Shri Krishna’s Gita Yoga

WE HAVE used the new term GÄ«tā-Yoga here because it sums up the titles of all the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad GÄ«tā, each of which is called a yoga, such as “The Yoga of Knowledge,” “The Yoga of Action,” etc.

GÄ«tā means song, and the whole title means the song of ShrÄ« Krishna, who is referred to as the Bhagavān—the most illustrious being. ShrÄ« Krishna is regarded as the most perfect of all Teachers—so much so that he could speak about everything from the divine standpoint and with divine knowledge of the reality beyond mind, so that when saying “I” he spoke as an incarnation of the Divine Being. He is considered to have lived about 5050 years ago, and the Bhagavad GÄ«tā is regarded as a record of what he said or sang to his devoted friend and disciple Arjuna, who was in a state of despondency because he could not solve a problem of “right or wrong” in which his emotions were very much involved. The problem was whether to fight or not in a certain battle which was about to begin. Arjuna’s particular problem does not concern us now. The yoga-teaching it called forth from ShrÄ« Krishna is read and meditated upon by millions of people every day.

ShrÄ« Krishna’s teaching is more a yoga for the emotions than the mind, although he does explain the necessity for mind-control and uses the same two words—practice (abhyāsa) and uncoloredness (vairāgya) for describing the means to its attainment as Patanjali does when starting his teaching. ShrÄ« Krishna tells Arjuna that though his heart is in the right place his unhappy emotional state is due to ignorance. The first point of the Teacher’s instruction is—do not judge right and wrong from the standpoint of bodily appearances, but only from what is of value to the immortal soul, taking into account that actions, emotions, thoughts and decisions all have some effect, some tending downwards or away from self-realization and others tending upwards or toward self-realization. Downwards there is bondage and sorrow; upwards there is joy and freedom or the divine state of being, so let this first point be firmly understood at the beginning. ShrÄ« Krishna said: “You have sorrowed for those who need no sorrow, yet you speak words of wisdom. Those who know do not grieve for the living, nor for the dead.

Certainly never at any time was I not, nor you, nor these lords of men, nor shall we ever cease to be hereafter. As there is for the owner of the body childhood, youth and old age in this body, so there comes another body; the intelligent man is not confused by that. Just as a man, having cast off his worn-out clothes, obtains others which are new, so the owner of the body, having thrown away old bodies goes to new ones. Weapons do not cut him; fire does not burn him; waters do not wet him; the wind does not dry him away . . .”

This point being clear the Teacher goes on to the next. He says in verse ii 39 that what he has given is knowledge, based upon his own supersensuous experience as well as that of ancient Teachers, but now he wants Arjuna to take up something more than mere knowledge-yoga—he wants him to take up buddhi-yoga. Buddhi is wisdom, which comes from doing all things for the benefit of souls, not bodies primarily. It is buddhi or wisdom to revalue everything from that standpoint.

It is easy to see that the heart of wisdom is love for the co-souls, which Krishna calls indestructible jīvabhūtas, that is, living beings, as distinguished from temporary states and conditions, which are called bhāvas. Thus the human personalities, in all their varieties are bhāvas, or existent conditions, but the real men who are owners of the personalities are immortal beings. The lesson that the heart of wisdom is love—goodwill, brotherhood—is driven home by Shrī Krishna in his third discourse or chapter, in which he states that the interdependence of all the living beings in the world is universal, and as this is so one should co-operate heartily, not merely mentally but with love, for the very simple reason that the man who loves cannot abstain from activity. He is in a vigorous state, for love is the great energy of the soul. He is like the typical gentleman of Confucius, who was defined as never neutral, but always impartial.

