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THE CONCEPT OF ACTION IN THE BHAGVAD-GITA*

I
The Bhagvad Gita has been interpreted by its admirers in diverse
ways, and critical scholarship has estimated its worth in varying degrees. As a philosophico-religious document of ancient India it has
occupied a prominent place in the lives of millions. Scholars have
quarrelled over its central teaching. It is not the intention of this
paper to enter into that controversy. This paper has the modest aim
of examining critically the Gita doctrine of Niskama-Karma as propounded in the text and then to offer an alternative theory which, in
my view, will be better suited to meet the demands and challenges of
a changing social situation.
In the light of the context and the setting in which the doctrine is
preached it is well-nigh safe to say that the Gita is an exhortation
to duty and a stirring call to action. Krishna undertakes the task of
persuading Arjuna to shake off inertia and perform his duty in a
manly way. This is supposed to be a moral persuasion because it is
aimed at convincing Arjuna and converting him on rational grounds.
The actual arguments may have a mixture of reason and emotional
appeal, but the impression given is that of rational justification for
moral action. It is therefore set out as a philosophy of moral action.
However it is evident to any student of the Gita that moral action
there has not been conceived in isolation but is viewed in the larger
context firstly of a metaphysical commitment derived from protoSamkhya and Upanisadic doctrines and secondly of a theistic faith
in a personal God.
The Gita believes in status quo and sets a high value on social
stability. It accepts the established social order and derives the content of duty from the caste structure and from the notion of different stages of life. The ideal of lokasamagraha is held in high esteem
and Krishna appeals to Arjuna to act in its name. (111. 20). Its doctrine of Niskama-Karma or disinterested action can be understood
only in the light of the ultimate end which is conceived as Moksa.
Moksa means liberation of the empirical self from all bondage to
the not-self - a total emancipation from the phenomenal world cul*Section I of this chapter appeared in the Quest, no. 42 (1964), 23-25, Calcutta, India,
under the title "Doctrine of Niskama-Karma: An Alternative Interpretation." Reprinted
by permission of the editors of the Quest.

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minating ,in the realization of the self as pure Atman. Consequently


the ideal man for the Gita is the sthita-prajna, the gunatita or the
Yogarudha. The essential nature of such an ideal man is detachment,
equipoise (samatva) and unperturbability while engaged in activity
of the intensest kind. The Gita believes that all action - good, bad,
or indifferent - fetters the self because of the self's involvement in
and desire for the fruits of action. If, therefore, the self is to attain
the final goal of moksa and yet not withdraw from the field of action,
it should firstly, perform all its (duties (dharma) conscientiously in
the light of its svabhava and svadharma; secondly action must be
done in a spirit of nonattachment. Nonattachment implies two
things - freedom from an egoistic pride in ones own agency (karttrtvabhimana), and freedom from the desire for the fruits of action
(phalasa) (11. 47). There is one more condition which secures the
freedom of the self from all bondage and that is tl at actions and the
fruits thereof must be dedicated in a spirit of love and devotion to
God. When these three conditions are fulfilled action does not bind
the self and the so-called law of karman is transcended.
I think the above is the universally accepted interpretation of the
doctrine of niskama-karma. I want now to argue that this conception
of disinterested action, however ennobling and elevating, suffers
from two serious limitations which render it unsuitable for meeting
the needs of changing and revolutionary times. It is admitted that in
performing any action which has social and moral implications it
will be highly presumptuous to take pride in one's own agency. Besides giving rise to false pride and therefore being morally reprehensible, it overlooks the fact that every significant moral action is performed in a social setting and involves the cooperation of a number
of persons. It is a cooperative enterprise. The Gita therefore rightly
points out that one should be free from such a false pride. But having said all this it is to be recognized that viewing every moral action
in the context of the ultimate end of moksa undermines the autonomy of moral action and subordinates it to a metaphysical precommitment. In such a case concrete situations cannot be evaluated and
assessed in terms of the problems they raise but are lifted out of
their concrete contexts into the haze of metaphysical doctrines. This
can be used to justify all kinds of status quo and obscurantist actions.
It therefore cannot meet the challenge of novel and revolutionary
situations because in every case if one acts with perfect equipoise,
no matter what side he takes in the issue, he will be unfettered and
will eventually attain moksa. This is bound to render all moral distinctions of right and wrong actions in sporific situations nugatory

