The First Stoics – Philosophical Themes In The Bhagavad Gita

Stoic philosophy is often assumed to have originated entirely in Greece, through philosophers such as Zeno. However, such a characterization ignores vastly similar Eastern philosophies such as those found in Buddhism or the Bhagavad Gita – a text that was authored in a similar time period, transmitted orally for centuries prior, and is one of the central texts of Hinduism.

It is true that eastern philosophies like the Bhagavad Gita aren’t purely philosophical, and are steeped in religion. However, religion and mythology have long been used as vehicles (perhaps even trojan horses) for philosophical teachings around the world. Here we shall explore some different philosophical themes in the Bhagavad Gita.

Setting The Stage

Arjuna, … addressed the following words to Krishna “place my chariot between the two armies. And keep it there till I have carefully observed these warriors drawn up for battle”

Now Arjuna saw stationed there in both the armies his uncles, grand-uncles and teachers, even great grand-uncles, maternal uncles, brothers and cousins, sons and nephews, and grand-nephews, even so friends, fathers-in-law and well-wishers as well

Seeing all the relations present there, Arjuna was overcome with deep compassion… Arjuna said: Krishna, as I see these kinsmen arrayed for battle, my limbs give way and … a shiver runs through my body

I see such omens of evil, nor do I see any good in killing my kinsmen in battle. I do not covet victory, nor kingdom, nor pleasures. Of what use will kingdom or luxuries or even life be to us! Those very persons for whose sake we covet the kingdom, luxuries and pleasures, teachers, uncles, sons and nephews and even so, granduncles and great grand-uncles, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grand-nephews, brothers-in-law and other relations, are here arrayed on the battlefield staking their lives. 

How can we hope to be happy slaying even these desperadoes, sin will surely accrue to us. How can we be happy after killing our own kinsmen?

Even though these people, with their mind blinded by greed, perceive no evil … no sin in treason to friends, why should not we, who see clearly the sin accruing from the destruction of one’s family, think of desisting from committing this foul deed.

I do not want to kill them, even though they slay me, even for the sovereignty over the three worlds; how much the less for the kingdom here on earth! … It would be better for me if they kill me in battle, while I am unarmed and unresisting


The Bhagavad Gita is set as an interlude in a much greater epic – the Mahabharata. At the climax of the epic, at the onset of war between the two armies, one of the principal characters (Arjuna) comes to the realization that the war would require him to battle his own family members. Many of whom he has great respect and love for. Faced with the prospect of such tragedy, Arjuna laments the war to his advisor (Krishna) and seeks his moral advice.

On the surface, Arjuna’s pacifism and renunciation of worldly success, would exemplify the stoic mindset. Surprisingly then, Krishna, who is the teacher and proponent of the Gita’s brand of stoicism, urges Arjuna to take up arms and fight valiantly against injustice. And thus, the Bhagavad Gita begins.

Action Without Attachment

Treating alike victory and defeat, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, get ready for the battle; fighting thus you will not incur sin… In this path (of disinterested action) there is no loss of effort, nor is there fear of contrary result, even a little practice of this discipline saves one from the terrible fear of birth and death

Your right is to work only and never to the fruit thereof. Do not be the cause of the fruit of action; nor let your attachment be to inaction… perform your duties established in Yoga, renouncing attachment, and be even-minded in success and failure… Action with a selfish motive is far inferior to this Yoga in the form of equanimity. Do seek refuge in this equipoise of mind, Arjuna; for poor and wretched are those who are instrumental in making their actions bear fruit.

the wise man to whom pain and pleasure are alike, and who is not tormented by these contacts, becomes eligible for immortality

be thou indifferent to these enjoyments and their means, rising above pairs of opposites like pleasure and pain etc., established in the Eternal Existence (God), absolutely unconcerned about the fulfilment of wants and the preservation of what has been already attained, and self-controlled

He … who takes delight in the Self alone and is gratified with the Self, and is contented in the Self, has no duty. In this world that great soul has nothing to gain by action nor by abstaining from action; nor has he selfish dependence of any kind on any creature.

Therefore, go on efficiently doing your duty at all times without attachment. Doing work without attachment man attains the Supreme. It is through action without attachment alone that Janaka and other wise men reached perfection.


If there is one central lesson in the Bhagavad Gita, this would be it. That one should act, not as a means to a consequential end, or in pursuit of worldly outcomes or pleasures, but as an end in itself. That one should pursue one’s duty, without expectation or attachment to a desired outcome. Everything else in the text revolves around this theme.

The Perils Of Escapism

Considering your own duty too, you should not waver, for there is nothing more welcome for a man of the warrior class than a righteous war. Now, if you refuse to fight this righteous war, then, shirking your duty and losing your reputation, you will incur sin.

….

Man does not attain freedom from action (culmination of the discipline of Action) without entering upon action; nor does he reach perfection (culmination of the discipline of Knowledge) merely by ceasing to act.

Surely, none can ever remain inactive even for a moment; for, everyone is helplessly driven to action by modes of Prakæti.

