Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2 verse 39: Having heard the philosophy of life in terms of Samkhya, hear it now in terms of Yoga. Your intellect established through its practice, you will cast away the binding influence of action [cast away the bondage of karma].
This pivotal verse is critical to understanding the practice of karma yoga advanced in the remainder of this chapter. Here, Krishna shifts gears from theoretical to practical, from the philosophy of Samkhya to the practice of karma yoga. ‘Having heard the philosophy of life in terms of Samkhya.’
According to Samkhya, we are eternal. We neither begin nor end. We just are, conscious beings existing outside time in the eternal present, with neither beginning nor ending. We can’t be snuffed out. The take-home: Do not fear death. Your life is far more than you experience it to be. While comforting for Arjuna to hear on the battlefield of life, this is only philosophical understanding. Not one to dawdle and leave Arjuna hanging, Krishna immediately backs up philosophy with understanding the goal to be experienced. ‘Hear it now in terms of Yoga.’
What does ‘Yoga’ mean? Yoga is union of lower self with higher Self. The lower self is ever-changing, perishable; the higher Self is never-changing, imperishable, eternal. The lower self is bounded individuality; the higher Self is unbounded universality. The lower self lives in time and space and gets things done; the higher Self lives outside the passage of time and just is, eternally content in its unboundedness.
Not having realized unbounded Self through the practice of karma yoga, self and Self play tug of war with our attention. We feel imbalanced. Though we instinctively know there is something more harmonious to life, we just can’t reach it. Conflicts and frustrations arise between knowing there’s something more and not living it. Infrequently, life is smooth and rewarding. We more often scratch across the grooves of life than find ourselves merrily tapping a foot in-tune with it. We rarely experience the lower self in harmony with higher Self. The key to experiencing harmony between inner and outer is to establish the inner.
Established intellect: ‘Your intellect established through its practice.’ Intellect rules the roost. Intellect discerns what is real and true. Without established intellect we’re lost and directionless; we have no way of discerning right action from wrong action (2.47). Through the practice of karma yoga, we purify and strengthen intellect, and realize the ultimate reality and truth: in my very nature I am unbounded contentment of Self. This is intellect established in the Self. By definition, unbounded includes all that is bound. Having experienced the unbounded Self, the bounded lower self unites with it.
United, conflicts and frustrations between inner and outer away. We no longer rely on actions to achieve happiness and contentment through material possessions. We don’t have to. Content deep within we remain at peace and on that level, do not act at all. No action, no binding influence of it. We ‘cast away the binding influence of action.’ We achieve balance between inner and outer. Verses 2.45 and 2.47 detail the mechanics of realizing the higher Self and achieving union of lower self with it.
Binding influence of action: We become bound (attached) to our actions when desires connects the senses with attractive qualities found in objects of sensory experience. The sight of a spiffy new Porsche, touch of silk, hearing enchanting music, the scent of alluring perfume, the feel of new running shoes … capture our attention and pull the inner mind out into the ever-changing, relative field of life. In a sense, desire suckers the weak mind into thinking we’ve arrived — that the happiness we seek in some sensory experience is the real deal. We’re there: ‘I’ve found the happiness and contentment I’ve always sought.’ Or so we think. Or more so, so we imagine.
Through the offices of desire, our imagination takes over. Seeing an ad for vacationing in Bora Bora, we imagine running through the surf, cool water splashing our sun-warmed skin, the scent of hibiscus, the taste of a Bahama Mama sucked through a long straw poked into a coconut ... fulfilling, primitive sex on the beach.
The mind's imagined sensory experiences and a busy feeling of progress gained through strategizing on how to attain them, overshadow our ability to correctly discern what is real and true (that is, overshadow the intellect) and the experiences we identify with (ego, the finest quality of intellect). Such is the nature of a weak mind. The intellect flits about on imagined sensory experiences thinking therein lies the lasting happiness and contentment sought. The ego loses sight of who we really are, unbounded inner contentment, the Self.
For the weak mind, all powerful desire hijacks refined qualities of intellect and ego and drags them "out there" to where we think we'll find happiness and contentment in the ever-changing relative field of life. This, despite the fact that we all know that true happiness and lasting contentment lie within. Regardless, we get all involved (senses, mind, intellect, ego) in desires, thoughts, strategies, and actions to attain the object of our desire, believing it will lead to happiness and lasting contentment. The deep-rooted and steady natures of intellect and ego get caught-up in the ever-changing. We take action to achieve the desired object.
However, happiness in the ephemeral world of ever-change doesn’t last. In time the acquired object loses its allure. Intellect and ego waver. Failure to find lasting contentment — say, in Bora Bora — registers an impression of dissatisfaction deep within the mind which rises as a desire to once again find happiness and contentment in some new and different object of the senses, say, a new pair of running shoes. Desire seeds action anew (we buy the running shoes and go for a run) and again in time, we experience an impression of dissatisfaction.
This binding influence of action fixes us to a cycle of
Attached, bound to our actions, our attention flows ever outward away from inner contentment, the very goal sought. This is bondage to action. Since Karma means action. This is bondage to karma.
In following verses Krishna addresses the effortless nature of the practice and contrasts it with counterproductive selfish actions which only reinforce bondage to action.
How to break the cycle of impression-desire-action? Serve the desires of others and break the cycle at the level of desire (2.45). No desire, no action, no binding influence of action.
copyright Keith R Parker