Lawrence Sullivan (Sullivan 2000, p. xiii
) has observed that religious traditions and their lived manifestations offer “a treasury of motives, disciplines, and awarenesses” that can facilitate earth-friendly living and it is certainly in this spirit that scholars of religion and environmental studies alike have turned to Hindu texts and traditions. The term ‘Hindu’ does not, of course, denote an easily defined, homogeneous, monolithic tradition. What generally goes by the name of Hinduism represents more a “galaxy of worldviews emerging over centuries in India” (Valpey 2020, p. 1
). It is not part of my task in this article to defend or explain the use of the term ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism,’ but along with Julius Lipner, I propose that “‘Hinduism’ is an acceptable abbreviation for a family
of culturally related traditions” (Lipner 2010, p. 33
). Despite the obvious heterogeneity of the Hindu cosmos, it is not too much of a stretch to claim that the Bhagavad Gītā
has singularly informed Hindu self-representations since the turn of the nineteenth century. Gavin Flood
) notes that the immense popularity the Bhagavad Gītā
now enjoys in India only occurred after the emergence of Hindu revival movements of the nineteenth century. The text had, of course, already gained prominence prior to this, as evidenced by commentaries upon it by famous Hindu theologians such as Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja and Madhva in the Vedānta
tradition and Abhinavagupta in the Śaiva tradition. (Throughout this article, I have, for the most part, shortened the title Bhagavad Gītā
to “the Gītā
.” When specific verses are referenced, the chapter number appears first, followed by the verse number.) Richard Davis notes that the Gītā
“is a vital text for modern Hindus of many persuasions” and outside the Indian subcontinent, the text “is frequently taken as the first and most representative work for those first seeking to understand Hinduism” (Davis 2015, p. 23
). Davis goes on to write: “It appears regularly as a primary reading in hundreds of college courses on Hinduism and Asian religions throughout North America and elsewhere” (Davis 2015, p. 24
). The Bhagavad Gītā
, along with the Upaniṣads
and the Brahmasūtra
, also forms the triple foundations of Vedānta
, the “most influential school of theology in India” (Flood 1996, p. 238
). Graham Schweig highlights the Gītā
’s theological impact when he writes that the Gītā
“is, since the seventh century, the most widely read and commented on holy text in all of India” (Schweig 2007, p. 13
), and Klaus Klostermaier similarly underlines the text’s influence by claiming that the seven hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gītā
constitute the “most popular book of the entire Hindu literature” (Klostermaier 1994, p. 145
Given the Bhagavad Gītā
’s significance within the Hindu cosmos, it is noteworthy that Lance Nelson has argued that the ontological vision and soteriological goal promoted by the Gītā
is fundamentally hostile to environmental ethics. In his ecological critique of the Bhagavad-Gītā
, Nelson writes that the Gītā
’s “hierarchical, fundamentally dualistic outlook” which elevates “pure spirit above matter” implies that nature is “finally irrelevant to the Gītā
’s soteriological goals.” From this, Nelson concludes that the Gītā
’s “ideals are in many ways antithetical to ecological ethics as we know it” (Nelson 2000, pp. 140, 151
). My reading of Nelson’s critique is that he is arguing that the task of constructing a normative environmental ethical theory from the metaphysical infrastructure provided by the Gītā
is an incoherent project. That is, the genesis of environmental ethics from the Gītā
’s metaphysical commitments is philosophically problematic. Nelson’s critique is part of a scholarly trend claiming that since Hindu soteriology is primarily focused on liberation from saṃsāra
, the cycle of birth and death, it is inherently world-negating and is thus incapable of fostering “a deep sense of belonging to the universe,” the kind of belonging that is deemed to be a necessary psychological condition for environmental engagement and action (Nelson 2000, p. 151
). John Passmore (Passmore 1980
) has thus argued that the doctrine of stewardship—which entails a regard for nature—is incompatible with the Eastern religious quest for salvation achieved by freeing oneself from every kind of earthly bondage. J. Baird Callicott (Callicott 1994
) has similarly opined that because the Upaniṣads
proclaim the undifferentiated and unmanifest Brahman
to be the source and ground of all manifest and differentiated things, the Hindu religious tradition regards the empirical world of manifest and differentiated things as something less than morally significant, because it is not ultimately real. Lance Nelson (Nelson 1998
) has also argued that the classical Advaita Vedānta
—which he deems to be the central viewpoint of the modern Hindu renaissance—encourages attitudes of devaluation and neglect of the natural universe. Against this interpretation of ‘Hinduism’ as a world-negating religion incapable of inspiring environmentalism, David Haberman (Haberman 2006
) has argued that most Hindus identify themselves with theistic, Purāṇic, and world-affirming traditions that include immanent strands within their theologies and has buttressed his argument with many examples of Indian environmentalists who draw their inspiration from such traditions.
However, what, then, of the Bhagavad Gītā
? Is the text world-affirming or world-negating? More to the point, if the text is fundamentally unsuited to a favourable ecological reading, then the oft-repeated claim that the Gītā
transmits “an eternal teaching that has universal relevance” becomes severely impoverished (Davis 2015, p. 18
). Against this conclusion, I argue that the Gītā
lends itself to a favourable ecological reading on many levels. To demonstrate how so, I will build upon Ithamar Theodor’s articulation of the unifying structure of the Gītā
and its attendant moral psychology. This will allow me to show that the Gītā
contains three concurrent worldviews—a world-affirming worldview, a world-renouncing worldview and a bhakti
worldview, which is simultaneously world-affirming and world-renouncing. More specifically, I will argue that these three worldviews correspond to three different theories of motivation and that the motivation to act for the welfare of individuals in nature, such as animals and plants, can be coherently derived from the interconnected normative, soteriological and ontological dimensions of each of these three worldviews. In making this argument, I will begin by looking at the context of the Gītā
2. The Context of the Bhagavad Gītā
The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gītā appear as chapters twenty three through forty in the Book of Bhīshma, the sixth of the eighteen books that comprise the great epic poem Mahābhārata. The text is set on a battlefield with the sons of the congenitally blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra leading his army into battle against the sons of his deceased younger brother, Pāṇḍu, who inherited the throne due to his older brother’s blindness. When the noble and righteous Pāṇḍu passed away, his five sons, the Pāṇḍavas, were too young to inherit the throne. Their uncle Dhṛtarāṣṭra took over the kingdom and ruled for many years during which time his eldest son, Duryodhana, driven by greed and animosity, conspired to murder the Pāṇḍavas. In the events leading up to the war, Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his sons, the Kurus, led by the eldest son, Duryodhana, have steadfastly denied Yudhiṣṭhira, the eldest of the Pāndavas, his kingdom, have humiliated the Pāṇḍavas’ wife Draupadī, and have repeatedly harassed the Pāṇḍavas in many other ways. War seems imminent because Draupadī wants revenge, and Yudhiṣṭhira wants his kingdom. Dhṛtarāṣṭra is nominally still the king, and therefore with great reluctance, the Pāṇḍavas’ great-uncle and their beloved teachers have bound themselves in duty to the king to fight against the Pāṇḍavas.
Looking across the battlefield, the mightiest warrior of his time, Prince Arjuna, one of the five Pāṇḍava brothers, sees his teachers and uncles, as well as his hostile cousins and their followers. Faced with the prospect of a fratricidal war in which he will have to fight an army composed of many of his esteemed teachers, friends, and the Kuru warriors with whom he shares family bonds, Arjuna is perplexed about his kṣatriya-dharma, his duty as a warrior, and is overcome by debilitating despair. Even though Arjuna recognizes that the Kurus, led by Duryodhana, had cruelly and unjustly usurped the Pandavas’ kingdom, at 1.28–30, Arjuna claims compassion for his kinsmen and refuses to fight for justice. After trying to defend his position with a medley of socio-moral arguments, Arjuna collapses in anxiety and thus ends the Gītā’s first chapter. In the second chapter, at 2.6–7, Arjuna continues to voice his indecision about whether he should dutifully fight or whether he should refrain from fighting but then confesses that he is paralyzed due to miserly weakness and cannot ascertain his dharma—his duty, and consequently, he is unable to act. Following this confession, Arjuna surrenders to his dear cousin, charioteer and friend Kṛṣṇa as his disciple and asks Kṛṣṇa to enlighten him and resolve his inner conflict and dissipate his grief.
