BECK index

Hindu Philosophy

Nyaya and Vaishesika
Mimamsa and Vedanta
Samkhya and Yoga

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Political and Social Ethics of India

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In India there are six orthodox schools of philosophy which recognize the authority of the Vedas as divine revelation, and they generally function as pairs - Nyaya and Vaishesika, Mimamsa and Vedanta, and Samkhya and Yoga. Those who did not recognize this authority were the Jains, Buddhists, and materialists. Even in India, where spiritual ideas dominate the culture, there were some who were skeptical of those ideals and held to a materialist view of the world; they were called Carvaka, and their doctrine that this world is all that exists is called Lokayata.

The materialists did not believe in an afterlife and found sense perception to be the only source of knowledge, denying the validity of inference or general concepts. They focused on the senses and the four traditional elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Consciousness for the Carvaka is only a modification of these elements in the body. The soul is also identified with the body, and pleasure and pain are the central experiences of life, nature being indifferent to good and evil with virtue and vice being merely social conventions.

This worldly philosophy naturally ignored the goal of liberation (moksha) or simply believed that death as the end of life and consciousness was a liberation. However, they also tended to neglect the value of virtue or justice (dharma), placing all of their attention on the worldly aims of pleasure (kama) and wealth or power (artha).

Although Carvaka ideas are mentioned in some ancient writings, their own ancient writings were lost, and much of what we know of the early materialists is based on criticisms of other schools. However, a famous, ancient drama called The Rise of the Moon of Intellect (Prabodha-candrodaya) reveals some of the beliefs of this worldly movement. In this play Passion is personified and speaks to a materialist and one of his pupils.

Passion laughs at ignorant fools, who imagine that spirit is different from the body and reaps a reward in a future existence. This is like expecting trees to grow in air and produce fruit. Has anyone seen the soul separate from the body? Does not life come from the configuration of the body? Those who believe otherwise deceive themselves and others. Their ancient teacher Brihaspati affirmed the importance of the senses, maintaining that sustenance and love are the objects of human life.

For the materialists the Vedas are a cheat. If blessings are obtained through sacrifices and the victims ascend to heaven, why do not children sacrifice their parents? How can fasting, begging, penance, and exposure to the elements be compared to the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes and prominent breasts? The pleasures of life are no more to be avoided because they are mixed with pain than a prudent person would throw away unpeeled rice because it has a husk. Sacrifices, reciting the Vedas, and penance are merely ways that ignorant and weak men contrive to support themselves.

Yet upon analysis it was often found that the materialists' theory that no general inferences can be made contradicted their own views about the nature of the world. Nevertheless their hedonistic philosophy at times gave a humanistic criticism of the ethical contradictions of others. In the great epic Mahabharata a Carvaka is burned to death for preaching against the bloodshed of the great war and condemning Yudhishthira for killing thousands to regain his kingdom. They did criticize sacrifices and valued the arts as a means of pleasure. Hell they believed to be the pain experienced in this world, but all this ended in death. Like Epicureans, they found that pleasure could be maximized and pain minimized by detachment (vairagya). Immortality was only found in the fame one leaves behind for noble deeds performed.

Nyaya and Vaishesika

The Nyaya and Vaishesika schools are primarily analytic and are therefore more concerned with logic and epistemology than ethics. The word nyaya means that by which the mind is led to a conclusion. The Nyaya school formed about the fourth century BC with the Nyaya Sutras by Gautama. The first sentence declares that supreme happiness is attained by knowledge of the sixteen categories which are right knowledge, objects of knowledge, doubt, purpose, example, tenets, inference, confutation, ascertainment, discussion, sophistry, cavil, fallacy, quibble, futile rejoinder, and losing arguments. Knowledge comes from perception, inference, comparison, and verbal testimony. Objects of knowledge are self, body, sense organs, sense objects, intellect, mind, activity, defects, rebirth, fruit, pain, and release.

The soul is distinct from the sense organs and the mind, which it uses to make judgments with the aid of memory. Judgments and actions are transitory but produce karma, which causes the union of the soul with the body, the soul transmigrating from a dead body to another birth. Gautama recognized the soul as the cause of the body but also acknowledged parents and food as other causes as well.

Ethical concerns can be found in the discussion of the defects and the means of liberation. Gautama mentioned three categories of defects as attachment, aversion, and misconception. Vatsyayana, who wrote the first commentary on the Nyaya Sutras in the 4th century CE, explained that attachment can come from lust, jealousy, avarice, greed, and covetousness; aversion from anger, envy, malice, hatred, and resentment; and misconception from wrong apprehension, suspicion, pride, and negligence.

