The Transformation of Karma Yoga
Chapter II, verse 39 of the Gita says: “After the instruction on the Supreme Self, this which has been taught to thee is wisdom concerning Samkhya. 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 readers are expected to remember the definition afterwards. His definition is that it consists of three elements: the endurance of the opposites – the examples given are heat and cold, pleasure and pain – patient endurance of the opposites. The second one is undertaking actions for the sake of worshipping God, 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’re like a definitive picture. When Karma Yoga is mentioned or discussed after that, he doesn’t necessarily repeat the whole definition. For instance, he’ll sometimes say (e.g. in Chapter II, verses 14-15) that it’s simply endurance of the opposites – that will lead you to the final peace. Or he may say (in Chapter XII, verse 12) it’s abandonment of the fruits of action to God, and that alone is sufficient – that’s just one element of Karma Yoga. Sometimes he’ll say it’s Samadhi Yoga alone, as in Chapter IV, verse 48 – or combined. Now we’re expected in these cases not to choose one place and say, “That is enough for me – just that element.” We’re expected to remember and apply the whole definition which he’s given at the very beginning.
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, Chapter XII, verse 12: ‘From abandonment of the fruit of actions, comes peace immediately.’ Now it’s possible simply to take that sentence and say, “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, ‘The abandonment of the fruit of actions’, it said, ‘… with control of the self, grasping the self.’ And here he explains it, that it is abandonment of the fruits of actions, in the case of one who knows the Self, who’s already a Self-knower, and who is established in dhyana, in meditation. Then the abandonment of the fruit 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.
It doesn’t mean then that we have to learn a tremendous number of details; we have to learn and know the basic plan of Shri Shankara’s commentary and then be able to remember that and apply it. One example that can be given is this drawing of something which is familiar to many of us. It looks a detailed drawing, it looks as if 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. Because the scene is familiar to us we fit it in. In the same way the water is shown just by a few lines, but again, because it’s familiar to us, we know that’s water. Now it happens that this was set to be as part of the world and it was highly appreciated as a card from a great international organisation. But one man, well he was a young boy, living in a village where he’d practically never seen big buildings or much water, he said he couldn’t make anything of it – it just looked like lines. He was a student, and he put it on his desk. He used to look at it and it stayed there while he studied. He said, “One day, suddenly, it came alive and I saw it was water, and a ship on the water and a bridge.” He didn’t know what the two flaps were, but he guessed what they must be.
When we know the basic plan then, although there may be many details missing, we can reconstruct in our mind exactly and fill in and we don’t become confused. In 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’re expected to remember that and apply it. For instance, it’s 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. 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. I’ll read two verses from the second chapter, which deal with the first element, the indifference to the opposites.
“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 pain are the same, he is fit for immortality.” These are successive verses: one is endure them bravely and then, he whom they don’t afflict, he is fit for immortality. There’s a certain lack of succession, because the first verse says you do feel them but endure them bravely, and then immediately after it’s said, 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 one’s self as an actor, an agent, and as an experiencer and of the Lord as separate from oneself and of all the beings as separate from each other. ‘Endure them bravely, these changes.’ Then he goes on to say, ‘An expert is a man of realisation – he whom these do not afflict.’ Shankara explains, ‘They do not afflict him because he’s fixed and established in the vision of the Self.’ Not a theoretical knowledge of the Self – a vision – one of his strongest words for direct experience in the vision of the Self. Then he goes on to say he’s not shaken or moved by them at all, because he has this fixed vision of the Self in which he’s affirming himself (nishtha). Then he says, ‘This one is fit for immortality.’ He says ‘liberation’, so that the vision itself is not automatically liberation. This one who has the clear and continuous vision of the Self is ready, is capable – Shankara says it’s possible for him to attain liberation. He explains that the path of Knowledge Yoga begins with this vision of the Self, and it consists in simply an affirmation or a confirming of the vision of the Self. 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.
One can say, well this is just one passage, but the thing to do is to see in how many places Shri Shankara gives right vision as the beginning of Knowledge Yoga (vijnana yoga).
