The Bhagavad-Gita: Chapter 3 Devotion Through The Right Performance Of Action

For the Next two weeks we will take up the next chapter of the Gita.

Here is a passage to get us started.  Feel free to go though the entire chapter and ask questions or raise issues.  Go here to see the Judge version.  Feel free to refer to other versions.

“A man enjoyeth not freedom from action from the non-commencement of that which he hath to do; nor doth he obtain happiness from a total abandonment of action. No one ever resteth a moment inactive. Every man is involuntarily urged to act by the qualities which spring from nature. He who remains inert, restraining the senses and organs, yet pondering with his heart upon objects of sense, is called a false pietist of bewildered soul. But he who having subdued all his passions performeth with his active faculties all the duties of life, unconcerned as to their result, is to be esteemed. Do thou perform the proper actions: action is superior to inaction. The journey of thy mortal frame cannot be accomplished by inaction. All actions performed other than as sacrifice unto God make the actor bound by action. Abandon, then, O son of Kunti, all selfish motives, and in action perform thy duty for him alone."

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Selection from Chapter 3

“But the man who only taketh delight in the Self within, is satisfied with that and content with that alone, hath no selfish interest in action. He hath no interest either in that which is done or that which is not done; and there is not, in all things which have been created, any object on which he may place dependence. Therefore perform thou that which thou hast to do, at all times unmindful of the event; for the man who doeth that which he hath to do, without attachment to the result, obtaineth the Supreme.


“But the man who only taketh delight in the Self within, is satisfied with that and content with that alone, hath no selfish interest in action.

Is a big part of the problem here that it is difficult if not seemingly impossible to take delight is something we appear to have disconnected ourselves from?


Don't we contact the Self within in deep sleep?


Every man is involuntarily urged to act by the qualities which spring from nature.

What does this mean and what does this  have to do with free will?


I am not sure about the free will issue but we are taught that the qualities do the acting and not the Self within.


More from Chapter 3

 Even if the good of mankind only is considered by thee, the performance of thy duty will be plain; for whatever is practiced by the most excellent men, that is also practiced by others. The world follows whatever example they set. There is nothing, O son of Pritha, in the three regions of the universe which it is necessary for me to perform, nor anything possible to obtain which I have not obtained; and yet I am constantly in action. If I were not indefatigable in action, all men would presently follow my example, O son of Pritha. If I did not perform actions these creatures would perish; I should be the cause of confusion of castes, and should have slain all these creatures. O son of Bharata, as the ignorant perform the duties of life from the hope of reward, so the wise man, from the wish to bring the world to duty and benefit mankind, should perform his actions without motives of interest. He should not create confusion in the understandings of the ignorant, who are inclined to outward works, but by being himself engaged in action should cause them to act also. All actions are effected by the qualities of nature. The man deluded by ignorance thinks, ‘I am the actor.’ But he, O strong-armed one! who is acquainted with the nature of the two distinctions of cause and effect, knowing that the qualities act only in the qualities, and that the Self is distinct from them, is not attached in action.


"The man deluded by ignorance thinks, ‘I am the actor.’ But he, O strong-armed one! who is acquainted with the nature of the two distinctions of cause and effect, knowing that the qualities act only in the qualities, and that the Self is distinct from them, is not attached in action."

This links us back to the term naiskarmya "actionless" from verse four.  Whether we look at the constitution of the individual from the Sankhya, Vedantin or Theosophical view point the true Self (Atman) is "actionless" - it is beyond the opposites of doing or not-doing (action and inaction; activity and inertia).  It is beyond the gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) born of Prakriti (cosmic substance).  

It is the gunas and their derivatives (i.e. the various modifications of prakriti which form the 'vehicles' of Atman) which act upon or respond to other gunas in the world.  For example, the organs of sense are derived from the gunas just as they objects they respond to are derived from the gunas.  Likewise the mind which responds to the sense organs and what they perceive is derived from the gunas.  These are all modifications of Prakriti (cosmic substance). 

Krishna teaches Arjuna that the wise man knowing his true nature is Atma - which neither acts nor is acted upon - is not attached to the outcome of the interaction of the gunas with each other.   The wise man works as hard as the man attached to his work but does so without attachment to the results.  Therefore he sets a proper example both to those who act and those who think inaction is appropriate.

3.25 As the ignorant act, attached to their work, O Bharata, so should an enlightened man act, but without attachment, in order that he may set people on the right path.

3.26 Let no enlightened man unsettle the understanding of the ignorant, who are attached to action. He should engage them in action, himself performing it with devotion.

3.27 All work is performed by the gunas of Prakriti, but he whose mind is deluded by egotism thinks, "I am the doer."

3.28 But, O mighty Arjuna, he who knows the truth about the gunas and action, and what is distinct from them, holds himself unattached, perceiving that it is the gunas that are occupied with the gunas.

(naiskarmya = see verse 3.4 in message below.)


Is it possible that another interpretation of actionlessness is the idea of working in complete harmony with the system such that no residual effects are created?  An action that blends in with the whole seemlessly appears as no action at all.  Sometimes the term karma is used to imply effects that are out of balance that must return to the source.  Actionlessness could be thought of as action that is so perfect in nature as to not to create any imbalance at all.

It is said the sage leaves no footprints.  This would be for the reasons stated above.


