An Offering of Devotional Worship
The Bhagavad Gita, “Song of the Lord,” is part of the world’s longest epic poem, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata (circa 500 BCE-200 CE), follows the Veda Samhitas (circa 2000-1200 BCE) by many centuries. Yoga literally means ‘union’ and the message of the Gita is that the fastest route to liberation (union with Ultimate Self/Brahman/God) is through yoga. Manifested beings are ensnared in the cycles of existence; discerning the acting self from the witnessing self, liberates. In Vedic religion, sacrificial rituals were expensive, not something the average person could afford to frequently perform. The Gita reinterprets this, providing everyone access, and insisting that devotion is the easiest path to realization.
The Gita takes place on a battlefield, which can be read as literal as well as metaphorical. Arjuna is the warrior hero who picks Krishna to drive his chariot during the family battle that is about to begin. The nature of dharma is a major theme throughout this text and Arjuna is seeking to see his clearly. In the beginning, Arjuna considers renouncing the world as he fears the possible consequences of the war and examines the likely damage to his family and lineage, “In destroying the family, the eternal dharma of the family is lost” (1:40). He is lost and knows not what to do- “my thoughts on dharma are completely bewildered” (2:7).
Arjuna then asks Krishna to teach him about dharma. Since it is his dharma to be a warrior and to fight a just war, Krishna tells him to fight. “Not following one’s own dharma leads to misfortune” (2:33). Amidst chaos, physical desires, and family dharma and drama, Krishna pulls the focus from worldly duty to universal duty. What is to be battled is selfish desire, fear, hatred, sense attachment, and individualized ego-centered-consciousness.
The first line to be connected to the overall argument of the Bhagavad Gita is, “Those who know the three Vedas.”1 There are also three worlds; three gunas; three factors that constitute action and three that compel one to act; and the designations of Brahman are threefold- “OM, TAT, and SAT.” Representation of the divine in three aspects appears in other accounts of divine revelation. Religious doctrines seek to empower, to assist in re-connecting consciously with that which is greater than the individual. If a person lives in a constant state of union with God, they have accomplished the purpose and teachings of scripture, in this case, the Vedas. To know God or the Self is to know what the Vedas are attempting to convey. “And by all the Vedas only I am to be known” (15:15).
According to the Gita, if the soma drinkers (Vedic Gods, priests and those who performed Vedic rituals) though purified of vice, do not realize their identity with the Self, they do not achieve the bliss of liberation. Their purification earns rewards, but the divine gifts eventually run out and longings that can only be fulfilled in a physical body send one back to a womb. However, those who are “Purified by austerity of knowledge…come to my loving state of being” (4:10).
Book two of the Gita begins communicating ways by which one can become knowledgeable. Two disciplines that assist the seeker are the yoga of discernment and relinquishing the fruits of actions (2:51). The yoga of discernment is “superior to action” (2:49) and without yoga, there is no discernment (2:66). Krishna is the “Supreme Lord of Yoga;” when Arjuna asks to see Krishna in Universal Form, Krishna grants him divine eyes to behold this vision, “I [therefore] give divine eyes to you – behold my supremely powerful yoga!” (11:8); and Sanjaya (the narrator) sees too. To be able to see with divine eyes or with “the eye of knowledge”2 is to discern. Yoga activates and elevates an illuminating discernment that reveals the Ultimate Person. Combining yoga with the relinquishment of the fruits produced from action, the self reels in the cords of attachment that cause rebirth. Not by drinking soma or performing rituals but by being absorbed in yoga and relinquishment, “the wise are freed from the bondage of repeated births and go to a place beyond suffering” (2:51).
“Who worship me with sacrifices”- in Vedic religion, people sacrificed and prayed to the gods to receive rewards – children, cattle, wealth, victory in battle, longevity, and entry to heaven. Sacrifice expands in meaning in the Bhagavad Gita, becoming more an offering of the heart. It is not external sacrifices but intimate worship that draws self closer to Self. Objects of sacrifice are not as important as the love with which they are given.
Giving scriptures authority, the Gita is clearly telling one to still perform the sacrificial actions of the Vedas; “If one knows the prescribed scriptural injunctions, they are obliged to enact them in this world” (16:24). A liberated person performs Vedic rituals without the aim of obtaining earthly rewards. “A true renouncer and yogi enact prescribed acts without attachment to the fruit” (6:1). Acting for the welfare of others, and not because of selfish desire, is the path of the yogi. Born of action, it is impossible to live in the world and to not act. Performing Vedic rituals is a duty. The liberated yogi, “makes the sacred fire and performs ritual acts” (6:1) to praise the gods, to give in return, and to act as a model for others.