Even though the Gītā
proceeds as a conversation between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, it really is Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s deep despondence and through Arjuna’s despondency the text grapples with a perennially relevant question: How ought we to act in this world, beset at it is with conflict and suffering? More precisely, the Gītā
asks this question through the existential and ethical dilemma faced by the warrior Arjuna. Kṣatriya dharma
dictates Arjuna should uphold loka-saṅgraha
order that sustains the world. That is, Arjuna is duty bound to uphold justice and protect the virtuous, but how can Arjuna fight an enemy army composed of loved ones and gurus? In responding to Arjuna’s dilemma, Kṛṣṇa begins his teachings in the second chapter of the Gītā
and over the course of the rest of the text, Kṛṣṇa offers a variety of reasons
to persuade Arjuna to fight. The compendium of reasons Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna to motivate him to fight constitutes the narrative arc of the Gītā
. To draw out the internal consistency and coherence of this compendium of reasons, I turn to Ithamar Theodor’s articulation of the underlying unifying structure of the Gītā
through “the metaphor of a three-storey house” (Theodor 2016, p. 5
3. The Three-Tiered House of the Bhagavad Gītā
Edwin Bryant has termed the Bhagavad Gītā “
a Vedānto-Sāṃkhyan text” in that it expresses the “theism of the older Sāṃkhyan traditions” (Bryant 2014, p. 33
is often labelled as a monolithic non-theistic tradition, but in fact, most strains of Sāṃkhya
were theistic, as evidenced in the Mahābhārata
and highlighted by Edwin Bryant (Bryant 2009
). The Gītā
explicitly accepts Sāṃkhya
(5.4–5, 13.24), and claims to be transmitting Sāṃkhya
(2.39, 18.13) and also of Kṛṣṇa originally teaching Sāṃkhya
himself (3.3). Not surprisingly, Sāṃkhya
language and taxonomy undergird the narrative of the Gītā
. The Gītā
’s theistic Sāṃkhya
speaks of three irreducible ontological categories: prakṛti
—the primordial matrix of matter, puruṣas
—eternal self-conscious subjects and puruṣaḥ paraḥ
—the Supreme Person, the autonomous independent entity who sustains and is the ultimate cause of both prakṛti
and innumerable selves (puruṣas
). This ontology is expressed at 7.4–7. There have been, of course, a variety of Vedāntic
approaches to the Gītā
’s ontology, but here I am informed by the twelfth century Vaiṣṇava theologian Rāmānuja’s reading of the Gītā
. The text identifies Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Person, or the supreme deity (7.7, 10.2–3, 10.8, 11.37–46, 15.18–19) and as such, is an exemplar of Indic theistic, or more accurately, panentheistic thought (I will highlight the panentheism embedded in the text further on in the article). Like other Vedāntic
texts, the Gītā
advances the view that reality is hierarchical. That is, there is a higher, absolute reality, and a lower, relative reality. The lower-level reality corresponds to the world of prakṛti
, it corresponds to the empirical and conventional, the changing and the finite. The lower-level reality, which includes the human or worldly realm, also pertains to dharma
, the world of duty, morality and justice. The higher-level reality corresponds to the permanent, absolute, infinite, trans-prakṛtic
realm, it corresponds to the liberated state of mokṣa
Through Arjuna’s ethical dilemma, the Bhagavad-Gītā is navigating the deep tension between the dharmic ideal (whose origins can be traced back to the ancient Pūrva Mīmāṁsā school) of pursuing a moral and prosperous life within the world of prakṛti and the Upaniṣadic ideal of completely relinquishing the world of prakṛti, characterized as it is by saṁsāra, the cycle of birth and death, in order to attain the imperishable and eternal state of liberation or mokṣa. The tension between dharma and mokṣa also epitomizes the tension between action and knowledge. The dharma tradition is imbued with a performative flavour and seeks to act in this world and organize it according to principles derived from a purported eternal moral order whereas the Upaniṣadic tradition favours renunciation of action and worldly involvement in order to ‘know’ Brahman (ultimate reality). This tension is exemplified twice in the Gītā, at 3.1–3 and 5.1–2, when Arjuna expresses his confusion whether one should choose the path of action, or alternatively, the path of relinquishing action.
unequivocally prescribes the path of action. Each time Arjuna expresses his confusion over whether he should act or cease acting altogether, the text has Kṛṣṇa tell Arjuna at 3.8, to “perform your dharmic
duty, as action is superior to inaction” and similarly, at 5.2, that “karma yoga
action exceeds renouncing action altogether.” (I have used Ithamar Theodor’s translations of Gītā
verses for this article (Theodor 2016
)). Thus, Kṛṣṇa encourages Arjuna throughout the entire Gītā
to follow his dharma
and fight. Yet, the Gītā
also teaches that through
action, one may progress to the state of liberation or mokṣa
. What is the rationale underpinning the Gītā
’s view? Ithamar Theodor (Theodor 2016, p. 5
) has argued that the coherence of the Bhagavad Gītā
as a theological-philosophical text is made apparent when we grasp the Gītā
’s unifying theme or structure. To access the Gītā
’s unifying structure, Theodor offers the metaphor of a three-storey house:
This house not only has three floors, storeys, or tiers, but has a staircase or ladder, leading the residents from the first floor to the second, and from the second to the third. The lower floor represents human life in this world, the second floor is an intermediate floor, whereby one relinquishes worldly life and seeks the state of liberation, and the third floor represents full absorption in the liberated state. The stages of the staircase or the ladder are comprised of various states of action categorized according to their underlying motivation; at the lower stage one’s acts are motivated by some utilitarian principle or gain; a stage still higher is when one seeks gain beyond this life in the heavenly world, and a higher stage is the stage of relinquishment of action’s fruits, thus acting for the sake of duty or dharma alone. A state still higher is the performance of one’s dharmic duty as a practice of yoga, i.e., considering the performance of duty to be the means by which the mind may be subdued. The highest state is the state of performing one’s dharmic duty while being liberated and entirely immersed in the supreme. In this way, the Bhagavad Gītā adheres to both ideals; it supports social responsibility, morality and dharma, and at the same time, it endorses the Upaniṣadic path of self-realization, which leads one from the depth of material existence all the way up to liberation”.
This conceptualization of the Gītā
’s internal schema implies that we progress from the unenlightened state to the highest liberated state by elevating our motives or reasons for performing action, and not by renouncing action. Thus, even though Arjuna is encouraged all along by Kṛṣṇa to follow his dharma
and fight, the text has Kṛṣṇa exhorting Arjuna to progressively refine his motives for fighting. That is, the variety of reasons Krishna gives to Arjuna form an “ethical ladder of motives” for fighting (Theodor 2016, p. 24
). This ladder of motives corresponds to three different tiers or levels of the text, such that as we ascend the Gītā
’s ladder of motives, we are simultaneously moving from a lower tier of the text to a higher one.
