How does the Bhagavad Gītā Respond to the Tension Between Action and Renunciation?


The proliferation of heterodox sects preaching renunciation in the mid-first millennium BCE posed a threat to the authority of the Vedas and social order. (Thapar, 1996, p.61) Vedic ritual, the performance of which promised a better rebirth, was being undermined by the prevailing belief that worldly life was intrinsically suffering. Therefore complete liberation from transmigration became the ultimate soteriological aim. Buddhist and Jain theories advocated the circumvention of accumulating karma and renunciation of the world, as when the world is perceived purely as the seat of suffering, the only choice is to stop out of it. This caused great tension with the orthodox Brahmānical tradition that was fundamentally based on hallowed ritual activity and social action. The ideological contestation between these two systems of thought pivoted on the tension between action and renunciation. Whilst the Brahmin priest stood for social authority, order and duty, the renouncer turned his back on society, solely concerning himself with the transcendental aims of mokṣa, liberation. The present essay will explore the context and dynamics of the tension between these two systems of thought and how the Bhagavad Gītā responds, illuminating how, as Ithamar Theodor argues, it ‘occupies a unique place in the history of Indian literature and thought’ in its reconciliation of the deep tension and gap between renunciation and action. (Theodor, 2010, p.4)


The Gītā is about a decision whether or not to go to war. Occurring at the middle of the Mahābhārata epic, it tells the tale of a conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of a royal lineage. The Pandavas return to claim their kingdom and as the Kauravas refuse to step aside, war becomes inevitable. Arjuna, the Pandava hero, finds that his body will not move as he reflects on his relatives in the opposing side of the battle. Arjuna declares ‘I will not fight!’. (BhG 2.9) Krishna, his charioteer, faces Arjuna ‘whose eyes were filled with tears, and who was overcome with pity,’ (BhG 2.1) and addresses his despondence in eighteen teachings, or Discourses, outlining three options: the yoga, or discipline, of karma, or action; the yoga of jñāna, or knowledge, and the yoga of bhakti, or devotion – literally becoming ‘a part’ of God. (Patton, 2008, p.xii) Throughout the Gītā, in different contexts, each of these yogas is declared to be the most efficacious means in attaining the highest good yet, as David White elucidates, at the most fundamental level they are supplementary to each other. (White, 1971, p.47) Over time, Arjuna comes to understand that Krishna is, in fact, not just an advisor and friend in crisis, but a manifestation of God himself. Arjuna’s doubt is compelled by the overwhelming sensation that it is immoral to kill his relatives. However, Krishna argues to the contrary, elucidating a path to enlightenment and liberation based on the recognition and performance on ones duty in the world. The Gītā is an exploration into the nuances of what is right, of action, of humans and gods and the relationship between the two. It is a meditation on action and on the question of each individual: ‘what is to be done?’ or ‘How do I fulfil my duty so that I contribute to the overall harmony and right order of the universe?’. (Patton, 2008, p.viii)


The Mahābhārata took recognisable shape in the two centuries before and the two centuries after the Common Era; a period in which heterodox sects were becoming increasingly organised. (Patton, 2008, p.ix) In Romila Thapar’s Ancient Indian Social History, this time is depicted as one of great social change due to the consequences of a disintegrating tribal society, an increasingly hierarchical society, the growth of towns and cities and the introduction of iron technology. (Thapar, 1996, p.62) Barbara Miller states that the multiple layers of the Mahābhārata demonstrate both its long history and its attempts to reconcile conflicting social and religious values. (Miller, 1986, p.4) In particular the Gītā, most likely composed around the first century CE, addresses the tensions between renunciation and action. (Miller, 1986, p.3) The need of reconciliation was due to the momentous changes that were occurring within society. The Brahmin priest traditionally held the monopoly over the performance of sacrifice, yajña, which was the most honoured part of the Vedic tradition. (Hirst, 1997, p.26) Ostensibly, the role of the ritual was the regeneration of the cosmos, ‘the winning of life out of death’. (Hirst, 1997, p.26)  Sacrifice was the driving force of the universe, which if not performed the rita, the sacred order, would be replaced by chaos. (Patton, 2008, p.xiii) In addition, dharma, the human order grounded in the cosmic order, was sustained by ritual performance. Moreover, sacrifice was the means for accumulating merit in heaven, the means to attain a more prosperous rebirth, and was also revered as the source of mundane worldly benefits such as wealth, offspring and long-life. (Krishan, 1977, p. 28; Heesterman, 1982, p.252)


