Chapter III: Action

On the strength of our identification with Arjuna’s heart, we are apt to feel, at the beginning of the third chapter, that we are thrown into the world of ruthless confusion and immense doubt. Arjuna wants immediate relief from his mental tension; he wants to hear a decisive truth. His impatience prevents him from seeing the total truth in all its aspects. In the preceding chapter, his divine Teacher, Sri Krishna, expressed his deep appreciation for the Path of Knowledge, but at the same time told Arjuna of the great necessity of action. The Teacher, needless to say, had not the slightest intention of throwing the student into the sea of confusion. Far from it. What Arjuna required was a broader vision of truth and a deeper meaning of Reality. When we see through the eyes of Arjuna, we see that his world is a world of conflicting ideas. But when we see through the eyes of Sri Krishna, we see a world of complementary facets of the all-sustaining and all-pervading Truth.

Knowledge and Action, Arjuna believed, would lead him to the same Goal. Why then is he doomed or expected to wade through the bloodshed of war, enjoined by action?

True, Arjuna’s mental sky was overcast with heavy clouds, but his psychic sky pined for true enlightenment. His mighty question is, “If you consider knowledge superior to action, why urge me to this dreadful action?”

Sri Krishna now says, “Two paths, Arjuna, are there. I have already told you that. The Path of Knowledge and the Path of Action. Through the divine art of contemplation, the aspirant follows the Path of Knowledge. Through the dynamic urge of selfless work, the seeker follows the Path of Action.”

Knowledge feels that the world within is the real world. Action feels that the world without is the real world. The Path of Knowledge enters inside from outside, while the Path of Action enters outside from inside. This is the difference. But this apparent duality can never be the whole truth, the Truth Ultimate.

There is an Arabian proverb which says:

There are four sorts of men:
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not:
he is a fool — shun him;
He who knows not and knows that he knows not:
he is simple — teach him;
He who knows and knows not that he knows:
he is asleep — wake him;
He who knows and knows that he knows:
he is wise — follow him.

Arjuna, too, had to go through these four stages of evolution. At the end of the first chapter, he declared, “O Krishna, I shall not fight.” He did not know what Truth was, yet he was ignorant of this fact. Krishna, being all Compassion, could not shun his dearest Arjuna. “I pray, tell me what is best for me.” Here Arjuna’s simple sincerity touches the depth of Sri Krishna’s heart and the Teacher begins to instruct the aspirant.

Arjuna had known all his life that heroism was the very breath of a Kshatriya like himself, but his mind temporarily eclipsed this inner knowledge. He was in the world of deluding sleep. So Sri Krishna had to arouse him, saying, “Arjuna, fight! In victory, you will enjoy the sovereignty of the earth; in death, wide open are the gates of Paradise.”

Finally Arjuna realised that Sri Krishna not only knew the truth but also was the Truth. So he wanted to follow Sri Krishna. He cried out, “Saranagata — You are my refuge. I am at your command.”

He who follows the Path of Action is by nature simple, says Krishna. He is simple, his action is direct; the result is immediate. Arjuna however, wants freedom from action, which is nothing short of impossibility. Action is done not only by the body, but also in the body by mind. Action plays its role also in the conscious and sub-conscious levels of one’s being. Action cannot die. It can never dream of an escape so long as the impulses of nature are alive. Action binds us only when we bind action with our likes and dislikes. The action-tree grows within us either with its venomous or with its ambrosial fruits.

According to Shankara, one may doubt the existence of God, but it is impossible for one to doubt one’s own existence. A human being, if he houses common sense, believes in his present existence. If he cares to go a step ahead, he has to accept the undeniable existence of destiny. And what is destiny? Destiny is the evolving experience of one’s consciousness. This experience is neither obscure nor uncertain. It is the necessary inevitability of a cosmic law striving for its outer manifestation in perfect Perfection.

