Krishna mentions sacred texts at the end of the previous chapter, and this prompts Arjuna to ask for more details. What is the situation of persons who practice sacrificial rites but do not follow the prescriptions for such rites provided in the sacred texts? Arjuna frames his question in terms of the three modalities—illumination, passion, and darkness—so Krishna’s response, comprising most of this chapter, is also in these terms, constituting a further elaboration on the modalities from Chapter 14.
Krishna’s response to this question is quite striking: Everyone has faith; indeed all persons are constituted of faith. But, depending on how one is associated with the three modalities, one’s faith will be invested in one or another sort of activity. Krishna gives examples. Persons situated in illumination typically offer sacrifices to divinities (several of which are described in the Vedas); those in passion offer sacrifices to assorted ethereal beings; and persons in darkness offer sacrifices to deceased beings and to ghosts (17.4). Moreover, the way and attitude by which persons offer sacrifices also indicate the type of faith they cultivate.
As faith is identifiable by the nature of activities, people’s faith orientations are also identifiable through their eating habits. Persons situated in the modality of illumination tend to eat foods that increase longevity, energy, strength, and health, bringing happiness and satisfaction. But persons in the modality of passion are attracted to foods that are bitter, sour, salty, spicy, pungent, and the like, bringing only pain and disease. And persons in the modality of ignorance are attracted to food that is rotten, stale, and flavorless (17.7-10).
But whereas eating is usually associated with enjoyment, human beings also practice austerities. As Krishna will say in the final chapter, sacrifice, charity, and austerity are righteous activities never to be rejected. Yet depending on the modality of one’s faith, one will perform these acts accordingly. Regarding austerity, Krishna identifies three types—of the body, of the mind, and of speech—listing several favored practices related to each of these and indicating that these are all arising from faith in the modality of illumination. Included among luminous bodily austerities are acts of honoring divinities, teachers, priests and sages; and keeping clean, chaste, righteous, and harmless. Luminous austerities of speech include speaking truth and speaking beneficially, and regularly reciting sacred texts. And luminous austerities of the mind include keeping serene, gentle, self-controlled, and pure in thought. Aside from luminous practices of austerity, the faith of some being situated in passion and darkness draws them to practice austerities with self-centered motivation or even to harm themselves or others (17.14-17).
Similar distinctions are made for acts of charity in terms of the three modalities, with special attention to the attitude of the benefactor. Charity given out of a sense of duty, to an appropriate person at an appropriate time, shows faith in luminosity; charity given grudgingly and to gain benefits in return, shows faith in passion; and charity that is given disdainfully or as an insult, to the wrong person at the wrong time, shows faith in darkness (16.20-22). Krishna concludes this chapter by emphasizing that one must have faith in the efficacy of sacrificial acts, giving of charity, and practice of austerities, for these to be meaningful. Recognizing that it is impossible to stop activity (as was established in Chapter 3), for one to practice yoga effectively calls for one to look carefully at the quality of one’s pious activities in the world. Again, similar to Chapter 16, this is a yoga practice of differentiation, here calling for awareness of the distinctions of faith qualities. To neglect such distinctions, the aim of yoga—to connect with the true and the real—will be missed (17.28).