Perennial Psychology of the Bhagwad Geeta

  • By Swami Rama
  • January 2002

Knowledge of Renouncing Fruits                  

16.    What is action, what is inaction? Even the wise are confused in this matter. Therefore I shall teach you concerning action, knowing which you will be freed from the foul world.
17.    One should learn of action; one should learn of action that is opposed to right action; one should learn of inaction. The reality of action is deep.
18.    He who sees inaction in action and who sees action in inaction, he is the one endowed with wisdom among human beings. HE is joined in yoga, a performer of complete action.

Even great leaders and heroes sometimes become bewildered in deciding between right action, action that is opposed to right action, and non-action. When faced with a decision, how is one to determine which is the best response? Perhaps the action one chooses will have an effect opposite of what is anticipated and will create conflict, disharmony, or grief. In that case is it better not act at all?

Such questions occur to every person many times each day, although the process of considering these choices is so subtle that one may not be aware of it. If one does not know what the right action is, his mind starts pondering over the possible negative consequences of the actions he is considering. That can result in uncertainty, confusion, and loss of will power. Indecisiveness, delay in deciding, and the fear of making a decision is unhealthy and painful. In such cases it is buddhi that needs training. If one is prone to be hesitant and uncertain in deciding how to act, the decisive factor of one’s internal organization (buddhi) should be sharpened so that it can promptly and unhesitatingly advise the mind and enable one to make a timely decision. Right action of course, is always best. Action performed in a state of tranquility with non-attachment is always the right action. Contrary to that is action committed in a deluded state of mind, but even worse is inaction. A suspicious, doubtful, and deluded state of mind inevitably leads to injurious action. Action that is undertaken without taking the counsel of the decisive faculty of one’s internal state is injurious action.

Many people are overly cautious and afraid of taking action, so they become inactive. Inaction makes one inert and is worse than wrong action. During the period of inaction one appears not to be performing actions, but he is actually reacting adversely to the situation he faces. He is in a sort of negative withdrawal that leads to slothful ideas: “Why do I need it; why should I do it; I can live without it; I’m not capable; therefore I should not even make an effort to do it.”

Inaction is a result of the influence of tamas. In vikarma, action that is opposed to right action, rajas and tamas join, but rajas is predominant. Rajas makes one active, but without sattva one remains deluded. It is actually the sattva quality that keeps the mind tranquil, and action performed in the state of tranquility is right action.

One who has disciplined himself, trained his senses, and attained a concentrated state of mind that always seeks the counsel of buddhi does not commit mistakes in performing his actions. He surrenders the fruits of his actions willingly for the sake of others. Such selfless action has two benefits: the fruits of one’s action do not bind him, and his action becomes a form of worship, meditation in action. The yogi goes on performing actions with a tranquil mind and always remains free from the bondage of action. For him there is no self-interest. All his actions are motivated by selflessness, and he is free.

19.    He whose endeavors are all devoid of desires and attendant volitions, him the wise call a pandit, with all his actions burned by the fire of knowledge.
20.    Abandoning attachment to the fruits of actions, ever satiated without dependency, even though involved in action, he never does anything.
21.    Without expectation, his mind and self-controlled, ceasing all intake through the senses, performing the action only physically, he does not gather sin.
22.    Satisfied with gaining whatever comes without seeking, having transcended all opposites of duality, free of small-mindedness, alike in accomplishment or failure, such a person is not bound even upon performing the action.
23.    For one whose attachment is gone, who is liberated, whose mind is established in knowledge, who conducts his action only for sacrifice, his entire action is dissolved.

Actions performed without the desire for enjoyment are considered to be pure actions because they arise from knowledge attained in a state of tranquility. One who has learned the art and science of performing desireless action and whose motivations are burnt by the fire of knowledge is called a knower (pandit). Such a wise man remains content and self-reliant. Although his external behavior may appear to be full of activity, he actually does nothing, for he is not the doer. This man of self-control, abandoning all desire for enjoyment and even the means of enjoyment, performs actions merely to maintain his physical existence. He remains unaffected and uninfluenced by the actions and the fruits received therein. Thus he never becomes the victim of emotional outbursts. He has attained freedom.

Actions are thoughts that are externalized, and thoughts are often controlled by the power of emotion. Emotion has the power to disturb thought and to distort one’s actions. Vikarma is that action performed under the influence of unchecked, uncontrolled emotion. There is a vast difference between emotion and thought. In thought there lingers a doubts, but emotion does not have the sense of discrimination. Emotion has a great power to energize a person that thought does not have. Emotion is like a blind man who has the strength to walk but cannot determine which way to go, whereas thought is like the man who can which way to go but is lame. Some sadhakas use only mental exercises and do not remain aware of the power of emotion. Others are swayed by emotional power without making use of their mental abilities. But the skilled sadhaka unites emotional force with mental power.

