Karma in the Bhagavad Gita

Vijay Kumar commented on my post about karma and free will with the remark that the Bhagavad Gita has something to say about the topic. He stresses the freedom of the Soul, or Atma, and it’s joy in finding itself in life, doing something.

He has a point, but how does that relate to freedom of action here and now? Let’s start at the beginning:

The central theme in the Bhagavad Gita’s is Arjuna’s struggle: should he abstain from violence, or should he fight with his brothers for the rightful rule?

The armies are all set up to fight each other, facing each other, but Arjuna lays down his weapons and has his charioteer (Krishna) draw the chariot between the two armies. Arjuna looks at both sides and wonders: why should I kill my nephews (his enemies)? Why should I fight?

This is an eternal question, and probably the reason the Bhagavad Gita has remained so popular throughout history. After all – the question is easily transplanted into our own time. Should the US fight for peace in Afghanistan? Should one interfere in a quarrel? Should one fight for what one believes in, or let it go? Both sides of the question have a point: it’s not clear whether fighting for what’s right always has a good effect. Perhaps the fighting itself does more harm than the original wrong (or what you thought was wrong) might have done.

In ordinary life, it’s often wise to pick your battles. However, as the Bhagavad Gita makes clear, it’s not always best to avoid battle altogether.

Krishna convinces Arjuna to ACT, to FIGHT. Krishna does that by showing Arjuna a few basic Hindu truths:

  • Krishna, the Divine, is in everything and everyone. Arjuna is overwhelmed by this vision of the Divine.
  • The souls of the people who will be killed won’t be hurt by being killed.
  • Arjuna should act according to his nature, and his nature is to fight.
  • He should fight though as best as he can, but WITHOUT being attached to the result.

So how does that relate to karma? Karma literally means action. It is Arjuna’s nature to fight, so he will fight. But it’s also clear it’s his choice to either go along with his inner nature, or to withdraw from the world altogether. Mascaro translates Karma with ‘work’. Here are some quotes about how to work:

The man who in his work finds silence, and who sees that silence is work, this man in truth sees the Light and in all his works finds peace (p. 24; chapter 4: 18)

Offer all thy works to God, throw off selfish bonds, and do thy work. No sin can then stain thee, even as waters do not stain the leaf of the lotus. (p. 28; chapter 5: 10)

This man of harmony surrenders the rewards of his work and thus attains final peace: the man of disharmony, urged by desire, is attached to his reward and remains in bondage (p. 28; chapter 5: 12)

The Lord of the world is beyond the works of the world and their working, and beyond the results of these works; but the work of Nature rolls on. (p. 28, chapter 5: 14)

This implicit freedom is also present in the attitude towards death and release that the Gita teaches. God Krishna says to Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita 8:5)

And he who at the end of his time leaves his body thinking of me, he in truth comes to my being: he in truth comes unto me.

In the introduction to the Penguin translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Juan Mascaro says the following about karma (or action) in that work:

All life is action, but every little finite action should be a surrender to the Infinite, even as breathing in seems to be receiving of the gift of life, and the breathing out a surrender into the infinite Life. Every little work in life, however humble, can become an act of creation and therefore a means of salvation, because in all true creation we reconcile the finite with the Infinite, hence the joy of creation.

In that light freedom is not such a big deal – duty however is: right action in the right loving attitude of devotion to the Divine. Perhaps free will and lack of it are joined as breathing in and breathing out are: with the one hand we give, with the other we take of life.

And then again, perhaps this question is so difficult only a poetic answer can really catch the paradox of it.

A newer version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.

16 thoughts on “Karma in the Bhagavad Gita”

  1. >And then again, perhaps this question is so difficult only a poetic answer can really catch the paradox of it.

    Poetry is a good place to start. However it is not the words themselves but how they are said.

