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

Chapter 7

The Universal Impulse toward Action

Chapter 3 of the Gita

(From Sunrise, February 1960)

Chairman -- There is an ancient saying: "The Path is one, but the way thereto must vary with the pilgrim." Perhaps in no other sacred writing is the beauty of this truth more clearly seen than in the Gita where Krishna, after laying a foundation of universal principles in chapter 2, instructs his pupil Arjuna in the various "ways" whereby we may arrive at truth. He doesn't limit himself to one method of discipline but, as the chapters unfold, various phases of aspiration and effort are discussed, so that by the end of the poem we are led to see that no one yoga or way should be followed to the exclusion of the others, for all are mutually complementary.

This evening we start with chapter 3, called "Devotion through the Right Performance of Action" or karma-yoga. Ray, would you like to carry on?

Ray -- The chapter opens with Arjuna still disturbed because he feels Krishna has confused his mind "with doubtful speech." In fact, he almost chides him by asking in substance: if, as you say, knowledge is superior to action, why do you insist upon my fighting my kinfolk? Among the several ways you have outlined, please "choose one method" by which I may obtain happiness.

Robert -- If we think of the "kinsmen, friends and former tutors" of the opposing army as real people, it would naturally be a "dreadful undertaking"; but when we see them as Arjuna's own lower mental and emotional characteristics which he himself is responsible for, and consider the plain of the Kurus no longer as a physical battlefield but as the plain of the soul, then Arjuna obviously has but one choice: to "resolve to fight" those elements which are hindering him.

Ray -- I agree, of course, but as I see it Arjuna had by now got himself into a deep pit of despondency, and even though a part of him knows Krishna is right and wants to follow him, still until he fully makes up his mind to face his problem it's awfully tempting to look for loopholes and contradictions, and even to blame Krishna a trifle instead of himself for his dilemma. In one way, it seems as though Arjuna has something on his side, for no sooner has Krishna urged him to action than he makes a big point of telling him that action or "the performance of works" is "inferior to mental devotion." Then he . . .

Frank -- But we found that the phrase "mental devotion" was really buddhi-yoga and that what Krishna meant was that before undertaking anything, Arjuna should try to reach toward the buddhi or "enlightened" quality of his nature, his higher intuitional self, so that all his acts and hence the making of future karma would be guided accordingly.

Ray -- Yes, I remember now. Well, Krishna answers Arjuna by saying;

in this world there are two modes of devotion: that of those who follow the Sankhya, or speculative science, which is the exercise of reason in contemplation; and that of the followers of the Yoga school, which is devotion in the performance of action.

It may be just the way this is put, but I find it rather difficult to sort out what Krishna means.

Martha -- Even though this part doesn't seem so important to me as compared to the wonderful passage which follows, I for one feel handicapped by not having a knowledge of Sanskrit so that I could look up the exact terms used where the translation seems unclear.

Chairman -- Most of us, of course, are not students of Sanskrit, but we do have available an excellent aid in Radhakrishnan's English translation of the Gita, with which he has included not only the Sanskrit text but useful commentaries, so that it is relatively simple to pick out the essential terms and apply them where helpful. We want to watch out, however, that we don't allow our discussions to become so word-conscious that we miss the flowing current of Krishna's message which is beautifully preserved in Judge's Recension. Admittedly his translation is rather free and even obscure at times, but in spirit it has remained faithful to the original.

The "two modes of devotion" referred to are jnana-yoga or "yoga through knowledge" and karma-yoga or "yoga through action" -- which latter, as said, is the name of the present chapter where the emphasis is on "action," service, works, as essential to growth. The fourth chapter, incidentally, is called Jnana-Yoga in which the pursuit of "knowledge" or jnana is viewed not only as another "way" but for certain individuals the only roadway of experience that will answer the soul's need at a particular stage in its evolution.

Now as the Gita is a yoga-scripture, naturally each chapter heading contains the word yoga in it. The term, however, is used throughout for one or another phase of spiritual endeavor, and hence does not include the lower forms of hatha-yoga whose unnatural and forced methods of developing the psychical and physical powers are not only dangerous but unworthy of the true aspirant. Moreover, as the Gita is an Upanishad, its teachings imbody the "brahma-vidya" or "knowledge of Brahman" or the Supreme, as the concluding verse of every chapter reminds us. In simple words, underneath its outer historic setting there runs the pure stream of an archaic wisdom.