36

PHILOSOPHY
AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL
RESEARCH

and void. Thus the Gita, in effect, encourages a kind of spiritual selfconsciousness which is inimical to moral action.
Secondly it is said that the Gita's doctrine of ethics is deontological since it e x h ~ r t sus to do our duties because they are duties
without regard to any consequences they lead to. This would work
only when we assume, as the Gita does, that the content of duty is
derived from the social organization and is in strict conformity with
svadharma and svabhava. However, in actual life moral situations are
always problematic and for their solution the existing code of duties
offers very little, if any, guidance at all. Such a problem is faced by
Arjuna as the opening Chapter of the Gita so ably dramatizes. Hence
the main issue is how to solve a moral problem and how to act in a
moral situation. It appears to me that a rational appraisal and evaluation of the problem is called for in the light of the conditions
under which one is to act (here svadharma and svabhava are relevant) and in the light of the consequences which are likely to ensue
and which one thinks desirable or undesirable. If this is admitted
then in order to resolve a moral problem one should act after a
proper appraisal of the situation to achieve the end or the goal which
rational reflection shows to be most desirable. In other words one
should have a firm commitment to achieve the goal and should show
all the care and concern for its fulfilment. One would wonder what
exactly the Gita means by saying that one should not care for the
fruits of one's actions (phalasa) in the performance of duty (11. 47,
48). If it means that one should not be committed to the fulfilment
of the goal then it is almost asking for the impossible as it would
undermine the very need for moral action.
It should not be forgotten that the Gita purports to offer guidance in times of social and moral crisis. When one faces conflicting
obligations and is not able to decide between competing goods, and
in short, when one is confronted with a crisis of the spirit, one needs
to know what is the right thing to do. Arjuna faced such a crisis and
stood in need of enlightenment with respect to the right course to
follow in the specific situation portrayed in the Mahabharata. Now
it appears to me that while Arjuna's situation is revolutionary,
fraught with the gravest of consequences and is such that its moral
significance is uncertain and indeterminate, the advice given by
Krishna is in terms of a static code of duties determined by svadharma. Certainly such a static code of duties is unfit to meet the
dynamic situation faced by Arjuna otherwise he would not have
asked for any moral advice at all. One has a feeling that the whole
tenor of the advice given by Krishna is in terms of a transcendental

doctrine. Such an esoteric doctrine of an eternal Atman might have


been highly useful in infusing courage and in boosting up morale.
But it is evident that from the point of view of such metaphysical
heights all actions might be justified'. Hence my contention is that
there is a disharmony between the changing character of a moral
situation and the unchanging eternal nature of the Reality in terms
of which advice is offered. Arjuna is not led by Krishna through a
rational reflection on the social and moral consequences of acting
one way or the other but is initiated in the mysteries of an esoteric
doctrine. And it is precisely because of this metaphysical intrusion
into the solution of a dynamic moral situation that the Gita preaches
a serene unconcern for and nonattachment to all consequences, personal or social. Is it because of an underlying assumption that a
right action must lead to right consequences?
On the other hand Krishna himself is deemed to have exhausted
all possibilities of a rapprochement in order to arrive at an amicable
settlement between the contending parties. Having therefore considered' the issue from all points of view and having weighed and
evaluated the consequences - social and moral - which might ensue by following the alternatives of fighting or not fighting, he should
have convinced himself of the superior worth and righteousness of
fighting the war in order to win it. Unless therefore he was fully
committed to achieve the goal of winning the war and unless everything was staked for bringing it to a successful conclusion there was
no point in fighting it and no hope for reestablishing dharma on
earth. We should not forget that Krishna, as tradition depicts him,
was a master strategist and a superb politician, and as such was
goal-oriented. The efficacy of persuading Arjuna to fight the war
and thus be goal-oriented' on the basis of a doctrine which is highly
metaphysical and self-oriented is therefore highly doubtful.
This tension between the need for being goal-oriented and for
effective moral and social action to achieve a desirable social end on
the one hand, and the need for an ultimate concern for the serene
Atman on the other has characterised Indian culture ever since.
These have never been fully reconciled. In actual practice for the
vast mass of people it has meant either a lip service to the transcendental self and a consequent withdrawal from the field of social and
moral action, or an opportunistic pursuit of selfish, individual goals.
In both cases it has been detrimental to effective social change for
the better and to some extent it accounts for the relatively static
character of Indian society.
Therefore a more sensible and fruitful interpretation of niskama-

karma would be to hold that while we should be firmly committed


to achieve the goal after a rational assessment of the situation, we
should not be so egoistically involved in the issue as to calculate
what, in terms of pleasure or pain, prosperity or otherwise, will be
its likely effect on our personal fortunes. This is indeed the sine qua
non of all effective action as it brings out the best in human nature
and releases boundless sources of energy which might otherwise
have been frittered away in selfish calculations. Nonattachment in
this sense is certainly the most inspiring message we have from the
Gita. It is, I believe, an incorrect or at least a partial interpretation
of the doctrine of Niskama-Karma that has puzzled thinkers and
men of action alike who have drawn their inspiration from the Gita.
If the above distinction is kept in view then it will be perfectly legitimate, nay morally indispensable to be committed to the fulfilment
of the goal and yet to be detached with respect to its effects on
personal fortunes.
This interpretation may not be wholly in line with the doctrine
as preached in the Gita but is certainly consistent with the practice
of Krishna as mentioned in the traditidnal texts.
I1
Let us now pass on to the general theory of action and the
related concepts of self and freedom as advocated by the Gita. Its
concept of duty or moral action is organically related to these other
concepts which function as a constant metaphysical backdrop to its
ethical doctrine. The Gita shares with all other traditional philosophical systems (with the sole exception of the Carvaka materialists) a
belief in what is known as the "law" of karma. It is amazing to find
that a popular version of the "law" of karma has become, through
the centuries, deeply embedded in the warp and woof of Indian
thought and culture. Briefly put, the doctrine of karma holds that
just as there is a natural order where nothing happens without an
adequate cause, in the same way there is a moral order in which no
person can escape the consequences of one's actions - good, bad, or
indifferent. And this law is supposed to apply not only so long as a
man lives but it is operative in determining a person's future birth
after his death. Belief in a continuum of births and deaths (samsara)
according to one's deeds is a pervasive one in Indian culture. Though
there has been no attempt at a rigorous rational justification or
proof for the existence of such a law, there have been some consid'erations which have led Indian thinkers to believe in such a doctrine.
The most obvious factor in producing such a belief is the dramatic
sight of gross inequalities in the personal fortunes of human beings

- which could not; it was supposed, be accounted for b y known factors in their present lives. And therefore, -the law of karma with a
belief in a succession of births and deaths was postulated to explain
the varying fortunes of various human beings. The Gita, not being a
systematic pMlosophica1 work, wavers between two possible interpretations of the doctrine of karma,Some passages (IV. 9 and VI. 4045) suggest that the bonds of karma produce their effects automatically by their own inherent potencies and that the present configuration of the world is due to the effect of karma. Other passages (XVI.
19) point out that it is God who reward's and punishes bad deeds of
persons and brings out the good and bad births associated therewith.
The doctrine, shorn of its metaphysical overtones; derives its plausibility from some obvious emyirical observations and considerations.
It is commonplace to find that our words, thoughts, and d d s l a v e
an impress on our character and shape our destiny in some form. Nobody remains the,same for having said, thought, or done something.
Knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly or unwittingly, we are forging
our habits of thought and action. In this manner one cannot escape
the effect of one's thoughts and actions on one's life, and it is pure
fancy to think otherwise. Secondly, though all thoughts and actions
are personal and individual, they are embedded in a social situation
and have social consequences - some of which are determiaable
while others remain nebulous and ambiguous. Therefore, in this
sense also our. deeds bring about natural and social consequences
including responses from other human beings. It may be legitimate
to hold that the consequences of our deeds, in these two senses, follow us as naturally as the night follows the .day.
The question is whether these obvious empirical considerations
constitute an adequa'te ground for sue$ a belief. In the absence of
decisive empirical evidence for remembering the experiences of one's
previous existence it is difficult to answer the question in the affirmative.' Moreover, the supposed existence in previous births runs
into the difficult conceptual problems of the nature of the self, personal identity, and the mechanism of carrying memories from one
birth to another together with the problem of their mutual relationship. This is not all. The hypothesis of karma has to sort out the
notions of good and bad deeds, right and wrong actions and relate
1 I am aware of the empirical research being done in various countries-of the world
on the alleged hypothesis of reincarnation. In connection with the whole field of psychical research a recent book, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain by Sheila
Ostrander and ,Lynn Schroeder makes interesting reading. It has been published by
Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., in 1970.

