Karma and Jnana

The story of humanity can be summed up as the fate of an animal which is tethered to a pole. The animal moves around in a circle, doing same stuff all the time and knows not that it is tied and bound. The human beings behave exactly in same fashion, day in and day out. They do exactly same things every day, propelled by same basic propensities and yet believe themselves to be free and independent. Is it not a big paradox? One is tied, so strongly that it is evident after even a casual inquiry, and yet believes oneself to be free.

Several paths have been recommended to liberate us from this bondage. It is an accepted conclusion that only Jnana can liberate us from bondage. However, the attainment of Jnana has certain prerequisites. One needs to possess certain attributes for letting Jnana blossom unto him.

Shruti is very clear as to what Jnana means. It states that Jnana is the understanding that ‘सर्वम् खलु इदम् ब्रह्म’ ‘प्रज्ञानम् ब्रह्म’ ‘अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म’ ‘तत् त्वम् असि’ and ‘अहम् ब्रह्म अस्मि’. Thus, Jnana is basically a प्रत्यय. Just as ice, water and vapour are nothing but H2O, similarly this entire diversity and plurality perceived as world is nothing but one singular entity, ब्रह्म. This understanding is called Jnana or vidya. None of us have this Jnana. Even though we theoretically contemplate it, we don’t really believe it. How can one assert this? If we really believe it, then there would be no occasion to have attachment or aversion because everything is same. Attachment and aversion is possible only with respect to two different substances. One can love gold and hate copper only as long as one believes gold to be different from copper. Would one have attachment or aversion towards two lumps of clay of different shapes? Agreed that they have different shapes but there would be no cause of attachment or aversion because both are clay only. But all of us are suffering from attachment and aversion. That is a definite indicator that we don’t have Jnana or vidya. This absence of Jnana or vidya is known as ajnana or avidya.

Thus, it is logical to understand that our liberation is obvious on attainment of Jnana. As long as concept of two exists, one is bound. Pratyay of two goes, one is liberated from attachment and aversion.

Question is, why don’t we get Jnana despite being informed of the statements containing Jnana? The answer to this query again comes from Shruti. The sine qua non for attainment of Jnana is sattva-shuddhi i.e. chitta-shuddhi or purity of heart. As long as one has an impure mind/heart, one cannot attain Jnana. It is a rule of thumb. So, it boils down to the question as to how to get rid of impure heart. We have impure heart and we know it. The question is related to the method of getting rid of the impurity.

It is in this backdrop that the doctrine of Karma-yoga is explained in Gita. One should be very clear. Karma-yoga is not a path for liberation. Its role is to make your heart pure so that you can attain Jnana and then get liberation.

To start with, we should first know as to what is karma. When Gita talks about karma, it presumes two aspects to be together. Any action which is coupled with avidya is named as karma. Action is defined as interaction of three gunas among themselves. Any karma is bound to cause karma-fala. If there is an action which is not coupled with avidya, then it will not be called karma and consequently there would be no karma-fala. Actions are not dependent on avidya. They take place on their own because it is the very nature of gunas to keep interacting. Thus, a Jnani would have actions but there would be no karma and consequently no karma-fala. The body of Jnani would be active, nobody can be action-less unless dead, but there would be no karma and hence, no karma-fala.

Thus, it is easy to understand that our actions, which are always coupled with avidya, are karma. Thus, we are fit candidates for karma-yoga. A Jnani cannot do karma-yoga because he cannot do any karma. This is so because karma and Jnana cannot coexist.

Now we understand that we are fit candidates for karma-yoga. But what is the method? Karma-yoga then goes a step further and prescribes the technique of surrendering the karma to Ishwar (God) with no desire for personal enjoyment of karma-fala. By Ishwar, one means the entity from which this world has come, in which it exists and in which it will merge. This attitude of surrender is called ईश्वरार्पण-बुद्धि. Thus, it is an attitude of mind wherein one does the karma but surrenders it to Ishwar without any desire to personal enjoyment of karma-fala. While surrendering, there has to be a relationship of master-servant between Ishwar and the aspirant. The aspirant has the attitude that he is doing the karma for the sake of his master, Ishwar. It is natual that if you are doing karma for Ishwar then you want the karma-fala to be enjoyed by Ishwar and not by yourself. Obviously, the technique also includes performance of only shashtra-enjoined karmas. Forbidden karmas cannot come in the realm of karma-yoga. That is to say, one can’t do forbidden acts, i.e. acts prohibited by shashtra, as an ingredient of karma-yoga.

To summarise,

Karma = Action (interaction of gunas among themselves) + Avidya

Karma must cause karma-fala

Jnani has no avidya, hence he would have actions but no karma and hence no karma-fala

Jnani cannot do karma and hence cannot do karma-yoga

Karma-yoga = Karma (actions + avidya) + Surrender of Karma to Ishwar (I am doing the karma for Ishwar as a servant does for master) + No desire of personal enjoyment of karma-fala (it is natual that if you are doing karma for Ishwar then you want the karma-fala to be enjoyed by Ishwar and not by yourself) + Only shashtra-enjoined karmas and no forbidden karmas.

