From Action and Reaction to Infinity: Bhagavad Gita, Chapter Three

The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between a teacher and a pupil. The pupil has reached a point in life where it seems that the world is full of conflict and he has the idea of becoming a spiritual recluse. Perhaps some of us have had similar thoughts. But the teacher in the Gita gives different advice. He advises not to withdraw from the world, and to carry on doing the duties that life presents. And he also guides the pupil to look on the world and his life in a new way. That is, to make inner adjustments rather than try to radically change the outer circumstances.

First of all come some teachings about the nature of reality. It is said that ultimately, beyond the changing appearances we experience through our minds and senses, there is one abiding reality, which is untouched by time, space, death, change; it is perfect and immutable. This may seem far from our immediate experience and concerns, but in fact it is the reality in all, it is the true Self of all, and in this sense it is nearer to us than the nearest. The feeling that our self is our body and mind, is, from this standpoint, a distorted and incomplete view. This is the foundation of the spiritual teachings.

Secondly, the teacher gives practical guidance on how to realise this Truth in one’s Self, and also on how to cope with the world. Here the advice is, do not try to withdraw from the world, because everything has to take part in the world process, this is inescapable. The way to inner freedom and light is to adjust how we act. Normally, we act with the feeling that we want and need to get the results of action, and find ourselves emotionally identified with those results; instead of this, the advice is to do one’s action conscientiously, but without attachment to the results; just do what needs to be done for its own sake. When we act with attachment to the results of action, we are bound to the process of cause and effect. If we act without attachment to the outcomes, we are inwardly freed and we affirm that our real Self is one with the higher reality, unaffected by what happens to the mind and body and the world of change.

These are the teachings given at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, in chapter two. They are high and concentrated and the pupil does not fully understand them. The teacher has said something like this: ‘It is better to practise action with detachment, devoted to the knowledge that the true Self is untouched by action, rather than to act with attachment to the results.’

And then the pupil asks:

If you think that devotion to knowledge is better than action, why are you telling me to carry on with this awful action? [3:1]

This question forms the first verse of chapter three. The teacher responds by re-presenting the teachings, in a way which allows for the pupil’s current understanding. He says that there are two paths, two practices, for two kinds of seekers. These are the way of knowledge, for those who have a knowledge of the actionless Self; and the way of action, for those who feel that they themselves are still bound by action.

Pupils of the first kind have firmly grasped the teaching that the real Self of all is an enduring, universal principle, which is not affected by the process of cause and effect. For these, the way is to keep their minds focused on this truth and go into it more and more deeply. Then there are other pupils, who may have heard the teachings but still have the feeling that they themselves have to do action and get the results. This shows that they have not fully assimilated the teaching that the body and mind are the doers of action, while the true Self is other than the body and mind; it is the underlying reality of all. For these pupils the practice is to do the required action, but without personal attachment to the outcome, simply as a duty.

In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, the great philosopher-sage Shri Shankara makes explicit a point that is implicit in the text itself. He says that the paths of knowledge and of action are both means to Self-realisation, but one is direct while the other leads indirectly to the goal. The path of action in fact leads to the path of knowledge; that is, by practising action without attachment to the results, one is led to knowledge, and the path of knowledge is the immediate means to realisation. Shankara says that dedicated action leads to knowledge because it purifies the mind, and in a purified mind knowledge can arise, that is, an awareness of the true Self independent of the mind and senses, shines through.

We remember that the pupil asked ‘Why do you ask me to continue with this troublesome action?’ and we see that the teacher is answering exactly this question. He says, it has been revealed that there are two paths, one for those who feel they are bound to action, and another for those with knowledge of the actionless Self [3:3]. The pupil is one who feels bound to action, so action is his path now. The teacher goes on, it is not by abstaining from action that one attains perfection [3:4]. As Shri Shankara says, first we act with detachment and this leads to knowledge by purifying the inner life. Still addressing the question of why the pupil must act, the teacher points out that everything in the world is constantly acting, this is unavoidable [3:5]. It can happen that one sits quietly, apparently not involved in action, yet the mind is busy with worldly ideas. The Gita calls this false, hypocritical conduct; the right way is to act as a duty, but with the mind under control and restrained [3:6-8].