The man of love looks out upon the world, and feels that he must do what he can, however small the opportunity, for the welfare of mankind. This important fact was also soon placed before Arjuna by his Teacher. After pointing out how all the living beings in the world are related to one another in service, how everywhere there is interdependence, he then declared that the man who on earth does not follow the wheel thus revolving lives in vain. Said ShrÄ« Krishna: “The man who performs actions without personal attachment reaches the ‘beyond’; therefore always do work which ought to be done, without personal attachment. Janaka and others attained perfection through work, so, having regard to the welfare of the world, it is proper for you to work.”

There is great significance in the words which have been translated “the welfare of the world.” They are loka-sangraha, loka means the inhabitants; sangraha means their holding or combining together, their living in harmony. This means love, and if there must be fighting, it is a regrettable necessity, and is to be done still with love in the heart.

It is in this activity that work and love are brought together. What is called karma-yoga thus comes into being. Mere work or karma is not yoga, but when that work is energized by love for mankind, it becomes a yoga, that is, a method for the realization of the unity of life. So karma-yoga is one branch of Krishna’s great teaching of love. The karma-yogÄ« “goes about doing good.”

And yet that karma-yoga is also devotion to God. Among Krishna’s devotees, as among those of Christ, there are two distinct kinds. There are those who admire the teacher because he was the great lover of mankind; and there are those who fall down in admiration and devotion before the greatness and goodness of the teacher, and then learn from his example and precept to spread some of his love around them, among their fellow-men. Some love man first and God afterwards; others love God first and man afterwards. The first are the karma-yogÄ«s; the second the bhakti-yogÄ«s.

God himself is depicted in the GÄ«tā as the greatest karma yogÄ«, the pattern for all who would follow that path. He says: “There is nothing in the three worlds, O Pārtha, that I ought to do, and nothing attainable unattained, yet I engage in work. Certainly if I did not always engage in work without laziness, people on all sides would follow my path. These worlds would become lost if I did not work; I would be the maker of confusion, and would ruin these creatures.” No reason can be given why he should thus work, except that he loves the world.

But let no man be discouraged in this work because he himself is small. Let not his vision of great things and devotion to great beings cause him to sink down disconsolate, thinking, “There is nothing that I can do that is big enough to be worth the doing.” Let him remember that spiritual things are not measured by quantity but their greatness consists in the purity of their motive. It is the love that counts—not the action. It is one of the greatest glories of this universe that the common and inconspicuous life of ordinary men contains a thousand daily opportunities of spiritual splendor. Says ShrÄ« Krishna: “Men reach perfection, each being engaged in his own karma. Better is one’s own dharma though inglorious, than the well-performed dharma of another. He who does the duty determined by his own state incurs no fault. By worshipping in his own karma (work) him from whom all beings come, him by whom all this is spread out, a man attains perfection.”

The words dharma and karma here require explanation. Dharma means where you stand. Each man has to some extent unfolded the flower of his possibility. He stands in a definite position, or holds definite powers of character. It is better that he should recognize his position and be content with it, true to the best he knows, than that he should try to stand in the position of another, or waste his powers in mere envious admiration. To use his powers in the kind of work he can do, upon and with the material that his past karma has provided for him in the present is not only the height of practical wisdom—it is worship of God as well. All life lived in this way is worship; ploughing and reaping, selling and buying—whatever it may be. Conventional forms of kneeling and prostration are not the sole or even the necessary constituents of worship, but every act of the karma-yogī and of the bhakti-yogī is that. The word bhakti does in fact contain more of the meaning of service than of feeling.

The Lord does not ask from his devotees great gifts. Says ShrÄ« Krishna: “When anyone offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or a little water, I accept that, which is brought with devotion by the striving soul. When you do anything, eat anything, sacrifice anything, give anything or make an effort, do it as an offering to me. Thus shall you be released from the bonds of karma, having their good and bad results, and being free and united through sannyāsa (renunciation) you will come to me. I am alike to all beings; none is disliked by me, and none is favorite; but those who worship me with devotion are in me and I also am in them. Even if a great evildoer worships me, not devoted to anything else, he must be considered good, for he has determined well. Quickly he becomes a man of dharma and attains constant peace.” 5 It is clear, then, that this yoga is a way of thinking, and acting, inspired by love, which releases a man from bondage to his own personality.

As there is community of work between God and man, so is there community of interest, and indeed, community of feeling. “All this is threaded on me,” says the Divine, “like a collection of pearls on a string.” And the reward of the path of yoga is the full realization of this unity: “At the end of many lives the man having wisdom approaches me. By devotion he understands me, according to what I really am; then, having truly known me, he enters that (state) immediately. Although always doing work, having me for goal, through my grace he obtains the eternal indestructible goal.”

The love of man for God is more than reciprocated; “He who has no dislike for any being, but is friendly and kind, without greed or egotism, the same in pleasure and pain, forgiving, always content, harmonious, self-controlled and resolute, with thought and affection intent upon me, he, my devotee, is dear to me. He from whom people are not repelled, and who does not avoid the world, free from the agitations of delight, impatience and fear, is dear to me. Those devotees who are intent upon this deathless way of life, thus declared, full of faith, with me as (their) supreme—they are above all dear to me.”

Some of the devotional verses suggest a great absence of self-reliance if they are taken out of their general context, as, for instance: “Giving up all dharmas come only to me as your refuge. Do not sorrow; I will release you from all sins.” This “I” to whom reference is so often made, is the one Self, the one life, and therefore it advocates the giving up of selfishness and taking interest in the welfare of all. There is in all this no suggestion anywhere that man should lean upon an external God, an entity. This devotion is required to the “me” which is all life, and not a portion of life in some external form, however grand. ShrÄ« Krishna speaks for that one life “equally present in all.”

The objective side of this is by no means ignored in this teaching of the importance of the soul, indeed, of all souls. While the souls bring themselves more and more into harmony through the power of love or wisdom or buddhi, certain material standards are recognized. The material side, consisting of all the bhāvas or conditions, must be brought into a state of orderliness and appropriateness called sattwa. In the teaching of this part of the subject Shrī Krishna says that everything in Nature can be classed under one of three heads—it is tāmasic, that is, material and sluggish, or rājasic, that is, active and restless, or sāttwic, orderly and harmonious. This is in agreement with both ancient and modern thought.

Modern science recognizes three properties in Nature, or three essential constituents in the objectivity of the external world. One of these is materiality, or the ability of something to occupy space and resist the intrusion of another body into the same space. The second is natural energy or force, and the third is natural law and order. There is no object to be found anywhere, be it large or small, which does not show something of all these three, as it occupies space, shows internal or external energy, and “obeys” (or operates) at least some of Nature’s laws. These three qualities of Nature were also well known to the ancient Hindus under the names of tamas, rajas and sattwa, and they held that things differed from one another according to the varied proportions of these three ultimate ingredients. Thus an object in which materiality predominated would be described as tāmasic, and one in which energy was most prominent would be spoken of as rājasic.

The same adjectives are applied very fully in the Gītā to the personalities of men. 10 In the early stages of human awakening we have the very material or tāmasic man, who is sluggish and scarcely cares to move, unless he is stirred by a strong stimulus from the outside. Next comes the man in whom rajas has developed, who is now eager for excitement and full of energy. Perhaps the bulk of people in the modern world are in this condition, or beginning to come into it. Rajas sends them forth into great activity with every kind of greed, from the lowest lust of the body to the highest forms of ambition for wealth and fame and power. Men of this kind cannot restrain themselves—to want is to act.

Thirdly come the people who recognize that there is such a thing as natural law, who realize, for example, that it does not pay to eat and drink just what they like and as much as they like, but that there are certain regulations, about kind and quantity and time, which pertain to eating and drinking, and that violation of these regulations leads to pain. In time that pain draws attention to what is wrong and the man begins to use his intelligence, first to try to thwart the pain and avert the law, but later on to understand the law, and obey. And then, in that obedience he learns that life is far richer than ever he thought it to be before, that there is in it a sweet strong rhythm unknown to the man of passion, and that alliance with the law can strengthen and enhance human life beyond all the hopes of the impassioned imagination. All good, thoughtful people are in this third stage, obedient and orderly, and they deserve the name of sāttwic people.

The disciple has to see that his material and personal life or bhāva is kept in the sāttwic condition, as regards body, emotions and thoughts. This is a great yoga undertaking. In this there is plenty to do resembling Patanjali’s first five steps. At the same time the disciple must go further than the ordinary good man; he must hold himself above all the qualities of Nature (tamas, rajas and sattwa), using the bhāva, not being immersed and lost in it. “Be thou above the three attributes of Nature, O Arjuna,” says the Teacher, “without the pairs of opposites (such as heat and cold, praise and blame, riches and poverty), always steadfast in sattwa, careless of possessions, having the (real) self.”

These laws work out in a multitude of ways in life, but there are three main principles behind them all—principles of the evolution of consciousness. They express themselves in the powers of will, love and thought, creative in the world, and self-creative in the man. There are only three things that the man must now not do. He must never cease to use his will in work. In that work he must never break the law of love. And in that work of love he must never act; without using his intelligence. These are principles—greater than all rules and regulations, because they are the living law of the true self; and not much consideration is required to see that he who follows this law must necessarily show in his practical life all the virtues that are admired by good men of every religion. Indeed, we can adopt from the Greeks the three eternal valuables—goodness, truth and beauty—and say that a man is truly a man only when he is operating these.

These teachings condense down to three practical exercises, which convert experience into soul-knowledge. ShrÄ« Krishna does not value life for its own sake, or even brotherhood for its own sake, or even love for its own sake. All actions are valuable only because they lead to knowledge of realities of the soul and the ultimate self. Regarding the aspirant’s work or living in the world as stimulating a hunger for something better, which, did he but know it, causes the awakening in himself of a deeper knowledge, and regarding all buddhi-yoga and karma-yoga as an offering on the altar of world-welfare, valuable also because they are a means of true self-education, useful to everybody, ShrÄ« Krishna says: “Better than the offering of any material object is the offering of knowledge, for all work culminates in knowledge. You should learn this by reverence, enquiry and service, and those who know and see the truth will teach you the knowledge.

By this you will see all beings without exception in the self, and thus in me. Even if you were the most wicked of evildoers, you would cross over all sin by the raft of (this) knowledge. As fire reduces fuel to ashes, so does the fire of knowledge reduce all karmas to ashes. There is indeed no purifier in the world like knowledge. He who is accomplished finds the same in the self in course of time. Having attained (this) knowledge he very soon goes to the peace of the Beyond.” The word “knowledge” (jnāna) in the GÄ«tā means always something known—high or low. “Wisdom” is buddhi, meaning the faculty of understanding the life side of the world.

This passage introduces us to a portion of the definite path of training—the equivalent of Patanjali’s practical yoga. It was not sufficient for Arjuna to have great love. If he would tread the path, he must express it in work in the form of service, and must also have an enquiring mind, so as to gain some understanding. The unbalanced character is unfit for the higher path, no matter how great the progress it may have made along one line. Three practices are prescribed; reverence, enquiry and service—in the original, pranipāta, pariprashna and sevā. The first means bowing, or respect for the Divine in all beings and events, which is the same thing as Patanjali’s Ä«shwara-pranidhāna. The second is enquiry or questioning, resembling Patanjali’s swādhyāya. The third is service, another form of practical effort, the equivalent on this path of Patanjali’s tapas. The requirements are thus the same in each school, but the order and emphasis varies.