them to the jays and sorrows, pleasures and pains, and the various
ups and' downs of life. It has to disentangle and illuminate the intricate web of human existence with its tragedies and comedies, and its
well-nigh unintelligible contingencies and vicissitudes. Faced with
such a stupendous task the Indian thinkers of the ancient past (including the author of the Gita) adopted, on the one hand, a static
concept of right action in terms of conventional class duties and
caste duties (svadharma and svabhava), and on the other hand,
resorted' to a metaphysical explanation for the gross inequalities and
manifest injustices of human life in terms of the operation of a mysterious "law" of karma. Even the historical Buddha who rejected
traditional caste-ism and broomed away the mystical lore of Vedic
sacrifices, accepted uncritically the so-called law of karma. We can
therefore discern in traditional Indian thought and culture a peculiar
combination of static social morality with an individual quest for
transcendence of the whole social order for the attainment of ultimate freedom (moksa or nirvana) which is supposed to terminate
the whole cycle of births and' deaths(samsara). Historically speaking
such a combination led to the total neglect of a historical and dynamic analysis of society and morals. The sages of the Upanisads, the
author of the Gita and the historical Buddha truly recognized change
and flux as a pervasive feature of natural and social reality. But instead of analyzing these changes in terms of natural and socioeconomic and historical factors so as to guide these towards consciously adopted desirable goals, they ridiculed and devaluated the
whole flux of natural and social order as mere phenomenon to be
transcended by the attainment of ultimate freedom - thus leaving
the changing world without an intelligent control and guidance. No
wonder they discovered the cause of man's varying fortunes and misfortunes in his ignorance (avidya) of ultimate reality, of the transcendent self or of nirvana. Thus a metaphysical cause (Ignorance of
reality) was substituted for a slow, careful, and painstaking analysis
of economic, political, social, and historical factors which determined
the fate of millions. They adopted a wholesale metaphysical remedy
for the evils of the temporal world of change - namely, a withdrawal of personal involvement in social affairs together with the performance of fixed static caste duties in a mechanical but nonattached
manner. This heightened and intensified awareness of one's own
transcendental freedom (moksa) meant in practica either sheer hypocrisy or a passive acceptance of one's fate according to the mysterious operation of the law of karma. Was such an attitude caused by
the tropical climate of India or by an inveterate metaphysical trait

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of the Aryan mind in search of ultimate intelligibility, or by a combination of these factors? Or was it after all a result of a "failure of
nerve" in the face of rapid social and political changes involving millions of human beings? However it may have come about it gave to
Indian thought and culture an unhistorical, static, and a transtemporal character. The alleged individual pursuit of the ideal of a transtemporal freedom has diverted much-needed attention from the urgent task of intelligent and cooperative action for bringing about desirable social change. No wonder, the pace of social change in India
has remained to this day terribly and exasperatingly slow. This might
have given rise to its social backwardness and economic poverty which in turn should have confirmed a fatalistic belief in the law of
karma to explain away the miseries and misfortunes of an untold
number of people. Such a circular c a u s a 1i t y has become almost
chronic and vicious.
It will be seen that the foregoing analysis is justified in the light
of the concepts of self, action, and freedom as put forward by the
Gita. The Gita borrows from the Upanisads2 the concept of two selves
- the empirical and the transcendental (11. 17, 20, 22, 24, 25; XIII.
32). It holds that the empirical self (Jiva) is caught up in the causal
nexus and is subject to the cycle of births and d e a t h s (samsara)
while the "real" self remains eternally free, transcendent, pure, and
unaffeoted by the temporal concerns of the former. While the Gita has
not worked out the theoretical problem of the relation between these
two selves (indeed it is doubtful whyther this problem in its traditional formulation can ever be solved satisfactorily) yet it says that
one should lift oneself by one's own efforts and should not degrade
oneself because one's own self is one's friend and one's own self is
one's enemy (VI. 5-6). The Gita, however, repeatedly points out that
though the ultimate ideal is the attainment of transcendent freedom,
yet there is no escape from the performance of one's social duties.
Traditional class duties cannot be circumvented and the social order
is a sine qua non of any quest for transcendence. In this manner the
Upanisadic ideal of pure, and uncompromising transcendence has
been toned down by a recognition of the unavoidable importance of
the performance of social duties. As pointed out above it suggests
tha; one can attain such a freedom by performing one's class duties
in a spirit of nonattachment to the personal and social consequences
of the action. Whether such a combination of the contemplative and
the active ideals is possible or not is a practical question. But the adz Cf. Katha, 11. 18-20, 20-5; 111. 3, 4, 7-8, 10-15; also Mundaka, 111, 1. 1-3.

