Bhagavad Gita – Paths of Action and Knowledge


These are verses from the second chapter of the Gita:

“Know that to be imperishable by which all this is pervaded.  None can cause the destruction of that, the inexhaustible. It is these bodies of the embodied, who is eternal, indestructible, and unknowable, which are said to have an end. He is not born, nor does he ever die. After having been, he never ceases to be; unborn, eternal, unchangeable from the beginning. He is not slain when the body is slain.”

“He who knows him as indestructible, eternal, unborn, inexhaustible, how and whom does such a man cause to slay? Whom does he slay? One sees him as a wonder, another speaks of him as a wonder. As a wonder, another hears of him. Though hearing, the people do not know him at all.”

These verses contain a truth which is called by Sri Shankara, the truth of Sankhya. We say they contain a truth, but simply to say ‘a truth’ means very little.  It’s one way of avoiding thinking about something, simply to say, ‘It is a truth’ or ‘It contains a truth’.  There’s something in Bernard Shaw’s remark that, when an author becomes a classic, people stop thinking about him altogether. The classics are taken as read, like the minutes of a meeting. There’s no attempt to read them or think about them. In much the same way, it’s very easy to take something, which is regarded with reverence, as truth or containing a truth; and then, so to say, by that, to be insulated from it.

Sri Shankara speaks of truth as heard; but through hearing, and though hearing, the people do not know him.  Then he says the truth can be ascertained. This is technically called by him in his commentary in many places, enlightenment, vidvatta. That is not the same thing as liberation. Finally, the enlightened man, by pursuing the path given in the Gita, chapters 13, 14, and 15, which are the path of knowledge, is liberated.

Now, here are the references – the first:

Chapter 2, verse 10: “The real nature of the Self, expounded here is called Sankhya. What is produced by ascertainment of it (by ascertaining it, not simply believing it) what is produced by ascertainment of it is called Sankhya-buddhi, or the conviction of Sankhya. The knowers of truth, the jnanis, who have that are called Sankhyas.”

Chapter 2, verse 39:  “Yoga consists in the performance of actions which lead to the rise of Sankhya-buddhi.  Yoga is the means of attaining Sankhya wisdom. It consists in killing attachment for the pairs of opposites, then practising works without attachment and practising samadhi.”

Chapter 2, verse 21:  “The enlightened man, who has seen the Self, who has seen the immutable Self, and who is eager for liberation, has only to follow the path of renunciation. The Lord distinguishes the enlightened Sankhyas from the unenlightened, and teaches respectively two distinct paths. The enlightened man (the word is vidwan, which is the word for one who really knows, who really sees) has nothing to do with the path of works. What then has he to do – Jnana Yoga or devotion to his knowledge.”

Chapter 2, verse 69:  “When a man has realized the Self, his duty consists in devotion to that jnana, to that knowledge.”

Then again in chapter 3, he will again mention these two paths. The first for the one who has not yet realized the Self in any way, and the second for the man who has had a glimpse of the Self, who has realized the Self, but who still is not liberated. There is a two-fold path and both of them are paths of devotion. One was Jnana Yoga, the Yoga of knowledge, knowledge itself being Yoga. This is for the Sankhyas, to those who possess a clear knowledge of the Self and the not-Self. The other is devotion to action, which is a means to devotion to knowledge.

Then in the introduction to chapter 5, this same distinction is made. In chapter 12, verse 12, he refers to the enlightened one who is steadily engaged in contemplation. Then peace immediately follows the abandonment of desire. In chapter 18, verse 66 and chapter 7, verse 17:  “The jnani, the man of knowledge, strives to reach the Lord – firm in the faith that he himself is the Lord Vasudeva and is no other than he. “He seeks Me only, the Supreme Brahman, as the highest goal.”  There are many other such references in chapters 18 and 13.

The summary of this line of thought, which can be extracted from the references given, is that before rise of the Sankhya-buddhi, before the rise of the light from beyond the mind called prajna, the actions based on the idea of agency have to be performed, but with a detachment from the results.