The practice of sacrifice required the fire that constituted the centre of the home. (Heesterman, 1982, p.252) Therefore the sacrifice, and thus the dharma, turned on the pivotal actor who was the Brahmin, the man-in-the-world, the householder, the gṛhastha. (Heesterman, 1982, p.251) Miller explains that dharma, deriving from a Sanskrit form meaning ‘that which sustains’, generally ‘means religiously ordained duty, that is, the code of conduct appropriate to each group in the hierarchically ordered Hindu society’. (Miller, 1986, p.3) It is also translated as duty, religion, morality, order, law and justice. (Theodor, 2010, p.2) In the Dharma Śāstras, one’s dharma is one’s duties, dependent on his or her professional status (varṇa) and stage of life (āśrama). (Brockington, 1997, p.39) Brahmins traditionally stood at the top of the of the social and professional hierarchy as the intellectual class, and although within the āśrama system they were seen as a stage preceding that of the sannyāsī, the renouncer, there are numerous passages which exalt the householder, as the highest or the four stages, ‘if not the only valid one’. (Heesterman, 1982, p.251) Action, ritual and social order were necessary to safeguard not only the position of the Brahmin and also cosmic harmony.


The Brahmin and the renouncer stood in opposition to one another. The cause of contestation was between the ideal of knowledge and action. The dharma tradition of the Vedas has what Theodore calls ‘a notable performative flavour’, which has its ties in the ancient Vedic Mīmāṃsa school. (Theodor, 2010, p.56) The Mīmāṃsa school of Vedic philosophising that attempted to preserve ritual through rational interpretation of Vedic texts, took reverence of duty and action to an extreme, teaching that ‘religion is based on a single principle, activity’. (Biderman, 1984, p.74) During this period, around the third or second century BCE, emphasis was placed exclusively on the study of dharma, religious language was seen inherently injunctive and the observance of these injunctions was not a means to a goal, but the goal itself. (Biderman, 1984, p.76) In contrast, Jains advocated a path towards complete cessation of physical action to avoid accumulating karma by harming the infinitesimal souls that were believed to pervade the world. (Humprey, 1994, 20) Buddhist doctrines taught that ignorance was the cause of accumulating karma, and preached a path to liberation that renounced Vedic ritual and societal obligations, instead focusing on meditative practices for the acquisition of insight and liberation from rebirth. (Gethin 1988 150) Although part of the Vedic tradition, The Upaniṣads were influenced by these heterodox sects. (Obeyesekere, 1980, 157) These speculative texts claimed that through knowledge of the ātman, one would attain freedom from the bonds of karma and thus liberation. (Walli, 1977, p.2) These movements propounding the value of knowledge and non-action over action greatly contrasted and undermined the Brahmānical tradition. The fact that it was believed that one on the path to liberation is in fact free from moral and dharmic obligations exemplifies the wide gap between these two systems of thought.


Challenge to Vedic authority had always been present. However, the emergence of various organised sects was new. (Thapar, 1996, p.62) This development was made possible predominantly due to political, economic and societal changes. (Thapar, 1996, p.62)  As Thapar outlines, iron technology had created an economic margin of prosperity that created the conditions where the maintenance of large renouncer groups by the lay community was possible. (Thapar, 1996, p.62) Furthermore, as Laurie Patton points out, civilisations were increasingly settled and urbanised, therefore ‘opportunities to remove oneself from society became more possible’. (Patton, 2008, p.xiii) With disintegrating kin-ship ties and the rise of hierarchical society, the growing waves of wandering renouncers were viewed in an increasingly hostile manner. (Thapar, 1996, p.62) Along with these societal changes contributing to the rise of renouncer groups came the fact that they were gaining much popularity and influence. (Thapar, 1996, p.84) They taught methods of liberation from suffering that were accessible to all and did not rely on complex, secret and expensive rituals that needed the involvement of numerous priests. Stories of mystical powers of renouncers also imbued the counter-culture with prestige and charisma. (Thapar, 1996, p.84) Their form of protest was a flouting of social convention and the prohibition on manual labour underlined their ability ‘to live off society: yet they were not of society’. (Thapar, 1996, p.87) The threat to the Vedic priests was not in attempts to change their society, but by standing aside and creating an alternative system. (Thapar, 1996, p.87) By successfully renouncing their social obligations, they consistently undermined the doctrine of dharma, and therefore the authority of the Brahmin priest, the ritual and the Vedas.


