Karma: Part 1- A philosophical perspective

In the second chapter of the Gita, Krishna praised knowledge about the soul and criticized the Karma Kandas of the Vedas (The Karma Kandas deal with rituals where the motivation is a materialistic desire).

BG 2.11, 21, 46:

“The Supreme Lord said: While you speak words of wisdom, you are mourning for that which is not worthy of grief. The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead”

“O Parth, how can one who knows the soul to be imperishable, eternal, unborn, and immutable kill anyone or cause anyone to kill?”

“Whatever purpose is served by a small well of water is naturally served in all respects by a large lake. Similarly, one who realizes the Absolute Truth also fulfills the purpose of all the Vedas”

Thus, He asks Arjuna to take to karma. This confuses Arjuna and the third chapter begins with this doubt.

Karma refers to actions. These include physical as well as mental. Since the soul might have had previous bodies before this one, karma performed by the previous body is carry-forwarded as well.

BG 3.1-2:

Arjuna said: “O Janardana, if you consider knowledge superior to action, then why do you ask me to wage this terrible war? My intellect is bewildered by your ambiguous advice. Please tell me decisively the one path by which I may attain the highest good”.

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: O sinless Arjuna, I have already explained that there are two classes of men who try to realize the self. Some are inclined to understand it by empirical, philosophical speculation, and others by devotional service”.

One can choose to be a householder or a monk but there is no question of not performing karma. There are two lifestyles- karma-yoganishta (social life) and gyana-yoga-nishta (secluded life). Whatever lifestyle one chooses, one has to follow the relevant rules and regulations and pursue knowledge to discover the freedom that is one’s true nature.

From the 4th to the 7th verse, Krishna condemns inaction and advises to lead an alert and active life.

BG 3.4-7:

“Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection”.

“Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the mode of material  nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment”.

“One who restrains the senses of action but whose mind dwells on sense objects certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender”.

“On the other hand, if a sincere person tries to control the active senses by mind and begins karma-yoga without attachment, he is by far superior”.

In essence, inaction is not the way to break free of bondage just as how donning the saffron or ochre robes does not make one spiritual. There are several pretenders who claim to be spiritual however it is all external. Such duplicity leads no fruit as you are only the loser. 

Under no circumstances should one resort to inaction because:

1. Neither purity nor knowledge can be realized through that.

2. Desires force one to act and inaction will be a suppression.

3. An idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

From the 8th to the 20th verse, Krishna deals with the paramount and alluring topics of the Gita i.e., karma-yoga. The ones which we can definitely try and implement are summarized in just these two verses:

BG 3.8, 3.19:

“Perform your prescribed duty, for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work”.

“Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme”.

Humans are part of the universe and it is necessary to maintain the harmony of the universe upon which we are dependent. One must be aware of one’s duties and strive to fulfill it. Karma yoga contributes to an individual as well as a society’s progress.

So is every action called karma yoga?

No. When one acts without any worry for the result, one is said to perform Karma Yoga. Yoga means to unite. The practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of God. Karma-yoga does not involve kamya-karma. Krishna does not encourage kamya-karma i.e., actions to fulfill the desires. Hence a seeker must gradually reduce kamya karma to become a true karma yogi. Karma-yoga ultimately leads one to liberation through the stages of purity, enquiry and knowledge.

From the 21st verse’s 2nd line to the 29th verse, Krishna talks about the role of a wise man in the society, taking Arjuna as one.

BG 3.20, 23:

“Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And  whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.

“For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Partha, certainly all men would follow My path”.

“As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, the learned may similarly act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path”.

One must choose their inspiration very carefully. Any person with a higher status can influence the masses positively or negatively. As mentioned in 3.23, even Krishna had to perform his duties in spite of knowing the consequence of everyone’s actions. Even though Arjuna might not benefit from this war, he has to fight as a Kshatriya and set an example to others. Thus everyone must act upon their responsibilities. 

The 30th verse summarizes karma-yoga, giving five conditions:

1. Keep the spiritual goal.

2. Offer all actions to the Lord.

3. Don’t be concerned about the result.

4. Be free from possessiveness and

5. Be calm.

Unless one realizes that they are the soul/spirit and wearing this body as a dress, one cannot perform action as given in Karma Yoga. That is the reason why Krishna first introduced Sankhya Yoga before Karma Yoga.

Towards the end, Krishna also discusses the problem of kama-krodha. They are the real enemies of a seeker. They cloud one’s ability to make the right choice and force a person to run after endless insatiable desires thus take away all the chances of peace and progress. They can be dealt by replacing false values with the right ones through discrimination. Once kama becomes weak, one can discover the Atma, which is beyond the senses, the mind, and the intellect and thus destroy kama for good.

Thus ends the summary of the Third Chapter of the Gita- Karma Yoga. 

One thought on “Karma: Part 1- A philosophical perspective

  1. Nice article. In these times of distress, being able to to do our actions without knowing the results is really difficult but yes we have to perform our actions dedicating it to the Lord.


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