In the next verse an important part of the teaching is presented.

Except in the case of action for the sake of sacrifice, the world is bound by action. So for that purpose do action, without attachment. [3:9]

It seems to be the inescapable predicament that in the world, everything has to act, and everything is bound by the process of cause and effect. But in fact there is this one exception: action done as a sacrifice. Such action does not bind but liberates, by purifying our inner vision.

This is a refinement of the teaching given so far in the Bhagavad Gita on action. In chapter two, the teaching is to do action simply for its own sake, and with no other purpose in view. If we understand that our true Self is the Supreme Being which is not affected by action, then we will have no individual motives for action; and to act without attachment to the results affirms this independence of the true Self. So this is the teaching in its purest, most direct form, which the Gita has given up to this point. Now here at the beginning of chapter three there has been introduced the idea of the two paths, including the path of action for those who still feel themselves to be bound up in the process of cause and effect in the world. For us who feel this way, it is not easy to be told simply to act without concern for the results; a helpful and less abstract idea is that of doing our actions as an offering to the Supreme Being within and around us.

A few verses follow which conceive of the whole world-process as a kind of vast sacrifice; the rain sacrifices itself to the Earth; the Earth sacrifices herself to the harvest; and we too should not only take what we need, but give back as well through right action. This will be meaningful to those who are used to the idea of sacrifice as being a natural part of ethical or spiritual life. At the time the Gita was written and when Shri Shankara was composing his commentaries, there were many who understood material sacrifices as central to their religion, and there was a whole class of priests whose role was to conduct these rituals. The aim of so doing was to gain favour with the higher powers and secure worldly advantages or an afterlife in heaven (Svarga). Even today there is a view that material donations to churches and temples can attract such benefits. But the Bhagavad Gita and Shri Shankara are making it clear that the real offerings to be made are our action and our attachment to the results, and the only aim in so doing is a loosening of the bonds of action and reaction, a growing inner light and freedom.

One might get the impression that the paths of action and knowledge are sharply separated and that at some point the pupil passes definitively from one to another, as one might pass the school-leaving exam and go on to college. And in a sense there is a sharp distinction; because it is impossible to feel at the same time ‘I am the doer of action’ and ‘I am the supreme Self unaffected by action’; the two are logically incompatible. But this does not mean that at some point on the path we leave one standpoint for the other never to return. In fact, we can pass rapidly and repeatedly from one perspective to the other. There may be times during our meditations, our hours of study and reflection, or other moments of inner focus and clarity, when we grasp that our inner being, our true Self, is a pure, conscious principle, quite different in kind from the body and mind and the physical world. At those moments, the practice is to affirm and deepen this understanding and our sense of identity with the higher Self. This is sometimes called the Yoga of Knowledge, or in Sanskrit Jnana-Yoga. Then at other moments, the experiences presented by our minds and senses appear compellingly real and urgent, and the feeling of being identified with the mind and body is overwhelming, and at such times the best for us is to make our actions as far as possible into an offering, a sacrifice, to the supreme power behind it all. Sometimes this is called the Yoga of action, or Karma Yoga.

We have said that in our practice we can alternate between knowledge of the higher Self and our identity with that, and a feeling of being entangled in the body and mind which act in the world, and so our practices vary accordingly. Yet elsewhere in the teachings it says that one who attains true Self-knowledge passes beyond suffering and action completely and forever, having realised that it was all based on a misapprehension in the first place. To avoid confusion about this and to find clear guidance on the path, it is helpful to understand that the word knowledge—Jnana in Sanskrit—is used in two senses.

Sometimes it refers to the knowledge of one who has understood in principle that there is a higher Self which is not affected by what happens to the mind and body, and who is on the path of deepening and stabilising this knowledge. This may be called indirect knowledge. It is valuable as it is an essential stage on the path. It belongs to the mind and as such it is subject to rise and fall.