But let us get on with Krishna's own words:

A man enjoyeth not freedom from action from the non-commencement of that which he hath to do; nor doth he obtain happiness from a total abandonment of action. No one ever resteth a moment inactive. Every man is involuntarily urged to act by the qualities which spring from nature. He who remains inert, restraining the senses and organs, yet pondering with his heart upon objects of sense, is called a false pietist of bewildered soul. But he who having subdued all his passions performeth with his active faculties all the duties of life, unconcerned as to their result, is to be esteemed.
Do thou perform the proper actions: action is superior to inaction. The journey of thy mortal frame cannot be accomplished by inaction. All actions performed other than as sacrifice unto God make the actor bound by action. Abandon, then, O son of Kunti, all selfish motives, and in action perform thy duty for him alone.

Jack -- It's easy to see why Mr. Judge paraphrased karma-yoga as "Devotion through the Right Performance of Action"! We probably wouldn't evolve at all unless we acted or did something. Even the kingdoms below us act just by growing and living I guess, but to discover how to act wisely -- that's a horse of a different color.

Chairman -- Certainly action is essential to all life, but with the human kingdom the element of responsibility enters in. It is how we act that is the determining factor. "No one ever resteth a moment inactive," -- akarmakrit, that is "without making karma." Even to think is an act; to love and hate and to daydream are all forms of action and make karma; the term karma includes not only the seed of every act but also its fruition, its cause as well as its effect. No, the "right performance of action" is by no means an automatic achievement.

Tom -- It's refreshing in a scripture originating in the Orient, where for so many centuries a kind of passive spirituality has been in force, to find this repeated emphasis on action. Krishna takes a neat crack too at the would-be ascetic who may indeed abstain from the ordinary worldly pleasures, yet all the while be indulging mentally in the "objects of sense." Of course, hypocrisy is not limited to the Orient! Every one of us has that battle in our own lives. The real problem is how to live and perform our life's work so that we truly act without attachment to results.

Paul -- Without attachment -- that phrase seems to sum up the situation in a nutshell. The principle is relatively simple to grasp, but it is quite another matter to totally abandon "all selfish motives." Yet that is what Krishna keeps hammering at.

Dan -- It's clear he has no sympathy for those who try to become spiritual by running away from the stress of responsibility, for he returns constantly to the theme that "action is superior to inaction" and that happiness cannot be found by abandoning life. There is one statement, however, that bothers me considerably where he says we are "involuntarily urged to act by the qualities which spring from nature." This seems to negate everything Krishna has up to now been attempting to teach. What are these qualities which spring from nature? And if they are responsible for my actions, how can I be blamed if I am stupid or selfish or even destructive?

George -- I have always pictured our experiences as flowing in upon us spontaneously, as it were, day after day, urging us to act or not to act, but that we are responsible because it is how we meet these impulses that causes us either to feel happiness and joy or to suffer the various ills that afflict human beings.

Lester -- I don't feel with Dan that we are not responsible for our acts just because we get all kinds of impulses to do this or that, even if they do originate in what Krishna calls the "qualities." My problem is how to discriminate between what comes from the higher part of me and what from below, because I know I at least am pretty dual.

Chairman -- "Every man is involuntarily urged to act by the qualities (gunas) which spring from nature (prakriti)." This one sentence represents, in my estimation, one of the great spiritual contributions of Eastern philosophy to Western thought. As most of us know, the Gita not only is loved as their sacred book of devotion by millions of Hindus, but is today studied by thousands of individuals in Europe and America who have come to see in its teachings those same ageless principles which are at the foundation of every great religion.

Let me try to create the broad picture into which the qualities or gunas fit, and perhaps we can then pull together the stray threads of our thinking. What does Krishna mean when he says the gunas are born from prakriti? I am purposely using the Sanskrit terms because the subject of the three gunas and their relation to ourselves recurs again and again in later chapters and it is well to become accustomed to them now.

