We arrive at the concluding chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā, of Krishna’s eighteen yoga teachings. This chapter is the longest in the Gītā (slightly longer than chapter 2). It serves partly as a reiteration and re-emphasis of previously expressed ideas, but also as an elaboration on important principles in terms of the three modalities of nature. It is also here that we find a dramatic crescendo near the chapter’s end, in Krishna’s final exhortation to Arjuna (and to all would-be yogīs) to find refuge and ultimate yoga success in him, yogeśvara, the master of yoga.
Arjuna opens this chapter asking Krishna about the truth (tattva) of renouncing (sannyāsa) and of “letting go” (tyāga). Renunciation has already been discussed in Chapter 5, but here, enriched by the notion “letting go,” renunciation is viewed with the lens of the three modalities of nature, in order to highlight the proper spirit for such practices to be fully effective in yoga. The essential idea is that one should not make the mistake of thinking that renunciation means to let go of—to give up— righteous acts (summarized as sacrifice, charity, and austerity, as noted in the previous chapter); rather, one should let go of all attachment and of any “fruits” (results, gains) that accrue from performing such righteous acts (18.1-6).
In Chapter 3 we learned that action is unavoidable, and here Krishna notes that to try to give up acts that are prescribed, for whatever reason, is a characteristic of the modalities of passion or ignorance. Rather, being situated in the modality of illumination, one performs one’s duties while giving up attachment and fruits, thinking “it is to be done” (18.7-9). To persons who do not let go, desireable and undesireable fruits are bound to come from actions, as do fruits that are mixtures of what is desireable and undesireable. For renouncers, however, no such fruits (all of which perpetuate worldly bondage) do not accrue (18.12).
Somewhat ironically, although Krishna has just made clear the need to let go of actions’ results, he now speaks of the success of actions as the product of five causes (or factors). The place of action, the doer of action, various means of performing an action, various efforts to act, and—most importantly—“providence” (daiva), comprise an aggregate of factors involved in any action; but a foolish person will think that he or she (the doer) is the sole cause of actions (18.14-17). Krishna then continues his analysis of action by considering it in terms of three elements—knowledge (jñāna), action (karma), and the doer (kartā)—each of which he further analyzes in terms of the three modalities, illumination, passion, and darkness. So, for example, knowledge based in luminosity is characterized by awareness of a single, unchanging reality in all living beings, whereas knowledge based in passion is characterized by a sense of difference among living beings. And knowledge based in darkness is characterized by clinging to one particular task as one’s entire world (18.20-22). The point of this analysis of action as involving several factors is to dislodge one’s illusory and wrong understanding of oneself as the sole cause of action. Indeed, a person who understands this point is considered to be a doer who is situated in the modality of illumination. It is such persons who show great determination in their activities, unaffected by success and failure and uninterested in promoting themselves (18.23, 26).
Since successful action requires the use of good reasoning and determination, Krishna also speaks of three qualities of these in terms of luminosity, passion, and darkness. One exercising reason in luminosity understands about dharma and its opposite, recognizing danger and its lack; such a person’s resolve sustains the mind, life, senses, and duty, by undeviated yoga practice (18.30, 33). Ineffectual action is that of a person in darkness, who mistakes non-dharma for dharma, and whose resolve is vitiated by sleep, fear, lamentation, depression, and possibly madness (18.32, 35). Finally, with regard to the three modalities, Krishna offers a taxonomy of happiness: When experience seems like poison in the beginning and like nectar in the end, such happiness is luminous; but experience which seems like nectar in the beginning—due to pleasurable sensations—and then turns to poison, is passionate happiness; and delusive experience in the beginning and end, arising from sleep, laziness and madness, is “happiness” in ignorance (18.37-39).
Since everyone in this world is bound by the three modalities, there are differences in the way people work. As Krishna has mentioned briefly in Chapter 4, there is a fourfold typology of persons with respect to their modalities (guṇa) and activities (karma), and this determines the division of duties for human beings. First, there are brāhmaṇas—persons who act based on the predominance of qualities such as peacefulness, self-control, forbearance, higher knowledge and wisdom, rectitude and faith—who are grounded in luminosity. Then there is the work of kṣatriyas, characterized by heroism, engagement with power, great resolve, giving in charity, ruling, and fearless fighting. Third, the work of vaiśyas consists in farming, protecting cows, and engaging in business; and finally, Krishna summarizes the work of śūdras as “assisting” others in their work. By practicing one’s own prescribed type of work, one gains ultimate perfection of human life (18.42-45).