Gautama considered misconception the worst sin because without it attachment and aversion do not occur. By fruit Gautama referred to what is produced by activity and defects. These results of action (karma) may occur immediately or after a long interval. Release is defined as the absolute deliverance from pain. Release does not occur though because of debts, afflictions, and activities. However, when knowledge is attained, wrong notions and defects disappear, removing pain and bringing about release. Since false concepts are the cause of the chain of events that leads to pain, correct knowledge is the solution.

Even hatred of pain and attachment to pleasure can bind one. The activities of mind, speech, and body must be good and not bad but must also be performed without attachment. Selfishness is associated with false concepts, and virtuous actions emphasize the soul rather than the body and its senses. True knowledge comes from meditation, which is prepared for by good deeds. Gautama recommended practicing yoga in forests, caves, and on riverbanks. To attain final release the soul may be embellished by the restraints and observances of the internal discipline learned from yoga. Study and friendly discussion with those learned in knowledge is also suggested.

The Vaishesika philosophy is considered the oldest of the six orthodox schools and may even be pre-Buddhist. The Vaishesika Sutras by Kanada were written shortly before Gautama's Nyaya Sutras. The word vishesa means particularity, and this philosophy emphasizes the significance of individuals. Vaishesika recognizes three objects of experience as having real objective existence, namely substance, quality, and activity, and three products of intellectual discrimination which are generality, particularity, and combination.

The reality of the soul is inferred from the discernment that consciousness cannot be a property of the body, senses, or mind. However, the life of the soul's knowing, feeling, and willing is only found where the body is. Each soul experiences the consequences of its own actions, resulting in the differences between individuals, from which the plurality of souls is inferred. Even liberated souls maintain unique characteristics in the Vaishesika philosophy. The Vaishesika Sutra begins with the idea that virtue (dharma) is the means by which prosperity and salvation are attained, but it acknowledges the authority of the Vedas as the word of God that leads to this prosperity and salvation.

As with Nyaya the supreme good results from knowledge, in this case of the six predicables - substance, quality, activity, generality, particularity, and combination. In addition to the four traditional elements of earth, water, fire, and air, they name ether (akasha), time, space, soul, and mind as the only other substances. One need not fall back on the scriptures to know the existence of the soul, because the expression of "I" makes its reality clear. The qualities are color, taste, smell, touch, numbers, size, separation, conjunction and disjunction, priority and posteriority, understanding, pleasure and pain, desire and aversion, and volition. Activity is going up or down, contracting, expanding, and motion. Action (karma) is opposed by its effect, which is how it is neutralized. Individuals are only responsible for voluntary actions; actions from organic life are considered involuntary.

Worldly good is attained by ceremonial piety, but spiritual value is found by insight. The highest pleasure of the wise is found in independence from all agencies involving memory, desire, and reflection, and this knowledge results from peacefulness of mind, contentment, and virtue. Pleasure and pain result from the contact between soul, senses, the mind, and objects. When the mind becomes steady in the soul through yoga, pain can be prevented. Liberation (moksha) is not having any conjunction with the body and no potential for a body so that rebirth cannot take place. The traditional character of this school can be seen from the actions recommended for achieving merit.

Ablution, fast, abstinence (brahmacharya),
residence in the family of the preceptor,
life of retirement in the forest, sacrifice, gift,
oblation, directions, constellations, seasons,
and religious observances conduce to invisible fruit.1

Progress comes from virtue (dharma), but even this has consequences which neutralize it; for ultimate release cannot occur until even virtue is eradicated in selfless insight. So long as one is dominated by desire and aversion, virtue and its opposite are stored up, preventing liberation. When one realizes that all objects that seem either attractive or repulsive are merely compounds of atoms, their power over one ceases. True knowledge of the soul dispels self-interest in universal awareness. Each soul reaps the harvest of its deeds in this life or a future one, but with liberation it becomes absolutely free. The awareness of the seer is the vision of perfection which results from virtue.

Mimamsa and Vedanta

The Mimamsa philosophy is also very ancient, and the Mimamsa Sutra by Jaimini was written about the 4th century BC. This text begins with the subject of dharma, which the Vedas consider the means most conducive to the highest good. Dharma transcends sense perception, because the senses only perceive what exists in the present; dharma in the Mimamsa philosophy has a metaphysical reality that carries into the future.

The soul also transcends the body, senses, and mind, being omnipresent, eternal, and many. In Mimamsa the soul is the agent that causes all movement of the body. Like in Vaishesika, salvation occurs when the fruits of all good and bad actions are exhausted, and the generation of new effects is stopped. However, in Mimamsa Vedic prayers, rituals, and sacrifices are emphasized as the means of achieving this. Women as well as men were allowed to perform sacrifices, but Sudras were still forbidden. In the ancient Mimamsa philosophy the experience of happiness in heaven was the ultimate goal.