The Gītā directly responds to the threat that renouncer sects were imposing on the Vedic ideal of dharmic action. Krishna criticises the soteriological doctrines of renunciation sects through his teaching of the guṇas. In fact, he makes the notion of complete withdrawal from action within the world inherently untenable. Krishna declares: ‘One does not reach the state beyond action by abstaining from actions; nor does one reach fulfilment only by renunciation. No one, not even for one moment, ever stands without acting; by virtue of the guṇas born in nature, without willing it, everyone is made to perform action’. (BhG 3.5) Thus, action is woven into the fabric of material existence; it is both necessary and unavoidable. This doctrine is developed on the basis of Sāṃkhya philosophy which considers nature to consist of three guṇas, or modes. (Theodor, 2010, p.9) In contrast to the soul that Krishna expounds is inactive, unchanging and eternal, the guṇas consistently interact with each other, constituting the internal dynamism of prakṛiti, nature.  Krishna explains to Arjuna that, ‘Everywhere actions are performed by the guṇas of nature. The Self, confused by the idea of an ‘I’ thus thinks ‘I am the doer’’. (BhG 3.27) This dualist understanding of the Self as separate from materiality, delineates the illusion of an active Self is egoistic and leads to attachment and desire. Along these lines, Arjunas’ objections to killing his relatives are founded on subjective, worldly desires, emotional attachments and a focus on the outcome, or ‘fruits’, of his action. Krishna calls for a reorientation within Arjuna towards the notion of action by understanding that his true Self is inactive and thus the ‘fruits’ of his actions are not his to claim, therefore he must renounce them. Thus, Krishna brings together action and renunciation.

As one cannot escape action, Krishna propounds that Arjuna might as well direct his actions for the purpose of spiritual development, rather than to be helplessly driven to act under the guṇas’ control. Karmayoga is a path of spiritual development through detached action, meaning renunciation of any attachment to personal benefit from action. (Malinar, 2012, p.62) Krishna expounds that ‘the one who begins to rein in the senses through the mind and who, without clinging, brings the yoga of action through the active senses, is unique’. (BhG 3.8) The attitude of nonattachment towards action is based on the teaching of the guṇas and the realisation that it is merely ones psychophysical constitution and character that instigate and carry out acts, and that the eternal and indestructible Self is free of action and its ‘fruits’. (White, 1971, p.52) By convincing Arguna to enter the battle, Krishna is not condoning violence, but instead pointing to the real enemy of desire, the outcome of attachment, that must be overcome by discipline and acting to go beyond the narrow limits of personal desire. (Miller, 1986, p.13) Krishna instructs Arjuna to act with equanimity: ‘Remaining disciplined and abandoning all attachment, perform actions with evenness of mind toward both success and failure, for discipline (yoga) may be defined as even’. (White, 1971, p.48) Equanimity is recommended over twenty times in the Gītā and as White argues, it is one of the most fundamental teachings. (White, 1971, p.48) Krishna explains that to be able to act with such detachment and equanimity Arjuna must properly discipline his psyche, the buddhi, which controls his feelings about the results of his actions. (White, 1971, p.48) Through buddhiyoga, the development of insight and discrimination, one comes to know, and have the discipline to follow through, ones duties and the purpose of their action. (Malinar, 2012, p.61)


The Gītā’s response to the tension between action and renunciation does not expound that detached action renders one without moral obligation. To the contrary, Krishna’s sermon is intrinsically a moral argument in defence of action. The Gītā demonstrates that action is grounded in dharma, the Vedic code of ethics founded on the sacred duty of an individual within the universe. (Patton, 2008, p.xxi) Patton states that in fact ‘one might argue that the Gītā is entirely about dharma’ and that it is ‘a meditation on the conflicts that our inevitable multiple dharmas introduce’. (Patton, 2008, p.xxiii) Arjuna is a kṣatriya, and thus must follow the duties of the warrior, the social group to which he was born into. According to Vedic understanding, if one’s dharma is not followed the world falls into chaos, thus those who break the dharma of caste and family are destructive and ultimately evil forces. (Patton, 2008, p.xxiii) Krishna encapsulates this point when he declares, ‘If you will not engage this fight for the sake of dharma, you will have shunned your own dharma and good name, and shall cause harm’. (BhG 2.33) In its exposition of karmayoga, the Gītā directly undermines the notion that to achieve the highest good is to abstain from activity. Rather, it expounds that to carry out ones dharma is to perform the ultimate moral act and constitutes the true and most effective path to liberation.