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 to do action for the sake of worshipping the Lord, for the sake of pleasing the Lord. 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 actions in evenness – God is not mentioned – to do the actions in evenness without attachment to the action. Sometimes it’s said to do the action 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. This is attachment to action, not attachment to the fruit of action. Shankara discusses this in places and sometimes, as in chapter 18 verse 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 – chapter 3 verse 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, no duty. That’s expanded in the next verse: “Therefore, without attachment, ever perform the action which has to be done.” So it is just said: “The man of wisdom has nothing that has to be done.” And then immediately afterwards goes on to say: “Therefore without attachment perform the action which has to be done.” People say the Gita is contradictory, but Shankara explains this. The first one is on the level of the one who has seen, who has had a vision, of the Self; who rejoices and is satisfied himself alone, and he has nothing that he has to do. The second one is the man who still sees separation and he has things that he does have to do and he’s 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, he has nothing 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: “The ancient king Janaka sought to attain perfection by action.” Shankara explains this, he says it may be that Janaka had samyag darshana – right vision of the Self – he had right vision. Then he says he sought to attain liberation even while pursuing action – but not action for a purpose. He was pursuing it because he had previously been pursuing an action and those actions went on more or less mechanically. He was in these situations where he made promises and had responsibilities, and he discharged them, but not for any purpose of his own. He says, he was one of right vision but still not liberated, then he sought to attain perfection by pursuing action in the light of his vision of the Self. Or he said, if you take it that those ancient kings, or some of them, had not had that vision of the Self, then they performed action in order to attain purity of the mind.
This is another example, in chapter 3 verse 20, where the levels are presented one immediately after the other, and Shankara distinguishes them carefully. His Karma Yoga has the three elements and they’re based on the buddhi – which means the actual feeling, not the intellectual idea, as it’s sometimes translated – of being separate, of being an agent and of being an experiencer and of being separate from God. The Knowledge Yoga is based on the buddhi (exactly the same word, although the translator sometimes translates it as intellectual idea – but the word used is the same) – the vision, it’s a direct vision of the Self and the Jnana Yoga goes on from there.
Now meditation, Samadhi Yoga, which is the third element of Karma Yoga as given by Shankara in his first definition – this is the third element. Calm endurance of the opposites is the first, the second one is actions for the sake of worshipping God and the third one is Samadhi Yoga – those are his actual words.
On what is he to meditate? There are many lists in the poetical sections of the Gita where the Lord declares, “I am the 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 10 Arjuna specifically asks, he says, “Tell me some of these things on which meditation should be done.” Krishna doesn’t tell him to meditate, he says there are things to be meditated on and then he lists them. Shankara says, “First of all” – and he gives the Samkhya 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, the middle and the end of all beings” right on to “I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all creations.” He says these are for people who cannot yet meditate on the Self. And one thinks, “Well, 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 illustrated brilliantly in the course of the verses in chapter 10, where the teacher, Vasudeva – Krishna is his name and he is of the clan of Vrishnis – he’s teaching Arjuna, whose nickname is Dhanajaya – meaning winner of golds at archery – and who belongs to the family of the Pandavas. He gives a list in this beautiful poetry of these things to be meditated upon. He has said at the very beginning: “I am the Self, seated in the heart of all beings”.
Then he goes on, “I am the beginning, the middle and also the end of all beings; of radiances I am the resplendent sun; of the Vedas I am the Sama Veda; of the senses I am the mind; I am the intelligence in living beings; of the great rishis I am Bhrigu; of words I am the syllable OM; of offerings I am the offering of silent repetition of the mantra; of unmoving things I am the Himalayas; of weapons I am the thunderbolt”. And so he goes on: “Of purifiers I am the wind; Rama of warriors am I; of fishes I am the shark; of streams I am the Ganges; of creations I am the beginning, the middle and the end; I am all-seizing death; I am the splendour of the splendid; I am victory; of the Vrishnis I am Vasudeva; of the Pandavas I am Dhananjaya; of the saints I am Vyasa; of the great sages I am Ushanas.”
Now in this wonderful repetition; “Of purifiers I am the wind; of unmoving things I am the Himalayas; of the Vrishnis I am Vasudeva; of the Pandavas I am Dhananjaya…” And there’s no reaction at all. It’s been said by his teacher, the God, “I am you!”, but there’s no reaction at all. The poem simply goes on, “Of the great sages I am Usanas; what is the seed of all beings, that is mine.” This is an example. The Self actually doesn’t mean anything to him yet. It will, but in this passage it is shown clearly. Unfortunately the word used is Dhananjaya, so it is not so clear that this is Arjuna himself, but Shankara makes it clear. The Lord is saying, “I am you”, but he’s not able to even think of that, there’s no reaction at all. If he were British he would say, “O really?” Karma Yoga, he says, leads to a right vision and sometimes it’s said the Lord confers this directly by his grace and sometimes it springs up when there’s purification by Karma Yoga.
