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Path of Karma Yoga with Self-Knowledge

Chapter 4


Lord Krishna said: I taught this KarmaYoga, the eternal science of right ac­tion, to King Vivasvan. Vivasvan taught it to Manu; Manu taught it to Ikshvaku. Thus, the saintly Kings knew this science of proper action (KarmaYoga), handed down in succession. After a long time, this science was lost from this earth. Today, I have described the same ancient science to you because you are my sincere devotee and friend. This science is a supreme secret in­deed. (4.01-03)

KarmaYoga, discussed in the previous chapter, is declared by the Lord as the supreme secret science of right action. According to Swami Karmananda, a practitioner of KarmaYoga, unless Lord Himself reveals this secret science, no one can practice or even understand it.

Arjuna said: You were born later, but Vivasvan was born in ancient time. How am I to understand that You taught this science in the begin­ning of the creation? (4.04)

Arjuna questions how Krishna, a contemporary of Arjuna, could have taught this science of KarmaYoga to King Vivasvan, who was born earlier in ancient times, long before Lord Krishna. The doctrine of Bhagavad-Gita is not just five thousand years old; it is primeval. Lord Krishna restated it in the Gita for the benefit of humanity. All great masters come to rekindle the fire of forgotten Truth. Different people have said everything we hear or read at different times.


Lord Krishna said: Both you and I have taken many births. I remember them all, O Arjuna, but you do not remember. (4.05)

Though I am eternal, immutable, and the Lord (Ishvara) of all beings, yet I manifest Myself by controlling material Nature, using My own divine potential energy, Yoga-Maya. (See also 10.14) (4.06)

Yoga-Maya (Divine Light, Brahma-jyoti, Noor) is the creative power (Ananda-shakti) of Lord Krishna. Maha-Maya is the fractional reflection of Yoga-Maya. Kala-Maya is the reflection of Maha-Maya. And the illusory energy (Maya) is the supernatural, ex­traordinary, and mystic power of Eternal Being (Brahma). Maha-Maya, Kala-Maya, and Maya are also called Adi Prakriti; and Prakriti, the material Nature, is considered the reflection of Maya. Thus Yoga-Maya is the origin of both Maya and Prakriti. Guru Nanak said: “He has created Maya that deceives and controls us.” The word 'Maya' also means un­real, illusory, or deceptive image of Reality. Due to the power of Maya, one considers the universe existent and distinct from Eternal Being (Brahma). The Eternal Light (Brahma-jyoti, Noor, Yoga-Maya) is the invisible potential en­ergy; Maya is kinetic energy, the force of action of Brahma. They are inseparable like fire and heat. Maya is also used as a metaphor to explain the visible world to common people. The sense of “I” and “mine”, “you” and “yours” is Maya which holds control over all individual souls.

Whenever there is a decline of Dharma (Righteousness) and a predominance of Adharma (Unrighteousness), O Arjuna, I manifest Myself. I appear from time to time for protecting the good, for transforming the wicked, and for es­tablishing world order (Dharma). (4.07-08)

The Supreme Being is both divine and human (AV 4.16.08). Prophets appear from time to time as divine dispensation sees the need for the welfare of so­ci­ety. Whenever miscreants are born to destroy world order (Dharma), the good Lord, Vishnu, incarnates to put everything in proper balance (VR 7.08.27). His compassion is the main reason for Lord’s incarnation (SBS 49). There are other reasons besides the protection of righteousness (Dharma), for the Lord’s incarnation. The cause of Lord’s incarnation cannot be defined rigidly. There could be many causes, some of them unknown to human mind. Actually there is no difference between the Brahman with and without attributes. In the same way as water is not different from water vapor, snow and ice. Saint Tulasidasa said: Though devoid of material attributes, unattached, and immuta­ble, yet for the love of His devotees, the Lord assumes a form with at­tributes (TR 2.218.03). The Supreme Being, which is beyond birth and death, in­car­nates in human form through a great soul on earth to satisfy the long­ings of devotees who want to see Him and be in His personal presence.

