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