Karma-Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita

Posted 30 December 2019 by Luke Burns

One of the significant texts for Hindus is the Bhagavad Gita, itself part of a larger work - the Mahabharata, which tells the story of a conflict between two groups within the same family, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Bhagavad Gita takes place just before this conflict becomes violent, with both armies facing each other, and Arjuna (a Pandava) having second thoughts about the ethical difficulties the battle represents.

Arjuna’s charioteer is Krishna, an incarnation of the deity Vishnu (although at the outset, Arjuna does not know this secret identity), and it is through Krishna’s advice to Arjuna that much of the content of the Bhagavad Gita is delivered.

As we have discussed elsewhere, the concept of dharma is important in Hindu ethics, not as a strict and unbending rule, but as a dynamic and self-generating response to life’s varied circumstances. We immediately encounter the word being used to describe the setting of this battle: dharma-kṣetre. Translations of this passage include: the place of pilgrimage, the field of Truth, and the sacred plain.

Kṣetra - the field - is a word we find in chapter 13 of the Bhagavad Gita, where its meaning is defined as the body, the scope and expanse of awareness localised within the human form. Here we might surmise that dharma-kṣetre is the field of ethics, the very foundation of the Gita’s commentary. If the Gita is at all concerned with dharmic duty, it is concerned with the experience and knowledge upon which dharmic duty is based, the liberation of moksha, how it is attained, and what it means. The Gita can be seen as a text on ethics, particularly the ethics of how to act in a world that seems to require suffering.

The text of the Gita suggests a complexity of word-play and symbolism, where the divine avatar (or incarnation) of Krishna represents a faculty of mind both supremely knowledgeable, and supremely dispassionate, who guides the bewildered Arjuna into a literal equilibrium between the forces of good and the forces of evil. At the outset, Arjuna asks his charioteer to…

'Drive my chariot, Krishna immortal, and place it between the two armies.’ (BG1.21 (Mascaró, 1962))

On one side, jealousy, selfishness, and pride stand personified in the characters of Bhishma, Karna, Kripa, and their many associates. In the opposing camp, we find generosity, goodwill, and harmony also given life in the noble forms of Bhima’s warriors (the army to which Arjuna belongs).

We might take solace in the knowledge that the identity of the protagonist, and by extension our identity, ultimately lies on the side of righteousness, but the Gita does not permit this interpretation; Arjuna feels intimately connected to all these qualities, good and bad. The prince sees in his opponents…

'fathers, grandfathers, sons, grandsons; fathers of wives, uncles, masters; brothers, companions and friends.’ (BG1.26-28 (ibid.))

These are not abstract and remote villains, they are family members and friends, representing an uneven and difficult split between the many-faceted psychological traits that define us. This maelstrom of competing attitudes and contradictory relations prefigures the vishvarupa of chapter 11, a scene in which Krishna is revealed to be both awe-inspiring and terrible, creating and consuming the entire universe.

Bhaarata yuddhamlo visvarupam

By leading the troubled warrior into the emptiness between both armies, Krishna creates a visual metaphor for karma-yoga, the very principle he will later explain to Arjuna, the principle that will give his life balance and freedom - if he chooses it.

According to Krishna in the Gita, it is not enough to be led by the forces around you in hopes of finding happiness; nor should you strive for happiness and perform good works in hopes of achieving positive results. Krishna argues that in order to find liberation from suffering, you must take part in the world without desire for a particular outcome, and without fear of failure. Within the narrative of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas may represent the side of righteousness, but righteousness alone will only go so far.

'By engaging the intellect, one sets aside both righteous and unrighteous deeds. Therefore engage yourself in this yoga for yoga is the true art of performing action.’ (BG2.50 (Sutton, 2012))

Krishna does not disagree that righteousness for the sake of one’s own benefit generates merit and good karma, but these are ultimately earthly rewards that tie individuals to the physical realm.

’…by adhering to the dharma of the three Vedas, persons who seek to fulfil their desires gain only a temporary reward.’ (BG9.21 (ibid.))

Krishna wants Arjuna to be able to see clearly that his actions will have meaningful consequences, but he also wants him to see clearly that he is not the enactor of those consequences, nor is he the recipient, and yet simultaneously he is both.

’…for you will see that all living beings are within your own self and moreover within me.'(BG4.35 (ibid.))