Yoga is about making every action, of every day, a ritual, an offering of devotion to the Self. “Other than action that has sacrifice as its purpose, action is bondage in this world” (3:9). The action based on yoga is an oblation of self. Only God alone, wanting only God and nothing else, liberates one from the bondage of selfish and physical desires. Eternal beings cannot be satisfied by temporal things. Following the dharma of the Vedas leads to rebirth; following the dharma of yoga – “Even a little of this dharma delivers one from great danger” (2:40), leads to liberation. Uniting with Ultimate Self is the crowning and ending of dharma, and thus is yoga.
“Who, meditating on me, offer worship” (12:6); meditation is one more way to sacrifice, and is always freely available to all. Engaging in meditation offers self to Self. The Gita says, “By means of meditation, some perceive the Self within the self, by the self” (13:24). This practice enables yoga; meditation increases the space for and focus on union, while yoga is the goal of meditation. Through meditation, the process of expending energy outwards through the senses is reversed and instead of energy being spent, it is directed towards Self/God. Verse 2:58 uses the analogy of a tortoise completely withdrawing its limbs, and states, “profound knowledge is firmly established” by redirecting the senses. Meditation, yoga, and performing actions without attachment to their fruits, in accordance with one’s own dharma, cleanses and opens the channel of divine perception.
“From meditation comes the relinquishment of the fruits of action” (12:12). Meditation is a tool used to discern, and with discernment comes non-attachment – the “absence of attachment and excessive affection” (13:9) to individual forms and sense objects. The text is not advising one to disregard consequences and right vs. wrong action but is suggesting that due to the temporary and changing nature of the embodied and external worlds, security, peace, and fulfillment cannot be found by clinging to the results of action. “Being completely freed from the notion of ‘I am acting’” (18:53), redirects one’s awareness from the actor to the observer. One sits in meditation to learn to sit in the seat of the observer, the driver of the “mystical machine.”3
To act without attachment signifies wisdom in the Gita (3.24). Non-attachment can be viewed as a letting go of that which is dear, but this world is not always as it appears. Maya is an illusive power that is difficult to cross beyond (7:14). This power is an active principle of manifestation, compelling creatures to be dazzled by the cosmic play. The bonds that form between objects of attachment and the senses, cause beings to ride upon the mystical machine, instead of driving this bodily vessel (18:61). A person becomes steered by passions and confusion instead of wisely choosing their destinations. Breaking through the attractive veil of Maya, requires discernment and austerity. One who has transcended the desires of the senses, and is not attached to the results of actions, is one who has ascended in yoga (6.4).
The three gunas deliver additional reasons to live unattached in the world. Every embodied individual contains all three of the gunas, or ‘qualities’ to a varying degree. They arise from primordial nature, and the only way to be “free from birth, old age, and death is to transcend these three ‘qualities’” (2:45). Sattva is the highest and most illuminating, however, it “binds one by attachment to knowledge and happiness” (14:6). Rajas, “tightly binds one to action” (14:7), and fuels selfish desire (3:37), resulting in passionate pursuits that are intent on attaining the products of actions. Tamas is associated with “negligence, bewilderment, and an absence of light” (14:13). The realm of Brahman surpasses the ‘qualities’. Any being in search of union with Ultimate Self, must overstep the misleading gunas of nature, and seek pure existence through the yoga of offering one’s love.
One may wonder, why go inwards? A clue lies in book 18: “present within the inner region of the heart” is the Supreme Lord of all beings, states verse 18:61. The very source of life beating energy in the physical body is the heart. Love is associated with the heart, and the emotions of the heart are universal. “They are in me and I am also in them” (9:29), claims Krishna, referring to beings who offer their devotion to the Self. Reciprocating this idea two chapters later, Arjuna then says, “You complete everything – therefore, you are everything” (11:40). This Ultimate Person/Self is related to the microcosm and the macrocosm, because not only is this Self inside, it also permeates and transcends the cosmos. “Without the notion of ‘I am acting’- that one attains peace” (2:71). It is the association with the individual ego that brings about fear, separation, and the need for attachment. The path of yoga goes past the limits of you and I. Living through the heart, one realizes one’s connection to everything. “The embodied, eternally indestructible, dwells within the body of everyone” (2:30).
Reincarnation presents itself in the middle of the passage being analyzed. Rebirth is not mentioned in the Vedas.4 However, rebirth is spoken of in the Upanishads (circa 1200-800 BC), and is prevalent in the Gita. The idea that all beings continue to incarnate to satisfy longings reappears. The senses are impossible to gratify, “Certainly, pleasures born of [sense] contact are only sources of suffering” (5:22). Repetitively, the senses chase after external pleasures, and still, they crave more.
The mind is considered a sixth sense in the Gita (15:7); it must be calmed. When the mind is busy planning for the future, or looking forward to the results of life experience, or dreading them, the mind is attached to the fruits of material existence. As long as earthly desires are present, one must return to a body to satisfy those desires. Verse 9:21 discusses the need to return to enjoy objects. For the Gods give everyone all they crave. It is the subject that fills, not the objects. Until union with God/Brahman is all one yearns for, the need to go out and live through various forms remains. It is not the tradition or the symbol but devotion that ceases the cycles of life and death. By only following prescribed rituals rebirth will continue. Eventually, the forgetfulness of birth and the illusory goodbyes of death push individuals to search for more, for the everlasting. “Only the everpresent Self is without birth” (4:6).
The last part of the passage asks for an offering, “of a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water,” to be made, with love. Continuing the cycle of giving, giving back to those who give, is a social norm. The Gita reinterprets sacrifice in worship, making it inexpensive, so no longer are the poor prevented by lack of money or possessions from frequent sacrifice. “Such an offering, presented with love,” is now applicable to everyone. This offering, “I accept from one whose self is devoted” (end of 9:26). Leaves, flowers, fruit, or water are all handy to attain, but devotion requires the whole self. True devotion to the Ultimate Person is keeping thoughts not on ego but on Self and offering all actions to this Self. Through “renouncing all actions in me” (3:30) one sincerely offers oneself, and this is the most devoted of sacrifices.
“Not by the Vedas, sacrifice, or study,…Am I able to be seen in such a form,” says Krishna to Arjuna when showing him his universal form (11:48). Arjuna sees Krishna’s universal form because he asks, because he genuinely and lovingly wants to know ultimate truth, not because he chanted the right words or performed external sacrifices. Arjuna does sacrifice for Krishna by choosing him over his whole army, but this sacrifice turns out to be a gift to himself. “With confusion destroyed, my memory is restored by your grace,” said Arjuna to Krishna (18:73).
Three main subjects have emerged from this essay: the acts of meditation, and lovingly offering actions to Ultimate Self, which are the acts of sacrifice the Gita has moved towards; withdrawing energy and awareness back from the senses, and non-attachment to the fruits of actions, are austerities; offering love with all that one has to Ultimate Self, unendingly, is the giving. These are the three dimensions of Vedic dharma, reinterpreted by the Gita.
Alluding to the “threefold designations of Brahman- “OM,” “TAT,” and “SAT;” sacrifice, austerities, and giving are enacted. ““OM,” sounded by those who profess Brahman, sets into motion acts of sacrifice, giving, and austerity;” “Uttering “TAT” without aim of fruit -acts of sacrifice and austerity…and giving;” and “Steadfastness in sacrifice, in austerity, and in giving is also called “SAT”” (17:23-28). These three aspects identify Brahman and are the way to Brahman.
“Sacrifice without faith,” performed only for the ancestors, or family in this world, is not as it seems; it is “asat” [not SAT]-not true)” (17:28). Without devotion in the heart, the Vedic fire is not accepted by Original Creator. One will continue the cycle of rewards from the deities until the heart seeks its Self. Offering “actions of the life-breath into the fire of yoga” (4:27), shows a change in the type of fire, from literal to subtle. The highest form of sacrificial fire that one can offer to Brahman is the internal, subtle fire; the fire that gives heat and life to the body. In offering this fire back to Brahman/God, the supreme Vedic fire is ignited.
Near the end of the Gita, Krishna declares, “completely relinquishing all forms of dharma, come to me” (18:66). Worldly dharma ends in Self/Brahman/Krishna. Wholeheartedly offering self back to Brahman/Krishna is the way to achieve liberty from the cycles of life and death, the gunas, and the insatiable senses. Uniting with Krishna, in his Supreme Form, is the universal dharma of all beings. Krishna taught Arjuna the path of yoga, which destroyed his confusion, and restored his memory (18:73). To attain the rapturous bliss of the everpresent Self, one must sacrifice.
The verses in question are spoken, by Krishna, halfway through the book. I focus on connecting these passages to the central argument of the Bhagavad Gita. Influences stemming from the Gita created shifts in views of Vedic dharma; a few of these shifts will also be noted.
“Those who know the three Vedas,
the soma drinkers purified of vice
Who worship me with sacrifices….
that vast celestial world,
Their piety exhausted,
then [again] enter
the mortal world.
Thus following the dharma of
the three [Vedas],
objects of desire,
they achieve a state of
going and coming back. …
One who, with love,
makes an offering to me
of a leaf, a flower,
fruit, or water-
Such an offering
presented with love,
I accept from one
whose self is devoted.” (9:20,21,26)
- Verse (9:17) lists three of the four Vedas, the Rig, Sama, and Yajur. Then verses twenty and twenty-one of book nine again mention only three of the four Vedas.
- The Eye of Knowledge is found in verse (13:34) and (15:10).
- Verse (18:61) and ( ) compares the body to a mystical machine.
- I only know this because Professor Ruth Vanita said so.
Schweig, Graham M. Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song. New York: