Perennial Psychology of the Bhagwad Geeta

  • By Swami Rama
  • January 2002

The Yoga of Action                            

The Blessed Lord said

3.    Sinless One, in this world I have taught two kinds of discipline: the yoga of knowledge for those whose path is of discriminating wisdom and the yoga of action for the yogis.

4.    A person does not attain the state of actionlessness simply by not taking initiative in the matter of actions, nor does one attain perfection by mere renunciation.

Verses 3 and 4 further explain the fine distinction between the path of jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) and karma yoga (the yoga of action). Verse 3 indicates that there are two means for attaining the highest state of tranquility. Both are equally valid; neither one is superior. The word nishtha means firm conviction or well thought out and firm decision free from doubt. A firm adherence to the path of knowledge is called jnana nishtha, and a firm commitment to the path of action is called karma nishtha. The followers of the path of knowledge have a firm conviction that one can attain the highest state of liberation through knowledge alone. The followers of karma yoga believe in performing their duties with non-attachment as a means of self-unfoldment.

In the path of jnana yoga, knowledge, non-attachment, and renunciation are the essential values. In the path of karma yoga performing one’s duties skillfully, selflessly, and with non-attachment are the prerequisites. It is interesting to note that the function of the five senses in the human body is to gain knowledge, and the function of the five organs (mouth, hands, feet, the organs of excretion and procreation) is to help one to do his duties through action. These two sets of organs complement one another in the maintenance of human existence. It is also interesting that Carl Jung, the modern psychologist, classified people into two categories: those with an introverted nature and those with an extroverted nature. Those who look inward and try to understand the internal states are more inclined to follow the path of jnana yoga. Those who are extroverted and committed to do their actions are called karma yogis.

Verse 4 states that one cannot attain perfection by mere renunciation. Suppose an aspirant suddenly decides to follow the path of renunciation but makes his decision impulsively rather than through real wisdom. He renounces his home and all that he owns, for renunciation to most people means creating a physical distance between a person and his objects. But until one has attained the state of non-attachment, he continues to remember his past and to long for all that he has left behind. In such a situation true renunciation is not accomplished, and the real knowledge that helps in the path of liberation is absent. If one is not able to create the fire of non-attachment in his renunciation of externals, he is not able to dispel the darkness of ignorance. Non-attachment and renunciation go hand in hand. In the path of action non-attachment is also important, and there it is related to the fruits of the actions rather than to the actions themselves. Some commentators translate the word vairagya as indifference rather than as non-attachment, but that translation does not convey the true meaning of the word. Non-attachment is love for duty and not indifference or disinterest. One does not attain freedom by not doing his duty.

Although the paths of action and renunciation are different, the aim of both one and the same. In the life of a renunciate there seems to be tyaga, a literal separation of oneself from the objects of desire. The renunciate renounces all objects. His sole desire is to attain the state of freedom, and he has a duty to maintain one single desire: to be one with the Absolute. His wheel of life still rotates but without bearing fruits. In the path of renunciation tyaga and non-attachment are two essentials. In the path of action, however, there is no tyaga, but one learns to perform his duty in the midst of all objects and relationships and to renounce the fruits. The path of action is a path of conquest and love. The path of renunciation is a path of sacrifice.

In the path of action one offers the fruits of his actions to others. He acknowledges the Absolute in everyone. That is prayer and worship in reality and not a prayer of empty words. If one prays but never realizes the profound meaning of the prayer by practicing it in his daily life, he will not find inner satisfaction. Without inner satisfaction one remains anxious.

5.    No one can remain without performing actions even for a moment. Every creature is helplessly made to perform action by the gunas born of nature.
All living beings have to perform actions. As long as one breathes, he performs actions, even if he does not want to Even sitting still and sleeping are actions. Since one has to perform actions, he should learn to do them in the best possible way. Every human being is responsible for all his actions and the fruits (rewards) obtained by those actions. If one resists his duties, he creates conflict and strife both for himself and others, whereas if he learns to act graciously he creates harmony and joy within and without. Resistance can be positive in many circumstances. For example , if one is asked to do something that is against his conscience, resistance is a force that helps him to follow his inner promptings. But resisting one’s duties makes misery out of the inevitable. Sattva, rajas, and tamas are three qualities of the human mind that bind the individual and motivate him to act. They will be explained in depth later.