He who outwardly restraining the organs of sense and action, sits mentally dwelling on the objects of senses, that man of deluded intellect is called a hypocrite.

On the other hand, he who controlling the organs of sense and action by the power of his will, and remaining unattached, undertakes the Yoga of selfless Action through those organs, Arjuna, he excels.

Therefore, do you perform your allotted duty; for action is superior to inaction.


In the very first chapter of the text, Arjuna professed his desire to lay down arms and allow himself to be killed, rather than act in a manner that would cause death to his loved ones. Here Krishna warns against such a desire for escapism. In fact, he even describes many such escapists as “hypocrites” with “deluded intellect”. 

Instead, what the Gita advocates is active participation in worldly affairs, in order to best fulfill ones’ duties. While simultaneously exercising one’s willpower, in order to remain detached from the related worldly pleasures and attachments.

A modern-day example may be political participation. We have all met people who abstain entirely from the political process because they view all politics as being corrupting. Within the context of this metaphor, Krishna decries their passive cowardice and instead advocates a vigorous engagement in the political process – while simultaneously exercising one’s discipline and integrity to avoid being corrupted by it.

Action Without Corruption

Since I have no craving for the fruit of actions, actions do not taint Me.

Action was performed even by the ancient seekers for liberation; therefore, do you also perform actions as have been performed by the ancients from antiquity.

He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise among men.

Even the wise call him a sage, whose undertakings are all free from desire and Sakalpa (thoughts of the world) and whose actions are burnt up by the fire of wisdom.

He, who, having totally given up attachment to actions and their fruit, no longer depends on anything in the world, and is ever content, does nothing at all, though fully engaged in action.

The Karmayoga, who is contented with whatever is got unsought, is free from jealousy and has transcended all pairs of opposites like joy and grief, and is balanced in success and failure, is not bound by his action.

Actions do not bind him who has dedicated all his actions… according to the spirit of Karmayoga


The sensation that comes to my mind as I read the above passages, is the sensation of being in the zone. It’s a sensation that everyone has experienced at some point in their lives – whether through sports, writing, painting, or innumerable other avenues. A feeling of effortless and thoughtless action, free of desire, greed or anxiety. A feeling of perfect calmness and serenity, even in the midst of a flurry of action. 

Or as Csikszentmihalyi describes it in his TED talk:

So once he gets to that point of beginning to create a new reality — that is, a moment of ecstasy — he enters that different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist. And that sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration. But actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second.

Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself.

There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other… Sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.

Compare this to the restless pacing of the man who is so anxious to attain a desired result, that he is unable to be still. Neither physically nor mentally.

The man who is in the zone is operating at the very peak of his capability, with the entirety of his focus directed singularly towards the task at hand, with none left over for thoughts over his ego or desired outcomes. Whereas the other man is so busy fretting over his desired outcome, the sweetness of celebration, and the sting of defeat – he only has a fraction of his mind left over for the task at hand.

Perhaps that is what the Gita is referring to, when it describes the inner bliss and liberation attained by the person who is focused solely on her duties and actions – not as a means to an end but as an end in and of itself – completely unattached to any future outcomes resulting from those actions.

Role Modeling Through Action

Having in view the maintenance of the world order too, you should take to action. For whatever a great man does, that very thing other men also do; whatever standard he sets up, the generality of men follow the same.

There is no duty in all the three worlds for me to perform, nor is there anything worth attaining, unattained by me; yet I continue to work. Should I not engage in action, scrupulously at any time, great harm will come to the world; for, Arjuna, men follow my way in all matters.

As the unwise act with attachment, so should the wise man, with a view to maintain the world order, act without attachment.

A wise man established in the Self should not unsettle the mind of the ignorant attached to action, but should get them to perform all their duties, duly performing his own duties.

The Nature Of Renunciation

Knowledge is better than practice without discernment, meditation on God is superior to knowledge, and renunciation of the fruit of actions is even superior to meditation; for, peace immediately follows from renunciation

Some sages understand Samnyasa as the giving up of all actions motivated by desire; and the wise declare that Tyåga consists in relinquishing the fruit of all actions

Some wise men declare that all actions contain a measure of evil, and are therefore, worth giving up; while others say that acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not to be shunned

Of Samnyåsa and Tyåga, first hear My conclusion on the subject of renunciation (Tyåga) … for renunciation, … has been declared to be of three kinds — Såttvika, Råjasika and Tåmasika

Acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not worth giving up; they must be performed. For sacrifice, charity and penance all these are purifiers to the wise men

Hence these acts of sacrifice, charity and penance, and all other acts of duty too, must be performed without attachment and expectation of reward

(Prohibited acts and those that are motivated by desire should no doubt, be given up). But it is not advisable to abandon a prescribed duty. Such abandonment through ignorance has been declared as Tåmasika

Should anyone give up his duties for fear of physical strain, thinking that all actions are verily Painful, practising such Råjasika form of renunciation, he does not reap the fruit of renunciation

A prescribed duty which is performed simply because it has to be performed, giving up attachment and fruit, that alone has been recognized as the Såttvika form of renunciation

He who has neither aversion for action which is leading to bondage nor attachment to that which is conducive to blessedness and imbued with the quality of goodness, he has all his doubts resolved, is intelligent and a man of true renunciation

Since all actions cannot be given up in their entirety by anyone possessing a body, he alone who renounces the fruit of actions is called a man of renunciation.

The Role Of Sacrifice

Man is bound by his own action except when it is performed for the sake of sacrifice. Therefore, Arjuna, do you efficiently perform your duty, free from attachment, for the sake of sacrifice alone.

Fostered by sacrifice, the gods will surely bestow on you unasked all the desired enjoyments. The virtuous who partake of what is left over after sacrifice, are absolved of all sins. Those sinful ones who cook for the sake of nourishing their bodies alone, partake of sin only.

….

who is free from attachment and has no identification with the body; and free from the feeling of mine, whose mind is established in the knowledge of Self and who works merely for the sake of sacrifice

Other Yogis duly offer sacrifice only in the shape of worship to gods,
while others perform sacrifice by offering the self by the Self itself … through the sacrifice known as the perception of identity.

Others offer as sacrifice their senses of hearing etc, into the fires of self-discipline.
Other Yogis, again, offer sound and other objects of perception into the fires of the senses.
Others sacrifice all the functions of their senses and the functions of the vital airs (Pråna) into the fire of Yoga in the shape of self-control, kindled by wisdom.

Some perform sacrifice with material possessions;
some offer sacrifice in the shape of austerities;
others sacrifice through the practice of Yoga;
while some striving souls, observing austere vows, perform sacrifice in the shape of wisdom through the study of sacred texts.

Other Yogis offer the act of exhalation into that of inhalation; even so, others the act of inhalation into that of exhalation. There are still others given to the practice of Pranayama (breath control), who having regulated their diet and controlled the processes of exhalation and inhalation both pour their vital airs into the vital airs themselves. All these have their sins consumed away by sacrifice.

Arjuna, Yogis who enjoy the nectar that has been left over after the performance of a sacrifice attain the eternal Brahma. To the man who does not offer sacrifice, even this world is not happy.

Many such forms of sacrifice have been set forth in detail in the Vedas; know them all as involving the action of mind, senses and body. Thus, knowing the truth about them you shall be freed from the bondage of action (through their performance).

……

The sacrifice which is offered … by men who expect no return and who believe that such sacrifices must be performed, is Såttvika in character.
That sacrifice, however, which is offered for the sake of mere show or even with an eye to its fruit, know it to be Råjasika.
A sacrifice …. in which no food is offered, and no sacrificial fees are paid … is said to be Tåmasika

Worship of … one’s guru, elders and wise-men, purity, straightforwardness, continence and non-violence, these are called penance of the body

Words which cause no annoyance to others and are truthful, agreeable and beneficial … this is known as penance of speech

Cheerfulness of mind, placidity, habit of contemplation on God, control of the mind and perfect purity of inner feelings – all this is called austerity of the mind

This threefold penance performed with supreme faith by Yogis expecting no return is called Såttvika.
The austerity which is performed for the sake of renown, honour or adoration, as well as for any other selfish gain, either in all sincerity or by way of ostentation, and yields an uncertain and momentary fruit, has been spoken of here as Råjasika.
Penance which is resorted to out of foolish notion and is accompanied by self-mortification, or is intended to harm others, such penance has been declared as Tåmasika

A gift which is bestowed with a sense of duty on one from whom no return is expected, at appropriate time and place, and to a deserving person, that gift has been declared as Såttvika.
A gift which is bestowed in a grudging spirit and with the object of getting a service in return or in the hope of obtaining a reward, is called Råjasika.
A gift which is made without good grace and in a disdainful spirit, out of time and place, and to undeserving persons, is said to be Tåmasika

With the idea that all this belongs to God … acts of sacrifice and austerity as well as acts of charity of various kinds, are performed by the seekers of liberation, expecting no return for them


The use of sacrifice as a tool for self-purification, is a common theme found in many cultures. For instance, both Lent in Catholicism, and Ramadan in Islam. In the above passages, the Bhagavad Gita describes how sacrifice can be used as a tool for curing ourselves of our worldly attachments.

How can one be obsessively attached to money and material possessions, if she cultivates the habit of giving it away. How can one be consumed by gluttony, if he voluntarily deprives himself of his cravings. How can one indulge in sloth and mindless entertainment, if they regularly engage in vigorous exercise and meditation? The above passages in the Bhagavad Gita prescribe sacrifice, not as an end in itself, but as a means for cultivating stoicism.

Free Will, Ego, And Oneness With The Universe

Just as boyhood, youth and old age are attributed to the soul through this body, even so it attains another body. The wise man does not get deluded about this… As a man shedding worn-out garments, takes other new ones, likewise, the embodied soul, casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others that are new.

death is certain for the born… You should not, therefore, grieve over the inevitable

In this path (of disinterested action) there is no loss of effort, nor is there fear of contrary result, even a little practice of this discipline saves one from the terrible fear of birth and death

……

The fool, whose mind is deluded by egoism, thinks: “I am the doer.” 