vocacy of combining an individual quest for transtemporal freedom


with complete disregard of social consequences is fraught with the
g r e a t e s t danger. Nonattached performance of mechanically fixed
class duties may come into conflict with some universal duties (sadharana dharma) such as eschewing needless violence to the innocent. As a matter of faclt Arjuna sought the advice of Krishna specifically because he saw a conflict between the performance of the duties of his class (which was to fight the war) and the common duty
of avoiding bloodshed on a vast scale. It is significant to note that
Krishna advises him to give preference to the performance of his
class duty to fight in a spirit of nonattachment to personal and social
consequences, and leave the rest to God. For, in the view of the Gita,
no harm can come to such a person. Nay, he attains his highest goal
- liberation from the endless cycle of births and deaths. Thus it may
happen that such a hyperconsciousness and concern about one's individual "spiritual" freedom can lead to the most tragic and violent consequences. No wonder, in modern times Mahatma Gandhi interpreted
the Gita apologetically in a nonviolent way suggesting that the fratricidal war as depicted in the Mahabharata is not an historical one b,=t
only a symbolic one - i.e., between one's lower self and the higher
self.
What then is Gita's general theory of action? What is an act? J
account of action in general is intertwined with its concept of ris.
action. It says: "He who perceives inaction in action and action in inaction, has among men attained real knowledge; even while performing all action he is doing Yoga" (IV. 18). The first point to note here
is that it is the empirical self, strictly speaking, which is involved in
action or inaction. The transcendental self is eternally free from all
entanglements with action or inaction. The empirical self with the
mind, the senses, and the body, goes round and round in an endless
cycle of doing and undergoing - reaping good or bad consequences.
It is caught up in the causal nexus and action cycle because it is a
the primal matter, whose gunas (the characteristic
part of Prakrti
qualities) perform actions everywhere. It is through ignorance of the
true state of affairs and consequent false pride that one thinks himself to be an agent (111. 27; XIII. 29). The real self never acts or undergoes any change. Therefore when it exhorts us to perceive "inaction" in "action" it means that we ought to renounce selfish involvement and adopt an inner attitude of mental equipoise and detachment while we are actively engaged in pursuing in the most intense
manner the performance of our alloted duties. And when it asks us to
perceive "action" in "inaction" it means that when we are externally

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inactive (refraining from doing anything overtly) we may still be


mentally attached to selfish desires and may a l l ~ wthem to run riot
without any internal control. Thus in this verse the author of the
Gita mixes a moral "ought" or an exhortation and recommendation
in the first part (in exhorting us to perceive "inaction" in "action")
with a factual analysis of what may be happening when one is externally inactive in the second part (in asking us to perceive "action" in
"inaction"). Such a mixing of a descriptive analysis of action with a
prescriptive advice as to what one ought to do is a pervasive feature
of the Gita's theory of action. It tells us time and again that the soul
(or the real self) never acts, nor is it concerned with the fruits of action (V. 14; XIII. 32). It maintains that in reality all actions including
reflex, instindive, impulsive, and intentionally willed ones are made
to happen primarily through the movements of the gunas of Prakrti
(primal matter)3 and secondarily through the c o 11o c a t i o n of five
causes, viz., the body, the agent, the various sense organs, the various
sensorimotor activities, and the unknown objective causal elements
or tne power of God (XVIII. 14). It tells us that he, who has realized
that there is no agency other than the three qualities of Prakrti
(Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas) and has understood the nature of the
transcendent self beyond these qualities, ultimately attains communion with God (XIV. 19). Thus because of a metaphysical doctrine of
the real self derived from the Upanisads, the Gita blurs the distinction between reflex and instinctive behavioral reaction on the one
hand, and a willed intentional action on the other. Both are caused
by the gunas or the five factors. They are made to happen. The spontaneity, innovative initiative, and intentionality of an active self are
undermined. What becomes of human choice and freedom? As a matter of fact there is no analysis of the concept of freedom of the empirical self at all. On the one hand it makes much of the eternal freedom of the transcendent self which, however, is irrelevant to the empirical issues of the freedom to choose and act in the light of consciously adopted ends; and on the other it subjects all activity of the
empirical self to the causality of the three gunas of primal matter.
And yet paradoxically it exhorts and persuades empirical selves to do
thdr alloted duties in the spirit of nonattachment. It attempts to reason out Arjuna from the mood of despondency and despair, and
rouse him to manly action. But the reason is not a moral one but a
metaphysical one, viz., that the issue has already been decided by
God in the light of the Karmas of the contestants. Arjuna has to be3