One needs to appreciate the technique of karma-yoga and also its goal. The goal of karma-yoga is purity of heart and nothing else. It makes the ground for dawn of Jnana by making heart pure so that one gets liberated from the tangle of attachment and aversion.

Thus, the sequence is karma-yoga, then jnana-yoga and then obviously sarva-karma-sanyas (obvious renunciation of all karma, since there are no karmas anymore). This is the sequence propounded in Gita.

I quote certain relevant statements from Prasthantrayi Bhashya supporting the above note:-

From Gita Bhashya

इत्यतः संसारबीजभूतौ शोकमोहौ। तयोश्च सर्वकर्मसंन्यासपूर्वकादात्मज्ञानात् नान्यतो निवृत्तिरिति.

एवं सांख्यबुद्धिं योगबुद्धिं च आश्रित्य द्वे निष्ठे विभक्ते भगवतैव उक्ते ज्ञानकर्मणोः कर्तृत्वाकर्तृत्वैकत्वानेकत्वबुद्ध्याश्रययोः युगपदेकपुरुषाश्रयत्वासंभवं पश्यता.

कर्मयोगोपायत्वं च नैष्कर्म्यलक्षणस्य ज्ञानयोगस्य श्रुतौ इह च प्रतिपादनात्.

अज्ञानामेव हि कर्मयोगः न ज्ञानिनाम्। ज्ञानिनां तु गुणैरचाल्यमानानां स्वतश्चलनाभावात् कर्मयोगो नोपपद्यते.

असक्तो हि यस्मात् समाचरन् ईश्वरार्थंकर्म कुर्वन् परं मोक्षम्आप्नोति पूरुषः सत्त्वशुद्धिद्वारेण इत्यर्थः.

न हि साक्षादेव ज्ञानाग्निः कर्माणि इन्धनवत् भस्मीकर्तुं शक्नोति। तस्मात् सम्यग्दर्शनं सर्वकर्मणां निर्बीजत्वे कारणम् इत्यभिप्रायः (By Jnana, the karma is made seedless. The seed of karma is avidya. Jnana destroys avidya and makes karma mere actions, bereft of the capacity to cause karma-fala).

यस्य एवं तत्त्वविदः सर्वकार्यकरणचेष्टासु कर्मसु अकर्मैव पश्यतः सम्यग्दर्शिनः तस्य सर्वकर्मसंन्यासे एव अधिकारः कर्मणः अभावदर्शनात्.

युक्तः ईश्वराय कर्माणि करोमि न मम फलाय इत्येवं समाहितः सन्कर्मफलं त्यक्त्वा परित्यज्य शान्तिं मोक्षाख्याम् आप्नोति नैष्ठिकीं निष्ठायां भवां सत्त्वशुद्धिज्ञानप्राप्तिसर्वकर्मसंन्यासज्ञाननिष्ठाक्रमेणेति वाक्यशेषः.

कथं पुनः कर्मण्यधिकृतेन अज्ञेन मुमुक्षुणा कर्म कर्तव्यमिति उच्यते? मयि वासुदेवे परमेश्वरे सर्वज्ञे सर्वात्मनि सर्वाणि कर्माणि संन्यस्य निक्षिप्य अध्यात्मचेतसा विवेकबुद्ध्या अहं कर्ता ईश्वराय भृत्यवत् करोमि इत्यनया बुद्ध्या.

यत् सांख्यैः ज्ञाननिष्ठैः संन्यासिभिः प्राप्यते स्थानं मोक्षाख्यम् तत् योगैरपि ज्ञानप्राप्त्युपायत्वेन ईश्वरे समर्प्य कर्माणि आत्मनः फलम् अनभिसंधाय अनुतिष्ठन्ति ये ते योगाः योगिनः तैरपि परमार्थज्ञानसंन्यासप्राप्तिद्वारेण गम्यतेइत्यभिप्रायः.

From Ishavasya Upanishad

विरोध: ज्ञान कर्मणो: पर्वतवद् अकंप्य:.


4 thoughts on “Karma and Jnana”

  1. Imagine a vast garden with many different things growing-what appears to be an infinite number of forms. Many spend countless lives searching in this garden for that one thing, call it God, Love, etc. Many hope to find that one form that will unite all forms. They huddle around a certain corner and call it “mine.” But what do all these forms have in common, what is the uniting factor? The ground from which they spring.


    1. I disagree. The common factor is not like the ground which unites all forms. It is like H2O in ice, water, vapor. The plurality is like ice, water, vapor and the uniting factor is H2O. However, it can be known only by science. Similarly, this diverse plurality seen as universe, including our own selves, is nothing but one singular entity, Brahman. Actually, there is nothing like uniting the myriad forms. There is no diversity. That has to be known from Shruti.


  2. Thank you for clarifying the idea that karma is to purify, and not the actual path to liberation, for which jnana is necessary. Very helpful. We are six women attempting to study the gita and apply it to our everyday lives, in practical hands on ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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