It’s a beautiful thought, Gerry, and very inspirational. I see what you are getting at.  Perhaps we can see these two interpretations as two sides of the same coin.  I would see the state of ‘actionless’ as that of the Self (Atman), beyond the three gunas etc which fits in with the metaphysical and doctrinal context in which the teachings of the Gita are given (see, for example, Sankara’s commentary here).  However, the Sage that knows the ‘actionless’ is able to act in the world in just the way you describe, I.e in harmony with Universal Law.  Such action in the world I would call ‘ego-less’ rather than ‘action-less’.  

Thus, we might then view ‘the sage leaves no footprints’ as a reference to the ego-less nature of Sage’s actions.  From the perspective of the results of their actions, we might say they leave a rather deep and long lasting footprint as, for example, the Krishna’s teachings in the Gita which continue to reverberate down the centuries.  As Krishna states:

3.22 I have, O Partha, no duty; there is nothing in the three worlds that I have not gained and nothing that I have to gain.  Yet I continue to work.


You might say the true Sage has lost any sense of separate identity and has merged with Krishna, become Krishna in a manner of speaking, become the SELF.  Therefore any actions performed by the Sage in the world are really not actions at all  in the conventional sense but rather just the universe flowing, divinity manifesting, Krishna dancing to use an image. Actionless action and selfless action are two terms that imply the same thing I believe.  This is a vaunted ideal no doubt but it is embodied in the Theosophy School chant for Children we use.

"To live for and as the SELF of all creatures."  And this is the selflessness or egolessness that the Gita is so famous for promoting.


I understand what you are saying, Gerry, and it is a very noble ideal, indeed.  I just think this may be stretching the term "actionless" as it is used in these Gita verses to mean something that is not intended. 


It seems the word ego-less is more meaningful here.  When the student loses his sense of the separated self and views oneself as a center of consciousness, the motivations that drive one to action take on a different tone.  Rather than being pulled and pushed by desires, the individual is prompted to act by a sense of duty and compassion.   This is characterized in the Voice in the Silence as - one becomes the beneficent force in Nature.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by barbaram on February 8, 2014 at 3:27pm

"For example, the organs of sense are derived from the gunas just as they objects they respond to are derived from the gunas.  Likewise the mind which responds to the sense organs and what they perceive is derived from the gunas."

Is this really true?  I thought the sense organs respond to the mind and the gunas are different qualities of the objects perceived.  In essence, everything came from the mind and the senses interpret signals of the mind by creating forms and qualities (gunas).

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 10, 2014 at 5:37am

The teachings in the Gita while not identical to the Sankya (Samkhya) philosophy still draw upon it for its cosmology.  For the Sankhya philosophy, Purusha or Spirit is really a plurality of purushas whereas in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna explains that Purusha is the One Universal Self (Paramatman).  Either way Purusha is a transcendent principle. 

Prakriti (or Matter) is both pre cosmic substance (unmanifested, avyakta) and cosmic substance (manifested).  Prakriti contains all the potentials of manifestation which are released and unfolded when Purusha and Prakriti come together in unison.

Prakriti has the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas which are in ‘balance’ in the unmanifest state.  One or the other of these is dominant as prakriti unfolds and differentiates during manifestation.  Everything other than Purusha is Prakriti and is dominated by one of the three gunas which determines it’s nature and what evolves out of it. In the table below, Mind and the organs of cognition are derived from the Sattvic aspect of Ahamkara while the subtile elements are derived from the tamasic aspect of Ahamkara.  These aspects of prakriti are said to evolve in this way so that Intelligence (buddhi) and ego (ahamkara) can function in the world.   That said, the moment to moment activity of the gunas also have an effect.  So, while the mind is derived from the sattvic aspect of Ahamkara it may still be subject to rajas and tamas (activity and inertia) from moment to moment.

Purusha (the Knower, the Witness);   Prakriti  (unmanifested primordial matter,  the Known)

From Prakriti comes all the following:       

-  Buddhi (Mahat, Intellect)

-  Ahamkara  (Ego / 'I-am')

From Ahamkara comes

(a) - the Mind

      - the organs of cognition (buddhindriyas) i.e. 5 senses. 

      - the organs of action  (karmendriyas) I.e. 5 organs of action

(b)  - the five subtle elements (tanmatras) I.e. sound, touch, etc..

       - the five gross elements (mahabhutas) I.e. space, air, etc.. 

Together, the above (including Purusha) make the 25 Tattvas referred to in Sankhya philosophy.

In the sankhya philosophy as in Vedanta, all prakriti is regarded as insentient.  It appears to be sentient - as in the case of the Intellect (buddhi) and mind (manas) - only because these are lit up by the light of pure consciousness (Atman, Purusha).   Purusha interacting with different upadhis (manifestions of prakriti) results in different types of limited conscious-ness arising and becoming more and more limited with grosser forms of prakriti and depending upon which aspect of prakriti (guna) is dominant.  From this perspective, ignorance (avidya) results in us identifying with the vehicles of consciousness (e.g. the Mind) while losing sight of the fact that our real nature is pure consciousness itself (the Self, or Atman).

The above underlies the statements of Krishna such as:

3.27 All work is performed by the gunas of Prakriti, but he whose mind is deluded by egotism thinks, "I am the doer."

3.28 But, O mighty Arjuna, he who knows the truth about the gunas and action, and what is distinct from them, holds himself unattached, perceiving that it is the gunas that are occupied with the gunas.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 10, 2014 at 12:02pm

For those who might be interested in the Sankya (Samkhya) view of the principles as explained in the Samkhya Karika:

Permalink Reply by barbaram on February 10, 2014 at 8:27pm

Thank you for the explanation.


Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on February 27, 2014 at 5:36am

This defiantly would be of good use to those studying Sankaracharya's Tattva Bodha.  

Daiviprakriti and Mulaprakriti are one of the most mystical studies, in my opinion, as it directly relates to most every subject. 

Thank you Peter

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 5, 2014 at 5:56am

Here are a few thoughts on the first few verses based on the Vedantin commentaries of the Gita.  I much prefer the traditional presentation of the Gita with its individual verses, each containing a nugget of teaching worth contemplating in its own right. 

3:1 to 3.3   In these verses we see Arjuna is confused.  Krishna has told him that Knowledge (Jnana) is ultimately better than action (Karma) yet then goes on to tell him (Arjuna) that he must act - i.e fight in the war.  In response Krishna states that two paths were taught by him since the earliest of days.  Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga.  

Jnana Yoga is normally associated with the true sanyasi (in the deepest sense), one who has given up the world as a result of his/her personal karma having been fulfilled and the vasanas or samskaras (mental imprints resulting from karmic activities) burnt out.  Until we have reached that stage of development, Karma Yoga is for the rest of us (the vast majority) who still have our personal karma to fulfil; this will lead us eventually to Jnana.

3.4 Not by merely abstaining from action does a man reach the state of actionless, nor by mere renunciation does he arrive at perfection.

The term ‘actionless’ (naiskarmya) needs to be appreciated in this verse.  Naiskarmya is synonymous with moksha (Liberation) which in turn is synonymous with Self-Knowledge i.e., jnana.  Brahman-Atman is said to be actionless.

In other words, realisation of the Self (Atman) does not arise simply by abandoning actions nor by “mere renunciation”.  The term ‘renunciation’ is qualified here by ‘mere’ or ‘simply’ indicating that the necessary inner work has not been done.

3.5  Verily, no one can remain even for an instant without doing work [action]. For, driven by the gunas born of Prakriti, everyone is made to act, in spite of himself.

For as long as we are identified with our various vehicles of consciousness we are subject to the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas).  The mind, itself, is derived from the gunas. Atman alone transcends the three gunas, therefore it is the realised Sage alone who truly knows the ‘actionless’ state of the Self.  Remember previous verses in Chapter 2.  Atman does not slay nor can it be slain.

3.6  He who restrains his organs of action, but continues to dwell in his mind on the objects of the senses, deludes himself and is called a hypocrite. 

A good example of how non-performance of actions and/or withdrawing from the world and restraining the organs-of-actions (the karmendreyas) without having already burned up the vasanas/samskaras or mental tendencies is false piety.

3.7  But, he who restrains his senses with his mind and directs his organs of action to work, with no feeling of attachment – he, O Arjuna, is indeed superior. 

In Chapter 1 Krishna taught Arjuna that Karma (action carried out for the sake of a result alone) is inferior to Karma Yoga (or Buddhi Yoga) i.e action carried out without attachment to the results, through recognising that the Self (Atman) neither acts nor is acted upon.  As Arjuna (and us) have not yet realised the Self and we still have karma to fulfil and samskaras to burn out, then our best course is to control the senses by the mind and take up the path of Karma Yoga.

3.8  Do your allotted action; for action is superior to inaction. And even the bare maintenance of your body will not be possible if you remain inactive.

In other words, since inaction is not a valid path we should get on and do our duty (our Karma).  After all, even at the level of the body we have to do something (eat, drink, defacate, engage in movement) in order to look after its welfare. The same principle operates in our lives and relationships in general, mental and spiritual.

3.9  The world becomes bound by action unless it be done for the sake of Sacrifice. Therefore, O son of Kunit, give up attachment and do your work for the sake of the Lord.

Through our present actions (karma) - based on egotism, ignorance and desire - we affect not only this life but create the karma and skandhas of our future lives.  The future skandhas contain the vasanas/samskaras/mental imprints and tendencies thus formed by our present ignorance and desires while Karma effects the circumstances and environment into which we are born.  In this way, all of us in the world become bound by our own actions (karma) and the cycle of suffering and ignorance continues on and on. 

Karma Yoga (Buddhi-Yoga) is striving to do do our duty (the results of actions in a previous incarnation manifesting in this life) without attachment to the results i.e. without generating even more personal karma as a result.  Krishna says we need not be "bound" by our actions - present and future - if we act detached from the results and work for the sake of the Lord, the Self.  We may translate this as  ‘for the sake’ of others, humanity at large, for the universal good, for the highest within us and within All - or which ever way we find to conceptualise what for us is the highest ideal and which enables us to forgo any sense of seeking reward or avoiding the consequences of our duty. 

Perhaps we see here why Karma-Yoga is also called Buddhi-Yoga.  From a theosophical viewpoint this concerns the ability of the mind to link with Buddhi not only in terms of wisdom but also in terms of turning away from the personal and towards the universal - One-ness.

Just some thoughts...

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on February 9, 2014 at 4:04pm

From Chapter 3

“Throwing every deed on me, and with thy meditation fixed upon the Higher Self, resolve to fight, without expectation, devoid of egotism and free from anguish."

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 12, 2014 at 4:28am

The challenge for us here is that we, along with Arjuna, still think of ourselves as 'the doer' of actions. In other words we have not directly realised our true nature as the Atman (the Self) and are still identified with Ahamkara ( from aham 'I' and kara 'making' or 'doing').  