Lord performs many ordinary, human, and also uncommon or controversial pastimes just to please His devotees or to set things right. Ordinary human beings cannot understand the reasons behind these pastimes and, therefore, should not pass judgment on Lord's activities when He incarnates. Great personalities and incarnations are sometimes known to be acting contrary to the scriptural rules, just as a King has the freedom to break certain rules. These acts are done for a very good purpose and with a reason beyond human comprehension. One should neither criticize nor follow such acts.
God has granted us free will, but He does not stand aside letting us to abuse the freedom and destroy world order (Dharma). Whenever Adharma increases by the abuse of freedom and the world gets in great trouble, He manifests to set things right. Saints and sages also reincarnate by the will of Krishna as needed. Ramakrishna said that he would live in a subtle body for three hundred years in the hearts and minds of his devotees. Yogananda said: So long as people in this world are crying for help, I shall return to ply my boat and offer to take them to heavenly shores.

One who truly understands My transcendental appearance and activities of creation, maintenance, and dissolution, attains My Supreme Abode and is not born again after leaving this body, O Arjuna. (4.09)

One develops love for Krishna by studying and listening to the transcendental birth and sportive acts of the Lord as narrated by the saints and sages in the scriptures. True understanding of the transcendental nature of Lord’s form, His incarnation, and His activities, is the Self-knowledge that leads to salvation.

Many have become free from attachment, fear, anger, and at­tained salvation by taking refuge in Me, by becoming fully absorbed in My thoughts and by getting purified by the fire of Self-knowledge. (4.10)


With whatever motive people surrender to Me, I fulfill their desires accordingly. People worship Me with dif­ferent motives, O Arjuna. (4.11)

Lord’s nature is to reciprocate our love for Him. God loves those who love him. Ask, and you will get; seek God, and you will find. It is due to divine illusion (Maya) that most people seek temporary material gains, such as health, wealth, and success, and not Self-knowledge and devotion to His lotus feet.

Those who long for success in their work here on earth worship the celestial controllers, Devas. Success in work comes quickly in this hu­man world. (4.12)

No one, including all Devas, and Brahma, has his or her own power. They all derive their powers from the Supreme Being, ParaBrahma.

In prayer one asks the Lord's help in getting what one needs; in worship one adores, glorifies, and thanks Him for what one has. One should first be aware of and contemplate one's plight, feel helpless in getting out of the difficulty, then seek divine help ---through prayer---in a state of helplessness with intense faith. Lord will take the first step if you know your plight and seek His help for transformation.

Show yourself---open up, confess ---to the Lord as you are in prayer; be specific in what you ask; and cry for His help.

All prayers are answered, but prayers for the benefit of others are given first priority. Lord actually knows our needs at all times and is simply waiting to be asked for help due to our free will. Meditation is listening to God by stilling the mind and assuming a receptive posture in order to hear Lord's instructions, insights, and revelations. For example, embrace the attitude: Thank You for answering my prayers and for all You have given me, but now what do You want me to do with what You have given? Then, having said that, be still and alert, and just try to listen. Pray so that you can talk to God and tell Him how you are and what you have been doing. Meditate so that God can effectively tell you what you are supposed to do.


I created the four divisions of human occupation based on the ability of people. Though I am the author of this system of division of labor, one should know that I do nothing (directly), and I am eternal. (See also 18.41) (4.13)

Work or Karma does not bind Me because I have no desire for the fruits of work. One who fully knows Me thus (and practices this truth) is also not bound by Karma. (4.14)

All works, including prayers, should be undertaken for a just cause, rather than just for personal gain. The ancient seekers of salvation also performed their duties without concern for the fruits. Therefore, you should do your duty as the ancients did. (4.15)


Even the wise are confused about what is action and what is inaction. Therefore, I shall clearly explain what is action, knowing which you shall be liberated from the evil (of birth and death). (4.16)

The true nature of action is very difficult to understand. Therefore, one should know the nature of attached action, the nature of detached ac­tion, and also the nature of forbidden action. (4.17)

Attached action is selfish work, done in the mode of passion that produces Karmic bondage and leads to transmigration. Detached action is unselfish work, done in the mode of goodness that leads to salvation. Detached action is considered to be inaction because from the Karmic viewpoint, it is as if no action was performed. Action forbidden by the scriptures, done in the mode of ignorance, is harmful to both the doer and society. It creates misfortunes here and hereafter.


