Sutra Study: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4 Verse 1-23

Since it’s been so long between posts, I’ll start with a short introduction to the Bhagavad Gita. This book is a document of a conversation between Krishna (an avatar of one of the trinity of Hindu gods) and Arjuna. They are standing between Arjuna’s army and his cousins’ army, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. This battle did in fact take place, but these days the Bhagavad Gita is used more as a metaphor for the inner battle we all experience. It is a primary teaching of the yoga lineage, and is referenced in many different schools of Indian thought.

Chapter one introduced the characters and scene. Chapter two was the basic teachings of non attachment and self-realization. Chapter three was about karma, or action. And now Chapter four we will begin, is about wisdom.

Krishna begins off this chapter by reiterating the knowledge shared in chapter three about karma (action) and acting from a selfless place without attachment to results of your actions. In chapter four, verse one, he tells Arjuna: “I taught this path of yoga to the sun-god Vivasvan, and Vivasvan taught it to his son Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu taught his son Ikshvaku, the King of this planet and forefather of the Raghu dynasty.”

If you are familiar with the history and mythology, you may recognize that this shows a true lineage of leaders. Vivasvan, as the sun-god, rules all the planets by providing heat and light. Manu, the father of mankind, is also the father of Ikshvaku. Iksvaku was King of this planet (Earth). So there is a direct line to humanity of this deep teaching. This all occurred in the second yuga (age, era) – the Treta-yuga – of Hindu cosmology, which lasted 1,296,000 years. We currently live in the fourth yuga – the Kali Yuga, which is thought by some to last 432,000 years, though other durations have been suggested. There are only four yugas, and we cycle through them endlessly.

Though, despite his effort to keep this knowledge abundant, Krishna continues in verse 2 with, “I taught it to them in the attempt of keeping it in a strong lineage of eminent sages, but through time the practice of yoga was lost in the world.”

This may be referring to the caste system, as it is the job of sages and kings to maintain this level of knowledge and devotion in their people. Though, it was also thought that they would keep the teachings more pure than someone who was out to benefit themselves rather than the whole.

Krishna finishes the intro with verse three: “I have given you this knowledge today because you are my friend and devotee, so I know you will understand the transcendental nature of this teaching.”

Remember, in this story, Krishna and Arjuna grew up together, so Krishna knows Arjuna’s worthiness and ability to understand.

Arjuna responds in verse four, “Krishna, you were born long after Vivasvat. How can you have taught him this yoga in the beginning?”

So here begins the teachings of this chapter.

“(Verse 5) Each of us have passed through many births, Arjuna. You cannot remember, but I remember them all. (Verse 6) My true being is unborn and changeless. I am the Lord who dwells in every creature. Through my own illusion, I appear in every millennium.”

Well, this verse has been translated so many ways, both dualistic and non dualistic. “Illusion” here was originally “maya,” which can be seen as a veil covering what is true but not separate from it (non duality), or an avatar-like manifestation of the divine in the simple human world as the humans are unable to see the true nature (dualistic). Surely, there are other interpretations and translations, too, but this may help you see how just one word can cause such a divide.

Verse 7: Whenever there is a decline in dharma (duty, path) and the true purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth.” Verse 8: “I am born again in every age to protect the good, destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma.” (paraphrased from Eknath Easwaran)

This is where a lot of us might get put off. We are being asked to believe in reincarnation, and the ability of the divine to directly interact with our lives. But, if this is the case for you, I ask you to consider this on a level of personal experience. In every new year, every new time of our lives, we find something inside or outside ourselves that keeps us going. New struggles come up, new obstacles, and yet we persevere. Why? Because there is something we know to be true that guides us in the right direction. Whenever a text gets a little heady or transcendental, I like to think of all the layers it applies to. Especially in Eastern traditions, the macro is mirrored in the micro, and vice versa, so all things that may seem very large can be understood on smaller levels first.

Verse 9 has many different translations as well depending on the school of thought. I will directly quote two different translations that certainly speak differently. Easwaran: “Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me.” Prabhupada: “One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.”

You can see quite clearly how the first translation is more nondual, and the second is very dualistic. So, take what you will of this one, as it will mean many things to many people. Please feel free to share your personal beliefs/interpretations in the comments!

