śreyo hī jñānam abhyāsāj jñānād dhyānaṁ viśiṣyate
dhyānāt karmaphala tyāgas tyāgāc chantir anantaram
The transcendental knowledge of scriptures is better than mere ritualistic practice; meditation is better than scriptural knowledge; renunciation of selfish attachment to the fruits of work (Karma Yoga) is better than meditation because peace immediately follows renunciation of selfish motives. 12.12 Trans. Prasad
This chapter outlines four different paths to approaching God (in ascending order): ritualistic practice, knowledge of scriptures, meditation, and renunciation of the fruits of action. First of all, we should notice that none of these practices are at all condemned by Shri Krishna, as all of them are effective paths to liberation. Each person should take the path that suits his or her past karma and present disposition. It should also be noticed that these paths are not mutually exclusive. One may meditate while performing ritualistic actions: indeed, the original purpose of puja and homa is to guide the worshipper into meditation. Also, one may undertake such activities for unselfish purposes, as when one conducts sadhana for world peace.
There also seems to be an ascending degree of difficulty here. A street vendor may reach complete liberation simply by selling newspapers or snacks, provided that the street vendor makes each sale as an act of devotion to Shri Krishna. The same could be said of any profession or any way of life. Sanatana Dharma insists that the state of mind, the disposition of the heart really matters, as opposed to what may be happening outwardly. Any action can become a kind of worship when it is offered with a loving, reverential spirit. We might be tempted to wonder why we need rituals and meditation at all, if the path of renunciation is enough.
Well, precisely because the mind is so difficult to tame do we need these other practices. I can easily become heedless, performing actions without the intention of Self-realization. I can get caught up in the veil of Maya, in which I forget to regard everything as a manifestation of the ultimate reality. So I need gods in order to take me to God. I need personal devotion. I need to offer fruit, flowers, incense, flame, and water before my ishta devātā. I need meditation, so that I realize that this murthi really is my point of contact with that manifestation of divinity. It is not an inert object: it is the living presence of the divine in my life. I then need scriptures to make sure that my head stays “screwed on straight,” as my dad would say, so that I see my activities within the context of the whole.
Then when I arrive at work, wherever that might be, I come to the job with this frame of mind that everything is worship. I can look at the phone, the computer, the broom, the vacuum, the street, the clients, the students, the customers, as the context in which divinity unfolds. I can tear down the dividing wall between the sacred and the mundane and behave as I would in the temple. I can keep silent within and renounce the fruits of action. Shri Ramakrishna was fond of using the image of water sliding off of a duck’s back. He would also talk about walking in the rain without getting wet. In other words, we should complete worldly actions with divine intent. This is the most difficult yoga, but it is also the most rewarding and the culmination of the other types of discipline.
Perhaps we can begin to stay in this state for just a few minutes each day, and then a few hours each day, and then a whole day, and then whole weeks, and so forth. This requires an odd combination of toughness and gentleness, self-discipline and self-forgiveness. It requires a willingness to keep trying when the negative emotions overpower the wisdom within. The work is certainly worthwhile, because things can be so beautiful when seeing the world from a point of view where no payback is desired or required. Suddenly the world pops into brilliant color and life, once we stop the game of passion and anger. Today let’s begin again to begin again, to strive to put our charioteer’s advice into practice.