Secondly, Samadhi Yoga is the practice of meditation taken to the point of samadhi, where the distinction between the meditator and the object of meditation is annihilated, until there is not merely a unity, but an identity. Holy Vyasa said the path of action comes first and then the other. Now he has to be devoted to knowledge. Shri Shankara says that, classically, after the first flash of enlightenment, the man who has seen the Self, that man gives up most of his involvement in the world. This is one path.

Chapter 4, verses 19 and 20:  “But there are others who, although they have reached this same stage, they find that, for different reasons, they still have duties in the world to fulfil. Finding that for some reason or other he cannot abandon action, he continues doing the actions as before with a view to setting an example to the world. There are those who no longer have selfish ends in view. The one who has seen the supreme Self doesn’t have any more the selfish ends of the small individual self.”

“For want of any selfish end in view he might give up action, but finding it impracticable to get away from action, he engages in action as before with a view to set an example or to avoid breaking the tradition. Such a man though engaged in actions, since he is full of the knowledge of the action itself, is really free from them.”

In fact, the tradition of the Gita is to perform action while practising knowledge.  The pedigree of the Gita Yoga, which is given in chapter 4, says that it has been handed down through kings whose responsibilities under the classical structure of India were the heaviest of all. The king had to spend the day in administering the kingdom. At night, his duty was frequently to go out in disguise, incognito, and discover for himself whether the people were faring well, not to rely on the reports of his ministers.  He had, himself, to spend the great deal of the night-time when others rested in seeing to the kingdom. It was to those men of great action and overwhelming responsibility that the Yoga was necessary.  Shri Shankara comments on this. It is only when possessed of the strength of this Yoga, that they could protect the spiritual people in their kingdom. Only when both those in authority and the spiritual people are protected is it possible to maintain the world.

Chapter 2, verse 21:  Shri Shankara speaking of vidvatta, enlightenment, says, “The Self lies in one sense within man, beyond the mind. It is not the self which we think we discover by simply turning the introspective attention within, but there is something which lies beyond the range of the mind, which the mind doesn’t see.  The true Self while remaining immutable is not distinguished from the buddhi-vrittis, from the movements of the buddhi, the higher part of the mind, the discriminative, determinative faculty of the mind. We think that the higher element of the mind is the Self. The Self is not distinguished from the buddhi-vrittis, from the activities of the higher part of the mind, and so he is imagined through that ignorance, that non-discrimination, to be the one who perceives and the one who acts.”

“Similarly”, he says, “the Self is imagined to be enlightened, because of an association of the buddhi-vritti with a particular modification of the mind, which is itself unreal, which takes the form of discriminating between the Self and the not-Self. In reality, the true Self undergoes no change.” That’s to say first there is a delusion that the Self is something moving – the immutable, the unchanging, immortal Self – is something moving which is born and changes and dies. Then, after the first flash, there is a conviction in the higher part of the mind, of a difference between the Self.  The feeling is there is something within which is immortal and imperishable and unchanging. This too is a vritti of buddhi, says Sri Shankara. This feeling, ‘I am enlightened’ is equally unreal with the feeling, ‘I am in bondage’. It’s a subtle point, but it’s important for this line of thought.

He’s saying when the first flashes come, the immediate reaction in the mind is to feel, “I have attained an enlightenment.  I have realized immortality”.  But this too is an activity of the buddhi, or the higher part of the mind, which now is not active in the ordinary sense, when the mind is full of the demands of the individual self.  Our teacher said, “When we begin to lose ourselves in great art, in the quest for truth, in universal benevolence, then the buddhi begins to become active.”

There is first a flash, but after that flash, like a flash of lightning which illuminates the landscape, it is immediately gone. Then there’s a knowledge of the landscape in the darkness; again the darkness has descended. Although we have the memory of that, and we feel that we know where things are, in fact, not much was seen and it’s merely a memory. It’s not a living experience any more. Therefore, though some things were truly seen, and Truth was seen, what continues now is only a memory. It’s an exercise of the imagination. It isn’t direct perception any more.

The buddhi has first to be focused on the aspect of truth to be known. Then samadhi is practised. Patanjali says, “When the meditation becomes empty of itself as it were, when the sense I am meditating and the conviction of individuality disappear, and there is only the subtle aspect of the object of meditation, when that has continued for a long time, then there is an internal calmness – and then there is a flash, and that flash illumines the aspect of truth on which concentration has been made.”

