Chapter 4. Wisdom in Action

1I taught this eternal yoga to Vivasvat.
Vivasvat taught Manu and
Manu taught Ikshvaku.
Vivasvat is the patriarch of the famous solar dynasty;
Manu and Ikshvaku are his descendants.

2Thus handed down
in regular succession,
the rajarishis knew this.
A rajarishi is one who is both a king and a sage.

But over the long course of time
the yoga seems to be lost in the world.
Over time, the eternal yoga gets cluttered by tradition and complicated by excessive scholarship; thus, it is practically lost.

3I have now told you the same ancient yoga,
because you are my friend and admirer.
This yoga is a supreme secret indeed.

4Vivasvat was born long before you.
How could you have taught him? 

5You and I have passed through many lives, Arjuna.
I remember them all but you do not.

6I am the lord of beings,
unborn and imperishable,
yet restraining my basic nature
I incarnate myself by my own maya.
The Supreme is inherently beyond space and time.
Through maya, the divine power of illusion, the Supreme veils its own inherent nature to assume a role and form that is relevant to a particular situation.

7Whenever there is a decline of dharma
and a rise of adharma,
I manifest myself in this world.
Dharma is that which sustains everything; it is the harmony in the universe that sustains the greater good.
By definition, dharma protects one who protects it.
Adharma is the opposite of dharma; it is that which hinders sustainability.

8To protect the good, to destroy evil,
and to firmly establish dharma,
I manifest myself time and again.
Here, ‘good’ not only refers to sages but also to ordinary, helpless folk, who are exploited by the wicked. History has shown that during a great crisis, someone rises to the occasion, assumes leadership, and brings about change. Krishna presents the concept of incarnation (avatara) without limitations of space or time.

9He who truly knows the scheme of
my divine birth and deeds,
is not reborn when he leaves the body;
he comes to me, Arjuna.
This verse perhaps implies that one who fully comprehends life is liberated.

10Freed from attachment, fear, and anger,
thinking of me, dedicated to me, and
cleansed by the fire of wisdom,
many have attained my state of being.

11Everywhere, humans pursue a path to attain me.
In whatever manner they approach me,
I reward them accordingly.

12Those who work craving for worldly success
offer ritualistic worship to the gods;
indeed, in the world of humans,
one attains material success quickly.
Rituals often arise from the prevailing geographical conditions and culture. They help achieve short-term gains and inculcate basic discipline. Rituals are the means to spiritual progress; they should not become the ends.

Material success is more readily achieved as compared to true knowledge. There is no short-cut to knowledge.

13I have brought forth the four basic traits,
a classification based on guna and karma.
‘Basic traits’ refers to the inherent aptitudes of a person. The four basic traits of humans are explained in 18:41-44. Guna refers to the inherent qualities of a person and karma refers to work, which is attuned to guna.

Although I am their cause,
I am unchanged and
beyond all action.
It is like a catalyst that causes change but itself remains unaffected.

14I am not bound by actions
because I don’t crave for rewards.
One who knows me thus
is also not bound by action.
‘One who knows me’ refers to identification with the soul within and the relation of the soul to the supreme.

15With this understanding,
ancient seekers of liberation did their work
without being attached to its outcomes.
Therefore, I suggest that you too should act
just as the ancient seekers did in the past.

16What is action?
What is inaction?
Even sages are puzzled.
Let me explain about the true nature of action.
Once you know this, you will be liberated from evil.
Here, ‘evil’ refers to continued circulation in the cycle of karma due to one’s attachments. See 9:20-21.

17The nature of action is hard to grasp.
One should correctly know:
What is right action?
What is not right action?
What is inaction?

18One who can see Stillness in the midst of Activity
and Action in the midst of Inertia is indeed wise.
He acts sensibly at all times.
‘Stillness in the midst of Activity’ is explained in the following verses. ‘Action in the midst of Inertia’ is explained in 3:6.

19The pursuits of the wise
are not motivated by desire;
their actions are purified by the fire of wisdom.
The wise don’t have any personal agenda;
they work for the welfare of all.

20They are ever-satisfied and independent.
Even while engaged in action, they do nothing
because they are not attached to the outcome.
The wise realize that they are not Doing the work,
but rather that the work is getting Done.

21Just by doing activities with discipline,
not expecting anything from it,
and free from a sense of possession,
you can stay away from evil.

22Satisfied with what comes on its own accord,
even-minded in success and failure,
rising above the dualities,
and free from envy,
one is not affected
even when involved in action.
‘Dualities’ are relative opposites like pain and pleasure,
attraction and aversion, gain and loss, me and others, etc.

23One who is wise, unattached, and liberated
acts in the spirit of yajña.
All his actions are indeed absolved.
‘Spirit of yajña’ refers to a spirit of service or offering.
‘Absolved’ means that he is not bound by those actions.