Indeed, says Krishna, by cultivating all the qualities associated with the serious practice of yoga that he has described in previous chapters, one becomes situated in the absolute spirit (brahman) wherein one neither grieves nor hankers, and in which one is able to experience all beings as equal in value. It is in such an advanced yoga state that one deeply comprehends bhakti—devotion—to bhagavān (18.54). And the essential truth of bhakti is embodied in the act of surrender—resorting to bhagavān for refuge. Krishna assures Arjuna that when Arjuna is prepared to set aside conventional notions of righteousness (dharma) and resort to bhagavān (whom Krishna, throughout the Gītā, has identified as himself), he (Krishna) will liberate Arjuna from all evil. Krishna is unequivocal and reassuring: “Do not fear!” (18.66). This single verse, which encompasses the essence of mokṣa-yoga, is celebrated traditionally as the most important verse of the entire Gītā.
Coming to the end of his discussion with Arjuna, Krishna returns to the immediate issue at hand, namely, Arjuna’s initial decision to avoid participating in the ensuing battle at Kurukshetra. If Arjuna refuses to fight, it will be, Krishna says, due to egotism, and because fighting is part of Arjuna’s nature as a kṣatriya, he will anyway be impelled to fight in one or another circumstance. But, significantly, Krishna wants Arjuna to decide for himself what he shall do, and Arjuna is pleased to announce that he will indeed do as Krishna advises. He can now proceed to fight with full vigor, in the exalted state of consciousness that is both the product and the substance of yoga. Arjuna tells Krishna that he has now become free from illusion as a result of Krishna’s yoga teachings (18.73).
And so the Bhagavad-gītā ends, with Sañjaya telling Dhṛtarāṣṭra of the joy he experiences on hearing and remembering Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about the practice and perfection of yoga. Indeed, says Sañjaya, hearing Krishna’s words makes him feel thrilled, his hair standing on end. And he reassures Dhṛtarāṣṭra (the blind king, father of the Kauravas who are opposing Arjuna and the other Pāṇḍavas on the battlefield) that “wherever there is Krishna, the master of yoga, and wherever there is Arjuna, the wielder of the bow, there surely prevail plenitude, victory, power, and morality” (18.78). Thus ends the Bhagavad-gītā, and so the great battle of Kurukṣetra, the central action of the Mahābhārata, commences. In that battle, many wonderful and dramatic episodes take place, and in the end the Pāṇḍavas prevail over the Kauravas. However, because of the soft-hearted character of the Pāṇḍavas, in the end they are saddened by the way the war proceeded as much as by the outcome, and so they do not celebrate their victory; rather, they seek solace from the wise grandsire of the clan, Bhīṣma. But this is a much longer story to be told elsewhere.
Having surveyed the eighteen yogas of the Bhagavad-gītā, we do well to consider what the text tells us about yoga in general. What is the “take-home message” of the Gītā about yoga? What, after all this, does yoga mean? First, we should note that the Gītā is traditionally identified as yoga-śāstra, a text belonging to the genre of ancient Indian literature that gives authoritative, time-honored knowledge on yoga. Another famous text of this genre is the Yoga Sūtra (or Yoga Sūtras) attributed to the sage Patañjali. But unlike the Yoga Sūtra, with its extremely terse, cryptic style and its focus on some of the more technical details of yoga practice and philosophy, the Bhagavad-gītā unfolds a vision of yoga as a very accessible process of ever-deepening engagement in concert with the yogeśvara, the master of yoga, who, as we have seen, is identified as bhagavān (the master of all plenitude), and more specifically as Krishna, who takes the role of spiritual guide for the warrior, Arjuna. This notion of engagement in concert with the yogeśvara, which is only hinted at in the Yoga Sūtra, is at the core of the Gītā’s presentation of yoga.
Thus the considerable range of meanings and connotations of this term yoga that emerge as the Gītā unfolds—meanings such as discipline, connection, conjunction, dedication (as in karma-yoga—dedication of action), and attention (as in dhyāna-yoga—meditational attention)—converge in the sense of dedicated engagement in concert with, or attuned to, the transcendent being whose very existence is one of perpetual engagement (yoga) as super-consciousness conjoined with individual conscious beings. And what emerges from a deep study of the Bhagavad-gītā is that successful practice of yoga can be recognized in the awakening of such engagement between these two co-existing, super-temporal beings, in a dynamic, uplifting relationship infused with deep joyfulness. Thus one comes to appreciate that each one of the eighteen yogas, and indeed any pair or group of these yogas in combination, can serve effectively in this awakening process. It is this ancient wisdom that we are invited to be enriched by and to benefit from in these modern times.