Mimamsa is based on the revelation in the Vedas, which are considered as eternal as the world. The metaphysics of this ethics even comes close to replacing God as the source of all action that governs the universe. Essentially everything is determined by character (dharma) or lack of it through the law of karma or action with its consequences. Not only is the soul as the agent of action real, but the action itself is a spiritual reality that transcends space and time, determining the nature of the universe. This unseen force is called apurva, which means something new, extraordinary, or unknown.

Thus dharma or action (karma) supports the universe. If it is ethically right, it produces enjoyment; if it is wrong, then suffering is experienced. This force (shakti) of dharma or karma is extraordinary and unseen. The universe, being eternal, is not created by this force, but it is shaped by it. A unity to this universal force is posited to control and guide individuals in a single cosmic harmony.

Yet humans are free and determine their own destiny by their actions. The karma from past actions does not limit free choices but is like capital that can be spent in various ways as it is resolved. The soul usually carries a mixture of good and evil consequences, and these may cancel each other. Obligations are actions which must be performed, or one gets demerit, though there is no merit for doing them. Prohibited actions if done also cause demerit, but if avoided likewise do not give merit. Optional actions may produce merit or demerit according to their consequences. Focusing primarily on the spiritual effects of rituals, the Mimamsa philosophy relies on the Dharma Sutras for guidance in worldly ethical questions.

The Vedanta school complements Mimamsa's focus on the Vedas and sacrifices by illuminating the knowledge of the Upanishads as the "end of the Vedas," which is what Vedanta means. The Vedanta Sutra, written between the 500 and 200 BC by Badarayana, is also called the Brahma Sutra since it discusses knowledge of Brahman (Spirit) and sometimes Shariraka Sutra because it concerns the embodiment of the unconditioned self. The Vedanta Sutra attempts to clarify the meaning of the Upanishads and is rather terse, but it has been made famous by the commentaries written by the great Vedanta philosophers of the middle ages - Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva.

If the way of action derives from the Mimamsa theory of karma, Vedanta suggests a way of knowledge by the soul of Spirit. The first chapter of the Vedanta Sutra describes Brahman as the central reality and creator of the world and the individual souls. The second chapter answers objections and explains the world's dependence on God and its evolution back into Brahman. The third chapter suggests ways of knowing Brahman, and the fourth chapter indicates the rewards or fruits of knowing this Spirit.

Badarayana is traditional in that he believed knowledge comes from scripture (sruti) and other authorities (smriti), though sruti as revelation is identified with perception and smriti as interpretation with inference. Scripture refers to the Vedas and smriti to the Bhagavad-Gita, Mahabharata, and Laws of Manu. Reason for Badarayana must conform to the Vedas, but it is nonetheless subordinate to intuitive knowledge, which can come from devotion and meditation. Brahman as Spirit is considered the light of the soul, which is also eternal, though Brahman is distinguished from the intelligent soul and the unintelligent material things.

As in Mimamsa individuals are responsible for their own actions and thus determine their own happiness or suffering. The soul is affected by pleasure and pain, but the highest Lord is not. Injunctions and prohibitions exist because of the connection of the soul with the body. Ethical action helps the soul attain a body fit for knowledge of Brahman, which then may be attained through service, renunciation, and meditation. Meditation on the highest yields unity with the infinite and knowledge of Spirit (Brahman), enabling one to stop producing karma and end the cycle of karma and reincarnation.

Badarayana combined earlier views of Brahman as indeterminate intelligence and a definite personal Lord. While developing itself in the universe, Brahman is still transcendent. Though Brahman is in individual souls, it is not polluted by their defects. Human purpose comes through knowledge of Brahman, which also results in bliss and the nullification of works (karma). To obtain knowledge one must be calm and in control of the senses. Works can be combined with knowledge, but those performing them must not be overcome by passion. Knowledge may also be promoted through special acts such as prayer, devotion, and fasting. Meditation, though, should focus not on symbols of the soul but the reality. Through immobile meditation, thoughtfulness and concentration are increased, and meditation needs to be practiced up to death. By resolving karma through knowledge, oneness with Brahman is attained. At death the liberated soul is released from the body and does not return to another.

Samkhya and Yoga

Kapila, the legendary founder of the Samkhya school, is said to have been an incarnation of Vishnu or Agni; he probably lived during the seventh century BC at the time of the early Upanishads. Kapila was endowed with virtue, knowledge, renunciation, and supernatural power, and taking pity on humanity, he taught the Samkhya doctrine to the Brahmin Asuri, who is mentioned in the Satapatha Brahmana as an expert in sacrificial rituals. The Samkhya knowledge of discerning the spirit from nature is explained in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. The word samkhya means discriminating knowledge and came to mean number as an exact form of knowledge.

