“Action Cleaves Not To a Man”

Those who recognise the illusory nature of the forms, forces and actions in the world and wish to find salvation through identification with the Supreme, have often resorted to the simplest response; namely, abandon life and action and the working of desire, focus on the silent, immutable Self of existence, and essentially “cut the knot” of the problem. This approach is the basis of the various meditation or retreat based paths toward salvation.

Others take the approach that action of some sort is necessary, but that there are those actions that are to be considered better than others, and in particular certain types of action, such as undertaking warfare, are to be strictly avoided. Within the context of this implied hierarchy of action, salvation is possible. This is the path that is generally considered to be salvation through “good works”.

The Gita takes an approach that avoids both of these limitations, starting from the standpoint of the Divine purpose in the world rather than from the limited human interpretation of that purpose. In that sense, the Gita amplifies the statement of the Isha Upanishad: “Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years. Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 19, Isha Upanishad, v. 2)

The Gita makes it clear that Arjuna must act, and that it is not out of personal desire or personal aggrandizement that he must act, but as an instrument of a larger Divine Purpose. As Sri Aurobindo explains: “A violent crisis in the destinies of the race has been brought about not by any blind motion of forces or solely by the confused clash of human ideas, interests, passions, egoisms, but by a Will which is behind these outward appearances. This truth Arjuna must be brought to see; he must learn to act impersonally, imperturbably as the instrument not of his little personal desires and weak human shrinkings, but of a vaster and more luminous Power, a greater all-wise divine and universal Will. He must act impersonally and universally in a high union of his soul with the inner and outer Godhead…, in a calm Yoga with his own supreme Self and the informing Self of the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pp. 436-437

Seeking a New Standard of Conduct and Action

For most people, the path of one’s life is laid out based on various standards or rules that create a framework within which we are comfortable to act. For some, this is a particular career based on natural propensities or family focus. For some the rule of life is simply one of basic survival, while for others there are questions of carrying out a duty, to one’s family, one’s country, one’s religion, etc. Some people have developed a set of principles which they treat as a duty, in terms of the manner in which they relate to others or treat the work before them. An example of this is the dictum of the Dalai Lama who asks us to live a life of benevolent compassion towards others.

Individuals judge their success and value in their own lives based on how well they carry out their own standard. Those who see a patriotic duty to support and protect one’s country place their lives in jeopardy, yet they do so with a will and a sense of moral “rightness” about their actions.

In the case of Arjuna, his moral crisis came about because he suddenly awakened to conflicting principles and “dharmas” that gave him no clear line of action. He had set about being the protagonist in the war to uphold honor, protect family and society; yet he was faced with a circumstance where his action would destroy his extended family and all those for whom one would wish to fight, elders, teachers, respected leaders of society. He could not, at that moment, reconcile the need to destroy the family and society in order to protect the family and society! At that moment, he also became acutely aware of the higher dharma of non-violence and harmlessness practiced by the sages, and conflating this with the conflict he had already recognized, he stated “I will not fight”. Sri Aurobindo points out: “Nor will the rule of Dharma, of ethical right, serve any better; for there is here a conflict of Dharmas.”

It is actually in times of internal conflict, when we see a breakdown of the clear-cut sense of values, when we experience the need for a new standard, a new direction, a new teaching, that individuals can progress to a new, higher standard. Arjuna is in just such a situation and thus, he is ready for the teaching that Sri Krishna is prepared to provide.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pg. 436

The Gita’s Solution to Achieving Liberation While Doing Work In the World

The consistent focus of the Gita, regardless of the various issues it has taken up and woven into its line of development, is the reconciliation of works with liberation, the unification of the spiritual consciousness separated from the life effort and that effort itself. The Gita began with the crisis faced by Arjuna as he was psychologically and emotionally overpowered by the intensity of the realisation that he was about to go into battle and have to destroy the lives of family, friends, respected teachers, leaders and elders. Sri Krishna set himself the task of both liberating Arjuna from the anguish and psychological paralysis he was experiencing, while concurrently providing him a basis upon which he could act and carry out his mission. Along the way, Arjuna was provided insight into the true nature of existence, the reconciling principle that united the silent and uninvolved principle that was the basis of the realisation of the renunciates with the involved, active consciousness that participated in the life of the world.

