non-dual teachings, and logic, conclude that no finite qualities apply to transcendent Reality. But the difficulties of devoting oneself to That are evident. So the question is a pressing one.

In Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita the pupil experiences a vision of the power behind the cycles of birth and death, the source of all being and becoming. This vision does not come through the mind in the usual way: it is as if he were experiencing the interior of stars, of supernovae, of every atom, of multitudes being born and dying, all simultaneously. He is overwhelmed by this vision of the power behind the universe.

When we philosophise calmly, we infer from creation that such a creative force exists, and in the non-dual philosophy it is given a name to help in our discussions: it is called ‘Ishvara’.

Clearly, in a certain sense, Ishvara ‘arises from’ or ‘exists within’, the ultimate, absolute Reality, called Brahman. And yet, we also understand that Brahman transcends all finite forms and so does not ‘have’ or ‘do’ anything. This means that when trying to discover Reality, we have to remember that the supreme being is the ‘substance’ of which we ourselves are ‘made’, and also entirely exceeds any idea we can form in our mind. And so, as well as deep reflection, we turn to meditation, devotion and the other practices which ultimately draw upon the power of Truth itself behind the mind.

All this is explained early in the teachings of non-duality, as soon as we earnestly begin the enquiry for ourselves. Yet we need to be frequently reminded and led to deeper understanding and more subtle receptivity.

Such reminders and help come in Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita. With his mind restored to ‘normality’ following the vision of Ishvara in Chapter 11, at the beginning of Chapter 12 the pupil asks this question:

Who understands best the way to inner illumination—those who devoutly worship you thus [as Ishvara], or as the imperishable, unmanifest, Absolute? [12:1]

The answer given (by the Supreme Being through a teacher) is:

Those who are ever joined in worship of me, fixing their mind in me with supreme trust, I think are the most devoted. [12:2]

This answer might seem ambiguous and could be taken as applying to either form of devotion. But the mention of fixing the mind with supreme trust implies devotion to a form with some attributes, and the great philosopher-sage Shri Shankara in his commentary says this does mean those who fix their minds on Ishvara. The teaching continues:

Those who worship the imperishable, indefinable, unmanifest, all-pervading, unthinkable, unchanging, who have controlled their senses, who are always even-minded and rejoice in the well-being of all creatures, they attain to me. [12:3-4]

This is a description of the perfect devotee of the transcendent Reality. Their approach is to negate all finite qualities while controlling their minds. Thus everything is equal in their eyes.

Such an exalted condition is difficult to attain, because we feel that we live in a body and that what affects the body affects us for better or worse, and this is acknowledged in the following verse:

Greater is the trouble of those whose minds are fixed on the unmanifest. The unmanifest goal is difficult for the embodied to reach. [12:5]

In contrast, by dedicating ourselves to truth in a more tangible form we find that:

Those who worship, renouncing all actions in me, meditating on me with devotion, whose thoughts are in me, I soon rescue from death and the illusory world-process. [12:6-7]

To ‘renounce actions in me’ means to feel that everything that happens to us, and all our actions and reactions, ultimately come and go in the Ocean of Being that is God-Brahman. Whether our present situation is easy or hard, we strive to focus on the underlying reality and ultimate support of all.

There now comes a series of verses on how best to devote oneself to the supreme Being. These teachings recognise our difficulties and offer solutions, beginning with:

Fix your mind on me alone, apply your understanding to me, thus you will dwell in me from now on without doubt. [12:8]

This is the ideal: to keep our mind fixed on the supreme Being and to see That as the cause and sustainer of all things, remembering the teachings and meditation texts.

We may find it hard to keep focused like this, in which case:

If you are not able to keep your thought steadily on Me, then try to attain me by yoga practice. [12:9]

Shankara says that practice means consciously withdrawing thought from wherever it goes and applying it again and again to one particular object. Although that object may not be the ultimate truth, this practice will gradually purify and stabilise the mind, enabling us to go on.

The next verses make further allowance for our difficulties:

If you cannot practise in this way, then be intent on doing my work. Doing actions for my sake you will attain perfection. [10]

This means that if you cannot keep the mind fixed on a particular object, then engage in activities with the feeling that you are working for the highest being. Again, Shankara says that this leads to purity of mind, and thus onwards.

In case we are still struggling:

Or if you cannot do even this, act with self-control, taking refuge in my power, and letting go of attachment to the results of action. [11]

This means that if it is difficult to do actions as offerings, perhaps because we are unsure of what is for the best or we are incapacitated by fatigue, then, whatever you do, just do it consciously and let go of attachment to the results of action, leaving the outcome in the hands of God-self.

Great benefit comes of letting go of this attachment:

Knowledge is better than practice, meditation is better than knowledge, letting go of the fruit of action is better than meditation; from letting go, peace comes immediately. [12]

At first sight this looks odd, because it seems to be saying that the last practice—letting go of the results of action— which we should resort to when none of the others are possible, is in fact the best. How should we understand this?