The pertinent question: How do we distinguish between the Gītā
’s three tiers? Theodor contends that to differentiate between the Gītā
’s three tiers, we need to examine their underlying assumptions in terms of being and values (Theodor 2016, p. 19
). Before we can clarify these underlying assumptions, a closer look at the Gītā
’s core ontological presupposition is in order. The Gītā
pivots around the idea that a human being (and all living organisms, for that matter) is a composite of three parts: a physical body, a subtle mental body and an irreducible, beginningless, self-aware subject or puruṣa
. The ‘subject’ part of ‘self-aware subject’ denotes an entity capable of conscious experiences. The ‘self-aware’ part of ‘self-aware subject’ denotes an entity that is aware of oneself. By the term self-aware subject, then, I mean an entity that is aware of themselves as themselves
; it is manifest to a self-aware subject that they themselves are the object of awareness. This implies that a self-aware subject, while perceiving any other thing, also perceives their own existence, implying that awareness entails self-awareness. On this view, both the physical body and the mental functions of the subtle body belong to the inert and unconscious category of prakṛti
but the puruṣa
is ontologically distinct from prakṛti
in that the puruṣa
being a non-material entity inherently consists of pure subjectivity or self-luminous conscious awareness. (In this article, I will use ‘awareness’ to denote the inherent subjectivity of the puruṣa
). In keeping with the characteristically Vedāntic
project of distinguishing the real self from the not-self, the Gītā
(2.13, 2.20 and 13.6–7) consistently demarcates the physical and subtle mental body from the puruṣa
, claiming that only the puruṣa
—the diachronically unchanging eternal self-conscious subject that observes the constantly changing mind-body complex—is the real self, whereas the subtle and physical body belong to the category of not-self.
What does it mean, then, to say that the Gītā
speaks of three different levels of being? For Vedāntic
theologians, phenomenological subjectivity, i.e., the first-person experience of being, is an act where the puruṣa identifies
with something. Theodor (Theodor 2016
) consequently writes that someone on the Gītā
’s first-tier identifies with one’s prakṛtic
embodiment or one’s mind/body complex. Someone on this tier views oneself as a human being and other living beings similarly, that is, as humans, animals or plants, and values a just and moral society and the pursuit of worldly happiness and prosperity. The Gita’s third or highest tier represents the liberated state of mokṣa
itself. Immersed in the liberated state one identifies as transcendent self-luminous awareness (an impersonal account of the liberated state) or as an eternal servant or lover of the Supreme Person (a theistic account of the liberated state). Someone on this level values the experience of brahmananda
(the bliss of Brahman
) or in case of the theist perspective, the experience of being constantly absorbed in the worship and glorification of the Supreme Person. The Gītā
’s second storey or the intermediate level may be termed the yogic
level as it connects the first-storey or the level of dharma
with the third-storey or the state of mokṣa
. The yogic
level is characterized by the endeavour to escape saṁsāra
while simultaneously trying to yoke oneself to the state of mokṣa
. Someone on this level identifies all living beings as units of self-luminous awareness transcendent to the mind-body complex, and values indifference to the happiness and distress produced by the three guṇas
along with the endeavor to yoke oneself to Brahman
or the eternal state of mokṣa
Theodor’s conceptualization of the three-tiered house of the Gītā is based on mapping the possible relationships that may exist between the puruṣa and mokṣa; on the first tier are those puruṣas who are not seeking mokṣa, on the second tier are those puruṣas who are actively seeking mokṣa and on the third tier are those puruṣas who have already attained the state of mokṣa. Instead of articulating the Gītā’s moral psychology by mapping the possible relationships between the puruṣa and mokṣa, I will approach the Gītā’s moral psychology by mapping the possible ways the puruṣa may relate to prakṛti. To do this, I draw on the Gītā’s depiction of the puruṣa’s intrinsic nature as an eternal self-conscious subject, which stipulates that the puruṣa can never be not conscious or not aware and so, if the puruṣa’s inherent constitution requires that it be always aware of something, what is it that awareness ends up being aware of? I contend the Gītā text answers this question by claiming that the puruṣa has three basic choices: to be absorbed in prakṛti—the world of matter, to be absorbed in its own nature as self-luminous awareness, or to be absorbed in devotion to and loving service of Īśvara, the source of both prakṛti and selves (puruṣas). Within the Gītā’s theological structure, these three choices that can be made by the puruṣa result in three different theories of motivation which add up to three different predispositions toward the world of prakṛti—a world-affirming approach, a world-renouncing approach and a bhakti approach, which is simultaneously world-affirming and world-renouncing.
In sum, the Gītā depicts the puruṣa relating to prakṛti in three possible ways and mapping this allows me to draw out the Gītā’s environmental ethics. That is, I will argue that the motivation to act for the welfare of animals and plants can be legitimately derived from the Gītā’s three theories of motivation and their corresponding predispositions toward the world of prakṛti. Moreover, I will contextualize the Gītā’s environmental ethics by placing it within the framework of the Gītā’s overarching ethical theory. I interpret the Gītā as advancing a mokṣa-based teleological ethical theory that evaluates choices and actions in terms of whether they contribute to and ultimately achieve the overarching ultimate telos of mokṣa. However, I will show in the following sections that the Gītā’s ethical theory is also multi-layered, meaning that the foundational mokṣa-based teleological ethical theory grounds and explains more superficial foundational normative theories.
4. World-Affirming Environmental Ethics in the Gītā
The argument for environmental ethics from the world-affirming worldview in the Gītā
can be conceptualized as follows:
Premise One: There is a world-affirming worldview in the Gītā.
Premise Two: The world-affirming worldview applies to those who identify with their prakṛtic
Premise Three: The soteriological goal of the world-affirming view is to improve one’s existential situation within prakṛti.
Premise Four: Following the codes of dharma is the means to improve one’s existential situation within prakṛti.
Premise Five: Rules advancing the welfare of animals and plants is included in the codes of dharma.
Conclusion: Therefore, a normative environmental ethical theory can be derived from the world-affirming worldview in the Gītā.
: The Gītā
subscribes to the Sāṃkhyan
theory that conceives of nature as consisting of three subtle entities called the guṇas
, the highest guṇa
representing goodness, insight and wisdom, the intermediate guṇa
representing passion, activity and attachment, and the lowest guṇa
representing ignorance, indolence and darkness. Though the guṇas
are often rendered as ‘qualities’, they are, as Jitendra Mohanty writes, more accurately represented as “affective components” of prakṛti
(Mohanty 2000, p. 25
). That is, the guṇas
are described in terms of qualia—they are subtle entities or substances that can be known through their effects on the subjectivity of the puruṣa
. Specifically, the guṇas
that pervade and comprise all phenomena born of prakṛtic
stuff are supposed to induce an innumerable variety of emotional and cognitive states. This idea of the guṇas
is foundational to the Gītā
’s metaphysical narrative and elaborate descriptions on how the guṇas
influence the puruṣa
take place throughout the text, especially in chapters fourteen, seventeen and eighteen. The Gītā
goes onto claim that puruṣas
embedded in prakṛti
seek to ‘taste’ experiences born of the permutations and combinations of the gunas
. Consequently, a world-affirming worldview in the context of the Gītā
, is one which affirms the pursuit of experiences born of the guṇas
. In this section, I wish to show that this type of a world-affirming worldview occurs on three different levels in the Gītā
At its lowest stage, Kṛṣṇa asks Arjuna to fight the battle simply to gain fame and honour since by withdrawing from the battle he will accrue infamy and dishonor (2.34–36). At the next stage of the world-affirming view, Kṛṣṇa augments his persuasive strategy with scriptural authority, specifically the idea that kṣatriyas or warriors who die in a righteous battle attain the celestial dimension of existence in their next life. This stage is higher than the previous argument to try and avoid infamy because at this stage, Arjuna is being advised to follow dharma to achieve some end not just in this life, but in the next life (2.48). By claiming that an agent is permitted to act to secure a desired outcome for oneself, the Gītā here advances a version of agent-relative consequentialism. A consequentialist approach to normative ethics claims that normative properties depend only on consequences. That is, we can judge the moral rightness of an act based solely on the consequences or outcomes of the act. Consequentialists thus argue that we can choose from among a range of actions by ranking the outcomes of those actions, such that I am permitted to perform an act A if and only if there is no alternative act B whose outcome ranks higher than A on my ranking scale. Agent-neutral consequentialists maintain that different agents will rank a set of outcomes in the same manner but agent-relative or subject-focused consequentialists recognize that different agents will potentially rank the same set of outcomes differently.
