Living Gita: 42: Introducing Karma Yoga

Continued from Previous page

eshaa te'bhihitaa saankhye buddhir yoge twimaam shrinu
buddhyaa yukto yayaa paartha karmabandham prahaasyasi // 2.39 //
nehaabhikrama-naasho'sti pratyavaayo na vidyate
swalpamapyasya dharmasya traayate mahato bhayaat // 2.40 //

What I have talked to you about so far is the wisdom of sankhya. Now listen, Arjuna, to the wisdom of yoga with which you will break through the bonds of Karma. Here there is no abhikrama-nasha, loss due to non-completion of what you began, nor is there any pratyavaya, harm in doing things differently from the prescribed way. Even a little of this dharma can save you from the great fear.


With this verse, a new section in chapter two begins. Krishna himself announces the new beginning by saying what he has spoken about so far is sakhya Yoga and what he is now going to talk about is karma yoga for which the word he uses is buddhiyoga. Buddhi yoga is a good name for karma yoga because karma yoga is about certain attitudes – buddhi – towards work, like nishkama buddhi, ishwararpana buddhi, and so on. Along wth Krishna, let’s too look back at certain important ideas that we have explored so far in our discussions.

We began the chapter with Arjuna’s vishada, his distress under the emotional hijack he suffered. Emotions hijack us in our weak moments. They are like highway men looking for any weakness in people. Or like a pack of wolves looking for the weak lamb among the herd. Eventually Arjuna surrenders to Krishna caling himself his shishya and asking Krishna to protect him – shishyaste’ham shaadhi  maam tvaam prapannam.

Krishna takes over, doing exactly what needs to be done – by lashing at him with sharp words so that he wakes up from the stupor of tamas that has over taken  him temporarily. It is truly temporary because Arjuna and tamas do not go tother. We do not find Arjuna under tamas at any other time in his life – not even in the dice hall when Yuudhishthira sank into deep tamas and intoxicated by the dice game, wagered away all his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers, himself  and his wife Draupadi, when the entire Kuru sabha fell under the pitch darkness of tamas. But now that he is under tamas, he has to be brought out of his indolence and sloth and Krishna does exactly what needs to be done under the circumstances. Krishna here behaves exactly like a brilliant surgeon who pults his scalpel exactly where it needs to be put – at the center of the malignancy within. And he does it with seeming pitilessness.

In an early scene in the movie Chak De India, the coach of the Indian National Women’s Hockey team and the newly selected players are meeting for the first time. Shahrukh Khan, who plays the coach, blows his whistle and introduces himself, “Naam Kabir Khan. Mein coach hoon.” He looks at the players and says, “Hope all of you are here.” It is at that moment that a player walks in, Preeti Sabarwal and introducing herself by her name asks if it isn’t there the registration of the women’s hockey team is going on. Kabir Khan tells her registration of the Indian National Women’s Hockey team is already over, she is very late and she should try the next year. Preeti is annoyed and argues that Kabir Khan can’t keep the captain of a state team out. Kabir asks her of which state team she is the captain and when Preeti tells him ‘Chandigarh team’ he points out this is not the Chandigarh team. Kabir Khan says categorically this is the Indian National Women’s Hockey team and there is no place in it for those who come late. Eventually Preeti is allowed to join the team only after she completes her punishment for coming late: doing ten rounds of the playground in seven minutes with her kit up. Kabir Khan exudes power here and Preeti has no choice but to obey him.

He asks the players to line up and introduce themselves and the girls do that, each announcing her name and saying from which state team she is. Every time a girl does that Kabir Khan asks her to stand away from the team and it is only when one girl announces her name and says India as her team name that she is allowed to stay in the team. The girls learn their lesson fast and one by one all of them introduce themselves by their names and saying India as their team’s name. Kabir Khan tells them he will say this only once and will not repeat it: “This team needs only those players who first play for India and then for their teammates. And after that if they have any life left in them, then for themselves” Preeti Sabarwal who has by then completed her rounds now joins the team.