The Gītā’s emphasis on dharma resolves the criticisms to Vedic sacrifice that were increasingly undermining its hollowed status. The idea of sacrifice and dharma is intimately linked within the Gītā. Krishna is emphatic on the reciprocity between humans and gods as well as the interconnected nature of the universe, which calls on all to follow the dharma so order may be maintained. Sacrifice is a circular process constantly repeated, becoming the ‘sacrificial wheel’. (Theodor, 2010, p.44) Krishna states, ‘The one who does not set the wheel in motion here on earth lives uselessly, wanting to hurt, impassioned by the senses’. (BhG 3.16) This subverts the Jain assimilation of nonviolence, ahimsa, with complete withdrawal from action, stating that to not act is to cause the greatest harm to all beings. Krishna defends sacrifice after having previously denounced it as the ‘thicket of delusion’. (Malinar, 2012, p.62) In reference to the Vedic sacrificers he states: ‘Their nature is desire, with heaven as their object; they turn to different rituals whose aim is power and consumption but whose fruit of action is really rebirth’. (BhG 2.43) This condemnation of sacrifice is not delineated in the hopes of its elimination, rather it is to highlight the areas of corruption and to offer a reformulation of ritual. Angelika Malinar states, the preservation of sacrifice in the face of prevailing doctrines of renunciation was the profound concern of the time. (Malinar, 2012, p.62) What is presented is a method of sacrificing skilfully, which critiques both heterodox renunciation and orthodox ritual and which sabotages the call to renounce ritual in the name of liberation.


Just as Krishna, the supreme deity, is not required to act although engages in constant activity to prevent the disintegration of the universe into chaos, so should Arjuna help to maintain order. (Brockington, 1997, p.37) John Brockington documents a complete change in the idea of sacrifice, as previously performed to attain material ‘fruits’ it was now done ‘for the good of the worlds’, thus ritual became ‘sacrificially-motivated activity rather than the sacrifice itself’. (Brockington, 1997, p.37) Every action, in which the ‘fruits’ are renounced and dedicated to the divine, and which supports the maintenance of the sacred order that is an explication of the cosmic principle itself, becomes a sacrifice itself.  Vedic sacrifice was redefined as a response to the tension between action and renunciation. Jacqueline Hirst highlights this as an example of the Gītā’s pedagogical method of reinterpreting ancient doctrines for the purposes of new contexts. (Hirst, 1997, p.53) Rather than to cling to the ‘fruits’ of action, one is to dedicate each act in the spirit of devotion to God or Brahmān. This is bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion. (Mathur, 1974, p.35) Miller argues that devotion resolves the tension between action in the world, the necessity to perform ones worldly duties, with the life of renunciation. (Miller, 1986, p.9) By purifying the mind of attachment and devoting the ‘fruits’ of action to God, one may continue in this world without suffering or despair. Krishna declares ‘those who give up all actions to me, who hold me as highest…. I will very soon become their uplifter from the ocean of death and rebirth’. (BhG 12.7) Here, the Supreme Deity clearly delineates performance of duty in a detached and devoted manner, the ultimate sacrifice, as the path to liberation from suffering and rebirth.


The avoidance of accumulating karma, thought of as inherent in worldly engagement, was the predominant driving force behind the doctrines of renunciation. The Gītā responds to the tension between action (karma) and renunciation by elucidating that renunciation of action will not lead to liberation as inactivity is impossible due to the activity of the guṇas. Krishna then delineates the path to liberation as one of action devoid of the bondage of karma. The Gītā explains that all action whether good, bad or indifferent, fetters the Self only when one is deluded in thinking the Self is involved and is therefore desirous for the ‘fruits’ of action. (Mathur, 1974, p.35) It is explained that the new formulation of sacrificial action is the only kind of action that is without bondage: ‘Except for action whose end is sacrifice, this world is bound by action’. (BhG 3.9) The consequence of perfectly disciplined action, the performance of karmayoga, is twofold: freedom from evil and freedom from the bondage to action itself. (White, 1971, p.44) Krishna declares, ‘Just as a lotus leaf is not wet by water, when one has let go of clinging and placed actions in Brahmān, one who acts is not defiled by evil’. (BhG 5.10) Evil is inevitable when the action performed is based on desire. In this way the Gītā emphasises the motivation involved in regards to karma, which may have been influenced by the psychological conceptualisation of karma by the Buddhists. (Gethin, 1998, p.37) In contrast to doctrines of renunciation such as that of the Jains, mokṣa is not attained by withdrawal from the field of action, rather liberation and enlightenment is the result of the conscientious performance of ones dharma in the spirit of nonattachment and devoting the ‘fruits’ of those actions to God. (Mathur, 1974, p.35)