However, he, who has true insight into the respective spheres of Gunas (modes of Prakæti) and their actions, holding that it is the Gunas (in the shape of the senses, mind, etc.,) that move among the Gunas (objects of perception), does not get attached to them, Arjuna.

Those who are completely deluded by the Gunas (modes) of Praketi remain attached to those Gunas and actions.

Therefore, dedicating all actions to Me with your mind fixed on Me, the Self of all, freed from desire and the feeling of meum and cured of mental agitation, fight.

Even those men who, with an uncavilling and devout mind, always follow this teaching of Mine are released from the bondage of all actions.

…..

The sinless Yogi, thus uniting his Self constantly with God, easily enjoys the eternal Bliss of oneness with Brahma.

The Yogi who is united in identity with the all-pervading, infinite consciousness, whose vision everywhere is even, beholds the Self existing in all beings and all beings as assumed in the Self.

Arjuna, he, who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self, and looks upon the joy and sorrow of all equally – such a Yogi is deemed to be the highest of all.

…..

When the discerning person sees no one as doer other than the three Gunas… Having transcended the aforesaid three Gunas, which have caused the body, and freed from birth, death, old age and all kinds of sorrow, the embodied soul attains supreme bliss

….

The following are the factors operating towards the accomplishment of actions, viz., the body and the doer, the organs of different kinds and the different functions of manifold kinds; and the fifth is Daiva or Prårabdha Karma (destiny)

These five are the contributory causes of whatever actions, right or wrong, man performs with the mind, speech and body

Notwithstanding this, however, he who, having an impure mind, regards the absolute, taintless Self alone as the doer, that man of perverse understanding does not view aright

He whose mind is free from the sense of doership, and whose reason is not affected by worldly objects and activities, does not really kill, even having killed all these people, nor does any sin accrue to him


The above themes of reincarnation and oneness with the universe, certainly feel very religious and mystical. Given the complete lack of scientific evidence, it is easy to dismiss it as superstitious beliefs. But one can also view it not as statements of facts, but as allegories. As mental models for our psyche.

What better way to prescribe abandoning one’s ego, than to view one’s ego as purely illusory and not real. What better way to illustrate the insignificance of worldly pleasures and pains, than to describe the physical body and its impulses as a transient garment for our immortal soul. What better way to describe the Veil of ignorance, than the mental model of reincarnation. “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

The Stoic Mindset

In this Yoga (of disinterested action) the intellect is determinate and directed singly towards one ideal; whereas the intellect of the undecided (ignorant men moved by desires) wanders in all directions, after innumerable aims

…..

He who does his duty without expecting the fruit of actions is a Sannyasi (Sankhyayogi) and a Yogi (Karmayogi) both. He is no Sannyasi (renouncer) who has merely renounced the sacred fire; even so, he is no Yogi who has merely given up all activity.

Arjuna, you must know that what they call Sannyåsa is no other than Yoga; for none becomes a Yogi, who has not abandoned his Sankalpas (thoughts of the world).

To the contemplative soul who desires to attain Karmayoga, selfless action is said to be the means; for the same man when he is established in Yoga, absence of all Sankalpas (thoughts of the world) is said to be the way to blessedness

When a man ceases to have any attachment for the objects of senses and for actions, and has renounced all Sankalpas (thoughts of the world), he is said to have attained Yoga.

The Supreme Spirit is rooted in the knowledge of the self-controlled man whose mind is perfectly serene in the midst of pairs of opposites, such as cold and heat, joy and sorrow, and honour and ignominy.

He who looks upon well-wishers and neutrals as well as mediators, friends and foes, relatives and inimicals, the virtuous and the sinful with equanimity, stands supreme.

…..

He who is free from malice towards all beings, friendly and compassionate, and free from the feelings of “I” and “mine”, balanced in joy and sorrow, forgiving by nature, ever-contented and mentally united with Me, nay, who has subdued his mind, senses and body, has a firm resolve, and has surrendered his mind and reason to Me

He who is not a source of annoyance to his fellow-creatures, and who in his turn does not feel vexed with his fellow-creatures, and who is free from delight and envy, perturbation and fear

He who wants nothing, who is both internally and externally pure, is wise and impartial and has risen above all distractions, and who renounces the sense of doership in all undertakings

He who neither rejoices nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, and who renounces both good and evil actions and is full of devotion

He who deals equally with friend and foe, and is the same in honour and ignominy, who is alike in heat and cold, pleasure and pain and other contrary experiences, and is free from attachment, he who takes praise and reproach alike, and is given to contemplation and is contented with any means of subsistence available, entertaining no sense of ownership and attachment in respect of his dwelling-place and is full of devotion… that person is dear to Me

…..

