Conversation held on March 8th, 2018 and 12 PM EST, 11 AM Central
Summary of Chapter 3
In the opening of this Chapter, Arjuna is confused: why does Krishna urge him on to fearful action, when he seems to hold that insight is higher than action? In what follows, Krishna appears to be unpacking the meaning of “action” (karma) and action’s relationship to insight. Chapter 3 is an expansion of the previous Chapter’s theme – what does it means to “abandon self-interest”?
As far as action is concerned, Krishna says, for example, “no one lives even for a moment without doing some act, for the three forces (gunas) of nature cause everyone to act, willy-nilly.” (line 5). Moreover, he says at line 15, “Creatures exist by food, food grows from rain, rain springs from sacrifice, and sacrifice arises from action. This ritual action, you must know, originates from brahman of the Veda, and this brahman itself issues from the syllable OM. ” Krishna urges Arjuna to act disinterestedly, continuing the theme from Chapter 2 concerning the renunciation of the “fruits of action”.
The wise, disinterested man, he says, should do his acts in the same way an ignorant man does, but only to hold the world together. (line 25)
He soon urges Arjuna to ‘leave all actions to him’, after showing that underlying all actions are really ‘forces’ – and that the person who knows this, is no longer liable to confuse themselves with their actions. Seeing the truth about actions, he no longer takes interest in actions. Chapter 3 ends with Arjuna asking about where evil deeds originate (on his mind might be the deeds of the Drtrashtras) and Krishna answers that it is desire. The true enemy, he says, is Arjuna’s own desire.
Krishna closes the Chapter by returning to his original exhortation in the beginning of Chapter 2 — although now we see it has been transformed: “Pull yourself together and kill desire, your indomitable enemy!”
karma, kárma or kárman in Sanskrit is कर्म, “act, action, performance”. The word comes from the root kri meaning “to do,” “to make.” Literally karma means “doing,” “making,” action.
In today’s reading, how is this “action” conceived? What does the Bhagavad-gita understand “action” to be?
In the Gita, we see that the first and most immediate sense of “action” is interested action – action that aims for some goal, for “fruits.”
We then saw a second kind of action that emerged in Krishna’s first responses to Arjuna and Arjuna’s crisis: lawful action, or action with reference to Dharma.
In today’s reading both are presupposed, but we find an elaboration of yet a third sense of action, the more related to the performing of ‘daily tasks’:
Pursue the daily tasks “disinterestedly”, for, while performing his acts without self-interest, a person obtains the highest good. (line 20)
For Arjuna, these daily tasks would have to be understood as shaped by his membership in the Kshatriya or warrior class. But even more particular than this, the task before him is to fight a just war against the other side of his family. Both relate to Law or Dharma. So in the prominent sense, action must bear reference to Dharma.
At line 10, Krishna says: “All the world is in bondage to the karman of action, except for action of he purposes of sacrifice; therefore engage in action for that purpose, disinterestedly, Kaunteya.”
The nasal “n” ending of the karma (the karman of action) has the sense of the sum total of actions, what single tasks or actions add up to, i.e. the consequences of actions. The world is in bondage to these consequences.
There is no escape from acting, as Krishna tells Arjuna between lines 5-10. But there is evidently a way to become freed from this bondage, and that way is the way of “sacrifice”.
The third sense of “action”, then, refers us to the idea of world-bondage – of a sum-total of actions that hold the world in thrall – and implicitly, the possibility of freedom from bondage, by way of ritual action or “sacrifice”.
This leads to a fourth meaning of action, the way of getting free of bondage, the way of “sacrifice” – as we see traced through a marvelous passage between lines 10-25 – is linked to actions performed disinterestedly, the idea of renouncing the fruits of actions (as we have already seen in Chapter 2).
We wondered if Krishna was expanding the traditional meaning of rituals and of sacrifice as we would find in the Vedas.
We’ve already encountered Krishna’s extraordinary claim in Chapter 2 that, for the enlightened brahmin or wise man, the Vedas are as much use to him as a well is for a person when water is flowing everywhere around him. This is not to say that the Vedas don’t hold the truth, but only that they are not the exclusive source of truth.
At line 15, in a remarkable tracing of the universe down to its ground of being, he says:
Creatures exist by food, food grows from rain, rain spring from sacrifice, sacrifice arises from action. This ritual action, you must know, originates from the brahman of the Veda, and this brahman issues from the syllable OM.