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!”

Opening Question

karmakárma 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.

The Rg Veda is a traditional body of hymns that deals with many different gods and rituals of various kinds. It is not self-evident that brahman is a concept that, in the horizon of the Rg Veda, holds any force.

It is possible that the writers and tradition that created the Upanishads (for which the concept of brahman clearly holds great weight) – centuries after dates generally attributed the Rg Veda’s compilation – reinterpreted the Vedas in terms of new insight into the roots of the Vedic tradition.

For example, The Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad opens with the Horse Sacrifice, a traditional Vedic sacrifice, whose hymn appears in the earlier Rg Veda. The Upanishad appears to be saying that the ‘real’ sacrifice doesn’t actually involve cutting up a horse, but rather getting insight into the truth at the core of the sacrifice itself.

The phrase “the brahman of the Vedas”, then, seems to mean the Veda’s most sacred contents, the divine heart of the Vedas, the inner essence of the hymns, or the divine truth of the hymns.  This inner essence has an even deeper or further ground, that of the Syllable OM.

The sense or meaning of “ritual action”, then, as well as “sacrifice” is not the particular rituals we are used to in Vedic orthodoxy (although all of these rituals are preserved or conserved), or a sacrifice in the oldest sense of offering sacrificial victims, but something that is rooted in the very ground of existence or being – as one person suggested, what provides the ultimate justification and possibility the motivation to act – for Arjuna to act in this particular situation he has before him.

This leads us to wonder whether the inner sense of “sacrifice” – as the meaning of action – is in fact nothing other than “disinterested action”: the great lesson we learn from sacrifice is how to act in a such a way that leads us to look away from the fruits of action (for example, kingship, status, pleasures etc) to the action itself, and to the whole, or to the highest truth about things.    

In what follows, between lines 20-25, Krishna unpacks the meaning of disinterested action further.  More than acting without regard for its fruits, disinterested action acts with an eye to to preserving or sustaining the world  – as opposed to, say, having an intention to change the world in a radical way.

Following this, the only difference between the wise and the ignorant is that the wise do the same actions as the ignorant, only on different grounds (line 25): he acts to hold the world together, and won’t go out of their way to upset the ones who lack wisdom.  

This leads to a fifth sense of action – a cosmological/divine sense – which itself has two sides, both of which we touched on today. The first is the idea that Krishna acts to hold the world together, having no task or great goal to accomplish besides this.  There was a suggestion in our conversation that this might be important as it regards how we think about the ‘ultimate goal’ – if we are to think about a goal in any sense (e.g. the ‘nirvana of brahman’ at the end of Chapter 2.)

The second side of this sense of action concerns the three gunas – three ‘strands’ that weave together to make up all of physical existence, the beautiful prakriti Only one is named in this chapter,  the ‘middle’ one, rajas, which is passion, anger, fire. Krishna identifies this one as being responsible for desire and anger, which leads people to do bad things: “This world is clouded over by it as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as an embryo by the caul.”

The ‘conclusion’ (if indeed dialectic is ever finally completed) of today’s work together was that there are four meanings of action:

1. interested action

2. lawful action (i.e. with reference to Dharma)

3. karman (i.e. bondage to the sum-total consequences of action)

4. ritual action/disinterested action (i.e. with regard for ‘fruits’, acting ‘sacrificially’, the way of freeing oneself from bondage to karman)

5. divine/cosmological action (i.e. with ref. to the ultimate ground of being, including the gunas and Krishna’s divine acting)

In forthcoming chapters, we can expect to continue learning how these four meanings of action are woven together in the vision Krishna offers Arjuna in his greatest hour of need.

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