Karma-Sannyasa Yoga

|| भगवद्गीतासारः ||

Karma-Sannyasa Yoga

(M. R. Dwarakanath)


The previous chapter was dubbed Jnana-Karma-Sannyasa Yoga whereas this chapter drops the Jnana but retains Karma and Sannyasa.  Krishna picks up Jnana in earnest in the 7th chapter. Krishna has never indicated Sannyasa to mean the life of a mendicant who retires from responsibility of family and community to lead a life of seclusion and reflection. He has been quite consistent in maintaining Sannyasa as referring to selfless sacrifice and not hankering after the fruits of one’s toils. He has also never recommended indolence. Yet, buoyed by the very mention of Sannyasa (योगसंन्यस्तकर्माणम्,) be it the ascetic order or simple renunciation, Arjuna feels comforted in the possibility of avoiding war and bloodshed; especially having to slay his kith and kin. He therefore enquires of Krishna whether Sannyasa or Karmayoga is the better option; clinging to the slimmest thread that Krishna may suggest Sannyasa.

Krishna responds that both paths are virtuous but the path of action as being superior or more distinguished. He then goes on to expound on what he meant by Sannyasa. A Sannyasi is one who neither desires nor hates; such a person free from the dualities of love and hate is freed from bondage and enjoys peace. This is the concept of a जीवन्मुक्त. One may add two other requisites to be so considered – the banishment of ego and possessiveness. If a person harbors no desires to acquire or retain possessions, hates none and has no ego then there is nothing that will cause such a person any grief and he is indeed liberated from the bondage of Samsara which is grief admixed with fleeting pleasures. This was already made clear in chapter-2, verse-71.

Krishna now integrates the notions Sankhya and Karmayoga by dispelling any notion of a separateness that one may associate with these two paths. They work together hand in glove like theory and practice. He clearly says the learned, unlike the beginners, do not entertain any divergence of results arising from these two paths. What destination is reached by one is also reached by the other. The votary who sees the two to be identical is indeed a true seer. By Sankhya one understands it to mean proper knowledge. Knowledge requires a focused mind free from distractions of day-to-day living. It is thus Sankhya comes to be associated with Sannyasa where one is primarily engaged in meditation and reflection in pursuit of knowledge. Krishna says what can be achieved by a life of seclusion can also be achieved by the path of action or Karmayoga without enduring the extreme hardships of a secluded life. Yoga is discharging one’s duties without passion, without regard to the fruits of one’s action, without ego and covetousness. Such a Yogi soon reaches Brahma. It is not at once clear what reaching Brahma means here. Is it Brahmaloka or the transcendental Brahman? In any event, the engaged Yogi having conquered his senses, pure of heart, having identified oneself with all creation, though engaged in action is not besmirched by such deeds. The knower of teachings or the Sankhyan understands that he does nothing even though engaged in all normal activities such as seeing, hearing, touching, etc. Such a Yogi may be seen as a camera or a tape recorder that passively records the happenings around without getting emotionally involved. The poet describes the attitude of such a yogi as one of detached engagement in the locomotion of life. A camera ‘sees’ desirables and undesirables with equal indifference. So too the Yogi regards the senses as merely mingling with sense objects without relish or distaste; a dispassionate, aloof observer.

Whosoever carries out work without attachment but offers all such action to the Lord as worship is not tainted by any sin just as a lotus leaf while floating in grimy water does not get tainted by dirt. This metaphor draws an important distinction between association and attachment. One may have association without getting corrupted if attachment is avoided. The Yogis too are like the lotus leaf as they engage in work for self purification and not for self gratification. The Yogis do works by engaging the senses, mind and intellect as an offering for personal purification and not for personal enjoyment. The Yogi, rooted in Karmayoga, enjoys lasting peace by foregoing transitory pleasures while the uninitiated gets bound up in worldly attachments savoring the fruits of his labor. The Yogi mentally relinquishes all activity at the feet of the Lord, neither doing works nor getting them done, resting happily in the city of nine gates. The city of nine gates is the human body which is also sometimes known as the city of eleven gates. Here, the two additional gates are the Navel and the fontanel which are closed. These gates are the locus of perception and action; they may be kept open or closed and locked up to disquieting stimuli.

Verses 5,14-15 are riddled with difficulties in interpretation. Freely translated they say: Prabhu does not create the world’s actions or their agency or associates fruits to actions. Svabhava prevails (5-14). Vibhu does not partake in the sins or merits of anyone. By ignorance enveloping knowledge people are deluded (5-15).

The difficulty lies in the interpretation of the words Prabhu, Vibhu and Svabhava. What do these words mean? All three words are derived from Bhu, to exist; the words have been used advisedly. What is the distinction between Prabhu and Vibhu? The word ‘creates’ also poses some difficulty. The richness of Sanskrit language can also become a source of ambiguity as these words can be interpreted variously. Prabhu generally means lord.  Vibhu means mighty or supreme Lord. What is the sense of Prabhu not creating agency or actions for people? Does it mean people have no agency or actions because Prabhu (god) has not created these for people; or does it mean that he is not directing or controlling people on matters of agency and actions? If one adopts the latter interpretation, then it seems to imply god has washed his hands clean of any responsibility for people’s actions; he neither commands people nor judges them with rewards or punishments. Sins and merits certainly do not affect Him. Then Svabhava means self’s nature or Prakrti in a straightforward manner. This is unfettered free will. The former interpretation strips people of all agency and action. People can no longer be held accountable for their actions – be it meritorious or sinful. This places the Karma concept in jeopardy.

Now, verse 5-14 appears on the heels of the statement that the resident of the city of 9 gates etc. Given the context, Prabhu could be applied to the Jeeva as the master of the city of 9 gates. With this interpretation, the Jeeva as a creator of agency etc. is a difficult concept to digest. Then one has to take the statement to mean Jeeva has neither agency nor actions. Jeeva then loses any free will and ability to act, which resonates with the just expressed idea that the dweller of the city of 9 gates neither does nor gets works done (5.13) The Jeeva (Vibhu) is also absolved of all sins and merits, contrary to the concept of Karma. However, if one takes Prabhu and Vibhu to mean the Karmayogi, who discharges his duties dispassionately, then the difficulties seem to disappear. He claims no agency, is detached from actions and their fruits of merit and sin. This is clearly consonant with the drift of the gita as a whole. Why does Krishna use these fancy, confusing words especially on a battle field where the mind is already agitated and is impaired to function at peak ability?

The rest of this chapter deals with what is conducive to lasting peace and the benefits accruing from following the path so set out. Those whose ignorance has been rooted out by knowledge glow radiantly like the bright sun and those whose intellect, selves, devotion and love in that (god), being cleansed of all sins by enlightenment, do not have rebirth. Such a wise person looks upon all creatures, be they scholars, cattle, elephants, dogs or the outcaste with equanimity. With equanimity they repose, even in life, in Brahman who is the equanimous to one and all. He whose intellect is stable, not befuddled, neither rejoicing in pleasurable outcomes nor getting dejected with setbacks is rooted in Brahman. The key to happiness is to redirect the mind from outward sense objects inwards to contemplate on Brahman. The pleasures born of sense objects are but fleeting and eventually cause pain; the wise therefore, do not dwell on sense pleasures. The message of the gita is one of avoiding the dual evils of desire and anger which are sources of angst and discontent. Instead turning one’s thoughts inward and contemplating on the fullness of one’s spirit and the innate blissful nature of the self attains lasting peace. Though turning inward, the wise are devoted to the welfare of all creatures. As a guide to practice, Krishna says the seers turn their attention inward by focusing the mind in the space between the eye brows and regulating their breath. Deep breathing is now well known as a relaxant and people are encouraged to take several deep breaths before contemplating on any rash actions. It helps to remove tension and better oxygenate the blood! Krishna concludes this part of his message saying that he is the supreme Lord, the receiver of all oblations, the closest friend of all creatures. Those who look upon him thus attain lasting peace.

In summary, this chapter is further elaboration of Karmayoga as renunciation of passion and not one of leading a life of a Sannyasi. Krishna says one should give up the dualities of desire and hatred, treat everyone equally as manifestations of the divine, restrain the senses from their objects of desire and be content knowing that the self is ever blissful and wanting nothing. To reach this state Krishna recommends quiet contemplation on the self with internal focus, breathing evenly and deeply, meditating on the Lord as a well wisher who bestows grace. The Lord, and not the individual, is the enjoyer of all sacrifices and austerities. This last point is to drive home the idea to stop seeking the fruits of owns effort.

॥सर्वं श्रीकृष्णार्पणमस्तु॥

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