He brings these together so that they help one another and make the journey easy. A sadhaka should learn to regulate and use these two distinct forces, mental and emotional, to enable him to create a strong and dynamic will power, which will help him in performing actions and duties. It is not only a tranquil mind and skill that are needed to perform action in a skilled way, but also a will force that replaces the desire for sense gratification. Will power is very important in the performance of action as well as in treading the path of the inward journey. If the mind remains dissipated and unregulated emotionality persists, the will power is weak. But the more one’s mind is concentrated, one-pointed, and undisturbed by emotional; life, the stronger will be his will power. Will power is higher than the power of thought and emotions. With the help of this power, one can do that which is considered to be impossible.

Among the many potentials one discovers on the inward journey, will power is the highest of all. Determination, courage, and fearlessness, which are important to a sadhaka, result from will power. The psychology of the East is practical, experiential, and applicable, and the path of sadhana, in which the development of will is the central focus, is unique. Sadhakas who have mastered this path are rarely seen. In the East, sadhana is more important than external observations and intellectual conclusions. The study and development of will power is a practical subject that most thinkers and intellectuals do not appreciate. In modern psychology and psychotherapy little attention is given to the development of will power except among the existentialists and in psychotherapy. In these two schools (the latter being derived from yoga psychology), the development of will power is important. But in most systems of psychotherapy, it is totally neglected. Practical training in the strengthening of will power should be a part of therapeutic and self-development programs.

Ordinarily we associate will power with the desire to attain something worldly. We think of the person with a strong will as aggressive and restless. But that is a will allied with the ego. Here will power is conjoined with such qualities as non-attachment to worldly objects, the abandonment of personal desires, and tranquility. Tranquility is a state of being that is attained by the disciplined and desire-free mind. One who is non-attached attains the height of equanimity; he is free from all temptations, charms, desires, and delusions. Using his powerful will to free himself from attachments and from the allures of the world, he performs his actions just for the sake of action and is liberated here and now.

These verses explain a positive way to remove all the errors that one fears he may commit while performing his actions. They describe a state of being in which there is inaction in action. Here lies a great secret, and in knowing that secret, one is free from bondage, even when action has been performed, as though he had never done the action. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us a unique way of performing action through love: non-attachment.

Verse 23 again refers to the importance of sacrifice in bringing about freedom. Sacrifice means giving all the best that one has. The action performed with the zeal of sacrifice washes off all impurities and errors. Sacrifice is one of the greatest virtues that one can develop; it totally changes the course of actions as well as the way one feels when performing actions. It is as though one consciously becomes the ritual or the archetype and loses his personal motivation and desire. It virtually consumes one’s personal motivation and acts of itself, and therefore the fruits are also consumed. The binding effects of the motivation, of action, and of the fruits are completely destroyed. The sacrifices that can lead one to such total transformation are explained in the following verses.   

34.    Learn this by prostrating, by asking question, and through service. The wise ones who have seen the Reality will instruct you in this knowledge,
Verse 34 explains that the preceptor is also a fire into which the offerings are given. The quality of fire is to transform everything into one element and to finally reduce the values of the offering to ashes. A good preceptor or teacher does not put any demands on or require any offering from the student. The light of the teacher is a self-sustained, eternal light. It is the light of knowledge. Offering anything to his fire is a gesture of reverence and love for the teacher, which teaches the student to let go of his greed.

There is a symbolic ceremony performed by spiritual teachers, and although the outward expression is symbolic of an internal process, the external expression is of great importance. In the first step of initiation, the teacher accepts the student and introduces him to the path he has to tread. In the next step the sadhaka brings dried twigs and offers them to the teacher who lights the fire and burns them one by one. In this symbolic ceremony performed between disciple and master, all the disciple’s samskaras are burned in the fire of knowledge lit by the gurudeva.

The teacher needs nothing but the way one approaches his teacher is important for the sadhaka. To receive knowledge it is essential that the aspirant is humble and that one-pointed devotion, love, and reverence. If these qualities are absent in the student, he cannot receive any knowledge. When a student asks a question, not in order to test the teacher’s brilliance, but to know and receive knowledge, it is important for him to be humble. He should not ask questions for the sake of argument. Egotistical students close the gates of knowledge. When one is polite and humble, his questions are answered and his conflicts are resolved.

Verse 34 instructs Arjuna to become humble so that the knowledge is received by him. In his questioning, he has been fighting with his teacher instead of fighting the battle. There is still abstinence in his questions. His resistance toward the selfless teachings is a result of arrogance. Sri Krishna is teaching Arjuna not to resist but to become humble. Then clarity of mind is easily attained. This does not contradict previous statements that a student should question. But one should be humble when he puts questions before his teacher, and he should receive the answer without resistance.