One of the justifications for the Gita’s violent context is that it is not about seeking physical seclusion from the material world (although it does discuss this as a spiritual practice), it is concerned with amending one’s attitude, especially in the pragmatic realities of life. No matter the circumstance, even the brutality of war, action can be pure, provided the intention is without attachment to victory or defeat.

The Gita repeatedly asserts the importance of personal choice, and the capacity we have for changing our attitudes and behaviours. The idea of being at war with oneself is ubiquitous and easy to relate to.

We not only feel this struggle within us, but conceptualize the ‘struggle’ as being between two distinct parts of our self, each with different values. Sometimes we think of our ‘higher’ (moral and rational) self struggling to get control over our ‘lower’ (irrational and amoral) self. Our conception of the self, in such cases, is fundamentally metaphoric. We conceptualize ourselves as split into two distinct entities that can be at war, locked in a struggle for control over our bodily behaviour. This metaphoric conception is rooted deep in our unconscious conceptual systems…’ (Johnson and Lakoff, 1999, p.13)

We can see that the setting of a battlefield may have less to do with legitimising warfare or setting examples of perfect behaviour, and more to do with using a metaphor that is easily understandable, even millennia after its composition.

Readers of the text are urged to do whatever their responsibilities are in a spirit of openness, even if the task ahead is difficult or frightening, even if it means letting go of something once held dear, even if it means fighting ourselves. Ultimately, by aligning ourselves with this attitude of acceptance and equanimity, the text argues, we will be led to consider the very question of what our ‘self’ is.

'One who engages in yoga and has purified his very being, who has gained self-mastery and control of the senses, whose own self has become the self of all beings, is not besmirched even though he engages in action.’ (BG 5.7 (Sutton 2012))

Karma-yoga is one of the central themes of the Gita, consistently referenced and referred to throughout its 18 chapters. It is offered as a pragmatic strategy for living in a world that is filled with confusion and difficulty, and Krishna takes care to repeatedly stress its importance. In simple terms, karma-yoga is the art of making one’s actions a means of liberation, by altering not the actions themselves, but the attitudes and intentions that underlie them.

'Do not make the rewards of action your motive and do not develop any attachment for avoiding action. Situated in yoga, perform your actions giving up all attachments, Dhanamjaya. Remain equal in success and failure, for such equanimity is what is meant by yoga.’ (BG 2.47-8 (Sutton 2012))

Whilst the question of correct behaviour – especially in a time of war – seems to Arjuna to be of utmost importance, his guide refuses to provide these sorts of answers, and instead seems motivated by the idea that the prince understands his position and acts out of his own nature, not be handed a didactic list of prescribed rituals.

Though Krishna is careful not to overtly criticise the Vedas, he also does not follow their example; in fact, he outright states that ritual and tradition are, to the realised soul, essentially superfluous (though not useless to the society and culture in which the sage is situated).

'All the purposes served by a small reservoir of water can be fulfilled by a lake. In the same way the purposes served by all the Vedas are fulfilled for a Brahman who is enlightened by knowledge.’ (BG 2.46 (Sutton 2012))

And yet,

'The wise man should not cause any breach in the understanding of ignorant people who act on the basis of attachment. By acting whilst engaging in his yoga discipline he should encourage them to perform all their duties.’ (BG 3.26 (Sutton 2012))

Therefore, Krishna emphasises not one particular definition of correct behaviour, but an attitude of surrender and devotion, whereby the attachment to the fruits of one’s actions are given up. In colloquial terms, we might describe this as a relaxation of our expectations. The world does not always unfold in the way we might hope – the psychological advantages of relinquishing our expectations and accepting the evolution of the moment are immediate and obvious.

By placing oneself in the position of equanimity, unmoved by desire for outcome, one becomes free to act without becoming trapped by the evolution of the physical world. The battle may not be won, the fruits of our labour may not come to us; if we allow these thoughts to obfuscate our reason, we will behave in a way that becomes increasingly fervent and desperate, always seeking something or someone else in hopes that it will grant us true happiness. Krishna takes care to warn against submitting to our rampant desires or running away from them, instead encouraging thoughtfulness and intelligence whilst remaining situated in the world.