In Asvaghosha's Life of the Buddha (Buddhacarita), Siddartha is taught Samkhya ideas during his ascetic phase. Aradha described nature (prakriti) as consisting of the five subtle elements, the ego, intellect, the unmanifest, the external objects of the five senses, the five senses, the hands, feet, voice, anus, generative organ, and the mind. All of these make up the field which is to be known by the soul. Worldly existence is caused by ignorance, the merits and demerits of former actions, and desire. He then explained the problems of mistakes, egoism, confusion, fluctuation (thinking that mind and actions are the same as the "I"), indiscrimination (between the illumined and the unwise), false means (rituals and sacrifices), inordinate attachment, and gravitation (possessiveness). The wise must learn to distinguish the manifested from the unmanifested. When the prince asked how this is to be accomplished, Aradha explained the practice of yoga. Though an orthodox Hindu school, Samkhya did criticize the killing of animals in the sacrifices.

Samkhya ideas also appeared in the Mahabharata in the portions known as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Mokshadharma from book 12. In the latter the intellect (buddhi) controlled by the spirit (purusha) evolves the mind (manas), the senses, and then the gross elements. The three qualities found in all beings are goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas). Goodness brings pleasure, passion pain, and darkness apathy. The knower of the field is emphasized as the spirit (purusha) or soul (atman), and Samkhya and Yoga are considered two aspects (knowledge and practice) of the same philosophy. The standard 25 Samkhya principles are enumerated as the eight material principles and the sixteen modifications completed by the all-important spirit (purusha) or unmanifest knower of the field.

Ethically the Mokshadharma explains the Samkhya follower as:

Unselfish, without egotism, free from the pairs,
having cut off doubts, he is not angry and does not hate,
nor does he speak false words.
When reviled and beaten,
because of his kindness he has no bad thought;
he turns away from reprisal in word,
action, and thought, all three.
Alike to all beings, he draws near to Brahma (God).
He neither desires, nor is he without desire;
he limits himself to merely sustaining life.
Not covetous, unshaken, self-controlled;
not active, yet not neglecting religious duty;
his sense-organs are not drawn to many objects,
his desires are not widely scattered;
he is not harmful to any creature;
such a Samkhya-follower is released.2

In meditation the soul may be seen by the yoga of concentration and the Samkhya yoga of discriminating reason as well as the yoga of works. By knowing all the courses of the world one may turn away from the senses so that after leaving the body that one will be saved, according to the Samkhya view. Disciplined purity and compassion to all creatures are important; the weak may perish, but the strong get free. The field-knower governs all the strands of the material world. Making thought come to rest by meditation, perfected in knowledge and calm, one goes to the immortal place.

The elaborated Samkhya doctrine is attributed to Pancashikha, but the earliest Samkhya text is the Samkhya Karika from the second or third century CE by Ishvara Krishna. According to this text the three qualities of goodness (sattva), activity (rajas), and ignorance (tamas), whose natures are pleasure, pain, and delusion, serve the purpose of illumination, action, and restraint. The great principle of intellect (buddhi), which evolves the world, in its good (sattvic) form has virtue, wisdom, non-attachment, and lordly powers; but the reverse are its dark (tamasic) forms.

Yet it is the will that accomplishes the spirit's experiences and discriminates the subtle difference between nature (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). Uniting with the all-embracing power of nature, causes and effects lead to virtue and ascent to the higher planes or vice and descent to lower. Goodness comes from wisdom, bondage from the opposite. Attachment and activity lead to transmigration. Attainments come from correct reasoning, oral instruction by a teacher, study, the suppression of misery, intercourse with friends, and purity. Sattva predominates in the worlds above, tamas in those below, and rajas in the middle with the pain of decay and death.

Evolution from the will down to specific elements modifies nature and emancipates each spirit. Just as one undertakes action in the world to release the desire for satisfaction, so does the unevolved function for the liberation of the spirit. Thus spirit is never really bound or liberated nor does it transmigrate; only nature in its manifold forms is bound, migrates, or is liberated. The pure spirit, resting like a spectator, perceives nature which has ceased to be productive and by discriminating knowledge turns back from the dispositions. When virtue and other karma cease to function, the spirit of the individual remains invested with the body by past impressions; but when separation from the body comes, its purpose is fulfilled as it attains eternal and absolute independence.

