Chapter V Knowledge

Readers are advised that Śaṅkara in this chapter uses technical terms and concepts to establish his position on knowledge. On a first reading it does not have to be studied in detail.The Lord has said in IV.3 that the highest secret of yoga has now been taught. Nevertheless he has to continue to explain it in different ways because Arjuna has not fully accepted it. As is said at the very end, the Gītā will continue till Arjuna can understand, and incorporate it into his own being.At the beginning of the chapter Arjuna asks one of his questions, which show he has no clear idea of what he has been told. This time it is about the Two Paths. Kṛṣṇa answers that for one who has not yet seen the truth, the path of action is better, meaning (says Śaṅkara) that it is more feasible for him than the knowledge path of those who have glimpsed the Self. Even if a man of action attempted the path of knowledge, he would still feel that he was a limited body-mind self, and that to go beyond action, he must literally give up his home and live by begging. This would be no more than outer imitation of someone like the Buddha. Inside, he would be boiling with frustrated impulses and ambitions. (In historical fact most of the ancient preachers, even of the crudest materialism, were expected to practise this sort of outer austerity in order to get a following.) In the Gītā view, this kind of life may properly be practised by some, but only after knowledge has been attained. Otherwise, though renouncing outwardly, he will still be attached inwardly, for instance to reputation as a great renunciate.As a rough summary of the many passages, there can be three main renunciations:
  1. Physically giving up action, or at any rate all actions except begging as a sort of reflex. This may have nothing to do with the internal feeling; such a man might be full of suppressed impulses to action. The car has been stopped, so to say, but the engine is still running.
  2. Karma-yoga renunciation:of personal motives,of attachment to results (‘fruits’) of action, of busy attachment to action itself,of attachment to inaction. (This last may be disguised as submission to the will of God.)In the renunciation of karma-yoga, the yogin is still firmly held by the sense of ‘I do’, and convinced of the absolute reality of the world.
  3. Knowledge-yoga renunciation:This is transcendence of the living feeling: ‘I am a doer, busy in a world of many real things.’ Stepping out of this feeling is the renunciation of the truth-knower. Body and mind continue in illumined action, under the light of knowledge, but there is no feeling of ‘I do’.
Most of Chapter V, especially from verse 17 to the end, describes the yoga of Knowledge, says Śaṅkara. The path is not a question of trying to reinforce knowledge. Once that has sprung up, it needs no effort of reinforcement. The phrases used are ‘steady knowledge’, ‘firm knowledge’, ‘unwavering knowledge’ and the like. The path, pursued with effort, consists in giving up trailing memory-associations which may obscure knowledge. In form it is a positive injunction. In Śaṅkara’s words: ‘Knowledge Yoga (jñāna-niṣṭhā) is an intent effort to maintain the current of knowledge’. But really it is negative. An example would be an instruction to a gardener: ‘Keep the stream running.’ That does not mean somehow pushing the water along by paddling the hands; it means, not letting dead leaves or rubbish clutter it up. The stream will run naturally if not interfered with. This is a central point in Śaṅkara’s Gītā presentation.Śaṅkara calls the path of Knowledge jñāna-niṣṭhā, literally ‘taking one’s stand on Knowledge’. It is no mere theoretical idea, for Śaṅkara repeatedly calls it also samyag-darśana-niṣṭhā, taking one’s stand on Right Vision. Or again he gives it as paramārtha-darśana-niṣṭhā, taking one’s stand on Vision of the Supreme. This knower is a Seer and his direct Vision qualifies him for the knowledge-path called jñāna-niṣṭha. (The translation ‘devotion to knowledge’ may fail to make it clear that it is already attained.)The process of jñāna-yoga is mostly meditation on the supreme Self as free from all trails of obscuring cloud, which may arise from memories and past associations. Though known to be illusory, they can still have an effect. The same thing happens in life. Someone who has lived under a tyranny but is now in a very free country, can feel an irrational fear when talking to an official. The official may be seen and known to be helpful; but there is a deep-seated suspicion, arising from memories. It is known to be unreal, but yet creates an internal spasm. Special treatment may be needed to get over the unfounded fear. Similarly the yogic realization may need time to dispel unreal convictions of limited identity. The yogic current finally comes