First, there must be the concentration. Then, if that is long pursued up to the point of samadhi, and that samadhi itself is continued, there will be a flash of what Patanjali cause prajna, or the faculty of precision about the mind. Upanishads say, “He [the Self] is seen when the buddhi has been rendered sharp and subtle.”  It must be sharp – sharply directed and focused on the object of meditation. It must be subtle – it must direct itself to the subtle aspect of the object of meditation.  The word ‘subtle’ is difficult to define; and it doesn’t matter to define it too much, because these are directions, hints for practice, and they’re not meant to be brought into the sphere of the functioning of the ordinary mind. In fact, the ordinary functioning of the mind can’t be satisfactorily defined by that mind. He is seen by the sharp and subtle buddhi.

The Katha Upanishad says the intelligent man knows the Ultimate.  It doesn’t mean a man of vast learning. Sometimes people of great learning are in a way unintelligent. They are able to handle tremendous arrays of words and to see the implications of one word and another word; but intelligence consists, not simply in handling objects in a precise manner, but being able to judge.  And sometimes highly intellectual people are weak in judgment, as was said of James I, the wisest fool in Christendom;  “He never said the foolish thing, and never did a wise one.” “Unless he thinks”, says the Chandogya Upanishad, “he does not understand.”

One can hear from others, but what one hears from others is not one’s own. In the same way, one can go to a restaurant and eat the food cooked by an expert, but that dish does not become one’s own. Only when he’s learned how to cook, and learned the recipe and taken it home and practised, then he himself can master it and then it becomes his own.  But simply to swallow, or to think that one swallows, a truth from someone else is not the method of the upanishads. “Unless the man thinks on it, he does not understand.”

The words of the teacher in the upanishads are meant to begin the investigation by the pupil himself. He’s not meant simply to swallow something without thinking. In the end, he hasn’t swallowed. To believe that one has swallowed, is like the teacher in front of the class of children.  He goes up and works the sum on the board and, at first, they work it with him. He says here, “Seven, isn’t it?”  “Yes.”  “Six now here.”  “Yes.”  “Four then over here.”  “Yes.”  But gradually they stop thinking and they seem to say, “Yes.  Yes.  Yes.” Then he deliberately makes a mistake, and everyone says, “Yes.”

In the same way, to think that something will become one’s own by following the words or the thoughts of others is a mistake; but the words and the thoughts of others can be the beginning. In our traditional yoga, the hearing from others is the beginning, but it has to be followed by thinking, by investigation – not simply to say, “It is so, it must be so.”

In this country, we don’t have scorpions. A man is sitting in a tropical country, perhaps he’s reading about scorpions, and suddenly out of the corner of his eye, he sees something dark across the floor, behind a bookcase. Immediately, he thinks it’s a scorpion – he hasn’t seen it clearly, but he has the conviction that there’s a scorpion in the room. Now, if someone comes and says and looks behind the bookcase, and says, “No, there’s no scorpion. It’s nothing”, he may in a way, believe it.  He might think, “Yes, it’s nothing”; but still he can’t be said to know. He may find that, in spite of thinking, “No it is nothing, there is nothing there”, he’s sitting in the middle of the room – and not near any furniture under which the scorpion might be hidden.  Although intellectually he might be satisfied, still there’s a tension within; and that tension might not be so obvious to him, but might be very obvious to somebody who came in from outside and didn’t know.

Although in a way he knows and believes there’s no scorpion in there, yet he’s not convinced on all the levels. There’s a fear and there’s a tension and he’s sitting in the middle of the room on the bare floor, not near anything. If you say to him, “Well, the book’s over there in the bookcase”, he finds some reason for not going near there.  He might pick up his feet and put them on the chair. “Scorpions can’t climb, can they?” “Oh, why do you want to know?” “Oh, it’s very interesting.”

The words of the teacher, “There’s no scorpion” have the purpose of making me brave enough to go and look behind the bookcase myself. Then for the first time, I’ll know whether there’s a scorpion or not.  This is the purpose of the words of the teacher in Yoga, to make us able to begin an investigation on our own; not simply to accept them, or think we accept them and not make an investigation – because then we shall never be satisfied on all the levels of our being, simply to hear it from the words of another, as Swami Rama Tirtha says many times.