Solutions to the problem that were current at the time had to be reviewed and addressed, as they colored Arjuna’s reaction to the situation. Having renounced the idea of fighting and killing for the sake of fame, kingdom, wealth, power, Arjuna determined that he should not fight, but should rather allow himself to be killed if it came to that. He understood for a moment the insight that the ascetics and renunciates recognize, that the fruits of action in the world are transitory, painful and illusory. Sri Krishna therefore had to take up the question and show Arjuna that the true liberation is not dependent on abandonment of one’s destined work.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the approach the Gita proposes: “To live inwardly calm, detached, silent in the silence of the impersonal and universal Self and yet do dynamically the works of dynamic Nature, and more largely, to be one with the Eternal within us and to do all the will of the Eternal in the world expressed through a sublimated force, a divine height of the personal nature uplifted, liberated, universalised, made one with God-nature,–this is the Gita’s solution.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 16, The Fullness of Spiritual Action, pp. 435-436

The Integral Non-Dualism of the Gita

Sri Aurobindo, in his magnum opus The Life Divine resolves the contradiction between the way of the ascetic and the creed of the materialist by declaring that the Truth of existence incorporates the ideals sought by each in a unifed whole which he called “Reality Omnipresent”.

There are certain traditions in the Buddhists Tantra, particularly the Mahamudra, Dzogchen, the “great symbol” that recognize that Samsara, the world of multiplicity, the illusory world operating on the principle of desire, and Nirvana, the world of unity and absence of desire, are both present “here”.

The Gita itself integrates the Upanishadic dicta of “One Without a Second” and “All This is the Brahman” by its unwavering focus on the Oneness of all existence. The Gita does not recognize the apparent duality as being ultimately real. Whatever the apparent differences, the Divine Spirit occupies the world, makes up the entire multiplicity of forms and forces while at the same time it is the immobile, the silent, the uninvolved witness of existence. The “two birds” of the Upanishads, one eating the fruit of the tree, the other observing unmoved are ONE existence to the Gita.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s view: “This utmost undividing Monism sees the one as the one even in the multiplicities of Nature, in all aspects, as much in the reality of self and of cosmos as in that greatest reality of the supracosmic which is the source of self and the truth of the cosmos and is not bound either by any affirmation of universal becoming or by any universal or absolute negation.”

For the Gita, this is not a truth of philosophy, but a truth to be lived, experienced and understood with all the faculties. The truth is not something of the mind, but of the being. “Absolutely to know it, to seize it in knowledge and feeling and force and experience is to be perfected in the transformed understanding, divinely satisfied in heart and successful in the supreme sense and objective of all will and action and works. It is the way to be immortal to rise towards the highest divine nature and to assume the eternal Dharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pg. 434

The Gita’s Way of Salvation

Some individuals are drawn toward the immobile, silent Akshara Purusha, and they pursue a path through renunciation of the world and silent absorption intended to bring them to a state of union with that aspect of the divine existence. Others are fully involved in the life of the world and try to find their fulfilment of the Kshara Purusha within the scope and based on the terms of that life. Each tends to hold the other as following an illusory option. The Gita’s position that the Purushottama is greater than each of them and reconciles their apparent opposition implies that neither of these, with their focus on one aspect or the other, is able to fully provide the salvation the Gita asks us to seek .

It can be noted that the theme of an integrated realisation incorporating two types of knowledge arises already in the Upanishads. The Isha Upanishad in particular makes this point clear: “Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone….He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.” (Isha Upanishad, v. 9, 11)

“Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Non-Birth, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Birth alone….He who know That as both in one, the Birth and the dissolution of Birth, by the dissolution crosses beyond death and by the Birth enjoys Immortality.” (Isha Upanishad v. 12, 14)

Sri Aurobindo takes up the point of the Gita: “But the Divine is neither wholly the Kshara, nor wholly the Akshara. He is greater than the immutable Self and he is much greater than the Soul of mutable things. If he is capable of being both at once, it is because he is other than they…, the Purushottama above all cosmos and yet extended in the world and extended in the Veda, in self-knowledge and in cosmic experience. And whoever thus knows and sees him as the Purushottama, is no longer bewildered whether by the world-appearance or by the separate attraction of these two apparent contraries.”

