The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 4 : The Yoga of Wisdom | Summary



Krishna reveals that he is transmitting an ancient teaching to Arjuna. Though Krishna has taught this wisdom to gods and others before Arjuna, it has become diluted and lost with time. Arjuna inquires that this loss is possible because Krishna was "born countless eons / later than the god of the sun." Krishna clarifies that he has been born countless times, is eternal, and comes to earth in human form when "righteousness falters / and chaos threatens to prevail." In his present incarnation, Krishna is here to help Arjuna understand the complex nature of action. Krishna explains that God is in action through worship and that in this context God is both the actor and the action. Worship, or sacrifice, has many paths, including the paths of meditation, self-denial, and study of scriptures. However, these paths are subsets of the main path of right action. Wisdom is the outcome of right action. Thus, it is important to have a wise teacher as a guide.


This chapter introduces the important term sacrifice. The concept of sacrifice in the Hindu— specifically the Vedic—tradition has a nuanced meaning. Originally, the sacrifice consisted of rituals and offerings, such as water or food, around a sacred fire. Increasingly, the idea referred more generally to holy ritual. The statement "men sacrifice to the gods" really refers to the practice of ritual. The Sanskrit word for sacrifice is "yajna," which this text sometimes translates as "sacrifice" and other times as "worship." Both refer to the same idea of "right action" as a ritual through which the doer experiences wisdom and truth.

Although there are many paths to God and many paths of worship or sacrifice, it is critical to remember that Krishna is specifically urging Arjuna on the path of karma yoga, or right action. In fact, Krishna argues, all other paths are born of this primary path of action. This path is right for Arjuna the warrior but might not be right for a Brahmin scholar. However, because Krishna believes each path includes action, the path of right action is the underlying path regardless.

When Krishna insists that wisdom is achieved through right action—or action—or worship, his meaning becomes somewhat convoluted. At times, he argues that the pursuit of knowledge can simply perpetuate the delusion of the ego and a preoccupation with the senses. The knowledge that relates to the wisdom achieved through right action is a separate concept. The first type of knowledge comes from focusing solely on gaining knowledge with a purpose such as self-advancement. The type of wisdom Krishna insists comes from practicing karma yoga can be framed as an understanding of the nature of existence and the ability to see the truth beyond the illusory world of the senses.

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