The Yoga of Knowledge Chapter Five of the Bhagavad Gita


The Bhagavad Gita declares the truth of the supreme Self, which manifests the universe as a magical show, and enters it as limited selves. It further declares Yoga. By Yoga, a limited self can thin out and then dissolve the magical limitations. There follows realization of its original identity with the supreme Self.

There are two paths of Yoga, as the Gita says again and again. One is the path of yogic action, for one who feels himself, vividly and actively, a limited self. `I see things, I want some of them, I do, I give, I endure, I worship God’. The second is the path of yogic knowledge. The great commentator Shankara explains that it is for one who feels vividly: `I know clearly the supreme Self; it is only a false limited self that could suffer, or desire, or act; I see unity in the apparently many things’.

The path of action corresponds to thinning out the magical veil; the path of knowledge is dissolving any last traces of it in the light of knowledge. The knowledge-path is described as worshipping God in meditation, as the Self, and it thus begins with knowledge. Shankara introduces it in his commentary to 11.21: `The knower has nothing to do with action. Then what is he to do? He is to take up the yoga of knowledge, the affirmation of knowledge (jnana-nishtha)’.

The Gita adds that the two paths are really one path, and Shankara explains this as meaning that one follows on the other. In general the path of action must come first; for most people, the actual living conviction is: `I do this, I suffer from heat and cold, God is remote’. Only when the veil has considerably thinned does he begin to feel: `It is the body and mind that act, not I; it is body that suffers heat and cold, not I; God is shining in me as the Self.

Chapter Five

All this has been set out in Chapters Two and Three, and the Lord has said in IV.3 that the highest secret of yoga has now been taught. Nevertheless he has to continue to explain it in different ways, because Arjuna has not fully accepted it. As is said at the very end, the Gita will continue till Arjuna can understand, and incorporate it into his own being.

At the beginning of the chapter Arjuna asks one of his questions, which show he has no clear idea of what he has been told. This time it is about the Two Paths. Krishna answers that for one who has not yet seen the truth, the path of action is better, meaning (says Shankara) that it is more feasible for him than the knowledge path of those who have glimpsed the Self. Even if a man of action attempted the path of knowledge, he would still feel that he was a limited body-mind self, and that to go beyond action, he must literally give up his home and live by begging. This would be no more than outer imitation of someone like the Buddha. Inside, he would be boiling with frustrated impulses and ambitions. (In historical fact most of the ancient preachers, even of the crudest materialism, were expected to practise this sort of outer austerity in order to get a following.) In the Gita view, this kind of life may properly be practised by some, but only after knowledge has been attained. Otherwise, though renouncing outwardly, he will still be attached inwardly, for instance to reputation as a great renunciate.

As a rough summary of the many passages, there can be three main renunciations:

(1) Physically giving up. action, or at any rate all actions except begging as a sort of reflex. This may have nothing to do with the internal feeling; such a man might be full of suppressed impulses to action. The car has been stopped, so to say, but the engine is still running.

(2) Karma Yoga renunciation: of personal motives, of attachment to results (`fruits’) of action, of busy attachment to action itself, of attachment to inaction. (This last may be disguised as submission to the will of God.)

In the renunciation of Karma Yoga, the yogin is still firmly held by the sense of `I do’, and convinced of the absolute reality of the world.

(3) Knowledge Yoga renunciation:

This is transcendence of the living feeling: `I am a doer, busy in a world of many real things’. Stepping out of this feeling is the renunciation of the truth-knower. Body and mind continue in illumined pined action, under the light of knowledge, but there is no feeling of `I do’.

Most of Chapter 5, especially from verse 17 to the end, describes the Yoga of Knowledge, says Shankara. The path is not a question of trying to reinforce knowledge. Once that has sprung up, it needs no effort of reinforcement. The phrases used are `steady knowledge’, `firm knowledge’, `unwavering knowledge’ and the like. The path, pursued with effort, consists in giving up trailing memory-associations which may obscure knowledge. In form it is a positive injunction. In Shankara’s words: `Knowledge Yoga (jnana-nishtha) is an intent effort to maintain the current of knowledge’. But really it is negative. An example would be an instruction to a gardener: `Keep the stream running’. That does not mean somehow pushing the water along by paddling the hands; it means, not letting dead leaves or rubbish clutter it up. The stream will run naturally if not interfered with. This is a central point in Shankara’s Gita presentation.

Shankara calls the path of knowledge jnana-nishtha, literally `taking one’s stand on knowledge’. It is no mere theoretical idea, for Shankara repeatedly calls it also samyag-darshana-nishtha, taking one’s stand on Right Vision. Or again he gives it as paramartha-darshana-nishtha, taking one’s stand on Vision of the Supreme. This knower is a Seer and his direct Vision qualifies him for the knowledge-path called jnana-nishtha. (The translation `devotion to knowledge’ may fail to make it clear that it is already attained.)

