Chapter IV Action
The chapter begins with a statement by Kṙṣṇa that the ancient yoga has now been taught. Elaborating on a single word – purā, of old – in III.3, he gives briefly its history. He taught it to the first king, and it was handed down through king-sages (not through priests, an important point). This account Arjuna immediately pronounces impossible. The first king-sages were in the distant past, but Kṙṣṇa is here now, so he could not have taught it to them. How can I make sense of this? he demands.
Kṙṣṇa replies that he has had many births, and so has Arjuna also. I know them all; you do not know, because (adds Śaṅkara) your natural omniscience is obstructed by your binding acts of right and wrong. This interchange shows that the Gītā does not teach narrow worship of Kṙṣṇa, that being merely one birth out of many. Nor is it a cult of Viṣṇu worship, in which it is Viṣṇu who enters the divine incarnates. There are only three references to Viṣṇu. One is as a minor deity, in X.21; and in Chapter XI the terrifying aspect of the Lord is twice addressed as Viṣṇu. The God of the Gītā is universal and transcendental, the true Self beyond all names. It is not far from the I AM of Exodus 3.14.
Following the principle of Teaching Down to a dull or sceptical pupil, the Lord now speaks of something different: his own true unmanifest being, from which the universe has been projected by magical illusion (māyā). He says that he enters into it periodically as an avatāra or descent, to adjust it physically, morally and spiritually.
Arjuna makes no comment, and Kṙṣṇa goes on to present the supreme action of world-creation and maintenance as a model for human action. It is done without yearning for some hoped-for fruit. This is as far as most humans will be able to go. But there is a higher level still, the level of Knowledge: it is done without a sense of ‘I do it’. Following the Teaching Down principle, the supreme level is presented first, and then the provisional lower level. Verse 13 running on into verse 14 goes:
Although I am the doer of all this,
Know Me as one that eternally does no act.
Actions do not taint Me, for I have no yearning for any fruit from them;
He who realizes this of Me, is not bound by actions.
The man of Knowledge should be like this: a doer, but no doer. Such phrases can become mere clichés as Śaṅkara points out, and the actual practice will be examined later.
The second verse gives Kṙṣṇa as a model for men who have not yet attained Knowledge, who feel themselves acting: they can free themselves by abandoning desires for the fruits of action. This ‘abandonment of fruits’ can also become a cliché, if not fully penetrated into.
Again, phrases like ‘although I am the doer, I am one that does no act’ may sound like nonsense, or a mere poetic fancy. An illustration from daily life can be useful. In the ordinary way, no one thinks ‘I breathe’. When I have been sitting still, I say that I was doing nothing. A sleeping man does nothing, though in fact he still breathes. But flung into water, non-swimmers just try to get the head out of the water, they don’t think ‘I breathe’; they simply want air. Poor swimmers too are always trying to climb out of the water. They too do not think ‘I breathe’. One who is training to be a swimmer is made to lie face downward in the water to realize that the body floats: then he practises the strokes, turning the head regularly to the side in order to breathe. Such trainees are very conscious of breathing, and results do not seem very good; they take in water and have to stop, spluttering. As they become expert, everything becomes easier: the forward movement produces a hydrofoil effect, and finally the breathing becomes regular and drops out of conscious awareness. They no more think ‘I breathe’ than does a man on land.
The yogic parallel is that the free Self does not act. But having in sport thrown a ray of itself into the sea of not-Knowing, there is individuality which seeks only self-preservation. It does not think ‘I act’; it just wants gratification of its desires. When it begins to train, it acts consciously, following a discipline which often does not seem very attractive. But with practice, a sort of spiritual hydrofoil effect makes actions easier, and finally they drop away from conscious awareness. (This is only an illustration, and cannot be pressed too far.)
A new element that has been introduced, for Teaching Down, is the Lord as a model, both for men of Knowledge-realization and for those who have not yet got it. It is a gesture of the Gītā that action is recommended for the Realized as well as for the others who are still acting on a basis of ‘I am the agent’. In the case of the Realized, the recommendation is addressed to the suffering body-mind alone.
IV.23 Rid of attachment; freed, his mind fixed in knowledge,
Acting simply as a holy offering, his whole action melts away.
24 The act of offering is Brahman, Brahman is the offering itself; it is put into the fire of Brahman by Brahman;
He whose samādhi realizes action to be Brahman, will go to Brahman.
In the last part of the chapter, the Lord explains in detail various practices of worship and also control of the life currents, by which men of action purify themselves for Realization. The true culmination is always to be Knowledge-realization, whose practice in samādhi is the highest purification.
Verse 34 is the only passage in the Gītā on seeking a teacher. The teacher must be one who knows not only theoretically but also by direct experience. He must be ‘established in Brahman’ (brahma-niṣṭthā).
Learn to know this from tḥose who have knowledge and see the truth:
Revere them, question them, serve them; and they will teach you knowledge.
This passage is treated in full in the chapter called ‘The Spiritual Teacher’.. The chapter ends with a warning especially against doubt. It is to be cut by Knowledge, as are other impurities. Even the worst of sinners is completely purified by Knowledge-realization. (The same will be said later of devotion to the Lord.)
36 Even if you are the worst of sinners,
You will cross the ocean of sin by the boat of Knowledge.
38 For there is no purifier to be found here that is equal to Knowledge;
He who perfects himself by yoga, finds it in time in himself.