Now, the Gītā advances the view that different puruṣas exhibit different behavioural patterns because of being influenced by different permutations of the guṇas. Based on this view, the Gītā categorizes human society into four varnas or social classes. These four classes are that of the brāhmaṇas (teachers, intellectuals, priests), kṣatriyas (warriors, administrators, rulers), vaiśyas (bankers, farmers, business people) and śūdras (artisans, laborers). The Gītā, at 4.13, claims that humans naturally fall into these four social classes not based on birth, but because of exhibiting specific behavioural traits that spring from specific guṇa combinations. All this means that human subjects have four archetypal natures, and these four natures are attracted to different sets of values. When I speak of different human natures, I refer to the traits and behaviors exhibited by the mind-body complex. Because one can come under the influence of different guṇas at different times, human nature is potentially malleable. At the same time, the Gītā seems to hold the position that there are four archetypal human natures that spring from specific guṇa combinations. Accordingly, the reasons given by Kṛṣṇa here to persuade Arjuna are not arbitrary reasons but they are reasons that are supposed to specifically appeal to the set of values that characterize a kṣatriya nature. At 18.41–44, the text outlines the different sets of values that characterize the four archetypal human natures. Here, Kṛṣṇa is appealing to the values of valor, honor and heroism that typify a kṣatriya nature. My argument, then, is the Gītā here is advancing a version of agent-relative consequentialism, where it is recognized that different agents are attracted to different sets of values and consequently rank the same set of outcomes differently.
The third and highest stage of the world-affirming view occurs at 2.38 when Kṛṣṇa requests Arjuna to follow dharma for its own sake, or he asks the agent to perform one’s duty for the sake of duty. In contrast to the agent-relative consequentialist approach expressed at the two lower stages of the world-affirming view, the text now shifts to a deontological approach to normative ethics. The idea is that each of the four social classes have settled duties and while performing those duties one should purge one’s mind of the intent to enjoy the perceived beneficial outcome of those duties. The stage of performing one’s duty for the sake of duty, free from the motivation to enjoy the outcomes accruing from action, represents action born out of sattva guṇa. The Gītā, at 18.45, claims that when one performs one’s dharmic duty for the sake of duty, free from the motive to enjoy the perceived beneficial outcomes of the action, one experiences deep contentment—a characteristic of sattva guṇa. By giving three reasons that affirm the pursuit of happiness born of the guṇas that comprise prakṛti, the Gītā effectively affirms that the world of prakṛti is valuable and consequently, the motivation to maintain moral order and harmony within the prakṛtic world is valuable as well.
: Considering that the Gītā
maintains that the puruṣa
is ontologically distinct from unconscious prakṛti
, who does the world-affirming view apply to? The answer is succinctly expressed at 13.21–22:
It is said that material nature is the cause in the matter of producing causes and effects, and that the living entity is the cause in the matter of experiencing pleasure and pain. The living entity situated in material nature experiences the guṇas that are the product of material nature. While its association with the guṇas is the cause of birth in a good or bad womb.
These two verses convey the familiar Vedāntic theme of a self-aware subject (puruṣa) identifying with prakṛti or the mind-body complex and thus desiring to enjoy the experiences that are generated by the mind-body complex. Even though ontologically distinct from the mind-body complex, the puruṣa becomes completely absorbed in the mind-body complex due to intense meditation on the objects of the senses (2.63). When the puruṣa becomes totally absorbed in the mind-body complex, then the puruṣa makes the mind-body complex one’s own and thus also becomes totally absorbed in the experiences generated by the guṇas that make up both the mind-body complex and the objects of the senses. Here, the text also makes the significant claim that the puruṣa generates the specific circumstances of its future rebirth according to how the puruṣa interacts with the guṇas.
Premise Three: For those who identify with their prakṛtic embodiment, the soteriological goal—the highest good—is to aspire for the best kind of experiences prakṛti can offer. Here, the Gītā seems to concur with the Mīmāṁsā notion that the highest experience prakṛti can offer is celestial existence or life in heaven. In keeping with Indic thought in general (by ‘Indic’ I refer to Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain commonalities), the Gītā advances a cosmological view in which the prakṛtic domain contains numerous celestial realms—svārga— the abodes of the devas or celestial beings or demigods—which are the destination of those with sufficient karmic credit (which, sooner or later, expires). I have noted how Kṛṣṇa tried to persuade Arjuna to fight based on the idea that if Arjuna wins, he will win the earthly kingdom, but if he is killed, he will attain heaven, since according to the principles of dharma, warriors killed in fighting a dharmic war attain heaven. At 2.42–43, Kṛṣṇa acknowledges that those who abide by the dharmic injunctions and rituals laid down in the Veda, get “good karma, good birth and good fruits of action. Full of desires and with heaven as their aim, these people practice an abundance of rituals, with the purpose of achieving pleasure and power.” At 9.20, the text has Kṛṣṇa reiterate that those who perform the sacrificial rituals of the Vedas with a desire to attain heaven, do indeed reach “the meritorious world of Indra, the lord of the gods,” where “they enjoy the celestial joys of the gods.” Finally, at 14.15, the text specifies that for one who has attained the state of sattva, meaning someone whose actions are primarily influenced by sattva guṇa, is destined to reborn in “the pure worlds of those possessing the highest knowledge” after giving up their present human body. We can conclude that for a puruṣa who identifies with his prakṛtic embodiment, the soteriological goal is to improve one’s existential situation within the prakṛtic domain. For the Gītā, improving one’s situation within the prakṛtic domain is tantamount to attaining the higher dimensions of the cosmos, where one can experience different grades of celestial existence.
: The Gītā
prescribes the path of following dharma
as the means to improve one’s existential situation within the world of prakṛti
. In Premise one, I have clarified the Gītā
’s position that one can act in accordance with dharma
but with the desire to enjoy the outcomes of actions (an agent-relative consequentialist approach), or better still, dharma
can be performed in a mind-set characteristic of sattva guṇa
, that is, one can perform dharmic
duty for the sake of duty—a deontological approach (an idea explicitly stated at 17.11–12). For the Gītā
, acting in sattva guṇa
is the ideal one should aim for and “as such, being established in the guṇa
of goodness, one finds oneself adhering to dharma
” (Theodor 2016, p. 10
). At 18.6, Kṛṣṇa thus claims: My final judgment, Pārtha, is that these actions should be performed out of duty, abandoning attachment and interest in their fruits. 18.23 further specifies “an action is of the nature of goodness when performed according to the injunctions of dharma, without attachment, devoid of attraction or repulsion, by one who desires not its fruits.” Why does the Gītā
try to coax agents to gradually shift their allegiance to ideals born out of sattva guṇa
? One answer is what I have already previously mentioned, shifting to sattva guṇa
is the way to improve one’s existential situation within the domain of prakṛti
. In this sense, the guṇas
represent existential pathways through sāṁsara
with those puruṣas
predominated by sattva guṇa
being reborn into favourable circumstances in higher celestial dimensions of the cosmos. However, I contend there is a deeper motive driving the Gītā
’s agenda to persuade puruṣas
to act within the jurisdiction of sattva guṇa
. The clue to this deeper motive is found in chapter fourteen of the text, a chapter that explicitly engages with the topic of the three guṇas
. The chapter begins with Kṛṣṇa claiming that the knowledge he is about to speak is of a distinctly soteriological flavor and twice in the chapter, at 14.14 and 14.17, Kṛṣṇa equates sattva guṇa
When the embodied soul meets death influenced by goodness, it attains the pure worlds of those possessing the highest knowledge.
From goodness arises knowledge.
The question arises: What kind of knowledge is this? The answer is specified at 18.20:
Know that knowledge to be of the nature of goodness, through which one sees a single imperishable reality in all beings, unified in the diversified.
Here, the text is indicating that shifting to sattva guṇa
qualifies one to perceive the underlying transcendent unity pervading all things. We can infer then that sattva guṇa
is the necessary pre-condition or the launching pad to attain the state of mokṣa
, a state characterized by the ability to constantly
perceive the underlying transcendent unity pervading the diversity of phenomena. The Gītā
’s agenda to persuade puruṣas
to act within the jurisdiction of sattva guṇa
can thus also be seen as a way of preparing a fertile existential ground where the pre-condition for mokṣa
can take root and sprout. Put differently, the text seems to suggest that by doing one’s dharmic
duty for the sake of duty one gradually qualifies oneself to attain the liberated state. On this view, the framework of dharma
becomes the instrumental device to attain the highest good—the ultimate Upaniṣadic
telos of mokṣa.
