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Living in harmony with nature

How Can Our Actions Be Devoted to the Universe?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In Chapter 3, Krishna critiques those who live a life of hypocrisy. You can escape the world and live in a cave, but it’s still possible to bring a part of the world with you and not adopt a karma yoga attitude. This theme continues in the following verse:

यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धन: |

तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसङ्ग: समाचर || 3.9||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 9 (In Sanskrit)

Except for action done as a sacrifice, mankind is bound by karma. O Arjuna, as a sacrifice perform action without attachment. || 3.9 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 9 (English Translation)

Sannyasis remain unmarried and free from worldly responsibilities to be devoted to spiritual pursuit. If you’re going to be engaged in any activities at all, whether you are a sannyasi or a homemaker, those activities must be done with the attitude of karma yoga. It applies equally to all. Having the mindset of karma yoga towards all activities is crucial for spiritual growth.

In the verse above, Krishna begins to discuss Ishvara-arpana-buddhi (the attitude of offering unto God). 

The term yajna is often translated as a sacrifice. When offerings are made, that is your sacrifice. In ancient times, ghee was a valuable resource that would be used as an offering. Offering anything of significant value into the fire is sacrifice, which is symbolic of the Ishvara-arpana buddhi attitude.

The flames consume anything that is offered into the fire, and the flames carry that yajna upwards to symbolically convey your offering up to the Gods. The flames are instrumental in conveying your offering. Similarly, in modern times, if you hire a priest to perform rituals for you, they are an instrument to receive blessings. The fire itself is better understood as the means or a tool to offer up to God.

Dedicating your good deeds to God is a form of yajna or sacrifice. In theory, if you perform enough harmful deeds, your next life can be in hell. This is the bondage of being reborn. Even good karmas will cause you to get reborn. Every time you are born, you will undoubtedly suffer, and it prevents you from remaining in a state of non-separateness from brahman. The idea of bondage is that you get born again and again by committing karmas. This continual cycle of birth and rebirth prevents you from being in a state in which you are merged with the Supreme Being.

What Matters More: The Deed or Our Intent?

The intention of your action is just as important as the deed itself. It’s not just the action. Imagine you walk outside and accidentally step on a bug. The deed was to kill a living creature, but there was no intention to kill when you do it accidentally. Because there is no intention, that intention is as important as the deed. That act of killing incurs no sinful karma at all.

On the other hand, imagine a bug is crawling along, and you decide to smash it. That act of killing is intentional. So, this action would bring with it some karmic demerits. 

At a high level, karma yoga is an antidote to the conventional intention with which we do karmas. The conventional intention is raga and dvesha. Karma yoga replaces this conventional intention with various attitudes, including understanding that whenever you do an action, you are merely an agent of action. You have no control over the result. This recognition gives you a prayerful attitude towards that action. If you perform an action, that action becomes prayer. 

Simple everyday tasks become an act of prayer. The most basic way karma yoga shifts your intention towards action is that instead of acting for the sake of limited worldly results, you act as a form of spiritual practice, which will eventually lead you to gain perfect peace and lasting contentment. This is the discernment discussed in previous posts. No amount of worldly action can ever produce perfect peace and lasting contentment. With that understanding, your whole motivation gets shifted. Instead of acting for limited worldly results, your actions become a part of a spiritual practice that can culminate in spiritual growth and moksha.
The shift of intention is the attitude of dedicating your actions to Ishvara.

What Does it Mean to Dedicate Your Actions to Ishvara?

In general, our intentions are selfish. Raga and dvesha are selfish types of intentions. You want to fulfill your own desires and avoid pain and discomfort. Even taking care of your family is self-oriented because it is your family. The orientation shift is to set aside your self-oriented agenda and follow dharma instead. 

For example, raga might mean you desire food that might not be healthy for your body. Your body does not belong to you; it belongs to Ishvara. It is a sacrifice not to eat the food and choose to take care of your body instead. A sacrifice is whenever you set aside your own self-oriented agenda for the sake of following dharma.

You should perform your deeds with the attitude of sacrifice while being free from attachment. Setting your own agenda aside for the sake of following dharma is dedicating your actions to Ishvara.

Why Do We Offer Sacrifices?

