This chapter begins with the tone and temper with which the preceding one ended with Arjuna sorrowing and overwhelmed with grief but soon Lord Krishna takes over and begins his teachings from verse 11 onwards. He is a persuasive genius who advances various arguments based on the theory of knowledge and karmayoga. He also takes recourse to the method of assumption and denial and hits where it hurts most i.e. Arjuna’s sense of kshattriya honour. The chapter, which comprises of seventy-two verses, deals largely with the true nature of the Soul, the Sat (the Ultimate Realty) as distinguished from asat, the unreal, temporary and transitory, and also the spirit of karmayoga, action without attachment.
The chapter opens with Lord Krishna admonishing Arjuna for his unmanliness unbecoming of a warrior like him. To this Arjuna replies as to how he can even conceive of slaying Bhishma and Dronacharya, who are the most revered to him. He sees no good in enjoying the fruits of a victory, which will be stained with the blood of his kinsmen. In such a distressing state of mind, which is bewildered and unable to decide as to what is good for him, he throws himself to the refuge of Lord Krishna and prays to Him to advise about the best course of action for him. This is the perfect backdrop for Lord Krishna to give Arjuna the message of the Gita. With a smiling face, as if mocking at the ignorance of Arjuna, Lord Krishna thus begins his discourse (v.10):
Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that it is his ignorance that drives him to grief for those who should not be grieved for at all, because the learned do not grieve for the dead or the living. Establishing the everlasting character of the soul, Lord Krishna shows to Arjuna that those whose loss he fears, would never be non-existent simply by the destruction of their bodies because the soul to which boyhood, youth and old age are attributed through this body, attains another body upon the destruction of the present one. These changes from childhood to old age to death, as a matter of fact, pertain to the body that is, in any case, temporary and transitory, and wise people do not grieve for it (v.11-13).
Referring to the actual experiences of pleasure and pain brought about by the union with or separation from one’s kith and kin, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that the sensations of pleasure and pain, heat and cold, joy and grief, love and hatred etc. are caused by the contact of the sense objects with our sensory organs and mind but since they are of impermanent and transitory nature, they must be ignored. A true seeker of knowledge, who is never tormented by these fleeting experiences, alone qualifies to attain liberation (moksha) because he realizes that what is unreal has no existence and what is real never ceases to be. Things that are subject to constant change and suffer destruction are unreal. In Arjuna’s case, his apprehension over loss of the unreal caused him grief, which was not justified (v.14-16).
Expounding further the distinction between the real and the unreal Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight as all the physical bodies supposedly belonging to soul, are perishable and no one has the power to destroy the soul, the imperishable. Both sorts of people who take the soul as ‘killer’ or ‘being killed’ are ignorant. What is killed or causes to be killed is the physical body, quite distinct from the soul. The soul is neither born nor does it die. It is unborn and eternal and remains so even though the body is slain. Knowing it as such, how and by whom the soul can be killed? As a matter of fact, the eternal and unchanging soul keeps on taking new bodies just as a man shedding worn-out clothes, wears new ones (v.17-22).
Warding off the apprehension and the resultant grief of Arjuna over striking his elders with lethal weapons, Lord Krishna says that the soul is indestructible and formless so much so that weapons cannot cut it nor can fire burn it; water cannot wet it nor can wind dry it. It is also unmanifest and unthinkable in the sense that senses cannot cognize it nor the mind can conceive it. It is also immutable in the sense that it does never suffer any change. By describing it as ‘immutable’ the distinction between the soul and the prakriti, the prime cause of the physical world has been emphasized. It is the prakriti, which evolves and thus transforms itself into the physical world and comprises of the five elements, viz. water, earth, fire, wind and ether; five sense organs; the mind, intellect and ego. Sattva, rajas and tamas are the three modes (gunas) of the prakriti and can never be separated from it. That is to say, all the objects of the world are bound to contain, to a greater or lesser degree, all these gunas. Thus the mind itself being an evolute of the prakriti and cognition and thinking being mental processes, the soul can neither be conceived nor thought of by the mind (v.23-25).
Having thus established the eternal and imperishable nature of the soul, Lord Krishna tries to remove the apprehension of Arjuna by applying the method of assumption and denial. Even if it is assumed that the soul is subject to birth and death, though in reality it is not, Arjuna should not grieve for it because, in that case, death is certain for the born and rebirth is inevitable for the dead. Beings, before taking birth, belong to an unmanifest state and after death, return to that very state. It is during the interim period when they are associated with physical bodies that they become manifest to our senses. Hence, grieving for them who belong to the unmanifest is not justified (v.26-28).
The next two verses (29-30) revert to defining the nature of the soul as marvelous and eternal, though only rarely one can perceive it, describe it or hear of it as such; while there are some who do not know even after hearing of it. It pervades all bodies and, though bodies can be slain, the soul is incapable of being slain.