In this context, the Gītā
is advancing a multi-layered ethical theory where the foundational telos of mokṣa
grounds and explains a plurality of more superficial foundational normative theories. In approaching this idea, let me observe that to see how theories in normative ethics differ it is useful to “distinguish between normative factors
and normative foundations
” (Perrett 2005, p. 325
). Ethicists readily acknowledge a variety of normative factors—factors relevant to determining the moral status of a choice—outcomes, rules, constraints, obligations, virtues, and so on. However, the point of contention is which factor is most basic and most important and how to rank various normative factors in the likely event of conflict. The normative foundations of an ethical theory are supposed to clarify these issues by offering a conceptual device that justifies establishing one type of normative factor as most basic and most important. Normative ethical theories differ, then, because they offer competing foundational conceptual devices which allow one to rank normative factors differently and consequently claim that in making sense of the moral universe, one normative factor grounds and explains all other normative factors. Now, where a pluralist at the factoral level holds that more than one normative factor has significance, a pluralist at the foundational level holds that the different factors are grounded in different foundational devices. Roy Perrett suggests that there are two routes to justify the latter position:
One is right to insist that that there is an ultimate and irreducible pluralism at the foundations of normative ethics. The other is a bit more exotic: a foundational pluralism which also admits of the possibility of multilayering. The idea here is that there may be at a deeper foundational level still some single foundational theory that grounds and explains the plurality of more superficial foundational theories.
I contend that the Gītā advances exactly such a multi-layered ethical theory. First, Kṛṣṇa persuades Arjuna to perform his dharmic duty with the desire to enjoy the outcomes of actions and this is, as I have argued, an agent-relative consequentialist approach. However, then Kṛṣṇa tries to persuade Arjuna to perform his dharmic duty for the sake of duty, a deontological approach, or in the terms of the Gītā, a sattva guṇa approach. The Gītā clearly favours the sattva guṇa approach. My argument is that the deeper motive behind the Gītā’s agenda to recommend actions within the jurisdiction of sattva guṇa is that sattva guṇa is the pre-condition for attaining mokṣa. In this sense, the foundational teleological mokṣa theory grounds and explains the more superficial foundational normative theories of agent-relative consequentialism and deontology.
: Considering that the Gītā
holds that dharma
is synonymous with sattva guṇa
, the question is: does the Gītā
text specify dharmic
ideals, ideals that are supposed to emerge out of sattva guṇa
? Along with Theodor (Theodor 2016, p. 13
), I contend that 16.1–4, offers a list of such ideals, “ideal qualities to be pursued while living in accordance with dharma
” (Theodor 2016, p. 13
Fearlessness, purification of one’s whole being, firmness in spiritual knowledge, generosity, self control and sacrifice, studying the Veda, austerity, righteousness, nonviolence, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation, tranquillity, avoiding vilification, compassion for all beings, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, reliability, vigour, tolerance, fortitude, purity, absence of envy and pride—these are the qualities of one born to divine destiny, O Bhārata.
I consider these ideals to be synonymous with sattva guṇa
because at 18.5, the text specifies these “qualities lead to liberation” (daivī sampad vimokṣāya
) and as I have discussed in premise four, the text considers that sattva guṇa
bestows the type of salvific knowledge which is a precondition to attaining liberation. Note that this list includes two significant ideals: ahiṁsā
(nonviolence) and dayā bhūteṣu
(compassion or kindness toward all living entities). One can legitimately derive prescriptive moral injunctions about obligatory and forbidden actions that advance the welfare of individuals in nature, such as animals and plants, from these two ideals. In this context, it is worth noting that the Manu Smṛti
or Mānava Dharma Śāstra
, widely considered to be the most important text of the Dharma Śāstra genre, contains numerous injunctions proscribing the injury of animals and plants and even imposes religious penalties (prāyaścitta
) as well as civil penalties for injuring trees. Mary McGee notes that the authors of the Dharma Śāstras derived their laws for the protection of plants and trees from several perspectives, one of which is “a recognition of plants as sentient beings with consciousness, which therefore should be protected from harm (advocacy of ahiṃsā
)” (McGee 2000, p. 93
In conclusion, the world-affirming worldview of the Gītā applies to those puruṣas who identify with their prakṛtic embodiment and seek to improve their existential situation within prakṛti. The Gīta prescribes dharmic activity as a means to improve one’s existential situation within prakṛti and this includes living by the dharmic ideals of ahiṁsā and dayā bhūteṣu, from which we can legitimately derive specific injunctions for protecting and caring for animals and plants. Therefore, a normative environmental ethical theory can be legitimately derived from the world-affirming worldview in the Gītā.
5. World-Renouncing Environmental Ethics in the Gītā
The argument for environmental ethics from the world-renouncing worldview in the Gītā
can be schematized as follows:
Premise One: There is a world-renouncing worldview in the Gītā.
Premise Two: The world-renouncing worldview applies to those who identify as units of transcendent awareness ontologically distinct from their prakṛtic embodiment.
Premise Three: The soteriological goal of the world-renouncing view is to disconnect from prakṛti and achieve extinction in Brahman.
Premise Four: Engaging in activities advancing the welfare of all beings is the means to achieve the state of extinction in Brahman.
Premise Five: Activities that advance the welfare of animals and plants falls within the category of activities that advance the welfare of all beings.
Conclusion: Therefore, a normative environmental ethical theory can be legitimately derived from the world-renouncing worldview in the Gītā.
: The world-renouncing worldview appears in a number of places in the Gītā
, but I think the most systematic articulation of this worldview is at 13.7–11:
Absence of pride and arrogance, nonviolence, forbearance, honesty, attendance upon the guru, purity, firmness, self control, lack of attraction to sense objects, absence of ego-notion, visioning the distress and evil of birth, death, old age and disease, detachment, aloofness from sons, wife, home and the like, constant equanimity toward desired and undesired events, single-minded devotion to me supported by yoga, preferring of solitary places and avoiding the crowds, constant contemplation of knowledge of the self, envisioning the purpose of knowledge concerned with the truth—all these are declared knowledge, whereas all else is ignorance.
These verses seem to encourage an ascetic mode of living, wherein the primary purpose driving action is to relinquish the world of prakṛti altogether while simultaneously trying to connect to the unchanging, eternal, transcendent self that is the essential “I.”
Premise Two: The world-renouncing worldview applies to those who identify as transcendent awareness, ontologically distinct from prakṛti. From this perspective, one considers one’s mind-body complex to be external to oneself and consequently, also considers one’s entanglement in prakṛti to be circumstantial and an obstacle to realising one’s true state of being (see, for example, 13.3, 13.32, 13.33 and 13.34).
: The soteriological goal—the highest good—of the world-renouncing worldview is liberation from saṁsāra
—the cycle of repeated birth and death that the embodied puruṣa
is said to undergo in the world of prakṛti
. The world-renouncer does not simply wish to transcend the prakṛtic
world, however, but simultaneously seeks to achieve the state of brahma-nirvāṇa
, literally, “extinction in Brahman.” I take this to mean that the world-renouncer intends to detach from the prakṛtic
composite that makes up one’s empirical personhood and solely retain awareness of self-luminous awareness itself. Kṛṣṇa uses the phrase brahma-nirvāṇam
three times, in three consecutive verses, at 5.24–26, a section of the Gītā
dedicated to delineating the world-renouncer’s soteriological goal:
He who can withstand the urges originating from lust and anger in this world, before release from the body, is yoked and is a happy person. He whose happiness is within, whose pleasure is within, and his enlightenment too is within is actually a yogī; with his whole being absorbed in Brahman, he attains to extinction in Brahman. The seers whose evils have been eradicated, who are free from doubt, self-controlled and who wish all beings well, attain extinction in Brahman. For those freed from lust and anger, who are ascetics of controlled minds and who know the self– for them close at hand lies extinction in Brahman.
