I’ll read two verses from the second chapter, which deal with the first element, the indifference to the opposites.
“The sense contacts it is, O Son of Kunti, which cause heat and cold, pleasure and pain. They come and go, they are impermanent. Endure them bravely.” Then the next verse: “That wise man whom verily these afflict not, to whom pleasure and pain are the same, he is fit for immortality.” These are successive verses: one is endure them bravely and then, he whom they don’t afflict, he is fit for immortality. There’s a certain lack of succession, because the first verse says you do feel them but endure them bravely, and then immediately after it’s said, the man whom they don’t afflict is fit for immortality. There seems to be a sort of jump. Now Shankara says, ‘Endure them bravely’. It means that he does feel them and this is Karma Yoga, which is based on the idea of one’s self as an actor, an agent, and as an experiencer and of the Lord as separate from oneself and of all the beings as separate from each other. ‘Endure them bravely, these changes.’ Then he goes on to say, ‘An expert is a man of realisation – he whom these do not afflict.’ Shankara explains, ‘They do not afflict him because he’s fixed and established in the vision of the Self.’ Not a theoretical knowledge of the Self – a vision – one of his strongest words for direct experience in the vision of the Self. Then he goes on to say he’s not shaken or moved by them at all, because he has this fixed vision of the Self in which he’s affirming himself (nishtha). Then he says, ‘This one is fit for immortality.’ He says ‘liberation’, so that the vision itself is not automatically liberation. This one who has the clear and continuous vision of the Self is ready, is capable – Shankara says it’s possible for him to attain liberation. He explains that the path of Knowledge Yoga begins with this vision of the Self, and it consists in simply an affirmation or a confirming of the vision of the Self. This is one example where an element of Karma Yoga is taken, namely the patient endurance of opposites, a calm endurance of opposites, but feeling them; and then if he persists in the whole of Karma Yoga, not just that element, he will attain a vision of the Self. Then he’ll no longer be afflicted by the opposites, but still that vision of the Self is affirmed and made continuous and then he will attain liberation.
One can say, well this is just one passage, but the thing to do is to see in how many places Shri Shankara gives right vision as the beginning of Knowledge Yoga (vijnana yoga).
This was the first element of Karma Yoga – the patient endurance of the opposites. The next one is action, and his definition of it is: to do action, which is not qualified any more, simply to do action for the sake of worshipping the Lord, for the sake of pleasing the Lord. This is given in various ways. Later on it says to do the actions as a servant of God. Sometimes it says to do the actions in evenness – God is not mentioned – to do the actions in evenness without attachment to the action. Sometimes it’s said to do the action without attachment to the fruit of action and a distinction is made. There are quite a lot of people who believe in keeping busy – and they don’t very much care what the result of their activity is, so long as they keep busy. This is attachment to action, not attachment to the fruit of action. Shankara discusses this in places and sometimes, as in chapter 18 verse 9, he puts them together. He says: neither attached to the actions themselves nor attached to the fruit of the action.
Then suddenly you get two verses. The first one – chapter 3 verse 17 – “He who rejoices only in the Self, he who is satisfied with the Self alone, for him there is nothing to do” – nothing which ought to be done, no duty. That’s expanded in the next verse: “Therefore, without attachment, ever perform the action which has to be done.” So it is just said: “The man of wisdom has nothing that has to be done.” And then immediately afterwards goes on to say: “Therefore without attachment perform the action which has to be done.” People say the Gita is contradictory, but Shankara explains this. The first one is on the level of the one who has seen, who has had a vision, of the Self; who rejoices and is satisfied himself alone, and he has nothing that he has to do. The second one is the man who still sees separation and he has things that he does have to do and he’s told to do them without attachment.
So those two verses come together and Shankara is very careful in front of the verses when the standpoint changes from knowledge to action. He says, “This is how the man who has seen the Self is, he has nothing he needs to do; but the one who has not yet seen the Self, he has things to do and he must do them without attachment.” There is a verse following this about Janaka, it says: “The ancient king Janaka sought to attain perfection by action.” Shankara explains this, he says it may be that Janaka had samyag darshana – right vision of the Self – he had right vision. Then he says he sought to attain liberation even while pursuing action – but not action for a purpose. He was pursuing it because he had previously been pursuing an action and those actions went on more or less mechanically. He was in these situations where he made promises and had responsibilities, and he discharged them, but not for any purpose of his own. He says, he was one of right vision but still not liberated, then he sought to attain perfection by pursuing action in the light of his vision of the Self. Or he said, if you take it that those ancient kings, or some of them, had not had that vision of the Self, then they performed action in order to attain purity of the mind.
© Trevor Leggett
This series of talks:
Section 1: The Transformation of Karma Yoga