The practice of yoga in India is very ancient, probably even pre-Aryan. Yoga is mentioned in several Upanishads, and its philosophy is described in the great epics, particularly in the Bhagavad-Gita portion of the Mahabharata. The classic text for what is called the royal (raja) yoga is Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, probably written in the second century BC, although scholarly estimates range from the fourth century BC to the fourth century CE. The word yoga has the same origin as the English word "yoke" and means union. In the Katha Upanishad the senses are to be controlled as spirited horses are by a yoke.

The raja yoga tersely described by Patanjali as having eight limbs is considered the psychological yoga. The Yoga Sutras begin with the idea that yoga (union) is the control of the modifications of consciousness; this enables the seer to stand in one's own form instead of identifying with the modifications. The five modifications are knowledge (perception, inference, and testimony), error (ideas not formed from reality), imagination (ideas without objects), sleep, and memory (experienced objects). These are controlled by practice and detachment. Practice requires constant attention for a long time, and detachment comes from getting free of the desire for experiences. Mastery of this comes from the spirit overcoming the qualities.

Meditation can be reasoning, discriminating, and joyful awareness of the unity of the universe and self or cessation by renunciation and constantly dissolving impressions, resulting in undifferentiated existence, bodilessness, absorption in the supreme, or faith, enthusiasm, memory, and wisdom. Intense practice brings the best results, or it may be achieved by surrendering to the Lord. The perfect spirit of the Lord is untouched by afflictions, actions, and their results; it is the infinite seed of omniscience beyond time, and its symbol is the sacred word. Constant practice of that brings cosmic consciousness and the absence of obstacles.

The obstacles that distract consciousness are disease, laziness, indecision, apathy, lethargy, craving sense-pleasure, erroneous perception, lack of concentration, and unstable attention. These distractions are accompanied by sorrow, worry, restlessness, and irregular breathing. Cultivating the feelings of friendship, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward those who are happy, suffering, worthy, and unworthy purifies consciousness, as does breathing in and out. Subtle vision modifies the higher consciousness by bringing the mind stability, as does the transcendent inner light, the awareness that controls passions, the analytical knowledge of dreams and sleep, and concentration according to choice.

The lessened modifications become transparent and transformed, and the memory is purified and empty so that objects shine without thought. The subtle elements become undefinable nature in the meditation with seed. Beyond discrimination the oversoul is blessed with direct truth, which is different from verbal inferences. This impression prevents all other impressions, and control of even this controls everything in seedless meditation.

The practice of yoga and meditation is enhanced by discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord in order to remove obstacles such as ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. Obstacles result in action patterns that cause suffering in this life and the next, as virtue and vice bear the fruits of pleasure and pain; but concentration overcomes their effects. Future suffering can be avoided if the perceiver does not identify with the perceived. Discriminating undisturbed intelligence removes ignorance and suffering by the absence of identity and the freedom of the perceiver.

The practice of union proceeds through the eight steps of restraint, observances, posture, breath control, sublimation, attention, concentration, and meditation. The restraints are not injuring, lying, stealing, lusting, nor possessing and are called the universal great vows we have often seen before. The second step of observances involves cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord. Patanjali suggested that destructive instincts may be overcome by cultivating the opposites of greed, anger, or delusion. In confirming nonviolence the presence of hostility is relinquished. Not lying brings work and its fruits; not stealing brings riches; not lusting brings vigor; and from not possessing comes knowledge of past and future lives.

Cleanliness brings protection of one's body; goodness purified becomes serenity; and single-mindedness conquers the senses. Being content gains happiness. Discipline perfects the senses and destroys impurities. By self-study one may commune with the divine ideal, and meditation is successfully identifying with the Lord.

Stable and pleasant postures (asanas) release tension and transform thought. Regulating the inhalation and exhalation of the breath (pranayama) prepares the mind for attention. By withdrawing consciousness from its own objects, the senses are sublimated (pratyahara) and under control.

The last three steps of attention (dharana), concentration (dhyana), and meditation (samadhi) are the same as the last three steps of the Buddha's eightfold path. Attention is defined by Patanjali as the original focus of consciousness, concentration as continuing awareness there, and meditation as when that shines light alone in its own empty form. These three work as one in inner control leading to wisdom and are the psychological steps. As the control of destructive instincts and impressions evolves, the flow of consciousness becomes calm by habit, and oneness arises in meditation. As this oneness evolves, past and present become similar in the conscious awareness.

Patanjali then described various psychic abilities that can be attained from the practice of yoga. Supernatural powers may come from birth, drugs, chanting, discipline, or meditation. Yet he warned that worldly powers are obstacles to meditation. Only the knowledge of discriminating between goodness and spirit brings omnipotence and omniscience, and only from detachment to that is the seed of bondage destroyed in freedom. The soul of the discriminating perceiver is completely detached from emotion and mind so that with serene discrimination the consciousness can move toward freedom. Finally the evolution of transforming qualities fulfills its purpose and stops, cognized as a distinct transformation. Patanjali concluded,

Empty for the sake of spirit
the qualities return to nature.
Freedom is established in its own form,
or it is aware energy.3

This yoga text has been tremendously influential in India and beyond, and is in my opinion a very positive guide to spiritual liberation as well as being beneficial to ethical development.