: Given the Sāṁkhyan
framework underpinning the Gitā
’s conception of nature or prakṛti
, the world-renouncer’s attempt to relinquish the world of prakṛti
is tantamount to transcending the guṇas
. Indeed, the Gītā
, at 14.25, defines the liberated person as guṇātītaḥ
—having gone beyond or transcended the guṇas
. From the world-renouncing perspective, what does it mean to transcend the guṇas
? Recall that according to the Gītā
’s underlying Sāṁkhya
framework, the guṇas
make up everything within the world of prakṛti
and thus the endless variety of experiences perceived by the puruṣa
entangled in saṁsāra
are all generated by various permutations and combinations of the three guṇas
. Significantly, the text, at 3.27–29, characterizes ignorance as the inability to discern that conventional action in the world is performed under the influence of the guṇas
Although actions in every respect are performed by the guṇas of material nature, the spirit soul, confused by the ego thinks: ‘It is actually me who is the doer’. But, he who knows the truth, O mighty Arjuna, regarding the separation (of the soul) from both the guṇas and activity, and sees clearly that the guṇas act among themselves—he is not attached. Those thus bewildered by the guṇas of material nature, are attached to actions within the guṇas’ scope. However, he whose knowledge is complete may not disturb those fools whose knowledge is incomplete.
According to this analysis, in conventional existence in the world, when ignorant of the real nature of the puruṣa
as being ontologically distinct from prakṛti
, one actively pursues experiences born of prakṛtic
objects and evaluates everything in terms of its instrumental value to the fulfilment of bhoga—prakṛtic
enjoyment. To be “attached to actions within the guṇas’ scope”, then, is equivalent to identifying with the mind-body complex made of prakṛtic
stuff. The Gītā
claims that the ahaṃkāra
or ego, a most subtle aspect of the prakṛtic
psychological mechanism, is the glue that binds awareness to the mind-body complex and the prakṛtic
world. Jonathan Edelmann notes: “The etymological meaning of ahaṃkāra is ‘I-maker’, for it provides the self with the sense of being an individual, or an ‘I”. When the ego is applied to the body and mind, the result is a false concept of personal identity, or a sense of ‘I and mine’” (Edelmann 2012, p. 65
). This false sense of ‘I and mine’ causes the puruṣa
to associate one’s sense of identity with the mind-body complex the puruṣa
is presently embodied in. Specifically, the puruṣa
feel a sense of possessiveness or ownership over this particular mind-body complex, and all the other prakṛtic
objects connected with this mind-body complex (e.g., family members, wealth, fame, nation, etc). As long as the puruṣa
remains under the influence of the ahaṃkāra
, the puruṣa
actively seeks to ‘possess and own’ prakṛtic
objects that can generate ‘good’ experiences for the prakṛtic
mind-body complex one is embodied in and this disposition ensures that the puruṣa
continues to remain under the influence of the guṇas
, and continues to be reborn in various types of prakṛtic
bodies according to the karmic
merit and demerit one acquires. To gain release from saṁsāra
, then, one has to become indifferent to the deep-rooted psychological disposition to ‘possess and own’ the experiences generated by the guṇas
that make up the world. This is diametrically opposed to the world-affirming worldview, where one is motivated to act to possess the fruits of one’s actions (the experiences generated by the guṇas
). From the world-renouncer perspective, the motivation for action is to transcend the guṇas
by not desiring to possess the fruits of action but by desiring solely to yoke oneself to Brahman
, as described in chapter two (2.45, 2.47, 2.48, 2.51):
O Arjuna, rise above the three guṇas’ realm! Be free from duality, always planted in the truth, free from the desire to possess and preserve, and established in the self. Your sole entitlement is to perform dharmic activity, not ever to possess its fruits; never shall the fruit of an action motivate your deed, and never cleave to inaction. O Dhanañjaya, perform activities while you are fixed in yoga; relinquishing attachment, be equally accepting of both success and failure, for this equanimity is called yoga. The wise who are rooted in this enlightenment relinquish indeed the fruits born of actions; thus they are freed from the bondage of rebirth, and go to that place which is free from any pain.
To counter the puruṣa’s false sense of ownership and possessiveness, the text is advising the world-renouncer to develop equanimity (sama) toward the guṇas. Indeed, the text seems to suggest that developing equanimity toward the psychological flux produced by the guṇas is the necessary condition for the puruṣa to embark upon the project of liberation from saṁsāra (see 14.21–25). To develop equanimity toward the guṇas, is to become detached from the influence of the ahaṃkara, because it is the ahaṃkara, which focuses the awareness of the puruṣa upon his prakṛtic embodiment and the false sense of “I and mine” that comes from this absorption. This false sense of “I and mine” is what drives the puruṣa to seek endless configurations of guṇa experiences, experiences that arise when the mind and senses which are made up of the guṇas come in contact with sense objects, also made up of the guṇas. To become detached from the ahaṃkara, then, is to become indifferent to the inevitable duality of pleasure and pain that arises from the senses coming in contact with their sense objects, which is, in effect, means relinquishing the pursuit of guṇa-born experiences. All this, of course, leads to the question: What is the ethical means through which the world-renouncer can give up the pursuit of guṇa experiences and develop equanimity toward the influence of the guṇas?
I believe the answer to this question is found in the phrase sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ, which appears in that same form, twice in the Gītā—5.25 and 12.4. The first time it appears, in 5.25, Kṛṣṇa uses the phrase to qualify the person fit to attain brahma-nirvāṇa, or extinction in Brahman. Kṛṣṇa again uses the same phrase, in 12.4, to qualify the person fit to attain akṣaram avyaktaṁ—that is, the imperishable and unmanifest Brahman. The phrase sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ may be translated as “concerned with the welfare of all beings” or “engaged in the welfare of all beings.” I believe sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ is the primary ethical principle through which the world-renouncer is supposed to develop equanimity toward the influence of the guṇas. The rationale behind this idea is that by focusing on acting for the welfare of all beings, the puruṣa can relinquish the ahaṃkara-centred pursuit of guṇa experiences within saṁsāra, which further allows the puruṣa to detach from the ahaṃkara itself and develop “constant equanimity toward desired and undesired events,” brought about by the guṇas (mind and senses) interacting with the guṇas (sense objects). The idea of “constant equanimity toward desired and undesired events” is conveyed in the phrase “nityaṁ ca sama-cittatvam iṣṭāniṣṭopapattiṣu”, one of the qualities of the world-renouncer described at 13.10.
: Sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ
is a broad principle, but I contend that the lowest common denominator of this principle is the promotion of non-violence and non-possessiveness toward animals and trees. Christopher Chapple has made the case that non-violence to animals, trees, and self, when combined with non-possessiveness can result in ecological awareness:
[T]he solutions that Gandhi proposed to counter the ills of colonialism can also be put into effect to redress this new and ultimately deleterious situation. The observance of nonviolence, coupled with a commitment to minimize consumption of natural resources, can contribute to restoring and maintaining an ecological balance.