Krishna has already told Arjuna that ordinary action based on our personal desire for particular outcomes is karma that binds us to the samsara.  Since we are not yet Liberated from our ignorance and since we still have to act in the world (inaction is not possible), then it must be our motives for acting that need to be addressed.  It is by addressing our motives and acting with knowledge (e.g. as to our true nature, the gunas etc) that sets us on the path of Karma Yoga.   Krishna appears to be saying to Arjuna and to us, do all that you have to do (whatever is your duty) for the sake of the Higher, the Supreme Self and not for sake of the personal ego and its concerns.  In other words, place 'self' in the service of 'Self'. 

In the Key to Theosophy it is states that Atma is the highest aspect of Karma, the latter being the "working agent of ITSELF" i.e. of Atma.  (See p135 original edition)  Therefore to trust in the Self and to trust in the Law of Karma are one and the same.  We (as doers) create either the conditions that bind or the conditions that free us from the wheel of samsara.  Whichever we choose, the Law of Karma adjusts all causes and effects according to universal law (which is Itself) - seeking to return all to harmony.  

The duty or karma that is before us, when carried out unselfishly - thereby exhausting the prior karmic causes set in motion - brings benefit to both the whole and the part.  As the personal karma and vasansas are burnt out in this way, perhaps over many lives, the Individual may then be able to play a more responsible part in the motion of Universal Law bringing all beings to enlightenment and Liberation.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 12, 2014 at 7:30am

For reference here is the passage from THE KEY referred to in the above message.

"Neither Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former is the highest aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF in one aspect, and the other is unconscious on this plane." (p135)

The above passage is relevant in another way in that it supports the view of the Advaitees (particularly Sankara) that Moksha (Liberation or abidance in the SELF) cannot be attained by Karma Yoga.  They argue that Karma Yoga leads towardsMoksha  to the extent that it purifies the Antarkarana (the fourfold Buddhi, Manas, Ahamkara and Citta) and prepares it for Jnana Yoga, but only Jnana Yoga leads to Moksha.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on March 15, 2014 at 3:22pm

Hi Peter,

"They argue that Karma Yoga leads towards Moksha  to the extent that it purifies the Antarkarana (the fourfold Buddhi, Manas, Ahamkara and Citta) and prepares it for Jnana Yoga, but only Jnana Yoga leads to Moksha."

If you say only Jnana Yoga leads to Moksha, how does this support the idea of the seven ways to bliss in the Secret Doctrine?  Although I agree with your view, but I always wonder if I were biased since I lean toward Jnana more than any other approach.   

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 17, 2014 at 6:01am

That’s a very interesting question, Barbara, which has a number of aspects to it - at least as I understand it.   Let’s assume for the moment that whether there are seven ways or one way to Moksha, there is agreement that all parties concerned are seeking the same goal or destination.

When we find it stated that a number of different paths all lead to the same same destination (i.e. Mokhsa, Liberation) this can be (and is) interpreted in a number of ways.  One of these is that each path, independent of the rest, is capable of leading the aspirant all the way to the final goal.  Another is that each path in conjunction with the rest leads towards the goal as a necessary stage or step (of which there are a number) in the overall process.

The first example gives the impression of paths that are largely independent of one another, all of which converge, ultimately, on the same spot.  It’s a kind-of ‘all roads lead to Rome’ analogy.  From this perspective, some paths and journeys may even appear opposed or tangential to each other, as do two people approaching the same mountain top from opposite directions, say, East and West.  Yet, all have the same end in mind.

The second example gives the impression of each path being a stage, one of a number, in the overall process.  While they all lead towards the goal, one final stage alone takes the individual to its culmination.

Adi Sankara takes the second view, above.  There may be a number of preliminary stages of the path that the aspirant has to undergo, but in themselves they do not result in Moksha. For Sankara and the Advaitees, practices and paths based upon or around devotion, meditation, mind training, ethical conduct, duty, compassionate action etc etc - whatever name or tradition we might call them by - all come under the heading of Karma Yoga.  They may be necessary to purify ‘the mind’ of ignorance, desire and ego.  However, they are all action (literally karma) of some kind and belong the realm of cause and effect, no matter how subtle or spiritual that realm may be.   Atma is beyond the realm of cause and effect, therefore “action” doesn’t lead to Atma.  HPB says a similar thing in THE KEY, p135:

                  “Niether Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma…” 

In Advaita, as in the Gita, Jnana is the Realisation of Atma.  As Krishna repeatedly points out to Arjuna: Atma is our essential nature, it is what we already are.  It is something to be Realised; it is not an experience or something that we become as a result of any action, doing or non-doing on our part.

HPB doesn’t really explain what are the Seven Ways to Bliss, mentioned in the Secret Doctrine.  She is asked this question in Transactions of Blavatsky Lodge (see discussion No. 2):

Q. What are the seven ways to bliss?

A. They are certain faculties of which the student will know more when he goes deeper into occultism.

(Collected Writings, vol X, p326)

In the Secret Doctrine Commentaries, based on the original notes taken at the Transactions of Blavatsky Lodge, the question below is put to HPB, following her reticence to expand on the subject:

Mr. A. Keightley: Then I put this question now, is “The eight fold path the same as the seven ways to bliss?”

Mme. Blavatsky: Yes.

(The Secret Doctrine Commentaries, p48; I.S.I.S. Foundation edition.)