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad-Gita, which means The Song of the Lord, was written between the second century BC and the second century CE. It synthesized many ideas from the Samkhya philosophy and practice of yoga, but it is also claimed by Vedanta and Hindu philosophy in general as its greatest work on spirituality. The text is actually contained in Book 6 of the epic poem Mahabharata, which tells the story of the great civil war that may have occurred in India as early as about 1400 BC or as late as about 900 BC. These stories will be discussed in the next chapter, but the dramatic context for the dialog between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna is the beginning of the actual battle between the rival ruling families, the Kauruvas and Pandavas.

The Bhagavad-Gita is narrated by the sage Sanjaya, who clairvoyantly perceives what is going on and relates it to the blind King Dhritarashtra. Krishna is an uncle and friend of the Pandavas, but remaining neutral he allowed one side to use his vassals in battle, while the Pandava Arjuna got to have him as charioteer, although he would not fight himself. By the time this was written, Krishna was considered an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the preserver, and he teaches Arjuna several kinds of yoga for achieving union with God. This is the earliest work that emphasized the religious worship of God through devotion to an avatar or incarnation of God which developed into the Vaishnavite faith in medieval Hinduism.

The poem begins with Dhritarashtra asking Sanjaya what is happening not only on the field of Kuru but also on the field of dharma (virtue, duty). Sanjaya describes how both armies are arrayed against each other blowing their conch horns to show their readiness to fight. Then Arjuna asks Krishna to position his chariot between the two armies, and there he sees many of his relatives on the other side, causing him to feel faint and consider not fighting.

Even though the others are killing, Arjuna does not think it would be worth it to do so, even for sovereignty of the three worlds, let alone an earthly kingdom. Evil would come to him, he says, if he should kill his relatives. How could this bring happiness? This family destruction is wrong and would destroy ancient family duties and bring on lawlessness, which would lead to corruption of the women and caste mixing. Why should he kill for greed of royal pleasures? It would be greater happiness for him to be killed unresisting and unarmed. Thus Arjuna's mind was overcome by sorrow.

Krishna, who is called the Lord, responds by upbraiding Arjuna for timidity and cowardice that would cause disgrace, urging him to stand up. Arjuna answers that it would be better to live by begging than be smeared with the blood of his noble teachers. He does not see what would remove this sorrow even if he were to win unrivaled prosperity and royal power. Once again Arjuna declares that he will not fight.

The Lord now tells Arjuna that he is grieving unnecessarily even though his words are wise. As he is eternal, so are the slain, and all will exist forever. No one can cause the destruction of the imperishable; though the bodies have an end, the infinite soul is indestructible and eternal. Like a person abandoning worn-out clothes takes new ones, so does the soul enter new bodies. Therefore he should not mourn, because death is certain for those born; but the soul is eternally inviolable.

According to Krishna Arjuna should look to his duty as a Kshatriya to battle; to avoid this duty would be evil. If he is killed, he will go to heaven; if he conquers, he will enjoy the Earth. Making pleasure and pain the same, gain and loss, victory and defeat, he should fight to avoid evil.

From the perspective of universal ethics I have to criticize this justification of the caste system and war mentality. While I agree that it is our duty to act courageously and not refuse to act out of cowardice, the principles of love, freedom, responsibility, health, justice, and others guide us by the all-important principle of not harming (ahimsa) which is violated in organized war to a maximum extent. The duty of a Kshatriya is to work for justice and protect lives, not to kill people. Mahatma Gandhi and others have shown us that we can stand up to wrong and refuse to capitulate to it without using violence, which merely multiplies the wrong and harm. I think it is especially important to criticize this error in one of the world's otherwise wisest books so that it cannot as easily be used as a justification for this violent behavior, which had not been purified out of Aryan culture in that time.

Krishna explains how to use the unified intuition of the Samkhya philosophy and Yoga practice to act without attachment to the fruits of action. Following the letter of the scripture and performing rituals does not avail. Staying in yoga with unified intuition and letting go of the fruit of action, one will be free of misery and the bondage of birth. When in meditation the intuition stands unmoving, union is attained.