to continue in all mental states: active, withdrawn, or sleeping.Verses 8 and 9 are a typical Knowledge text. The meditation is a natural continuation of Knowledge in the body-mind complex, which survives till death. The natural train of knowledge need only be left alone, and not interfered with. Interference could come from pondering on memories of deceptive promises of sense-contacts, as II.67 has warned. The text here shows that it is mainly a question of not falling back into the illusion of being a scheming doer and a keenly personal experiencer.V.8 ‘I do nothing at all’ – thus should the truth-knowing yogin meditate, even when seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing,9 Talking, throwing out, grasping, opening and shutting his eyes – ever affirming: ‘All that is merely the senses acting on sense-objects’.It must be noticed that this is directed to a ‘truth-knower’, who has a sight of the Self. His Right Vision will continue of itself so long as he does not become distracted from it. As one Teacher put it: ‘He who has once got out of a place should not turn and smile smugly at what he has left. If he does, he may find himself back in it again’.The Gītā extends the general statement to all activities, even to fighting in the case of a warrior-king such as Kṛṣṇa himself. It echoes the verses in Chapter II (which themselves echo the Kaṭha Upaniṣad):II.21 He who knows as indestructible and eternal this unborn immortal one, how could he slay, and whom could he cause to slay?The truth-knower’s body and mind act directly under the divine impulse, which also controls the results according to the divine purpose. The mind of a Knower is to meditate all the time: ‘I do nothing at all’, as verse 8 says.Verses 8 and 9 teach Knowledge-yoga. Then unexpectedly and abruptly verses 10–12 bring in a karma-yogin. This man is ‘performing action’ (though without attachment), whereas the truth-knower was meditating ‘I do nothing’. Before the direct experience of Self, a yogin still feels ‘I am doing this’. In his case, he has to throw away attachment to the fruits when he acts, but is not yet able to throw away the sense of ‘I do’. He is referred to in the verses:V.10 He who acts without attachment, casting his actions upon Brahman, evil does not touch him, any more than water a lotus- leaf.11 With body, mind and intellect, and even with the mere senses, the yogins perform actions, giving up attachment, in order to purify themselves.12 The yogin, abandoning the fruits of action, comes to abiding peace; the one without yoga, acting from desire, is attached to the results, and so is bound.But the very next verse speaks of him when he has truth-realization of the Self:13 Mentally abandoning all actions, he sits happily, as the lord in the nine-gated citadel of the body, neither acting nor causing to act.It seems deliberately confusing that the two standpoints, so completely opposed, are put side by side, so to speak. It is typical of the Gītā teaching method that the two stands (niṣṭhā) come in consecutive verses. One has sympathy with Arjuna’s complaint: ‘You are confusing me’. Why doesn’t the Gītā put the karma-yoga passages neatly together in one section, and the Knowledge-yoga in a separate one? Then it could say: ‘When you have at last mastered this karma-yoga, you will be ready for Knowledge-yoga’ – that would be logical and clear.Or so it seems. But in fact it is based on a wrong notion. If this were done – and it is sometimes done unconsciously by disciples – many people would consign themselves to karma-yoga for good. Who could boast of having mastered karma-yoga? The At Last would become Never.The Gītā teaching method seeks to prevent this. It is true that the two standpoints are opposed, but the point is, that this opposition is an illusion. It is strong, ‘hard to get over’ as the Lord says. But it is not a solid fact. A long-held illusion normally takes a good time to dispel; but it can also drop away in an instant, just because it is only an illusion. It has no solid basis.Still, an illusion may be persistent. Most people have to make a number of tries before they can comfortably handle a snake, even though they know this one is not venomous. There are however a few, equally repelled at first, who suddenly manage to drop their aversion. With most of us, it fades away only gradually. The Gītā states twice that the change may be quick, though not necessarily correspondingly easy. Some Teachers believe it is a question of courage.Under verse 12 Śaṅkara sets out the programme of the two paths:
  1. karma-yoga samādhi, on renouncing action by not seeking its fruit, then
  2. purity of essence, leading to
  3. attainment of Knowledge (jñāna), then
  4. renunciation of actions, and
  5. steadying Knowledge (jñāna-niṣṭhā), and lastly
  6. mokṣa, freedom.