When a universe issues from the seeming non-existence of Darkness into the light of activity, what happens? Instantaneously the breath of life is felt and bipolarity comes into being: spirit and matter, consciousness and bodies or, to use Krishna's terminology, Purusha, the Divine Man, manifests itself through Prakriti or the great Mother, nature. This bipolarity is not limited to the initial stages of cosmic beginnings but is reflected in every portion of the universe, as seen in the familiar pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, day and night, etc. Now from prakriti which, as said, is the vehicular side of spirit or purusha, arise the three gunas or qualities which are universally found. They are known as sattva with the characteristics of light, truth, and serenity; rajas, whose attributes are passion, driving energy, and the urge for constant activity; and tamas or heaviness, stupor, or inertia. Obviously we have to use human terms; what is sattva and called goodness and wisdom to us may seem of the quality of tamas to beings far more advanced than we, and what is the dullness of stupor to man may appear to the atoms of our bodies as having the character of divine law. The main point is that we are living and moving and participating in an ocean of qualities that surround and interpenetrate our globe, as literally as the air we breathe. There is thus an uninterrupted circulation of energy flowing to us and back to nature through these gunas, and this is one of the reasons we receive the "impulses to action," many of which we do not understand.

Dan -- But I don't like to feel I am merely a plaything of nature. I want to feel if I do anything that is decent or worthwhile that I am responsible; and if I make mistakes, then I want to pay the price myself. In other words, I can't figure the justice of being the victim of some guna, even if I were offered a full supply of sattva. I want to earn my way in life.

Chairman -- Good for you! But you could never be the victim of anything but yourself. After all you have been incarnating on earth many times and thus a part of you is far older than the few years of your present life. You realize also that you have been thinking and feeling and acting for eons, "making karma," and in so doing have set innumerable causes in motion which not only will affect you in this or future lives, but will have left their mark on the other two billion or more human beings who may at any one period be living on our planet.

Dan -- I like that idea because it gives a reason for our being here in the first place, and explains the horrible inequalities we find so prevalent.

Chairman -- Well, then, what is it in you that brought you to earth, as a human being, time and again? It wasn't your body or your brain, because these disintegrate at death. What did Krishna tell Arjuna in chapter 2 about the "indwelling spirit" within all things? Isn't there that same immortal essence in you, a Purusha-element imbedded in the core of your being, which represents your link with spirit and persists as You through the countless changes of birth and death?

Here is a key thought which may help: the gunas or qualities, even the sattva, are matter-born because they arise and spring from prakriti, the vehicle of Purusha, whereas we are born of the Spirit, our inner god one with the divine essence of the universe, and therefore no guna, whether of sattva or tamas, could influence us against our will. However, and this is the crux of our difficulty: we are, all of us, far from living consciously in the Purusha aspect of our natures, and thus are subject to the constant impingements of prakriti, and that is why we seem at times to be the unwilling victims of the gunas with their unceasing "impulses to action." But we are never the plaything of nature or of some God who out of mere fancy might decide to inflict this or that "impulse" upon us. No, each person is receiver of only that which he himself has created, for he could not attract one "impulse" or thought or idea, whether good, evil, or in between, which he had not already prepared himself to receive. It is up to us therefore to learn how wisely to meet the impact of ourselves.

Lester -- That is the part that disturbs me. Every day we get all kinds of impulses, to work at some physical or mental job, or even to do something that in a certain sense is extracurricular, beyond what is our responsibility, or we have an impulse to feel angry or hurt. We might also receive what we believe is a spiritual impulse, but by the time we have analyzed it with our brain we often end up doing the wrong thing. So the question boils down to this: how can we discriminate as to whether an impulse is from the purusha element in us or whether it arises from one of the gunas or, simply put, whether from the higher part or the lower?

Chairman -- You are asking for a formula for spiritual living, but you know as well as I that anyone who can work out such a formula in black and white will have nothing of genuine value. Let me throw another thought into the pot, and perhaps it will help us see the whole matter in a broader perspective. From the moment that our consciousness was lighted with the flame of mind -- and this was millions of years ago -- we have not only been receiving all kinds of impulses to action, but we have also been contributing our full quota of them to surrounding nature. Back and forth flow the gunas, interpenetrating the entire cosmos, including every human being who has ever lived on earth, and when we think of the innumerable times we have all been in and out of incarnation, it is no wonder that we could not possibly analyze every impulse we feel and decide instantaneously just what its origin is. Nor is it essential that we do so. In fact, we could go crazy trying it and would in the end defeat our true goal which is self-forgetfulness and a transmuting of the influence of the gunas rather than a concentration upon them through an over-concern with ourselves.