Then in Yoga, there have to be certain qualifications. The Katha Upanishad 1, 2, 24 says the Yogi must turn away from wrong conduct. It doesn’t mean that he’ll be perfect, because our teacher, again and again, said no one will be perfect; but it means he’s turned away from wrong conduct. He’s not facing in that direction.  It’s only an illustration, but if a paper bag is facing the wind, when the wind comes, although there’s a weight on it, the wind will carry it away. If the paper bag is facing away, although the wind will come just the same, the paper bag will flutter, but it won’t be carried away.

Our teacher said that the same disturbances do come to the Yogi as come to the ordinary man, but he’s not carried away by them because he’s facing away from them. He must have turned away from wrong conduct. He must have controlled his senses – that’s to say, he’s not obsessed by his senses. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel hungry and thirsty, but he’s not obsessed by those senses. He must practice samadhi, he must practice meditation to the point of samadhi.

The last point is that his mind must be at rest. His heart must be at rest as regards the fruits of his samadhi. If he practises meditation, he may attain, in that meditation, a complete calmness of mind at the time. If in his heart, there are the seeds of expectation as to the results of those meditations, then when he comes out of it, he will have that feeling, “I am enlightened. I have seen a wonder,” and the whole mental and emotional apparatus will be, in a sense, disturbed.

We’re told again and again that the Yogi must be detached, and the Yogis carry it to the point of saying, “It’s not a question of simply thinking, ‘I’d like this to happen’, but ‘I ought to think that, I don’t think it’.  As it’s said in the Christian Bible, “Let not the right hand know what the left hand’s doing when giving in charity.”  It means to be unconscious, to perform the right actions unconsciously; not to feel, “Well, I’m giving a good deal, but I’m not calling attention to myself,” – even that is loss. Generally, when we do a right action, it’s as though the left hand is giving the thing, but we expect it to bounce back into the right hand.  It seems a simple thing to give up attachment to the results of works.  But we can see in every moment, if we wish, how deeply it goes – the desire for results, the fear of failure. If there aren’t those two, we shouldn’t become nervous at an important moment.  But, if we are frank with ourselves, we’ll realize how deeply they go.

People will say, “How is it that the first flash of realization in meditation could upset a yogi?” Well, it can happen, we’re familiar with it in some cases. For instance, small children on Christmas Eve can’t wait to get their presents, especially if there are several of them in a room. They try to go to sleep quickly, so that Christmas morning will soon come, and the presents will be there. So they talk about it, and they think, “No, we must go to sleep.”  But when they feel they’re beginning to fall asleep, that excites them. They feel, “Well, soon I should be asleep, and then it’ll be Christmas morning” and that thought wakes them up again. The anticipation, the looking forward to the Christmas morning, interferes with the natural process of falling asleep.

The great Japanese Saigo said that many people can do 80% or 90% of the thing very well; because up to 80% or 90%, they do it for the thing itself – for the sake of the thing itself they’re working.  But when they get to 90%, they begin to think what will happen when they’ve completed the 100%. They begin to look ahead of the task, to the results, and then, he says, that destroys their work. They’re no longer working for the thing itself, they’re working for their individual selves, and the work is always spoiled.

To know the thing in theory is the first in the Yoga; then to know it by a flash which passes; and then by devotion to knowledge – to continue and continue and continue until the buddhi activity dies down.  Of the vritti of Brahman, the buddhic part falls away, and then the consciousness itself remains.  The first flash is a mixture of the buddhi-vritti which, as Shri Shankara says, is unreal and of pure consciousness.  But if jnana-nishta, or devotion to knowledge, is continued long enough, then the unreal activity of the buddhi begins to drop away; and then ‘pure consciousness’, as Madhusudan says, stands forth. It was always there, but now it stands forth.

To know something, and believe it, is a different thing from having it as part of oneself. One can hear that the tiger can’t watch more than one point at a time, and that, if a tiger comes, and you pick up a chair with four legs and you just move the four legs, he won’t attack – because he can’t watch all the four points. Tigers are very cautious animals, and the feeling that there’s some point that he can’t watch prevents him from attacking.  To know that in theory is a very comforting thing, but to know it in practice might be quite different. A man who trains tigers would snatch up the chair without thinking; but the one who didn’t know might very easily find he had the legs pointing to himself. He wouldn’t be part of it.

