Sri Krishna’s Answer
The answer that Sri Krishna gives can be received and understood only if one realizes that even at the summit of the ordinary mental level of consciousness, there is no solution to the problem of the kind that Arjuna was confronted with. The mental consciousness is limited and remains confined perpetually in the state of egoism and duality, and even at its highest level, the strain and stress of the stains of ego and dualities do not get diminished; on the contrary, the acuteness of the strains is felt to be so drenched in grief that the only way in which one can cure that grief is to discover a higher level of consciousness, if such exists, and if in that state, a perfectly pure action devoid of any blemish can be possible. Sri Krishna, the Master of Yoga, has the key to that higher level of consciousness in the light of which a positive solution and a fully affirmative answer can be obtained. The entire statement of the answer that is expounded in the Gita is a gradual exposition in an ascending manner, even in a winding manner and often in a perplexing manner, which culminates in a living vision and experience of the Supreme Reality in action in the world, in every strand of which there is purity and divinity, and in attaining identity with which, one can share and one can be filled totally with that purity and divinity in every fibre of action that is demanded of human agency.
Gita is not a book of Practical Ethics but of the Spiritual life
But before we analyze Sri Krishna’s answer in detail, it may be remarked that the upshot of this answer is that the Gita is not a book of practical ethics, but of the spiritual life which permits us to transcend the clash of all dharmas that the human mind can conceive, and to discover a new dharma, the law of divine action, divyam karma, by the attainment of divine freedom in which the nature of the individual transcends its limitations, the limitations of the nature subject to three gunas, – tamas, rajas, and sattva, – and attains to the divine nature (sādharmyaṁ).
Gita’s view of Duty for Duty’s sake
Often this high pitch of the Gita is not grasped, and often the Gita is so interpreted as to teach us the disinterested performance of duty as the highest and all-sufficient law. It has been argued that the crisis of Arjuna arose because he happened to forget his duty, and the whole teaching of Sri Krishna was to remind him of that duty. It is true that in the winding development of the argument, Sri Krishna does point out to Arjuna to follow the duty of the kshatriya in the war, but Sri Krishna knew that Arjuna was quite aware of his duty, and the latter’s argument showed quite clearly his awareness of the duty of the kshyatriya. In the course of his argument, Arjuna had conceded the value of that duty, but he had become aware of an equally imperative duty, namely, to ensure the tradition of dharma of the family and of the society and of the nation, and he had become aware, too, that both the duties violently clashed with each other
ending in the collapse of the whole useful intellectual and moral edifice erected by the human mind. Indeed, it was Arjuna’s duty to fight. But that duty had now become to his mind a terrible sin. How does it help him or solve his difficulty to tell him that he must do his duty disinterestedly, dispassionately? For knowing the clash of duties, he would want to know which was his duty. Could it be his duty to destroy in a sanguinary massacre his kin, his race and the tradition of dharma that held the country in some kind of solidarity? Indeed, he was told that he had right on his side, but that does not and cannot satisfy him, because, as he argues, the justice of his legal claim does not justify him in supporting it by a pitiless massacre destructive of the future of his nation. Was it a solution for him to act dispassionately in the sense of not caring whether it is a sin and whether that sinful action will multiply sinfulness in the society?
We also need to take into account a very important element that was present but not explicitly stated in the course of the argument of Arjuna. That element referred to a view which had become quite prominent, namely, the view of the Sankhya philosophy, which advocated that no action can be pure and devoid of the stain of the three gunas of nature, and that the highest good of the individual lay in sannyasa, in the renunciation of all motives of life and action and to seek liberation alone by renouncing action altogether. That this view had begun to guide him can be seen in his somewhat decisive declaration, “I shall not fight”, and in the arguments that he advanced when Sri Krishna brought out in fullness the Sankhyan view of life and action and contrasted it with the view of yoga which, at that time, meant the Yoga of Action. In fact, the debate between
Sankhya and Yoga occupies a prominent place in Sri Krishna’s answer, and this prominence is due to the fact that the Sankhyan view, which aimed at lifting human consciousness from the ordinary mental consciousness to a spiritual level of consciousness, advocated the gospel of renunciation or sannyasa and advocated, therefore, the inferiority and dispensability of the concepts of human duties and human responsibilities, which were supposed to be the results of the operations of ignorance. It was against this background that the final answer of the Gita goes beyond the higher level of consciousness indicated by Sankhya. The call of the Gita is not to subordinate the higher plane to the lower, but it calls us to rise higher and even to higher than the higher and to ascend to a supreme poise above the mainly practical, above the purely ethical, and even above the inactive Brahmic consciousness. In ultimate terms, it is in the integral static and dynamic Brahmic consciousness that the soul becomes free from works and is yet able to determine works by the intervention of the supreme divine consciousness and the Divine Lord within and above us; – it is by reference to that integral Brahmic Consciousness that Sri Krishna provides the final answer to Arjuna’s question and demand for arriving at that action in which there is no stain of the ego, duality and conflict of the three gunas of our ordinary nature.