Sometimes, of course, we can immediately measure the nature of an impulse, especially if it prompts us to a course that is clearly selfish or destructive. Those negative impulses we seldom have difficulty in handling. It is the more subtle ones which masquerade at times as something beautiful or even altruistic that we must be alert against. How then can we rightly discriminate? Most of us learn the hard way, through hindsight rather than foresight; but just as a child discovers most surely after getting burned that fire is hot, so with us, progress will come as we analyze and observe both our failures and successes after the fact. That doesn't mean we shall never be able to recognize at once a true from a false impulse. Each of us has brought over from the past, in the plus and minus elements of character, a rich storehouse of experience and knowledge that we scarcely realize we have, but which we can and do tap, often unconsciously, so that we readily perceive in this or that circumstance what its essential quality is. Of course, there are borderline cases that are difficult to determine, and there are also situations that may reach beyond our present highwater mark of experience. But that is the way we grow.

We can always ask ourselves these simple questions: If we follow this or that course of action, is it solely for our benefit? Or is there a wider, more inclusive area of benefit that we could serve? If the latter, the closer will it be to the universal sattva; and, contrariwise, the wider area of harm any act would bring, the deeper into tamas is the impulse that prompted it. Obviously, many of the impulses we receive are virtually harmless or insignificant, at least outwardly, though from the standpoint of Krishna or the higher self, no action is without meaning.

Harry -- Couldn't we interpret all the impulses as coming originally from the spiritual plane, and that the trouble we get into is simply our wrong interpretation of them?

Chairman -- That is a rather broad statement, and I wouldn't want to state categorically that all our impulses come from the spiritual plane, whether of the universe or of our own constitution. After all, we know that we have many different types of energies working through us, and while essentially they do stem from their divine center, I don't think we can say that all our difficulties are merely the result of misinterpreting a spiritual impulse. The word prakriti provides the key; as said, the qualities or gunas from which these varied impulses arise are themselves not born from purusha or spirit or the divine side of being, but from the vehicular or prakriti aspect, and that is why in Hindu philosophy they are spoken of as "the fetters of the soul" and "the triple cord of bondage."

On the other hand, I think I understand what you are driving at. If you mean, doesn't the impulse to grow and to evolve spring from our divine or spiritual nature, then I go along with you one hundred percent; but I wouldn't agree that all our impulses to action come from that source.

Harry -- Thank you. That's the distinction I was looking for, and it answers my point.

Ernest -- I myself have always held to the idea that we should think of these various impulses to action as coming more from without, as it were, but that the urge to growth proceeds from the seed in the center. The usual evolutionary idea has rather strayed away from this concept in suggesting that lower forms sort of merge into one another until gradually a higher form is produced. They seem to forget that there is a divine spark that had to start the process off.

Chairman -- Thanks, Ernest. In one sense the manifold impulses to action do come from without but, as mentioned earlier, we could not receive them unless we ourselves had created the environment of character into which they are attracted. In fact, they represent nothing other than the stamina of our individual karmas built from the accumulated impact of our desires and aspirations from the past which now tend to impinge upon us as "impulses to action." We begin to see the importance of standing guard at the gateway of our every thought; yet, whatever the impulses, whether beautiful and strong, ugly and weak, as we have attracted them we have inherent within us both the strength and the wisdom to meet and handle them properly.

The impulses to think and to feel and to act do of course come from many, many levels both in nature and ourselves, but the urge to go through the great cycle of earthly travail and finally to return home to our Father as did the Prodigal Son does indeed spring from the divine seed within, the monad at the center of our being; and it is this "indwelling spirit" that is the source and origin of the whole drama of life and growth.

Before we close I should like to read the next few sentences, even though we won't have time to discuss them, as they will give us something to think about:

When in ancient times the lord of creatures had formed mankind, and at the same time appointed his worship, he spoke and said: "With this worship, pray for increase, and let it be for you Kamaduk, the cow of plenty, on which ye shall depend for the accomplishment of all your wishes. With this nourish the Gods, that the Gods may nourish you; thus mutually nourishing ye shall obtain the highest felicity. The Gods being nourished by worship with sacrifice, will grant you the enjoyment of your wishes. He who enjoyeth what hath been given unto him by them, and offereth not a portion unto them, is even as a thief."

The more we think and brood upon the inner purpose of life, the more seriously do we realize the profound necessity to perform all actions "as a sacrifice" unto the divine. If we can strive consciously, every moment of our waking lives, to "abandon all selfish motives," we shall find ourselves not only able to choose which "impulses to action" to follow and which to reject, but we shall be the recipient in ever greater measure of those quiet whisperings of intuition from the purusha element within our soul.

Chapter 8