A gṛhastha performs karmas out of desire — for the wellbeing of his wife and children and for the sake of his friends and relatives. Worldly life becomes possible only if householders have those desires. His dharma is to take care of his family. Therefore, he performs certain karmas to support his dharma. If he thinks that he is performing all the karmas as it’s dharma and not for his own pleasure and satiation, it is as good as tyāga. This feeling should be within him. In spiritual matters, one’s own conscience is the judge, it need not be explained to others. The śāstras say that the works of puṇya should not be advertised to the world. Those who trumpet their works of puṇya are called “dharma-dhvaja”s by Manu. Dāna and dharma should be done in secret. Even Christians follow the same precept. If this is the case of ordinary works of puṇya, what to speak of the ātmā — does it behove of anyone to proclaim that he is a jñāni and a tyāgi?
A tyāgi performs all his prescribed karmas. His mind is not attached to the good or bad results of any of them. One who thinks “All karma is worship of the divine; good or bad that results from it does not belong to me. The karma that I performed is for the love of Bhagavān; May he do as he pleases” is a tyāgi. His love for Bhagavān makes him do his karmas.
The question of karma appears in the Gītā again and again. Even in this eighteenth chapter, a large part deals with karma. Therefore, it is established that the Gītopadeśa is for ordinary saṃsāris like us. Karma is for saṃsāris. Saṃsāra itself is karma.
Our Trimatācāryas were yatis — ascetics — they had accepted saṃnyāsa. Mokṣa was their immediate goal. Therefore, the Gītā became a mokṣa-śāstra for them. Though it cannot be said that gṛhastha-dharma was not in their purview, it was a puruṣārtha that was far from and beneath mokṣa. Theirs was the way of nivṛtti — the way where they tried to unshackle themselves from the fetters of karma. Ours is the way of pravṛtti — where we compulsorily have to perform karma. Dharma-karma is near to us; mokṣa is far off. Therefore, the important instruction for us in the Gītā is the instruction of karma. In this last chapter, Bhagavān, for a large part, expounds the principle of karma. This gives courage and encouragement to people like us. If the nature of karma is understood with right judgement and performed as it should be, mokṣa will come to us when it has to. We do not have to think urgently about mokṣa now.
Any karma is fraught with faults. Therefore, some say that all karma should be given up.
tyājyaṃ doṣavad-ityeke ॥
Some others say that the three-fold karmas such as yajña, dāna and tapas should not be given up at any cost. Bhagavān also opines that yajña, dāna and tapas should never be given up and compulsorily performed.
yajna-dāna-tapaḥ-karma na tyājyaṃ kāryam-eva tat ॥
These are nitya-karmas that are prescribed according to one’s circumstances. They may be laukika-karmas or vaidika-karmas. They are not performed out of desire for their fruit, and train the jīva. They are prescribed for everyone.
What is the reason for such an abundance of dialectic literature about the relationship between karma and jñāna, and that between karma and mokṣa in our śāstras? As far as I know, this question is not so pervasive in the texts of other religions like Islam and Christianity. Whereas, in Hinduism, the discussion about karma and akarma is an integral part of Ātmaśāstra, and has grown to be equally important. In his works, Śrī Śankarācārya has devoted much space to deliberation about karma. This is because he had to answer the pūrvamīmāṃsakas. The pūrvamīmāṃsakas argued that there is no jñāna without karma, and that karma itself is jñāna. Śaṅkarācārya’s bhāṣyas were their counterargument. Thus, this śāstra grew abundantly.
However, it appears that this dispute has been there for a very long time. The Īśāvāsya-upaniṣad says the following:
saṃbhūtiṃ ca vināśaṃ ca yastadveda ubhayagṃ saha ।
vināśena mṛtyuṃ tīrtvā saṃbhūtyā’mṛtam-aśnute ॥
vidyāṃ ca avidyāṃ ca yastad-veda ubhayagṃ saha ।
avidyayā mṛtyuṃ tīrtvā vidyayā’mṛtam-aśnute ॥
The same concept is explained in the Kaṭhopaniṣad as well. Why has dialectical literature about karma grown so much? We have to ponder carefully about this.