In the same way, one might know the strokes of swimming. One might learn them perfectly well on the land and be able to perform them perfectly and to think, “Well, I know how to swim. I can do it.” It’s true. In a sense, he does know how to swim – but there would be very few who, when thrown into water, would be able to keep still until they came to the surface and then perform their swimming strokes.  It would be the difference between knowledge in theory, and to some extent in practice, and having the unconscious adaptation of an expert swimmer.

It’s possible to be told and to believe that, for instance, if a drunken man falls he doesn’t hurt himself.  If you’ve ever seen it, it’s an impressive demonstration. Sometimes a drunken man at the top of a steep flight of stairs will go over like a diver when he’s completely drunk.  The people watching will feel he must be dead; but in fact, he’s all right. He has just a bruise or two, that’s all, because the body is soft.  If the ordinary man falls, he stiffens his body, he’s like a doll made of chocolate, and then the thing is broken. All the shock comes on one of two points, which are broken; but the drunken man is like a doll made of cloth, and he spreads out and takes the shock.

Well, again, I might know that in theory and believe it; and, if one had to take a very heavy fall, that knowledge might be the only thing that could save him from severe injury or save his life. But even knowing that one must do it to save one’s life might still not be enough to make us able to do it. The thing has to be known in practice for oneself. Simply to know it in theory, and to believe it is not enough, it’s not part of us; and when something unexpected comes, it would not come to us.

The teacher tells us that there are problems of continuity of training the attention on the yogic truths. There are two kinds of disturbance. One is the disturbance of rajas or activity, and the other is the interruptions caused by tamas or inertia. The Chinese Yogis lay great stress on inertia, which they say is the only true obstacle. They say however strong might be the disturbances due to passion or anger or greed, they can all be overcome. The disturbance of the Yogi’s discipline by inertia is very difficult to overcome, because the man is unconscious of it himself.

Therefore, in their practice, they lay great stress on becoming aware of the lapses of attention. They say the Yogi, when carried away by anger, for instance, he’s aware and he can make efforts to control his anger. For years, perhaps, he won’t be able to control it, but he knows what’s going on. But in the case of tamas, they say, these things are dark; there’s a darkness and the Yogi is not aware of what’s going on.

There is a legend (and it’s told in this form to emphasize the point) that when a monk is engaged in spiritual practice, a rat, it’s a sort of demon, will come and sit by his side when he’s asleep.  The rat will listen to his breath and will make its own breath go exactly in time with that. Then, when the two breaths are linked together, the rat will begin to shorten his breath and the sleeping man unconsciously shortens his too until he finally becomes choked.  The story is told in this fairy tale form, but it has a meaning, that is to say that, unconsciously, the attention or the rhythm can become insensibly made shorter and shorter and shorter until finally there is great distress.

The story is that one of the great masters of meditation in the middle of the night clapped his hands.  The disciple on duty came in and the master said, “There’s a dead rat there. Take it away.  Throw it away.” The disciple later asked, and the master said, “I was asleep, but I felt the rhythm in my breath just begin to contract. I realized what was happening, so I began consciously to lengthen my breath.  Because the breaths were linked, the rat too had the lengthen in his breath, and I lengthened it more and more until it killed him.”  Well, this story is told in one of the meditation classics.  It’s meant to be an example of sensitivity in the mind of the Yogi to what is happening, and then his ability to take the countermeasures, as explained in the yogic discipline.

We are told, first of all, to practise actions in detachment; and it means a detachment both from outer recognition or inner recognition. The head of a great monastery is bearing the whole weight. As he looks out and he sees the lay brother sweeping, he thinks, “Well, he’s doing the best that he can. I have the whole weight of this responsibility and the weight of learning on me. Without me, the monastery would be hard put to find a successor; but still he too is working sincerely and he’s doing the best that he can.” The head of the monastery is thinking like that.