In other places knowledge, Jnana, refers to the knowledge of one who has realised the true Self in direct experience. Logically we can understand that this knowledge has nothing to do with the mind or time and space, so there can be no question of it coming and going when realised.

The reason why the same word is used in both cases is that there is some overlap in their meaning. In both cases the one who has such knowledge knows that they are not the body and mind, but the Self which transcends them. The difference is that one knows this as a direct experience which cannot be contradicted; for the other it is an idea that has been understood in principle, but not yet fully realised directly, and which may be, perhaps often, overwhelmed by the feeling that the mind and body is one’s self. As we saw, at such times the right practice is Karma-Yoga, making our actions an offering to Truth.

At such moments there are no grounds for feeling that we are doing badly or are generally second-rate students in any sense. It is when things feel tough and we keep going anyway that the most good is being done. And it is our dedicated actions now that are the seeds of the inner light and freedom that arise as we persevere.

If we do persevere with the practices and nurture our interest in the teachings, we are assured that our sense of identity with the higher Self will deepen and we will become increasingly aware of the distinction between appearances and the timeless reality, even as we go about our worldly duties. This stabilisation of our spiritual understanding is our objective at this stage of the path. If we sustain the practices, we are assured that this remembrance of the higher Truth will become the dominant feature of our inner life. This stability in knowledge, that is, indirect knowledge, is said to be the necessary condition and precursor of direct knowledge, that is Self-realisation.

The teaching so far is summed up in these verses in the Gita:

For one who is happy in the Self alone, who is satisfied in the Self, who is content only in the Self, there is nothing that has to be done. [3:17]

Therefore constantly do, without attachment, the action that has to be done. By doing action without attachment, one attains the Supreme. [3:19]

In the original Sanskrit, what has been translated here as ‘that has to be done’ in both verses is also exactly the same in each case. The text does imply, for one who is happy in the Self, there is nothing to be done, so do what has to be done, without attachment.

This may look like a riddle or contradiction. It is certainly something to think about carefully, but there is no real contradiction, and it is a formula which we can put into practice. It means that one who knows the Self, that is the Reality in all, will not be primarily guided by personal ambition or desire to extract their main pleasures from outer things, because they have fulfilled the purpose of life, and they find their happiness in the Self, even when that pleasure seems to be associated with the best features of the world. What then will shape their actions in the world? Apparently it will be simply what needs to be done, what is for the best.

When we aspire to something, the way is to emulate what we seek. So for us on the path to Self-realisation, the best way is to seek happiness and fulfilment in the Self, and to let our actions be guided by what needs to be done for the general good rather than our personal likes and impulses.

What does it mean to find happiness in the Self? There are subtle joys in meditation and inner enquiry. And so too in the kind of action in which the attention is entirely focused on the task in hand. This comes naturally in those times when we are absorbed in something we love to do, and these are often our happiest and most creative moments. Usually such happy absorption is possible only in favourable situations; the Gita teaching shows how we can approach this consciously at all times. The ideal might be described as effortless effort, and actionless action.

At this point the teacher in the Bhagavad Gita presents to the pupil examples of people who have attained perfection through lives full of action, including righteous kings. This introduces a series of verses which teach that the people at large are easily influenced by their leaders, so the wise must set an example in right action, and not mislead them with apparent non-action. Here is one more sense in which someone with spiritual knowledge might do action, and this too is sometimes referred to as the Yoga of Knowledge or Jnana-Yoga. This should not confuse us about the nature of the highest Self and the knowledge of one who has fully attained it. We understand that in their case there is no sense of being the doer of the action; it is the senses and mind that play their parts in the world of appearances.