Karma is worldly action — take something from the world and give something back to it. This is our daily life. There is no karma in our life that is not of the form of giving or taking. Even while breathing we take in air and bestow it back upon the world. All the works done in the world are thus in the form of accepting and remitting, and either further one’s selfishness or erode it. Karmas done for our own pleasure, our own happiness, our own benefit, our own prosperity and prestige nurture selfishness. When those objects fructify, our selfishness is encouraged. As selfishness increases, we take more and more from the world and give back less and less. Thus, our debt to the world increases and the thread of saṃsāra lengthens. As worldly transactions with selfish motives increase, the possibility of pāpa increases. As the fruits of puṇya multiply, the attraction towards pāpa also increases. This is the danger in karma. This is present even in satkarma, because selfish desires are at the heart of our devotion to the divine, like opium that is dissolved in pāyasam. What is the story of Hiranyakaśipu, Rāvaṇa, Bāṇāsura, Bhasmāsura and other rākṣasas? It is a story of descending to the world of pāpa through the doors of puṇya. They performed rigorous penances and worshipped Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva. The boons they acquired as a result of their puṇya instigated them to perform pāpa. Tamasic devotion resulted in delusion and infatuation, and therefore they attained naraka.
Therefore, some people argue that they do not want to have anything to do with karma.
tyājyaṃ doṣavad-ityeke ॥
So, then, is there no fault at all if we give up karma entirely? That is not true. This is because by giving up karma entirely, the jīva loses opportunities to eradicate its selfishness. Selfishness is attached to the jīva — just like some people have cold all the time. If selfishness has to wear away, constant interaction with the world is necessary. Friction with the world loosens the strings of the heart and strengthens the manas as well. The three kinds of afflictions — adhibhautika, adhidaivika and adhyatmika — melt the jīva. The great poet Bhartrhari explains the same to us in these charming words —
mātarmedini tāta māruta sakhe tejaḥ subandho jala ।
bhrātar-vyoma nibaddha eva bhavatām antyaḥ praṇāmāñjaliḥ ॥
jñānāpāsta-samasta-moha-mahimā līye para-brahmaṇi ॥
This is the great benefit of karma. When Bhartṛhari realized that his end was near, he folded his palms and beseeched thus “O Mother Earth, Father Wind, Friend Sun, dear Water, brother Sky, here is my last obeisance to you. (I have benefitted from you). My selfishness and delusion are removed because of my purifying contact with you. As a result, I have obtained the pure, vast and limpid light of understanding of the self. Because of that, I am now able to become one with Paramātmā.
For a jñāni, saṃsāra is akin to tapas. The house is a smithery. Just as a smith heats metal and makes it pliable, the heat of saṃsāra softens human nature. Just as a smith would pat and hit the iron when it is hot, the blows delivered by the world correct human nature and temper it, thus making it useful to the world.
A vacana by Basavaṇṇa goes thus —
martyalokavembudu kartārana kammaṭavayya। Illi salluvavaru alliyū salluvarayyā।
(This world is a smithery of the creator. Those who thrive here will thrive there also).
Heat from a kiln and blows of a hammer make a coin of a piece of metal. A good coin is valuable both in this world and the other. The pressures of one’s spouses and children, run-ins with relatives, skirmishes with shopkeepers, brawls at banks, wrangles at the workplace — all these activities squeeze the tight knots of the jīva and soften them; they straighten its crookedness and firm up the feeble parts; they dilute its self-centeredness; and they expand the boundary of affection and attachment. Thus, karma can subdue selfishness. For this reason,
Na tyājyam-iti cāpare ॥
Should we perform karma, or give it up? Should we have a nose, or should we cut it off? If there is a nose, there might be the possibility of catching a cold also. However, there is no breath without the nose! Performing karma encourages selfishness. But if it is not performed, it does not mean that the existing selfishness goes away. Both of these are dangerous. The tactic here is to prevent selfishness that can enter karma. That is the principle.
yajña-dāna-tapaḥ-karma na tyājyaṃ kāryam-eva tat ॥
BG 18. 5
Yajña is worshipping the divine. Dāna is making the world happy. Tapas is self-control. Daiva, the world and the jīva — these three are an integral part of human life. Service to them is a must — they should never ever be given up. Yajña, dāna and tapas are the means of purification for an intelligent person. When these karmas are performed with full knowledge of their meaning and with viveka, they can purge the faults of selfishness and purify the jīva.
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.