The Transformation of Karma Yoga


Chapter II, verse 39 of the Gita says: “After the instruction on the Supreme Self, this which has been taught to thee is wisdom concerning Samkhya.  Now listen to wisdom concerning Yoga, which possessing, thou wilt cast off the bond of action.”  This is the first time Karma Yoga is mentioned in the Gita and Shankara, as a commentator, the first time a term is mentioned he gives a definition of it – and the readers are expected to remember the definition afterwards.  His definition is that it consists of three elements:  the endurance of the opposites – the examples given are heat and cold, pleasure and pain – patient endurance of the opposites.  The second one is undertaking actions for the sake of worshipping God, and the third one is Samadhi Yoga.  These three elements constitute his first definition of Karma Yoga, which the students are expected to remember.  They’re like a definitive picture.  When Karma Yoga is mentioned or discussed after that, he doesn’t necessarily repeat the whole definition.  For instance, he’ll sometimes say (e.g. in Chapter II, verses 14-15) that it’s simply endurance of the opposites – that will lead you to the final peace.  Or he may say (in Chapter XII, verse 12) it’s abandonment of the fruits of action to God, and that alone is sufficient – that’s just one element of Karma Yoga.  Sometimes he’ll say it’s Samadhi Yoga alone, as in Chapter IV, verse 48 – or combined. Now we’re expected in these cases not to choose one place and say, “That is enough for me – just that element.”  We’re expected to remember and apply the whole definition which he’s given at the very beginning. 

As a matter of fact, he himself very often puts in just a single word to hint at the other two elements.  For instance, there is the verse, Chapter XII, verse 12: ‘From abandonment of the fruit of actions, comes peace immediately.’  Now it’s possible simply to take that sentence and say, “That’s enough.  Simply abandon the fruit of actions.  No other training or practice.” But Shankara points out that in the previous verse, when it was said, ‘The abandonment of the fruit of actions’, it said, ‘… with control of the self, grasping the self.’  And here he explains it, that it is abandonment of the fruits of actions, in the case of one who knows the Self, who’s already a Self-knower, and who is established in dhyana, in meditation. Then the abandonment of the fruit of actions leads to peace immediately.  Otherwise it leads to peace only in conjunction with the other elements and after a time through purification of the self.

It doesn’t mean then that we have to learn a tremendous number of details; we have to learn and know the basic plan of Shri Shankara’s commentary and then be able to remember that and apply it.  One example that can be given is this drawing of something which is familiar to many of us.  It looks a detailed drawing, it looks as if there are many details there – but, as a matter of fact, when it is closely examined some of these things which look like details of the sculpture are simply a dot.  Because the scene is familiar to us we fit it in.  In the same way the water is shown just by a few lines, but again, because it’s familiar to us, we know that’s water.  Now it happens that this was sent to various parts of the world and it was highly appreciated as a card from a great international organisation.  But one man, well he was a young boy, living in a village where he’d practically never seen big buildings or much water, he said he couldn’t make anything of it – it just looked like lines.  He was a student, and he put it on his desk.  He used to look at it and it stayed there while he studied.  He said, “One day, suddenly, it came alive and I saw it was water, and a ship on the water and a bridge.”  He didn’t know what the two flaps were, but he guessed what they must be. 

When we know the basic plan then, although there may be many details missing, we can reconstruct in our mind exactly and fill in and we don’t become confused.  In this kind of way Shri Shankara does this.  He gives in certain places a summing up, sometimes a definition at the very beginning, and we’re expected to remember that and apply it.  For instance, it’s been said that Shri Shankara doesn’t often mention bliss as characteristic of Brahman.  But in fact, if we look at the Gita, the very first time Brahman is mentioned, Shankara quotes two Upanishadic texts, which is his strongest way of saying anything.  One of them is: ‘Consciousness, bliss’, and his students were expected to remember this, even if it wasn’t repeated always. 

Now to take an example of a characteristic of the Gita, there are two paths, and one would expect that the paths would be kept separate.  But in fact it isn’t so.

© Trevor Leggett

This series of talks are:

Section 1: The Transformation of Karma Yoga

Section 2: Janaka had samyag darshana – right vision of the Self

Section 3: Karma Yoga has the three elements and they’re based on the buddhi

Section 4: It is impossible for the karma yogi to practise Jnana Yoga

Section 5 :A flash of God-vision is affirmed by meditation on the Self

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