The Gita’s Reconciliation of Works and Sacrifice

The word “sacrifice” is an unfortunate choice to try and bring through the sense of the concept in the original Sanksrit. In English, the word has a multitude of negative connotations, which are not there in the original. Thus, the use of the word “sacrifice” must be done with an understanding of the broader implications of the word, both in its original sense as found in the Vedic scriptures, and in the updated, expanded and revised sense that the Gita gives to it.

The original Vedic sense of the word “sacrifice” dealt with the focus on performance of ritual activities and chanting to conciliate and appease the Gods, the higher powers. The goal of this action was to obtain the fruits of desire in this world and in a paradise beyond. The Gita has already repudiated this as a suitable goal, but it does not at the same time want to do away with the underlying truth within the Vedic sacrifice, which was what the Vedavadins defined as “karma” or “works”.

The Gita expands the concept of sacrifice and that of works, so that all activities in life are to be considered “works” and all “works” are to be considered the offering of “sacrifice”. The Gita also redefines the recipient of the sacrificial activity to the one Brahman rather than the lesser gods who grant worldly or post-life rewards, and redefines the object of the sacrifice as to align oneself with the universal manifestation and its purpose rather than to achieve individual results governed by desire.

Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s position: “Yes, it says in effect, not only is sacrifice, yajna, the most important part of life, but all life, all works should be regarded as sacrifice, are yajna, though by the ignorant they are performed without the higher knowledge and by the most ignorant not in the true order….”

“It is the ignorant who worship the gods, not knowing whom they are worshipping ignorantly in these divine forms; for they are worshipping, though in ignorance, the One, the Lord, the only Deva, and it is he who accepts their offering. To that Lord must the sacrifice be offered, the true sacrifice of all the life’s energies and activities, with devotion, without desire, for His sake and for the welfare of the peoples.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 9, Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta, pp. 83-84,