The gardener, in his turn is looking out and thinking, “There he is, yes, the head of the famous monastery.  He’s got all the praise and the appreciation lavished on him, but one day the truth will come, and they’ll know that the real saint was the man who humbly swept the leaves in the garden.” He’s thinking like that. Both the outer recognition to be given up and also the inner recognition – the feeling of “Here I am, nobody knows, but…” – until our teacher said it becomes unconscious like the man’s shadow. We are not conscious of our shadow, on what it falls, but it does fall. He quotes a story of the man with the shadow – that the real saint is the man whom fortune and blessings follow like his shadow, but he’s not conscious of it.  Then we are told finally, where the attachment has been weakened and the detachment has been strengthened, works can be done without the desire for recognition.

If samadhi has been practised to the point where the unity comes, when that unity has been attained, even for a moment, one should practise and continue it on the subtle aspects of the object of meditation.  Then finally there will be a flash of Truth. Then that has to be continued for a long time until the excitement, so to say, of the mind having had an enlightenment, has worn away.  Then consciousness reveals itself like the sun. Previously, it was like a flash of lightning – it came, and on the memory of that, life could be conducted for a good time; but the living experience had gone. When the sun rises, then there is a continuous experience of truth.

When liberation comes, then what? We are told life becomes, so to say, a sport. Shri Krishna, the teacher in Gita, who is a king, says “I have nothing in this world that I need do. There’s nothing unachieved for me. Nevertheless, I continue unweary in action.”  He continues in action without any sense of obligation. Now it’s easy to misunderstand the point and to feel, “Oh, well, if it is a sport, then it doesn’t matter if it’s done badly; that wouldn’t matter.”  But that’s to misunderstand it.  The real sports people put much more energy into their sports than they put into really important things.  Those who practise sports like mountain climbing will perform feats that would be hard to be performed even under the most severe stress. The mountaineers who sometimes had the examinations for their lungs hold their breath until they fall unconscious. Many people would find that very difficult to do for any reason, but still they can do it under the stimulus of the sport.

To do action without a feeling of compulsion and yet to do it supremely well, this is the ideal of Yoga; not to feel, “Well, it doesn’t matter to do it well, or badly”; and yet not to feel that it must be done well and that it is so important that the man is wholly attached to it, and can’t let it go at all. This is what we call the bad loser. On the one hand, there is the man who doesn’t bother to do the thing well, and on the other is the man who’s so obsessed with winning that, although in one way he knows it’s unreal, in the other way he can’t give up his clutch onto the idea of winning.

In some countries where they take things seriously, a man who loses an important match can even commit suicide, like the Japanese tennis player, Sato, after losing the finals at Wimbledon.  It’s a subtle point, to feel that it doesn’t matter and yet that it does matter, which will come again and again in the study of Yoga. It’s like falling off one side of ‘the path of a razor’, as it’s said frequently – feeling, “Well, if it is just a sport, I won’t bother to do this or that, which I don’t like; but I will bother, of course, to do that and the other, which I do happen to like.”  To pick and choose in this way is to misunderstand. This is the sort of distinction the upanishad means by the ‘intelligent’. To show intelligence means that I must understand when I’m deceiving myself.  In this way, intelligence is used not to master large areas of reading and to be able to handle words in order to convince other people, but not myself. It does matter, and yet it doesn’t matter.

About 300 years ago, the Buddhist sutras were unobtainable in Japan. A priest set to work to beg to get the money to print them. It was said he pursued a man for half a mile to get just a penny out of him. When he received the penny, he gave him as much thanks as for the large gifts of gold that he’d received. The man was amazed, and the monk said, “No, it’s the same. It is something which is going towards printing the sutras. The amount doesn’t matter.” That man was so impressed, he became a follower and helped him collect the money.  When the sum was complete and the printing would have started, there was a famine.  The priest gave the whole of the money to relieve the famine.

He’d spent his whole life collecting the money to print the sutras, but when the moment came, he was able to let it go without any holding back at all, to give up his objective of printing the sutras in order to relieve the immediate famine. This was said to be the ‘printing of the invisible sutras’.  But very great donations were made afterwards and the sutras were printed. Our teacher said, “Hold tightly and let go lightly.” One should be able to hold tightly, and tightly, and tightly with great firmness; and yet to be able, at an instant’s notice when necessary, to let go. This is the freedom of liberation. In that consciousness, that man lives, who has realized his Self.



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