Gita, V. 14; XIII. 30, 32; XIV. 5.

come willingly only an instrument in the execution of a preordained


plan. Attempts have been made by Indian scholars to retrieve the doctrine of Karma from this fatalistic consequence by saying that man
is free to alter his destiny by consciously choosing ends though he is
bound to suffer the consequences of his past deeds. But an analysis of
the concept of action as propounded in the Gita does not warrant
such an interpretation.
However, there is an element of truth in the contention of the
Gita that besides the agent (the empirical self) there are other factors involved in action such as the body-mind complex with its dispositions, habits, and character, other objective unknown causes from
the environment, and lastly an unpredictable element of chance or
destiny. On account of such a complexity of factors involved the Gita
falls back upon the disinterested performance of traditional duties
without being perturbed or agitated by the consequences of action.
Thus the ultimate aim is the attainment of peace and tranquillity,
and the immediate aim is the maintenance of social status quo. To
the former transtemporal end the element of time is inapplicable and
irrelevant; and to the latter time has come to a stop. The Gita, therefore, by lending its massive prestige and support congealed prevailing caste structure (which has remained rigid till today with very
little modification) on the one hand, and on the other hand, it deflected the energies of many from the dynamic task of social and moral
reconstruction which can be attained only when time is taken seriously.
It is fair to point out that the Gita does not wholly deny a certain
amount of freedom and spontaneity to the self. It implies this initiative of the self when it says that one should lift oneself by one's own
effort (VI. 5). But it does not make any attempt to reconcile this
statement with its general stand that all actions are determined and
caused by the movements of the three gunas. The general mass of
the Indian people took the fatalistic aspect of the teaching more seriously - which accounts for the static character of Indian society.
And those few leaders of thought and action who drew their inspiration from the Gita and who interpreted the teaching in an activistic
manner did so in order to attain a transcendent state of freedom and
nonattachment while performing preordained social duties. That is
why some outstanding men like Vivekananda, Tilak, and Gandhi reexamined the entire Indian tradition, gave a new and dynamic social
content to the concept of duty, and responded in a remarkable manner to historical situations in order to arouse the apathetic masses
frorn their centuries old stupor and fatalistic resignation. In doing so

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they gave an innovating interpretation to the doctrine of the Gita. In


order to make the teaching of the Gita relevant to the problems of
controlled social change one should steer clear between the two extremes of radical and romantic freedom of the transcendent self, and
the rigid determinism of the empirical self. To be free to decide and
choose and act in a morally and socially significant sense is to take
note of the natural and social conditions of human existence and to
make use of one's own habits, tendencies, and capacities in order to
redirect natural and social processes towards the attainment of desirable goals. It is in this sense of a dynamic awareness of the subjective and objective conditions alone that the self acquires a creative
edge and becomes a ceqter of spontaneity. It truly gets poised to discard much of the dead weight of the useless past, to separate the
kernel from the husk, and act in a responsible manner without compromising what is best in the past and the present in order to forge
the future that is full of promise and possibility. Reinterpreted in this
manner alone can the classical theory of action of the Bhagvad-Gita
be made relevant to the problems of contemporary India.

D. C. MATHUR.