Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.4 Autumn 2017

The Supreme Secret of Giving
Reflections on Chapter Four of the Bhagavad Gita

This chapter of the Bhagavad Gita begins with the teacher speaking to the pupil, saying, in effect:

I gave these teachings to the first people, who passed them on in succession. In time, these teachings were lost. Now, I am giving them to you, who are my devotee and friend. This is the supreme secret. [4: 1-3]

The pupil replies, understandably, that the teacher was born long after the first people, so what does it mean that he taught this at the beginning? The teacher replies that:

I have had many births, and so in fact have you. I know of them but you do not. Though I am in my true nature unborn and imperishable, and the ruler of all beings, yet by my own mysterious power I take birth. [4: 4-5]

So here we are to understand that the one who speaks is in fact the supreme Being, appearing in the form of the teacher, addressing the pupil, and that we, the readers, are witness to this communication.

How are we to take this? Is it mythology? Is it literally true? What is important from our point of view is that it is best to read the Gita with a sense that its teachings are directly relevant to ourselves personally, and that they do originate from the source of Being itself.

Is this plausible? Let us remember that ultimate reality, the Supreme Being, cannot be grasped by our minds, which are limited instruments. All we can say with confidence is that there is an ultimate Truth and we depend on that. As we can cannot know total reality with our minds, we cannot fully understand how that manifests in the world.

The non-dual teaching is that although it is not possible for our minds to grasp ultimate reality, it is possible to discover that reality as our Self, as the power that underlies the mind. Further, this possibility and the way to achieve it is usually disclosed to a sincere pupil by a teacher in human form, one who has realised the Truth. For one who has known the highest Truth, the word ‘I’ no longer applies entirely to the body or the mind. We understand that for such a one, the body and mind are objects, almost like clothes or spectacles. The ‘I’ or Self is known to be the universal conscious reality, the Supreme Being. And so we might find an enlightened teacher using the word ‘I’ in either of two senses: sometimes referring to the apparently individualised personality, which is how the pupil sees the teacher; or to the universal Self which is the Reality as yet not known by the pupil. We do in fact find, for example, the sages of the Upanishads, and also Christ, using the word ‘I’ in both these senses.

There is no way to prove to a sceptic that all this is so. But it is rational to infer that there is a higher reality beyond the grasp of the senses and that this is the reality in us. A teacher who has discovered this truth would then speak as one who is identified as the Self in all, and therefore it is reasonable to take it that the teachings of the Gita originate from this source and that they are being given to us personally, from the supreme source itself.

The chapter continues:

Although in my true nature I am beyond forms, yet by my own power I come into being. When there is decline of dharma and a rise of a-dharma, then I manifest myself. [Dharma is the principle of truth and goodness.] To protect the good, overcome wrong, to establish dharma, I manifest myself from age to age. [4: 6-8]

This corresponds to the clear fact that history has been shaped by the appearance of teachers like Abraham, Buddha, Christ, the Upanishadic sages and the giver of the Koran. The next verses say:

One who knows the truth of my birth and action is freed and comes to me. Free from unrest, fear and anger, absorbed in me, taking refuge in me, purified by the fire of wisdom, many have reached my being. [4: 9-10]

In all wisdom traditions, enquirers are first drawn to the teachings through teachers and incarnations of Truth. By approaching them, the enquirer is led to the universal Truth they embody. Freedom from discontent, anger and the rest, are qualities we cultivate on the path, and which are consummated with the rise of knowledge.

Then comes a verse which helps to make sense of many experiences in life.

However people approach me, thus I reward them. In all things they follow my path. Desiring success, people make efforts and sacrifices. The results of actions come promptly in the world. [4: 11-12]

Often in life we make efforts, we try to achieve things, and then in the course of time we see the results of our efforts. Between our efforts and the results there is a process, much of which is invisible to us and beyond our control. This verse is saying that there are principles at work which determine the results of actions, and those principles are grounded in the All. It is the Supreme Being, the underlying reality, that ultimately determines what the outcome of our actions will be. In the Gita we are taught to see our actions and efforts as offerings to reality, and if we remember that the outcome of the efforts rests finally with that deeper power, we will be saved much unnecessary anxiety and tension.