They who are free from pride and delusion, who have conquered the evil of attachment, and are constantly abiding in God, whose cravings have altogether ceased and who are completely immune to all pairs of opposites going by the names of pleasure and pain, and are undeluded, attain that supreme immortal state

…..

Absolute fearlessness, perfect purity of mind, constant fixity in the Yoga of meditation for the sake of Self-realization, and even so, charity in its Såttvika form, control of the senses … suffering hardships for the discharge of one’s sacred obligations and uprightness of mind as well as of the body and senses.

Non-violence in thought, word and deed, truthfulness and geniality of speech, absence of anger even on provocation, disclaiming doership in respect of actions, quietude or composure of mind, abstaining from slander, compassion towards all creatures, absence of attachment to the objects of senses even during their contact with the senses, mildness, a sense of shame in transgressing the scriptures or social conventions, and abstaining from frivolous pursuits;

Sublimity, forbearance, fortitude, external purity, bearing enmity to none and absence of self-esteem – these are the marks of him, who is born with the divine endowments

He whose intellect is unattached everywhere, whose thirst for enjoyment has altogether disappeared and who has subdued his mind, reaches through Sankhyayoga (the path of Knowledge) the consummation of actionlessness

The Pitfalls Of Desire

Attraction and repulsion are rooted in all sense-objects. Man should never allow himself to be swayed by them, because they are the two principal enemies standing in the way of his redemption.

It is desire begotten of the element of Rajas, which appears as wrath; nay, it is insatiable and grossly wicked

As fire is covered by smoke, mirror by dust … so is knowledge covered by desire.

The senses are said to be greater than the body; but greater than the senses is the mind. Greater than the mind is the intellect; and what is greater than the intellect is He, the Self

Thus, Arjuna, knowing the Self which is higher than the intellect and subduing the mind by reason, kill this enemy in the form of desire that is hard to overcome.

….

The contacts between the senses and their objects, which give rise to the feelings of heat and cold, pleasure and pain etc., are transitory and fleeting; therefore, Arjuna, endure them

those who are full of worldly desires and devoted to the letter of the Vedas, who look upon heaven, as the supreme goal and argue that there is nothing beyond heaven are unwise. They utter flowery speech recommending many rituals of various kinds for the attainment of pleasure and power with rebirth as their fruit. Those whose minds are carried away by such words, and who are deeply attached to pleasures and worldly power, cannot attain the determinate intellect concentrated on God

For, wise men possessing equipoised mind, renouncing the fruit of actions and freed from the shackles of birth, attain the blissful supreme state. When your mind will have fully crossed the mire of delusion, you will then grow indifferent to the enjoyments of this world.

when one thoroughly casts off all cravings of the mind, and is satisfied in the Self through the joy of the Self, he is then called stable of mind. The sage, whose mind remains unperturbed amid sorrows, whose thirst for pleasures has altogether disappeared, and who is free from passion, fear and anger, is called stable of mind

He who is unattached to everything, and meeting with good and evil, neither rejoices nor recoils, his mind is stable. When, like a tortoise, that draws in its limbs from all directions, he withdraws all his senses from the sense-objects, his mind becomes steady. Sense-objects turn away from him, who does not enjoy them with his senses; but the taste for them persists. This relish also disappears in the case of the man of stable mind when he realizes the Supreme

The man dwelling on sense-objects develops attachment for them; from attachment springs up desire, and from desire (unfulfilled) ensues anger. From anger arises delusion; from delusion, confusion of memory; from confusion of memory, loss of reason; and from loss of reason one goes to complete ruin… But the self-controlled Sådhaka, while enjoying the various sense-objects through his senses, which are disciplined and free from likes and dislikes, attains placidity of mind. With the attainment of such placidity of mind, all his sorrows come to an end

He who has not controlled his mind and senses can have no determinate intellect, nor contemplation. Without contemplation, he can have no peace; and how can there be happiness for one lacking peace of mind? As the wind carries away a boat upon the waters, even so of the senses moving among sense-objects, the one to which the mind is attached, takes away his discrimination… As the waters of different rivers enter the ocean, which, though full on all sides, remains undisturbed; likewise, he, in whom all enjoyments merge themselves without causing disturbance, attains peace; not he who hankers after such enjoyments

He who has given up all desires, and moves free from attachment, egoism and thirst for enjoyment attains peace… having reached this state, he overcomes delusion. And established in this state, even at the last moment, he attains Brahmic Bliss.

Turbulent by nature, the senses (not free from attachment) even of a wise man, who is practising self-control, forcibly carry away his mind… Therefore, having controlled all the senses and concentrating his mind, he should sit for meditation, devoting himself heart and soul


Here Krishna describes how the pursuit of worldly pleasures (and aversion to worldly pain) can have very corrosive effects on one’s character, mental well-being, and clarity of mind. He instead advocates an equanimity of mind and consistent bliss through detachment from worldly outcomes. This is almost identical to Buddhist teachings (also originating from the same region) that describe desire and craving as the root of all suffering.