सहयज्ञा: प्रजा: सृष्ट्वा पुरोवाच प्रजापति: |

अनेन प्रसविष्यध्वमेष वोऽस्त्विष्टकामधुक् || 3.10||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 10 (In Sanskrit)

Having created people along with sacrifice, the Creator said in the beginning: “By this (sacrifice) shall you multiply. May this (sacrifice) be a wish-fulfilling cow for you.” || 3.10 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 10 (English Translation)

In ancient times, the laws of nature were not properly understood. They believed that the rains came because they prayed to God. Everything was attributed to the deities. With that in mind, it is easier to understand how vital yanja was at that time. They would propitiate the Gods by making offerings. This is not our modern post-scientific worldview. But to understand Shri Krishna’s teachings, we have to understand the context in their way.

Yajna was crucial to propitiate the Gods so that everything unfolds in a desirable way. By performing rituals, your desires will be fulfilled. You will be nurtured and thrive by performing these rituals. 

The idea was that people were encouraged to give something back to nature. We can see the consequences of taking from nature and not giving anything back in modern times. We are causing the degradation of our environment because we constantly take from nature without reciprocating.

The ancient way was to perform yajna to give back to the Gods. Today, we recognize our responsibility to care for nature.

How Do Sacrifices Help Us Give Back?

देवान्भावयतानेन ते देवा भावयन्तु व: |

परस्परं भावयन्त: श्रेय: परमवाप्स्यथ || 3.11||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 11 (In Sanskrit)

Propitiate the gods by this (sacrifice). May those gods propitiate you. Propitiating each other, you shall gain the highest good.” || 3.11 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 11 (English Translation)

If you make offerings to the Gods, the Gods will take care of you. The reciprocation of taking care of each other results in the highest good. The modern world view is to take from nature with respect, knowing that if we do not take care of nature, it will not take care of us.

The whole universe is an expression of the universe. Many times, it is looked upon as Ishvara’s physical body. We can understand this world as a physical manifestation. Many times we treat the world as bhudevi (goddess) in the form of planet earth. Who are we to defile the water and air if we truly have a devotional planet?

इष्टान्भोगान्हि वो देवा दास्यन्ते यज्ञभाविता: |

तैर्दत्तानप्रदायैभ्यो यो भुङ्क्ते स्तेन एव स: || 3.12||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 12 (In Sanskrit)

The gods will give desired things when propitiated by sacrifice. Without making offerings, the things given by them–he who enjoys is a thief.” || 3.12 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 12(English Translation)

When propitiated, the Gods will ensure that your needs are taken care of and that you will enjoy the desired things. From a modern perspective, if we recognize the essential divinity of this planet that we need to take care of, it will continue to take care of us.

For example, a refrigerant used (R22) was contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer. If it weren’t for the ozone layer that serves to reject harmful UV rays, we would all be subject to terrible skin damage. The chemical was finally banned. The hole in the ozone it caused has since repaired itself. If we take care of the planet, it takes care of us. Conversely, if we fail to take care of the planet, we suffer as a result.

One who enjoys the desired pleasures without giving anything back is considered a thief. If we take the riches of the world without giving anything back, it is like stealing from the planet.

यज्ञशिष्टाशिन: सन्तो मुच्यन्ते सर्वकिल्बिषै: |

भुञ्जते ते त्वघं पापा ये पचन्त्यात्मकारणात् || 2.13||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 13 (In Sanskrit)

Those who eat food offered as a sacrifice are freed from all sins. But those sinners eat sin who cook only for themselves. || 3.13 ||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 3, Verse 13(English Translation)

In terms of nature, if we receive the benefits of living on this planet, then we should receive them with gratitude and give something in return. At a minimum, we can choose to not cause harm or damage. To go a step beyond, we can do something good for this planet, such as planting more trees.

Traditionally, there is a concept that food might be sinfully tainted. For example, cows are often mistreated in the process of milk production. Because of this, there is an association of sin with the product if it is consumed before being ritually purified. The belief is that the people who partake of food that has been ritually offered to Ishvara are freed from sins. 

On the other hand, those who enjoy the food for their selfish needs without gratitude are sinful. If we take food irresponsibly and ignore its source, we are consuming sin. Under this interpretation, those causing harm to the world would also be inviting sin.

What the Gita Teaches Us

Our intent is just as important as our actions. By adopting a prayerful attitude in everything we do, we experience a mindset shift where all our deeds become acts of spiritual practice. We don’t need to perform ancient ritual offerings, but we can be mindful of how we treat the world. The planet provides for us, and we must give our thanks in return by taking care of it.