The Upanishads say that the path of Jnana is like walking along a razor’s edge. This is perhaps most true in acquiring a proper understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, which teaches both the path of Knowledge and the path of Action, and also has chapters referring to Bhakti Yoga, Dhyana Yoga, etc. It can indeed be a razor’s edge to know which is being referred to at different points of this text. Hence it is critical to be guided by Sankara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and to assimilate it as a whole. In this article, I restrict myself predominantly to quotes from BG and Sankara’s bhasya thereon, in order to maintain Sankara’s consistency in exegesis, and also as BG is said to be the epitome of the Upanishads.
Chapter two of BG is said to articulate all that needs to be known, and the rest of the book is just an elaboration thereof, because Arjuna did not quite understand Krishna’s teaching. In this chapter, Krishna articulates directly ajata vada, in verses 19 to 21. Let’s consider verse 21 as it is exemplary of this, and Sankara’s bhasya is extensive, covering many salient points:
2.21: “O Partha, he who knows this One as indestructible, eternal, birthless and undecaying, how and whom does that person kill, or whom does he cause to be killed”
The problem of agency
This verse says that the Self is untouched by the actions of the body – it is not killed, nor does it kill; the Self is not the doer. This is an undeniable fact of ajata vada: that Brahman is untouched by Maya. It can be misconstrued to imply that the body-mind can do any action – however immoral or egoic desire oriented – and that a Knower of the Self can rest happy in the Knowledge that one is not the doer. Indeed the sruti says that the jnani is beyond all constraints in behaviour – though Sankara points out elsewhere that this is said eulogistically.
The problem with this premature conclusion is that it is the mind that is the source of ignorance; it is the mind that needs to acquire Knowledge; and such a mind that has dispelled ignorance is said to ‘become’ Brahman – ie have the qualities of Brahman in terms of nonduality, fearlessness and desirelessness. Sankara sets this out in his bhasya to 2.21:
“the idea of the Self being an agent, the object of an action, or an indirect agent, is the result of ignorance. Also, the Self being changeless, the fact that such agentship etc. are caused by ignorance is a common factor in all actions without exception . . .
the Sruti says, ‘It is to be realized through the mind alone, (following the instruction of the teacher)’ (Br. 4.4.19). The mind that is purified by the instructions of the scriptures and the teacher, control of the body and organs, etc. becomes the instrument for realizing the Self”
A person that continues to act in whatever way, is moved by his mind (and its desires) to do so; for that person to argue ‘whatever act I do, I know I am not the doer’, is actually just another thought of the mind. It is not a mind that is desireless (has viveka / vairagya), has become Brahman and is therefore actionless. As there is no fear or desire in Brahman, logically a mind that has become Brahman can have no cause for action. Sankara makes the logic of this clear in his bhasya on Taittiriya Upanishad:
Introduction: “Desire must be the source of karma, since it stimulates action; for no impulsion to activity is possible in the case of those whose desires have been fulfilled, they being then established in their own Self as a result of the absence of desire”
1.11.4: “since desire cannot rise with regard to oneself, owing to non-difference, there ensues liberation consisting in existence in one’s own Self. From this also follows, that Knowledge and karma are contradictory”
Only the ‘pure’ mind can acquire knowledge
The method provided by sruti for acquiring this knowledge is initially purification of the mind (through karma yoga and sadhana chatushthya), then sravana / manana of the scriptures and finally nidhidhyasana (through neti, neti and renunciation of actions).
The importance of this ‘purification’ of the mind is addressed in the following verse in the second chapter:
2.45: O Arjuna, the Vedas have the three qualities [gunas] as their object. You become free from worldliness, free from the pairs of duality, ever-poised in the quality of sattva, without (desire for) acquisition and protection, and self-collected.
Krishna elaborates on this more extensively in chapter 14:
14.23: He who, sitting like one indifferent, is not distracted by the three qualities; he who, thinking that the qualities alone act, remains firm and surely does not move;
14.24: He to whom sorrow and happiness are alike, who is established in his own Self, to whom a lump of earth, iron and gold are the same, to whom the agreeable and the disagreeable are the same, who is wise, to whom censure and his own praise are the same;
14.25: He who is the same under honour and dishonour, who is equally disposed both towards the side of the friend and of the foe, who has renounced all enterprise – he is said to have gone beyond the qualities.
14.26 And he who serves Me through the unswerving Yoga of Devotion, he, having gone beyond these qualities, qualifies for becoming Brahman.
Krishna is saying that one who is not moved by the drives of the three gunas, is fit to become Brahman. Sankara’s bhasya on 14.25 captures this:
“’who has renounced all enterprise’ i.e. who is apt to give up all undertakings, who has given up all actions other than those needed merely for the maintenance of the body; he is said to have gone beyond the qualities. The disciplines leading to the state of transcendence of the qualities [gunas], which have been stated (in the verses) beginning from ‘he who, sitting like one indifferent,’ and ending with ‘he is said to have gone beyond the qualities’ have to be practised by a monk, a seeker of Liberation, so long as they are to be achieved through effort”
Logically, a mind that has become pure – desireless and fearless, with no sense of ‘me and mine’ – and subsequently attains jnana: for what possible reason would it then revert to become ego-centric and desire-filled? So the statement that a jnani can act in whatsoever way he chooses, is indeed purely eulogistic.