If we take HPB’s answer, above, into account then the Seven Ways to Bliss would appear to be stages of development on the path rather than seven different and independent ways to reach Bliss (Moksha).  Some students have sought to draw a link between the Seven Ways to Bliss and the Seven Portals (each with its own Golden Key) referred to in Fragment III of the The Voice of the Silence.  There, the Portals are based on the six paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism, but with a seventh, Prajna, added.

(For those who missed the earlier posting, the link below takes one to a post on HPB's description of Jnana in relation to Theosophy:

Permalink Reply by barbaram on March 21, 2014 at 7:27pm

Hi Peter,

There seems to be definite stages to spirituality and the seven portals mentioned in the VOS, I imagine, are related to the unfoldment of the seven chakras.  I interpret the seven ways to bliss as seven independent paths; otherwise, we would read the seven steps and not the seven ways.

A thought crossed my mind last week when I was writing the question.  I wonder if the seven ways are related to the Seven Rays or to the Seven Keys to unlock the Mysteries.  They are divided as 1.  Anthropological,  2. Psychological, 3. Geological, 4. Theogenic, 5. Geometrical, 6. Astronomical, and 7. Spiritual.  These seven approaches would still fall under Jnana Yoga which ultimately leads to Moksha.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 22, 2014 at 8:23am

Hi Barbara, I would tend to agree with you that judging by the terminology used the 'seven ways to bliss' indicate they are separate paths rather than seven steps on the way.  In which case, HPB's statement that the 'seven ways to bliss' are the same as the Buddhas 'Eightfold Path' is slightly puzzling, for the latter do seem to be steps or stages on the way, at least to some extent as I'm sure there is overlap between many of the stages.

I like your idea of looking at the Seven Keys to unlock the Mysteries, however, I believe HPB states that no single Key is enough to provide full Occult Wisdom.

Taking up your suggestion about the Seven Rays, there's an interesting section in the Secret Doctrine where HPB touches on this in quite a deep way.  Here is a passage she quotes from Subba Row to illustrate the teaching:

“Every Buddha meets at his last initiation all the great adepts who reached Buddhahood during the preceding ages  .  .  .  every class of adepts has its own bond of spiritual communion which knits them together. . . . . The only possible and effectual way of entering into such brotherhood . . . . is by bringing oneself within the influence of the Spiritual light which radiates from one's own Logos. I may further point out here . . . that such communion is only possiblebetween persons whose souls derive their life and sustenance from the same divine RAY, and that, as seven distinct rays radiate from the 'Central Spiritual Sun,' all adepts and Dhyan Chohans are divisible into seven classes, each of which is guided, controlled, and overshadowed by one of the seven forms or manifestations of the divine Wisdom.”

(SD I 574)

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 22, 2014 at 8:32am

ps:  I suspect that like Arjuna, we will experience a number of confusions, twists and turns as we ponder on Krishna's teaching.  Like Arujna, we may well find ourselves saying something like, 'You told me earlier on that Wisdom was better than Action, then you told me that I should act, and now you seem to be telling me that both both lead to the same goal - which is it to be?!"

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 18, 2014 at 10:25pm

There is probably a sense in which all three Yogas are part of each other. Jnana (Wisdom or Knowledge), Karma (Action or Duty) and Bhakti (Love or Devotion) are a triangle and all lean on each other in many ways perhaps.  Raja Yoga unites all three but if one were to make a triangle you would probably choose to put Jnana at its apex and Karma and Bhakti at its base.  In other words Jnana Yoga is closer to the highest path because neither action/duty or love/devotion can function properly without Wisdom.

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 19, 2014 at 4:53am

Gerry - yes, that would be another way of squaring the circle, so to speak.  The triangle with its base would be a more integrationist approach to the question, 'are there one or many paths that lead to the same goal?'    The problem with the 'integrationist approach' as with the 'stages approach', which I referred to above, is that adherents to each of these paths would not be happy with the idea that their path didn't lead all the way to the goal, but was just a preliminary stage or just one aspect of a much larger path or process.

For example, we could look at the triangle in terms of Knowledge at the apex with Action and Devotion (Love) as the two bases, and then see Meditation uniting all three.  This does make sense looking at it in this rather general way.  The difficulty comes when each of these aspects represents an actual tradition rather than a general idea, each tradition with its own theory of metaphysics which informs the spiritual practices involved in following that spiritual path.

The Bhakti certainly wouldn't see Jnana as the highest aspect of the Path.  The Bhakti is normally a Theist who believes in worship of and devotion to a personal God of which his soul is only a fragment.  The Advaitee, aiming to be a Jnani, believes that ultimately he is God (Brahman) and that Jnana is the direct realisation of 'I am That.'

While the Advaitee is a Monist  (everything is Brahman), the follower of Raja Yoga (i.e Patanjali Yoga) is a dualist, believing that Purusha (Atma) is eternally separate from Prakriti.  For the follower of the Raja Yoga tradition, jnana is speculative thought and doesn't lead to liberation; the highest realisation can only be achieved in that Samadhi in which the Seer realises his own nature as completely independent of and free of Prakriti.

Karma yoga is often seen as action in the service of others, duty & so on without being attached to the results. This could be linked with any of the three paths above, but without the sense that karma yoga, in itself, leads directly to enlightenment.

It's interesting to note, that while it is stated by many that Krishna taught a number of paths that led to him (namely, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga), Krishna himself states that from the beginning he taught two paths:

3:3 Even of yore, O sinless one, a twofold devotion was taught by Me to the world: devotion to knowledge [jnana yoga] for the contemplative and devotion to work for the active [karma yoga].

Krishna does teach further 'ways' in the Gita, yet it's not clear that these are independent ways to Moksha or Liberation.  For example, The Way of Meditation taught in Chapter Six is for the individual who has first achieved steadfastness in Karma Yoga.  Thus indicating a stage by stage approach to Liberation in this section, rather than a 'parallel' path approach.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on March 19, 2014 at 5:09pm

There are many ways to look at all of this, and each way bears new fruit.  It is good to examine the subject from all the different angles you give us here.  I might add this.  The goal, from which ever path is taken, is to merge with the whole.  The whole, the all, must be part of any formulation of this.  We know in theosophy that the spiritual pilgrimage is not about one lifetime or a dozen life times for that matter.  The whole must be encompassed.   For a particular lifetime one or another of the yogas is best suited for that part of the journey but in the end the Soul will experience them all and encompass them all.  Each one of us must master the full range of human nature in its entirety. I don't believe there is any escaping this.  Even within a single lifetime the course of events in our lives will force us to become karma, jnana, or bhakti adherents at different times to navigate through the sea of human life.  For a theosophical student paying attention and strengthening oneself in all three is sound advice I believe.

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on March 19, 2014 at 7:32pm

Absolutely.  I think the more well rounded an individual is, the better off they are.  However if one philosophy, or school of thought, yoga etc. resonate with the devotee, I believe that is all the reason they need if they hold to a specific system.  We firmly establish roots through deep contemplation and devotion, and this will become the foundations of spiritual development for many, many lives.

As you said;
"Even within a single lifetime the course of events in our lives will force us to become karma, jnana, or bhakti adherents at different times to navigate through the sea of human life."

These yogas are meant to be established by all students, whenever necessary. 

Little side note that may be off topic; Peter, I wouldn't exactly call Advaita Vedanta a Monist philosophy. It may be slightly misleading.
Here is a little 7 minute clip, in good intentions :)

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 20, 2014 at 3:56am

Kristan - many thanks for the video link. Actually, the primary definition of the term monism is the belief that all things are reducible to one principle or substance, which is the same as the first definition given by the venerable teacher in the video i.e that Advaita (non-duality) asserts that “There is only one principle in the whole universe.” gives us the following definition of ‘Monism’:
1. Philosophy.
a. (in metaphysics) any of various theories holding that there is only one basic substance or principle as the ground of reality, or that reality consists of a single element. 
b. (in epistemology) a theory that the object and datum of cognition are identical.

2. the reduction of all processes, structures, concepts, etc., to a single governing principle; the theoretical explanation of everything in terms of one principle.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary gives the definition as:
      - a view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance

      - the view that reality is one unitary organic whole with no  independent parts

       - a viewpoint or theory that reduces all phenomena to one principle

For the Advaitee that one principle is Brahman.

It’s true that Monism is sometimes used to refer to a religious belief in One God as opposed to many gods (pluralism). But in itself this is not monism if that One God is also perceived to exist independently of the Universe or of its createn, for this is a form of dualism as the speaker in the video very eloquently explains.

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 20, 2014 at 11:46am

Gerry - yes, what you say is sound advice, indeed: we certainly do need to be well rounded. Study, reflection, meditation, ethical living, devotion to 'truth' or our highest idea & so on all need care and attention.  

Where I would understand it differently is that I wouldn't see that as performing bhakti yoga at one time of the day, jnana yoga when we are studying, raja yoga when we are meditating, karma yoga during our work during the day & so on.  Jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga each have their own metaphysical doctrines and practices that may well not agree that 'the goal is to merge with the whole.'

In the earlier chapters, Krishna tells Arjuna that we cannot not act, and that action creates results ('good' and 'bad') that tie us to the wheel of samsara.  Therefore, says Krishna, in order to free ourselves from the cycle of samsara we need to practice Karma Yoga. Krishna isn't saying we need a bit of this and a bit of that from among the different approaches, rather - given that 'you' have no choice but to act, you need to develop Karma-Yoga.  Anything we do as action, whether of mind, feelings or body (these are the gunas) needs to be included in the path of Karma-Yoga, where our primary task is to learn evenness of mind (yoga) with regards to the results.

In verses 4:24 to 4:31 that we are now looking at in Chapter Four, Krishna lists a whole range of sacrifices which includes, devotion, study, yoga, oblations to the gods, offering oneself up to the supreme spirit & so on.  Krishna then goes on to explain, 'these are all actions', in other words Karma-Yoga must apply to all of them. But beyond this there is a higher 'sacrifice' - the 'wisdom sacrifice'. This is an indicator of Jnana yoga, which is more than just study, it is the Wisdom that leads to direct knowledge of the action-less Self. 

4: 32 “Thus manifold sacrifices are revealed at the mouth of Brahman; know them all as born of action. Thus knowing, thou shalt be liberated.”

4: 33 “Superior is wisdom-sacrifice to the sacrifice with objects, O harasser of thy foes; all action without exception, O son of Pritha, is comprehended in wisdom.”

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 17, 2014 at 5:12pm

One might draw a correlation between selflessness and actionlessness.

When self acts on behalf of SELF and not for itself it is "selfless".

When action is performed based on universal necessity it becomes actionless in the sense that it is not outside the grand scheme of things hence "actionless".

Apparently there is a tremendous depth to this subject.  Later on in the Gita we get:

“Even sages have been deluded as to what is action and what inaction; therefore I shall explain to thee what is action by a knowledge of which thou shalt be liberated from evil. One must learn well what is action to be performed, what is not to be, and what is inaction. The path of action is obscure. That man who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men; he is a true devotee and a perfect performer of all action."

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2014 at 4:03am

Gerry, what’s your thinking in seeking to make this connection between selflessness and actionlessness?  Why can’t there simply be self-less action? 

The rain falls and nourishes the land, which in turn supports the growth of the crops and all those beings that thrive off the land.  The rain is ego-less or ‘self-less’ action in accordance with natural law, yet we wouldn’t normally say that because it is self-less it is actionless.

As the passage you quoted from the Gita comes from our next section, I’ll wait ‘till then before sharing any thoughts on it.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on February 12, 2014 at 7:34pm

" Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action.  Know that action comes from the Supreme Spirit who is one; wherefore the all-pervading Spirit is at all times present in the sacrifice."

p.24 Judge Rendition

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 13, 2014 at 12:11pm

" Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action. (3.14)   Know that action comes from the Supreme Spirit who is one; wherefore the all-pervading Spirit is at all times present in the sacrifice.  (3.15)”


We seem to have jumped back fifteen verses to an earlier part of this chapter - verses 3.14 and 3.15.  

There appears to be a step missing in Judge’s rendering of 3.15 which is invariably present in the translations themselves even though the terminology varies.  The steps are:  ‘Actions come from ‘something’ whose source is the Imperishable’.  Swami Chinmayanda gives the following:

3.15.   Know you that action comes from Brahmaji (the Creator) and Brahmaji comes from the Imperishable.  Therefore, the all-pervading Brahman ever rests in sacrifice.

This is in keeping with verse 3.10 which begins this short series of verses on action as sacrifice (yajña).  In 3.10 Krishna tells Arjuna that in the beginning the Prajapati (the Creator) brought forth mankind together with the sacrifices.  In the next few verses Krishna describes the relationship between man and the devas as one that should be based on mutual giving and receiving, based on universal law - i.e. each part unselfishly and dutifully playing its part for the benefit of the whole.  Hence:

“From food, comes forth beings; from rain, food is produced; from sacrifice arises rain, and sacrifice is born of action. . . action comes from the Brahmaji and Brahmaji comes from the Imperishable.  Therefore the all pervading Brahman ever rests in sacrifice.”  (3.14 and 3.15)

Sankara glosses the word brahma with Veda, which means knowledge - from vid “to know”.  Advaitees tend to follow Sankara on this, for example: 

3.15  Know that action has the Veda as its origin; the Veda has the Immutable as its source.  Hence the all pervading Veda is for ever based on sacrifice.   (Trans: Gambhirananda)

Gambhirananda gives Sankara’s commentary on this verse as “..Brahma called the Veda, is aksara-samubhavam, it has aksara, the immutable Brahman, the supreme Self, as its source. Since Veda came out, like the breath of a man, from the supreme Self Itself, called the Immutable, therefore the Veda, being the revealer or everything, is sarva-gatam, all pervading. Even though all pervading, the Veda is for ever based on sacrifice, because the injunctions about sacrifices predominate in it.”

Here we see that the Veda is more than just a set of scriptural works and ritual actions.  The implication is that it is ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing itself’  breathed out from the Supreme Self, and it contains the injunctions within it as to how it is to be known and realised - these are based on selfless action (sacrifice) for the good of the whole.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 13, 2014 at 12:21pm

I meant to add to the above, that in Theosophical terms we have Parabrahm from which comes Brahma (the creative logos) from which comes all action in the manifested universe.  The Great Breath projected outwards in manifestation as endless becoming.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 13, 2014 at 3:38pm

So what is the nature of sacrifice? Is sacrificial action karmaless?  If we do the right thing (right action) for the wrong reason is it  true that the spirit in that instance is not in the sacrifice.

example: Helped an old lady to get across a busy street but did this action because a TV camera was on the intersection and you were trying to get on  TV to get noticed.

Aren't all actions by those unenlightened (us) to some extend mixed with impure motives?

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 14, 2014 at 9:06am

According to the Gita, action carried out selflessly for the sake of 'the Self' alone does not incur personal karma - good or bad. That seems to be the case in the context that the karma we generate consists either of personal merit or demerit, the effects of which have to be exhausted one way or another in future incarnations.    In other words, both our good and bad karma are all part of samsara - the endless circle of causes and effects that revolve around our personal egos.  Hence, through the Yoga (even-ness of mind) that Krishna advocates in Chapter 2  we have a chance to free ourselves from our attachment (desire) with regards to results.   

Just as you say, Gerry, our motives for action are often mixed, as in your example.  I guess in these cases what we mean by motives are simply our various personal desires competing with one another.  Or, perhaps with the aim of creating good karma for ourselves, we simply see others as a 'means to an end'? So, the action is not for them, but for us.

Given our current state, Karma-Yoga is surely a path of spiritual-practice with the eventual aim of purifying our motives for action.  Krishna describes the state of one who has achieved that end so that we have an idea what to aspire to.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 14, 2014 at 9:52am

What are some of the important steps a student needs to make to begin to purify one's motives?

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 15, 2014 at 1:32pm

One of the key factors required for us to change is that there needs to be some understanding as to why change is necessary.  Hence the need to study and reflect on the teachings - whatever the spiritual path we may follow.  Such understanding can both support and provide the fuel for our intentions, so that they turn into actions.