As has been already noted, resistance is also one of the greatest barriers to change found in psychotherapy. Therapists find that even thought their clients come seeking guidance and solutions to their problems, and sometimes pay a great deal of money for the therapist’s guidance, they fail to carry out the advice or directions received from the therapist. The therapist is often in a peculiar position: if he gives advice, the client ignores it. Or realizing that the client will ignore his advice, the therapist can keep his suggestions to himself, thereby helping the client to sort out his confusion and conflict and to come to his own conclusions. But then the client feels cheated and demands that the therapist be more direct in telling him what to do. Many explanations for this sort of interaction have been offered. Some therapists call this struggle between therapist and client “the battle for control,” whereas others attribute it to the client’s defensiveness. One way or another, it must be dealt with. Therapist have devised various means for responding to the obstinacy of the client including paradoxical therapy, in which the client is encouraged to continue or increase his problematic behavior.

In the beginning of therapy, client and therapist may attempt to outmaneuver one another, and this may even last throughout the therapy. Is it any wonder then that psychotherapy lasts so long and has limited results? If the client comes to therapy with good faith, then rapid and remarkable strides can be made in self-transformation. But that is the exception rather than the rule. Progress occurs only to the extent that one goes beyond his resistance, for resistance is holding onto that which one already is. Unless clients learn to become humble, straightforward, and receptive in relation to the therapist, they are not likely to grow. Yet this is rarely achieved in modern therapy, and mush of the therapy is spent directly or indirectly in helping the client to develop these attitudes.

But the responsibility for lack of receptiveness should not be put entirely on the client’s shoulders, for how often do we find therapists that are truly selfless, giving, and knowledge? In an atmosphere of arrogance and selfishness, how can there be a free exchange? Of course, one cannot expect modern therapists to be as selfless and knowledgeable as Sri Krishna, for they are still growing and Sri Krishna is fully enlightened. But we can should expect them to sincerely work at transforming themselves and to become a genuine example of that which they are teaching.

The situation in which modern man finds himself is no unique. We see again and again that the Bhagavad Gita deals with issues similar to those faced by seekers and clients in the modern world. All the issues of concern to modern psychology such as motivation, perception, habits, reward and punishment, and the unconscious are considered in great depth in the Bhagavad Gita, and theories of these aspects of human functioning are put forth. But the Bhagavad Gita also goes further than modern therapies: it deals with those finer aspects of the human being that are almost completely neglected in modern psychology. The insights and understanding of the perennial psychology of the Bhagavad Gita can do much to enrich modern psychology and psychotherapy.
38.     There is no purifier in this world equal to knowledge. One who is fully accomplished in yoga finds that knowledge in the Self in due time.
39.    One who has faith, is intent upon serving the gurus, and has mastered the senses attains knowledge. Upon attaining knowledge he very soon reaches supreme tranquility.
40.    One without knowledge and without faith, of mind filled with doubt, perishes. One whose mind is filled with doubt has neither this world nor the other world nor happiness.

Among all branches of knowledge the highest is spiritual knowledge, which is attained by the systematic method of the inward journey. The purest of all knowledge is the knowledge of Atman, the center of consciousness, which completely quenches the thirst for knowing the truth. When the sadhaka has firm faith in the inner dweller, Atman, and when he trusts his teacher and understands the scriptures and teachings of the great ones who have already trodden the path of light, then he is capable of performing his duties without committing any error. He does not waste his time uselessly brooding on concerns that dissipate the mind. Such knowledge purifies the way to the center of consciousness. Firm faith, a one-pointed mind, control of the senses, non-attachment, and regular sadhana are important means for seeing oneself in all and all in oneself. Nothing is higher and purer than the knowledge of Atman. Such knowledge gives one perfect peace. Then all doubts are resolved.
In verse 39, which is very important for all sadhakas, Sri Krishna states that shraddha, which means single-pointed devotion plus full reverence for the path that one is treading, is very essential. Control of the senses is also important. The senses are employed by the mind, and because of the sense, the mind ordinarily remains dissipated and forms bad habits. Therefore discipline of the senses is important. With the help of one-pointed devotion and discipline of the senses, the highest peace is realized.

But he who has no faith, love, or devotion toward the inner dweller-the controller, the governor, and the fountain of light and life within-and, who doubts the basis of his existence, destroys himself. He can never see the positive side of his mind. A negative mind full of doubts is neither successful in the external world nor on the inward journey. When the yogis refer to a doubtful mind, they mean a mind that is not guided by the higher buddhi. The mind that is not trained to take counsel from the higher buddhi always functions with doubts and indecision. Such a mind is unable to attain anything properly. One who has such a disturbed, distracted mind and who has no faith in his own resources, has no self-confidence. He does not have determination or will power. His life is full of misery, sorrow, and grief, and there is no chance for him to attain happiness. Verse 39 clearly explains that without love, devotion, and self-control, knowledge cannot be attained. We have cited examples showing that even evil-minded people who gain knowledge and faith are capable of attaining the state of tranquility and the final sate of Self-realization. But those whose minds are dissipated, who do not make any effort to control the sense, and who have no faith in the existence of the Self or God, are always unhappy and suffer.
Here ends the fourth chapter, in which the knowledge of renouncing the fruits of actions is described.

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