One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, is a wise person. Such a person is a yogi and has accomplished everything. (See also 3.05, 3.27, 5.08 and 13.29) (4.18)

All acts are the acts of Eternal Being’s (Brahma’s) Divine Light (BrahmaJyoti), the inactively active actor. The wise perceive the inac­tive, infinite, and invisible reservoir of potential energy of the Supreme as the ultimate source of all visible kinetic energy in the cosmos, just as invisible electricity runs a fan. The urge and power to do action come from the Supreme Being. Therefore, one should spiritualize all work by perceiving that one does nothing at all and everything is done by the energy of the Supreme Being, using us only as an instrument.

One whose desires have become selfless by being roasted in the fire of Self-realization, is called a sage by the wise. (4.19)

One who has abandoned attachment to the fruits of work and remains ever content and dependent on no one (but Krishna), such a person, though engaged in activity, does nothing at all (and incurs no Karmic reaction). (4.20)

One who is free from desires, whose mind and senses are under control, and who has renounced all ownership, does not incur sin---the Karmic reaction---by doing bodily action. (4.21)

A KarmaYogi---who is content with whatever gain comes naturally by His will, who is unaffected by pairs of opposites, and free from envy, tranquil in success and failure---is not bound by Karma. (4.22)

All Karmic bonds of a KarmaYogi---who is free from attachment, whose mind is fixed in Self-knowl­edge, and who does work as a service to the Lord---dissolve away. (4.23)

The divine Spirit (Brahma or Eternal Being) has become everything. Divinity (Brahma, Self or Spirit) shall be real­ized by one who contemplates everything as a manifestation and an act of Brahma. (Also see 9.16) (4.24)

Life itself is an ever-burning fire where sacrificial ceremony is go­ing on constantly. Every action must be thought of as a holy sacrifice, a holy act. Everything is not the Eternal Being (Brahma), but Brahma is the root or basis of everything. One attains salvation and becomes one with Brahma, without losing one’s identity, when one per­ceives Brahma in every action, per­ceives the things one uses as a transformation of Brahma, and realizes that the very process of all action is also Brahma. Thus salvation or Mukti is not the destruction of individual soul (Jeeva), but the realization of one’s true nature that Jeeva is like Brahma.


Some yogis perform the service of worship to celestial controllers (Devas), while others offer sacrifice of selfless service to the fire of the Eternal Being. (4.25)

Some offer their hearing and other senses as sacrifice in the fires of restraint; others offer sound and other objects of the senses (as sacri­fice) in the fires of the senses. (4.26)

Others offer all the functions of the senses and the functions of the five bioimpulses (life forces, Pranas) as sacrifice in the fire of self-re­straint that is kindled by Self-knowledge. (4.27)

Others offer their wealth, their austerity, and their practice of yoga as sacrifice, while the ascetics with strict vows offer their study of scrip­tures and knowledge as sacrifice. (4.28)

Some are engaged in controlling the breathing process by breathing in (Prana), then stopping the breath for a while (called in-Kumbhak) before breathing out (Apana) and then stopping the breath after breathing out (called out-Kumbhak) using yogic breathing techniques. (4.29)

Deep spiritual meaning and interpretation of the practical yogic techniques mentioned in verses 4.29, 4.30, 5.27, 6.13, 8.10, 8.12, 8.13, 8.24, and 8.25 cannot be explained here. They should be acquired from a qualified teacher and practiced under supervision to avoid hidden dangers of meditation.
The breathing process can be slowed down by: (1) watching the breath going in and coming out as one watches the ocean waves going up and down, (2) practicing of diaphragmatic (or deep yogic) breathing, and (3) using yogic techniques and KriyaYoga. The aim of yogic practice is to achieve the superconscious or breathless state of trance by gradually mastering the breathing process.

