Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.5

6.5 A deontological turn

The āśrama system shows one way that the conflict between a new soteriological ideal of liberation based on a transcendent mystical union was handled by ancient Indian culture in its attempt at reconciling it with both older models and the broader demands of defending consociation and social life. However, there is at least another important witness of how the paradox of mastery arises and is offered a different solution: the Bhagavad-Gītā.

The Bhagavad-Gītā is part of one of India’s greatest epic poems, the Mahābhārata, whose importance is perhaps comparable to that of the Iliad for ancient Greek and Western culture. The text is difficult to date, but it can be located somewhere in the fourth century BCE (while the Bhārata war might have happened somewhere around 1500 BCE, and the composition of the whole epic of the Mahābhārata may have stretched from the fourth century BCE up to the fourth century of the common era). In the context of this epic poem, the Bhagavad-Gītā is an interlude in which prince Arjuna is about to enter the great battle, but he stops because he realizes that in engaging in this war he will be bound to fight against his own family and people. Kriṣṇa enters the scene as Arjuna’s teacher and counsellor, explaining to him why it is worth engaging in battle. In doing so, Kriṣṇa shares with Arjuna a profound knowledge about the nature of reality and reveals himself to be the supreme entity behind all phenomena.

Kriṣṇa’s teaching is not just a rehashing of earlier Brahminical thought, although it shares much with it, but seeks to establish a relatively original syncretic view. Part of this synthesis consists in presenting a number of meditation methods (which may have already been established by that time), but also introducing the idea that devotion itself (bhakti) might lead to a direct encounter with ultimate reality. This reality is conceived in increasingly more transcendent terms and its complete disclosure to Arjuna leads to an unbearable experience. The ultimate is now said to be even beyond brahman itself. Building on this view, Kriṣṇa manages to convince Arjuna to fight, given that his empirical and determinate personality is something secondary with respect to its truer, inner, and universal Self.

Olivelle, in his discussion, advances the following hypothesis:

the Gīta never makes clear what sort of a life its ideal human who participates in devotional and ritual activities (bhaktiyoga and karmayoga) leads. It is never said that he is in fact a householder. The argument of the Gīta takes place at a more abstract level. It seeks to show that true renunciation does not consist in the physical abstention from activity but in the proper mental attitude toward action. Abandonment of desire for the results of one’s actions is true renunciation, which the Gīta sees as an inner virtue rather than an external life style. In other words, the Gīta is proposing a more radical solution to the dilemma—the very elimination of the dilemma by a new interpretation of the two horns—than that offered by either formulation of the āśrama system. (Olivelle 1993, 105)

To conclude our discussion of how the paradox of mastery surfaces and it is handled by ancient Indian sources, we can take Olivelle’s hypothesis a few steps further. In a nutshell, reading the Bhagavad-Gītā from the research standpoint of our current discussion, we can detect in it the emergence of a specific strategy to deal with the paradox of mastery, which could be described as ‘deontological’ (to use a Western category) and has striking affinities with Western modern views, although it predates them by roughly two millennia.

On the point of going to war, Prince Arjuna looks at the battlefield and discovers that he cannot go further. His doubt is encapsulated in the question: ‘how could we be happy, […] if we slay our own people?’ (Bhagavad-Gītā I.38, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 89). The narrative setting entails that this question has a literal meaning since Arjuna’s enemies are relatives and belong to his (extended) family group. As usual in Indian thought, however, this point can be quickly extended through analogy and metaphor. Taking into account doctrines of rebirth, all other people might have been our relatives in other lives. Arjuna’s doubt can thus be universalized as a worry against any form of war and killing, which are crimes against life, and all living beings are bound in kinship. This doubt puts Arjuna, a warrior prince, in a difficult position. Foregoing battle would lead him to betray his social role and duties and embrace some form of renunciation to act. And this choice is very untimely, since Arjuna at this point is already in the battlefield when the fight is about to begin.

In the ensuing dialogue, which is a sort of bracketing parenthesis running alongside the main epic narration, Kriṣṇa attempts to convince Arjuna that he must go and fight and not be worried by the consequences of this decision. A pacifist spirit might be troubled by this plea for fight, and hence the dialogue has been often interpreted metaphorically, treating Arjuna’s fight as a fight against inner drives, forces, obstacles, and so on. This metaphorical reading might be granted, but it should not be taken to the point of dismissing the more literal dimension entailed by Arjuna’s dilemma (an actual fight against other living beings, ending with the death of many), under pain of emptying it from its existential cogency.