The Pleasures Of Stoicism

The wise look with equanimity on all whether it be a Brahmana endowed with learning and culture, a cow, an elephant, a dog

He who, with firm intellect and free from doubt, rejoices not on obtaining what is pleasant and does not feel perturbed on meeting with the unpleasant

He whose mind remains unattached to sense objects, derives through meditation the Sattvika joy which dwells in the mind; then that Yogi, having completely identified himself through meditation … enjoys eternal Bliss

The pleasures which are born of sense-contacts are verily a source of suffering only (though appearing as enjoyable to worldly-minded people). They have a beginning and an end (they come and go) … it is for this reason that a wise man does not indulge in them

He alone, who is able to withstand, in this very life before casting off this body, the urges of lust and anger, is a Yogi, and he alone is a happy man

He who is happy within himself, enjoys within himself the delight of the soul, and even so, is illumined by the inner light (light of the soul), such a Yogi identified with Brahma attains Brahma, who is all peace.

To those wise men who are free from lust and anger, who have subdued their mind … the abode of eternal peace, is present all-round.

Shutting out all thoughts of external enjoyments, with the gaze fixed on the space between the eye-brows, having regulated the Prana (outgoing) and the Apana (incoming) breaths flowing within the nostrils, he who has brought his senses, mind and intellect under control, such a contemplative soul intent on liberation and free from desire, fear and anger, is ever liberated.

……

That in which the striver finds enjoyment through practice of adoration, meditation and service to God etc., and whereby he reaches the end of Sorrow – such a joy, though appearing as poison in the beginning, tastes like nectar in the end; hence that joy, born as it is of the placidity of mind brought about by meditation on God, has been declared as Såttvika

The delight which follows from the contact of the senses with their objects is eventually poisonlike, though appearing at first as nectar; hence it has been spoken of as Råjasika

That which stupefies the self during its enjoyment as well as in the end – derived from sleep, indolence and obstinate error, such delight has been called Tåmasika


A common image of stoicism is that of a joyless and gray life, with little in the way of pleasure. The above theme shows the Gita’s brand of stoicism to be the exact opposite. Instead of beseeching us to live a joyless life, Krishna instead encourages us to freely indulge in our joys and positive emotions. The only caveat being that this pleasure arises out of sacrifice, duty and detachment from worldly outcomes.

A loose metaphor may be drug addiction. To a heroin addict, emotional highs and lows are tied entirely to his success or failure in acquiring drugs. While consuming heroin, he attains the highest of highs. And if his supply of heroin were to be cut off the next day, he would descend into unimaginable agony.

When we counsel the addict against taking drugs, it is not because we want him to lead a dull and spartan existence. Rather, we believe that one can lead a perfectly happy and fulfilling life, without it being chemically induced by drugs. 

This is exactly what the Bhagavad Gita appears to be preaching as well – that stoicism does not require us to surrender our happiness and other positive emotions. Only that we can learn to experience those same positive emotions, even more deeply, by breaking our addiction to worldly attachments.

The Nature Of Evil

Hypocrisy, arrogance pride and anger, sternness and ignorance too – these are the marks of him, who is born with demoniac properties

The divine endowment has been recognized as conducive to liberation, and the demoniac one as leading to bondage

Men possessing a demoniac disposition know not what is right activity and what is right abstinence from activity. Hence they possess neither purity (external or internal) nor good conduct nor even truthfulness

these slow-witted men of vile disposition and terrible deeds, are wrong doers to mankind for the destruction of the world.

Cherishing insatiable desires and embracing false doctrines through ignorance, these men of impure conduct move in this world, full of hypocrisy, pride and arrogance.

Giving themselves up to innumerable cares ending only with death, they remain devoted to the enjoyment of sensuous pleasures and are firm in their belief that this is the highest limit of joy.

Held in bondage by hundreds of ties of expectation and wholly giving themselves up to lust and anger, they strive to amass by unfair means hoards of money and other objects for the enjoyment of sensuous pleasures.

They say to themselves, This much has been secured by me today and now I shall realize this ambition. So much wealth is already with me and yet again this shall be mine.

I am wealthy and own a large family; who else is equal to me? I will sacrifice to gods, will give alms, I will make merry, Thus deluded by ignorance, enveloped in the mesh of delusion and addicted to the enjoyment of sensuous pleasures, their minds bewildered by numerous thoughts, these men of devilish disposition fall into the foulest hell.

Intoxicated by wealth and honour, those self-conceited and haughty men perform sacrifices only in name for ostentation

Given over to egotism, brute force, arrogance, lust and anger etc., and calumniating others, they despise Me, dwelling in their own bodies as well as in those of others

Desire, anger and greed – these triple gates of hell, bring about the downfall of the soul. Therefore, one should shun all these three

The Three Natures

Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – these three Gunas born of Nature tie down the imperishable soul to the body

Of these Sattva, being immaculate, is illuminating and flawless, Arjuna; it binds through attachment to happiness and knowledge.

Know the quality of Rajas, which is of the nature of passion, as born of desire and attachment. It binds the soul through attachment to actions and their fruit.