When Lakshmi, the female team manager, tries to speak for Preeti saying she is a good player and recommending her, Kabir Khan curtly says: “I’ll decide who is good and who is bad.” By demonstrating his authority over even Lakshmi, Kabir makes it crystal clear who is the decision  maker here and what he wants from the players: unity and discipline. 

The short scene, slightly comical and harsh, initially creates a kind of animosity towards Kabir khan for his harshness. The players introducing themselves by taking the state from where they come is the standard practice and people coming a little late is not uncommon in India – they may have had valid reasons. Besides Preeti  is a privileged person, as a state captain. But Kabir Khan totally succeeds in sending the message he wants to send – how important unity as a team and total commitment to it are and how important discipline is to them all.  His entire future coaching of the team will be based on these values: unity as a team, commitment to the team and discipline; it is through this that he transforms a loser team to world champions. The shock treatment he gives at the very beginning registers those values indelibly in the minds of all and clearly tells all there is no place in the team for those who break any of those values.

That opening scene contributes to the team’s success and their eventual world leadership no less than anything else that happens subsequently.

Sometimes a shock treatment is necessary.

In the case of Arjuna the only way to instantly bring him to his senses is the whiplash Krishna gives him by calling him a eunuch. What Arjuna is doing is unpardonable – refusing to fight for dharma, refusing to fight adharma and for a kshatriya there is nothing more shameful because he is defined as a person who fights adharma, he has vowed to protect dharma. The word eunuch Krishna uses for him is the most insulting term, the most hurting term, in the Mahabharata culture you can use against someone like the heroic Arjuna, the greatest archer of the day and warrior who knows no fear. Krishna’s choice of the word is instant but it speaks of his brilliance.


Krishna then speaks to him from the highest standpoint, the adhyatma or spiritual standpoint, the standpoint of the highest in Indian philosophy, the standpoint of the absolute truth, the paramarthika satya. He tells Arjuna there is no death and what we call death is a myth.  Death does not end anything – anything except the body. Not even the pranas. The pranas remain with us even after death, as the books by Brian L. Weiss and similar others prove to the modern mind, as the east has always taught. The antahkarana with all its component parts remain with us – manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara, which along with prana constitutes the sukshma-sharira or the subtle body. The karmas and our vasanas remain with us, along with our primal ignorance of our nature called avidya – the karana sharira which is the cause, karana, for future births. What we call jiva or jivatma is the sukshma sharira and the karana sharira together when we are not in the body – after death – and along with the body when we are alive. Of course, also along with the soul. So what dies is only the physical body, the annamaya kosha. The atma, our true self, which is beyond all these, never dies nor is it ever born – as the Gita says:   

na jaayate mriyate vaa kadaachin naayam bhootwaa bhavitaa vaa na bhooyah ajo nityah shaashwato'yam puraano na hanyate hanyamaane shareere ll2.20 ll

“It is never born nor does it ever die; after having been, it again never ceases to be. Unborn, eternal, changeless and ancient, it is not killed when the body is killed.”

The Gita also discussses the insignificance of death by comparing it to the different stages we all pass through in llife: kaumaram or adolescence, yauvanam or death, jara or old age. Dehantara-prapti, attaining a new body, is no more than that, says the ‘Gita.

So Arjuna’s worry that Bhishma, Drona and the other people he considers his own, swajana, will be killed is misplaced. Death is no more than change of clothes – we discard used bodies and take new ones just as we discard worn out clothes and take up new ones:

vaasaamsi jeernaani yathaa vihaaya
navaani grihnaati naro'paraani
tathaa shareeraani vihaaya jeernaany
anyaani samyaati navaani dehee
ll 2.22 ll

“Just as a man throws away his worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so too the self living in the body discards worn out bodies and enters new ones.”

