Karma Yoga

discourse iii

This discourse may be said to be the key to the essence of the Gita. It makes absolutely clear the spirit and the nature of right action and shows how true knowledge must express itself in acts of selfless service.

Arjuna Said:
1. If, O Janardana, thou holdest that the attitude of detachment is superior to action, then why, O Keshava, dost thou urge me to dreadful action?


2. Thou dost seem to confuse my understanding with perplexing speech; tell me, therefore, in no uncertain voice, that alone whereby I may attain salvation.

Arjuna is sore perplexed, for whilst on the one hand he is rebuked for his fainthearted¬ness, on the other he seems to be advised to refrain from action (II.49-50). But this, in reality, is not the case as the following shlokas will show.

अर्जुनउवाच |
ज्यायसीचेत्कर्मणस्तेमताबुद्धिर्जनार्दन |
तत्किंकर्मणिघोरेमांनियोजयसिकेशव || 1||
व्यामिश्रेणेववाक्येनबुद्धिंमोहयसीवमे |
तदेकंवदनिश्चित्ययेनश्रेयोऽहमाप्नुयाम् || 2||


The Lord Said:
3. I have spoken, before, O sinless one, of two attitudes in this world — the Sankhayas’, that of Jnanayoga and the Yogis’, that of karma yoga.

श्रीभगवानुवाच |
लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधानिष्ठापुराप्रोक्तामयानघ |
ज्ञानयोगेनसाङ्ख्यानांकर्मयोगेनयोगिनाम् || 3||


4. Never does man enjoy freedom from action by not undertaking action, nor does he attain that freedom by mere renunciation of action.

न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यंपुरुषोऽश्नुते |
न च संन्यसनादेवसिद्धिंसमधिगच्छति || 4||

‘Freedom from action’ is freedom from the bondage of action. This freedom is not to be gained by cessation of all activity, apart from the fact that this cessation is in the very nature of things impossible (see following shloka). How then may it be gained? The following shlokas will explain.


5. For none ever remains inactive even for a moment; for all are compelled to action by the gunas inherent in prakriti.

न हिकश्चित्क्षणमपिजातुतिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् |
कार्यतेह्यवश: कर्मसर्व: प्रकृतिजैर्गुणै: || 5||


6. He who curbs the organs of action but allows the mind to dwell on the sense objects, such a one, wholly deluded, is called a hypocrite.

कर्मेन्द्रियाणिसंयम्य य आस्तेमनसास्मरन् |
इन्द्रियार्थान्विमूढात्मामिथ्याचार: स उच्यते || 6||

The man who curbs his tongue but mentally swears at another is a hypocrite. But that does not mean that free rein should be given to the organs of action so long as the mind cannot be brought under control. Self-imposed physical restraint is a condition precedent to mental restraint. Physical restraint should be entirely self-imposed and not super-imposed from outside, e.g. by fear. The hypocrite who is held up to contempt here is not the humble aspirant after self-restraint. The shloka has reference to the man who curbs the body because he cannot help it while indulging the mind, and who would indulge the body too if he possibly could. The next shloka puts the thing conversely.

7. But he, O Arjuna, who keeping all the senses under control of the mind, engages the organs in karma yoga, without attachment, that man excels.


यस्त्विन्द्रियाणिमनसानियम्यारभतेऽर्जुन |
कर्मेन्द्रियै: कर्मयोगमसक्त: स विशिष्यते || 7||

The mind and body should be made to accord well. Even with the mind kept in control, the body will be active in one way or another. But he whose mind is truly restrained will, for instance, close his ears to foul talk and open them only to listen to the praise of God or of good men. He will have no relish for sensual pleasures and will keep himself occupied with such activity as ennobles the soul. That is the path of action. karmayoga is the yoga (means) which will deliver the self from the bondage of the body, and in it there is no room for self-indulgence.

8. Do thou thy allotted task; for action is supe¬rior to inaction; with inaction even life’s normal course is not possible.

नियतंकुरुकर्मत्वंकर्मज्यायोह्यकर्मण: |
शरीरयात्रापि च ते न प्रसिद्ध्येदकर्मण: || 8||

9. This world of men suffers bondage from all action save that which is done for the sake of sacrifice; to this end, O Kaunteya, perform action without attachment.

यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्रलोकोऽयंकर्मबन्धन: |
तदर्थंकर्मकौन्तेयमुक्तसङ्ग: समाचर || 9||

‘Action for the sake of sacrifice’ means acts of selfless service dedicated to God.


