The Third Great Secret of the Gita’s Way of Karma Yoga

There are several central issues that arise when we take up the yoga of works as a serious discipline. The first of these is the question of transitioning from our normal mode of action toward the Divine action contemplated by this Yoga. The second brings us to the ultimate question of whether and how the human being can act without the normal motive force of desire, in one form or another, driving that action.

Sri Aurobindo addresses the first of these by referencing the various intermediate “strategies” and showing that they have their place during the transitional phase: “At first we have to learn to bear the shocks of the world with the central part of our being untouched and silent, even when the surface mind, heart, life are strongly shaken; unmoved there on the bedrock of our life, we must separate the soul watching behind or immune deep within from these outer workings of nature. Afterwards, extending this calm and steadfastness of the detached soul to its instruments, it will become slowly possibly to radiate peace from the luminous centre to the darker peripheries.” The movements of stoicism, resignation, or aloof detachment can be partial or temporary aids along the way. “In the end we must either discard or transform them and arrive instead an an entire equality, a perfect self-existent peace within and even, if we can, a total unassailable, self-poised and spontaneous delight in all our members.”

Having begun this process of eliminating the desire for fruits, and gaining a complete equality in our reactive being, the question of the motive spring of action comes to the fore:

“For ordinarily, the human being acts because he has a desire or feels a mental, vital or physical want or need; he is driven by the necessities of the body, by the lust of riches, honours or fame, or by a craving for the personal satisfactions of the mind or the heart or a craving for power or pleasure. Or he is seized and pushed about by a moral need or, at least, the need or the desire of making his ideas or his ideals or his will or his party or his country or his gods prevail in the world.”

Once all this desire-based impetus is removed, what is left? “The Gita replies with its third great secret of the divine life. All action must be done in a more and more Godward and finally a God-possessed consciousness; our works must be a sacrifice to the Divine and in the end a surrender of all our being, mind, will, heart, sense, life and body to the One must make God-love and God-service our only motive. This transformation of the motive-force and very character of works is indeed its master idea; it is the foundation of its unique synthesis of works, love and knowledge. In the end not desire, but the consciously felt will of the Eternal remains as the sole driver of our action and the sole originator of its initiative.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 96-97

The Gita’s Test For the Abandonment of the Fruits of Works

Given the mind’s propensity to treat a mental acceptance as an actual accomplishment in the world, it is not only possible, but likely, that the seeker will adopt the “idea” of the abandonment of the fruit of works while the outer actions and reactions continue. Various justifications and excuses come before the mind to “distinguish” these reactions from any desire for the fruits of the work on some level. And thus, the transformation of the consciousness gets subtly blocked at the mental level and cannot work itself out throughout all the planes and parts of the being.

In order to provide the seeker with a way to work through this web of illusion on the mental plane, much of it suggested by the clever suggestions of the vital nature, the Gita sets up a clear “test” for how one can determine that the abandonment of the fruits of the work is true, complete and unwavering.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “The test it lays down is an absolute equality of the mind and the heart to all results, to all reactions, to all happenings. If good fortune and ill fortune, if respect and insult, if reputation and obloquy, if victory and defeat, if pleasant event and sorrowful event leave us not only unshaken but untouched, free in the emotions, free in the nervous reactions, free in the mental view, not responding with the least disturbance or vibration in any spot of the nature, then we have the absolute liberation to which the Gita points us, but not otherwise. The tiniest reaction is a proof that the discipline is imperfect and that some part of us accepts ignorance and bondage as its law and clings still to the old nature. Our self-conquest is only partially accomplished; it is still imperfect or unreal in some stretch or part or smallest spot of the ground of our nature. And that little pebble of imperfection may throw down the whole achievement of the Yoga!”

Sri Aurobindo goes on to point out that there are intermediate steps or “approximations” of equality that should not be confused with the state of consciousness that the Gita is describing. It is not a status that derives from disappointed expectation of desire, or pride or indifference, all of which are forms of ego driven by the modes of Nature, the three Gunas. “There is too, on a higher level, the equality of the stoic, the equality of a devout resignation or a sage detachment, the equality of a soul aloof from the world and indifferent to its doings. These too are insufficient; first approaches they can be, but they are at most early soul-phases only or imperfect mental preparations for our entry into the true and absolute self-existent wide equal oneness of the spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 95-96

The Three Gunas of Nature and the Evolution of Consciousness

As a follow up to the Sankhya distinctions of the separation of Purusha and Prakriti, Sri Aurobindo points out that: “The individual soul or the conscious being in a form may identify itself with this experiencing Purusha or with this active Prakriti.” When it is identified with the Purusha, the witness consciousness, it attains freedom from the bondage of the action of Nature and the machinery of the Lord of Creation found in Nature. When it is identified with Prakriti, the active Nature, it experiences the bondage and is manipulated by the operative machinery of the three modes, called the three Gunas of Nature, Tamas, Rajas and Sattwa. These three modes are all present in all existences, in varying proportions, and undergo constant changes, which leads to action and reaction in the universal creation.