  2. And then if we look at 5:8 (and elsewhere) it says “I am not the doer” because we aren’t the body/mind, but rather the observer. From that perspective it’s no longer even a question of what should I do or not do, but instead, should I identify myself with what’s happening?

    “In the world but not of it” as the saying goes.

    1. I think that’s rather a worrisome attitude. I can understand not identifying with the action, but to conclude that it doesn’t matter WHAT we do, is a totally different issue.

      I mean – what happens with karma then? Doesn’t that imply we’re not responsible, that it doesn’t matter at all whether we act right or wrong?

  3. This is an interesting topic…

    This is my understanding of Karma – Karma is actions… Every living being is bound to do Karma and we cannot avoid Karma… even saints perform Karma ( example breating that it self is action which is karma)…

    From what I read and understand …. Krishna is talking to Arjuna about the ( Niskaama Karma) that is reaching the supreme by doing your duty… A lot of yogi’s and saints ( in india) refrain themselves from Karma ( that is doing action ” Wordly duties”)… But, Krishna is teaching Arjuna how to reach without refraining from ‘Worldly duties”…

    Aof question here
    1) Is killing OKAY then? – Killing is not okay ( What is happening in the story is battle between Dharma and Adharma – Arjuna is born to destry Adharma, therefore that is his duty and he shouldn’t run away from it .. but he should perform the karma without bonding to the fruits of the action…)

    Beautiful topic and blog…enjoyed reading..

  4. Dear Katinka

    You have a joyful way of presenting your thoughts which has filled me with equal joy. And yes, may folks like you continue to inspire the rest – the mundane and the under privileged. About Bhagavad Gita —

    For Arjuna it was a dilemma of killing his own grandfather and teacher (Bheeshma and Drona). That was a relative or particular issue of Arjuna alone. It cannot be understood by this, that Bhagavad Gita deals with war! In fact, at many places in Bhagavad Gita Krishna advocates ahimsa – non-violence. Then the question arises – what is the relevance of this case to us? (chapter 2 & 3)

    Arjuna had to do something and he did not like to do it. In life, I am always torn between what I ‘like to do’ and what is ‘right to do’. If the two match, well and good. More often, they are different or even contradictory. This results in conflicts of propriety. How to overcome my ‘likes and dislikes’ and be given to the path of ‘right and wrong’ is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 3 & 4)

    For that, Krishna brings the concept of Soul. In its absolute level, the Soul acts not and it enjoys not. It is above the body, mind and intelligence. At the same time, it is the repository of all joy. From this, one has to draw and unearth and also harness the inner potentials and rise above the ordinary. (chapter 2)

    There is a way of acting without getting afflicted by the actions or by the results – even if the path be arduous and results negative. This secret of becoming independent of results and deriving joy of actions when the actions are current, in progress, is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 3)

    All joy is inner – mind based. There is a way of drawing that joy incessantly, like drinking nectar, without any effort. It is joy of meditation. This makes one free of external, sensory thrills. One becomes free. This is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 6)

    Nowhere in Bhagavad Gita Krishna advocates worshipping God, as an external deity. Instead, he says – find Him in the visible world, right in front of your own eyes. It leads one to sovereign, secular life. This is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 7)

    Devotion belongs to the devotee. It has nothing to do with God. The qualities that a devotee should cultivate and express are more important than the worship he performs. These qualities, enumerated in Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says will make a devotee dear to God! This is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 12)

    Human fulfillment lies in discovering the inner potential. He who discovers that he has a body, mind and intelligence and hence is beyond the body, mind and intelligence is free – this is the message of Bhagavad Gita. (chapter 13, 15 & 18)

    Enjoy that freedom – that absoluteness.

