Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3: The Action

Chapter 3: The Action

In chapter 2, Shri Krishna explained that the ultimate spiritual goal is the elimination of our desires. And later, he spoke about the knowledge of the eternal essence.

Chapter 3- Karmayoga

What is karma in Geeta? Which Yoga is described in Bhagavad Gita

In chapter 3, he provides the technique of karmayoga, a selfless action, which is the first step that all of us have to take in order to begin the process of elimination of our desires. Arjun is still in a confused mind. He has not yet had time to reflect on Shri Krishnaji’s teaching. Chapter 3 begins with a question from Arjun that if knowledge is superior to action, why fight at all? He is still trying to get out of taking the action of war. Arjun, being a military man, one who is trained in issuing and receiving terse orders in battlefield, needed clear and simple instructions. Shri Krishna tells him that there are two paths:

  • The yoga of action.
  • The yoga of knowledge. 

Arjun asked Shri Krishna to reveal what was the most appropriate for him at this point in time. Shri Krishna warned Arjun that he cannot run away from actions that he had already started, or change the course of action. Everything in nature or “prakriti” act continuously. Our bodies are continually changing, even rocks are changing geologically. Nature does not stay actionless.

What are the three Gunas in the Bhagavad Gita? 

Krishna says nature or prakriti is made of 3 gunas, which are energies or forces that make up the entire universe. These 3 energies are:

  • Rajas, which causes movement
  • Tamas, which causes inertia
  • Sattva, maintains harmony between movement & inertia.

And we are continuously compelled to work with forces of nature. Shri Krishna issues a strong warning to anyone who thinks that they can advance on the spiritual path through extreme fasting or repression. Repression of action will not lead to elimination of desires e.g. an alcoholic will avoid having alcohol at home, but that doesn’t stop his desire to consume alcohol. So We have to find a way to eliminate desires While we are performing actions. That technique is karma yoga. Shri Krishna says that we should not give up actions – instead, we should give up attachment, with two weapons:  

  1. Discrimination or “viveka”, by being always aware and alert about our thoughts and emotions & remember that material objects are temporary and are not the true sources of happiness.
  2. Dispassion or “vairagya”. If we constantly practice discrimination, dispassion will happen automatically. Objects, people and situations will begin to lose their hold on us. Dispassion will prevent our energy from rushing out into the world of material objects through our senses. Once the mind has gained back control over the senses, then the energy that once rushed out through our senses can be channelled into performing karmayoga.  

Type of actions-

There are 2 types of action:

  1. Niyatam, or prescribed actions done because of duty eg  serving one’s parents, family, and nation
  2. Nishiddha, or forbidden ones, e.g. killing another being, stealing, cheating

Shri Krishna urges Arjuna to perform niyatam or prescribed actions, but without any trace of attachment to the result of the action. Shri Krishna reiterates that one should never resort to inaction. Without action, we cannot even look after our body. We have to act to keep it fit, which is necessary for even our spiritual journey. 

So far, Shri Krishna spoke about

  • why performing action is essential,
  • what kind of action to perform

What according to Krishna is the proper mode of human action? 

How to perform actions. This is the essence of karmayoga. Shri Krishna said perform actions with selfless dedication a higher deity, and all your material needs will be provided for automatically. It is a universal law. In essence, if we serve a higher ideal, that higher ideal will serve us.(this can mean the elders, superiors at work). He urges us to act in a spirit of harmony and cooperation with others whenever we undertake any action for mutual good. This is the essence of team work. Shri Krishna reminds us to not treat any individual, plant or animal with disrespect, since they are collectively serving us in some way or another. This is our ecosystem, as we now know.

What is the difference between selfish and selfless? 

Now Shri Krishna gives two levels of action that a person can operate under:

  • 1st: selfish action, vision is very narrow and limited.
  • 2nd: selfless action; His vision is broad : he is always thinking about how to act such that his family will benefit, his employer will benefit, his nation will benefit etc.

This individual, keeping sight of the higher ideal at all times, ensures that others are taken care of before taking care of him. Shri Krishna says that by working in this highest level of action, such “wise individuals” are “liberated from all sins”. So the message here is that if people come together to work towards a higher ideal, it is a guarantee that their efforts will be successful.

Meaning of Yajna in Geeta 

Shri krishna explains that karmayoga is a means, a technique, to realize the eternal essence, because the eternal essence created the rules of the universe. Only through acting in the spirit of yajna, selfless action for a higher ideal, will we move forward on the path to realizing the eternal essence. He says that yajna is a “system of evolution”. This means, it is a method to move from a lower plane of existence to a higher plane of existence. Shri Krishna explains that humans, being the only species capable of rational analysis and thinking, have a choice:

  1. To remain at the current state and give in to their lower nature, with selfish, transient desires, which leads to guilt, fear, anger, hatred. or
  2. Evolve into a higher state of existence, who has identified the higher ideal & works selflessly.

What is happiness by Krishna? 

If we examine ourselves, we realize that we derive pleasure and satisfaction from external sources: material objects, people, relationships and so on.  But, in reality, the source of happiness is the absence of desires experienced when we finally attain a material object. The wise person will understand that it’s the absence of desires that has made him happy. Shri Krishna urges us to practice karmayoga, and set an example. This is an important leadership lesson. He tells Arjuna, that by his actions, he will set an example. Shri Krishna now spoke about himself as an example of an ideal karma yogi. He, himself, had attained a state of supreme independence where he no longer needed to act; yet, he continued to act joyfully in the service of humanity. Shri Krishna urged Arjuna to always perform action and not give in to the tendency of the human body to become lazy. If  not for Arjuna’s own sake, at least for the sake of others who considered him as a role model. And similarly, he urges us also to become role models by continually performing selfless actions, with complete attention and alertness. Here, he says that if he stopped acting, all people who look up to him would be ruined and destroyed. Therefore any task, no matter how insignificant or unpleasant, should be performed selflessly and mindfully. He advises us to act diligently, and let others act to the best of their ability, and not to unsettle them in any way.

Three forces 

According to Geeta all matter or prakriti is made up of combinations of three essential forces, called Gunas:

  • an inert force(tamas)
  • an active force(rajas )
  • a harmonizing force(sattva)

Every action that we perform is in reality performed by prakriti that is comprised of the 3 gunas. We are the eternal essence that is everlasting and all-pervading. Prakriti (also called maya) is further subdivided into the following 24 components:

  • 5 elements : space, air, fire, water, earth
  • 5 mediums : sound, touch, form, taste, smell
  • 5 sense organs : ear, skin, eye, tongue, nose
  • 5 organs of actions : speech, grasp, movement, generation, excretion
  • 4 internal organs : mind, intellect, memory, ego

Prakriti, nature, comprising of the three Gunas, (forces of nature) with their respective functions, are continually working. We have to do our selfless actions, and watch without attachment. This will get rid of our negative emotions, or thinking of the past, which drain our mental energy, take attention away from the present moment, which diminishes our efficiency. So therefore, a true karma yogi always lives in the present moment and gives complete and undivided attention to the task at hand, no matter what kind of task it is. If we are bound to actions and objects, we will never be able to realize the eternal essence, which is the ultimate goal prescribed by the Gita. 

Why does even the most well-read and educated person find it difficult to practice karmayoga? 

This is because we have inbuilt tendencies that compel us to act against our will.  All beings (plants, animals and humans) are born with an innate set of traits or tendencies. In humans, these traits are manifested in the body, mind and intellect. These traits are a product of our desires. These tendencies reside in our senses: the eyes, ears, skin, tongue and nose. We can overcome the negative tendencies using our intellect to guide us, and by continually reminding ourself of the higher ideal we have set for ourselves in karmayoga. Shri Krishna advises us to focus on our duty or svadharma in life & not get distracted by lesser ideals. Likes and dislikes are transient and pass, without affecting us. These can be controlled by the mind. But once it sets into or mind, they become dangerous desires, leading to anger. Desires conceal our wisdom. Our wisdom, or ability to discriminate, resides in our intellect. 

What does the Bhagavad Gita say about desire? 

Shri Krishna gives three types of desires by analogy:

  1. Tamasic desires, which are deep within us, totally cover the wisdom just like a womb covers a foetus. And just like there is no other way to see the foetus other than to wait for its birth, the only way to get rid of tamasic desires is to alcoholism or drug use.
  2. Rajasic desires are transient usually motivated by greed. e.g. buying the latest gadget, boasting to friends.
  3. Sattvic desires are those that cover our wisdom very lightly e.g. attend a Satsang.

Our wisdom shines the brightest through saatvic desires. Through our journey of life, we should turn our tamasic desires to sattvic. So therefore, having convinced Arjuna that desire and anger lie in him and not within someone else, he proceeds to reveal their location to Arjuna. He purposely uses the language of war so that Arjuna will respond with rapt attention. The enemy, in the form of desire has three residences:

  1. the senses
  2. the mind
  3. the intellect

The most dangerous place for a desire to reside is the intellect, because, here we take decisions based on analysis and rationality. If we begin to justify and rationalize our loves and hates, it means that the desire has penetrated into our intellect. Shri Krishna now provides a method of taming desire. He advises Arjuna to first control desire at the level of the senses, before it gets into the intellect e.g. learn to control anger at level of the tongue by not speaking any harsh words towards that person. The simplest technique is to take a few breaths and just focus attention on the inhaling and exhaling. This will immediately stop all mental “chatter”. Shri Krishna goes further to give us levels of awareness. 

  1. The body is the most tangible, aspect of prakriti.
  2. After the body are the senses.
  3. Then the mind, which generates reactions in the form of emotions and thoughts, but lacks decision making power.
  4. Then comes the intellect, which can analyze and understand the thoughts generated by the mind. The intellect has the power to control the mind, the senses and the body.
  5. But superior to the intellect is it’s the highest possible ideal: the eternal essence itself. 

Shri Krishna advises Arjun to tackle problems from the standpoint of the eternal essence, not from the standpoint of his prakriti (body), which is not his real identity, to become a karma yogi.

Summary of chapter 3:

First, he stressed the need to convince ourselves that we have to act. We simply cannot think that we can eliminate desires by not acting. Once we have convinced that we have to act, we have to adopt the attitude of karmayoga so that further actions do not cause bondage. The attitude of karmayoga comprises five aspects of knowledge or buddhi that we need to maintain while performing any action:   

  1. Samatva Buddhi: We need remain calm but alert in all situations. Situations are transient, we should not get overly excited or agitated with each new situation. 
  2. Svadharma Buddhi : find out our passion for duty, and then deploy those desires in the service of a higher ideal.   
  3. Samarpana Buddhi : We should always dedicate all our actions to something that is higher than us. We are part of the universe & should contribute to the whole. 
  4. Asanga Buddhi : We should constantly assess whether we are attached to any material object, person, emotion, position or action. We should work with no expectation of the future, and no burden of the past. 
  5. Prasaada Buddhi : We should perform actions, without expectation of results. We should accept every result as a “prasaada”. 

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