He repeats this programme often, sometimes shortening it by, for instance, putting Knowledge-renunciation and Knowledge-steadying together. He emphasizes (under verse 26) that it is the Lord’s programme, repeated by the Lord in the Gītā ‘at every step’, constantly.The chapter is mainly on Knowledge, and it gives some of the effects, (or lack of effects) of Knowledge:V.18 In a learned and pious Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, a vagabond, the sage sees the same.This does not mean that he would not bow to the Brahmin, or would not give something to a starving beggar. He will follow his role, as an actor does in a stage play. Outwardly he conforms to the distinctions, but inwardly he sees them all as members of the company.The chapter develops the brief phrase in II.55: ‘content in the Self by the Self alone’:21 When his self is not attached to outer contacts, and he finds happiness in the Self; when he is set firm in Yoga, he attains imperishable bliss.24 He who finds his happiness within, his joy within, and so also his light within, that yogin becomes Brahman, and goes to Brahman-nirvāṇa.The nouns in these passages are strong: sukha is the ordinary word for happiness, and words like rati (joy) are from the root ram which has a sense of positive delight, with a nuance of sport, like the English ‘disporting oneself’. It is more than mere cessation of suffering.V.25 Brahma-nirvāṇa is attained by seers whose sins have been destroyed, doubts cut away, senses controlled, and who delight in the welfare of all beings.Brahma-nirvāṇa is explained by Śaṅkara as freedom absolute, and the seers of the verse are men of Right Vision (samyag-darśin).Verse 25 speaks of delighting in the welfare of all beings, a phrase that comes twice in the Gītā text. It is echoed in XVIII.45 on karma-yoga, where it speaks of delighting in the dharmic exercise of innate qualities. In Knowledge-yoga, it will refer to that same action, but under divine impulses, without the feeling of ‘I do’.The next few verses of the chapter sum up knowledge-yoga, which follows the purification effected by karma-yoga. Jñāna-yoga is in fact the last three steps of the whole path. Śaṅkara sets them out here, as he did under V.12. They are (1) Attainment of Knowledge (jñāna-prāpti), (2) Steadying Right Vision (samyag-darśana-niṣṭhā), (3) Renunciation of actions (saṃnyāsa). We see that jñāna-niṣṭhā of V.12 is here given as samyag-darśana-niṣṭhā, showing that the Knowledge is not theoretical, but direct experience of Right Vision. For those qualified for it, knowledge-yoga is the short course, the direct path to freedom absolute.There is a warning (22 and 23) about anger and desire. As long as life lasts, traces of these may appear in the mind of even a Knower. The Gītā repeats this several times, for instance in III.39–41. It happens even though they are known to be unreal, just as even adults can become exultant or angry over the effects of a trivial game. They know it is all unreal but still they are excited by the apparent gain or loss. This is not to say that a spiritual adult never has anything to do with things of the world, but he must know what he is doing. The Gītā warns that he must not seek his pleasure in them. As many verses say, he must be able to withdraw the senses and fix attention on Self as Brahman in samādhi meditation.Śaṅkara stresses that knowledge in a form such as ‘Here I am, free’ is not yet freedom. It is a mental operation, and complete freedom entails freedom from all mental operations, as explained at length in Chapter II. Knowledge, he says, leads to freedom by way of destroying illusion. While there is knowledge as an idea, freedom is not complete. We find a hint in the examples given above. Suppose someone living under a tyranny escapes, after many dangers. For several days, such people think all the time: ‘Free, free’, and cannot in fact do much else. They are free, and they have also the idea of freedom. The idea itself in a way hampers their freedom. When it is fully incorporated, they do not think ‘I am free, free’. They simply are free, and exercise their freedom in any way they like, active or at rest.Chapter V ends by outlining the technique of sitting meditation, to be given in further detail in Chapter VI. It has two forms: (1) realization of freedom, and (2) meditation on God for purification. (1) is described first:V.27 Shutting out the touch of the world, and with gaze fixed between the eyebrows, making the in- and out-breaths pass through the nostrils evenly,28 Controlling senses, and lower and higher mind, the sage, with freedom as his goal, without desire, fear or anger– who is ever thus, is free.
The Thinker, East and West
Chapter IV Action