And know Tamas, the deluder of all those who look upon the body as their own self, as born of ignorance. It binds the soul through error, sloth and sleep

Sattva draws one to joy and Rajas to action; while Tamas, clouding wisdom, impels one to error, sleep and sloth

When light and discernment dawn in this body, as well as in the mind and senses, then one should know that Sattva is predominant.

With the preponderance of Rajas, Arjuna, greed, activity, undertaking of action with an interested motive, restlessness and a thirst for enjoyment make their appearance.

With the growth of Tamas, Arjuna, obtuseness of the mind and senses, disinclination to perform one’s obligatory duties, frivolity and stupor – all these appear

The reward of a righteous act, they say, is Såttvika i.e., faultless in the shape of joy, wisdom and dispassion etc., sorrow is declared to be the fruit of a Råjasika act and ignorance, the fruit of a Tåmasika act

Wisdom follows from Sattva, and greed, undoubtedly, from Rajas; likewise obstinate error, stupor and also ignorance follow from Tamas

Those who abide in the quality of Sattva wend their way upwards; while those of a Råjasika disposition stay in the middle. And those of a Tåmasika temperament, enveloped as they are in the effects of Tamoguna, sink down

…..

The Knower, knowledge and the object of Knowledge – these three motivate action. Even so, the doer, the organs and activity – these are the three constituents of action

In the branch of knowledge dealing with the Gunas or modes of Prakæti, knowledge and action as well as the doer have been declared to be of three kinds according to the Guna which predominates in each

That by which man perceives one imperishable divine existence as undivided and equally present in all individual beings, know that knowledge to be Såttvika

The knowledge by which man cognizes many existences of various kinds, as apart from one another, in all beings, know that knowledge to be Råjasika

Again, that knowledge which clings to one body as if it were the whole, and which is irrational, has no real grasp of truth and is trivial, has been declared as Tåmasika

That action which is ordained by the scriptures and is not accompanied by the sense of doership, and has been done without any attachment or aversion by one who seeks no return, is called Såttvika

That action however, which involves much strain and is performed by one who seeks enjoyments or by a man full of egotism, has been spoken of as Råjasika

That action which is undertaken through sheer ignorance, without regard to consequences or loss to oneself, injury to others and one’s own resourcefulness, is declared as Tåmasika

Free from attachment, unegoistic, endowed with firmness and zeal and unswayed by success and failure, such a doer is said to be Såttvika

The doer who is full of attachment, seeks the fruit of actions and is greedy, and who is oppressive by nature and of impure conduct, and is affected by joy and sorrow, has been called Råjasika

Lacking piety and self-control, uncultured, arrogant, deceitful, inclined to rob others of their livelihood, slothful, despondent and procrastinatingósuch a doer is called Tåmasika

The intellect which correctly determines the paths of activity and renunciation, what ought to be done and what should not be done, what is fear and what is fearlessness, and what is bondage and what is liberation, that intellect is Såttvika

The intellect by which man does not truly perceive what is Dharma and what is Adharma, what ought to be done and what should not be done – that intellect is Råjasika

The intellect which imagines even Adharma to be Dharma, and sees all other things upside down – wrapped in ignorance, that intellect is Tåmasika

The unwavering firmness by which man controls through the Yoga of meditation the functions of the mind, the vital airs and the senses – that firmness, Arjuna, is Såttvika

The firmness (Dhæti), however, by which the man seeking reward for his actions clutches with extreme fondness virtues, earthly possessions and worldly enjoymentsóthat firmness (Dhæti) is said to be Råjasika

The firmness (Dhæti) by which an evil-minded person does not give up sleep, fear, anxiety, sorrow and vanity as well, that firmness is Tåmasika

Transcending The Three Natures

Arjuna said : What are the marks of him who has risen above the three Gunas, and what is his conduct? And how, Lord, does he rise above the three Gunas?

Sri Bhagavån said: Arjuna, he who hates not light (which is born of Sattva) and activity (which is born of Rajas) and even stupor (which is born of Tamas), when prevalent, nor longs for them when they have ceased

He who, sitting like a witness, is not disturbed by the Gunas, and who, knowing that the Gunas alone move among the Gunas, remains established in identity with God, and never falls off from that state.

He who is ever established in the Self, takes pain and pleasure alike, regards a clod of earth, a stone and a piece of gold as equal in value, is possessed of wisdom, accepts the pleasant as well as the unpleasant in the same spirit, and views censure and praise alike. 

He who is equipoised in honour or ignominy, is alike towards a friend or an enemy, and has renounced the sense of doership in all undertakings, is said to have risen above the three Gunas

A Guide To Meditation

Living in seclusion all by himself, the Yogi who has controlled his mind and body, and is free from desires and void of possessions, should constantly engage his mind in meditation.

