Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman

Chapter 5

Motive for Action

Chapter 2 of the Gita, cont.
(From Sunrise, April 1959. Copyright © 1959 by Theosophical University Press.)

Chairman -- We have now arrived at the famous passage: "Let the motive for action be in the action itself, and not in the event." Lester, would you like to start reading?

Lester -- Beginning with the last paragraph on page 10, chapter II:

Let, then, the motive for action be in the action itself, and not in the event. Do not be incited to action by the hope of their reward, nor let thy life be spent in inaction. Firmly persisting in yoga, perform thy duty, and laying aside all desire for any benefit to thyself from action, make the event equal to thee, whether it be success or failure. Equal-mindedness is called yoga.

Chairman -- One moment, please, before you read further. Let's keep clearly in view that the type of yoga here referred to is that which seeks "'union" with the highest within through cultivation of the moral and spiritual qualities, and has nothing to do with the lower forms of yoga practice which attempt to "force" an unnatural development of the psychical and physical powers. We talked about this last time, but I wanted to recall it right here so we would not get sidetracked in our consideration of what follows. All right, Lester, will you continue now?

Lester -- I must say this passage has always intrigued me. It sounds easy, but when you really try it, it rather dumbfounds you. However, I'll leave it to others to do the philosophizing.

Yet the performance of works is by far inferior to mental devotion, O despiser of wealth. Seek an asylum, then, in this mental devotion, which is knowledge; for the miserable and unhappy are those whose impulse to action is found in its reward. But he who by means of yoga is mentally devoted dismisses alike successful and unsuccessful results, being beyond them; yoga is skill in the performance of actions: therefore do thou aspire to this devotion.

Ray -- Krishna always seems to teach in paradoxes. First he tells Arjuna to watch his motive and not worry about the results of his actions, and then he warns him against sinking into inaction. I especially like that part because I think there is too much emphasis on inaction, such as sitting for hours meditating, and all that sort of thing. But the next moment Krishna says that "the performance of works is by far inferior to mental devotion," following it a little later with "yoga is skill in the performance of actions." I find this all somewhat confusing. To start off with, just what does he mean by "mental devotion"?

Hazel -- I rather had the feeling that if we could be truly devoted to the higher knowledge, which is what I got out of this phrase "mental devotion," we would be prepared to undertake whatever work might be ours in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

Chairman -- I think you have caught the spirit of Krishna's statement, Hazel, at least in part. But here again we run into the difficulty of rendering into adequate English certain terms around which have grown through many centuries distinct philosophical connotations. Now "mental devotion" is the nearest Mr. Judge in his day could come to translating the Sanskrit phrase buddhi-yoga, which you will remember was used earlier in this chapter for that path of "devotion" which enjoined the development of the "intuition and higher mind." We must remember that some seventy years ago when this particular Recension into English of the Gita was published, the educated public in the West was not too familiar with Oriental philosophy. Today most colleges and universities both in America and Europe have a chair in Comparative Religion, and the philosophical terms of Hindu and Buddhist thought as well as of Persian and Greek literature are studied in comparison with. the Hebrew and Christian traditions.

Now buddhi literally means "knowledge," coming from the verb "to know," and that is why Gautama when he attained the full glory of "knowledge" under the Bo Tree was called "Buddha," the "Knower" or "Enlightened One" -- comparable with the Greek nous, which also means the "Knower." In philosophy both terms are used for the "spiritual self which is said to have not only knowledge but also discrimination, judgment and intuition. But, as you can see, it has taken me several minutes now to give even an approximate translation of one term only, so I think we can appreciate Mr. Judge's dilemma.

Buddhi-yoga is thus "knowledge suffused with devotion," spiritual understanding in contradistinction to the mental reasoning faculty; and, incidentally, the phrase "performance of works" is simply our old friend karma. So we might paraphrase this paragraph somewhat as follows: All action, which is essential to progress, must be preceded by aspiration. Seek refuge in buddhi, the higher knowledge, and then prepare for action, for miserable are those whose sole attention is focused on results. He who performs all acts with the Divine in view will not be concerned with their outcome, because the truest devotion or yoga is skill in action or the living of your daily karma.

Frank -- Hazel's remark that the higher devotion might of itself be a preparation for even the smallest of problems reminds me of the ancient Greek custom of invoking the divine blessing before starting any enterprise. Plato likewise refers to this in one of his Dialogues, where he has Critias ask Timaeus, who was the astronomer among the group, if he wouldn't tell them how the universe came into being, and man too. Before doing so, however, Socrates says he supposes Timaeus will of course "call upon the gods." And Timaeus replies that naturally all men who have any feeling for the right, before they embark on any undertaking, whether great or small, invoke the gods.

Betty -- But it has been my experience that even when your motive is of the best, things often turn out badly, and sometimes the harder you try to follow what seems right, the more the difficulties increase.

Chairman -- There is an ancient maxim that runs: "In proportion to our aspiration will be our difficulties." By the very intensity of our desire to do right and to progress we literally "call upon the gods" -- by calling upon our own inner god to cast down upon our shoulders burdens stronger than might otherwise be given us. For in direct proportion to the depth of our sincerity are we challenged to take a good straight look at ourselves. Often we shudder at what we find; but if we persist in trying to see ourselves as we truly are, we may realize we have become enamored of the husks of aspiration rather than its pure essence. If we are fortunate, sooner or later we shall be blessed with a severe jolt. It may take any one of numberless forms of so-called bad luck; but after the immediate shock of awakening is over, and we can take a long deep breath of the spirit, we shall see our affliction as a "visitation of an angel unawares," a blessing in disguise.

Do not think, however, that such "awakenings" always wear the face of trouble. The way is "strait and narrow" to be sure, and beset with trials, but along the pathway of true aspiration there is a radiance born of the courage and steadfast purpose of those who have gone ahead.

Who are we to judge what is good and what bad? And who can tell what mass of unexpended "good" karma may not be stored in the recesses of the soul. deposited there through lifetimes of earnest devotion to truth? Karma is karma -- action performed will have its corresponding reaction; it is motive only that should claim our attention, and not the event or "fruit" of action. That is the key thought here and throughout succeeding chapters. If we act with an eye to what is going to happen to me or to my family or friends, we shall obstruct by so much the natural flow of the higher law. But if we act with the purest motive we can command, we can safely leave the rest to "the gods" -- and if the results seem unjust or out of harmony, we can know they are exactly what the soul has demanded for its fuller growth.

Dan -- You make it all sound simple and even practical, but I admit when I've tried to be nonattached and not work for certain results either in my family or business relationships all kinds of unforeseen obstacles have arisen. Not always, to be sure. Sometimes wonderful things have occurred, when I least expected them. The point that bothers me is not so much the results, but the question of motive. How can we know what our real motives are?

Louise -- I suppose if we could really rid ourselves of wanting some kind of personal advantage, the end results would be for the good. But it's one thing to understand this in principle, and it's quite another matter to make it work every day!

Chairman -- You're so right. How can we know what our true motive is? No one can in detail, for our motives are so often mixed, because springing from and affected by the higher and lower portions of our nature. There is no ready-made formula for spiritual growth, but if our innermost yearning is to do the will of the Divine -- not my will, but Thine be done -- our motives in time will follow the lead from within. And just as each individual has to find out for himself what is his own "natural duty," so, each one must search within his own consciousness to discover what is, after all, the central motive of his life. One thing is certain, to the degree that we can center our devotion in the "enlightened" or buddhi quality of our nature, to that degree will our motives become purer. It is self-evident that if we live and move and have our consciousness in the spiritual self or nous, the Knower within, the force of our inner motive will shine down upon our outer thoughts and acts and our motives then will automatically reflect the dominating quality of our "devotion."

Lester -- In theory, I go along with you all the way. But how can you have non-attachment when you love what you are doing? Because when you put your whole interest in performing a duty, you almost become a part of it. Doesn't that in itself create an enigma?

