The third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita has more on the two paths, and particularly action, including self-interested righteous action which is not yogic at all. Near the beginning there is a description of the principles of performing largely ritual sacrifices as worship of the gods, in the justified expectation that they will make a return in the form of blessings and prosperity. This is the assumption that underlies the Book of Job, but is transcended in the final vision.
The Gītā refers in a number of places to such beliefs, sometimes with guarded approval. (The present day recognition of ecology, and even the Gaia hypothesis, are belated acknowledgement of the importance of reverence for nature.) But it points out that they are not yoga. They lead only to improvement of outer circumstances and sometimes of inner ones also. They do not free from the prison of individual separateness, with its consequent desire, fear and grief.
Chapter III expands the account of karma-yogic action. Four types of bond have to be let go: anticipated results as a motive for action; attachment to results, anticipated or actual, as a personal claim (‘Why has God let us down?’); attachment simply to being active; attachment to inaction (often masked as leaving everything to the Lord’s will).
III.4 Not by not initiating actions does a man attain freedom-from-action;
Not by renunciation alone, does he go to perfection.
5 For no one can remain totally without doing actions even for a moment;
Everyone is forced by the guṇa-s of Nature to engage in action, whether he wishes it or not.
19 Therefore do what needs to be done, remaining unattached,
For acting without attachment, one attains the highest.
20 For through action alone, Janaka and others attained perfection.
oreover, for the support of the people, you should do action.
Usually the Gītā does not analytically separate out the first three, though in certain cases the distinction is made. In any case, action of karma-yoga is done because it ought to be done, and it is done in evenness of mind irrespective of the results seen.
The karma-yogin performs the action from his individual self, vigorously taking his part in the world but trying to give up his personal reactions.
The word ‘kārya’ – what-is-to-be-done – shows that the action is done for its own sake, not for personal gain or from fear or pressure.
These are verses praising right action as both inevitable and also beneficial. Yet in the middle of them, comes a verse which seems to contradict the whole thesis:
17 But the one who takes delight in the Self alone, who finds contentment in the Self,
And satisfaction in the Self alone –
For him there is no action that needs to be done.
It is a feature of the Gītā presentation that the two standpoints, one of not-Knowing and the other of Knowledge, are put alongside each other. The reason is that one of them – karma-yoga – is in the end based on illusion. Were they strictly separated off, aspirants might well tend to attachment to karma, without wanting even to hear about anything else.
The other type of action is no-action; it is the seeming action of the true Self-Knower. In this case it is realized that Self does not act; body and mind act, but now the actions are free from distortions caused by limited individuality. It has to be conscious awareness, not a mere idea of non-action which is contradicted by present experience at every step. The purified body-mind complex acts under divine direction to help others, materially also, but mainly towards Self-realization for themselves.
25 The fools act who are attached to action;
And like them should the Knower too act, but without attachment,
For the good of the people.
The Knower is cautioned not to upset those attached to action as absolutely real. His surviving body-mind complex sets an example of unselfish detached action. But he does not bewilder them by talking about rising above action. But we should notice that the Knower’s actions are done with the same intensity as those of one seeking results at all costs. They are not slackly performed. But inwardly there is no attachment; as a sort of spin-off, the actions are more efficient. They are not distorted by the personal considerations which constrain ordinary actions. The actions are done in conformity with the nature of the instruments, and not of the agent. Hence they are done with love, and not unnaturally forced.
As often in the Gītā, the chapter ends with a warning. Here is repeated the warning of II.60, that even Self-knowledge and realization can be clouded by desire and anger. They must be overcome by repeated samādhi, said in Chapter II, by which in the end mind itself is transcended and the Self is realized beyond the mind. But the recommended practice seemed circular: samādhi was to cast off desire and anger, but desire and anger would prevent samādhi.
This chapter explains that the casting off can be gradual. The mind has to be recognized as higher than the senses: long-term aims are achieved only be checking immediate impulses.
Then the buddhi or rational will is higher than mind: long-term desires are evaluated, and it is realized that purely selfish satisfactions involved pain for oneself and others. With increasing inner clarity, there are flashes of Self-cognition, and desires begin to be seen as tawdry and unreal in comparison. But desire finally ends on full Self-realization: ‘only when he sees the Supreme does his longing finally cease.’
There is almost nothing in this chapter about devotion to the Lord, or about the glories of divine manifestation, which play such a big part in many later chapters. Here the stress is still on the highest truth of Self, universal and quite apart from body-mind. The theme of the bliss of the Self is brought forward: verse 17 speaks of delight in the Self alone, and satisfaction and contentment in the Self alone. The Sanskrit word ‘rati’, delight, is very strong; it is not a mere cessation of suffering, but positive bliss independent of any object. There is a nuance of sportfulness about the word.
The highest realization of Self does not impede completion of action already entered on before the rise of Knowledge. But such action is free from personal ties, and so is usually highly efficient. Here is a description of karma-yogic action:
30 Consigning all actions to Me the Self, with full self-awareness,
Free from longing and from selfishness, fight, casting off your fever.
The actions are offered, so to say, to the Self, as an act of faith, for the Self is not yet directly known. ‘Self-awareness’ in this verse still refers to the individual self. The word is ‘adhyātma’, and Arjuna later on, in Chapter VIIII, asks what exactly it means, and is told it is his own nature as he stands. (Śaṇkara points out that this limited self is ultimately going to be realized as the universal Self.) Individually initiated actions of karma-yoga are recognized as having value: they thin out the mind-tangle. But ultimately it is a question of Self-realization, beyond even the most refined layers of the mind.
With this, the yoga has been fully expounded, says Kṛṣṇa (IV.3).