Krishna realizes this absolute standpoint may be too high for Arjuna and for a lot of other people, so he comes down to the dharma level, the level of social ethics. He points out that as a kshatriya it is his duty to fight adharma and establish dharma.

The kings in those days had by and large forgotten their commitment to dharma and had started following the ways of adharma. Most of them had forgotten that power is not a privilege but a responsibility and as men endowed with power their duty was to stand for the poor and the downtrodden, to protect the weak from exploitation by the powerful, it is for this purpose that kingship had come into existence – to end the matsyanyaya, the fish eat fish policy.

Minister Kanika taught Dhritarashtra that anything that a king does to grab power is justified because power justifies everything. Many other ministers taught the same to their kings and by and large there was a belief that ethics are only for show and selfishness is what they should believe in their hearts. They advised kings to be like fishermen – the word used by the epic is matsya-ghati, those who kill fish. They taught kings to be as ruthless in destroying enemies as the razor is in shaving off hair.  And they taught an enemy is whoever stands in the way of their reaching their goals, no matter what those goals are. Your son, your father, your friend, no matter who it is, if he stands in the way of your attaining your goals show no mercy to them they taught.

As a kshatriya, Krishna points out, it is Arjuna’s duty to destroy those who practice such policies and  to fight evil wherever you find it.

Krishna not only points out that it is Arjuna’s duty to destroy adharma, he also teaches the chance to fight a war for dharma is a golden opportunity provided by the samashti – the cosmos, life – to him and it is like the gates of heaven being opened wide for him. It is only fortunate kshatriyas that get such opportunities, Krishna tells him. Fighting is Arjuna’s swadharma and just a painter comes fully alive only in moments of painting, a singer only in moments of singing, a dancer only in moments of dancing, it is only in moments of battle that Arjuna fully experiences self-actualization and self-transcendence.

So fight the war for the sake of dharma and also for your own sake, that is what Krishna tells his friend from that dharma angle. It is his duty to others and it is also his duty to himself. He owes it to himself as much as he owes it to others. Therefore get up and fight, Krishna tells Arjuna.

The ancient Indian tradition of teaching is to begin at the highest level and then gradually climb down to the lower levels. We find it in the Gita itself several times and we find it in the Upanishads. Thus the Kena Upanishad begins at the highest philosophical level explaining the power behind the eyes and ears and other sense organs and organs of action, the universal power behind everything, the One Truth, the Brahman. Then the same truth is taught through a beautiful  story that tells us that the real doer behind all our actions is Brahman though we in our lack of understanding assume we do things, our successes are ours and so on.

The story says that once the gods win a great victory and they become arrogant. Then a mysterious being, a yaksha, appears before them and Indra, the lord of the gods, sends  Agni, Vayu and so on one by one to find out who it is. Questioned by the gods, instead of answering who he is, the yaksha asks them who they are. Agni says he is Agni and can burn everything to ashes and the yaksha palaces a blade of grass before him and asks him to burn it. He tries to burn it from the left, then from the right, then from the top and then from everywhere, but fails and goes back ashamed. The same way, Vayu is not able to move a blade of grass.  

Then Indra himself comes and the yaksha disappears and in his place he finds Goddess Uma Haimavati who teaches him that the victory was not of the gods but of Brahman, they should not be arrogant considering it their victory.

It is after this someone says, aupanishadam brrohi, ‘Please teach me the Upanishad.”  The poor guy has missed the whole teaching.  He is instructed to repeat the sahatarudriya, the one hundred prayers addressed to Rudra, also known as Rudrdhyahi, Rudraprahsna and by many other names. The idea is that will purify his mind and then he will then be able to understand the higher truths the Upanishad speaks of.


Following this ancient tradition, after discussing what bothers Arjuna from the standpoint of adhyatma first and then from dharma standpoint, Krishna moves on to to discuss it from the laukika stand point – the worldly or samsaric standpoint, which is the lowest. Krishna tells him if he did not fight the war and ran away from it, people, particularly his enemies, will consider him a coward, they would ridicule him and question his samarthya – competency. For a man competent to the point of being excellet in whatever he does, to the man who is the best in his chosen field, the greatest archer of the day in the world, Krishna asks, what could be more painful than people laughing at him .And then Krishna assures him he shouldn’t worry about a thing: if he loses, the heaven is his; and if he wins, the earth is.

