Karma in the Gita, by Anvesh Jain
The Srimad Bhagavad-Gītā has influenced generations of thinkers, ethicists, philosophers, and political practitioners both within and beyond the borders of its genesis. Any who have wished to approach the Gita in their contact with India, including the imperial viziers of the Mughal and British courts, have found it necessary to engage with the profound ideas expressed within its pages. In the realm of political endeavour, few areas of the Gita’s holy offerings have inspired and complicated the thought of great leaders in the fashion of its third chapter, that espouses the tenets of Karma and Karma-Yoga (the Science of Action).
The central application of the Gita’s dictums on Karma is not found in some manichean divide between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Rather, the centripetal proclamation of the Gita, around which all its other wisdoms revolve, lies in that of a world “bound by action save when this action is intended as sacrifice” (BG 3.9). The Gita is a call to reform rooted intimately in the Indic tradition, shaped by the itihasic (epochal) contours of Indian history. The major tension therein is not one of diet, not one of ritual, not one of a grand dichotomy between sainthood and sin; it is of the more basic struggle of activity and engagement with worldly affairs, or a total renunciation from its ceaseless demands. The notions of Karma and Karma-Yoga as proffered by Lord Krishna in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad-Gītā attempt to provide a viable solution and a method of reconciling these tensions.
As Lord Krishna advises a distraught Arjuna to take up arms, to uphold the honour of his station and to fight with dignified valour in the oncoming Kurukshetra War, so too does the structure of Chapter 3 advise followers of the Gita’s way to vigorously pursue action in their own approach to being. Krishna early on in the chapter states that “not even for a moment [can] anyone ever remain without performing action”, due to the nature of the three primary gunas or strands (BG 3.5). He exhorts that “you must do the necessary action, for action is superior to inaction” (BG 3.8). In every instance in the hierarchy of thought and function of the Gita, conscious action is exalted above renounced inaction.
Furthermore, there is a consistent linkage in the Bhagavad-Gītā’s third chapter of the concept of action with the act of sacrifice. To make this clearer, Krishna compares Karma-Yoga to the process of creating and consuming food as sustenance for the body. To Lord Krishna, “[all] action arises from the world-ground,” and “sacrifice is born from [ritual] action” (BG 3.15; BG 3.14). He also notes that “with [sacrifice] you may sustain the deities so that the deities must sustain you”, and in doing so “you shall obtain the supreme good (shreya)” (BG 3.11). The Gita makes the compelling case that renunciation does seem like an ostensible path to salvation; certainly, it may be tempting to divest from worldly difficulties and to take sannyasa instead of subjecting oneself to the pain of substantive existence. Even then, it explains to the reader (represented by Arjuna) that “he who does not turn the rotating wheel [of action as sacrifice] lives a wicked life”, meaning that the fulfillment of one’s role in the social order through sacrificial action constitutes the only true path to divine absolution (BG 3.16). Evinced as such, the Gita mandates active engagement and participation in earthly affairs, through Karma and the sacrificial acts necessary in the proper practice of Karma-Yoga.
As the chapter unfolds, once the foundational primacy of action as a mode of virtuous behaviour has been established, the Gita progresses to the next part of the formula of the Science of Action. After addressing the question of attachment and engagement with the world, Krishna then explains the Gita’s view on attachment and non-attachment to the actual actions themselves. Here, one of the Gita’s famous lines is recited: “always perform action unattached [to] the deed to be done”, and likewise unattached to the phala (fruits) of the action itself (BG 3.19).
Moreover, the Gita contests the very idea of agency and action, and agency over action. In the world view of the Gita, only he whose “self is deluded by the ego-sense thinks: ‘I am the doer’” (BG 3.27). Instead, the discerned practitioner of yoking, mindful of Buddhi, ought to know that “actions are everywhere performed by the primary qualities (guna) of the Cosmos (prakriti)” (BG 3.27). Our action is thus guided by the essential qualities of our habitus, those known as rajas, tamas, and sattva, and so “[all] beings follow [their own] nature” (BG 3.33). The ultimate conundrum of this question of action, and the procedure of generating righteous action as understood by the Science of Action, is answered in the final pages of the chapter.