It is true that if one lays an almost exclusive stress on the first three or four chapters and on the idea of equality, and on the expression, kartavyaṁ karma, the work that is to be done, and if one ignores the graduality of the exposition of the teaching, where the Teacher has to lead the disciple from one psychological level of understanding
to a higher one – a process in which subtleties and complexities of the ultimate richness of the teaching are to be developed, keeping also in view the psychological resonances which arise in the mind when words like dharma, karma, sankhya, sannyasa and yoga have to be used, – if all that is ignored, then one would feel justified to think that the Gita is a book of the Gospel of Duty, and one would read in it also the gospel of Kant’s doctrine of Duty for Duty’s sake. This sense is heightened when one refers to the phrase: “Thou hast a right to action, but none to the fruits of action”, which is now popularly quoted as a great word, mahāvākya, of the Gita. One feels that one has grasped in this dictum in substance the entire teaching of the Gita. But when we read the Gita in all its complexity, one finds that the great gospel of Karma yoga that we find in the Gita goes much farther than Kant. One has also to remember that Sri Krishna accepts the truth that lies behind the Sankhyan gospel of renunciation according to which all works have to be renounced, even though Sri Krishna’s final answer transcends the Sankhyan solution. But both in Sankhyan doctrine and in the vision that Sri Krishna presents in which the Sankhyan doctrine is transcended, there is no place for Kant’s doctrine or other doctrines which assign supreme importance to the idea of duty. Indeed, the idea of duty has some relevance and appeal, and Sri Krishna himself refers to it, with justification, at the level at which that relevance has to be emphasized. But, then, we shall also find the counsel of Sri Krishna for hedonistic utilitarianism at a given stage of the development of the argument that Arjuna should fight for victory and for the enjoyment of the fruits of victory.
As Sri Krishna points out:
“If you are killed, you will attain heaven, or if you attain victory, you will enjoy kingship over the earth. Therefore, get up with determination to fight, O son of Kunti!” (II.37)
Thus, utilitarianism has also a place and justification and relevance at a certain stage of consciousness which rules man in his lower stages of ascent from the life of impulses to the life of reason, and from there to the life of higher and higher levels of consciousness. While evaluating the teaching of the Gita and, particularly, the doctrines of duty and utilitarianism, we have to note that Indian ethics respects gradations of consciousness and does not prescribe one law of conduct for all in any uniform manner. As one ascends from level to level, Indian ethics provides a guidance appropriate to each level, so that one can securely advance towards higher steps of ascent. In Indian ethics, therefore, there is place for kama and artha, provided they are restrained within limits by dharma that is prescribed for a regulated balance between indulgence and restraint. At a still higher level, it prescribes dharma for its own sake, but even there the idea of dharma is not limited to one rigid concept of duty. If Buddha renounces the duties of a prince, of a husband and of a father, he is not to be judged as having done something that is not prescribed. For the idea of dharma takes into account the ideal of response that one should give to a call, when that call issues from a level which is regarded as higher than what is restricted in a narrow scope of life and its activities. We can thus see towards the close of the teaching of the Gita a highest command that demands abandonment of all
Dharmas, sarvadharmān parityajya, in order to take refuge in the Supreme alone. The teaching of the Gita is based upon a vision of the Supreme and of a law of the Action of the Supreme in obedience to which alone the secret of freedom of the right action is discovered and in which, again, the secret of freedom from all action is also discovered.
Equality (samatvam) in the Gita
We also need to note that the equality which the Gita preaches is not disinterestedness; it is a state of inner poise and wideness which is the foundation of spiritual freedom, which is not only freedom of action but also freedom from action, a state in which the Supreme Himself acts in the world in such a way that He is at once non-doer and alldoer. All work is volition applied to a result, and karma yoga does not teach neglect in the performance of work that aims at the results of work. Sri Krishna defines Karma Yoga as skill in works (yogah karmasu kauśalam), and thus he lays down a principle that a karmayogin does every work with every due care and with such efficiency that the work shoots like an arrow so as to reach the precise point of the target. What the Gita teaches, however, is that even when the action is performed well, one has no right to the fruits of action, which is quite a different matter. In fact, Gita’s teaching is that of inner renunciation of desire in which not only the desire for the enjoyment of fruits of action is to be renounced, but it goes farther. For Sri Krishna explains that even the sense of doership of action is a sign of ignorance of the entire machinery of action in the world and how ultimately action originates in the world. The aim of the
teaching is to show that the real origin of action is in the Supreme Consciousness, which is at once immobile and mobile, as described often in the Upanishads (e.g. “It moves and It moves not”), and that all action originates from that state of consciousness which is entirely free from any necessity of action and which is for ever free from action even when from one ray of its consciousness the entire universe can be manifested. It is to lead the disciple to that state of consciousness by following a gradual and methodical process that Sri Krishna follows a tangled and difficult way.