Logically, it is always the case for all that it is the energies of the mind and body that act while the true Self as the pure conscious principle is ever unlimited by happenings. It is our want of inner clarity that creates the feeling of being identified with mind and body. The Gita says:

One who knows the truth about the energies of nature is not attached to them, thinking that action is energy acting upon energy. [3:28]

This leads to a restatement of the practical teachings to this point:

Renouncing all action in Me, having become free from desires and unattached by meditating on the Self, do what needs to be done. [3:30]

This is another refinement of the guidance on how to act. Now the advice is to ‘Renounce action in Me’, that is, to offer up our actions to Me. The immediate question is: ‘Who or what is Me?’ These words are spoken by the teacher but the direction could not be to renounce actions into the teacher, so it must mean the higher power that is acting through the teacher. This could be understood as a God, separate from us. But the verse immediately goes on to say that this offering of action is to be done while meditating on the Self. So we are to act with the feeling that we giving the action and its results to that which is the Reality in all, our own higher Self.

The verse also says that we should be free of desire and unattached to possessions, and, most important, it indicates how we are to do this. It is the awareness that our true Self is the great reality in all, that can prevent us from being overwhelmed by lesser desires or overly constrained by the sense of possession for objects. To just give up desires, or our attachment to things, would be formidably difficult, and could be entirely disorientating. It is by positively contemplating that our inner being is at one with the universal Being, that things are put into their right perspective. The Gita says those who act in this way, without complaining or keeping anything back, they are liberated by their actions.

The next verse is this:

Even one of knowledge acts according to their nature. All beings follow their own nature. What will suppression achieve? [3:33]

The word translated as suppression here occurs only once in the Bhagavad Gita and it is sometimes translated as restraint or coercion. This emphasises the psychologically important point that we free ourselves from the grip of desire and attachment not by direct suppression, but by positively looking over them, as it were, to something better, that is, by contemplating the Higher Self as our own Self.

Still, the next verse says;

Desire and aversion for sense objects lie in the senses. Let none be subject to these two, they are the obstacles. [3:34]

Here it is made clear that while striving to keep up our memory or contemplation of the Self, it is desire and aversion for sense objects that will arise and distract us. The verse says that this desire and aversion is in the senses themselves. This implies how we are to manage the issue, but firstly the Gita makes another point:

One’s own duty, however imperfect, is better than the duty of another well discharged. Even to perish in one’s own duty is better; to do another’s duty brings risk and anxiety. [3:35]

These are stern words, and there is no way of translating them to sound soft without distorting the meaning, so let us absorb them. It is clear how much trouble and mischief would be avoided if everyone were to diligently fulfil their own responsibilities and were not constantly pursuing what they perceive as better positions. On a practical level, the most important point is how to deal with our own mind. Often there is an impulse to overlook the task that has been placed in our hands and to think about something else we would rather do. The Gita says this will leave us feeling unsafe and anxious. It is an underlying, often half-conscious, anxiety that often drives our ambition, yet even when we are successful in our undertakings, the anxiety is not much relieved for long. The Gita teaching is that freedom from fear may be found in simply attending with care to the tasks with which life has presented us. One might add that if we are pursuing a spiritual path, the urge to expand and develop will have found an avenue that does not involve the usual conflicts and complications that arise in worldly affairs, and which leads beyond anything that can be affected by time.

Now we come to dealing with desire and aversion. At this point the pupil asks, what is it that causes us to do things even against our better judgement, as if compelled by some force? The answer comes that it is desire, the element of passion-struggle within us. It was said before that desire is rooted in the senses; sense experience is always accompanied by an element of attraction or repulsion. This effect extends into our thinking, and the result completely envelopes and obscures the light of wisdom within.

How to meet this challenge? Once again the answer is not by directly opposing these forces, but by rising above them. The Gita offers practical psychological teaching here. It says that the senses are higher and more subtle than the physical body. That is, the senses are aware of and can control the physical body in a way that the physical body cannot affect the senses. Similarly, the mind is higher than the senses. And above the discursive mind is what might be called intuition or intellect. So far we might recognise these stages. Then the Gita goes further and says that in a similar way there is a principle above the intuitive intellect. And That is not a distant deity but is what remains when the senses, mind and intellect have been put aside, that is, what we really are in essence, our own Self. Knowing this, we rise above desire and its opposite, for ever. This is the conclusion of chapter three of the Bhagavad Gita.

This article is from the Winter 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.