Sri Aurobindo links the operation of the Gunas and the varying proportion of those Gunas in various states of existence with the stages of the evolution of consciousness: “…by an entire immersion in Prakriti, this soul becomes inconscient or subconscient, asleep in her forms as in the earth and the metal or almost asleep as in plant life. There, in that inconscience, it is subject to the domination of Tamas, the principle, the power, the qualitative mode of obscurity and inertia; Sattwa and Rajas are there, but they are concealed in the thick coating of Tamas. Emerging into its own proper nature of consciousness but not yet truly conscious, because there is still too great a domination of Tamas in the nature, the embodied being becomes more and more subject to Rajas, the principle, the power, the qualitative mode of action and passion impelled by desire and instinct. There is then formed and developed the animal nature, narrow in consciousness, rudimentary in intelligence, rajaso-tamasic in vital habit and impulse. Emerging yet farther from the great Inconscience towards a spiritual status the embodied being liberates Sattwa, the mode of light, and acquires a relative freedom and mastery and knowledge and with it a qualified and conditioned sense of inner satisfaction and happiness. Man, the mental being in a physical body, should be but is not, except in a few among this multitude of ensouled bodies, of this nature. Ordinarily he has too much in him of the obscure earth-inertia and a troubled ignorant animal life-force to be a soul of light and bliss or even a mind of harmonious will and knowledge. There is here in man an incomplete and still hampered and baffled ascension towards the true character of the Purusha, free, master, knower and enjoyer. For these are in human and earthly experience relative modes, none giving its single and absolute fruit; all are intermixed with each other and there is not the pure action of any one of them anywhere. It is their confused and inconstant interaction that determines the experiences of the egoistic human consciousness swinging in Nature’s uncertain balance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 91-92

Free Will and Determinism

We believe that we exercise free will in our actions. We make choices, we determine the direction we want to go and the steps we want to take. We have the sense of freedom in our minds based on this illusion of free choice. It is an illusion because we fail to take into account the larger framework and reality that actually sets up and determines our choices for us, the machinery of the three modes of Nature, and Nature carrying out the Will of the Supreme in all things. Our entire development of personality, values, and our decision-making process is conditioned by these larger and less visible realities. Sri Aurobindo advises that is what is meant when the Gita “…speaks of the Lord within the heart of all existences who turns all creatures as if mounted on a machine by the illusion of Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo describes the machinery: “Partial itself, the mind rides on a part of the machine, unaware of nine-tenths of its motor agencies in Time and environment, unaware of its past preparation and future drift; but because it rides, it thinks that it is directing the machine.”

If the individual ego-personality does not have free will in any real sense, the question then arises as to whether free will exists at all, and if so, who exercises that free will. It is normal for the “either/or” circuit of the human mind to jump from the one extreme of “free will” to the other of “determinism” without trying to solve for the actual truth that upholds both concepts.

For free will does exist. “The only free will in the world is the one divine Will of which Nature is the executrix; for she is the master and creator of all other wills.” and further “There is a secret divine Will, eternal and infinite, omniscient and omnipotent, that expresses itself in the universality and in each particular of all these apparently temporal and finite, inconscient or half-conscient things.”

The human being partakes of this free will because it is in fact not separate from the Eternal: “This divine Will is not an alien Power or Presence; it is intimate to us and we ourselves are part of it: for it is our own highest Self that possesses and supports it.”

“Our highest Self which possesses and supports this universal Power is not our ego-self, not our personal Nature; it is something transcendent and universal of which these smaller things are only foam and flowing surface. If we surrender our conscious will and allow it to be made one with the will of the Eternal, then and then only shall we attain to a true freedom; living in the divine liberty, we shall no longer cling to this shackled so-called free will, a puppet freedom ignorant, illusory, relative, bound to the error of its own inadequate vital motives and mental figures.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 89-90

Equality and Oneness Are the Foundations Of a Divine Consciousness

It may be useful to try to place ourselves, for the moment, in something akin to the divine standpoint rather than our own individual ego-personality, and try to understand what this means as to the perspective and understanding about our own role in the world and the unity of the entire creation.