Having discussed his problem from the adhyatmika, dharmika and laukika standpoint, Krishna tells Arjuna how to as we saw in the previous verse, fight the war:

“Treat pleasure and pain the same, so also gain and loss and victory and defeat and then engage in battle.”

Krishna assures him that fighting this way he shall not acquire sin, if that is what worries him. When you transcend the ego and act, you acquire no sin at all. Sin is only within the realm of the ego. When you go beyond sukha and duhkha, when you go beyond labha and alabha, when you go beyond jaya and ajaya, you are already beyond the ego and you incur no sins for your acts.

Krishna indicates here something that he shall discuss in much greater detail later, something that is absolutely central to the Gita: Doership is a myth, the belief that we do things is a myth. Actions happen through us, we don’t do them. “The Lord neither creates doership, nor karmas for people. He does not unite people with karma-phala either.” He does not unite people with the results of their actions. All the time it is swabhava, prakriti, that is acting.

The wise man is he, the yogi  is he, who while doing all kinds of actions like seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes knows that he does nothing at all, that the senses are moving among the sense objects. And the one who knows thus, Krishna adds elsewhere in the Gita, is the wisest of men, the true yogi, and he has already done all that a man needs to do.

This is called seeing inaction in action, akarma in karma, and if you can see that you have become like Krishna – or you have become Krishna himself since Krishna is the soul in us, our soul, the universal soul - who says he has nothing to achieve, he has already achieved all that needs to be achieved and if he keeps working, it is only for the good of the world,for lokasangraha.

Akarma is the highest philosophy of the Gita and there is nothing higher. There is no higher philosophy than the philosophy of akarma and also there is no higher secret of excellence in action than akarma.

Having indicated this, Krishna winds up the sankhya section of the chapter and moves onto what he calls buddhi yoga, which is what is commonly known as karma yoga.


Speaking about karma yoga, Krishna says what he has talked about so far is the wisdom of sankhya and he shall now speak of the wisdom of yoga with which we will break through the bonds of karma. He then adds that here there is no abhikrama-nasha, loss due to non-completion of what is begun, nor is there any pratyavaya, harm in doing things differently from the prescribed way. Even a little of this dharma can save you from the great fear.

Krishna is speaking here comparing karma yoga with karma kanda – the section of the Vedas dealing with highly complex and involved rituals that the original simple Vedic rituals eventually become. Garhapatya, a Vedic ritual and its kins anvaharya-pachana  and avahaniya, for instance, were extremely simple rituals to begin with, requiring the performer to maintain three fires at home. An educated man, a dwija, a twice-born so called because he has received a second birth through education, was supposed to maintain these fires at home once he completed his studies, went back home and became a grihastha. The fires – they could be just three lit lamps – stood for the fire or the light of knowledge and the three fires stood for commitment to the three Vedas, which at that time was all knowledge available to society. So in essence agnihotra was a constant reminder to the educated man to remain committed to knowledge – all knowledge – even though he had formally completed his studies in the gurukula – something like the modern concept of lifelong learning. Agnihotra told the man that learning never ends, just because he has completed his studies in the gurukula it does not mean he knows everything and there is nothing more to learn. In that sense agnihotra was both a reminder to remain humble and also to remain open to more learning – book learning, the learning that comes from other people, the learning that comes from his own reflections and the learning that life brings to him.

I have known a professor who used to go to the classroom with the notes her professor had given her when she was a student – notes yellowed from age. She would then look at the notes and write every word there on the chalkboard while also reading each word out aloud. Students copied them down in their notebooks, memorized them and reproduced them in the exam where all questions came from those notes and all answers were also to be found in the notes. She taught history and to her the great revolt of 1857 which we call today the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857 was still Sepoy Mutiny. She never felt the need to revise her knowledge.