Of course, we can only bring about a change in the things that we are aware of, so another important factor is self-knowledge and the willingness to reflect on our thoughts, motives and actions.

I'm sure there are other 'important steps' that members might share.

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on February 17, 2014 at 5:34pm

Another step is we must continually ask ourselves, "Who am I?". By so doing we might begin to gain a sense of the various levels and places from within ourselves that actions originate.  We need to purify our motive by purifying our sense of self. Or shall we say sense of SELF?

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 18, 2014 at 4:45am

Tamiko - yes, as you probably already know, this is a central spiritual practice in certain traditions within Advaita.  See for example Sr Ramana Maharshi:

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on February 13, 2014 at 3:47pm

This idea of the right performance of action sounds an awful lot like the encouragement to "do your duty".

Duty is a tricky subject.  It is not always clear what is one's duty and what is not.  Any ideas on bell weather markings of what is one's duty and what is not?   Later on Krishna says that taking on the duty of another is fraught with danger.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 14, 2014 at 10:00am

Duty and right performance of action do seem intertwined.   And this is a good question.  Perhaps the question: "How can I be of help to those around or near me?" is a good place to start.  We could run off to a far off land to help build a shelter for a person in need and forsake the home of one's parents who are also in need, for example. This would be to miss the duty just before us.  Our parents are relying on us, and therefore our sphere of duty is drawn.

Certainly there are many levels at which we can be of "help" to our fellow man.  What thoughts we entertain throughout the day for example has a vibratory effect that we know very little about usually.  Yet it is our duty to send out beneficent vibrations, is it not?

What do others think?

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on February 14, 2014 at 11:56pm

More from Chapter 3


“By what, O descendant of Vrishni, is man propelled to commit offenses; seemingly against his will and as if constrained by some secret force?”


“It is lust which instigates him. It is passion, sprung from the quality of rajas1; insatiable, and full of sin. Know this to be the enemy of man on earth. As the flame is surrounded by smoke, and a mirror by rust, and as the womb envelops the foetus, so is the universe surrounded by this passion. By this — the constant enemy of the wise man, formed from desire which rageth like fire and is never to be appeased — is discriminative knowledge surrounded. Its empire is over the senses and organs, the thinking principle and the discriminating faculty also; by means of these it cloudeth discrimination and deludeth the Lord of the body. Therefore, O best of the descendants of Bharata, at the very outset restraining thy senses, thou shouldst conquer this sin which is the destroyer of knowledge and of spiritual discernment."

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 15, 2014 at 8:33am

3.35 Better is one’s own dharma, though imperfectly performed, than the dharma of another well performed. Better is death in the doing of one’s own dharma: the dharma of another is fraught with peril.

We probably need to be cautious in how we understand this verse. If we take it too literally it would mean we wouldn’t help another person in the carrying out of their duties because their duties do not belong to us.

There are a number of ways this verse has been understood by commentators. Traditionally this verse was/is taken to refer to the fourfold caste system and the four stages of life. There is support for this in the next chapter where Krishna states:

4.13 The four castes were created by Me according to the division of gunas and karma. Though I am their creator, yet know that I neither act nor change.”

Sattva is said to predominate in the Brahmin caste (purity and goodness controlling the mind through austerity). Rajas supported by sattva is said to predominate in the kshatriya (warrior) caste, to which Arujna belongs. Rajas supported by Tamas is said to be predominant in the Vaisya (agricultural) caste. In the Sudra (service) caste tamas predominates supported by rajas. The theory here (in relation to verse 3.35) is that each caste has its own rules to abide by and duties to perform and therefore better to do the duties, even imperfectly, related to your own caste than to excel in the duties of another caste. Since Arjuna belongs to the warrior caste he is advised to act according to his own nature (prakriti) and duty - i.e. To fight.

Clearly much abuse has come about in the way this system has been used over the centuries. Modern commentators on the Gita (e.g. S. Radhakrishnan) point out that our station or role in life is not simply determined by our birth and the family in which we are born, but by the quality of the gunas operating in us and the karma that we need to exhaust in this life.

Other modern commentators/teachers on the Gita (e.g.. Swamis Chinmayanda and Dayananda) look closer at the term svadharma (own duty) in verse 3.35 and see it in a more general way, outside of the caste system parameters. They explain that Svadharma is the duty which belongs to us and that it doesn’t take too much for each person of a reasonable moral character to work out what duty belongs to him or her on a day to day basis. Even when we are unsure of what to do we can ask another to help us decide, and even when we do the wrong thing we do so in an attempt to do what we feel is expected of us in the situation, which is not necessarily what another person should do. So what is right for us to do will depend on the situation and our vasanas (temperament or the type of skandhas we have been born with).

Krishna Prem takes a more theosophical view linking Karma Yoga with Buddhi Yoga following the link between these from Krishna has stated in chapter two. In other words, it is only by making the personal consciousness a servant of the higher (Buddhi-manas) do we truly carry out our right action, our duty, in this life. To do what others say or do is to follow outwards signs only and is not wisdom.

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on February 17, 2014 at 5:21pm

Each human being has a unique opportunity to benefit one's fellow man given that we are each born into unique circumstances.  If we add the resources, mental, moral and material to the equation we can see that like a snow flake the duties that rightfully belong to one are unique.  To fulfill the duties allotted to us requires great wisdom.  And what is also interesting to me is that it must be self-chosen.