Chairman -- It could indeed, if we continue to look at our problems from too short a range. In principle, it is simple and very practical if only we could have sufficient trust to view all things from the standpoint of the Supreme. In plain terms, it is a matter of inner adjustment of attitude and motive: of offering all thought, all desire, and all action on the altar of the Self, the Atman or Divine within. If we could successfully accomplish this, even for brief periods, we would find ourselves reaching a far greater understanding of what non-attachment implies, and equal-mindedness too. Naturally we cannot maintain a state of equanimity all the time, but if we have the courage to try it, we may know for a fleeting second the strength and beauty that flow in when we are free from self-concern.

These are not mere words. Try it literally sometime; if a full day is too long, then at least for an hour, particularly when you are at a low ebb with doubt and fear and mistrust thick upon you. You will be surprised at the emancipation that will come and the entirely fresh perspective you will gain. What seemed so very important to you will be seen in its true position. And what is more, you may experience a momentary but intensely real awareness that you are in truth a god in essence, housed in a temple of flesh, to be sure, but a temple of many mansions, ranging from the most material of selfish desire to the most tenuous of spiritual perception.

Robert -- One of my professors in Oriental philosophy once used the expression "the universe is your home." That was many years ago, and now science is proving it in amazing fashion. I feel there is great practical inspiration in the thought, as so often we feel ourselves confined and limited to the particular circumstances generated by our locality and environment, or even our nation. We fail to see the divine economy behind the economics, and don't realize that man and his life and destiny are as fully a part of nature as anything we can conceive, such as the electron or the cells in my brain. Surely each of us is part of the circulation of concern and compassion which pervades the entire universe, and is as much taken care of then as is the mineral or the tree or the stars. This thought kept going through my mind when you were speaking of viewing all things from the standpoint of the Supreme, seeing the divine in everything and everything in the divine.

Marie -- May I return a moment to this non-attachment question -- I don't want to seem too attached to it! But I find it very difficult to reconcile an attitude of almost cold indifference with a sincere aspiration to find truth. If you don't really love an ideal, how can you grow toward it? .

Howard -- But there's a big difference between loving an ideal and just plain acquisitiveness, which is what I think we're supposed to get rid of in trying to become non-attached.

Chairman -- All the difference in the world, but acquisitiveness takes many and varied forms, the most obvious -- desire for possessions, wealth, and power on the material plane -- being the least difficult to eliminate. It is the more subtle levels of attachment, such as wanting to dominate, mentally or emotionally; the craving for approbation, often at the cost of another's well-being; the yearning to reform others rather than oneself, particularly those you most love; and most subtle, the overweening desire to be an "angel of mercy" -- to be certain that you are Lady Bountiful, and that you are the one who does all the giving. We can name all the shades and varieties if we are honest with ourselves, all of which have to be "slain," quality by quality, if we are ever to achieve selflessness.

Wilbur -- I have had the feeling that most of our troubles are due worrying too much, and because we stay too far out on the edge or the circumference of experience, so that every time the wheel of life turns we find ourselves either riding too high or again, as the cycle revolves, we get crushed under the weight of our past thinking. I was trying to visualize this: if we could get closer to the hub of our real self, our buddhi perhaps, we might understand something of what Krishna means by non-attachment

Chairman-- That's an apt simile, Wilbur, and is precisely what this chapter is all about: if instead of staying on the circumference or peripheral edges of life and being crushed every time the wheel of experience turns, we could, as you suggest, center all our energies on the noblest we can conceive, the buddhi or christos quality of enlightenment that does indeed reside in the spiritual self, we would find ourselves tapping unguessed sources of beauty and wisdom. Far from being dull and without vision, there come flashes of pure intuition and profound insight on the road of non-attachment, which when translated into the "performance of works" may affect the entire world for good.

Maria -- That's beautiful, but I was thinking along a little different line: how impossible it is for certain types of individuals to travel the middle of the road. I refer especially to those who pour their whole heart into whatever they are doing, good or bad. Either they are up on the peaks or down in the valleys. Yet, sometimes, they are the very ones who are able to bring back from the heights a touch of grandeur -- great music, marvelous poetry, or new scientific ideas. I would like to hear something on this angle.