According to Chapple, Gandhi and others who follow ascetic ideals such as non-possession, celibacy, and non-violence, serve as exemplars for limiting resource-consumption and minimizing their ecological footprint and can thus serve as an inspiration for environmental ethics. Sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ
can also mean a more proactive brand of social activism that includes environmental activism. The inspiration for this interpretation comes from chapter six of the Gītā
, a chapter dedicated to discussing classical yoga, a psychosomatic manual of meditative practice aimed at helping one realize the actual nature of the puruṣa
. At 6.32, the text has Kṛṣṇa declare:
O Arjuna, one who in relation to himself sees all beings equally, whether in happiness or distress, is considered the supreme yogī.
theologians often gloss this verse as one offering a vision of universal empathy—just as I do not desire to remain in a state of pain and endeavour to mitigate my pain, so it is for all living beings (see, for example, Śaṇkara’s gloss to this verse). Lance Nelson, while acknowledging this, quotes Rāmānuja’s commentary on this verse as saying that the highest yogī
is cognizant of the sameness of all puruṣas
(selves), in that, being of the nature of Brahman
are ultimately disconnected from and indeed, untouched by the pleasure and pain incurred in embodied existence in saṁsāra
. Nelson argues that this vision is “ecologically unnerving” because by claiming that “spirit is untouched by mere empirical calamities” Vedāntic
thought minimizes the significance of empirical calamities such as the degradation of the environment (Nelson 2000, pp. 143, 151
). Nelson’s claim implies that upon attaining Brahman
absorption, one would view the pain incurred by selves in embodied existence with ‘transcendental indifference’ and do nothing to mitigate it, since, after all, Brahman
is untouched by matter. On this view, Rāmānuja should have done nothing to mitigate the suffering of embodied beings, knowing that Brahman
is untouched by matter. Yet, Rāmānuja devoted his life to spreading the teachings and practices of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, which, for him, was clearly the means to mitigate the suffering brought about by empirical calamities. In exactly the same vein, Pankaj Jain asks: “If the world was an illusion, māyā
, for Śaṅkara why would he work to “defeat” Buddhist tradition and other ideologies in the popular discourses as captured in the Śaṅkara-Digvijaya?” (Jain 2011, p. 12
). The question is: If the highest yogī
is supposed to be completely indifferent to the events of the empirical world, as suggested by Nelson, then why would such a person initiate reform movements aimed at bringing about change in the empirical world? Put precisely, if Brahman
is untouched by empirical calamities, then why do Vedāntic
theologians go to such great lengths to spread the teachings and practices of their respective Vedāntic
schools, which for them, is ostensibly an endeavour to help puruṣas
be liberated from empirical calamities?
I contend that an answer to this question requires that we read Brahman
absorption as having a rather different effect than what is suggested by Nelson. The vision of universal empathy articulated at 6.32 comes after a series of verses depicting the yogī
(absorption in Brahman
(contact with Brahman
) and sama-darśanaḥ
—equal vision perception—by virtue of seeing the Supreme Person everywhere and everything in the Supreme Person (see 6.27–31). I take this to mean that sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ
is not just the ethical means to attain immersion in Brahman
but is also the symptom of one who has attained immersion in Brahman
. The rationale for this interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the Gītā
does not present inaction as a permanent option for the puruṣa
. This being the case, the question may be raised: How does the puruṣa
who has attained absorption in Brahman
act? Eliot Deutsch posits that the world-renouncer who has attained Brahman
absorption is now free and can act “without destructive intentions” (quoted in (Jain 2011, p. 9
)). Anantanand Rambachan says that when a spiritually perfected self dispels the veil of ignorance, they do not view the world as illusory, but rather, they see the world as non-different from Brahman
(Rambachan 2006, pp. 79–80
). Building on all this, I read Brahman
absorption as having the effect of freeing the puruṣa
from the ahaṃkara
-centred instrumentalist vision of seeing the world as a means to fulfilling one’s schemes for bhoga
. However, apart from the emancipatory effect of Brahman
absorption, I read Brahman
absorption as having an ‘activist’ effect as well. On this view, the brahma-bhūta yogī
’s seeing the world as non-different from Brahman
is equivalent to being fully sensitive to the inherent pain of embodied existence. That is, the brahma-bhūta yogī
may know that the eternally changing Brahman
is completely unrelated to matter, but the brahma-bhūta yogī
also knows that puruṣas
under the influence of māyā
(ignorance) do acutely experience the inherent pain of embodied existence in saṁsāra
. Therefore, the brahma-bhūta yogī
‘works’ to help all beings (re)discover their true ontological status as beings partaking of the inherent bliss of Brahman
. Being proactive about ecological concerns can thus be a legitimate subset of the world-renouncer yogī
’s compassionate outreach to mitigate the pain of embodied beings, both in the stage of yoga practice and in the stage of perfection (Brahman
By mandating the world-renouncer to engage in activities for the welfare of all beings, the Gītā is advancing a virtue ethics approach to normative ethics. This is because whether at the stage of practice or of perfection, the Gītā has defined the world-renouncer in terms of virtues. At 13.8–12, the text lists the virtues that characterize the world-renouncer at the stage of practice and at 5.19–26, the text lists the virtues that characterize the world-renouncer at the stage of perfection. That is, from the world-renouncer perspective, virtue is the foundational normative concept and other normative notions are grounded in virtue. Therefore, when the Gītā asks the world-renouncer to advance the welfare of animals and plants, it does so because this is the virtuous thing to do. At the same time, the world-renouncer is intent on attaining brahma-nirvana or Brahman immersion. In this sense, the text is taking what I call a mokṣa-based virtue ethics approach. This is similar to the eudaimonist versions of virtue ethics which define virtues in terms of their relationship to eudaimonia—a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy usually translated as “flourishing” or “well-being.” A virtue is a trait that contributes to or is a constituent of eudaimonia and we ought to develop virtues, the eudaimonist claims, precisely because they contribute to eudaimonia. In the same way, the world-renouncer is asked to express the virtue of sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ because expressing the virtue is necessary for the world-renouncer to attain the state of brahma-nirvana or from the perspective of the perfected world-renouncer, sarva-bhūta-hite ratāḥ is a virtue that is a constituent of Brahman immersion. Again, this exemplifies the Gītā’s multi-layered approach to ethical theory, where the foundational teleological mokṣa theory grounds and explains a more superficial foundational normative theory, in this case, virtue ethics.
Some commentators imply that from the world-renouncer perspective, the duality of virtue and vice does not exist, since the world-renouncer only sees, or is aiming to see, the non-dual Brahman
. It seems that such an imperative to transcend duality also implies transcending the categories of moral and immoral altogether. Without acknowledging the dual categories of moral and immoral, what is the basis for any kind of ethical imperative, including the imperative to care for animals and plants? Nelson expresses this concern when he writes: “In the Upaniṣads and in the Gītā
, as elsewhere in the tradition (especially in Tantra), there is a marked drift toward an ultimate amoralism (or perhaps transmoralism) in the absolute realm, one that may not bode well for ecological awareness” (Nelson 2000, p. 144
In addressing this concern, I contend that when the Gītā speaks of transcending duality, it is referring to transcending the mentality of categorizing experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to one’s ahaṃkara-centred enjoyment. However, even for the world-renouncer, there still exists the dual categories of virtue and vice. The Gītā makes this point at the beginning of chapter eighteen. The chapter begins with Arjuna asking Kṛṣṇa to clarify the meaning of renunciation (tyāga) and the meaning of the renounced stage of life (sannyasa), and the difference between them. At 18.3, Kṛṣṇa notes that some great thinkers claim that all types of actions should be abandoned, since they are inherently faulty, yet other sages maintain that acts of sacrifice (yajña), giving (dāna) and austerity (tapaḥ) should never be abandoned. Then, at 18.5, the text has Kṛṣṇa give his opinion on the matter:
Acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity are not to be given up, but rather should be performed, as sacrifice, giving and austerity purify even the wise.
Now, if the world-renouncer is to continue acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity, then clearly there must be a basis for him to differentiate between actions that count as acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity, and those that do not. This basis, as I have argued, is provided by the soteriological goal of the world-renouncer, the intent to achieve extinction in Brahman. For the world-renouncer, then, virtuous actions are ones that help oneself and others attain Brahman immersion. A world-renouncer who has already attained Brahman immersion continues acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity, to help other puruṣas attain Brahman immersion.
In summary, the world-renouncing worldview of the Gītā applies to those puruṣas who identify as self-luminous awareness, ontologically distinct from their prakṛtic embodiment. The soteriological goal of the world-renouncer is to achieve the state of extinction in Brahman or to realize the true status of self-luminous awareness freed from its entanglement with prakṛti. Engaging in activities for the welfare of all beings is the ethical means to achieve extinction in Brahman as well as the symptom of one who has achieved extinction in Brahman. Activities to care for and protect animals and plants is included in the category of engaging in activities for the welfare of all beings. Therefore, a normative environmental ethical theory can be legitimately derived from the world-renouncing worldview in the Gītā.