8.    Do perform the assigned actions; action is greater than inaction. Even the journey of your body cannot be successful if you are inactive.

9.    This world is the cause of the bondage of karma, except for actions performed for the purpose of sacrifice. Therefore, O Son of Kunti, perform actions for the sake of sacrifice and conduct yourself as free of attachment.
Verse 8 can be understood in two ways. The first meaning is that one should do those actions that have been decided by the coordinator of all the faculties of mind with full determination, self-confidence, self-control, non-attachment, and will power. That is the highest of all actions, and it will be described in depth later. The other meaning of the verse is that one should perform his duty according to his nature. The three gunas (qualities of nature) motivate the human being to perform action. Actions performed as the outcome of one’s own primitive nature are definitely inferior to the actions performed by self-determined will

The message of the Bhagavad Gita is that one should create a sense of responsibility toward his own duty. And he should study his own abilities and potentials to help him understand and skillfully perform his duty.

In the modern world child psychologists and counselors in schools and colleges study and analyze the student’s behavior, intelligence, and predominant habit patterns in order to help him select the subjects that will be most helpful to him. It is important for teachers and counselors to make students aware of their abilities and potentials, for if one is forced to study subjects that are contrary to his abilities and interests, he will not be successful. Despite the availability of counseling in schools as well as aptitude and personality tests, most young people today remain confused about the direction their lives should take. Their problem is perhaps the exact opposite of those caught in a caste system. Free to follow their whims, they often pursue that which excites their fancy at the time and then lose interest and jump to something else. Such experimentation has its value, but it is more helpful if it is guided by an attempt to understand one’s propensities, inclinations, and inherent skills and assets as well as one’s weaknesses. In these verses the idea of acting according to one’s nature refers to potentialities, not to the rigid and useless caste system. One should direct his life so that he can use his assets and work with his weak areas, turning them into strengths as well.

Many a stupid and ignorant person misunderstands sacrifice and applies it in a very distorted and shameful manner: killing and offering a goat, lamb or other animal to please his god. Butchering animals is a shameful act, but there are many remote corners of the world where people still practice animals sacrifice as a part of worship. There is no logic that can prove that such a sacrifice will please God. How can He who is the law of love and equality be pleased by such rituals? Correctly understood, the word “sacrificemeans to give away even one’s rights for the sake of others, willingly and happily. If one can give the best that he has and willingly offer it to the service of others that is called sacrifice. (Sacrifice is a Christian concept, we call it Yagna but because it has no corresponding English word, we think that Yajna means sacrifice).

13.    Those who eat only the remainder of the sacrifice are freed from all sins. Those sinful ones who cook only for the sake of themselves eat only sin.
Sacrifice is an inborn quality. It is the quality of giving freely without any expectation. Self-preservation is also an innate quality, not of human beings alone, but of all creatures. Whether one chooses to devote his life to sacrifice or self-preservation depends on his environment and his training. Those with whom one grew up and with whom he currently spends his time influence him and promote development of self-preservation or giving.

For example, in Aryan culture whenever food is prepared the guest is served first, and other members of the family eat the leftover food. That is one step in learning to give and to love others, which finally leads one to complete selflessness, the singular expression of pure love. In contrast to that, modern society leads one to become insecure. The insecure person looks out for his own needs first; he takes the best for himself.