Kriṣṇa begins his case by evoking a view that we have encountered already:

Of the nonexistent (asat) there is no coming-into-being; of the existent (sat) there is no disappearance. Moreover, the end of both is seen by the seers-of-Reality.

Yet, know as indestructible that by which this entire [world] is spread out. No one is able to accomplish the destruction of this immutable (avyaya) [Reality].

Finite are said [to be] these bodies of the eternal embodied [Self, ātman], the Indestructible, the Incommensurable. Hence fight, o descendant-of-Bharata!

He who thinks of this [Self] as slayer and he who thinks [of this Self] as slain-they both do not know. This [Self] does not slay nor is it slain.

This [Self] is not born nor [does it] ever die, nor having-come-to- be shall it again cease-to-be. This unborn, eternal, everlasting, primordial [Self] is not slain when the body is slain.

The man (purusha) who knows this Indestructible, Eternal, Unborn, Immutable [One]–how and whom can he cause-to-be slain [or] slay, o son-of-Prithā?

As a man, [after] discarding worn-out garments, seizes other, new ones, so does the embodied [Self], [after] discarding wornout bodies, enter other, new ones. (Bhagavad-Gītā II.16-22, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 99)

Mutability and diversity are the appearances of beings. Bodies, emotions, perceptions are all fleeting. But behind and beyond this level of becoming, lies a permanent and unchangeable reality, the real Self. This Self is both eternal and absolutely one, not determined and not diverse. Hence, the Self is the same for all beings, or rather the receptacle in which they all converge. The first verse evokes the dichotomy between existence and nonexistence that emerged in the Ṛg-veda X.129 (Lecture Five) and surfaced again in the cosmogonies of the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad. It is not entirely clear whether Kriṣṇa is just echoing and paraphrasing the first line of that hymn as a source of authority for his view of a hidden reality beyond both existence and nonexistence, or whether he is reshaping that verse into a sort of argument that would make it more akin to Parmenides’s view (which we shall introduce in Lecture Seven).

Be that as it may, Kriṣṇa’s main point is as follows: Arjuna is afraid of harming particular beings, but this is a misperception; particular beings are just fleeting manifestations of the hidden, eternal Self, which cannot be harmed by any action. Foregoing action (in this case, fighting and killing as entailed by Arjuna’s duty) for the sake of not harming others is based on the ignorance of the fact that what is real in all beings is just this eternal, unchanging Self, and that Self cannot be harmed since it is entirely beyond the reach of action. In pushing this point, Kriṣṇa also introduces a subtle twist to the view which we already encountered (and which was not altogether explicit (if present at all) in previous sources): the world of multiplicity and becoming has a dream-like character. Even if it cannot be said to be an illusion, it is surely less real than its ultimate, eternal ground.

Kriṣṇa also evokes another trope that we encountered in the older Upaniṣads: traditional Vedic rituals are actions aimed at ensuring a good rebirth, but this is an inferior path. The truly noble ones seek a higher path, in which they realize the ultimate union with the true Self. Again, Kriṣṇa gives his own twist to this trope, by stressing how ritual action is concerned with fruits and results, and hence is bound and attached to reaching a given state, and this is what constitutes bondage. But if one is able to act without any attachment to fruits or results of the actions, if one acts out of duty, and by considering only the action itself, remaining equanimous regardless of how it will unfold, then action constitutes no bondage. One can act and remain free.

Hence, Kriṣṇa’s injunction to Arjuna:

In action alone is your rightful-interest (adhikāra), never in [its] fruit. Let not your motive be the fruit of action; nor let your attachment be to inaction (akarman).

Steadfast in Yoga, perform actions abandoning attachment, o Dhanamjaya, [always] remaining the same in success and failure. Yoga is called equanimity. (Bhagavad-Gītā II.47-48, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 107-109)

In the rest of dialogue, Kriṣṇa will introduce several elements that further corroborate this thesis that action can be performed without remaining bounded to it, insofar as it is performed with no attachment to its actual results. The question is: how can one manage to relinquish all attachment towards the fruits of one’s actions? Several paths are available.

In its syncretism, the Bhagavad-Gītā is also an interesting witness of meditation practices that are briefly hinted at in the older Upaniṣads. They broadly converge on the sort of anesthetic trance we encountered already, which is centered on the progressive switching off of sensory perception. Kriṣṇa first presents to Arjuna how the sage devoted to the practice of contemplation (dhyāna yoga) would proceed:

When [a man] relinquishes all desires [that] enter the mind, o son-of-Pritha, and is content with the Self in the Self, then is he called steadied in gnosis.

[A man whose] mind is unagitated in sorrow (duhkha), [who is] devoid of longing in [his contact with] pleasure (sukha), and free from passion (rāga), fear (bhaya), and anger (krodha)-he is called a sage steadied in vision. […]

And when he withdraws from every side his senses from the objects of the senses as a tortoise [draws in its] limbs, his gnosis is well established.

For the non-eating embodied (dehin) [Self] the objects disappear, except for the relish. [Upon] seeing the Supreme, the relish also disappears for him.

Yet, even of the striving, discerning man, the agitated senses forcibly carry away the mind, o son-of-Kunti.

Controlling all these [senses], yoked [and] intent on Me, let him sit [in an easeful posture]. For he whose senses are under control, his gnosis is well established. […]

That man (pumān) who, forsaking all desires, moves about devoid of longing, devoid of [the thought of] ‘mine;’ without ego-sense—he approaches peace.

This is the brahmic state, o son-of-Pritha. Attaining this, [a person] is no [longer] deluded. Abiding therein also at the end-time [i.e., at death], he attains extinction in the worldground (brahma-nirvāna). (Bhagavad-Gītā II.55-72, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 107-117)

The goal of this practice is to reach emotional detachment and internal withdrawal. Curiously, the metaphor of the tortoise used here by Kriṣṇa appears also in the arguably slightly older discourses of the Buddha (SN 1.17 and 35.240) as a metaphor for sense restraint, and it will reappear much later in Teresa of Ávila’s description of a very similar form of training.[1] The metaphor of non-eating can be understood as the attitude of not grasping at any sensory content, which thus establishes the contemplator in the purely intransitive experience of the inner Self. In reaching towards this experience, the yogin foregoes any ordinary sense of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ because these belong to the empirical self, which is dissipated through contemplation. Kriṣṇa thus indicates that reaching this state constitutes true liberation, which he frames as extinction (nirvāna) in brahman. Notice yet another twist Kriṣṇa imparts on this progression: the meditator focuses on him, Kriṣṇa himself. As will become progressively clear (through a powerful literary climax), Kriṣṇa slowly reveals to Arjuna that he is not just a human teacher, but his true nature is even beyond that of brahman.

In Kriṣṇa’s teaching (unlike what might be inferred from older sources), the practice that leads to a merging with ultimate reality does not lead to inaction, but rather to a new way of embracing action. Kriṣṇa advances here a rather elaborate argument, one pivotal point of which goes as follows:

For, not even for a moment [can] anyone ever remain without performing action. Every [being] is indeed unwittingly (avasha) made to perform action by the primary-qualities born of the cosmos.

The confounded self, who, [while] restraining the action senses, sits remembering the sense objects with the mind–he is called a hypocrite.

But [more] excellent is he, o Arjuna, who, controlling the [cognitive] senses with the mind, embarks unattached on Karma-Yoga with the action senses.

You must do the necessary action, for action is superior to inaction; not even your body’s processes can be accomplished by inaction. (Bhagavad-Gītā III.5-8, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 121)

The choice between action and inaction is a false dichotomy. Given one’s own physical and mental makeup, absolute inaction is incompatible with simply remaining alive, since even the sheer physical survival of the body requires a good deal of activity. In this sense, inaction is never a viable choice. It may happen that one decides to abstain from action by restraining the body (the ‘action senses’ refer to the bodily parts that enable action) and yet keeps remembering and fantasizing in one’s thought about objects of action. This is hypocrisy, not freedom from action. The recommended attitude is to keep engaging in activity, while remaining completely detached from the results of that activity. While restraining any craving for a certain result, one can do what is simply required by one’s own nature, out of a sense of duty.

This is the deontological turn in Kriṣṇa’s teaching, encapsulated in the following verse: ‘better is [one’s] own-law [svadharmo] imperfectly [carried out] than another’s law [paradharmo] well performed. [It is] better [to find] death in [the performance of one’s] own-law, for another’s law is fear instilling’ (Bhagavad-Gītā III.55, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 129). The notion of ‘one’s own law’ (sva-dharma) refers to the duties that are inherent in one’s own condition. This law does not target the uniqueness of a specific individual, but rather the individual as the embodied representative of a certain class. In Indian thought, svadharma is thus usually associated with one’s own class (brahmin, warrior, commoner, servant). In Arjuna’s case, his svadharma is that of a warrior prince, who has accompanying duties and responsibilities. Kriṣṇa’s injunction clearly entails that it is practically possible for one individual to act on the basis of the law of another (paradharmo), for instance a prince like Arjuna might choose to act like a brahmin renunciant. But there are at least two reasons why this choice is best avoided. First, if the individual is primarily defined by his own law, then acting on the basis of the law of another amounts to a sort of betrayal of one’s own nature (what Heidegger would call ‘inauthenticity’). Second, an individual who acts on the basis of the law of another is somehow an impostor, and this engenders fear of being exposed as such (what today we might call ‘impostor syndrome’). Kriṣṇa contends that it is better to achieve only partially, or even fail in the attempt at fulfilling one’s own duty, than in pretending to lead a life that does not belong to one’s own nature. Since duty is assigned by birth and regardless of the individual’s own current choice, the individual’s task is that of fulfilling that duty (whatever it is), not struggling to change it. And since fulfilling one’s own duty is done for its own sake, one can act without any attachment to the actual consequences or results that may or may not come from one’s action, by thus becoming free from craving and desire.

Kriṣṇa offers this account as a re-interpretation of the very notion of sacrifice (yajna): ‘this world is bound by action save when this action is intended as sacrifice. With that purpose [in mind], o son-of-Kunti [Arjuna], engage in action devoid of attachment’ (Bhagavad-Gītā III.9, trad. Feuerstein 2014, 121). In Vedic culture, karma is primarily the sacrificial action, and we already discussed how crucial sacrifice is for the whole Vedic worldview. Kriṣṇa plays with a broader notion of action, which now encompasses no longer just ritual action and sacrifice, but all sorts of actions (he mentioned the action needed to support the life of the body, arguably referring to nutrition and so forth). Within this broader notion, he then recovers the narrower sense of action as sacrifice and interprets it as an action devoid of attachment towards results. Sacrifice is thus understood as a free gift, which somehow matches our ordinary and loose sense of the term. It is problematic to see ancient Vedic sacrifice as a free gift of this sort, given that sacrifice was established as a way of establishing a bridge and negotiate with gods and other forces. Seers and brahmin officiants are explicit about the goals they wish to achieve through sacrifice. But having introduced a broader notion of action, Kriṣṇa can now also provide a more abstract account of sacrifice as one’s free gift, based entirely on duty, which allows him to preserve the traditional and formal importance attached to sacrifice in general.

This hermeneutic strategy is emblematic of the way new currents in Indian thought manage to reshape older notions by infusing them with new meanings. Remember that the clash between ascetism and household life turned around sacrifice: becoming an ascetic, one enters a non-ritual state in which rituals and sacrifices are no longer possible nor even valued, which in turn is at odds with the pillars of the Vedic tradition. Kriṣṇa offers a hermeneutic way out of this impasse by allowing sacrifice to be interpreted as any action performed uniquely out of duty towards one’s own law, which makes it possible for the performer to fulfil one’s law, perform sacrificial actions, and be free from desire and attachment. While the latter is the goal of ascetism, the former are the goals of traditional practice, and the two poles are now perfectly reconciled. Voilà.


  1. Cf. Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle (1979), the Fourth Dwelling Places, chapter 3 (pp. 78-79): ‘But one noticeably senses a gentle drawing inward, as anyone who goes through this will observe, for I don’t know how to make it clearer. It seems to me that I have read where it was compared to a hedgehog curling up or a turtle drawing into its shell. (The one who wrote this example must have understood the experience well.)’ Ávila is arguably referring to Francisco De Osuna (1492-1541), Third Spiritual Alphabet, VI, chapter 4 (Engl. transl. 1981, 173): ‘compare the recollected person with the hedgehog who contracts his body and retreats into himself without concern for anything outside. Like a very heavy stone concealing the hedgehog, this devotion, according to the psalm, is refuge for the recollected person who has everything he needs within and does not think ill of those without who may inflict harm on him.’ But notice that Osuna does not mention a turtle in his example.

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