Obviously it is not easily possible to make this leap without preparation, but we can at least work with different perspectives that will provide analogies to the situation. The first one is to imagine that the cells of our body are akin to separate individuals in the world. We know, from our standpoint experiencing the entire body, that each cell is part of a larger whole, a unified “oneness” if you will and what impacts one, impacts all, and thus, we need to treat each cell with respect and provide it what it needs to grow, thrive and contribute to the health and well-being of the whole.

The next one is the perspective of the impressionist artist. One can view a painting of Van Gogh, for instance, close up, and see all the individual single brush strokes. Close up they look somewhat “chaotic” and disorganized, but as one moves back from the painting, one reaches a perspective point where suddenly one sees the harmony and cohesiveness of the whole scene being communicated, and one can, for the moment, forget the individual brush strokes.

A third exercise is to take the position of the sun, and see the earth as a single unified whole, a planet with an eco-sphere and bio-sphere, all of it nourished and supported equally by the energy that the sun provides to the earth.

The central thread is that from the Divine standpoint, all creation is ONE and the Divine treats and supports the entire creation with equality.

Sri Aurobindo provides the relevance to the practice of the Yoga: “As long as we live in the ignorant seeming, we are the ego and are subject to the modes of Nature. Enslaved to appearances, bound to the dualities, tossed between good and evil, sin and virtue, grief and joy, pain and pleasure, good fortune and ill fortune, success and failure, we follow helplessly the iron or gilt and iron round of the wheel of Maya.”

“If, on the contrary, we live in the unifying reality of the Brahman, then we go beyond the ego and overstep Nature. For then we get back to our true self and become the spirit; in the spirit we are above the impulsion of Nature, superior to her modes and forces. Attaining to a perfect equality in the soul, mind and heart, we realise our true self of oneness–one with all beings, one too with that which expresses itself in them and in all that we see and experience. This equality and this oneness are the indispensable twin foundation we must lay down for a divine being, a divine consciousness, a divine action.”

“The Supreme Power, the one Eternal and Infinite is equal to all things and to all beings, and because it is equal, it can act with an absolute wisdom according to the truth of its works and its force and according to the truth of each thing and of every creature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 88-89

Key Principles of the Karma Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita

The normal human consciousness sets up artificial divisions and oppositions and then acts upon them. This is due to the nature of the human mentality and its “either/or” logic track that wants to make everything “black and white”. It is difficult, in the extreme, for most people to accept two apparently opposite ideas as both being “true” at the same time. In modern society, with our technological prowess, we have found that this line of approach has very serious practical applications, and the “zero or one” logic we have built into the computers have allowed us to achieve some remarkable things in the material world.

Nevertheless, this approach has its limitations and when we go outside the framework of what it can actually deal with, we find that it is totally incapable of coping with the type and level of complexity found in Nature. A different standpoint is required to move beyond the limitations of the mind, which we may call the “divine standpoint”.

The Gita attempts to move us toward this new standpoint through the core aspects of its approach to Karma Yoga. Sri Aurobindo explains: “Its key principle, its spiritual method, can be summed up as the union of two largest and highest states or powers of consciousness, equality and oneness. The kernel of its method is an unreserved acceptance of the Divine in our life as in our inner self and spirit.”

While the mind separates “man” from “God”, the Gita’s approach stresses the unity of all existence in Nature as well as the unity between “Nature” and “God”. They are not opposites but actually ONE.

“An inner renunciation of personal desire leads to equality, accomplishes our total surrender to the Divine, supports a delivery from dividing ego which brings us oneness.”

Another contradiction that the mind is fixated on is the separation between active and passive being. This also, however, is unreal. “The Gita promises us freedom for the spirit even in the midst of works and the full energies of Nature, if we accept subjection of our whole being to that which is higher than the separating and limiting ego. it proposes an integral dynamic activity founded on a still passivity; a largest possible action irrevocably based on an immobile calm is its secret,–free expression out of a supreme inward silence.”

The Gita translates the two core aphoristic statements of the Upanishads, “One without a second” and “All this is the Brahman.” into a unified vision that recognizes that the key is Oneness, which means that the entire manifestation is real, or as Sri Aurobindo calls it in The Life Divine, “reality omnipresent.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pg. 88

The Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga and the Supramental Change

Sri Aurobindo introduces the Gita to his review of the yoga of works: “The greatest gospel of spiritual works ever yet given to the race, the most perfect system of Karmayoga known to man in the past, is to be found in the Bhagavad Gita. In that famous episode of the Mahabharata the great basic lines of Karmayoga are laid down for all time with an incomparable mastery and the infallible eye of an assured experience.”

Any explanation of a yogic path is limited by the obstacle of human language, linear, fragmented and partial in its ability to express deeper truths, and the framework of language based in the mental consciousness, which cannot comprehend and express the experience of states of consciousness outside the mental realm. Thus, the Gita can describe the path, but not communicate the actual experience.

Ancient seers recognised this limitation and thus, the teachings generally can only be fully appreciated and understood by those who have the experience; thus, they are not so much descriptions of the state of enlightenment as markers along the way for those are actually gaining the knowledge through experience and identity.

“As the Vedic Rishis insisted in the beginning, the words of the supreme wisdom are expressive only to those who are already of the wise.”

“It is true that the path alone, as the ancient saw it, is worked out fully; the perfect fulfilment, the highest secret is hinted rather than developed; it is kept back as an unexpressed part of a supreme mystery.”

“The Gita at its cryptic close may seem by its silence to stop short of that solution for which we are seeking; it pauses at the borders of the highest spiritual mind and does not cross them into the splendours of the supramental Light. And yet is secret of dynamic, and not only static, identity with the inner Presence, its highest mystery of absolute surrender to the Divine Guide, Lord and Inhabitant of our nature, is the central secret. This surrender is the indispensable means of the supramental change and, again, it is through the supramental change that the dynamic identity becomes possible.”

The Gita then, sets forth for the human, mental consciousness, a way and direction that, with experience, can lead to the highest reaches of the mind, and then points beyond them to still higher states of awareness in a truly spiritualised conscious existence, which Sri Aurobindo identifies with the term “supramental consciousness”, to signify its status beyond the limitations of the mental realm.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pg. 87

The Central Purpose and Method of the Integral Yoga

While some paths of Yoga aim for release from life in this world, and others focus on creating a concentration that leads either to the silence of the Infinite or the ecstatic devotion of the lover of God, the integral Yoga sets as its aim the transformation of the life in the world of manifestation. The integral Yoga does not attempt to avoid the problem of existence by denying its reality; rather, it sees that all life is ultimately real, the manifestation of the Divine, by the Divine, for the Divine’s purpose.

Sri Aurobindo describes the goal: “The transformation of our superficial, narrow and fragmentary human way of thinking, seeing, feeling and being into a deep and wide spiritual consciousness and an integrated inner and outer existence and of our ordinary human living into the divine way of life must be its central purpose.”

In order to achieve this aim, the integral Yoga does not depend on specific exclusive techniques or forms of concentration as are found in other paths of Yoga; rather, the integral Yoga depends on an all-embracing concentration that involves all the powers and aspects of the being on a constant basis: “The means towards this supreme end is a self-giving of all our nature to the Divine. Everything must be given to the Divine within us, to the universal All and to the transcendent Supreme. An absolute concentration of our will, our heart and our thought on that one and manifold Divine, an unreserved self-consecration of our whole being to the Divine alone–this is the decisive movement, the turning of the ego to That which is infinitely greater than itself, its self-giving and indispensable surrender.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pg. 82

Integrating the Three Steps of Nature in Our Spiritual Development

One can understand and appreciate the exclusive concentration that followers of the ascetic traditions undertake in their spiritual seeking. Certainly even a brief glimpse or slightest taste of the spiritual reality, the luminous knowledge, the transcendent peace or the unutterable bliss is enough to captivate the attention and focus of the individual experiencing it. This in fact is the underlying rationale behind the “refusal of the ascetic” as Sri Aurobindo describes it, in The Life Divine. Who would give a thought to the world of mental constructions or physical objects when once they have experienced the spiritual heights? It is easy to see why they might consider the world and its objects of desire as illusory, secondary and fit to be abandoned in the all-encompassing spiritual focus.