In this context, it is important to recognise that Sankara teaches, as in his bhasya to 2.55, that the sadhanas to acquire jnana, also describe the characteristics of the jnani:
“For in all the scriptures without exception dealing with spirituality, whatever are the characteristics of the man of realization are themselves presented as the disciplines for an aspirant, because these (characteristics) are the result of effort. And those that are the disciplines requiring effort, they become the characteristics (of the man of realization)”
[Swami Ghambirananda’s note: There are two kinds of sannyasa — vidvat (renunciation that naturally follows Realization), and vividisa (formal renunciation for undertaking the disciplines which lead to that Realization). According to Ananda Giri, the characteristics presented in this and the following verses describe not only the vidvat-sannyasin, but are also meant as disciplines for the vividisa-sannyasin]
The question of renunciation of actions
Krishna, in verse 3.4, seems to flatly contradict any requirement for renunciation:
3.4: “A person does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from action; nor does he attain fulfilment merely through renunciation”
It is important to remember Krishna is speaking to Arjuna who wants to escape from battle and become a sannyasin; but Krishna recognises that this Arjuna is not ready for Knowledge, and must still purify his mind through karma yoga. Sankara’s bhasya makes this clear:
“Karma-yoga is the means to the Yoga of Knowledge characterized by freedom from action . . . Therefore the Lord said: nor does he attain fulfilment / steadfastness in the Yoga of Knowledge, characterized by freedom from action, merely through the renunciation of actions which is devoid of Knowledge”
Further, Sankara in his bhasya to 4.20, clarifies the idea of ‘seeing action in inaction, and inaction in action’, writing:
“Finding inaction etc. in action etc. is jnana, wisdom . . . He again who, having been engaged in actions under the influence of past tendencies, later on becomes endowed with the fullest Self-knowledge, he surely renounces (all) actions along with their accessories as he does not find any purpose in activity. For some reason, if it becomes impossible to renounce actions and he, for the sake of preventing people from going astray, even remains engaged as before in actions- without attachment to those actions and their results because of the absence of any selfish purpose – still he surely does nothing at all! His actions verily become ‘inaction’ because of having been burnt away by the fire of wisdom”
Sankara has a remarkable ability to anticipate questions. So returning to his bhasya on the critical ajata vada verse 2.21 we commenced with, he directly and unambiguously addresses the question of mental vs physical renunciation of actions:
“the Lord will also speak of renunciation of all actions in, ‘having given up all actions mentally,’ etc. (5.13)
Objection: May it not be argued that from the expression, ‘mentally’, (it follows that) oral and bodily actions are not to be renounced?
Vedantin: No, because of the categoric expression, ‘all actions’.
Objection: May it not be argued that ‘all actions’ relates only to those of the mind?
Vedantin: No, because all oral and bodily actions are preceded by those of the mind, for those actions are impossible in the absence of mental activity.”
One’s understanding of the ajata vada and non-doership espoused by Krishna in 2.21, takes a far more nuanced turn when it is considered in the context of Sankara’s bhasya thereon and the whole of the Bhagavad Gita.
The ultimate truth is that there is only the Self, and the individual ego-mind, the doer/enjoyer is an erroneous super-imposition. When realisation / jnana is attained, there is no more ego, that can have a desire, which can motivate an action; hence the jnani is said to be actionless.
Dennis has mischievously caused confusion by promulgating a concept “Yoga Advaita”, which he also conflates with Vivekananda’s views. There is no such path. All agree that Knowledge is the key to moksha; but also all agree that purification of the mind, primarily through viveka, vairagya, single-pointedness, introversion and renunciation (undoubtedly primarily mental, but likely manifested to some extent physically as well) are pre-requisites for assimilating this Knowledge.
Vivekananda when he propounded the four yogas – jnana yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga (concentration / introvertedness of the mind) and bhakti yoga (devotion to the Self) – was simply teaching the sadhanas that Sankara would have endorsed, in an accessible way to a diverse audience. Vivekananda understood that most people, like Arjuna, were not ready for the path of jnana yoga.
Dennis, following Swami Paramarthananda, has also espoused the idea that there can be a gap between jnana and jivanmukta – because the sadhanas have not been completed. Nowhere in Sankara or Sureswara is such a distinction found. However, as SSSS points out in his commentary to Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.5.1, once sravana/manana has been completed, the seeker needs to have the strength to live by this jnana, to reject all that is not-self, in order to attain mouna – to be a ‘genuine, consummate jnani par excellence’.
Arguably this is just linguistic disagreement – if Dennis / Paramarthananda want to separate out a jnani from a jivanmukta, it does not really matter, as our aim is jivanmukta.
I would recommend logical, rational and comprehensive reasoning in understanding the advaita of Sankara and Gaudapada. Its system of sadhanas to purify the mind, conveyance of the Knowledge of ‘tat twam asi’, and living on the strength of that, is a comprehensive and logical assertion of ajata vada for the jiva to indeed realise its identity with (‘become’) Brahman.
I will end, as ever, with Sankara’s unambiguous and cogent bhasya on Brhad Up 4.5.15:
“Therefore the knowledge of this Self by the process of ‘Not this, not this’ and the renunciation of everything are the only means of attaining immortality . . . The discussion of the knowledge of Brahman, culminating in renunciation, is finished. This much is the instruction, this is the teaching of the Vedas, this is the ultimate goal, this is the end of what a man should do to achieve his highest good.”