Krishna ends his discourse by refocusing the Gita’s view on the competing dynamics of societal responsibilities and adherence to one’s own natural qualities and duties. According to Him, “better is [one’s] own-law imperfectly [carried out] than another’s well performed,” tying together the concepts of Karma with Dharma, as dissected in later chapters (BG 3.35). By the end of the chapter, desire is identified as the source of waywardness and the enemy of knowledge, while the process of yoking in the way of Karma is proclaimed as the ultimate cure. In this manner, Chapter 3 of the Gita answers three questions at the heart of faith and ethics: (1) should I engage in action or non-action? (2) In what manner should I engage with the process of action? And lastly, (3) how should I know the right actions to take? The Gita advances Karma-Yoga verily as the solution.
Karma and the Mahatma
Many great thinkers of their times have sought to apply the eternal teachings of the Srimad Bhagavad-Gītā to the very particular challenges of their own eras and geographies. The most well-known of these attempts to implement the Gita to real models of political participation and resistance may be found in the commentaries of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, which were widely disseminated across the India of the British Raj. Gandhi, the Mahatma (‘Great Soul’), of course applied the numen of the Gita to his agitation against British imperial rule, and employed it in the wider construction of a modern Indian nationalism. His advocacy at the behest of the Swarajya (self-rule) movement was profoundly influenced by his understanding of the Gita. Nowhere is this more evident in his interpretation of Karma and Karmic action then as presented in his dialogue with Chapter 3 of the holy text.
To fight British despotism, Gandhi needed to first convince the downtrodden peoples of India, who had till that point suffered hundreds of years of colonial rule, that such a fight was worthwhile and indeed winnable. The project of Indian nationhood required those who might sacrifice perspiration and death in the name of breathing life to her sacred cause. The greatest threat to the Independence movement was therefore not British retaliation, but Indic renunciation and retreat from the vims of political activity. In this light, Gandhi argues that Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad-Gītā on the Science of Action or Karma-Yoga “makes absolutely clear the spirit and nature of right action and shows how true knowledge must express itself in acts of selfless service” (Gandhi 35). Action would liberate India of her indentured state through the devoutness of her people. Gandhi likens the physical body to a prison, and regards surrender to God’s Oneness and devotion to action without attachment to its fruits as the key to emancipation. The metaphor for the soul of India under the fetters of empire was not a difficult one to hypostatize.
There were many arguments for total renunciation that Gandhi had to dismantle using the teachings of the Gita. Among these was a misunderstanding that spiritual salvation could be best approached through a rigorous pursuit of bookish knowledge only. And while Jñāna-Yoga (the Science of Knowledge) constitutes a key revelation of the Gita, Gandhi saw knowledge as inutile without an operationalization of that knowledge in the service of others. Here, the deft combination of action and knowledge played its role in the building of a nation marked by its bursting vitality and a citizenry seized by their Stakhanovite determination to master destiny.
For in Gandhi’s view, “knowledge without devotion will be like a misfire”, as he turned his ire to the learned pandits who “regard it as bondage even to lift a little lota” (Gandhi 17; Gandhi 18). Likewise, the Mahatma had scarce time for mindless devotion without a sense of larger philosophical undertaking, as in the case of those soft-hearted bhaktas (devotees) who “leave the rosary only for eating, drinking and the like, never for grinding corn or nursing patients” (Gandhi 18). His critiques here engage with a central stipulation of the Gita itself, namely its concern for upholding social duty and living in moral accord with the needs of the wider society. To be an upright individual and a defender of Dharma, one ought to exercise their duty and service to the cause of humanity around them. To this end, the actionable processes and procedures of Karma-Yoga are drawn distinctly from Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad-Gītā.
Gandhi’s vision of dismantling British tyranny and constructing a free India atop its ruins stressed the necessity of non-violence as the highest pursuit of the Independence movement, and indeed of ethical inquiry itself. Though Gandhi saw “the renunciation of fruit” as the “unmistakable teaching of the Gita”, he did not take this to mean an “indifference to the result” of the action, but rather a call to remain “wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task” (Gandhi 18). In the Mahatma’s astute reading of the Srimad Bhagavad-Gītā, he instructed the Indian people that the process of achieving heavenly salvation and political liberation would be just as integral as the eventual outcome or end-state of the process itself. Peace in the realm of svarga-lok would be realized by the pursuit of ahimsa in the realm of man and his relations. In this historical regard, as in so many others, Bapu was proven again and again essentially correct.
Feuerstein, George and Feuerstein, Brenda. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. Shambhala Publications, 2011.
Gandhi, Mohandas. “The Message of the ‘Gita,’” “Discourse 1-3” in Anasaktiyoga or, The Gita According to Gandhi. 13-40.
Note: This paper was originally written for a class, and Anvesh has shared the paper with HSC for publication on our blog.