Last modified: March 23, 2020



[ Yahoo! ]

Possible difficulties in the philosophy

of the Bhagavad Gita

by Ernest Valea

The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita
Yoga according to the Gita

Possible difficulties

Krishna, karma and grace
Dharma and karma
Krishna as sovereign god and the periodical creation of the world
The Gita and morality


This and other similar articles address potential inconsistencies encountered by a certain religious view. While I see them as inconsistencies, for others they may pose no problem at all. For this reason, the articles are entitled "Possible difficulties in [this or that religion]" and not "Contradictions in [this or that religion]". Each of these articles is a list of possible difficulties with short comments aimed at encouraging critical thinking on each issue.


The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita


The Bhagavad Gita (henceforth referred to as the Gita) was probably composed between the 7th and the 6th centuries BC and later incorporated into the great Hindu epic Mahabharata. It offered a new path towards liberation, a new kind of asceticism at hand for any human, independent of social status. It requires neither withdrawal from social life, nor performing severe austerities. This probably explains its great success both in the East and the West. The new Yoga presented in the Gita is mostly concerned with one's attitude of mind when performing normal social duties, and could be defined as a combination of Karma, Bhakti and Buddhi Yoga. Karma Yoga in the Gita means the performance of one's duties in a spirit of renunciation, of not being bound to its fruits (5,1-2); Bhakti Yoga is one's effort to bring all actions as sacrifices to Krishna (14,26); while Buddhi Yoga is a particular kind of wisdom one has to develop in understanding life (2,49; 10,10; 18,57). Let us analyze the way this new kind of Yoga works, as well as its natural implications.


Yoga according to the Gita


The Gita is an episode of the great epic Mahabharata (6,25-42), which narrates the dialogue of Arjuna, one of the five sons of the Pandava family, with the Hindu god Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. A major battle is about to begin in which Arjuna has a horrible assignment, that of fighting against his relatives, the Kaurava family. Caught between duty as a warrior and the morality of fighting against his cousins, between his social duty and the threat of karma, he chooses not to fight and to be killed rather than to have his conscience stained by the killing of his relatives. At this moment Krishna reveals himself to the distressed warrior and helps him understand the situation from a transcendental point of view. He performs a spiritual exegesis of Arjuna's situation, stating: "Not by abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from karma, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection" (3,4). "Abstaining from work" is practically impossible according to Krishna, as "everyone is forced to act according to the tendencies (gunas) he has acquired from the modes of material nature (prakriti)" (3,5). As a warrior, Arjuna must always follow his duties, in other words, his dharma. On this basis the Gita founds a new element in Hindu philosophy: Spiritual perfection is not attained by asceticism or by abandoning action, but by giving a new meaning to action - that of detachment from its fruits. Such an attitude of mind does not feed karma and reincarnation. Krishna formulates the famous principle:

Be focused on action and not on the fruits of action. Do not become confused in attachment to the fruit of your actions and do not become confused in the desire for inaction (2,47).

Therefore one should not withdraw from the world of social involvement but live in it detached from the fruits of actions, since "action is better than inaction" and "renunciation of all action is impossible" (3,8). As a result, Krishna's command to Arjuna is: "Always act with detachment to the fruits of actions. The one who is acting without attachment attains God" (3,19). This is Karma Yoga, the path of attaining liberation through accomplishing one's normal duties with a totally detached attitude toward personal benefit. In his given context, Arjuna has to fight no matter who is going to die on the battlefield.

There is also a new meaning of sacrifice and Bhakti Yoga. Written at the time when the authority of the Vedas had greatly decreased, the Gita states a hierarchy in the values of different kinds of sacrifice, with the lowest being the Vedic sacrifice, brought to a god in order to get personal favors, the next being the inner sacrifice of Raja Yoga (that of breathing - 4,29; of the mind and senses - 4,27; and that of empirical knowledge 4,33) and the best being that of detached action. Acting in this way, one brings his actions as sacrifices to Krishna and therefore they do not generate karmic seeds:
Consider all your acts as acts of devotion to me, whether eating, offering, giving away, performing austerities. Perform them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from karma, you will be liberated and you will come to me (9,27).