Arjuna asks Krishna what such a person is like. When one gives up all desires in the mind and is satisfied in the soul by the soul, then one is steady in wisdom. In pain free of anxiety, in pleasure free of desire, the sage departs from passion, fear, and anger. Withdrawing from the senses, like a tortoise in its shell, one should sit unified with the Lord in the supreme with senses under control. From contemplating objects comes attachment, then desire, anger, delusion, memory wandering, and loss of intuition until one perishes. By eliminating lust and aversion while still engaging the objects of the senses, the self-governing attains tranquillity, clear thoughts, and steady intuition. The undisciplined have no intuition, no concentration, and no peace; but by giving up desires, longing, and possessiveness one attains the holy state of peace.

Once again Arjuna asks if intuition is better than action, why is he being urged to this terrible action. Krishna teaches that Samkhya knowledge and yoga action are to be performed but without attachment. To renounce action and then remember the senses is to be a deluded hypocrite. Maintaining the body requires action, and so controlled action is better than inaction. God-produced action originates in the imperishable God of the sacrifice. Observing what the world needs, one should act free of attachment. Even the Lord must act and set an example for others to act, or confusion would result.

All actions are performed by the qualities of nature; only the deluded self thinks the "I" is the doer. The deluded are attached to qualified actions, but the knower of the whole does not disturb fools. He should entrust all his actions to the Lord, meditating on the supreme soul and not complain. Even the wise act according to their own nature, and it is better to follow one's own duty than another's, which can be dangerous.

Arjuna asks what compels a person to do harm. The Lord replies that desire and anger from the emotional quality are injurious. These obscure knowledge as smoke does fire. The senses must be restrained. Higher than the senses is the mind; higher than the mind is the intuition; and even higher is the soul.

Krishna says that he knows his past lives and that as an avatar he is born from age to age to protect the good and destroy evil-doers in order to establish justice. By trusting the Lord and being purified by disciplined knowledge many have attained the Lord. The ancient way of action is for liberation. The enlightened can see action in inaction and inaction in action. Independent action is without hope, possession, and envy. God is attained by contemplating the action of God. Action without desire is consumed in the fire of knowledge. Yogis practice sacrifice to the divine by restraining their senses, controlling the breath, and regulating food. Attaining knowledge works better than sacrificing material possessions.

Krishna does not see Samkhya and yoga as separate, but either practiced correctly yields the results of both. Though renunciation yoga can lead to the best, the yoga of action is even better. By putting actions in God, free of attachment, one is not affected by evil and attains peace. Unattached to external contacts, the soul, united to God, enjoys imperishable happiness, but delights from contact give birth to pain with a beginning and an end. Enduring the agitation brought on by desire and anger, the united one has inner happiness and light, attaining oneness with God. With sins wiped out and dualities dissolved, the self-controlled, attaining nirvana, rejoices in the welfare of all beings.

One should uplift the self by the soul, not lower the soul. The self may be the friend or enemy of the soul, depending on whether the self is mastered by the soul or not. The self-mastered is peaceful, steadfast, content with self-knowledge, detached from companions, and neutral toward enemies and friends with impartial intuition. Krishna recommends disciplined moderation in eating and sleeping, not either extreme. Seeing the soul in the soul, one is not disturbed even by heavy sorrow. Mastering the senses with the mind, the intuition may then quiet the mind, the soul making it stand still. When the mind wanders, one should master it by directing the will in the soul. The united soul observes the soul in all beings, seeing the Lord everywhere.

Arjuna confesses that his mind is unstable and hard to hold back. Krishna replies that no one doing good suffers misfortune but improves from life to life toward perfection. Persevering in mental control and cleansed of guilt, one goes toward the supreme goal. The mind, absorbed in the Lord practicing union, will know this completely; but deluded evil-doers, robbed by illusion, do not. Practicing union, one goes to the divine Spirit at death. The light path leads to liberation from rebirth with God, but the dark path brings return to reincarnation.

Krishna recommends a path of devotion to him as a way of supreme liberation and describes to Arjuna his extraordinary characteristics. Then Arjuna asks to see his divine form, and he is blessed with that overwhelming vision. When Arjuna asks Krishna who has the best knowledge of union, he replies that those who worship him with the greatest faith are most united, although those who worship the imperishable, unmanifest, and omnipresent also attain him.

Knowledge is better than practice, meditation superior to knowledge, and renunciation better than meditation. The yogi is a friend of all beings, free of ego, indifferent to pain and pleasure, patient, self-restrained, and devoted to God. Those who worship the immortal justice with faith and devotion are beloved by the Lord.

Next Krishna differentiates nature and spirit, the field from the knower of the field. The field is composed of the elements, ego, intuition, the senses and their objects, desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, and consciousness. Spirit is the cause situated in nature which experiences the qualities born of nature. Attachment to those qualities is what brings about birth.