Evenness of mind is necessary for the performance of detached action, and therefore instrumental in circumventing karma and attaining liberation. White explains that freedom from karmic bondage, accumulated through selfishly motivated acts, means one must liberate oneself from the action of the guṇas, as it is purely their operation that constitutes action itself. (White, 1971, p.46) Krishna asserts, ‘the self-possessed man for whom pain and pleasure are the same, to whom blame and praise for himself are the same… he is declared to be the one who has transcended the guṇas’. (White, 1971, p.48) It is through evenness of mind that one attains freedom from the bondage of the guṇas. Essentially, freedom from guṇas is an attitude. This ideal is attained through discipline and the continued practice of controlling the intellect, buddhi, which the Gītā makes clear from the very beginning. Buddhist, Jain and Upanisadic notions of mental discipline and knowledge as a means for salvation are prevalent here, however they are reinterpreted and directed for the successful performance of one’s duty. Liberation is achieved through equanimity: ‘Rebirth is conquered here in this world by those whose minds abide in that sameness; Brahmān has no fault, and so they abide in Brahmān’. (BhG 5.19) The Gītā identifies the attainment of man’s highest good with the experience of Brahmān, accomplished by transcending duality and the guṇas.


Echoing the Upaniṣads, experience of Brahmān is closely linked to knowledge of the Self: ‘When one’s mind is fixed on the self, one should not think of anything else…. The practitioner of yoga, constantly restraining the self, with evil vanished, reaches endless joy, easily touching Brahmān’. (BhG 6.28) Identification with the cosmic principle, the state in which one sees that ‘the self is in all beings and all beings are in the self’ occurs through the realisation that it is the guṇas that are active and not the Self. (BhG 6.29) Malinar explains that when identified with the divine, the yogin is ‘the same as Brahmān without being liberated in(to) it’, thus providing the referential framework to comprehend how one can act devoid of karmic consequence: the yogin identified with Brahmān does not acquire karma because ‘he acts like the cosmic cause of all actions… which is forever free from any karmic consequences’. (Malinar, 2012, p.63) It is only actions by an egoistic agent that appropriate karmic baggage. By performing his sacred duty as a warrior, Arjuna is acting in identification with the comic principle, as dharma is not merely an organising principle that is applied to the world; rather, ‘it originates from the sacred order of the universe, and as a result to follow one’s dharma is to connect with the divine’. (Patton, 2008, p.xxxi) The Gītā’s reorientation towards the concept of action and sacrifice delineates a way in which one can be liberated whilst living, circumventing karma and achieving transcendental states whilst performing ones sacred duty.


The appeal of the renouncer sects had been strengthened by their transcendental doctrines that contrasted with the orthodox ritual of the Brahmins. Jan Heesterman explains how the classical Vedic ritual was a separate, self-contained world in which the cosmic order was realised, however only for the duration of the ritual itself and within the limited confines of the ritual enclosure. (Heesterman, 1985, p.3) Whilst the ritual held out to man the prospect of a transcendental world and a communion with deities, once the ritual was complete the sacrificer would divest from himself his ritual persona and return to his worldly life. (Heesterman, 1985, p.3) There was thus a deep gap between transcendental ritual and mundane existence in the world. Tension was aroused by growth in renunciation sects claiming that through renunciation of society and ritual one can attain transcendental states on their own. The Gītā responds to this with a new formula in which transcendental identification with the divine was attained through disciplined action in the world. Only through such action, which was devoid of karmic appropriation, could one attain liberation.


The Bhagavad Gītā effectively responds to the profound tension between action and renunciation, by bringing together these two previously incompatible notions into one unified path of liberation. Whilst denouncing sacrifice in the name of enjoyment in this world and the next, Krishna preserves ritual by reformulating it into sacrificially-motivated action in which one performs his sacred duty, dharma, for the maintenance of the cosmos and the good of the world, whilst acknowledging that the Self is not active and therefore renouncing the ‘fruits’ of that act to the Divine. It is through disciplining the mind and reaching a state of equanimity that this is possible as one goes beyond the guṇas and transcends dualities, and is therefore able to identify with Brahmān. Such action is devoid of karma and not only promises liberation from saṁsāra, but happiness and transcendence whist still living in the world. Therefore, the Gītā almost usurps these heterodox notions and assimilates them into a reorientation of sacrifice. Whilst offering a critique of orthodox ritual, the Gītā sabotages the notion of liberation through renunciation of action arguing that it is in fact impossible. Instead it offers a path to liberation through detached action within the world.  





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