Action and reaction are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. At times they may appear to be two dire foes. Nevertheless, their equal capacity is undeniable. The Son of God made the lofty statement: “They that take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Action itself does not have a binding power; neither does it need one. It is the desire in action that has the power to bind us and tell us that freedom is not for mortals. But if, in action, sacrifice looms large, or if action is done in a spirit of sacrifice, or if action is considered another name for sacrifice, then action is perfection, action is illumination, action is liberation.

For him who is embodied, action is a necessity, action is a must. Man is the result of a divine sacrifice. It is sacrifice that can vision the truth and fulfil man’s existence. In sacrifice alone we see the connection and fulfilling link between one individual and another. No doubt the world is progressing and evolving. Yet, in the Western world sacrifice is often considered synonymous with stupidity and ignorance. To quote William Q. Judge, one of the early leading Theosophists, “Although Moses established sacrifices for the Jews, the Christian successors have abolished it both in spirit and letter, with a curious inconsistency which permits them to ignore the words of Jesus that ‘not one jot or tittle of the law should pass until all these things were fulfilled’.” To be sure, the East of today is no exception.

What is sacrifice? It is the discovery of universal oneness. In the Rig-Veda we observe the Supreme Sacrifice made by the sage Brihaspati:

"Devebhyah kam avrinit mrtyam...
  Death he chose, for the sake of the gods, he chose not Immortality for the mortals’ sake."

Sacrifice is the secret of self-dedicated service. It was fear or some other doubtful motive which compelled the primitive minds to embrace sacrifice. They thought that the eyes of the cosmic gods would emit fire if they did not sacrifice animals as an offering. At least they were clever enough not to sacrifice children, their nearest and dearest. The Supreme wanted and still wants and will always want sacrifice from both human beings and the gods for their reciprocal benefit. It is their mutual sacrifice that makes both the parties one and indivisible. Men will offer their aspiration; the gods will offer their illumination. A man of true satisfaction is a man of consecrated offering. Sin can stand nowhere near him. The existence of humanity as a whole demands attention first; the individual existence next. Work done in the spirit of purest offering leads an aspirant to the abode of perfect bliss.

Possession is no satisfaction, so long as ego breathes in us. The great King Janaka knew it. No wonder Janaka was loved by the Sage Yagnyavalka most. His Brahmin disciples felt that Janaka received preference just because he was king. It is obvious that God would not let the Sage Yagnyavalka suffer such foul criticism. So, what happened? Mithila, Janaka’s capital, began to burn in mounting and devouring flames. The disciples ran, left their preceptor, hurried to their respective cottages. What for? Just to save their loin-cloths. All fled save Janaka. He ignored his riches and treasures burning in the city. Janaka stayed with his guru, Yagnyavalka, listening to the sage’s ambrosial talk. “Mithilayam pradagdhayam namekincit pranasyati"… “Nothing do I lose even though Mithila may be consumed to ashes.” Now the disciples came to learn why their Guru favoured Janaka most. This is the difference between a man of wisdom and a man of ignorance. An ignorant man knows that what he has is the body. A man of wisdom knows that what he has and what he is is the soul. Hence to him the soul’s needs are of paramount importance.

Sri Krishna disclosed to Arjuna the secret of Janaka’s attainment to Self-realisation and Salvation. Janaka acted with detachment. He acted for the sake of humanity, having been surcharged with the light and wisdom of divinity. Indeed, this is the path of the noble. Krishna wanted Arjuna to tread this path, so that the world would follow him. Perhaps Arjuna was not fully convinced. In order to convince Arjuna fully and unreservedly, Krishna brought himself into the picture. He gave the example of Himself: “Nothing have I to do in the three worlds, nor is there anything worth attaining, unattained by me; yet do I perpetually work, I ever have my existence in action. If I do not work, the worlds will perish.”

Sri Krishna wanted Arjuna to be freed from the fetters of ignorance. The only way Arjuna could do it was to act without attachment. Sri Krishna told Arjuna the supreme secret: “Dedicate all action to Me, with your mind fix on Me, the Self in all…”

All beings must follow their nature. No escape there is, nor can there be. What can restraint do? Man’s duty is Heaven’s peerless blessing. One must know what one’s duty is. Once duty is known, it is to be performed to the last.