    1. Dear Katinka
      I did not realize that my expressions were on the border of moderation. I just wrote out whatever came to my mind. In fact, to be moderate in whatever one does is an important message of Bhagavad Gita (verse 6.7). It just shows how much more I have to travel. Not only I must get exposed to the messages, I must also assimilate them and express them as my own. Yes, that is the formula – exposure, assimilation and expression. One thing is sure – it is fun all along.
      Dear Katinka, thanx for pointing out my lapses so kindly. I may not be able to write as well as you do – but, I can surely admire those of you who are doing it so well. Through your web, you are doing a good job – helping those who want such help. As for me, even if I do not fare as well – it matters not. My joy is in doing my karma – it is prevalent both in success and failure – which, incidentally, is another message of Bhagavad Gita (verse 2.48).

      Keep up your good work.

      1. WordPress, which I use as a blogging platform, automatically decides which posts are going through, which are going to be moderated, and which will be labeled ‘spam’. Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing personal.
        As long as your comments don’t go into the spam cue, they WILL appear on my blog as long as they are on topic. It may just take a while.

  5. I have always been fascinated with karma, and believe it is a natural occurrence stemming from our thoughts, words and actions, whether they be good or bad. I read a book recently called “Wake Up! Your Life is Calling,” by a man named Andy Feld. I mention this book because the author talked a lot about self responsibility, and I believe that when people take responsibility for their karma they are taking responsibility for the lives they create.
    thanks for listening,

  6. The name Krishna in Sanskrit means black or the colour of the night sky or ocean. In India most idols of Krishna are in black, but why the sky blue? The language of Buddha was Dravidian and not Sanskrit based. The Dravidian based are dark and live in southern India. The horse and chariot were introduced into India by a light-skinned people – the Aryan Indo-European connection. The young Hindu, Nathuram Godses, who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi carried a copy of the Baghavadgita to his trial. True followers of Krishna were not to compromise with other religions but had to remain orthodox; in fact Srila Prabhupada before founding the Hare Krishna in America when he was young and unknown had written Gandhi just a month or so before, forewarning him to dispense with compromising with the Muslims and Christians in the creation of the India Republic and to seek a Krishna guru … or else!
    This is what the brother of Nathuram uttered: “Yes! I Killed Mohandas Gandhi and I am Glad I Did It!

    That is what Gopal Godse said as he prepares for his final vindication, the election of India’s first ultra-Hindu nationalist government.
    Gopal Godse spent 18 years in prison for his role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. His brother and one other conspirator were hanged by the neck until dead.
    But it was all worth it, says Gopal Godse.

    Now these conspirators, who to this day are celebrated by strict Hindus, took the literal advise of the sky-blue coloured Krishna and did the work or karma that Arjuna was instructed to perform without one idle thought. Another odd thing if one investigates is that at age nine Krishna killed his uncle who he termed a demon. Now to the orthodox Hindus the followers of Islam or Buddhism, etc. are tantamount to being demons. Why else were the Buddhists driven out of India by the Hindus? Sri Lanka, an island, became one of the refuges for the dark-skinned non-Sanskrit based believers.

    1. I don’t believe in blaming the text for the actions of believers. The Bhagavad Gita is about the eternal struggle between accepting what is, and doing something about it. It also teaches that there will be justice in the end. As such, the killer of Gandhi simply did not understand the Gita well enough. Anyhow, Gandhi himself was inspired by the Gita too – so it apparently goes both ways.

    2. Buddhists were never driven out of India. To my knowledge, it originated and flourished in Indian subcontinent and from there it spread to neighboring countries like China, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and many South eastern countries. The Indian ruler Ashoka was a Hindu and he later converted to Buddhism. His kingdom was spread over whole of Indian subcontinent including parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is credited for the spread of Buddhism in the outer world and India. He preached non violence and did prominent work for the spread of this particular faith. However he never imposed it to the common people unlike Islam which was forced upon the Hindu population. This approach was never adopted by Buddhists or by Ashoka as he himself was liberal and respected other religious faiths and their values.

      The faiths like Buddhism and Jainism and to some extent Sikhism are considered very close to Hinduism.The Hindus see Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. You will be amazed to know that Lord Krishna is also an incarnation of Lord Vishnu according to Hindu Mythology.