Western culture and psychology consider the ego to be the center of consciousness, but the perennial psychology of the East disagrees. It regards buddhi, pure reason, as one aspect of the internal state called antahkarana chatustaya and ego as another. In the West all the activities of the human being are directed towards strengthening the ego. Such a perspective cannot ever incorporate the idea of sacrifice, learning to give the best one has selflessly. We encountered the same problem in explaining the concept of non-attachment, which also is not understood by Western culture. Because the West believes the ego to be the center of knowledge, the idea of sacrifice is frightening, for the ego is insecure and does not want to give up anything it possesses. One think that if he sacrifices, he will not have enough for himself. He thinks that sacrifice is a loss because he is attached to and identified with that which would be given in sacrifice. Thus he is afraid of sacrifice. Actually what one looses in sacrifice is attachment and fear. If  one is not attached to the object, there is no loss in sacrifice. The egocentric person believes that sacrifice means being consumed or even dying, but in fact it is only one’s egocentric perspective that dies in sacrifice. The ocean is not used up in giving off moisture through evaporation, and the resources of a human being are not used up in sacrificing. Actually the more one sacrifices, the more one has. In sacrificing one gives up that to which he has been holding on, and he is then open to receive. As long as one is holding on, he is closed off to receiving the sacrifice of the universe. So what the egoistic person considers to be a death is life itself from another perspective. Thus we say sacrifice is life. In the East sacrifice is a virtue not at all related to a sense of self-depletion or having to give something under duress? The East considers the greatest of all human beings to be those who sacrifice their selfish pleasures for the sake of selfless service and the attainment of eternal wisdom.

The giving human being sacrifice his best for his beloved, but the selfish person uses all his so-called loved ones for the sake of his selfish pleasures. Those who are not aware of the law of expansion do not experience the joy of sacrificing and giving. But those who have practiced to strengthen the quality of giving cannot stop giving, for giving fills one with the highest of joys, whereas expecting and taking only lead to momentary pleasure that later results in disgust, disappointment, and a sorrowful state of mind.

Those who do not learn to give or sacrifice the fruits of their actions do not know the art of living and being. The essence of sacrifice is giving selflessly. It is a complete expression of love in the true sense. Those who learn to be content with only their essential needs fulfilled are truly happy, and they use all their resources in the love and service of others. The little bit that is left over is used for the sustenance of their existence in the world so that they can continue giving. Such individuals live for others. But the selfish are not aware of the law of giving and are doomed.

17.    The child of Manu who delights in the Self alone and has satiety in the Self, satisfied in the Self alone, for him there is no action left yet to be performed.

18.    He has no purpose with the actions already performed nor with those not yet performed. He has no dependence for any purpose on any beings at all.

19.    Therefore, perform your dutiful action incessantly without attachment. The person who performs actions without attachment attains the Supreme.

A human being cannot possibly live without doing actions, and when he performs actions he reaps the fruits of those actions. The reaping of the fruits involves him and leads him to go on doing further actions and reaping the fruits again and again. Then he finds himself caught in the bondage of karma. What is the way of attaining freedom from that cycle? The way of freedom is not attained by not doing actions or by continuing to do actions but by surrendering the fruits of one’s actions to others. Karma (action) never binds. It is the fruits of the karma and the desire to reap the fruits that create bondage. The message of the Bhagavad Gita is that one should learn to do his duties lovingly, skillfully, and selflessly by being completely non-attached. Only then will he be free from the bondage of action.

20.    Janaka and others reached total accomplishment through action alone. Even looking at the needs of gathering worldly success, you ought to act.
There were many scholars in ancient times who tried to prove that the path of renunciation is higher than the path of action. Some scholars, however, say that the path of action is higher than renunciation. Such generalizations are inadequate, for it all depends on one’s capacities and inclinations. What is crucial in either path is doing one’s duty. Sri Krishna explains that there have been great ones in the past who attained perfection by doing their duties. He teaches Arjuna that one cannot attain perfection without doing his duty.

One should analyze his inner abilities so that he can understand his duty. It is the duty of those on the path of renunciation to follow that path and attain perfection. But the majority of people in the world follow the path of action. By following the path of action, one can also attain perfection. Sri Krishna says, “Arjuna, being a warrior you have to perform your dharma. By abandoning your dharma, you can never become perfect. Therefore do not escape but fight with all your might and with a one-pointed mind, remaining non-attached and maintaining the state of equilibrium in the midst of the battle of life.”

Sri Krishna asks Arjuna to do his duty rather than escaping into sloth and inertia. Doing one'’ duty is dharma. Dharma means to unify different elements of society. If the leaders and wise men of society abandon their duties and follow the path of inaction or renunciation, they will create serious disturbances and disintegration of the society. Janaka was a sage and king who is always cited as an example of one who had the wisdom to discharge his duties skillfully while remaining in a state of equilibrium and non-attachment.

21.    In what ever way the senior-most one conducts himself, that very way the other people follow. Whatever authority he establishes, the world conducts itself accordingly.

24.All these worlds would perish if I were not to perform action; I would be the cause of disorder and would kill all these beings.

In all great cultures of the world, there has always been the noble tradition of following in the footsteps of the great ones. They are accepted as great because of their selflessness and the sacrifices they made for the people who came in touch with them. Thus they became examples and ideals for ordinary people. A great man is known by certain signs and symptoms that are not found in ordinary people. Ordinary people are selfish; great men are selfless. The minds of ordinary people are uncontrolled and disturbed, whereas the minds of great men are controlled and tranquil. Ordinary people cannot visualize future events, but great men can have such vision.

There are two kinds of great people that we hold up as ideals. First there are the fortunate ones who completely devote their lives to prayer and meditation. Then there are those who know how to live in the world, doing their duties selflessly and offering the fruits of their actions to others. Both are worthy of our reverence. The action, speech, and behavior of the great ones are observed by ordinary people who then follow such great people without any doubts. If by chance the conduct of a great man is no longer exemplary, there is the chance for such conduct to be magnified by the masses in a horrible and exaggerated way. Those who follow the path of selfless service therefore remain austere so that their image is not distorted and thus does not lead others to disappointment and disgust. (how many people can we in India look up to today.)

Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna to live up to the estimation of a great man, for he is a leader and warrior, and if he fails in doing his duties the ordinary people will follow his example, and the entire organization of the society will become disintegrated, degenerated, and disturbed. The way great people behave is the very way ordinary people try to behave. The standards laid down by the great man become ideals for laymen to follow. The great ones actually have nothing to do-no action or duty whatsoever. They perform actions only in the service of humanity; they have no selfish motivation.   

After the three worlds are explained, one wonders why a fully realized person, having perfect tranquility and being completely non-attached, wants to perform action. That question is answered in Verse 24. All social institution function because of the particular order established by the leaders. If the leaders do not perform actions to help the masses, the entire society will be disintegrated and destroyed. Many great civilizations have vanished from the earth because the leaders failed to perform their duties. According to the times and the needs of society, great men have come to guide the masses. Though the great men are free from motivations that prompt them to do their duties, they walk on earth with us exactly like ordinary human beings, but with extraordinary skill in performing actions to lead, help and educate the masses. It is not because they have a need to do that but because of their love for others. Sri Krishna is implicitly saying, “Oh, Arjuna, you are also a great leader, and if you abandon your duty, that will lead to the destruction of your people. At this critical juncture do not shy away, but fight the battle.”

27.    With regard to the actions being performed by the gunas of Prakriti, jointly and severally, one whose nature is confused by ego believes, ‘I am the agent of action.’
28.    He, however, who knows the reality of the divisions of gunas and actions, O Mighty-armed One, knows, ‘The gunas are interacting with gunas.’ Knowing this he does not become attached,
Even though he uses his inherent capacity to regulate and modify his actions, the human being is not really the doer of his actions. All actions are actually performed by the governing nature of the universe, called Prakriti. The Self, seated unattached and unaffected in the inner chamber of one’s being, always maintains its tranquility with all its glory and majesty. It is only the ego that leads the human being to think that he is the doer, performer of actions, and that he has the right to reap the fruits of action. Here there is a subtle point to be understood: anyone who becomes a doer becomes the receiver of the fruits of his action. One’s false sense of doing and reaping creates misery for him, and he suffers on account of his self-created misery. The ego thus needs to be purified and trained not to identify itself as the doer but to remain a witness by being conscious of the true Self, which exists eternally with its immortal and splendid nature.

The ego is one of the four main functions of our internal organization. When the ego forgets the real self, when it forgets that it is only a representative, it creates serious problems of confusion and delusion within the internal organization. Egoism creates suffering but the wise person does not allow his ego to create obstacles for his growth. He knows that, in fact, actions are performed by Prakriti, the universal nature. Therefore he is free from such deluded conceptions as: I have a desire to do, I want to do, I am going to do, or I have done.

Prakriti has three qualities called gunas. Those three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas-are distinct from one another yet function together. Actually all actions performed by any aspect of nature are led by these three qualities or gunas. The qualities of each object are different from one another.

So when two objects come into contact, there is a confrontation, and as a result they either unite or thereby create something new, or they create conflict. In this way the gunas are the source of action in the universe. These three qualities exist together in the human beings as well as in every aspect of nature, but when one of them becomes predominant, one’s actions take on the quality of the predominant guna. A deed performed in a state of tranquility is a consequence of sattva guns. The deed in which rajas is predominant is performed with a desire to reap the fruits. Tamas leads one to sloth and thus to inaction. No one can remain without doing action, but when one does action with an inert mind, there is no concentration. Therefore there is total disintegration and chaos.

Modern psychologists have also asserted that the human being does not perform actions but acts at the mercy of the forces of nature. In fact that is the great insight of modern psychology, which in part arose as a reaction to the rationalistic popular philosophies that preceded it. Such philosophies held that man acts out of his own rational choices. The behaviorists, however, believe that the human being is moved by habits that are established by reward and punishment. Freud argued that the conscious mind is just a small part of the mind, and that human beings are predominantly moved by unconscious forces. Jung and the archetypal psychologists go a step further and dramatically assert that man is not the doer of actions. Their view is in agreement with this verse, which are difficult to understand at first, for we consistently think of ourselves as the initiators of our actions even though we see other forms of life at the mercy of and reacting automatically to internal and external forces outside of their control. Jung and archetypal psychologists attempt to show that the archetypes, which exist at deeper layers of the unconscious, are continually engaged in ritualistic dramas that are universal and repeated again and again throughout generations. The conscious person, they say, is merely an onlooker to these grand and glorious dramas rather than the actor.

34.    There are attractions and aversions already facing each and every sense. One should not come under their control, for they are highwaymen waiting for him on the path.

35.    Better one’s own dharma, even devoid of quality, than the dharma of another, even though well performed. Better to die in one’s own dharma; the dharma of another invites danger.

The senses respond spontaneously to the objects of the world. Each of the five senses seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, and smelling-has their objects-color, that which can be felt, sound, taste, and odor respectively. Each has a distinct mode of perception. The tongue can taste but cannot hear; eyes can see but cannot taste. Each sense has its own duty to perform, and in performing its duty it flows to its respective objects. When the senses contact their objects, one experiences like and dislike, attraction and repulsion. Ordinary minds react according to those two feelings. Their positive or negative responses to sensory objects keep them from experiencing objectively.

That which one person adores is a matter of repulsion to another. Even a sage recognizes something as bitter and something else as sweet, but he does not react like the ordinary person. The sage realizes that it is not the object that causes like or dislike but one’s own prejudices, so he learns to tame both reactions. Sage maintains aloofness. They do not waste precious moments of their life in hating or being attracted to others or the objects of the world. Both lust and hatred obstruct the sadhaka’s growth again and again. Once they are known and understood and their value is reduced to nothingness, they lose the power to influence the sadhaka. Arjuna’s wise to remove those obstacles is evident. Thus Sri Krishna introduces disciplines in order to help Arjuna perform his duty without being disturbed by those feelings.

Existence and duty are inseparable not only in human life but in nature as well. The sun shines; that is its duty. Likewise all the modes of nature such as fire, water, and air perform their duties. In the human body all the senses and limbs perform their respective duties. If someone foolishly asks the hearing sense to see, he will be disappointed. Therefore an individual should learn to perform his duty according to his svabhava, the gifts received from his inherent nature.

A student can progress on the path of unfoldment by learning to study his inner potentials, for the duty that one performs should be according to his dharma. One is born with certain qualities into a particular environment, and if he does not discharge his duties according to his dharma but follows the dharma of another, it could prove dangerous and even fatal. If a professor of cultural studies is sent to the battlefield and a soldier who is trained to be an artillery expert is sent to teach philosophy, both will be unsuccessful, disappointed, and put to shame by others. Therefore one should learn to follows his own dharma and to discharge his duty and progress as an example for others to follow.

The following is a summary of the several kinds of knowledge that have been described thus far. First there is knowledge that is given to us by sense perception. On the basis of that, we conceptualize and formulate our conclusions. That is the lowest way of knowing, for the mind remains clouded, and all of the objects perceived by the senses in the external world are ever changing. Thus sense perception is inaccurate and inexact. Such incomplete perception comes before the mind for conceptualization, and by the time the clouded mind formulates and concludes, one’s experience of the external world is even more distorted. Perceptualization and conceptualization give only a partial and distorted view of the objective world.

Another source of knowledge is instinctual knowledge. It also crosses the boundaries of time and space and is able to give a glimpse of the future, but it too is limited. Nevertheless it has some purpose: children and animals that are led by this force know many things that are not known by ordinary people.

Two other sources of knowledge that complement one another are knowledge through the mind and knowledge through emotion. There is always imbalance if we do not understand the importance of both of these powers. The power of emotion can help the sadhaka by inspiring him and can raise his consciousness to higher dimension. Bhava, emotion, should not be lost. It is a great help, a force in the path of self-control. The knowledge that flows through bhava is a great force, and there are no interruptions in that flow. But the knowledge that flows through the mind creates many stagnant pools if it is not allowed to go through the filtration of pure reason. Many times the answers that cannot be figured out by a well-balanced mind are given by bhava, emotion. The stream of knowledge that flows through the mind moves into many nooks and corners, and because of impurities of the mind, this creates small and big stagnant pools, and thus the stream becomes polluted. The stream of bhava is like a river in flood. It rushes like a beloved running toward her lover who does not care about any obstacles, and is not afraid of being caught or trapped. In the stream of bhava, one does not have an enjoyable experience of the path, for he is suddenly transported. He reaches the summit without experience of the path.

The highest of all streams of knowledge is the flow of intuition, which is perfect. Its knowledge is the purest. That flow becomes evident and visible only after we learn that the stream of knowledge that flows through the mind is very lengthy and is full of obstacles. One can get lost on the way. Thus the aspirant learns to shut the gate that stops the knowledge flowing through the mind and opens the gate that allows intuitive knowledge to flow to its place.

Both yoga psychology and modern psychology have shown considerable interest in differentiating amongst people according to personality or character types. As we have already noted, ancient psychologists have divided people into four categories according to their propensities, and that division has unfortunately evolved into the caste system of India. It is interesting to note that Carl Jung also considered there to be four fundamental personality types, and that the types he differentiated are parallel to a certain extent the ways of knowing that have been described in the Bhagavad Gita. In Jung’s schema there is the personality type dominated by sensation, the thinking type, the feeling type, and the intuitive type. However, there are some interesting differences between Jung’s categorization and the ways of knowing that have been described. For instance, Jung’s feeling type is not at all equivalent to knowledge through emotion, as some might think. Rather it is closely related to the experience of like and dislike as described in Verse 34. The feeling type relates to the world primarily along the dimension of liking or disliking what he experiences. From the perspective of yoga psychology Jung’s intuitive type is a misnomer. What Jung is actually describing is the personality that functions primarily through instinctive knowledge. As we have noted, intuition according to the yogic perspective is a mode of knowledge that is beyond the ken of the ordinary human being.

Carl Jung also observed that if one does not live in accord with his personality type but tries to be that which he is not, a neurosis is created. For instance, if a sensation type is forced by external circumstances to live as an intellectual, a severe disturbance will be created in his psyche. Jung’s conception parallels the yogic concept of living according to one’s dharma.

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