22. For me, O Partha, there is naught to do in the three worlds, nothing worth gaining that I have not gained; yet I am ever in action.

न मेपार्थास्तिकर्तव्यंत्रिषुलोकेषुकिञ्चन |
नानवाप्तमवाप्तव्यंवर्तएव च कर्मणि || 22||

An objection is sometimes raised that God being impersonal is not likely to perform any physical activity, at best He may be supposed to act mentally. This is not correct. For the unceasing movement of the sun, the moon, the earth etc. signifies God in action. This is not mental but physical activity. Though God is without form and impersonal, He acts as though He had form and body. Hence though He is ever in action, He is free from action, unaffected by action. What must be borne in mind is that, just as all Nature’s movements and processes are mechanical and yet guided by Divine Intelligence or Will, even so man must reduce his daily conduct to mechanical regularity and precision, but he must do so intelligently. Man’s merit lies in observing divine guidance at the back of these pro­cesses and in an intelligent imitation of it rather than in emphasizing the mechanical nature thereof and reducing himself to an automation. One has but to withdraw the self, withdraw attachment to fruit from all action, and then not only mechanical preci­sion but security from all wear and tear will be ensured. Acting thus man remains fresh until the end of his days. His body will perish in due course, but his soul will remain ever­green without a crease or a wrinkle.


30. Cast all thy acts on Me, with thy mind fixed on the indwelling atman, and without any thought of fruit, or sense of ‘mine’ shake off thy fever and fight!

मयिसर्वाणिकर्माणिसंन्यस्याध्यात्मचेतसा |
निराशीर्निनर्ममोभूत्वायुध्यस्वविगतज्वर: || 30||

He who knows the atman inhabiting the body and realizes Him to be a part of the supreme atman will dedicate everything to Him, even as a faithful servant acts as a mere shadow of his master and dedicates to him all that he does. For the master is the real doer, the serv­ant but the instrument.


34. Each sense has its settled likes and dislikes towards its objects; man should not come under the sway of these, for they are his besetters.

इन्द्रियस्येन्द्रियस्यार्थेरागद्वेषौव्यवस्थितौ |
तयोर्नवशमागच्छेत्तौह्यस्यपरिपन्थिनौ || 34||

Hearing, for instance, is the object of the ears which may be inclined to hear some­thing and disinclined to hear something else. Man may not allow himself to be swayed by these likes and dislikes, but must decide for himself what is conducive to his growth, his ultimate end being to reach the state beyond happiness and misery.


35. Better one’s own duty, bereft of merit, than another’s well-performed; better is death in the discharge of one’s duty; another’s duty is fraught with danger.

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मोविगुण: परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् |
स्वधर्मेनिधनंश्रेय: परधर्मोभयावह: || 35||

One man’s duty may be to serve the community by working as a sweeper, another’s may be to work as an accountant. An accountant’s work may be more inviting, but that need not draw the sweeper away from his work.

Should he allow himself to be drawn away, he would himself be lost and put the community into danger. Before God the work of man will be judged by the spirit in which it is done, not by the nature of the work which makes no difference whatsoever. Whoever acts in a spirit of dedication fits himself for salvation.


42.Subtle, they say, are the senses; subtler than the senses is the mind; subtler than the mind is the reason; but subtler even than the reason is He.

इन्द्रियाणिपराण्याहुरिन्द्रियेभ्य: परंमन: |
मनसस्तुपराबुद्धिर्योबुद्धे: परतस्तु स: || 42||

43.Thus realizing Him to be subtler than the reason, and controlling the self by the Self (atman), destroy, O Mahabahu, this enemy-Lust, so hard to overcome.

एवंबुद्धे: परंबुद्ध्वासंस्तभ्यात्मानमात्मना |
जहिशत्रुंमहाबाहोकामरूपंदुरासदम् || 43||

When man realizes Him, his mind will be under his control, not swayed by the senses. And when the mind is conquered, what power has Lust? It is indeed a subtle enemy, but when once the senses, the mind and the reason are under the control of the subtle¬most Self, Lust is extinguished.

Thus ends the third discourse entitled ‘karma Yoga’ in the converse of Lord Krishna and Arjuna, on the science of Yoga, as part of the knowledge of Brahman in the Upanishad called the Bhagavad Gita.