The chapter opens with Arjuna’s dilemma. He asks Krsna, “You maintain that knowledge is superior to action. Then why do you ask me to engage in this terrible action? Tell me one definite path that will take me to sreya, the highest spiritual Goal.” Krsna answers that since ancient times there are two distinct paths for humanity – the path of action for the active, and path of knowledge for the contemplative. Those with many desires have to act while those with fewer desires need to study and ponder. Arjuna is an active person and must do Karma Yoga, the fascinating method by which you move Godward while mundane actions get accomplished.
Action is fundamental to life. The quality of action is determined by the attitude behind it, the motivation backing it, and not by the action per se. Krsna appeals to Arjuna to perform niyatam karma, obligatory actions. Keep away from kamya karma, desire-driven actions, and nisiddha karma, actions prohibited by your conscience. As long as you are focussed on obligations your mind is calm and actions perfect. As desires mount the mind gets agitated and actions become flawed. If desires are fuelled to such an extent that they outstrip your resources you cross the line and perform actions that your conscience revolts against, that you yourself consider as immoral and unethical.
Krsna emphasizes the importance of yajna, actions dedicated to a higher ideal. He infuses the age-old ritual of fire worship with a refreshingly new meaning. He says – When the Creator made the human being He gave him the unique capacity of sacrifice, yajna, and said, “With sacrifice may you prosper. Let it be the fulfiller of all your desires.” The implication is that it is impossible to succeed if you do not act in a spirit of service and sacrifice. Yet we are all trying to prosper through selfish pursuits!
He then details three distinct types of people. The lowest category, the tamasika person helps himself to the benefits endowed by society without repaying. Krsna calls such a one a thief. The rajasika one acts for selfish ends but the result is stress and mental agitation. He cooks, says Krsna, but eats sin. The only one who enjoys life as well as evolves to the highest goal of Enlightenment is the sattvika person who works in a spirit of sacrifice for a higher ideal.
Krsna tops up this brilliant dissertation on action with an emotional appeal to motivate Arjuna. Often the intellectual plea alone is not enough to prompt you to action. You need the backing of powerful emotional inspiration to get you off the mark.
The next 11 verses feature the critical steps to action. Identify your svadharma, inner calling, core interest. It is difficult to excel if you invest your energies in a field alien to your nature. In the area of your svadharma fix a goal, an ideal, that is beyond your selfish interests. The highlight of this portion is verse 30 which gives the prescription for perfect action. You create energy within by focussing all thoughts on the ideal, surrendering to the ideal, and acting vigorously towards achieving the goal. The intellect directs all thoughts to the chosen ideal, the mind feels for the goal and the body acts dynamically. This creates energy which tends to dissipate into the unproductive avenues of past worry, future anxiety and present frenzy. The intellect plugs this wasteful dissipation by concentrating on the present action, not allowing the mind to meander to the past and future. Those who follow this formula achieve success, happiness and spiritual evolution. Those who ignore this advice are neither successful nor happy. Spiritual growth is a far cry.
Arjuna asks – What is it that takes me away from my chosen path and makes me do the things I ought not to do? Krsna answers – It is desire, it is anger, born of the quality of rajas, passion. The enemy is within. Not out there. Yet you waste precious time and energy in trying to deal with external forces. Desire comes in three shades – sattva purity, rajas passion and tamas ignorance. Blending poetry with philosophy Krsna describes how these three kinds of desire shroud Atman, the divine spark in you. Sattva is like smoke around fire. The brilliance and splendour of Atman shines forth in a sattvika person. Rajas covers Atman like dust on a mirror. Selfishness and ego blur the image of the Self. You are unable to see Divinity in a rajasika person. Tamas is like an embryo in the uterus. Not only does it completely cover Divinity but it takes time for you to emerge out of lethargy and indolence.
Desire is your greatest enemy, says Krsna. He uses four different words to describe desire as enemy. It is a voracious devourer and causes a great deal of mental agitation and stress. It is unquenchable, like fire. Trying to satisfy desire by fulfilling it is like trying to extinguish fire by adding fuel to it. Moreover, it mutates into other far more destructive forms like anger, greed, delusion, envy and arrogance. Yet everyone is busy fanning desire – individuals, organisations as well as nations.
Krsna then gives the way out. Rise to a higher desire, the lower will lose its hold over you. He concludes with a highly inspiring message – Kill the formidable enemy in the form of desire by rising to the highest desire, that of Self Realisation. The warrior in Arjuna is provoked, and responds.