Others restrict their diet and reach the breathless state of trance by concentrating on the breath. All these people are performing sacrifices, and their minds become puri­fied by the sacrifice or the spiritual practice. (4.30)

Those who perform selfless service obtain the nectar of Self-knowledge as a result of their sacrifice and attain the Supreme Being. O Arjuna, if even this world is not a peaceful place for the non-sacrificer, how can the other world be? (See also 4.38, and 5.06). (4.31)

Many types of spiritual disciplines are described in the Vedas. Know that all of them are the action of body, mind, and senses prompted by the forces of Nature. Understanding this, one shall attain Nirvana or salvation. (See also 3.14) (4.32)

In order to attain salvation, spiritual discipline or sacrifice should be performed as a duty without any attachment and with full understanding that oneself is not the doer.


The acquisition and propagation of Self-knowledge are superior to any material gain or gift, O Arjuna. Because Self-knowledge (and devotion) are the goal of all spiritual practices. (4.33)

Acquire this transcendental knowledge from a Self-realized master by humble reverence, by sin­cere inquiry, and by service. The empowered ones, who have realized the Truth, will give you this knowledge. (4.34)

Contact with great souls who have realized the truth is very helpful. Reading scriptures, giving charity, and doing spiritual practices alone may not give God-realization. Only a God-realized soul can awaken and kindle another soul. But no guru can give a se­cret for­mula for Self-realization without His grace. The Vedas say: One who knows the land gives direction to the one who does not know and asks (RV 9.70.09). It is also said that Self-realization is a pathless land, it comes at the right time by the grace of God, and not by personal effort alone. But, one must perform spiritual practices very sincerely.

The Vedas prohibit the sale of God in any form. They say: O mighty Lord of countless wealth, I will not sell thee for any price (RV 8.01.05). The role of a guru is that of a guide and a giver, not of a taker. Before accepting a human guru, one must first have---or develop---full faith in the guru and leave the guru’s human frailties out of consideration, take the pearls of wisdom and throw away the oyster shells. If this is not possible, it should be remembered that the word ‘guru’ also means the light of Self-knowledge that dispels ignorance and delusion; and the light comes, automatically, from the Supreme Being, the internal guru, when one’s mind is purified by selfless service, spiritual practice, and surrender.

There are four categories of gurus: (1) A false guru, (2) Guru, (3) Self realized guru, and (4) The Divine guru. In this age too many false gurus are coming to teach or just give a mantra for a price. These false gurus are the merchants of mantra. They take money from disciples to fulfill their personal material needs without giving the true knowledge of the Supreme Being. Saint Tulasidasa said that a guru who takes money from disciples and does not remove their ignorance, goes to hell (TR 7.98.04). A guru is one who imparts true knowledge and complete understanding of the Absolute and the temporal. A Self realized guru is a Self-realized master mentioned in this verse here. A Self realized guru helps the devotee maintain God-consciousness all the time by his or her own vested spiritual power. God is the Divine guru.

When the mind and intellect are purified, Supreme Lord, the divine guru, reflects Himself in the inner psyche of a devotee and sends a guru or a realized guru to him or her. A real guru is a giver. He never asks any money or a fee from a disciple because he depends on God only. A real guru would not ask anything from a disciple for personal or even for organization­al gain. However, a disciple is obliged to do the best he or she can to help the cause of the guru. It is said that one should not accept any fee from a pupil without giv­ing full instruction and understanding of the Absolute, divine kinetic energy (Maya), temporal material Nature, and the living entity (BrU 4.01.02).

The Spirit within us is the divine guru. Outside teachers only help us in the beginning of the spiritual journey. Our own intellect---when purified by selfless service, prayer, meditation, worship, silent chanting of Lord’s name, congregational chanting of holy names, and scriptural study---becomes the best channel and guide for the flow of divine knowledge (See also Gita 4.38, and 13.22). The Divine Being within all of us is the real guru, and one must learn how to tune in with Him. It is said that there is no greater guru than one’s own pure mind. A pure mind becomes a spiritual guide and the inner divine guru leading to a real guru and Self-realization. This is expressed by the common saying that the guru comes to a person when he or she is ready. The word ‘guru’ also means vast and is used to de­scribe the Supreme Being---the divine guru and internal guide.

The wise spiritual master disapproves the idea of blind personal service, or the guru cult, which is so common in India. A Self-realized (SR) master says that God only is the guru, and all are His disciples. A disciple should be like a bee seeking honey from flowers. If the bee does not get honey from one flower, it immediately goes to another flower and stays at that flower as long as it gets the nectar. Idoliza­tion and blind worship of a human guru may become a stumbling block in spiritual progress and is harmful to both the disciple and the guru.