The words ‘My path do they follow in all things’ make it clear that this does not refer only to actions consciously associated with the search for truth. Whenever we aim to do something, big or small, we are applying our current understanding of what is real and how the world works. Thus all our efforts are in a sense a form of worship. This is a central point in the Bhagavad Gita teaching on the nature of action. When we try to achieve something in a certain way, we are expressing our beliefs about what is significant and what is real. So action is worship, indeed it is the most sincere form of worship. ‘However they approach me, so do I reward them’ means that whatever we affirm to be real and important by our actions, that is the seed of what will come in the form of the results.

On the path, the essential question we need to be asking ourselves about our actions is, what, really, is my motive here? Am I seeking truth for its own sake, or am I actually hoping for something else? The outcome will flow exactly according to our true motive, exactly what we ourselves have affirmed to be real and important by expressing our motives in our actions. We may be able to deceive ourselves about this—but not reality!

Next the teacher, speaking as the supreme Being, says:

What is right action and the effect of action was established by me. Yet, although I am the creator of all this, know that I am not affected by action. Actions do not taint me, nor have I desire for the results of actions. One who rightly knows my nature, is not bound by actions. [4: 14-15]

We have been thinking of the underlying reality as the source of the nature of things and the outcomes of action. This might seem to suggest that the supreme Being thus engages in action in the world and is therefore not Absolute. To avoid this misunderstanding, the teacher directly says here that it is not so; actions do not bind the supreme, who has no desire for the results of action. All limited things exist in the whole; but the whole is beyond time, space and action and so is not touched by any limited happening.

One might ask ‘What then is the relation between appearance and reality, between the world of action and the actionless Supreme?’ Logically one can see that this is a question the mind cannot answer, being itself a detail in the world of action. The question could only be resolved through the realisation of Truth in one’s own being. This need not lead us to think that Reality is too abstract and far from us to be important. In fact, this shows how mysterious and insubstantial the manifest world is; and this can spur us on in our quest to discover Reality. Shankara and the teachers of this tradition hold strongly to the view that it is the manifest world in which everything is constantly changing, that is mysterious and ultimately lacking in substance.

Here then the teacher makes clear that we should not fall into the confusion of thinking that the Absolute is involved in action. Further, it follows that one who knows the Absolute becomes one with it and is thus also not bound by actions. Again, we find that the way to illumination begins with being drawn to a teacher as an embodiment of Truth, and then, by approaching their essence, we approach the Truth in all.

The teachings continue on the nature of action:

What is action? What is freedom from action? Even sages and poets are confused about this. There is activity in passivity and passivity in activity. This is a deep subject and I shall explain it to you, and knowing this you will be liberated. [4: 16-18]

The Sanskrit word translated here as action is Karma, that is, the whole process of action and reaction and cause and effect that we are part of in the world. It might not have occurred to us before to ask about the nature of action—it seems obvious. But the Gita is saying that there is something important to understand about the nature of action. How effectively we act determines the quality of our life in the world, and our understanding of action in general affects our progress on the inner path.

We noted that action occurs in the world of time and space, but that what we might call Total Reality is unaffected by action, and thus so too is our own deeper Self which is one with Reality. The right understanding of action, Karma, is that it belongs to the world, and our bodies and minds are inevitably involved in this process, while we in our true nature as the Self are ever free of action. The more we act motivated by the desire for a particular outcome, the more we are bound to the world of cause and effect, time and space. In contrast, the more we see the actions of our bodies and minds as offerings in the world process to which we in our true nature are not attached, the more we affirm the identify of our true Self with the timeless Reality. The next verses expand on this:

For those who act without desire for the outcome, although apparently acting with the body and mind, for them bondage to actions and reactions is burnt away.

Those established in this knowledge, who act as an offering, they are released from all the suffering and limitations of cause and effect. [4: 19,23]

The best kind of action then is action as an offering, one might say as a sacrifice, a giving up from our individuality to the universal which is our true Being. In the next verse the Gita relates this higher understanding to more conventional ideas about sacrifice.