      The language of Buddha was definitely not Dravidian as he gave his sermons in “Pali” and “Prakrit” which were popular among the common people unlike Sanskrit which was used mainly for religious purposes and by the knowledgeable. Thus he used a language which can be easily understood by the common man. Pali and Prakrit were derived from Sanskrit and their origin and grammar can be traced back to Sanskrit. Buddhism, in fact, has many religious text written in Sanskrit.

      The Indians have an identity and culture of their own and they do not have to borrow it from somebody else. The Aryan Invasion Theory which you are talking about has no relevance in today’s world and many recent researches have proved that so called Aryans were original inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization.

      Every religion in this world, including Christianity and Islam have “Popes” and “Caliphs” to formulate rules and guidelines for their followers and the same is also true for Hinduism to some extent. However, if the Church says that the Earth is the center of the Universe, then are you going to believe them? or find out the truth on your own.

      The killer of Gandhi cannot be termed as a Hindu or preacher of Gita. He was just a brain washed Lunatic who could never understand the true meaning of Gita or Hinduism. Therefore, calling him a preacher of Hinduism is similar to saying that “Jehadis” are followers of Islam.

      If you want to talk about facts then please verify them before using them as Krishna never killed his uncle without any reason. He killed him because his uncle was known for his atrocious and oppressive rule. He did what was in the benefit of mankind even if it meant killing his own uncle. Thus he was following his Karma.

      Yes, I agree that some of the Indians see many religions with suspicion but their is a scientific explanation for this behavior. The Indian Society has faced the brutality and atrocities of many outsiders like Mughals and Britishers for hundreds of years who tried to impose their religious views on the Indian people with brute force. Thus this attitude of some Indians was used by the fanatics to their advantage and for personal gains.

      However, a rational person whether he is a Hindu, Christian or a Muslim knows that the almighty has given him a very powerful weapon to protect himself from these evil ideas and that is his own conscience. I am a Hindu and respect Jesus, Allah, Moses, and Krishna in the same way as I know that it is the God in the end to whom I am accountable.

      I hope this will clear some of your misconceptions.

  7. Can the scope of Karma (action) as defined by Gita be summarized by these three points –

    1) Do every action that is necessary for survival for there is no choice but to perform all your responsibilities that are given to you by the virtue of birth or the one’s that you have taken upon yourself during your lifetime.

    2) When faced with a dilemma of being required to perform an action that is against your principles or liking, do the minimal required as demanded by the situation. Don’t regret or feel guilty about it.

    3) Give yourself completely to the action. It is in human nature to feel motivated by the benefits or the results of any action. Krishna doesn’t mean that perform the action without being interested in the results but rather implies to not get carried away by the outcome of your action. He doesn’t want you to fall in the pit of despair if the outcome is not favorable. Similarly, he doesn’t want you to feel so excited that you become over confident and callous if the results meet your expectations.

  8. 1) To summarize ‘karma’ by these points as defined by Gita ,will be inadequate. Karma is not action alone but also the acquired predilection of one’s actions in this and past lives. Secondly “survival’ was not an issue with Arjuna as he was an impeccable warrior and death was always one of the accepted outcomes.

    Bhagavan Krishna had orchestrated the Mahabharata war to establish ‘Dharma’ and Arjuna was only a tool in his hand. In reality Arjuna had no choice but to fight.

    2) Arjuna was in a dilemma because he believed that he was about to kill his own people. Bhagavan explains to him that this fear was a spiritual misconception as they were not merely physical beings but they were the everlasting souls which is deathless. In Sanatana Dharma, the human soul is realised as ‘Atma’, which is pure consciousness that is never born and thus cannot die.

  9. Well put Praveen!
    I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said
    ” Just be nice.”
    If we all just did that , it would all be good Karma.
    It’s that simple. Why is this so hard to understand?
    Thank You

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