Reflections on Chapter 18 of the Bhagavad Gita

Mountains, hills and moors may be very lovely but, shrouded in mist, they can barely be seen and if the mist is thick they cannot be seen at all. So a man may walk the countryside and see little or nothing of its beauty. Because he has not seen or known that beauty, for him it has no existence. Yet it is present. So again man may walk through life, his real self or Atman unseen.

“ He who departs, stays and enjoys, who is conjoined with the gunas, the deluded perceive not. They see who possess the eye of knowledge ” (Gita, chapter XV, v. 1o).

In chapter XVIII of the Gita it is laid down that man will find his true self through the paths of action and knowledge. Action is the preliminary way. Its function is purification in that it teaches the student to disidentify himself from the results of his actions and leads to equilibrium of mind. It thins the mist but cannot destroy it. It is followed by knowledge, the sun which destroys ignorance. This article refers mainly to the path of action though that of knowledge will be touched on. It is suggested that, following the teaching, the ignorant unseeing personality of man will be changed into the saint, the man of God who sees the Lord everywhere as the one reality underlying appearances and who lives only to find that reality within himself. It may be asked : What is this reality ? Is it worth finding ? Does it really exist ? The answer is that at this stage it cannot be known. The testimony of the scriptures must be accepted instead as a hypothesis that the spiritual Truth is a reality and the only reality which gives man satisfaction.

The same statement comes from those saints who have discovered this Truth in their own experience and from this it is realised that the Truth can only be known for oneself through one’s own growth.

The Avadhut Gita says : “ Atman of which the High Yogis speak, most subtle, beyond perception, without attributes, must be realised step by step and not by sudden violence ”.

Dr. Shastri in his commentary added, “ The Avadhut means that first one must live a righteous life of benevolence and renunciation and acquire mastery over passions, thoughts and emotions. Practising detachment and samadhi under competent instruction, one realises Atman.”

Before the details of the path of action are considered, a word may be said as to the teaching of Vedanta on the nature of action. In concluding the section on this it is said (chapter XVIII, v. 48),

“ The duty born with oneself, one ought not to abandon for all undertakings are surrounded with evil, as fire with smoke ”.

The commentator—the great Shri Shankara—takes this verse as a basis for explaining the inevitability of action. He points out that the phenomenal world, the maya of the Lord, is made up of illusion in the form of the three gunas or qualities of matter, superimposed on reality. Action it is said is the property of the gunas. It is ascribed to the self, through illusion or wrong identification. As man is himself made up of this illusion or ignorance superimposed on the self, no ignorant man can renounce action even for a moment ; he can only renounce it when he knows it to be illusory, that is when he knows his own nature. To know his true self, man must get rid of his avidya or phenomenal nature first by transforming it and purifying it by right action and then destroying it by knowledge.

This is a difficult conception, but it is the basis of Vedanta philosophy. It may be explained by the illustration of a man dreaming a dream. He sees a dream world. He sees saints, sinners, kings and beggars all the products of his own mind, he himself being an active participator in the dream. It will be readily agreed that this is an illusion. When the man awakes he knows the dream had no permanent reality that he himself was separate from it, not acting in it, and that his own mind was the creator of the dream. So the saint, the illumined man sees the phenomenal world as without permanent reality. He sees instead the reality of the spirit as permanent, blissful and suffering no change. The example is not perfect. It is not suggested by Vedanta that the phenomenal world has no reality, only that it has no permanent existence and does not touch the inner reality which it hides.

Before man can know the inner world, his mind must be a fit instrument. Shri Shankara develops the thesis that action is a purifying agent. In his commentary on chapter III of the Gita he says :

“ Right actions cause purity of mind, by this purification of mind, they cause knowledge to spring up and lead to the path of devotion to knowledge. “

In support of this he quotes a passage from the Mahabharata “ Knowledge springs up in man on the destruction of sinful Karma, when the self is seen in the self as in a clean mirror.”

So right action leads to the beginning of knowledge. Perhaps it is even more important to note that it also leads to a desire for further knowledge. As glimpses of knowledge arise there is a breaking down of man’s false ideas as to his own nature. The real self has been hidden by false identification, by the idea that the body, ego and mind constituted the real self. Now the student begins to learn that they are mere instruments and not his lord and master as he had unconsciously believed, when acting as his body demanded and his mind desired. He begins to live consciously.

Swami Rama Tirtha says in Upasana that to sit near the King one must be like the king, one must throw away one’s ragged garments.

So, for the next step the student should actively and consciously discard desire, comfort and egoism. Right action includes vichara or enquiry and viveka or the power to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the true and the false.

Yet unless the student practises in daily life what he had learnt, however much philosophy he may know he will be only a talking jnani. Conversely, without knowledge of the philosophy, right action will have no other purpose than mere goodness which is not enough.

Both sides of action are necessary and, in addition, to reach his goal of spiritual Truth, the student must be prepared to do violence to his personality.

In a Persian story a thirsty man, chained to a wall, sat high above running water. He reached the water by tearing away the stones on which he sat. So man, chained to his personality will reach the waters of Truth, only, if he is ready to redirect his entire personality to that end. The Gita in Chapter XVIII makes the point that this process will be a gradual one. Each man must do his duty and practise the virtues appropriate to the situations in which he finds himself, and so gradually alter the quality of his mind by living rightly according to the standard he has reached.

Other points made are that duty should be performed without desire for fruit and without interest in whether it be pleasant or unpleasant. Acts of worship, austerity and gifts are said to be especially purifying.

Right action is the preliminary step to the realisation that all action is in the realm of duality and is to be distinguished from its spiritual substatum. So after explaining how a man should act, the Gita in chapter XVIII turns to an analysis of action and the actor.

The various components of action, the intellect and certain states such as pleasure and pain are analysed. All are shown to be made up of gunas, that is of the qualities of nature. It is then clearly stated that all actions, components of action as well as he who acts, are separate from the self and different from it.

It is said “ He who is untrained in understanding looks on the pure self as the agent. That man of perverted intelligence sees not ”.

The spirit is pure bliss, consciousness and existence : unending and unchanging.

On that is superimposed not only the outside world of names and forms but man’s equally changing, impermanent body and mind. This self is to be known when body and mind are negated.

First their dictates must be realised to be unimportant, and controlled.

Then the student must practise his knowledge. He should take an incarnation of God or a holy man as an ideal whom he may learn to serve and imitate. He will find that in this way his own comfort, his own ideas will lose first their importance and then their reality. He will learn through service the truth of what he has been taught.

All action done with worship in the heart is easier and bears fruit :

Following the path of action but devoting all action to the Lord, the pupil receives his grace and that grace is an awareness of the Lord within himself.

Slowly through reverence and adoration, the mind takes on the colour of devotion and peace.

Then it is ready for devotion to the Impersonal or the path of knowledge.

Then it is that the mind sacrificed by long effort and service never forgets the glory of the self.

The Gita says: “ Whosoever worship me with devotion, they are in Me and I am in them ” (chapter IX, v. 29)

and again“ By devotion he knows Me in truth, he forthwith enters into Me ” (chapter XVIII, v. 55).


Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!