Ch. 4 Yoga of Unattached Karma (Part 2)

This article is part 39 of 43 in the series Jīvana-dharma-yoga

The Antiquity of Karma-vidyā

“Arjuna, what I am explaining to you now is not something new and contemporary. It is something that I had explained to the sun named Vivasvān at the beginning of creation. He, in turn, taught this to Manu, the progenitor of the human race. Manu then gave the same upadeśa to Ikṣvāku, the foremost among kings. Thus, this knowledge of karma has been passed on through many generations. Earlier, many king-sages like Janaka and others followed the tenets of this knowledge and became accomplished."

Why did Bhagavān thus speak of an unbroken guru-śiṣya tradition? Did he intend that since it was ancient, it had to be accepted? Kālidāsa says,

purāṇam-ity-eva na sādhu sarvaṃ
na cāpi kāvyaṃ navam-ity-avadyam

santaḥ parīkṣyānyatarad-bhajante… (Mālavikāgnimitram Act 1)

All that is ancient is not great because of its antiquity; all that is new is not bad because of its newness. The guṇa or doṣa of something can be determined only after careful reasoning. Nothing should be accepted with blind faith. Still, the fact that many people over hundreds of generations accepted it is proof enough of the probity of the knowledge of karma. We find similar testimony of widespread acceptance by people spanning aeons even with regard to the Vedas. Therefore, the fact that a great many people have accepted the principle of karma is evidence of its efficacy.

This is why Bhagavān praised antiquity and tradition. The people of our times should study this principle carefully. Human history should, like the flow of a mighty river, be unbroken. Only then does it acquire prominence. Otherwise, if it is broken here and there, torn asunder by flaws, inconsistent and incoherent, and absurd, it becomes a meaningless travail. It becomes like the lokāyata refrain "aparaspara-saṃbhūtam" (BG 16.8) (born and existing independent of one another). This is why all our social reformers have always averred that they are the followers of their elders. This is the tradition in all countries. If a reformer wants his work to be sustained in future, he always says that he is only reiterating and demonstrating what is already expressed in previous works. Jesus Christ also did the same. He did not claim that he founded a new religion, but that his was an ancient creed that disappeared over time and he was only resurrecting it. Scholars of commerce, law, and other subjects also say that they are only taking naturally established philosophies forward and not creating them anew. The seers of the Vedas said,

"iti śuśruma dhīrāṇāṃ ye nas-tad-vicacakṣire" — "This we heard from the wise, who explained it to us." (Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad 10)

"idam-āhur-anūcānāḥ" — "thus said the ancients..." (Kumārasambhava 6.15)

"tadeṣābhyuktā" — "this was declared..." (Taittirīya-upaniṣad 2.1)

"atraite ślokā bhavanti" — "these are the verses here..." (Maitrāyaṇy-upaniṣad)

etc., and remembered their ancient masters.

This is not just an act of courtesy. Those who strive for the progress of humankind follow the method of home builders. The very first layer is the foundation, then comes a line of bricks, and then a line above that and so on. A storey is built using the lower storey as support. Thus, it is important that all the levels from the foundation to the topmost floor are connected. A building that has stood strong for a long time itself is proof that it can withstand the impact of rain and sun and wind, and also the thumps and thwacks of people living in it. A religion or custom is venerated because it is time-tested. This is tradition. The plight of a civilisation without tradition is similar to that of a cotton strand that is flitting aimlessly as the wind takes it.

Tradition is not mindless parroting of customs and rules. ‘Traditional’ does not amount to mere repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over again is not progress. True progress blends older aspects of societal life with the new — just as old trunk and roots of a peepal tree coexist with and nurture new branches and leaves. The same pattern of progress holds true for human history also. The old should form the basis for the new. Only then does newness gain acceptability and strength. Such continuity from old to new is the sign of a healthy society. Śrīkṛṣṇa demonstrated that such continuity existed in his instruction and therefore it was worthy of following. It was accepted by many people across many generations, and therefore it was authoritative. He said, "My good man, this instruction is suited for all times. Don’t think that you, Arjuna, are the first among the world’s intelligent people! There were many wise people before you who followed this path. I am only telling you what has been established firmly, by virtue of being accepted across generations by many people. Therefore it is fit to be accepted."

Why did something that was well-established even in ancient times go missing?

evaṃ paramparā-prāptam-imaṃ rājarṣayo viduḥ
sa kāleneha mahatā yogo naṣṭaḥ parantapa॥ (BG 4.2)

(This science that was passed on in an uninterrupted manner, studied by sages among kings, was lost).

"As aeons passed, the conditions of the world changed and this knowledge was lost.’’

Coming to think of it, it is not surprising at all. We see many streams of knowledge dying out in front of our eyes.

Divine Avatāras

Arjuna was surprised on hearing Bhagavān praise long-lost ancestors. He said, "Wait a moment, my dear fellow! When was Vivasvān born and when were you born? How were you, my contemporary, able to instruct someone who existed long, long ago?"

This question of Arjuna’s gave an opportunity to Bhagavān to demonstrate his firm attachment towards his dharma. He said, "Arjuna, you and I do not belong to this era alone; we have always existed. You and I differ in two aspects. Firstly, you have forgotten your previous births; I remember them. Secondly, your births were caused because of your deeds — good and bad. My avatāras are for the protection of dharma.”

yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānirbhavati bhārata
abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṃ sṛjāmyaham

paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṃ vināśāya ca duṣkṛtāṃ
dharmasaṃśthāpanārthāya sambavāmi yuge yuge
॥ (BG 4.7, 4.8)

(Whenever dharma declines and adharma ascends, I manifest myself.
To protect the virtuous, to destroy the evil and to establish dharma, I am born in every age).

To be continued...

The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.

About:

Mother of two. Engineer. Worshiper of Indian music, poetry, and art.

Prekshaa Publications

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