The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 3 : The Yoga of Action | Summary



Confused, Arjuna asks why Krishna seems to advocate the path of knowledge and understanding while pushing Arjuna to do action. Krishna then explains two paths: knowledge (Sankhya or jnana) and action (karma). Some people are suited to the first path, and others to the second. Krishna proposes that right action is another form of worship and that only by doing necessary and right action can the Self find freedom. Right action from "great men" also sets a standard for ordinary people to follow. Krishna notes that he himself engages in action despite needing or desiring nothing. If he were to stop, humankind would follow his example and fall into the trap of inaction. Krishna also encourages Arjuna to take the egocentric I out of his actions and avoid the trap of thinking "I am the doer" of any action. Instead, Arjuna should understand that action is simply the gunas acting upon the gunas. Krishna insists that "it is better to do your own duty / badly, than to perfectly do / another's."

Arjuna then asks Krishna what drives men to evil action. Krishna explains they are driven by the guna called rajas, or the quality that includes passion and violence. The presence of too much of this guna causes people to act out of desire and anger, thus causing evil action. To avoid this, Krishna insists, the mind must be stronger than the senses and understanding of the Self stronger than the mind.


To understand why some people are born to take the path of action while others the path of understanding, it is important to return to the caste system. Arjuna, being of the warrior caste, is suited to the path of action through his birth. Someone of the Brahmin, or priest, caste would likely be suited to the yoga of knowledge and understanding, practiced in meditation and the study of scripture.

Central to Krishna's explanation of action versus inaction or wrong action is the concept of the three gunas. Guna can be translated as "quality" or "trait," and the three gunas are the three primary qualities of all existence. They are sattva: purity and constructiveness; rajas: passion; and tamas: darkness and destruction. An imbalance of these qualities results in an imbalanced world. In the example Krishna uses, a person with too much rajas will be ruled by passion and ego and thus engage in evil or wrong action.

The concept of duty is central to Krishna's discussion and the worldview of the individuals involved. "Duty" is the rough translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, which can be explained as an all-encompassing ideology that includes ritual and moral behavior. As Krishna explains in these verses, neglect of dharma "would have bad social and personal consequences." Arjuna attempts to honor his dharma to the best of his ability. He struggles to understand where his true duty lies and how he can best perform "worship" in this situation. Krishna explains that Arjuna's duty and worship lie in following through on his dharma, which, as a warrior, is to fight the battle in front of him.

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