According to this new understanding of Bhakti Yoga, there is no need for any kind of material sacrifices, rituals or other kind of performances, but only to act in a worshiping attitude toward Krishna, as if all acts are dedicated to him. This particular mindset in judging particular situations in life is called Buddhi Yoga. Following it, one can attain liberation.


Possible difficulties in the philosophy of the Gita


Krishna, karma and grace


A first difficulty in the philosophy of the Gita concerns the relation between the law of karma and the grace granted by Krishna in helping his followers to attain liberation. On the one hand it seems that Krishna is sovereign over the law of karma, and uses it as an instrument for punishment or reward. He says: "Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, I perpetually cast into transmigration, into various demoniac species of life" (16,19). And also: "Those who worship me and surrender all their activities unto me, being devoted to me without hesitation, engaged in devotional service and meditating unto me, I deliver them quickly from the ocean of birth and death" (12,6-7).

On the other hand, karma seems to be a law that functions by itself, with no external control. One has to struggle alone against its drive and attain better incarnations from one existence to the next. God’s interference with it is an artificial construct of Hindu theism, so that the Hindu commentators of the Gita had to choose between holding to the supremacy of Krishna and the ultimate power of karma in ruling the world. Consequently, we have theistic and pantheistic interpretations (and even translations) of the Gita, indebted to one or the other alternative. Those belonging to the first category see Krishna as a super-personal god using karma as an instrument for awakening humans from ignorance, while the others see him as a mere form of Brahman's manifestation, with no real power in controlling karma. The two positions contradict each other and the Gita leaves enough room for both sides. The view of grace in the Gita is a far cry from the meaning it acquired later in the prapatti devotional trend.


Dharma and karma


Dharma and karma are a pair of forces at work in anyone's life. The "duty" that forces Arjuna to fight (2,33) is his dharma, i.e., his duty as warrior. In turn, Arjuna's dharma in that particular life is generated by his global karma. Therefore the real driving force of Arjuna's actions is his karma, which pushes him into action independently of his present intentions. Krishna states: "When you become confused in your false ego you say to yourself, 'I will not fight' you are misled. By your nature you must fight" (18,59). This "nature" is prakriti or, more specifically, the way the three gunas influence one's mind under the influence of past karma. Therefore, Arjuna is not free to fulfill his dharma, but is rather compelled by his karma to act according to it. The action that "is better than inaction" (3,8) is not the result of what we may call a free decision, as it can bring only very little change in affecting one’s destiny. To use a helpful illustration, life is like card games such as poker, in which the cards one gets in the beginning is crucial. If one has a bad karma, it is like receiving a bad set of cards, with almost no chance to win anything. The one who inherits a good karma gets a good set of cards and therefore can play well and win. In order to win, one needs 99% luck (a good karma) and only 1% skill. Free will in this illustration can be likened to one’s skill in playing cards. The freedom Arjuna has, and like him any other human, is to do his best with the given set of cards, i.e. in the present circumstances of one’s life. But since they are completely the result of karma, free will has very little impact on the final result. Therefore Arjuna does not have the freedom to fight or not on the battlefield, but only that of interpreting the actions he has to perform in harmony with his dharma. He has to see them as sacrifices to Krishna: "Consider all your acts as acts of devotion to me, whether eating, offering, giving away, performing austerities. Perform them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from karma, you will be liberated and you will come to me" (9,27).


Krishna as sovereign god and the periodical creation of the world


Another inconsistency of the Gita is regarding the character of Krishna. According to classic Vaishnavism, Krishna is only an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (which according to Vedanta is only a form of Brahman's manifestation). In the Gita Krishna is called the Supreme Lord of the Universe (5,29), eternal (4,6) and the source of all existence: "I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from me" (10,8). He is said to be not only the creator but also the substance of the universe (9,16-19; 8,4; 10,20-42). Contrary to Vedanta, Krishna becomes the source of Brahman (14,27) and contrary to Vaishnavism he is the instrument of attaining fusion with Brahman (14,26). Although the intention of the Gita is to present Krishna as super-personal, he is rather a heterogeneous mixture of theistic, dualistic and pantheistic components. The cycle of permanent transformation between a manifested state and an unmanifested state is characteristic for Krishna as it was for Brahman:

At the end of an era (kalpa) all creatures disintegrate into my nature and at the beginning of another era I manifest them again. Such it is my nature (prakriti) to follow again and again the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations (9,7-8).