This tendency toward an exclusive focus and abandonment of all else is actually one of the limitations of our mental consciousness, which sets up ideas, forces and principles in opposition to one another and then forces us to choose between them. While the power of exclusive concentration can provide some very real benefits, especially for achievement of specific aims, it must be tempered eventually with the ability to integrate and harmonise apparently conflicting viewpoints.

Sri Aurobindo makes the case for why Mind, Life and Body should not be abandoned entirely: “The ultimate knowledge is that which perceives and accepts God in the universe as well as beyond the universe and the integral Yoga is that which, having found the Transcendent, can return upon the universe and possess it, retaining the power freely to descend as well as ascend the great stair of existence. For if the eternal Wisdom exists at all, the faculty of Mind also must have some high use and destiny. That use must depend on its place in the ascent and in the return and that destiny must be a fulfilment and transfiguration, not a rooting out or an annulling.”

His ultimate conclusion then is that we must achieve the spiritual realisation and integrate it with the mind, life and body in the world action: “We perceive, then, these three steps in Nature, a bodily life which is the basis of our existence here in the material world, a mental life into which we emerge and by which we raise the bodily to higher uses and enlarge it into a greater completeness, and a divine existence which is at once the goal of the other two and returns upon them to liberate them into their highest possibilities. Regarding none of them as either beyond our reach or below our nature and the destruction of none of them as essential to the ultimate attainment, we accept this liberation and fulfilment as part at least and a large and important part of the aim of Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 2, The Three Steps of Nature, pg. 14

Conclusions

We have completed our review of the second series of Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, although brief in compass, is vast in scope. It addresses the human condition in a very real and direct manner, starting from the conflicting answers provided by our philosophical, ethical, moral, social and personal values to the very complex and tangled situations we face while trying to survive in the world.

Arjuna is the representative of the leading values of human existence. He has been educated in the highest principles of his time and he combines the ability to focus with utmost concentration and discipline with a sensitivity to the moral and ethical values that have formed the core of his judgments about how to respond to life.

The Gita has placed this individual in a situation where none of his past guidelines or rules of action are any longer of value. By carrying out one line of action, he supports the values of that direction while concurrently destroying other values. To protect the social order he has been asked to take action that will wrench that very fibres of that social order! He clearly needs and craves new guidance, and thus, the Gita is able to address him by providing a new approach which avoids the trenchant oppositions of the mental framework that demands “either/or” solutions, by showing him that these opposites are actually part of a larger unified whole and a greater harmony. In order to act from this new standpoint, he must move beyond the limitations of his background, education, training and mental framework. Thus, the yoga of the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita remains relevant today because it addresses issues and conflicts we face every day in our lives. We are also asked to sort out conflicting values and make judgment calls that are less than satisfying. We are asked to live our lives in a world that seemingly has stripped a lot of significance out of it, reducing life into some kind of mechanical existence, a fight for survival or a field of enjoyment, without recognizing the deeper significance and the greater opportunities available to us if we try to become the best and highest we can be, using the utmost of our born human capabilities and then finding a way to exceed even these best and highest manifestations of human endeavor.

The Gita however is much more than a philosophical treatise; it delves into the details of how action occurs and dissects for us in a very precise way the operation of the modes or Gunas of Nature. This is essential information for anyone trying to make sense of action in the world and searching for a way to respond more effectively to challenges.

The knowledge provided by the Gita takes on its ultimate value when we actually begin to try to see, observe and practice this teaching through transference of our viewpoint, our very standpoint of living, from the human to the divine standpoint. This is the ultimate secret communicated by the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita translates for a more modern humanity the ancient teachings found in the Vedas and especially in the Upanishads. Those ancient texts, revered as repositories of wisdom, have been very much closed books to us because their cryptic and symbolic language had been lost to our modern mind and methods of understanding. The Gita helps us bridge that gap.

Sri Aurobindo has done an outstanding service to us here by systematically and in detail taking up the entire step by step progression of the Gita’s exposition, showing us both the “big picture” and the fine details along the way, while keeping us focused on the essentials that the Gita is trying to communicate. He found that the Gita is not solely a text for any particular path of yoga, but was rather a synthetic attempt to take up, reshape and reformulate each of the various paths and methodologies, to organize and put them in their right place in the scheme of things, and thereby harmonize and uplift them rather than place them in opposition with one another.

The Gita’s method is in fact an illustration of its central teaching; that is, to move from the limited, fragmented, “black and white” approach of the linear mental consciousness, to an embracing, global and holistic approach of the divine consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita