What we do creates karma, yet we cannot stop action, so how can we ever be free of our karma? This verse gives us the answer—the one kind of action that will not create karma, and will ultimately eradicate it entirely.
NOTE: My own orientation, Surrender Meditation, is strongly reflected in my commentary on these verses (9 -15), but it is certainly not the only valid perspective. So if your orientation is other than this, you can draw your own conclusions accordingly, with my blessings.
In this world, one is bound by action, except for actions for the purpose of sacrifice. Free of attachment, act for this purpose, Son of Kunti (Arjuna).
We learned previously that ‘action’ and ‘karma‘ are synonymous, that it is what we do that creates our karma, but that we can’t stop action. This undoubtedly left us wondering how we could ever be free of our karma. This verse provides the answer. In it we find that there is one kind of action that does not create karma: sacrifice.
Now, we really don’t want to hear this, do we? The idea of sacrifice is repugnant to us. But do we understand what sacrifice really is, beyond our usual ‘no pain no gain’ thinking?
We in the West are used to thinking of sacrifice as bearing some horrible burden, giving until it hurts, martyring ourselves for the sake of some cause, or giving up our own lives for someone else’s. Then there is human sacrifice on a bloody altar, and on we go with utter distaste. But this is not what is meant by the Sanskrit word for sacrifice, yajña, as we are about to learn.
‘Sacrifice’ from an English Dictionary
The act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure. An act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.
To come to an understanding of what is meant by the word for ‘sacrifice’ in these verses, taking the Sanskrit apart tells us something interesting. Remember the word jñana which we learned means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’? In the word for ‘sacrifice’ we find the same base: jña. The prefix, ya, points to something more specific.
yajña – ‘sacrificing, worshipping’ = sacrifice as a form of worship (i.e., rites, rituals, ceremonies, spiritual practices)
ya (this) + jña (understanding of a knowable) = something specific to know and understand
The Sacrificial Offering
Common sacrificial offerings are food, flowers, fragrances, etc., things associated with the senses, and somehow, in some cases, the idea of human sacrifice even sneaks in. You are, after all, human, so sacrifice is human. Tweak this just a tiny bit and it is easy to arrive at ‘human sacrifice’.
Sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood subjects to be found in mystical texts. Human sacrifice as the sacrifice of one human being by another, is a misinterpretation, perhaps by chance, perhaps because of simple ignorance, or perhaps by a ‘priesthood’ with an agenda of its own. We mostly think of sacrificial rites of this kind as a thing of the past, but they are not, though these rituals are not commonly known for obvious reasons.
In this verse, it is said that if your actions are for the purpose of sacrifice you will not be bound by them. This is very appealing, as such freedom yields great power. When the logic of the mind comes up with ‘the more you sacrifice the more power you gain’, the mind can can also come up with human sacrifice for a bigger offering. Those who would argue that they know from experience that this really works are unaware that, sooner or later, they will pay, for such willful and harmful actions create profoundly negative karma that will come back to haunt them. Fortunately, most take sacrifice to mean doing service for others in need, and though this still creates karma, it is good karma.
All of these ideas about sacrifice miss the point. Krishna is not talking about ‘things’ or ‘people’, he is talking about actions. And he has made the stipulation that the action be without attachment, which is not the case with these misinterpretations. At best, some will produce ‘good’ karma, but it is still karma, and any karma at all—good, bad or in-between—is binding.
Karma (Action) Yoga
Action free of attachment to the action and its outcome. Karma Yoga is the sacrifice.
Paints a different picture, doesn’t it? So now we get the idea that there is something more going on with ‘sacrifice’ than the usual understanding. The next few verses will tell us even more.
The ‘human sacrifice’ of offering oneself to God in meditation and accepting ensuing actions as the work of shakti, the activating force, and not one’s own.
By giving up ownership and control of action in meditation, you remove yourself as the doer of action, so you don’t own or control the results of it either. You don’t own any of it, so you don’t owe anything for it. Ergo, no karma.
Namaste (I bow to the Divine One that You really are),