When speaking of service, it is necessary to emphasize broad conceptions. Some would narrow it down to personal service to a particular teacher, but the whole GÄ«tā points to that brotherhood which is the doing of one’s best duty to all around, in one’s own limited sphere of circumstances and ability. The aspirant should desire the welfare of the world. This does not imply that we should merely engage ourselves with those who are in need, who are weak or poor or ignorant, and bestow our assistance upon them. That is a dangerous pastime, as it tends to a habit of superiority, and often ends in the production of a missionary spirit which is fatal to occult progress. Right association with those who are approximately one’s equals is, on the whole, the best means for rendering the greatest help to others and oneself. Life does not flow harmoniously across big gaps. The beginner does not become an expert tennis player by playing against great experts, but with those just a little better than himself, and it is not the business of the greatest expert to teach the mere beginner, just as it is not the business of the chief professor of a college to teach the infant class. A good, sensible, brotherly life, in which one does not embarrass others by making conspicuous sacrifices on their behalf, is always the best. The teaching does not ask for rājasic efforts, but a sāttwic fitting in of oneself into the social welfare.

We may see all mankind in process of evolution or self-unfoldment in seven degrees or stages, according to ShrÄ« Krishna’s teaching. In the first three stages the man’s life is energized from the personality; in the last three, from the real self. In the middle stage there is a conflict between the two, while the man is beginning to work at the three practices mentioned above.

There is one term which Shrī Krishna applies to all those who are renouncing allegiance to mere pleasures and self-satisfactions and personal attachment to the objects of the world. He calls them sannyāsīs. In the final discourse of the Gītā, the eighteenth chapter, there is a long explanation of the meaning of the term sannyāsa. It is compared with another—tyāga. Tyāga means abandoning, giving up, leaving behind, and a tyāgī is therefore one who has renounced the world, given up all possessions, and taken to the uncertain life of a religious mendicant, except perhaps that the term mendicant is not quite appropriate, since this man does not positively beg. Sannyāsa is the same thing in spirit. The sannyāsī does not necessarily give up the material things, but he gives up personal attachment to them.

There is still plenty to do for the man who is becoming more and more conscious of the life around him, and therefore less liable to merely personal interests and motives. The things that he must do are described by ShrÄ« Krishna as follows: “Acts of yajna, dāna and tapas should not be given up, but should be done without personal attachment or desire for results.” These three kinds of action which alone the sannyāsÄ« is permitted to do, and which in fact he must do, are sacrifice, gift and effort.

It is always unsatisfactory to try to translate these technical Sanskrit words into one-word equivalents in English. Sacrifice (yajna) does not mean the mere surrender of things, but it really means to make all things holy. This occurs when they are offerings. Any action done with an unselfish motive is thus holy. The sannyāsÄ« does not, however, need to make any ceremonial offerings, because he sees the one life everywhere, and all his actions are direct service of that life. In the West it is significant that “holy” is connected with “whole,” and so what is done not for selfish gain but in the interests of all is holy. Sacrifice is thus a law by which living beings are related into one great brotherhood. A very important part of the teaching of the GÄ«tā is that one should recognize, accept and like the great fact of the mutual support of all living beings, and act or live accordingly. This is called the law of sacrifice.

The sannyāsī gives freely; leaving it to the law to repay. He also consents to receive only freely, and should any one offer food or anything else for his use, he declines it if the gift is not sincere and free from any suggestion of obligation. His life is one of giving (dāna). All his powers are completely at the service of mankind. And he must strive also, by tapas, to increase those powers. There is plenty to do for the man whose life is only sacrifice, gift and effort, whether he be a wandering monk in India or a railroad magnate in the United States.

This yoga does not exclude meditation. On the contrary it recommends it, but we need not study that here as it has been so fully dealt with in our previous chapters.

In all this teaching one seems to hear the echo of the words of all the spiritual guides of mankind: “We are not interested in the outer man, but in the real man in you. Cling to the real man. That is union with yoga. Let this be a matter for frequent reflection and all else will be purified.” The practice of this meditation is essential, but only brings its effect in combination with the practice of true valuation of things in our material living—which is estimation of their value by love, their value for somebody.

This love leads on to spiritual insight which, as it combines knowing and being, can be called unification—through purification—with the ever present Divine reality.