And occupying that seat, concentrating the mind and controlling the functions of the mind and senses, he should practise Yoga for self-purification

Holding the trunk, head and neck straight and steady, remaining firm and fixing the gaze on the tip of his nose, without looking in other directions

Firm in the vow of complete chastity and fearless, keeping himself perfectly calm and with the mind held in restraint and fixed on Me, the vigilant Yogi should sit absorbed in Me

Thus … the Yogi of disciplined mind attains everlasting peace, consisting of Supreme Bliss

Arjuna, this Yoga is neither for him who overeats, nor for him who observes complete fast; it is neither for him who is given to too much sleep, nor even for him who is ceaselessly Awake

Yoga, which rids one of woe, is accomplished only by him who is regulated in diet and recreation, regulated in performing actions, and regulated in sleep and wakefulness.

When the mind which is thoroughly disciplined gets riveted on God alone, then the person who is free from yearning for all enjoyments is said to be established in Yoga.

As a flame does not flicker in a windless place, such is stated to be the picture of the disciplined mind of the Yogi practising meditation on God.

The state in which, the Citta (mind-stuff) subdued through the practice of Yoga, becomes passive, and in which realizing God through subtle reasoning purified by meditation on God; the soul rejoices only in God;

Nay, in which the soul experiences the eternal and super-sensuous joy which can be intuited only through the subtle and purified intellect, and wherein established the said Yogi moves not from Truth on any account

And having obtained which he does not reckon any other gain as greater than that, and established in which he is not shaken even by the heaviest of sorrows;

That state, called Yoga, which is free from the contact of sorrow (in the form of transmigration), should be known. Nay, this Yoga should be resolutely practised with an unwearied mind.

Completely renouncing all desires arising from Sankalpas (thoughts of the world), and fully restraining all the senses from all sides by the mind;

He should through gradual practice, attain tranquillity; and fixing the mind on God through reason controlled by steadfastness, he should not think of anything else.

Drawing back the restless and fidgety mind from all those objects after which it runs, he should repeatedly fix it on God.

For, to the Yogi whose mind is perfectly serene, who is sinless, whose passion is subdued, and who is identified with Brahma, the embodiment of Truth, Knowledge and Bliss, supreme happiness comes as a matter of course.

…..

Arjuna said : Krishna, owing to restlessness of mind I do not perceive the stability of this Yoga in the form of equanimity, which You have just spoken of.

For, Krishna, the mind is very unsteady, turbulent, tenacious and powerful; therefore, I consider it as difficult to control as the wind.

Sri Bhagavån said : The mind is restless no doubt, and difficult to curb, Arjuna; but it can be brought under control by repeated practice (of meditation) and by the exercise of dispassion

Yoga is difficult of achievement by one whose mind is not subdued by him; however, who has the mind under control, and is ceaselessly striving, it can be easily attained through practice

The Yogi is superior to the ascetics; he is regarded superior even to those versed in sacred lore. The Yogi is also superior to those who perform action with some interested motive. Therefore, Arjuna, do become a Yogi

…..

Mentally dedicating all your actions to Me, and taking recourse to Yoga in the form of even-mindedness, be solely devoted to Me and constantly fix your mind on Me


Here Krishna takes a detour from abstract preachings, and briefly touches upon the very practical steps that one can take in order to put into practice the earlier teachings. Namely, how the senses of even a wise and disciplined mind can forcibly carry away his mind, and how this can be overcome through meditation.

The precise meditative practice described here is religious in nature (contemplation of God). But it is easy to see the parallels to some meditative practices such as mindful breathing, and even athletic-coaching recommendations. In all 3 examples, the underlying principle is the same: to still ones mind, and to overcome all distractions and anxieties, direct your focus towards a singular entity. 

As a slight tangent: if the Bhagavad Gita lays out Stoicism as an abstract philosophy, then The Inner Game of Tennis is a fantastic manual on cultivating stoicism and mindfulness in the context of athletics.

Parting Thoughts

As someone who has long struggled with religion and spirituality, there is much in the Bhagavad Gita that I find hard to swallow. Particularly as pertaining to supernatural references and obedience to organized religion.

However, the philosophical thoughts expressed in the Gita give us much to ponder over. 

Modern studies have demonstrated how extrinsic motivations are only effective in the short-term, whereas intrinsic motivations are much more sustainable and effective in the long haul.

Modern studies have demonstrated both the physical and psychological benefits of meditation, where one attempts to still one’s mind, abandon one’s ego, and direct the mind towards a singular point of focus.

We have also come to realize the power of acceptance in freeing us of negative rumination and achieving better mental health outcomes.

And lastly, we better understand today the nature of “Flow” – the state of being in the zone. And how in such a state of peak performance, all thoughts of ego, fear and desire, give way to feelings of calm focus.

Is it truly advisable to live life without attachment to our passions, life goals and loved ones? Can one truly achieve major back-breaking accomplishments that elevate humanity, while remaining detached and dissociated? These are questions that I still wrestle with. But there is no denying that the Bhagavad Gita has put forward a powerful and compelling form of stoic philosophy that is worth mulling over.


All translations are from the book published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur, and are very imperfect translations of the original text which is in Sanskrit.

Discussion thread on /r/philosophy

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