"I slept and dreamed that life was Beauty;
  I woke and found that life was Duty."
  — Ellen S. Hooper, Beauty and Duty

Life’s duty, performed with a spontaneous flow of self-offering to humanity under the express guidance of the inner being, can alone transform life into Beauty, the heavenly Beauty of the world within, and earthly Beauty of the world without.

Arjuna’s duty was to fight, for he was a Kshatriya, a warrior. This fighting was not for power, but for the establishment of truth over falsehood. Sri Krishna’s most encouraging and inspiring words regarding one’s individual duty demand all our admiration. “Better always one’s own duty, be it ever so humble, than that of another, howsoever tempting. Even death brings in blessedness itself in the performance of one’s own duty; doomed to peril will he be if he performs the duty enjoined on another.”

Arjuna has now one more question, rather a pertinent one, and that is his last question in this chapter. “Impelled by what, O Krishna, does a man commit sin despite himself?” “Kama, Krodha,” answers Krishna, “desire and anger — these are the hostile enemies of man.”

Desire is insatiable. Once desire is born, it knows not how to die. Yayati’s experience of desire can throw abundant light on us. Let us cite his sublime experience. King Yayati was one of the illustrious ancestors of the Pandavas. He was utterly unacquainted with defeat. He was well conversant with the Shastras (scriptures). Immense was his love for his subjects in his realm. Intense was his devotion towards God. Nevertheless, cruel was his fate. His father-in-law, Sukracharya, the preceptor of the asuras (demons), pronounced a fatal curse on him, and he was forced to marry Sharmistha in addition to the daughter Devayani. Sukracharya cursed Yayati with premature old age. Needless to say, the curse took an immediate effect. The inimitable pride of Yayati’s manhood was ruthlessly stricken with age. In vain the king cried for forgiveness. However, Sukracharya calmed down a little. “King,” he said, “I am lessening the strength of my curse. If any human being agrees to exchange the beauty and glory of his youth with you, with your body’s deplorable state, then you will get back the prime of your own youth.”

Yayati had five sons. He begged of his sons, tempted them with the throne of his kingdom, persuaded them in every possible way to agree to an exchange of life. His first four sons softly and prudently refused. The youngest, the most devoted, Puru, gladly accepted his father’s old age. Lo, Yayati at once was transformed into the prime of his youth. In no time, desire entered into his body and commanded him to enjoy life to the last drop. He fell desperately in love with an Apsara (nymph) and spent many years with her. Alas, his insatiable desire could not be quenched by self-indulgence. Never. At long last he realised the truth. He fondly said to his dearest son Puru: “Son, O son of mine, impossible to quench is sensual desire. It can never be quenched by indulgence any more than fire is extinguished by pouring ghee (clarified butter) into it. To you I return your youth. To you I give my kingdom as promised. Rule the kingdom devotedly and wisely.” Yayati entered again into his old age. Puru regained his youth and ruled the kingdom. The rest of his life Yayati spent in the forest practising austerities. In due course Yayati breathed his last there. The soul-bird flew back to its abode of delight.

Bernard Shaw’s apt remark on desire can be cited to add to the glory of this experience of Yayati. Shaw said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” — Man and Superman.

The role of desire is over. Now let us jump into the fury of Anger. Desire unfulfilled gives birth to anger. Anger is the mad elephant in man. To our wide surprise, most of the celebrated Indian sages of the hoary past found it almost impossible to conquer anger. They used to curse human beings in season and out of season, at times, even without rhyme or reason. The sage Durvasa of the Mahabharata topped the list of the sages successfully consumed with anger. He was at once austerity incarnate and ire incarnate.

Desire satisfied, life grows into a bed of thorns. Desire conquered, life grows into a bed of roses. Desire transformed into aspiration, life flies into the highest liberation, life dines with the Supreme salvation.