What would that be? He’s seeing now the true Self in all beings. One of the really great politicians of the war-time was Ernest Bevin. He’d left school when he was eleven, but he was a man of great integrity, very hard working and he made his way up through the trade union movement and finally he became Foreign Secretary. Our teacher knew him. There are one or two references to him – they’re not by name – in some of our teacher’s lectures. When Bevin made his last appearance in Parliament, the whole house, both parties, stood in silence as he came in as a tribute to him and our teacher occasionally spoke of him with great regard. Bevin had to meet the Russian Foreign Minister, Skryabin, who called himself Molotov – and our Foreign Office used to try to persuade Bevin to be more amiable to Molotov, who was by no means a very amiable man himself. But Bevin knew that Molotov had had a direct hand in the killing of at least a quarter of a million people. We know now it was much more. He was unable to be amiable with Molotov, so they said, “Smile a little, be friendly, try to understand him.” He said, “I understand him perfectly; he was a mass murderer.”
Now what would that situation be in the case of one who saw the Supreme Self in Molotov? Well, one example is given which is familiar perhaps more to people in the East. In some tropical diseases, they can go into a delirium and sometimes they can become extremely violent. They have the impression that they’re being attacked, and people who are strong or who have some technique are deputed to control them in an emergency. In those cases it can be almost like a wild beast and you can be punched in the face and kicked, and force or skill has to be used to control them. It has to be used. But the man who is doing this knows and sees within the wild beast a noble human being who is temporarily covered over by a delirium. The wild beast has to be met and has to be controlled, but it doesn’t mean that he believes that the nature of what is there is that of a wild beast. Our teacher used to give some examples: it didn’t mean to see the Lord in everyone, it didn’t mean simply to fall in with them as they were. Our teacher sometimes pointed this out. Christ was by no means always meek – he was quite capable of telling his critics that they were liars, children of the devil, because of their pride and arrogance.
So the process after realisation – Shankara says the typical case – is that he begins to retire from action. But our teacher, and Shankara in seven places, pointed out that there are cases where he is involved in action when this vision comes to him, and that he then continues in that action, but on a different basis. Shankara says that it’s impossible for the karma yogi to practise Jnana Yoga – quite impossible. He says this very strongly, for instance in chapter 10. But our teacher was a very faithful follower of Shri Shankara and therefore anything that he said about the two paths being pursued together was only tentative. We can see that the Gita itself presents the two paths together. Sometimes in verse following verse but what Shankara is saying is that to pursue the path of Jnana Yoga the person must have the vision of the Self and then it will not be for him to adopt the position of being separate from the Lord – he has seen already the true Self.
In the same way he defines Karma Yoga in chapter 12 as two elements. He says it’s samadhi on the universal Form which has been shown in chapter 11 and it’s works for the sake of the Lord. He gives two elements there; but we’re expected to fill in the third one – the patient endurance of opposites. He says this is not for those who have realised the true Self – they’re working in a different way. They are simply confirming their vision of the true Self. They’re not working in Karma Yoga and when they do works it’s on a different basis. The karma yogi is doing works to purify the mind, and as a worship of God; but the jnana yogi is doing works – he has nothing that he needs to do – for the protection of the world and to set a good example to the world.
The process by which the Karma Yoga elements are changed into the corresponding elements of one who sees the Self and who is practising Jnana Yoga in order to attain liberation – as Shri Shankara repeatedly says, the patient endurance of the opposites becomes that he is no longer afflicted by them at all. Shankara says in chapter 18 for instance that the Samkhya will not feel any pain in the Self as a result of any changes, because all changes take place in the field and he is the witness of the field. Shankara explains that impressions of the past can sometimes rise and, although they’re known to be illusory, they can affect us.
Various examples are given, but one that is familiar in the East is that a man who’s had a drug (we would say a man who’s drunk) comes in at night and he throws himself down on the bed. He feels a convulsion underneath it and thinks it’s a snake. The force of his body has killed the snake, but he’s scratched his hand in jumping up and in his intoxicated state he thinks the snake has bitten him and then he begins to feel intense pain. When the doctor is called, he sees that this is no snake-bite, but the man is intoxicated, he’s certain. He says, “I can feel the pain – it’s terrible.” The doctor doesn’t say, “Oh, nonsense!” He says, “Well we’ve got it in time, he only just grazed you. I’ll do this…” and he applies some foot ointment, or something like that. He says, “It will take time, but it will go down gradually.” Some of them take it up by stages – they say, “The pain in the whole arm, then it will clear from here, and here.” And they actually feel the pain clearing up. This is quite a well-known remedy, it been recorded in a number of books. The doctor’s action is on a different basis. His action is in accordance with the beliefs of the people of the world who are acting themselves.
The Gita says that he should perform his actions in the same way as they perform their actions. An example is given, like parents playing the kind of games with their children where you win counters. The parents play very seriously, so do the children, but the basis is entirely different. The children actually think they gaining something; they think they’re getting rich as the counters pile up, or they get very depressed as they begin to lose all their counters. The parents have the same experience and they play in the same way, but the basis is entirely different. This example is given of what is technically called lila under which the temporary limitations are taken as real for the time being and the game is enjoyed.
The last point that Shankara makes is that there’s the Karma Yoga with its three elements: to bear bravely the opposites, to perform actions for the sake of worshipping or pleasing the Lord and lastly to practise samadhi, first on the things in the world, and then there will be a flash of (our teacher used to call it God-vision sometimes) Shankara calls it seeing the Self, right vision of the Self. Then the samadhi is on the Self, and four times Shankara in his great Brihadaranyaka commentary says that this phrase, ‘As the Self alone he should meditate on Him’ contains the essence of the Upanishad. He calls it a sutra – ‘He should worship Him as the Self alone’. This is when, in chapter 13 verse 4 of the Gita, it says that these things are spoken by the great rishis in beautiful songs and they’re also established by the Brahma-sutras, which are well-reasoned and definite in meaning.
The example that’s given of a Brahma-sutra, well-reasoned and definite in meaning, is this phrase, ‘As the Self alone he should meditate on Him’. Shankara says, these words give an exact meaning, they’re not to be interpreted away or changed. This then is Shankara’s programme and if we look for it we’ll find constant references to it. Karma Yoga and the three elements which we have to remember – the brave endurance of the opposites, the performance of actions as a worship of God and then practise of samadhi on the prescribed things which the Gita and the Upanishads give. Then there’s a flash of God-vision, then that flash is affirmed by meditation on the Self and finally Shankara says there is moksha, there is peace.
As an example of comparative actions, a Japanese man – rather unusually – he completed the Zen training and then decided to become a priest. He did it as a layman. He said when he first wore the priest’s robe (and there’s a very old-fashioned wicker hat, looks like a mushroom top in a way) he used to go about in this although, even then, it was already getting old-fashioned. He said, “I thought to myself, even if this is old-fashioned, even if few people do it, I am showing that there are people in the world who give up everything – and I’ve given up everything.” He was a professor of business studies at a big, important university in Japan. “I’ve given it up completely – and this robe, without my saying anything, shows it.” But finally his teacher said ‘No. Don’t go about like that!’ and he said finally he came to understand it.
When our teacher came to this country he used to wear a turban in the Indian style – it’s quite natural. One of his pupils said that he was with her at Hampton Court and our teacher was wearing this turban. They passed a mother with her child, a little boy. The mother said as they passed, softly to the little one, “That’s a holy man.” So the boy said, “How do you know he’s a holy man.” The mother said, “Shsh. Look at his hat, that’s called a turban. It’s only holy men who wear that!”, and after that our teacher never wore a turban.
Well, he said that action and behaviour are on an entirely different basis. He gave an example: we think, “How can a man who has nothing and does nothing do any good to the world?” He said his teacher’s teacher, Swami Krishnandaji, was walking in the Himalayas and he saw some pilgrims who were destitute, they had no food. He suggested to a monk to set up little stations for the pilgrims and the monk, on that one phrase, devoted his whole life to do that. In the next 40 or 50 years these stations were set up along the pilgrim routes.
In another example our teacher told us once (several times he refers in his lectures to it – but a full account was only once) that he saw a great waterfall in Kashmir. He generally says, “The thought occurred to me that if that force were harnessed it could make electricity for all the villages.” But in actual fact he said this to the chief engineer of Kashmir state. The chief engineer was taken with the idea and succeeded in getting the Maharaja to put up the capital. The hydro-electric station was built and the rush, the tumult, of the water was turned into the little twinkling lights in the villages. Our teacher said this is an example of transformation of the force of the inner activity, passions, ambitions and fears into these twinkling lights.