Shankara says that letting go of attachment to the outcome of our efforts is extolled here simply to encourage the pupil to do so, because this is what will help him most right now.

The teacher in the Gita is aware that the pupil is confused, and this confusion lies behind his question. The pupil, and we, are being led in stages to resolve this confusion. (Shankara puts his explanations in the commentary to verse 12, meaning that having got to that point with a provisional understanding, we have to re-read those verses, which is an effective teaching method.) Let us look again at the pupil’s question. He asked:

Who has the best knowledge of Yoga [the way to illumination], those who worship you as that (Ishvara, the wondrous creator revealed in the previous chapter), or those who contemplate the timeless, formless absolute Being?

What the pupil does not realise is that there is a preconception built into his question. He is assuming that there is a difference between the supreme being and his own self and that a method (yoga) is needed to overcome it. What he has not fully grasped is that the difference between the supreme Reality and his own Self, is in his mind, not in Reality. He shows that he has missed this when he asks if those who contemplate the timeless, formless reality are best at Yoga. What he overlooks is that those who know that Reality have overcome the separation, and for them no Yoga method is needed, or even possible.

At first, the teacher meets the pupil at his own level. Those who experience a separation between ultimate Reality and their own Self, need to practise a method to overcome it. In verse two, the teacher describes the best form of that Yoga practice:

Those who are ever joined in worship of me, fixing their mind in me with supreme trust, I think are the most devoted [literally, ‘most-yoked’ or ‘the best yogis’].

So, says Shankara, it is right to say that they are the best yogis.

Then in verses three and four the teacher speaks of those dedicated to the timeless, unmanifest Being. For them, no method is needed; Truth is attained. Shankara adds that it is uncalled for to say they are the best yogis.

Next, in verse five, the teacher addresses one of the fundamental challenges on the path to illumination, which is also the root of the pupil’s misunderstanding. It is hard to be devoted to the unmanifest Truth, for the ‘embodied’, that is, for those who are attached to their bodies and feel that what affects the body affects themselves.

The solution is given in the next two verses, which advise that so long as we feel we are the body, the best course is to live in the body while striving to make all our actions offerings to Brahman-God. This means we are assuming that there is a gap between ourselves and the Supreme, and that we need a method to overcome it, but the teacher-God assures us that for those who thus practise dedicated action, ‘I soon become the deliverer out of the ocean of endless births and deaths’.

The progression from being identified with the body to absorption in the limitless absolute is usually a gradual one. And there are many ups and downs on the way. At times, our devotion and meditation will be focused on what lies beyond all forms; at others the needs of the body and the world will press upon us. Now we know that there is help at every point:

Fix your mind on Me alone, apply your understanding to Me, thus you will dwell in me from now on without doubt.

If you are not able to keep your thought steadily on Me, then try to attain me by yoga practice.

If you cannot practise in this way, then be intent on doing my work. Doing actions for my sake you will rise in purity.

Or if you cannot do even this, act with self-control, taking refuge in my power, and letting go of attachment to the results of action. [12:8-11]

Now we can better understand why it is said in verse 12 that: knowledge (of God-Self) is better than practice (which leads to knowledge); meditation is better than theoretical ‘knowledge’ which has not been put into practice; and whereas meditation takes effect slowly, letting go attachment to the results of action brings immediate peace and relief from anxiety. Thus the pupil, and we, are encouraged unreservedly to do so.

It might be added that letting go of our attachment to the results of actions can be seen as a relatively ‘simple’ practice for when we are at the ‘early’ stage of being identified with our body. And yet, to really let go of attachment to cause and effect is a very high affirmation that all is God-Brahman. In fact, we only truly let go of attachment with the final direct experience of the Truth that the body is not the Self, the world is phenomenal and not absolutely real, and there is ultimately only Atma-Brahman.

The concluding verses of this chapter teach the qualities that overcome the obstacles to illumination. Here are some:

One who is friendly and compassionate to all, unpossessive, unegoistic, even-minded in pleasure and pain, patient, contented, firmly resolved, who has fixed their thoughts and understanding on Me, devoted to Me, is dear to me. [13, 14]

Who is impartial, pure, practical, unworried, who lets go of personal undertakings and is devoted to Me, is dear to me. [16]

Who is unmoved by praise or blame, content with anything, at home anywhere, steady-minded, following the eternal way declared above, trusting, devoted to me as the goal, they are exceedingly dear to me. [19-20]

This might sound like an intimidatingly high ideal. But now we know that the more challenges we encounter, and frankly recognise them, the more we can find the solution by resorting to Atma-Brahman-God in our own being.


This article is from the Summer 2021 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.