Arjun is a man who doesn’t like to think too much. He wants clear instructions on what to do. The subtle layers of meanings in Krishna’s words are getting too much for him. He is perplexed. In Verse 1 of Chapter 5 of the Bhagavad Gita, he asks Krishna, “Which is the better way – renunciation of works or the yoga of works? Tell me clearly so that I can just follow your orders.”
Like Arjun, I am perplexed. So I thought I’d write it down for clarity.
Up to this point in the Gita, Krishna has talked about two paths. The path of yoga is the path of ‘desireless works’. One does whatever one has to in a spirit of ‘offering’ it to God. The other path is the path of Sankhya philosophy, of the renunciation of works, of giving up desire completely, and letting nature do what it must.
Both of these come from different world views (of course, everything always leads to the same destination).
According to the yoga of works, in apparent action there is inaction, explains Sri Aurobindo in The Message of the Gita. While we may be doing some action – writing, reading, eating, walking – when we dedicate every activity to God, we are also in a sense inactive and are allowing ourselves to be mere instruments of the action. The school principal of one of the Mother’s International Schools explained it to me thus: “It’s the difference between the active and passive voice as in English grammar. ‘I am eating the apple’ versus ‘The apple is being eaten by me’.” When we remove the ‘I’ as the doer, we allow the ‘universe’ to do the doing through us. This is yoga of works.
In the Sankhya system, in apparent inaction there is action. According to this philosophy, the entire world is a play of gunas (qualities) of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. When they are at an imbalance (which they are all the time in the material world), they manifest as thoughts, actions and matter. The table is a manifestation of tamas quality for instance; it is the nature of tamas to be physically inactive. So even what appears to be inactive to the human senses is actually only playing out its gunas – it is active being inactive! If and when all gunas become balanced, the being is united with the universe and ceases to exist in the material realm. (Sounds like Lucy touching 100% in the movie, huh?) The path of renunciation of works is giving up on action and desire totally, and work towards 100% realization.
But as Krishna says in his reply to Arjun in the next verse, the yoga of works is the better (and, in fact, the only viable) option, only because most of us (unless we are tables) cannot renounce all action altogether. We must do some sort of action in our lives – even the basics of survival require some action; eating something, for example. So one may as well do it in the spirit of ‘an offering’ to God – “I hereby eat this toast for YOU, my Lord”, “I hereby laugh at this joke for YOU, my Lord”, “I hereby decline this job offer for YOU, my Lord” and so on.
Krishna is a big on free will, except he insists we act out of our ‘discriminating wisdom’ (buddhi) if we have to make it anywhere close to Him. Interestingly, the very act (there you go, even intention is an act) of offering your acts to Him helps you put your buddhi to good use. You’ll only do actions you really think are worthy of Him.
So you think you’re acting out of free will but — if you want to achieve actualization — it’ll have to be a filtered sort of free will. Krishna is very clever that way.
I’d left my Gita class earlier this week in a bundle of confusion about the two paths. But I’m feeling better now after organizing my thoughts here.
Thank you for your active inaction in being my sounding board. Have a great day!
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