Many chapters of the Gita begin with a question from Arjuna, for this one it is this:
“Why do you want me to engage in this ghastly warfare, if you think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?” (III.1)
Before we proceed, let us point out that this question is relevant to a major debate in Aristotleean ethics: whether the good (Greek “eudaimonia”) is intellectualistic or comprehensive. The former view takes its cue from the fact that in various places Aristotle claims that the only truly inherently good activity is the contemplation of the Divine: metaphysics, theology, fundamental physical laws, et cetera. The comprehensive view of the good live takes its cue from the fact that in other places (e.g. Nicomachean EthicsI.1), he implies the contrary, that political science is the highest science, or that virtuous action is inherently good. According to the intellectualistic view, these latter activities would only be instrumentally good, This same dilemma is exactly what we see here between Krishna and Arjuna: while Krishna is arguing for a comprehensive view of the good where fulfilling caste duties are inherently good, even in the case of the slaughter of one’s friends and peers who happen to have been on the other side. In Indian, the trend towards an intellectualistic view of the Good is at least as strong as among the Greeks, so what Krishna is arguing here is not self-evident. The options available to him could include be the following:
- Pacifism – Yhe war was wrong, and he should lay down his weapons.
- Instrumentalism – The war is only just in the sense that we cannot get around them, and being willing to fight wars actually prevents wars by deterring invasions from the wicked.
- War as Bad Karma – Being is any other caste than the Brahmin is due to bad karma, therefore the war is penance for past misdeeds rather than some postive occasion for virtuous action.
- Tragedy – As in Greek Tragedy, Arjuna’s dilemma need not be resolvable; there might be conflicting duties that each make absolute demands. Therefore it might be the case that he has no available choice that does not incur bad karma.
- Holy War – The Kurukshetra War and perhaps many other wars are an inherently good occasions for virtuous action.
Krishna claims that there is one supreme Good for all humanity, but that different people realize it in different ways (III.3-4). This is a primary principle of “Raja Yoga” – that yoga is different in different types of people while still retaining a universal essence common to all.
Working With Nature
Physical determinism? Sort of.
So far we are on Socratic turf, but in the next verse, we enter the realm of distinctively Indian thought:
Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the modes of material nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment. (III.5)
The meaning of this verse refers to the “Three Gunas” (or Three Modes of Material Nature). The “Gunas” are kind of like Yin and Yang or the elements of Western thoughtt (fire, water, air, earth, spirit). They are concepts of traditional physical science just as the former are the principles and causes of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the medical theory Hippocrates and Galen, the three Gunas are also used in “ayurveda”, traditional Indian medicine. So it seems that Krishna is accepting that human action comes from the workings of material elements. Clearly, his concept of ‘material’ and ‘natural’ are different from the modern, but in a sense this is not far from modern naturalistic arguments rejective freewill. Here his argument is related to the Buddhist idea of “No-Soul” or “No-Self” (Sanskrit “Anatman”, Pali ‘annatta’). Whereas traditional Indian thought ascribed all awareness and action to an inner “Self”, not only in the individual, but in the world as a whole, Buddhism rejects such an idea, saying that human action is the result of the workings of natural elements, and that nothing in the world could possibly have a True Self. In fact, according to Buddhism, the very concept of a True Self is a form of ignorance; to be happy we should just accept that we are acting out of nature and karma. In ascribing all human action to the Three Gunas, Krishna is granting some validity to this disctinctively Buddhist dogma, in spite of its anti-Vedic implications for Buddhists. Like Buddha, Krishna is claiming that we should just accept that our actions are the results of physical events in order to have true knowledge and happiness. But unlike Buddha, Krishna accepts the Atman, so his reaction to phyiscal determinism is different. While Buddhist doctrine is rather intellectualistic, based on meditation on one’s own Un-Selfhood, Krishna has a more practical recommendation: do one’s work as a sacrifice to the Self.
…if a sincere persons tries to control the active senses by the mind and begins karma-yoga without attachment, he is by far superior. Perform your prescribed duty, for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work. Work as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore … perform your prescribed duties for his satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage. (III.9)
The Purpose of Life
So on this view, all work is purposeful in two senses:
- First, it has its mundane purpose as a productive or instrumental activity.
- It is a sacrifice to the Divine.
Once again, Krishna is trying to expand or sublimate the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ (Skt. ‘yajna’), by including normal work, warfare, meditation, prayer, and study. In my very un-expert view, he is getting around Buddha’s metaphysical rejection of Atman (which we will not deal with here now), by reclaiming Atman as a teleological principle. This means that we could have an Atmanin a way that does not conflict with the physical causation of our actions and mental workings. Without completely rejecting the concept of substantial soul-dualism, he seems to define our self in ways that are fundamentally about teleology. There are various ways he approaches this:
- Purpose as “For the sake of which” – The service if the Atman is in some way the reason for the coming-to-be of living things as such. Thus, the service of the Atman is our originating purpose, in the sense that transport is the originating purpose of a vehicle.
- Purpose as “for the benefit of which” – in addition to the above, we also speak of purpose as for the benefits of some living recipient. There are two sorts of recipient spoken of in th Gita:
- Humanhappinessdepends on serving the Atman; thus humans benefit from doing their duty.
- The “Supreme Enjoyer” – Later on, Krishna will argue that all purpose-oriented behavior in the cosmos (human and natural) is actually for the benefit ofthe Supreme Atman.
This last point is rather unique to the Gita; in Aristotle, for example, action and natural changeis not for the benefit ofGod, but merely for the sake ofGod. He claimed that the life-cycle of living creatures, for example, was for the sake of participating in the eternal, and that such a life-cycle’s progress was also for the benefit of the individual organisms, but Atistotle would not say that living processes were somehow for the benefit of God.I do not believe that Krishnais claiming that God is made happy or avoids pain in the same way as a human, but that God is already the ultimate enjoyer of all the productive activities of all living things. This is rather weird thing to say; it makes sense to say that we ought to imagine ourselves pleasing God or avoiding His wrath, but not that God issubjectof all goal oriented behavior rather than the mere object.
Dharmaas the Love of Life.
In the next few verses, Krishna elaborates on this as follows:
- First he discusses the traditional Vedic practice of animal sacrifice; its benefits both in terms of prosperity and morality. In this traditional concept, sacrifice is for the devas, who are polytheistic mythical gods.(II.10-14)
- Then Krishna claims that sacrifices and all Vedic practices ultimately come from and are for the benefit of Brahman, the monotheistic God or Self. (II.15-16)
- Thus, it is possible and ultimately better for one to serve the Atman directly by working out of “Self-Realization”. (II.17-19)
- There is a moral system based on this which is a ‘virtue theory’, where we strive to become like great moral heroes and saints.(II.20-21, 23)
- Why is such a moral life of virtue necessary? There are two answers to this:
- Intellectualist– A life of virtue is needful to calm the mind and facilitate Samadhi, as in Buddha and Patanjali.
- Comprehensive – The continuation of life is not a meremeans but agood thing in its own right.
In this work, I shall argue the latter based on verses like the following:
‘If I did not preform the prescribed duties, all these worlds would be put to ruination, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all living beings.’ (III.24)
Based on verses like these and other factors, I read the Gita as a program for an actual way of life that will last for ever, not for a few mystics or priests who drop out of society and life and look down on workers and warriors. While mystics have their place in this society, all people have a valid role to play, all of society serves the Good,and all of a proper society is itself Good.