Now Lord Krishna tries to arouse Arjuna’s sense of honour as a kshattriya warrior who is bound by his duty (dharma) to participate in a righteous war. An unsolicited opportunity is lying before him and even then if he does not participate in this righteous war, he will not only lose his reputation but will also incur sin for shirking his duty. Nay, people will pour undying infamy upon him and infamy brought on a man enjoying popular esteem is worse than death. Great warrior-chiefs participating in this battle, who think highly of you, will now despise you, saying that it is fear that drives you away from the battle. So, Arjuna has no escape but to take the fight and if he does so, he will not be a loser because if he dies, he would go to the heaven and if he becomes victorious, he would enjoy sovereignty of the earth. Thus both ways he would be a winner. This is in reply to the state of confusion growing in Arjuna’s mind as to whether he should fight or not and as to what is the best course of action for him. Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to stand up determined to fight and he should do so in a spirit of complete equanimity treating alike victory or defeat, gain or loss, pleasure or pain etc. and fighting thus he would not incur any sin(v.31-38).
Thus far the Lord had imparted to Arjuna the theory of knowledge (jnaanayoga). Now He sets about imparting to Arjuna the theory of selfless and detached action (karmayoga) by the practice of which he will be able to throw off completely the shackles of karma. (v.39)
Explaining the discipline of karmayoga, Lord Krishna assures Arjuna that in this path there is no loss of effort, nor is there fear of any contrary result. Even a little practice of this discipline saves one from the terrible fear of birth and death. Here it needs to be explained that a contrary result is possible only when a specific result is expected to accrue from some action but when the action itself is detached from any motive, the question of a contrary result does not arise. Practice of any discipline and success therein is always gradual and so, even the humblest effort is worthwhile. In this discipline the intellect of the practitioner is determinate and directed steadfastly towards its goal, while the intellect of the ignorant wanders in several directions with innumerable aims. (v. 40-41)
The next few verses carry some disparaging remarks about those who blindly cling to the injunctions of the Vedas and extol the attainment of heaven and the luxuries attendant upon it as the supreme goal of life. They utter flowery speech recommending manifold rituals for the attainment of pleasure and power with rebirth as their fruit. Their intellect is never determinate as required for the discipline of karmayogã (42-44).
Lest a common reader may get confused with regard to the authority of the Vedas and may jump to the conclusion that the teachings of the Gita run counter to the perennial truth enshrined in the Vedas, it may be clarified here that the above remarks, scathing though they might appear, are directed merely to the excessive ritualism as found in the karmakand portion of the Vedas and have nothing to do with their jnaankand. To make this distinction more explicit, it may be clarified here that each of the Vedas is comprised of four portions. The first portion is known as samhita, which carries hymns or prayers to gods or several manifestations of God, viz. Indra, Varuna, Agni, Savita etc. The second portion known as Brahmanas carries details of rituals duly codified and sanctified and meant to invoke favours of these gods. The early Aryans were great observers of nature and they viewed its beauty with awe and wonder and were overwhelmed with a mystifying sense of exhilaration. As such they laid great emphasis on these rituals meant to seek favours from these nature gods. In course of time, Vedic priests stretched these rituals to excessive and stupendous extremes and instead of simple favours, sought for their yajmaan all the luxuries of this world and hereafter. Attainment of swarga (heaven) was doled out as the rightful reward of these elaborate rites and rituals known as yajnya. It is to these extremes of the Vedic rites and rituals that the above-mentioned remarks (v. 42-44) are directed. The third and the last portions of the Vedas are known, respectively, as Aaranyakas and Upanishads, which carry philosophical speculations aimed at the nature of the Ultimate Reality, i.e. Brahma. These speculations find their culmination in Vedanta. The Upanishads, as a matter of fact, laid foundations for all later developments of the Indian philosophy including the Bhagvadgita. The Gita, as scholars unanimously admit, is the very cream of the Upanishads:
“Sarvopanishado gaavah, dogdha Gopalnandanah,
Parth vatso, sudhee bhokta, dugdah cha Gitamritam.”
In the above metaphorical description all the Upanishads are viewed as cows, Arjuna as the calf, the learned as beneficiaries for whom Lord Krishna sucks the nectar-like milk of the Gita. As such, where is the scope for there being any contradiction between the teachings of the Gita and those of the Vedas?