Agnihotra was a reminder that this was not enough, you have to keep learning, you have to share your knowledge with others through teaching and you have to generate new knowledge. That is how you pay back your rishi rina, debt to the rishis, who gave us knowledge.

It was a simple ritual to begin with. But eventually the ritual became complicated. Similarly agnihotra was another simple ritual that every educated man performed every morning. They were rites for expiating sins committed against others with or without knowledge and asking forgiveness from existence for any offences one might have committed towards life and the world. It was a ritual that expressed love, care and reverence for nature reminding us to live in tune with nature and not exploit and harm nature. This beautiful ritual too became complicated.

Just as medicine that used to be simple but has now become so complicated that it is totally beyond the understanding of the common man, rituals became so complicated that only professional priests could do that. And professional priests added a rich vocabulary to the rituals that was not part of everyday speech, just as medical science adds new terms that only professional understand. Both the terms abhikrama-nasha and pratyavaya Krishna speaks about belong to this class of words.

Ritualists were terrified of Abhikrama-nasha, because the priests told them that if you began a ritual and did not complete it, it would not only cause the destruction of all that you did but also you would incur sin for not completing the ritual. Similarly, there are precise ways in which each ritual had to be done, and if you made any mistakes in the process, you not only lost the benefits of the ritual but also committed a sin called pratyavaya.

Krishna, a non-conformist, a rebel to the core and non-ritualist who gives new meaning to every term he uses in the  Gita, assures Arjuna that there is neither abhikrama-nasha nor pratyavaya in karma yoga. You can do karma yoga fearlessly. And you don’t need a priest to do it for you, you can do it on your own. Besides, even a little of karma yoga done delivers you from the great fear – the fear of death. Karma yoga takes you into worlds beyond death, you enter the world of apunar- bhava, you escape the helpless cycle of births and deaths.

Spirituality is simple. It is simplicity itself. We make it complicated because we are complicated.

Spirituality is being sahaja, natural as we are meant to be. Live in the now, that is spirituaity. When we do something, focus on it completely, that is spirituality. Allow the love in our heart to flow to others, that is spirituality. “My way is the way of the white cloud,” a master said – meaning, go with things, go where the wind of life takes you, that is spirituality. Don’t cling, let go, float with the current, that is spirituality. Be joyous, that is spirituality. Live consciously, that is spirituality. Accept, that is spirituality.  

Spirituality is being ordinary – not special. The urge to be special is unspiritual. No tree wants to be what it is not. It is content with what it is – that is spirituality.

Just do what you must do and do it with total attention and devotion – that is spirituality.

Reaching out to others is spirituality. Having the common good as a basic value – that is spirituality. Having daivi sampada – positive virtues – instead of asuri sampada – negativity – that is spirituality. Spirituality is living authentically and not blindly led by others. Spirituality is transforming work and life into worship. Spirituality is celebrating life – utsava bhava.  Spirituality is self mastery – not being a slave to the baser emotions in us.

An American came to Zen master Ikkyu and asked him to tell him as briefly as possible what Zen is: the master picked up a piece of paper and his brush and painted the word attention on it and handed over the paper to the American. The man looked at it, frowned and said, “Can you make it a little elaborate?” The master took the paper back and painted something more on it and gave it back to him. When the American looked at it he saw the word attention written twice. Now visibly upset, the man asked, “Master, can’t you make it a little detailed so that I can understand it?” The master took the paper back again and wrote something more on it. And the man read. ’attention, attention, attention’.

That is Zen, the very essence of spirituality.

And the Gita teaches nothing different.

Continued to Next Page  


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3354      Comments: 1

Comment Dhyana became Dhyanam in the south
and Zen in the north.
Zen basically means Dhyana or attention.

Alfredo Loarte
28-Nov-2020 16:04 PM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.