Krishna has to "follow the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations" (avasham prakriteh vashat, lit. = "automatically, under the obligation of prakriti"), which implies that this process is a necessity that supersedes him as personal god. Instead of considering Krishna a genuine creator god, we should conclude that the creation of the world is not an option for him, but a periodic duty at the end of each cosmic cycle, as was the case with the manifestations of Brahman. S. Dasgupta comments on the contradictory personal character of Krishna:
The Gita combines together different conceptions of God without feeling the necessity of reconciling the oppositions or contradictions involved in them. It does not seem to be aware of the philosophical difficulty of combining the concept of God as unmanifested, differenceless entity with the notion of Him as the super-person Who incarnates Himself on earth in the human form and behaves in the human manner. It is not aware of the difficulty that, if all good and evil should have emanated from God, and if there be ultimately no moral responsibility, and if everything in the world should have the same place in God, there is no reason why God should trouble to incarnate Himself as man, when there is a disturbance of the Vedic dharma. If God is impartial to all, and if He is absolutely unperturbed, why should He favour the man who clings to Him, and why, for his sake, overrule the world-order of events and in his favour suspend the law of karma? (S. Dasgupta, Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, 1991, vol.2, p. 533).


The Gita and morality


When Arjuna found himself in the process of choosing between his duty as a warrior and the killing of his relatives (a severe violation of Vedic morality), Krishna explained to him that he must give a new meaning to traditional morality. Traditional ethical values should not be a hindrance to acting detached from the fruits of action. He argued: "The wise men who reached true knowledge see with equal vision a brahman (priest), a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater" (5,18). And as a result: "One whose mind is free from egotism, whose intellect is pure, is not bound even though he slays many people, for he does not truly slay" (18,17).

As only the self (atman) is immortal, Krishna argues that it is actually impossible to kill anyone: "Those who think that they can kill or those that think they can be killed are confused in the manifestations of ignorance. The infinite, immortal soul can neither kill nor be killed" (2,19). Therefore Arjuna is free to kill his relatives, considering them only temporary abiding forms for the eternal self, mere mortal frames. S. Dasgupta states in his commentary:

The theory of the Gita that, if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer, distinctly implies that the goodness or badness of an action does not depend upon external effects of the action, but upon the inner motive of action. If there is no motive of pleasure or self-gain, then the action performed cannot bind the performer; for it is only the bond of desires and self-love that really makes an action one's own and makes one reap its good or bad fruits. Morality from this point of view becomes wholly subjective, and the special feature of the Gita is that it tends to make all actions non-moral by cutting away the bonds that connect an action with its performer (Ibid, p. 507).

The contrast with traditional morality is obvious. Another important character in the battle of Kurukshetra, Yudishthira, Arjuna's brother, tried to expiate his sin of killing his relatives in battle through repentance, gifts, asceticism and pilgrimages (Mahabharata 12,7). For him a bad conscience could not be cleansed by a right attitude of mind, but by compensatory acts.

On the other hand, the same mindset that Arjuna should have had in securing a clear conscience (Gita 2,19) was used by the demon Kamsa in the Bhagavata Purana (10,4,22) in order to comfort Krishna's parents and justify the killing of their other sons by him:
In the bodily conception of life one remains in darkness without self-realization, thinking "I am being killed" or "I have killed my enemies". As long as a foolish person thus considers the self to be the killer or the killed, he continues to be responsible for material obligations, and consequently he suffers the reactions of happiness and distress.

If the same "detached" perspective on moral values can be used both by the demon Kamsa, who caused the corruption of the dharma, and by Krishna as the divine avatar who came to restore it (Gita 4,6-7) and kill the demon, it is hard to accept that such an approach could represent a true basis for morality.

A morality that operates on the premise that any act is good as long as it is dedicated to God, understanding that "it is truly God who is the controller of all" and thus rejecting a well-established set of moral commands, cannot have a good outcome in any religion. In fact, although this has no connection at all to Hinduism, those involved in the September 11 attacks had such an attitude. Therefore it's always dangerous to "transcend" moral values, thinking that a person who truly thinks of God won't commit evil deeds.

Back to Top | Home | E-Mail

Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.