Brahman [Ultimate Truth, Supreme Being, the Absolute] is the offering, Brahman is what is offered, Brahman is the fire; Brahman shall be attained by one who sees Brahman everywhere. [4: 24]

At the time when the Gita was first given it was common to perform ritual sacrifices, such as pouring a valuable commodity like butter into a fire. Evidently, these sacrifices were performed with the aim of securing material benefits in this world or the next by pleasing the gods. Whether such sacrifices effectively achieved this purpose is a question we can leave aside. What is important from the point of view of the non-dual philosophy, is that if these sacrifices are done with a desire for the outcome, whether they are successful or not in this sense, they are engaged in the process of cause and effect and whoever performs them in this spirit will thus be bound to the workings of action and reaction.

As we saw, the non-dual teaching is that we do best to let go of our attachment to the outcome of action in order to affirm our identity with the non-dual Self. When the teachers of non-duality started to present this as the real meaning of sacrifice they had to overcome the view of the priests and others that the important thing about sacrifice was pleasing the gods to get material results. Here the Gita refers to the traditional forms of sacrifice and shows how these can be seen to symbolise the highest form of sacrifice, which is to give up our limited ideas entirely and see nothing but Brahman, the Absolute. Then, whatever is given is Brahman, the one who gives is Brahman, the whole world process is nothing but Brahman. If we see and act in this way we in fact attain the goal of all striving, which is identification with Truth itself. This then is the highest and truest understanding of sacrifice, which leads those who perform it to the highest good.

The Gita goes on to describe other forms of sacrifice:

Some offer sacrifices to a god; some make offerings to the Absolute; some practise restraint of the senses; some offer restraint of the life energies; some offer wealth, others austerities, others study and recitation of sacred texts, some offer each breath. All these know about sacrifice and are relieved by sacrifice. [4: 25-30]

The performers of all these forms of sacrifice recognise in their different ways the power of sacrifice, and each offers their efforts according to their understanding. And in so far as we sincerely offer our efforts to something greater than our individual self, then just in that way the actions do not bind us but help us to expand. The teaching continues:

Nothing is achieved without sacrifice. All our efforts are ultimately given to the reality underlying appearances. Better than material sacrifice is sacrifice by knowledge. All action is consummated in Jnana-Yajna (wisdom-offering) [4: 31-3]

Here we are reminded that all efforts and achievements involve sacrifice, that is, self-giving. And we have understood that ultimately our efforts, our sacrifices, are offered more or less consciously to the reality underlying everything. Now it is made clear that the highest form of sacrifice, that is the most effective form of self-giving, is what is called in Sanskrit Jnana-Yajna, or wisdom-sacrifice.

Wisdom sacrifice can be understood as an offering made by one who is truly wise in the sense of having directly realised the higher reality in which ultimately everything rests. The life of Christ or of the Buddha may be seen as a sacrifice in this sense. It might be suggested that in such cases there is no identification with the body and mind, and total identification with the supreme spirit, and that therefore the sacrifice was entirely apparent, not real. In a sense it is true that Christ and other knowers of Truth were not and are not identified with the bodies and minds that are visible to others. But at the same time we can appreciate how much of a sacrifice has been made in order to set an example and teach others.

Jnana-Yajna, or wisdom-sacrifice, can also refer to an offering made by someone who has heard the teachings of non-duality and understood them in principle, and is striving for direct realisation. As such, their body and mind may be engaged in the kind of offerings mentioned before; they may be practising austerities, or charity or restraint of the senses; but at the same time they understand that all these efforts are offerings to a Reality which exceeds anything we can perceive or conceive.

The Gita teaching here can embrace both these understandings of Jnana-Yajna, or wisdom-sacrifice. These are the highest and most effective forms of sacrifice, actions based on knowledge, direct or indirect, of the non-dual reality. This is the goal of all human striving, and as such the consummation of all action.