This speaks to the atman/Brahman idea. Atman is the true self, Brahman is the universal consciousness/god/etc. In nonduality the atman and brahman are the same, atman being like a wave in the ocean – not separate, though appearing to be. In dualism, they are in fact separate.

So the first quote is speaking to the fact that though the body and conditions surrounding it may appear separate, one who realizes their sameness will be liberated from the cycle of rebirth. One who realizes that the divine energy/figure/etc is in everything and not ever separate from the whole.

Verse 10: “Removed from selfish attachment, fear and anger, being fully aware of me and being purified by that knowledge, many have reached a state of unity with me.”

Once you achieve all the things that Krishna has taught so far, you will be able to be united with the divine, in whatever form you feel it is. Traditionally, this would be in the form of not being reborn, which, as we have discussed before, was a good thing as being reborn meant redeath, which was suffering. So to stop being reborn is something we all should wish to achieve, as we are then united with the whole (non duality) or with God (duality).

Verse 11 has Krishna saying: “All who approach, will be received. All paths lead to me, Arjuna.” I’m quite sure this is self explanatory.

Verse 12: “Those who desire success in their actions worship the gods; through action in the world of mortals, their desires are quickly fulfilled.” (paraphrase from Easwaran)

This one took me a while to understand. And perhaps I still don’t, so your input would also be fantastic. I think it is saying that those who see the bigger picture and act from that place will find fulfillment. By “bigger picture” I mean, not striving to ‘worship’ those humans who are in power, such as government officials, etc, with the hopes of attaining something more “rewarding” in this life, such as a higher status socially – but to act from a place of worship for that which is bigger than us. What are your thoughts?

Verse 13 is a bit controversial these days, but let’s see if we can take it as a grain of sand, “Because of the material laws of nature (gunas), the four castes exist. These distinctions have come from me, but I am not of them. I am their cause, but I am changeless and beyond action.”

When this text was written, the fifth caste – untouchables – which are so controversial now, was not in place yet. So Krishna is simply saying that the way in which we live, with our actions having consequences on a very human scale, does not affect him. He is beyond all of that as he is everything. The divine is part of everything, and therefore beyond action.

Verse 14 reads, “There is no work that affects me because I am not attached to the results of actions. Those who come to understand this and practice this will be free from karma.” Verse 15 follows with: “Even in ancient times, those who knew this truth engaged in action. You, too, can engage in action – pursuing an active life in the manner of the ancient sages.”

Karma here is “the fruits of actions” – the effects that need to play out from every action we take, and typically play out over many lifetimes, causing us to be reborn.

Krishna continues the chapter with verse 16, “What is action and what is inaction? Even the wisest sages have struggled with this question. Let me teach you the secret of action, which can free you from bondage.” And verse 17, “The true nature of action is hard to understand. It is important to understand what is action, what is inaction, and what kind of action should be avoided.”

Before we get the answer, would anyone like to take a guess about the difference between action and inaction?

Verse 18 begins the answer, “One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is very wise. They have transcended the limits of the mind, and are with complete awareness even in the midst of activity.”

What do you think this means – inaction in action and vice versa?

Every thing we do or do not do is a choice. Choosing to “do nothing” is a form of action. Even though we aren’t acting towards something, we are acting away from it. Every time we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to another, and every time we say no to one thing, we are saying yes to another. There is no escaping action/inaction – as long as we are alive we are acting or inacting in some way. Just as with every breath there is in, there is out, there is a “mini-death” as they say. We are gaining something and that something is immediately falling away. So it is with action.

Verse 19: “A person is wise when all their undertakings are free from anxiety about results, and when ‘all their selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge.'” (quoted from Easwaran)

When we come to a place in our lives when we are comfortable with trusting the way things are and will be, and when we act from a place of great understanding of all the teachings so far, we will not be anxious about results of our actions for this is karma, and it will not be of concern. This does not mean that it is okay to act from a bad place, as when these truths are realized, one will only see the value in acting in good ways.

I use the terms “good” and “bad” here relatively as nothing is either inherently good or bad, and when we reside in awareness of the Self, this duality falls away and we begin to see the bigger picture.

So, what is this quote that I’ve borrowed from Easwaran, “all their selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge?” When we consider the force or applicability of knowledge, or I prefer wisdom in this case (I’ll explain why later), it is quite a powerful force. What we know to be true drives all of our actions even in the most subtle of ways. So, by coming to know these deep-seated truths that Krishna is teaching, all selfish desires will dissolve as the knowledge/wisdom consumes the “need” for them.

