Knowledge and Action

The two-fold commitment

The third chapter of Bhagavad Gita opens with the question of Arjuna, "If in your opinion, O Janardhana, knowledge is superior to action, why then, O Kesava, do you engage me in this terrible action?" If knowledge is superior to action, if knowledge alone is going to deliver the goods as far as attainment of sreyas of the limitless is concerned, why are you asking me to perform action? And the action, I am asked to perform, is not an ordinary action; it is a terrible action, the action in the battle-field involving a great deal of destruction and suffering.

There are reasons why such a question should arise in the mind of Arjuna, Lord Krishna unfolded the nature of atma or the Self in such verses as, "He who knows the Self which is indestructible, changeless, without birth and free from modifications; how is such a person to slay or cause another to slay?" (B.G. II-21). The Self is free from any modificatin; is is free from the limitations of time and space. It is akarta or actionless; it neither performs action nor does it cause anyone to perform it. The knower of the Self is indeed the self and so the wise man also does not perform action in spite of appearing to perform it. Action is not denied here; it is the kartrtva formed by the body and the wise man is not identified with the body; he k nows himself to be the actionless Self. So the knowledge of the actionless Self is freedom from action.

Further, in answer to Arjuna's question as to who a wise man is, the Lord said that the wise man is the one who has given up all the desires and who is satisfied in the Self alone by the Self. (B.G. II-55). He is happy for no reason because the Self is ha ppiness. The description of the wise man was summed up by this statement, "The wise man is the one who has abandoned all the desires and is free from any longing". (B.G. II-71). This is generally understood to mean that the one who wants sreyas or the limitless happiness must give up all the desires. And action cannot be undertaken without a desire. So performance of karma means entertaining desires and hence one can never hope to be a wise man as long as one has to perform actions.

But Arjuna had been told, "You have the adhikara or choice in performing action". (B.G. II-47). Although this is a statement that applies to everyone in general, the undertone is that it specifically applies to Arjuna. Arjuna took it to be an instruction that he was fit for action alone, that the Lord was asking him to perform action. Arjuna understands that knowledge releases one from bondage while action binds. Action brings in its wake the result which becomes the seed for another action. Thus one gets trapped in the chain of action-result-action. So Arjuna is naturally confused, "With these seemingly contradictory words, you are, O Lord, as though confusing me. Please tell me one thing by which I can attain sreyas". (B.G. III-2). Arjuna does no t accuse the Lord of confusing him; he rather admits his own inability to understand the purport of what the Lord wanted to convey. "O Lord, you are praising one thing viz., knowledge and asking me to do another thing viz., performance of action. Please d ecide and tell me the one thing that would be the best means for sreyas".

The reason why Arjuna asks for one of the two is that the two viz., knowledge and action, cannot be simultaneously pursued by one person. Pursuit of knowledge is the discovery of the Self that is akarta and so involves the renunciation of the sense of doership. Pursuit of action, on the other hand involves the sense of doership and so the two pursuits are opposite in nature and are meant for two different adhikaries or seekers. One would also think that since the two pursuits are opposite in nature -one involves nivrtti or disengagement and the other involves pravrtti or engagement - they would yield different results. Action gives rise to result which becomes the seed for new action and thus the cycle of action-reaction-action would b e perpetuated. Knowledge on the other hand, is associated with sannyasa, or renunciation and it wuld make one free from action. Therefore Arjuna seems to say, "Please ascertain my qualification and keeping in mind the fact that I want only the s reyas, please tell me the one thing"

Although Arjuna asks for advise, the Lord teaches him about the nature of action and renunciation, because the student must understand the whole scheme and act according to his or her own understanding. The teacher teaches and the student must decide the c ourse of action based on his or her own understanding. And so the Lord answers, "In the beginning of the creation, sinless one, the two-fold commitment was given by Me in this world; the pursuit of knowledge for the sankhyas or the contemplative ones and the pursuit of action for the yogis or the active ones".

Nishta means a committed life-style. Two type of life-styles were told by Me in the Vedas for two types of people. For the yogis meaning the active ones or the house-holders, is the life of action performed with the attitude of yoga. For the contemplative ones or the sannyasis is the life of pursuit of knowledge.