After knowing the transcendental science, O Arjuna, you shall not again become deluded like this. With this eye of knowledge you shall see all in your own Self and thus within Me, the Supreme Self. (See also 6.29, 6.30, 11.07, 11.13) (4.35)

The same life-force of the Supreme Being reflects in all living beings to support and activate them. Therefore, we are all part and parcel of the cosmic energy of Brahma, the Self, and connected with each other. At the dawn of enlightenment, one merges with the Absolute (Gita 18.55), and all diversities appear as nothing but the expansion of the higher Self.
Even if one is the most sinful of all sinners, one shall cross over the river of sin by the raft of Self-knowledge. (4.36)

The fire of Self-knowledge reduces all bonds of Karma to ashes, O Arjuna, like the blazing fire reduces wood to ashes. (4.37)

Know the Truth, and Truth shall make you free from bondage. The fire of Self-knowledge burns all accumulated (Sanchita) Karma or the total Cosmic debt---the root cause of the soul’s transmigration---just as fire instantly burns a mountain of cotton. The present action does not produce any new Karma (Kriyamana Karma) because the wise know that all work is done by the forces of nature, and we are not the doer. Thus, when Self-knowledge dawns, only a part of the accumulated Karma, known as fate (Prarabdha) that is responsible for the present birth, has to be exhausted before freedom from transmigration is attained by an enlightened person.

The physical body and mind generate new Karma. The causal body is the outermost body that covers the Self. The causal body is the warehouse storage for the accumulated Karma. Karmas are projected from causal body into the subtle body and then into the physical body as fate for dissipation. Karma produces body, and body generates new Karma. Thus, the cycle of birth and death continues indefinitely. Only selfless service can break this cycle, and selfless service is not possible without Self-knowledge. Thus, transcendental knowledge breaks the bonds of Karma and leads to salvation. This knowledge does not manifest to a sinful person---or to any person whose time to receive the spiritual knowledge has not come.

Loss and gain, life and death, fame and infamy lie in the hands of one’s Karma. Fate is all-powerful. This being so, one should neither be angry nor blame anybody (TR 2.171.01). People know virtue and vice, but one’s choice is ordained by fate or Karmic footprints because the mind and intellect are con­trolled by fate. When success does not come in spite of best efforts, it may be concluded that fate precedes endeavor.


Truly, there is no purifier in this world like the true knowledge of the Supreme Being. One discovers this knowledge within, naturally, in due course of time (when one's mind is purified by any sincere spiritual practice(s)). (See also 4.31, 5.06, and 18.78). (4.38)

The intense fire of devotion to God burns all Karma and purifies and illuminates the mind and intellect just as sunlight illumines the earth (BP 11.03.40). Selfless service should be per­formed to the best of one’s ability until purity of mind is attained (DB 7.34.15). True knowledge of the Self is automatically reflected in a pure consciousness (Chitta). KarmaYoga cleanses the dirt of selfishness from the mind and prepares it to receive Self-knowledge. Selfless service (KarmaYoga) and Self-knowledge are thus the two wings to take one to salvation.

One who has faith in God, is sincere in yogic practice, and has control over the mind and senses, gains this transcendental knowledge. Having gained this knowledge, one quickly attains su­preme peace or liberation. (4.39)
The fires of mental grief and sorrows, born of at­tachment, can be completely extinguished by the water of Self-knowledge (MB 3.02.26). There is no basis for right thought and action without Self-knowledge.

The irrational, the faithless, and the disbeliever (atheist) perish (or transmigrate). There is neither this world nor the world beyond nor happi­ness for a disbeliever. (4.40)


Work does not bind a Self-conscious person who has renounced work---by renouncing the fruits of work---through KarmaYoga and whose confusion (with regard to body and Spirit) is completely de­stroyed by Self-knowledge, O Arjuna. (4.41)

Therefore, cut the ignorance-born confusion (with regard to body and Spirit) by the sword of Self-knowledge, resort to KarmaYoga, and get up for the war, O Arjuna. (4.42)


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