Reverting to the subject in hand, we find Lord Krishna telling Arjuna that the Vedic injunctions, referred to in the preceding verses, deal with the three modes (gunas) - sattva, rajas and tamas of prakriti, viz. sense-enjoyments and the means of attaining them and advises Arjuna to rise above them. He also advises Arjuna to rise above the pairs of opposites such as pleasure and pain, gain and loss etc.; and all concerns about fulfilment of wants and preservation of what has already been attained because all these also relate to the three gunas. Rising above them all he should try to remain established in the sattva with his mind firmly focused on the Self. Here one may sense a sort of contradiction. In the first place, Arjuna is advised to rise above the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas and then finally advised to remain established in the sattva. The reason for this apparent contradiction is that so long as jivaatma is associated with a physical body, it is practically impossible to transcend completely the three gunas because the physical body itself, including the sense-organs, mind and intellect, is an evolute of prakriti. It is possible, however, to sublimate them and sattva represents the most sublimated form of the three gunas. (v. 45)
The next verse (46) further illustrates the futility of the Vedas for the learned one who has obtained enlightenment. Just as a man standing in the midst of a stream with water overflowing all around him, has no use of a small well, in the same way the enlightened one has no use of the Vedas because the Vedic learning is only a means to an end i.e. self-realization and not an end in itself.
Now we come across the most frequently quoted verse (47) of the Gita – karmanyevadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadaachan, which forms the epitome of the Gita’s philosophy on karmayoga. Here the Lord firmly tells His disciple that his right is confined to action only and not to the fruit thereof. Man is the only specie of the creation, which has been endowed with the faculty of reason and free will but he can apply this free will only in so far as his actions are concerned. He is not free in the choice of fruits his actions might accrue. Results will follow automatically according to the theory of causation. He has not to play any role in it. At the same time he should have no attachment or inclination to inaction because man, by his own nature, cannot refrain from action even for a moment. Even while he is just breathing, sleeping or supposedly doing no work, he is unconsciously engaged in action. Even his thought processes are to be taken as his action. As such, there is no deliverance from action and every action, big or small, good or bad, is bound to have a result. So what does Lord Krishna want to teach Arjuna? The crux of His teaching, karmayoga is, detachment not with regard to action but with regard to its result. This point has been beautifully described by Prof. M. Hiriyana (Outlines of Indian Philosophy) as renunciation not of action but renunciation in action. Inculcation of such an attitude of detachment calls for a lot of mental discipline and self-control. It is, as a matter of fact, a skill a yogi can accomplish through practice over a considerable length of time. This point has been further emphasized in verse 50 ahead as “yogah karmasu kaushalam.”
The most debatable part of the verse 47 is, however, maa karmphalhetur bhu (do not be instrumental to the fruit of your action). Some scholars are inclined to translate it as “do not be instrumental to your action bear fruit”, which is purported to mean that one should perform such actions that do not bear fruit. It seems to be an impossibility because it goes against the theory of causation, according to which every action – good or bad - is bound to have a result because every cause has an effect. These scholars are apt to advance a peculiar theory of “disinterested action” which, according to them, does not bear any fruit. Even presuming this to be correct, is a “disinterested action” possible or desirable for a karmayogi? When Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to take up fight against his enemies, does He mean that Arjuna should fight his enemies in a disinterested manner and if he does so, will he be able to humble the mighty army of the kauravas comprising of seemingly invincible warriors like Bhishma and Dronacharya? No, Lord Krishna does not mean so. Nay, He wants Arjuna to put his heart and soul in the impending fight as on can rightly expect of a true purusharthi. Purushartha is a much-acclaimed virtue in our cultural heritage and has been rightly extolled in the Dharma Shastras. What does it mean? It means that a man of honour, in doing a righteous action, must do it in the right earnest to the best of his ability and capability. A soldier fighting enemies at the border is supposed to fight to the last drop of his blood, even though he knows it well that he may not survive to reap the fruits of a possible victory. It follows, therefore, that the so-called theory of “disinterested action” is irrelevant to the notion of karmayoga. Then, what does it really mean? We find its clue in the next verse (v. 48) where Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to take success and failure in the same spirit and this very spirit of equanimity is called karmayoga (samattvam yoga uchchyate). A yogi is supposed to establish himself in this state of equanimity without any attachment either to the tendency of shirking action or to the result of his action.
The next five verses (49-53) further elaborate the true nature of equanimity and karmayoga. Actions performed with attachment to their results are far inferior to those performed with equanimity without any concern for their success or failure, because on account of their attachment to results they are bound to bring distress and disappointment. This point can be illustrated further with the help of an example. Suppose a student takes an examination with a predisposed notion that he must score 90% marks. When the results are out, he gets only 85% marks. What will be his mental condition? Scoring of 85% marks, though a creditable feat in itself, would bring only distress and disappointment to him, because less than 90% marks would not satisfy him and he would take it as failure. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that such people, who become attached to the fruits of their action, lead a wretched and miserable life. One endowed with equanimity of mind has no concern either for good or bad, success or failure, gain or loss, or other such relative attributes. Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to inculcate this very spirit of equanimity which alone can lead him to the pinnacle of karmayoga.
By now Arjuna’s earnestness for knowing the true nature of a yogi has been genuinely aroused and he asks the Lord as to how does a yogi, who enjoys perfect tranquility of mind and equipoise, speak, sit or walk and what is his language; that is to say, how he generally conducts himself. This shows the height of Arjuna’s child-like curiousity (v.54). Lord Krishna replies thus: A true yogi is one who has thoroughly dismissed all cravings of the mind, and is established in his self perfectly satisfied. His mind remains unperturbed amid sorrows and his thirst for pleasures has altogether vanished. He is beyond attachment, fear and anger. He has risen above all dualities so much so that meeting with good or evil, he neither rejoices nor recoils. He withdraws himself from all sense-objects just like a tortoise withdrawing its limbs from all directions. It is often seen that sense-objects turn away from one who does not enjoy them but the relish for them still persists. In the case of a yogi of stable mind, even this relish disappears once he has realized the Supreme Self (v. 55-59).
In the next few verses (60-65), Lord Krishna dwells upon the dangers of attachment to sense-objects, which are potent enough to distract even a wise man striving on the path of yoga. Turbulent by nature, the sense-objects forcibly carry away his mind. Therefore, he, who having controlled all his senses, is firmly established in his self, alone is known to be of a stable mind. A man deeply steeped into sense-objects develops attachment for them; from attachment springs desire, and from unfulfilled desires ensues anger. Anger gives rise to delusion, which in turn results in confused memory; a confused memory results in loss of reason and that ultimately brings total ruin to him. Thus we find that attachment to sense-objects is the root-cause that brings untold miseries to mankind. The potential danger comes, as a matter of fact, from attachment rather than the sense-objects themselves because, if a man has inculcated the spirit of detachment through the practice of self-control, his mind is not likely to be swayed even while enjoying various sense-objects. For a yogi the sense-objects do not vanish. What vanishes really is his attachment to them and so, even enjoying them through his senses he attains placidity of mind. With the attainment of such placidity of mind, all his sorrows come to an end and his mind filled with eternal bliss, becomes established in the self.
The next two verses (66-67) describe how the worldly man, whose mind and senses are uncontrolled, suffers from unhappiness and lack of peace. One who has no control over his mind and senses, cannot claim to have a determinate intellect, nor can he have a rational thought-process; and in lack of both he can never get peace of mind; and how can there be happiness for one lacking peace of mind. A yogi of a stable mind has command over his senses, but in the case of an undisciplined man, senses have the upper-hand and his mind follows them so much so that they carry away his sense of discrimination, just like a strong wind diverts a boat upon the waters. Therefore, he alone, whose senses are completely restrained from their objects, can claim to have a stable mind (v. 68).
Thus having shown the indispensability of control over senses and inculcation of a spirit of detachment towards their objects, Lord Krishna reverts to describing the nature of a true yogi in contrast to an indulgent man. In order to bring out this contrast, He makes use of a metaphor ‘night’. That which is night for ordinary beings, is the state in which a yogi keeps awake and conversely, when the world of ordinary beings rises to enjoy its pleasures, that state is ‘night’ for a yogi, with which he has nothing to do. The experiences of the ignorant and a yogi are as divergent as night and day and to bring out this truth, the metaphor of ‘night’ has been employed in this verse (69).
Further describing the nature of a yogi who has realized the self, Lord Krishna compares him with the ocean, which though brimming on all sides, remains undisturbed as waters of different rivers enter into it, likewise he in whom all desires have submerged, attains peace; not one who is obsessed with his desires. This verse (70) depicts the true nature of a yogi who does not shun the world and yet is so firmly established in the self that all worldly desires get submerged into him without disturbing his equanimity. This is the epitome of karmayoga – be in the world without being attached to it.
In the next verse (71) Lord Krishna replies to Arjuna’s earlier query as to how a yogi generally conducts himself. A yogi, having given up all desires, moves about in this world without any yearning, without any feeling of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’; and without the least sense of his individual ‘ego’. Such a man attains eternal peace.
This is the state, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, of the realization of Brahma and having reached this state, a yogi never gets deluded and being established in this state, he at the end attains eternal bliss, the bliss of merging with the Brahma. Here, in this verse (72), the words ‘at the end’ signify the point of time when the soul is separated from the physical body. That is to say, realization of Brahma is possible even while associated with the physical body, yet true liberation comes when the soul casts off the physical body and merges with Brahma.
With this we come to the end of Chapter II, wherein Lord Krishna first dispels the dilemma and delusion of Arjuna, lovingly and rationally brings him to the spiritual plane and then imparts to him the all-important message of karmayoga.
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