Ideally one should perform all actions in the spirit of yajña;
in other words, work in a dedicated manner.

It might not be possible to do every activity in the spirit of yajña but we should try to do at least some activities in that spirit; not doing so is as good as wasting one’s life; see 4:31.

The next ten verses describe the various yajñas and how every aspect of our life -– both voluntary and involuntary activities -–
is rooted in the Supreme.

24Brahman is the offering,
brahman is the oblation,
brahman is the fire to which
brahman makes the offering;
brahman indeed is attained by
one who is absorbed in action,
which is also brahman.
Yajña is a Vedic ritual in which fire is raised in an enclosed altar and several deities are invoked. Clarified butter (the fuel for the fire), medicinal herbs, twigs of Peepul tree, and other offerings are put in the fire, accompanied by chanting specific hymns from the Vedas.

Every component of a yajña is presented as a metaphor for brahman, the supreme being. See 9:16.

25Some aspirants perform yajña
to lesser gods,
while some others perform yajña
in the fire of brahman
offering the yajña itself.
When performing a yajña dedicated to a lesser god,
one can offer something that the god likes.

But when performing a yajña dedicated to brahman,
the only thing left to offer is the yajña itself.
Such aspirants perform every action in the spirit of yajña.

26Some aspirants submit hearing
and other senses
to the fire of restraint.
Some others subdue sound
and other sensations
in the fire of senses.
Some aspirants block their senses to avoid coming in contact with sensates. Some others block their sensations itself, in spite of their senses being in contact with sensates.

27Some offer the prana and
all actions of the senses
in the fire of self-control,
which is kindled by knowledge.
Prana refers to the ‘vital force’ of an organism, its life energy.
It is also known as the ‘vital breath’, for without breathing, there is no life.

28Some aspirants offer their wealth,
some offer their yoga expertise,
some offer austerities, and
others offer learning –
they are true ascetics.
Any action performed with dedication counts as a yajña.

29Others, solely engaged
in the art of breathing,
having regulated
inward and outward breaths,
offer their inward breath to
their outward breath
and vice-versa.
The art of breathing or breath control involves the regulation of the course of inhalations and exhalations.

30While others, restraining their diet,
offer their inhalations to their inhalations.
They all know the way of yajña and
their sins are cleansed by doing yajña.

31Relishing the remnants of yajña, which is elixir,
they attain the eternal brahman.
‘They’ refers to those who perform yajña.

Those who don’t perform any yajña
are unfit even for this world;
how can they enter the other world?
Some people devote their life doing what they love without worrying about any rewards. One must pursue at least some activities with this spirit of yajña; otherwise, life will be dull and mechanical.
Such dullness never leads to perfection or happiness.

32Thus, many kinds of yajña
are described in the scriptures.
All these yajñas are rooted in action;
know this, and you will be free.
Once we grasp the larger scheme of things, we begin to do all our actions with a spirit of selflessness.
That breaks all bonds and leads us to true freedom.
33Pursuing knowledge is superior to
any ritual with material offerings
because all activities find their
fulfillment only in knowledge.

34Learn that knowledge from
those who have realized the truth.
Approach them with
a spirit of sincere enquiry
and serve them with humility.
They will impart that knowledge to you.
In ancient India, students would live with a guru (teacher) for many years and over time, learn the path to the ultimate truth. They would serve the guru and attend to all his mundane needs, which taught them how the guru handled daily life situations and not just the intellectual or spiritual quests.

35Having learned it, Arjuna,
you will never be deluded again
because with that knowledge
you will perceive all beings
in yourself and in me.

36Even if you were the gravest of sinners,
you will cross the ocean of sin
with the raft of knowledge.

37Just as the blazing fire reduces firewood to ashes,
the fire of knowledge reduces all karma to ashes.
Karma refers to all spheres of action. So it encompasses normal day-to-day work, selfless action, lethargy, inappropriate action, rituals, inevitable action, working for greater good, etc. All karma is cleansed by understanding the basis of karma.
38Nothing is as pure as knowledge in this world.
One who reaches perfection by yoga
will eventually find it within.

39A sincere person gains knowledge
through focus and mastery of senses.
Once he has acquired knowledge,
he soon attains supreme peace.

40But a person who is
ignorant, insincere, and indecisive
gets destroyed.
‘Indecisive’ indicates hesitation as well as suspicion.

One who remains
hesitant and confused
finds no happiness
in this world or beyond.

41Actions do not bind a person who
engages in yoga with clear understanding
and is always watchful over himself.
Here, yoga refers to the path of selfless action.

42With the sword of wisdom,
cut through this doubt born of ignorance,
residing in your heart.
Arise Arjuna and resort to yoga!

<< Chapter 3. Selfless Action

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