The next verses say:

By respectfully approaching the knowers of Truth, by enquiring from them and serving them, you will be taught by them Knowledge, knowing which you will not fall again into error and you will see all beings in your Self and in Me. [4: 34-35]

The Gita has been teaching about sacrifice and offerings, and now we are advised that the way to Knowledge is by respectfully approaching and making enquiry of traditional teachers who have themselves realised truth. This respect and deference is an important form of self-offering for a true enquirer.

The following verses extol the surpassing value and power of Knowledge, that is, realisation of the non-dual truth. It is said that whatever we may have done in the past, all effects are overcome by this knowledge. The meaning is that the reality at the ground of our own being is ever untouched by cause and effect, so nothing in the past should cause us to despair if we are willing to sincerely make inner adjustments and turn to truth in the present. One verse says:

As fire reduces fuel to ashes, so does Jnana [Knowledge] reduce Karma [all causes and effects] to ashes. [4: 37]

This statement will be significant and reassuring if we see our situation as a process of life and death which our highest purpose is to transcend. From the non-dual perspective we can understand that Knowledge reveals to us that action and effects and limitations all belong to the world-process and that the true Self will be found to have never been constrained by time-space-causation.

The next verse tells us:

There is nothing else so purifying as Knowledge. Those who have refined themselves through the practice of Yoga, find that Knowledge in themselves. [4: 38]

The Gita is reminding us that practices like austerity and charity have their place, yet only Knowledge itself can entirely liberate us from the limitations of cause and effect. This will help us keep the true value of things in perspective and to remember that our spiritual exercises are means and not ends. Still, the verse also makes clear that this knowledge is attained through Yoga, that is, through our inner disciplines and enquiries, which are thus uniquely significant among the endeavours of the world. The next two verses shed further light on Knowledge:

Knowledge is attained by one who has faith, is devoted, and restrains the senses. Attaining Knowledge, one simultaneously attains Supreme Peace. One without knowledge and faith, whose nature is irresolute, does not find success or happiness in this world or beyond. [4: 39-40]

The Sanskrit word Jnana (Knowledge), can refer both to the ultimate direct knowledge of Self, and also to a preliminary, indirect knowledge. The teaching is that an indirect understanding of the nature of the Self is a necessary precursor of direct realisation. And then there has to be the quality which is called in Sanskrit Shraddha, and usually translated as faith. “Faith” is not an entirely adequate translation for Shraddha, which includes both a strong intellectual conviction that the teachings are true, and the resolution to take one’s stand upon them. This is not blind faith; one has to make efforts to acquire Shraddha by thinking carefully about the teachings and determining for oneself how they provide a good explanation of the human situation.

Even if we are thus convinced, we may find thoughts arising in our minds forcibly suggesting that the idea of a higher Self is abstract and distant, and that the world has more definite and immediate rewards to offer. At this point we have to exercise Shraddha, lasting conviction, that the teachings are most reasonable, and that it is in the Self that fulfilment is to be found. The Gita says that if we lack a basic stability and resolution in our nature, we cannot find happiness or satisfaction on any level.

The chapter closes with these two verses:

One whose actions are offered up in Yoga, whose doubts are cut away by Knowledge, who is Self-possessed, is not bound by actions and causality.

Therefore, with the sword of Self-Knowledge, clear your heart of this doubt born of ignorance, arise, and resort to Yoga. [4: 41-42]

This last verse repays careful examination. It refers to irresolution, in our hearts, stemming from ignorance, which is to be cut away by the sword of knowledge of the Self. The word translated as heart is new. Up to now in this section the references have been to Self. Here the Gita is advising us to be aware that our whole way of thinking and feeling is likely to be coloured by incomplete and frankly misleading ideas about our true nature. On the path we have to consciously overcome these by taking up the guidance of the traditional teachings about reality. Then we are to apply them in the practice of Yoga, which is the acid test of our convictions. What we really believe and value is revealed by our actions. Practising Yoga means to make our actions offerings to the higher Reality. The teaching is that when we do this, we put ourselves in harmony with the universal forces, and we progress on the path to liberation from the bonds of action, time, space and causality.

This is the practical side of the supreme secret disclosed in chapter four of the Bhagavad Gita.


P.H.