Chairman -- Nature spews the lukewarm out of her mouth -- she abhors the weak and the vacillating, for who but the strong of soul can meet the demands of progress? No, true non-attachment is far from the cold indifference of the would-be ascetic or the dull plodding of the mule; nor does it mean that we shouldn't throw our whole heart into the performance of action. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Krishna enjoins: to lift our eyes from the middle of the road and fix our devotion on the heights, yet keep our feet firmly on the ground of our dharma here on earth.

Always there is the paradox, and the Gita, as are all sacred writings, is full of them -- and a good thing it is too, as it stirs us to think and to try to read between the lines. In ascending the heights of thought and aspiration, we must not lose sight of our purpose and become lost in the mists of vague and futile dreaming; yet in keeping our foothold we must not become slaves of the material. What then is the secret of non-attachment? Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but render unto God that which belongs to the divine.

There is an inner duty to the soul and to the buddhi within, the Knower, that must be performed; if we become too closely involved with what we love, our family and our business, our old and loved habits of thought, and even our own progress, we shall lose perspective. What we are attached to tends to become our master and to run us, instead of our being the director of ourselves.

Ernest -- In its beautiful poetic way the Gita all through seems to be trying to get into our consciousness the oneness of our spiritual self with the great Oversoul or Universal Life. As we follow its underlying idea, we sense it is really the vast ocean of life that is working within us. It seems to me if we can read it with that concept in view, we shall get something. But if we don't, we simply will go round in circles, for our personal self will constantly be confused, wondering, "Well, how ought I to act?"

Chairman -- Excellently put, Ernest, and I feel that is just what Krishna meant. If we act from the higher self, we won't have to think how or what to do; we shall know our duty and do it.

But let us continue with the reading for another paragraph or two. Otherwise we might become so entangled in trying to analyze motive, thought, and will, and whether it is aspiration or just plain selfish desire to advance that is prompting us, that we could lose whatever equal-mindedness we have already attained!

For those who are thus united to knowledge and devoted, who have renounced all reward for their actions, meet no rebirth in this life, and go to that eternal blissful abode which is free from all disease and untouched by troubles.
When thy heart shall have worked through the snares of delusion, then thou wilt attain to high indifference as to those doctrines which are already taught or which are yet to be taught. When thy mind once liberated from the Vedas shall be fixed immovably is contemplation, then shall thou attain to devotion.

Tom -- There's a point I wanted to bring up earlier, at our last discussion in fact, and that is this repeated reference to working for the release from the bondage of earth life. In this paragraph you just who have renounced all reward for their actions will meet no rebirth, but will go to that wonderful blissful abode free from all earthly troubles. Well, I can't see that we should perform actions merely to get away from the wheel of karma or of rebirth. It seems we should live fully here and now, though of course I don't mean we should become slaves of matter, as you put it. But I keep looking for something that will show the path of the great spiritual leaders of the race: the path of compassion, rather than the path of simply working for your own salvation. It is difficult to express the thought.

Chairman -- You have touched a most important phase of the ancient traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation of saviors. There are always those who would seek salvation solely for themselves, and in the time when the Gita was being written down that was one of the dominant psychological trends. But the very fact that we have this beautiful Gita or "Song of Krishna" is in itself an act of sacrifice, for how else would this god-man have come to earth to teach except that he had refused to accept the reward for his lifetimes of searching?

What do you suppose made the Christs and the Buddhas, the Krishnas and the Zoroasters, "messengers of the gods," avataras, except that they did succeed through ages of persistence in devotion and pure action in uniting all the forces of their nature in synchrony with their divine self? To such, there is at last no need for rebirth; for, having transcended earthly karma, they have earned the "eternal blissful abode," freed from all troubles. Of those who thus attain, there will be many who will forget the sorrow of struggling mankind. But the wonder of sacrifice is seen in the few who, as Krishna, Christ, Buddha, or Apollo, refuse to claim their reward and incarnate from "age to age" at their appointed cycle, to shed the light of their hard-won wisdom on the pathway of human endeavor.

We must close now. We have spent many evenings on this one chapter, and there is still much that we have hardly touched. Perhaps next time we can conclude it, at least for this round!

Chapter 6