The supreme spirit in this body is also said to be
the observer, allower, supporter, experiencer,
the great Lord and the supreme soul.
whoever thus knows spirit and nature
together with the qualities,
even in any stage of existence,
this one is not born again.4

Whoever perceives the same supreme Lord in all beings that never perishes goes to the supreme goal. The imperishable soul dwelling in the body free of qualities does not act and is not stained.

Krishna explains that the quality of goodness is bound by attachment to happiness and knowledge, the quality of emotion by attachment to desire and action, and the dark quality by ignorance, confusion, neglect, and laziness. Goodness works by knowledge, emotion by greed, effort, action, restlessness, and lust, and darkness by negligence and confusion. By transcending all three qualities the observer perceives and knows the highest and attains immortality.

Arjuna asks how this may be accomplished. The Lord answers that by sitting impartially one is not disturbed by the qualities; standing firm one does not waver, the same in pain and pleasure, self-reliant, equal to blame and praise, to friend and foe. In devotional union these qualities are transcended, making one fit for God realization. The endowment of the divine comes from fearlessness, purity, perseverance in knowledge of union, charity, restraint, sacrifice, spiritual study, austerity, straightforwardness, nonviolence, truth, no anger, renunciation, peace, no slander, compassion for creatures, no greed, kindness, modesty, no fickleness, vigor, patience, courage, no hatred, and no excessive pride.

Hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance lead to the demonic, who are untruthful, unstable, and godless. Attached to desire and accepting false notions, clinging to anxiety ending in death, with gratification of desire their highest aim, convinced that this is all and using the unjust means of wealth, they acquire property and slay enemies; but they are wrapped in a net of delusion, attached to desires, and fall into an unclean hell. Clinging to ego, force, insolence, desire, and anger the envious hate the soul in other bodies, and entering a demonic womb, are deluded in birth after birth. One should renounce desire, anger, and greed as the threefold gate of hell.

An example of the practical experience of the three qualities is how they are related to food.

Promoting life, goodness, strength, health,
happiness, and satisfaction,
flavorful, juicy, substantial, and hearty foods
are liked by the good.
Pungent, sour, salty, hot, spicy, dry, burnt foods
are wanted by the emotional,
causing pain, misery, and sickness.
Spoiled, tasteless, putrid, stale,
and what is rejected as well as the unclean
is the food liked by the ignorant.5

The austerity of the good is pure, virtuous, and nonviolent; the austerity of the emotional is hypocritical for honor and respect on Earth; and that of the dark is for the purpose of destroying another. The good gift is given freely at the proper time and place to a worthy person; the gift given for a reward or unwillingly is emotional; and the dark gift is given at the wrong place and time to the unworthy with contempt.

Action according to the three qualities is also described.

Liberated from attachment, not egotistical,
accompanied by courage and resolution,
unperturbed in success or failure,
the actor is called good.
Passionate, wishing to obtain the fruit of action, greedy,
violent-natured, impure, accompanied by joy and sorrow,
the actor is proclaimed to be emotional.
Undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, deceitful, dishonest,
lazy, depressed, and procrastinating,
the actor is called dark.6

Finally Krishna summarizes his teachings for attaining perfection and God, the highest state of knowledge.

United with cleansed intuition,
controlling the self with will,
and relinquishing, starting with sound, sense objects,
and rejecting passion and hatred,
living isolated, eating lightly,
controlling speech, body, and mind,
constantly intent on union meditation,
relying on detachment,
releasing ego, force, pride, desire, anger, possessiveness;
unselfish, peaceful, one is fit for oneness with God.

Becoming God, soul serene,
one does not grieve nor desire,
the same among all creatures,
one attains supreme devotion to me.
By devotion to me one realizes who and what I am in truth;
then knowing me in truth one enters immediately.
Performing all actions always trusting in me,
one attains by my grace the imperishable eternal home.
Surrendering consciously all actions in me, intent on me,
constantly be conscious of me relying on intuitive action.7

Thus Krishna offers himself as a refuge and guide toward liberation through knowledge and detachment from the fruits of action in one of the wisest and most inspiring books ever written.

Literature of India


1. Vaishesika Sutra tr. Nandalal Sinha, 6:2:2.
2. Mokshadharma in Mahabharata 12:295:33-36 quoted in Larson, G.
J., Classical Samkhya, p. 128.
3. Patanjali, Yoga Sutras (author's version), 4:34.
4. Bhagavad Gita (author's version), 13:22-23.
5. Ibid. 17:8-10.
6. Ibid. 18:26-28.
7. Ibid. 18:51-57.

Copyright © 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck

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SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950

Vedas and Upanishads
Mahavira and Jainism
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Political and Social Ethics of India
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