The process of jnana-yoga is mostly meditation on the supreme Self as free from all trails of obscuring cloud, which may arise from memories and past associations. Though known to be illusory, they can still have an effect. The same thing happens in life. Someone who has lived under a tyranny but is now in a very free country, can feel an irrational fear when talking to an official. The official may be seen and known to be helpful; but there is a deep-seated suspicion, arising from memories. It is known to be unreal, but yet creates an internal spasm. Special treatment may be needed to get over the unfounded fear. Similarly the yogic realization may need time to dispel unreal convictions of limited identity. The yogic current finally comes to continue in all mental states: active, withdrawn, or sleeping.     

Verses 8 and 9 are typical Knowledge texts. The meditation is a ‘ natural continuation of Knowledge in the body-mind complex, which survives till death. The natural train of knowledge need only be left alone, and not interfered with. Interference could come from pondering on memories of deceptive promises of sense-contacts, as 11.67 has warned. The text here shows that it is mainly a question of not falling back into the illusion of being a scheming doer and a keenly personal experiencer.

V.8 `I do nothing at all’-thus should the truth-knowing yogin meditate, even when seeing, hearing touching; smelling, eating, walking sleeping breathing,

V.9 Talking throwing out grasping opening and shutting his eyes-ever affirming  All that is merely the senses acting on sense-objects

It must be noticed that this is directed to a `truth-knower’, who has a sight of the Self. His Right Vision will continue of itself so long as he does not become distracted from it. As one Teacher put it: `He who has once got out of a place should not turn and smile smugly at what he has left. If he does, he may find himself back in it again’.

The Gita extends the general statement to all activities, even to fighting in the case of a warrior-king such as Krishna himself. It echoes the verses in Chapter II (which themselves echo the Katha Upanishad):

11.21 He who knows as indestructible and eternal this unborn immortal one, how could he slay, and whom could he cause to slay?

The truth-knower’s body and mind act directly under the divine impulse, which also controls the results according to the divine purpose. The mind of a Knower is to meditate all the time: `I do nothing at all’, as verse 8 says.

Verses 8 and 9 teach Knowledge Yoga. Then unexpectedly and abruptly verses 10-12 bring in a karma-yogin. This man is `performing action’ (though without attachment), whereas the truth-knower was meditating `I do nothing’. Before the direct experience of Self, a yogin still feels `I am doing this’. In his case, he has to throw away attachment to the fruits when he acts, but is not yet able to throw away the sense of `I do’. He is referred to in verses 10-12:

V.10 He who, acts without attachment casting his actions upon; Brahman evil does not touch him, any more than water a lotus-leaf.          

V.11 With body, mind and intellect and even with the mere senses, the yogins perform actions, giving up attachment in order to purify themselves.

V.12 The yogin, abandoning the fruits of action, comes to abiding peace; the one without yoga, acting from desire, is attached to the results, and so is bound.

But the very next verse speaks of him when he has truth-realization of the Self:

V.13 Mentally abandoning all actions„ he sits happily, as the lord in the nine-gated citadel of the body, neither acting , nor causing to act.

It seems deliberately confusing that the two standpoints, so completely, opposed, are put side by side, so to speak. It is typical of the Gita teaching method that the two stands (nishtha) come in consecutive verses. One has sympathy with Arjuna’s complaint: `You are confusing me’. Why doesn’t the Gita put the Karma Yoga passages neatly together in one section, and the Knowledge Yoga in a separate one? Then it could say: `When you have at last mastered this Karma Yoga, you will be ready for Knowledge Yoga’-that would be logical and clear.

Or so it seems. But in fact it is based on a wrong notion. If this were done-and it is sometimes done unconsciously by disciples-many people would consign themselves to Karma Yoga for good. Who could boast of having mastered Karma Yoga? The At Last would become Never.

The Gita teaching method seeks to prevent this. It is true that the two standpoints are opposed, but the point is, that this opposition is an illusion. It is strong, `hard to get over’ as the Lord says. But it is not a solid fact. A long-held illusion normally takes a good time to dispel; but it can also drop away in an instant, just because it is only an illusion. It has no solid basis.

Still, an illusion may be persistent. Most people have to make a number of tries before they can comfortably handle a snake, even though they know this one is not venomous. There are however a few, equally repelled at first. who suddenly manage to drop their aversion. With most of us, it fades away only gradually. The Gita states twice that the change may be quick, though not necessarily correspondingly easy. Some Teachers believe it is a question of courage.

Under verse 12 Shankara sets out the programme of the two paths:

(1) karma-yoga samadhi, on renouncing action by not seeking its fruit, then

(2) purity of essence, leading to

(3) attainment of Knowledge (jnana), then (4) renunciation of actions, and

(5) steadying Knowledge (jnana-nishtha), and lastly

(6) moksha, freedom.

He repeats this programme often, sometimes shortening it by, for instance, putting Knowledge-renunciation and Knowledge-steadying together. He emphasizes (under verse 26) that it is the Lord’s programme, repeated by the Lord in the Gita `at every step’, constantly.

The chapter is mainly on Knowledge, and it gives some of the effects, (or lack of effects) of Knowledge:

V.18 In a learned and pious Brahmin, a cow, an elephant a dog a vagabond the sage sees the same.

This does not mean that he would not bow to the Brahmin, or would not give something to a starving beggar. He will follow his role, as an actor does in a stage play. Outwardly he conforms to the distinctions, but inwardly he sees them all as members of the company.

The chapter develops the brief phrase in 11.55: `content in the Self by the Self alone’:

V.21       When his self is not attached to outer contacts, and he finds happiness in the self, when he is set firm in Yoga, he attains imperishable bliss.

V.24 He who finds his happiness within, his jay within, and so also his light within, that yogin becomes Brahman, and goes to Brahman-nirvana.

The nouns in these passages are strong: sukha is the ordinary word for happiness, and words like rati (joy) are from the root ram which has a sense of positive delight, with a nuance of sport, like the English `disporting oneself’. It is more than mere cessation of suffering.

V.25 Brahman-nirvana is attained by seers whose sins have been destroyed doubts cut away, senses controlled, and who delight in the welfare of all beings.

Brahman-nirvana is explained by Shankara as freedom absolute, and the seers of the verse are men of Right Vision (samyag-darshin).

Verse 25 speaks of delighting in the welfare of all beings, a phrase that comes twice in the Gita text. It is echoed in XVIII.45 on Karma Yoga, where it speaks of delighting in the dharmic exercise of innate qualities. In Knowledge Yoga, it will refer to that same action, but under divine impulses, without the feeling of `I do’.

The next few verses of the chapter sum up Knowledge Yoga,. which follows the purification effected by Karma Yoga. Jnana-yoga is in fact the last three steps of the whole path. Shankara sets them out here, as he did under V.12. They are:

(1) Attainment of Knowledge (Jnana-prapti),

(2) Steadying Right Vision (samyag-darshana-nishtha),

(3) Renunciation of actions (sannyasa).

We see that Jnana-nishtha of V.12 is here given as samyag-darshana-nishtha, showing that the Knowledge is not theoretical, but direct experience of Right Vision. For those qualified for it, Knowledge Yoga is the short course, the direct path to freedom absolute.

There is a warning (22 and 23) about anger and desire. As long as life lasts, traces of these may appear in the mind of even a Knower. The Gita repeats this several times, for instance in 111.39-41. It happens even though they are known to be unreal, just as even adults can become exultant or angry over the effects of a trivial game. They know it is all unreal but still they are excited by the apparent gain or loss. This is not to say that a spiritual adult never has anything to do with things of the world, but he must know what he is doing. The Gita warns that he must not seek his pleasure in them. As many verses say, he must be able to withdraw the senses and fix attention on Self as Brahman in samadhi meditation.

Shankara stresses that knowledge in a form such as `Here I am, free’ is not yet freedom. It is a mental operation, and complete freedom entails freedom from all mental operations, as explained at length in Chapter II. Knowledge, he says, leads to freedom by way of destroying illusion. While there is knowledge as an idea, freedom is not complete. We find a hint in the examples given above. Suppose someone living under a tyranny escapes, after many dangers. For several days, such people think all the time: `Free, free’, and cannot in fact do much else. They are free, and they have also the idea of freedom. The idea itself in a way hampers their freedom. When it is fully incorporated, they do not think `I am free, free’. They simply are free, and exercise their freedom in any way they like, active or at rest.

Chapter V ends by outlining the technique of sitting meditation, to be given in further detail in Chapter VI. It has two forms: (1) realization of freedom, and (2) meditation on God for purification. (1) is described first:

V.27 Shutting out the touch of the world and with gaze fixed between the eyebrows, making the in- and out-breaths pass through the nostrils evenly,

V.28 Controlling senses, and lower and higher mind the sage, with freedom as his goal, without desire, fear or anger-who is ever thus, is free.

The turned-up gaze, and the passage of breath through both nostrils equally, are effects that happen naturally in certain meditations. They need not be deliberately attempted. Shankara gives this as samadhi-realization.

It is typical of the Gita that in the one verse there seems to be a direct contradiction: this sage `has freedom (moksha) as his goal’, but in the same verse is called `free’. Readers may feel confused, or feel that the Gita itself is confused. The answer, as so often, is to remember that in the holy philosophy the world, and its bondage, are illusory. It is easy to say this, and easy to subscribe to it; but it may be difficult to remember. `Freedom is his goal’ and `he is already free’ are not contradictory, if there is an illusion. Consider again the previous example. The man escaping from the tyranny has freedom as his goal. He passes through thick woods, and without realizing it, crosses the border which happens to be unpatrolled. He presses on, with freedom as his goal. In fact he is now free, but does not know it. He begins however to see small indications, and finally full realization comes, probably in a blinding flash.

The last verse explains (2), namely samadhi for purification: V.29. When he knows Me as the recipient of all worship and austerity, as the great lord of all the worlds, as the friend of all the beings-he goes to peace.

(2) is samadhi yoga, the third element of Karma Yoga: Shankara says here that it is the immediate cause of Right Vision. This devotee will attain steadfastness in Right Vision, and renunciation of action in the form `I do’. Then he is no more caught by the reality of the world-process and is free.


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