A bit of a side note…why do I prefer the term ‘wisdom’ when speaking of these things? Simply because knowledge is something which can be taught, whereas wisdom is something which needs to be experienced. Perhaps wisdom is always there, and it is experience which lifts the veil that covers it. Either way, what Krishna is teaching is not just concepts, but things to be put into practice and experienced for ourselves. No teacher can make you understand it, it is something which must be understood for oneself. A knowledgeable person is not necessarily a wise person, and a wise person might not have much “formal” education.

Verse 20 speaks to karma again – or the results of our actions: “Those who have learned this truth have no attachment to the results of their actions, for ever satisfied and independent, he performs no fruitive action although is always engaged in activity.”

This is a very Hindu idea, and is one of the ideas that Buddhism (specifically nondual and Advaita-Vedanta) disputes – that anyone can be independent. What Krishna is saying here is that once you understand that there is a universal truth behind these apparently separate bodies, our actions have less impact on that universal part of us (less, to none at all). That universal part is known as ‘atman’, which is the part of us which is the same as Brahman, or the divine, consciousness, energy, whatever you see it as.

There are a few verses I struggle with, this is one of them because it is so highly disputed and in my own experience this understanding leads to a deeper sense of connection, interdependence, rather than independence. However, if we take Krishna’s teaching as saying we become independent of the gunas, the forces of nature/material elements, then it seems to make more sense. The Self is free from the gunas, though the mind-body is certainly bound by them.

Verse 21 follows from the previous verse which speaks to coming to a place that has no more attatchment to objects because they attained the most true wisdom. “One with such wisdom is free from expectations of reward and acts only with basic necessities in mind. Thus, they do not get affected by sinful reactions.”

So, first of all “sinful reactions” – I’d like to define this. All actions have consequences. Not always can we foresee what those consequences will be. When we act from a place of deep understand and without desire for selfish gain, our actions already are sure to be wholesome and therefore not incur sin, but also we are unattached to the results of the actions so we will be less affected by it.

Verse 22 explains further the traits of wisdom in action: “Those who live in freedom from duality, who are content with both success and failure, are never attached, although are still performing actions.”

I’d like to come back to the concept of duality shortly. This is saying that self and other, matter and spirit/consciousness, etc. are not the same things, that they are two separate things. What Krishna is saying here is perhaps that one needs to go beyond the illusion of duality that the mind and natural world creates and see the unity or similarity in all things. Once that occurs, they are deeply content, and don’t need material things to enhance their contentedness.

Verse 23: “The one who has realized this wisdom, free from duality and the modes of material nature, they have no selfish attachments. All work is performed in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved.”

So again we come across the idea of karma. Please keep in mind that this is not the same ‘karma’ that us Westerners have deemed, ie. you say something mean, then bang your elbow, and someone says “ha! karma!” This isn’t the same idea. Karma is translated most directly as “action.” It can be seen as a description of cause and effect, but some will say it’s played out over many lifetimes. Karma is quite simply human action,when spoken of in the Bhagavad Gita, and the results of that action.

When Krishna is speaking here about dissolving the karma, it means that you will no longer have any results to your actions, and all the results that were waiting to occur are complete. In some traditions, this means you will not be reborn – which is the goal as reborn means redeath, and life is suffering. It is only once we can overcome the limitations of the physical, material world that we can no longer suffer.

When you are acting in the “spirit of service” it means that you are performing action with the divine (whatever that means for you – consciousness, true Self, God, energy, etc.) in mind, rather than yourself and the ways you could benefit from the action.

For example, a common desire is to work your way up the economic chain. Say you work for a company. You usually start in a “low” position within the company and most of us desire to move up that chain. But why do we desire it? So we can have more income, a better house, more money for activities, support our family, etc. What would happen when one realizes the wisdom Krishna is speaking of, is that either of the first two desires would dissolve, and you would work to benefit the community, your family, the company, etc. For those who believe in a higher power, God/s, divine etc. then you would act to serve them and their creation.

To put this into action in your daily life, I suggest picking an activity that you do regularly, such as make tea, and begin to do it in service to someone or something. As it becomes easier to do on a small level, you can begin to apply it to bigger things. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section!

Until next time,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s