Karma Yoga – Shankara’s Bhagavad Gita Commentary

The first time that Karma Yoga is mentioned in the Gita is not till II.39, which says: ‘You have heard the wisdom concerning Sankhya: now hear about the method of Karma or action yoga. The wisdom concerning Sankhya here in the Gita meant the wisdom of the Supreme Self, attributeless and unchanging action of the Supreme Self, this which is being taught to thee is wisdom is wisdom concerning Sankhya. Now listen to wisdom concerning Yoga which possessing thou wilt cast off the bond of action.

This is the first time Karma Yoga is mentioned in the Gita and Shankara as a commentator, the first time a term is mentioned, he gives a definition of it and the reader is expected to remember the definition afterwards. His definition is that it consists of three elements: the endurance of the opposites – and the examples given are heat and cold, pleasure and pain; patient endurance of the opposites, Karma Yoga.

The second one is undertaking actions for the sake of worshipping God, that is the second one. And the third one is Samadhi Yoga. These three elements constitute his first definition of Karma Yoga which the students are expected to remember. They are like a definitive picture. Now, when Karma Yoga is mentioned or discussed after that, he doesn’t necessarily repeat the whole definition. For instance, he’ll sometimes say, in Chapter II verses 14 and 15, that it is simply endurance of the opposites. That will lead you to the final peace. Or he may say, in XII.12, well it’s abandonment of the fruits of action to God and that alone is sufficient.

If there is just one element of Karma Yoga [mentioned] sometimes he’ll say Samadhi Yoga, alone as in IV.38, or combined. Now, we are expected in these cases not to say, to choose one place and say: ‘well, that is enough for me, just that element’. We are expected to remember and apply the whole definition which is given at the very beginning. And as a matter of fact he himself very often puts in just a single word to hint at the other two elements. For instance, there is the verse XII. 12:’From abandonment of the fruit of action comes peace immediately.’ Now it is possible simply to take that sentence, well, that’s enough, simply abandon the fruit of actions, no other training or practice. But Shankara points out that in the previous verse, when it was said, abandonment of the fruit of action, it said: ‘with control of the self, grasping the Self.’ And here he explains it that it is abandonment of the fruit of actions in the case of one who knows the Self, who is already a Self-knower and who is established in dhyana, in meditation.

Then, the abandonment of the fruits of actions leads to peace immediately, otherwise it leads to peace only in conjunction with the other elements and after a time through purification of the self. Well, it doesn’t mean then that we have to learn a tremendous number of details but we have to learn and know the basic plan of Shri Shankara’s commentary, and then remember it and be able to apply it; and one example that is given or can be given, is a drawing of something which is familiar to many of us. Now it looks a detailed drawing, it looks as though there are many details there but as a matter of fact, when it is closely examined, some of these things which look like details of the sculpture, are simply a dot, but because the scene is familiar to us, we fill it in and in the same way, the water is shown just by a few lines.

But again, because it is familiar to us, we know that’s water. Now it happens that this was sent to various parts of the world and it was highly appreciated as a sort of card from a great international organisation. But one man, well he was a young boy living in a village where he had practically never seen big buildings or much water, he said he couldn’t make anything of it. It just looked like sort of lines. He was a student and he put it on his desk and he used to look at it and it stayed there while he was studying. And he said, one day, suddenly, it came alive and he said: ‘I saw that it was water and a ship on the water and a bridge. He didn’t know what the two flaps were but he guessed they must probably be……….. Well, when we know the basic plan, then, even although there may be many details missing here, we can reconstruct it in our minds exactly and fill in and we don’t become confused. Well, in a little bit of this kind of way, Shri Shankara does this, he gives in certain places a summing up, sometimes a definition at the very beginning and we are expected to remember that and apply it.

For instance it has been said that Shri Shankara doesn’t often mention bliss as characteristic of Brahman but in fact, if we look at the Gita the very first time Brahman is mentioned. Shankara quotes two Upanishadic texts which is his strongest way of saying anything and one of them is: consciousness, bliss. And his students were expected to remember this, even if it wasn’t repeated always. Now, to take an example of a characteristic of the Gita. There are two paths and one would expect that the paths would be kept separate but in fact it isn’t so. Now I’ll read two verses from the second chapter (II.14-15) which deal with the first element, the indifference to the opposites. In the translation here. ‘The sense contacts it is, O son of Kunti, which cause heat and cold, pleasure and pain, they come and go, they are impermanent. Endure them bravely.’ Then the next verse: ‘That wise man, whom verily, these afflict not, to whom pleasure and are the same, he is fit for immortality.’ These are successive verses and one reasons, yes, endure them bravely, that’s right and he whom they don’t afflict, he is fit for immortality.

And this is a lack of succession because the first verse says, you do feel them but endure them bravely and then immediately afterwards it says, the man whom they don’t afflict is fit for immortality. There seems to be a sort of jump. Now, Shankara says, endure them bravely, it means that he does feel them and this is Karma Yoga which is based on the idea of oneself as an actor, an agent and as an experiencer and of the Lord as separate from oneself and as all the beings are separate from each other. Endure them bravely, these changes.

Then he goes on to say, next verse, it is a man of realisation. ‘He whom these do not afflict’ and Shankara explains, he says, they do not afflict him because he is fixed, established in the vision of the Self, not a theoretical knowledge of the Self but a vision, one of his strongest words for direct experience in the vision of the Self. And then it goes on to say, he doesn’t, he is not afflicted, he is not shaken or moved by them at all because he has this fixed vision of the Self in which he is affirming himself, nishta. And then he says, this one is fit for immortality – what he says is liberation –  so that the vision of the Self is not itself automatically liberation.

This one who has the clear and continuous vision of the Self is capable, it is possible for himself to attain liberation and he explains that the path of knowledge yoga begins with this vision of the Self and it consists in simply an affirmation of confirming the vision of the Self. Well, this is one example where an element of Karma Yoga is taken, namely, the patient endurance of opposites. A calm endurance of opposites but feeling them and then, if he persists in the whole of Karma Yoga, not just that element, he will attain a vision of the Self. Then he’ll no longer be afflicted by the opposites but still that vision of the Self is affirmed and made continuous and then he will attain liberation. Now one could say, well, this is just one passage and the thing to do is to see in how many places Shri Shankara gives right vision as the beginning of knowledge Yoga, Jnana Yoga.

So this was the first element of Karma Yoga, the patient endurance of the opposites. The next one is action and his definition of it is to do action which is not qualified any more. Simply do action for the sake of worshipping the Lord, for the sake of pleasing the Lord. Now, this is given in various ways. Later on it says, to do the actions as a servant of God. Sometimes it says, to do the action in evenness without attachment to the action. Sometimes it says to do the actions without attachment to the fruit of action and a distinction is made.

There are quite a lot of people who believe in keeping busy and they don’t very much care what the result of their activity is so long as they keep busy, and this is attachment to action, not attachment to the fruit of action and Shankara discusses this in places and sometimes as in XVIII.9, he puts them together. He says: ‘Neither attached to the actions themselves, nor attached to the fruit of the action.’ Then, suddenly, you get two verses. The first one III.17, ‘He who rejoices only in the Self, he who is satisfied with the Self alone, for him there is nothing to do, nothing which ought to be done (karmya), which ought to be done, no duty.’

And then the next verse says, ‘therefore, without attachment, ever perform the action which has to be done.’ So he has just said, the man of wisdom has nothing that has to be done and then immediately afterwards he goes on to say, therefore without attachment, perform the action which has to be done. And Shankara explains this, people say the Gita is contradictory but Shankara explains, the first one is on the level of the one who has had a vision of the Self, who rejoices and is satisfied in himself alone and he has nothing to do. The second one is a man who still sees separation and he has things that he does have to do and he is told to do them without attachment. So those two verses come together and Shankara is very careful in front of the verses when the standpoint changes from knowledge to action.

He says: ‘This is how the man who has seen the Self is. There is nothing that he needs to do. But, the one who has not yet seen the Self, he has things to do and he must do them without attachment.’ There is a verse following this about Janaka. It says, King Janaka, the ancient King Janaka, sought to attain perfection by action. And Shankara explains this. He says, it may be that Janaka had – now he uses a very strong word – Samyagdarshan, right vision of the Self, he had right vision. Then it says, he sought to attain liberation even while pursuing action but not action for a purpose, he was pursuing it, he says, because he had previously been engaged in action and those actions went on more or less mechanically. He was in these situations where he had made promises and had responsibilities and he discharged them but not for any purpose of his own.

So he says he was one of right vision but still not liberated, then he sought to attain perfection by pursuing actions in the light of his vision of the Self. Or, he says, if you take it that those ancient kings, or some of the, had not yet had the vision of the Self, then they performed action in order to attain purity of the mind. Well, this is another example, this is in verse 20 of chapter III: where the levels are presented, one immediately after the other, and Shankara distinguishes them carefully.  Karma Yoga has the three elements and he says it is based on the Buddhi, which means the actual feeling, not the intellectual ideas that sometimes translate it, the actual feeling of being separate, of being an agent and of being an experiencer and of being separate from God. And the knowledge yoga is based on Buddhi, exactly the same word, although the translator sometimes translates it as an intellectual idea but the word used is the same, vision, it is a direct vision of the Self and the Jnana Yoga carries on from there.

Now, the meditation, Samadhi Yoga, which is the third element of Karma Yoga as given by Shankara in his first definition. Well, on what is he to meditate? Now there are many lists in the poetical sections of the Gita where the Lord declares: ‘I am fragrance in earth, I am the different elements, I am death, I am the seed of all life.’ There are many of them. And in chapter X, Arjuna specifically asks. He says: ‘Tell me some of these things on which meditation should be done’ and Krishna doesn’t tell him to meditate, he says, the things to be meditated on and then he lists them and Shankara says,’First of all, he says, and he gives the Sankhya standpoint, the Self at the heart of every living being. This is the first one. Then after that he gives a string, ‘I am the beginning, middle and end of all beings’, and then on to ‘I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all creation’. And he says, these are for people who cannot yet meditate on the Self. And one thinks, we can meditate on the Self, who can’t meditate on the Self if they were determined to?

Now, the Gita is a poem written with tremendous poetic skill and it doesn’t make these arbitrary distinctions without illustrating them. It gives actual illustrations and this point is actually illustrated, brilliantly, in the course of the verses of chapter X where the teacher, Vasudeva, that is Krishna, that is his name, and he is of the clan of Vrishni is teaching Arjuna who nickname is Dhananjaya, meaning Winner of Gold at archery.

© Trevor Leggett

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