Krishna recommends - though again, does not enforce - devotional practice as the most expedient form of karma-yoga. It may be characteristic only of the milieu of Indian philosophy at its time, or it may be a more enduring aspect of the human psyche, but devotion to a higher being, whose intelligence and support is embedded in reality itself, seems to lend itself to the religious impulses of humanity. Krishna seems fully aware of this, as he repeatedly conveys his message of bhakti - devotional worship.

'One who performs his deeds for me, dedicates himself to me as my devotee, remains free of attachments and has no hatred for any living being, will come to Me, Pandava.’ (BG 11.55 (Sutton 2012))

Whether we utilise the eidolon of a cosmic intelligence like Krishna, or contemplate materialistic accounts of cause and effect, it seems evident that we ourselves benefit from the surrender of our expectations and an acceptance of both the world and ourselves. Yet in order for Krishna’s message to be complete, he must address the most fundamental question of ethics: how to relate to others, and by implication: who are we?

Each individual, whether Arjuna, Bhishma, you or me, is understood to be (beyond their physical body) the atman - an ethereal fragment of the divine. The Gita highlights that this inner identity is found in all beings, whether human, animal, or plant; God is found in all things.

'The learned pandit regards with equal vision a Brahmin endowed with wisdom and good conduct, a cow, an elephant, a dog and one who eats dogs.’ (BG 5.18 (Sutton 2012))

'You should also understand that I am the kshetrajña present within all the kshetras, Bharata. In my opinion, knowledge of the kshetra and kshetrajña is knowledge indeed.’ (BG 13.2 (Sutton, 2012))

This passage makes sense when kshetra is understood as the body (or field of experience) - Krishna is saying that he is the experiencer within all experiencers.

'And when you have acquired this knowledge, you never again fall prey to illusion, Pandava, for you will see that all living beings are within your own self and moreover within me.’ (BG 4.35 (Sutton 2012))

Yet God is not constrained by this identity,

'My identity is what causes living beings to exist; it sustains the living beings but is not situated within them.’ (BG 9.5 (Sutton 2012))

Krishna is revealed to be like the lucid dreamer, who creates the world of himself, in which he alone animates and manifests all beings, but is ultimately greater than the sum of the dream; even the most elaborate, perhaps even sentient, dream-beings are ultimately only fabrications of that same dream-stuff, the tapestry of thought and feeling, illuminated by consciousness. There is only the dreamer. And so, if there is an ethical aspect to this cosmology, we might surmise that it is twofold.

Firstly, our true identity unites us, even as it dissolves the stability of our conventional understanding of ourselves; the interdependence of our physical nature finds us as common explorers in a world of seemingly diverse suffering. We might poetically describe a fellowship of lost souls, but this would miss the point, since we are only lost insofar as we bury our heads in the sand; yet there is certainly no hierarchy among us, everyone is to be regarded equally as Krishna in guise of Arjuna, Krishna in guise of Karna.

The second ethical consequence of this perspective is that we are all less than God as individuals. We are lower, confused beings, and even in our highest, most realised state, when we cast loose all delusion and sense of personal independence, we do not become the supreme deity as the individual. The individual dissolves into the deity, into the lila (the divine play).

The ethics of the Bhagavad Gita is essentially a matter of understanding, experientially, that through the activities and attitudes of our physical world, we are manifesting a divine presence, and to the degree that we understand this, we are free from the compulsion to follow destructive paths, and free to engage with the world in a spirit of openness. Though we may find ourselves in situations that necessitate death or destruction, these are not abhorrent duties or categorical evils, provided they are performed with love and equanimity. Love for Krishna and the majesty of his expansive form, and equanimity as we abide in the knowledge that we cannot be harmed, cannot cause harm, that we are one with the vast totality.

Most importantly, we as individuals still have a part to play, and we still have the freedom to choose this path of intelligent action and liberated perspective.

'I have now revealed to you this wisdom, which is the deepest mystery. After fully considering what you have heard, you should then act as you see fit.’ (BG 18.63 (Sutton, 2012))


  • Johnson, M. and Lakoff, G. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh, New York, Basic Books.
  • Mascaró, J. (1962) The Bhagavad Gita, Penguin Classics.
  • Sutton, N. (2012) Bhagavad Gita, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Oxford.

Luke Burns | Director, OCRS

Luke is the founder and director of the OCRS, and has a First Class Honours Degree in Humanities from the Open University. He lives in Somerset with his wife, Rosie.

You can find him on Twitter here: @lbburns13

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