It was expected, as a natural result of the Knowledge I am Brahman’, that the surviving body-mind complex would continue to move for a time under its own momentum. Śaṅkara gives the example of the arrow.
In medieval times, a battlefield message could be sent by binding it round an arrow, which was then shot to land in front of the intended recipient. If, after it was released, a sudden event made the message unnecessary, or even misleading, the arrow would still inevitably go on to complete its course. If however it had not yet been shot, though already on the string, it would be quietly replaced in the quiver. The illustration is given by Śaṅkara in his Gītā commentary. After God-realization, those actions which have already begun to produce their effects – already in the air, so to speak – will go on till their force is spent; but new actions will normally not be initiated.
It was called saṃnyāsa: throwing away, or discarding or renouncing or giving up, action. Translations like ‘renouncing’, ‘giving up’, ‘abandoning’ do not do full justice to the word. Renunciation and giving up often have a sense of reluctance; people give up in despair, or renounce their rightful claims. But saṃnyāsa is a compound, from ‘sam’ complete, ‘ni’ down, ‘as’ to cast. It means a complete throwing down as a voluntary, natural and joyful act. Though itself an action, it ends action. Just so when a king signs the act of abdication, which ends his royal power, it is itself an exercise of that power, though for the last time.
The formal act of saṃnyāsa, which involved leaving home and all connections, would correspond to an act of abdication. In classical times formal saṃnyāsa meant life as a mendicant, distinguished sometimes by a coarse orange robe, neither attached to bodily life nor seeking bodily death. To see such walking symbols of absolute freedom, dependent on nothing, often gives courage to people of the world in distress.
The Gītā describes them as usually wandering, though monasteries were allowed; Śaṅkara himself founded some important ones which still flourish. Those who practise the life say it is a very healthy one, and some attain a vigorous old age. In his commentary to Gītā XVIII.3 Śaṅkara points out that those who have seen the Self, and are on the path of Knowledge (jñāna-niṣṭhā), do not find in the Self any pain at all arising from physical conditions; and there are no inner anxieties at all.
The previous life was karma-yoga in the world, energetically acting but free from selfish entanglements of attachment or fear. Without much inner friction, it will have been efficient and a success, spiritually and often socially as well. The gradual purification of the inner being takes a good time, and usually the karma-yogin will have fulfilled his social role by the time Knowledge rises in him. When, as a result of the inner clarity, he ‘finds Knowledge in himself by himself’ (IV.38), there is a natural impulse to hand over his social role to those now due to undertake it. Classically, before seeking liberation, the Three Debts must be repaid. One of them was the debt to the ‘ancestors’; the term included the society which brought one up. Just so it would be only after a hardworking reign that the king could properly abdicate in favour of his heir.
As previously explained, a king is chosen as exemplar because he was the hardest-working and most responsible man in the kingdom: he had an eighteen-hour day, and no holidays. The principles apply to all who have responsibilities, in other words, to practically everyone.
Now suppose (as Śaṅkara suggests) that the king has personally initiated many important projects, which will still need him as a figurehead to get firmly established. Or suppose that neighbouring kings could seize the chance of a young inexperienced heir to make raids. In such cases, the ministers might ask the king to stay on for a time. They will run the country as he has trained them, but his mere presence will be a centre for the enthusiasm and loyalty of the whole people.
In yogic terms, Śaṅkara allows that in such cases the natural course for the surviving body-mind of the man of Knowledge would be to remain in the world. The Self does not act, but the ministers – body, senses, active mind – act as they have been trained by the karma-yoga discipline. The higher mind should remain in a current of: ‘I do nothing at all.’ So the throwing off of action is here internal.
V.13 Mentally giving up all actions, he sits happily, presiding over the city of nine gates,
Never at all acting, nor causing to act.
The ministers, namely body, senses and lower mind, continue acting out the programmes initiated before Knowledge; the thoughts and actions are almost entirely of sattva. They do not initiate new programmes; there is no individual will or purpose any more to do so. It is a running down of the sattvic impulses already in operation.
However the Gītā points out, and Śaṅkara confirms, that the Lord may himself move such a body-mind as part of his cosmic purpose: it becomes an instrument, a finger, moved by another. Then normal expectations and limitations are transcended in an uprush of divine knowledge and power, sometimes concealed and sometimes revealed. Dr Shastri once remarked that one of the pleasures of chess is when one side has sacrificed nearly everything, but manages to checkmate with a remaining pawn. He said that there are spiritual lessons to be learnt from chess. Both sides appreciate the seeming miracle of the lone pawn, and then the pieces are gathered up, bits of wood with all distinctions gone, and put away in the box. The two former opponents look at each other and smile.
© Trevor Leggett