Arjuna asks how Krishna can consider insight higher than action yet still encourage him to fight, which seems contradictory. Arjuna wonders how he might achieve “the higher good.”
In the previous discourse, Krishna suggested that wisdom is the route to bliss, which does not seem to explain why Arjuna should go to war. Again, Arjuna returns to the apparent contradiction between insight and action.
Krishna explains that he has always taught a “double foundation”: the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of action. One cannot surpass action without acting, nor can one find fulfillment through renunciation alone; everyone is constantly acting because the gunas in their nature compel them to. Some choose to sit and relinquish the senses, all the while imagining the sensory experience of objects that are not present. This is misleading, for only one who restrains the senses while undertaking “the yoga of action” can truly temper the senses. Restrained action is preferable to non-action, for the body could not even survive without action.
Krishna suggests that, despite his argument in the previous discourse that wisdom is sufficient for knowledge, action is necessary as a means to achieving full insight (indeed, yoga is itself a form of action). The paths of knowledge and action are mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive—one must actively undertake the path of knowledge through yoga, and pure action requires the knowledge of reincarnation and the absolute.
Action for the sake of sacrifice is the only pure form. Since “the lord of beings” created humans and sacrifice, sacrifice allows humans to “cause the gods to be” as the gods “cause you to be.” In mutually sustaining the relationship between gods and humans, the lord of beings explained, sacrifice brings people to “the higher good.” The gods give humans pleasures, but people who do not give back to the gods are thieves—“the true ones” can eat what they are left with after sacrifice, but “the evil ones” only cook for themselves. Food comes from the rain, but sacrifice creates the rain, and sacrifice is a form of action that originates with Brahman.
For the wise, every action is a form of sacrifice because one does not consider their personal gain or material desires in acting, but rather performs their duty for its own sake. Crucially, pure sacrifice does in fact benefit the actor, who receives a reciprocal love and sacrifice from the gods, but this only works if the actor puts the gods first. This is why they would offer food before eating what remains.
One who does not “set the wheel / in motion” by sacrifice “lives uselessly,” harming others and embroiled in the senses, but one who is “happy in the self” has no goal in action or non-action connected to other beings. By dutifully performing the proper sacrificial actions, without clinging to the fruits of those actions, one can gain fulfillment and set a standard for others. If he himself decided not to act, Krishna suggests, humankind would follow him, the worlds “would sink down,” and humans would be destroyed.
The “wheel” refers to the process of gradual self-improvement through the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). The fact that a wise person also has no goals in non-action demonstrates that renunciation does not work if the renouncer is deliberately trying to get the “wheel” turning. By suggesting that the world would “sink” if he did not act, Krishna begins to hint at his immense power and shows the necessity of his reciprocal action on humanity’s behalf. However, since he is wise, it seems that he has no attachment to the world and therefore only sustains humanity because of people’s devotion to him—in this sense, he sets a standard for others.
According to Krishna, The wise act because they want to “keep the world / collected together” rather than because they cling to action’s fruits. Wisdom leads people to delight in all actions, which follow from the gunas of nature and not the Self that appears to be “the doer.” By recognizing that the gunas are merely acting upon themselves, one can stop clinging and achieve freedom from desire and the self through restrained action. However, many people lose their wisdom to desire. Even the wise act in accord with their own nature, so restraint is worthless; emotions lie between the senses and the world, so people should not succumb to their power. Ultimately, it is better to follow one’s own dharma, even unsuccessfully, than the dharma of another.
Wise action is not only a sacrifice on behalf of the gods, but on behalf of the entire world, which would not exist without sacrifice. Wise people can find pleasure in even difficult or painful actions because they realize that these are undertaken out of necessity—both the necessity of the gunas’ physical action and the necessity of fulfilling one’s dharma by letting the gunas flow—and so do not reflect on the eternal self. Indeed, allowing the gunas to take their course reflects an indifference to material things and preparedness for eternity.
Arjuna asks why people can be compelled to do harm, and Krishna blames rajas, the guna of passion. Rajas conceals wisdom like smoke conceals fire or dust conceals a mirror. Like an always-hungry fire, desire hides the true nature of “insight, mind / and the senses,” confusing the self. Krishna tells Arjuna to control his senses and defeat evil desire. He explains that the senses are crucial, but the mind is more so, insight even more, and the self most of all. By learning about the self, Krishna declares, Arjuna can defeat the evasive enemy of desire.
Arjuna’s thinking has begun to change, as he now recognizes that actions are compelled and not chosen. Clinging to action demonstrates one’s domination by rajas, which also means that people adhere to the world precisely because of the gunas that exist in it. Just as desire takes itself as an object, the world’s imperfections lead people to cling to it.