In chapter II verse 50 ( of the Bhagavad Gita) ‘The yogi casts off good and bad deeds, so apply yourself to yoga. Yoga is skill in action’. And Shankara says on this, ‘This even-mindedness attains purity, then knowledge. He does his duty with his mind offered to God’. And again it’s Shankara who puts in this phrase from the later part of the Gita, offering it to God. Then in III, IV, there are many such examples where the text says Perform action for yajna , for sacrifice, and you will nourish the gods, and the gods will nourish you. This is a fair trading, as Swami Rama Tirtha called it. But Shankara says these are selfish cravings, sacrifice not to the gods, but to Ishwara, to the Lord. Then in chapter III.19, where the Gita says ‘Perform without attachment what is to be done, acting without attachment, man reaches the supreme’. And it’s Shankara who puts in ‘acting for the sake of Ishwara. It takes him through purity of the mind to Moksha, to freedom.
Well, if we look at this plan of the Gita, we can see that the Gita begins with these methods of self-control, controlling the self and the method of practising samadhi and the method of skilfulness in action. And Shankara adds that these things are brought about also with the help of the devotion to God. Later on, of course, the text will itself bring out the Bakthi element very powerfully, and Shankara subscribes to this on the path of karma yoga.
Now there’s one more example. Shankara at the beginning of the exposition of karma yoga, when the Gita says, you’ve heard about Sankha, now hear about karma yoga. Shankara gives a definition which includes devotion to God, but the Gita has not yet mentioned this. And he gives three elements: freedom, freeing oneself from the cares of offices; acting for the sake of the Lord, in detachment; and lastly, the practice of samadhi. And Shankara is always moving the Gita, the early parts of the Gita, which insist so strongly on the self-control as the first element. He moves this also by adding devotion. Now as one example, a word quite common in the Gita – well, not common, it comes several times in the Gita – is sreyah, which means ‘better’, the better of two things. Arjuna says, it will be better for us not to fight, to live as beggars, rather than to slay these noble men, and later on the Gita will say, knowledge is better than blind practice. It simply means the better of two things. And this is the usual sense in the Gita. But the word can also mean something like ‘the highest bliss’ or ‘freedom, release’, Moksha, and Shankara, from the beginning in his commentary, he says, ‘Arjuna, who in the early part, seeks only – tell me which is the better. Is it better for us to fight, or is it better for us not to fight?’ But Shankara reads this sreyah, better, also as implying a search for the supreme bliss, and already in the introduction to chapter III, Shankara is saying, Arjuna is becoming a full disciple and he’s beginning to seek for the supreme bliss.
Then to read again the verse ‘Even those who are devoted to other gods, who worship them, full of faith, they too are worshipping me alone, but not directly: they are in ignorance. It is I who receive and am the Lord of all sacrifices. But they do not recognise me as I am, therefore they fall. After a little success, they fall. The devotees of the gods go the gods. The devotees, worshippers of the ancestors go to ancestors. The worshippers of elemental spirits go to them, and my worshippers go to me.’
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Half-Gods and Gods
Part 2: Worshipping lesser gods
Part 3: Remove illusions by study
Part 4: Yoga is described