The knowledge which unites the two aspects, “…restores the integral reality of the Divine.” “Divine in the equality of his imperturbable self-existence, one in it with all objects and creatures, he brings that boundless equality, that deep oneness down into his mind and heart and life and body and founds on it in an indivisible integrality the trinity of divine love, divine works and divine knowledge. This is the Gita’s way of salvation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 433-434

and Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pp. 21-23, Isha Upanishad

The Divine Soul In All Existence

There is a proverb that illustrates the principle that exclusive concentration on details does not allow us to see the larger sense: “Cannot see the forest for the trees.” Similarly, the soul living in the world of manifestation sees all the different forms and does not see or recognize the divine Spirit that has entered into all of them, created them, and joined them together in Oneness.

A first step is to begin to recognize that the entire manifestation is bound together and each element depends on the others. We see that changes in climate affect various forms of life, and that disruption in one area harms another. Predators, for instance, depend for their health and survival on a healthy and abundant population of their prey. A change in sea temperature that kills off the plankton, for instance, would have a cascading effect on the food chain in the oceans. We see plants that only survive due to pollination of a particular type of butterfly. Everywhere the “eye that sees” can identify the inherent Oneness of the creation. This vision prepares us then for the next step, to recognize the Divine Spirit inherent in the entire creation and One beyond the individual “details”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “But the identity of the Lord and the soul in mutable Nature is hidden from us by outward appearance and lost in the crowding mobile deceptions of that Nature. And those who allow themselves to be governed by the figures of Nature, the figure of humanity or any other form, will never see it, but will ignore and despise the Divine lodged in the human body. Their ignorance cannot perceive him in his coming in and his going forth or in his staying and enjoying and assumption of quality, but sees only what is there visible to the mind and senses, not the greater truth which can only be glimpsed by the eye of knowledge. Never can they have sight of him, even if they strive to do so, until they learn to put away the limitations of the outward consciousness and build in themselves their spiritual being, create for it, as it were, a form in their nature.”

“It is the Divine who has entered into this form of earth and is the spirit of its material force and sustains by his might these multitudes.”

“In other words, the Divine is at once the Soul of matter and the Soul of life and the Soul of mind as well as the Soul of the supramental light that is beyond mind and its limited reasoning intelligence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 431-432

The Eternal Principle of the Multiplicity

The method of cutting the knot of desire and entering into a silent, immobile awareness to escape the bondage of the manifestation does not represent the complete picture. If it had done so, then the approach recommended by the renunciates who abandon all action in the world would be the preferred and direct method of liberation. The Gita, however, while admitting the validity of this line of approach, does not accept it as the sole, or even the most preferable method. The reason is that it does not take into account the reality and purpose of the manifested creation; treating it rather as something of an illusion or a lesser reality.

The Gita recognizes that there is a Truth, and not a lesser Truth, in the manifested universe, the world of the multiplicity. Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s view: “And what then is this soul in Nature? This spirit, too, this Kshara, this enjoyer of our mutable existence is the Purushottama; it is he in his eternal multiplicity, that is the Gita’s answer.” “It is an eternal portion of Me that becomes the Jiva in a world of Jivas.”

“…it means that each soul, each being in its spiritual reality is the very Divine, however partial its actual manifestation of him in Nature. And it means too, if words have any sense, that each manifesting spirit, each of the many, is an eternal individual, an eternal unborn undying power of the one Existence. We call this manifesting spirit the Jiva, because it appears here as if a living creature in a world of living creatures, and we speak of this spirit in man as the human soul and think of it in the terms of humanity only. But in truth it is something greater than its present appearance and not bound to its humanity: it was a lesser manifestation than the human in its past, it can become something much greater than mental man in its future.”

“The individual spirit exists and ever existed beyond in the Eternal, for it is itself everlasting….”

“…this much is clear that there is an eternal, a real and not only an illusive principle of multiplicity in the spiritual being of the one divine Existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 430-431