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.