6. Bhakti-Inspired Environmental Ethics in the Gītā
The argument for bhakti-inspired environmental ethics within the Gītā
can be systematized as follows:
Premise One: There is a bhakti worldview in the Gītā.
Premise Two: The bhakti worldview applies to those who identify as an eternal servant or worshipper of Īśvara or the Supreme Person.
Premise Three: The soteriological goal of the bhakti worldview is to attain the state of eternal devotion to and loving service of Īśvara.
Premise Four: To glorify and worship Īśvara is the means to be absorbed in devotion to Īśvara.
Premise Five: Activities that advance the welfare of animals and plants falls within the category of activities that glorify and worship Īśvara.
Conclusion: Therefore, a normative environmental ethical theory can be derived from the bhakti worldview in the Gītā.
: The bhakti
worldview appears throughout the text of the Gītā
but is most succinctly articulated in the concluding verse of the ninth chapter, 9.34, as follows:
Always think of me and become my devotee, worship me and pay homage unto me; thus yoked to me and intent on me as your highest goal, you shall come to me.
This verse depicts a state of being where the puruṣa’s awareness is completely absorbed in the Supreme Person, and is widely considered to be one of the climaxes of the Bhagavad Gītā. The significance of this bhakti ideal in the Gītā’s overall presentation can be gauged from the fact that the verse appears again almost verbatim at the end of the Gītā’s epilogue at 18.65. Numerous times throughout the text, Kṛṣṇa reiterates the ideal of total absorption in him, the bliss of exchanging loving relations with the Supreme Person and the ultimate goal of returning to the supreme deity’s dhāma or abode (see, for example, 8.14–15).
Premise Two: The bhakti worldview applies to those puruṣas who identify themselves as eternal servants or lovers of the Supreme Person. That is, the identity of the bhakta is defined and constructed through one’s relationship with the Supreme Person. The ontological infrastructure for the bhakti worldview rests on the notion of Īśvara, a supreme puruṣa ontologically different from and indeed, higher than all other puruṣas. This idea is explicated in some detail in the last five verses of the Gītā’s fifteenth chapter. At 15.16, the text asserts there are two types of puruṣas, kṣara-puruṣas, perishable beings, and akṣara-puruṣas, imperishable ones. The kṣara-puruṣas are all living entities, sarvāṇi bhūtāni, and the akṣara-puruṣas are kuṭastha, literally, situated on the top. The term kuṭastha is used twice in the Gītā, in 6.8 to refer to the enlightened yogī and in 12.3 to refer to the quality of the highest truth realized by the enlightened yogī. On this account, we can infer that the kṣara-puruṣa refers to the unenlightened being, and the akṣara-puruṣa refers to the enlightened being. Significantly, 15.17 goes on to describe another, highest puruṣa, the paramātmā, the supreme self who pervades the three worlds and supports them, and uses the term Īśvara to designate this highest puruṣa. 15.18 again reiterates that this highest puruṣa is higher than both kṣara and akṣara puruṣas and is celebrated both in the world and in the Veda-derived literature aspuruṣottama—Supreme Person, 15.19 claims that one who knows this Supreme Person to be Kṛṣṇa knows all that there is to know and finally, 15.20 concludes the chapter by asserting that this knowledge of the supreme self is the most confidential scriptural teaching. Thus, in consonance with other schools of theistic Indic thought, the Gītā advocates a vision of Īśvara as a special puruṣa belonging to a different ontological category from other puruṣas, while at the same time the Gītā puts a name to this Īśvara—Kṛṣṇa.
: In contrast to the world-renouncing worldview where the puruṣa
immersion, a state where awareness is absorbed in its own nature, the soteriological goal of the bhakti
worldview is two-fold: to be perpetually absorbed in loving devotion to Īśvara
and upon attaining final liberation (through the grace of Īśvara
), to enter Īśvara
’s eternal personal abode to perpetually engage in loving relationships with Īśvara
. The theistic Vedāntins who articulated this view (for example, Rāmānuja’s commentary to Vedānta Sūtras I.1.21) would characterize Īśvara
’s personal realms as saguṇa-brahman
, realms within Brahman
that are made of self-luminous awareness—Brahman
—but that nonetheless contain forms, individuals, and personalities. Foundational to this view, is the idea that Īśvara
’s mind and form are not made of prākṛtic
stuff, even in its purest sāttvic
potential, but made of Brahman
and thus part of the essential nature of Īśvara
rather than an external prākṛtic
covering as is the case with puruṣas
embedded in saṁsāra
. Moreover, the liberated puruṣas
who attain Īśvara
’s personal Brahman
realm again become re-embodied, but this time not in a temporary form made of the evolutes of prakṛti
but in an eternal trans-prakṛtic Brahman
form—a form made of self-luminous awareness in which bliss is inherent and ever-expanding. It is with mind and senses made of Brahman stuff that the liberated puruṣas
see, hear, think about, and lovingly interact with Īśvara
in these Brahman
realms. A number of Gītā
verses seem to support this soteriological goal. At 8.21, the text has Kṛṣṇa characterize paramāṁ gatim
—the supreme destination to be attained—as tad dhāma paramaṁ mama
—“that is My
supreme abode.” The text again gets Kṛṣṇa to use the same phrase tad dhāma paramaṁ mama
in 15.6 to characterize the destination of those liberated yogīs
“constantly absorbed in the supreme self” who will never again return to the prakṛtic
realm. At 18.61–2, the text asserts that Īśvara
abides in the heart of all living beings and exhorts Arjuna to take refuge in Īśvara
in all respects (sarva-bhāvena
) for by Īśvara
’s grace (tat-prasādāt
) “you shall attain supreme peace and the eternal abode.” Approaching the Gītā
’s finale, at 18.65, the text again has Kṛṣṇa declare:
Always think of me, become my devotee, worship me and pay your homage unto me, and thus you shall undoubtedly come to me; I promise you this as you are dear to me.
: The means to be absorbed in devotion to Īśvara
is to worship and glorify Īśvara
as expressed at 9.13–14:
But those great souls whose nature is immersed in the divine, worship me intently, O Pārtha, knowing me to be the imperishable source of all beings. Ever striving to glorify me with fortitude, bowing down to me in devotion, they are ever absorbed in worshiping me.
Additionally, again in 10.9–10:
Those whose consciousness is absorbed in me, for whom I am everything, enlighten one another about me, constantly speaking of me; thus absorbed, they are delighted and content. Those thus constantly absorbed in me, who worship me with love, I endow with the understanding by which they can come to me.
This constant absorption in Īśvara is supposed to help one transcend the influence of the guṇas, and attain Brahman status, but as opposed to the world-renouncer perspective wherein one seeks to detach from one’s empirical personhood composed of prakṛtic stuff to become immersed in Brahman, in the bhakti worldview, attaining Brahman status is tantamount to being constantly and unwaveringly engaged in the worship and service of Īśvara. At 14.26 the text thus claims that one who serves Kṛṣṇa constantly through bhakti-yoga, “unswervingly and without going astray,” transcends the guṇas and at 18.54 the text presents the idea that one attains supreme devotion to Kṛṣṇa after attaining Brahman status.
: The case that acting for the benefit of individuals in nature, such as animals and plants, constitute worship and glorification of Īśvara
is linked to the Gītā
’s panentheistic conception of the divine. Panentheism is the view that God is simultaneously immanent in the world and transcendent to the world. In the terms of the Gītā
this means that Īśvara
is simultaneously immanent in prakṛti
and transcendent to prakṛti
. A panentheistic vision appears throughout the Gītā
text (7.12 and 9.4):
Know that all states of being, be they characterized by sattva, rajas or tamas, have their source in me alone; but I am not in them—rather they are in me.
I pervade the entire world in my unmanifest form; all beings rest in me, but I do not rest in them.
Rāmānuja, the founding theologian and hierarch of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community articulates this panentheistic vision in his theology of viśiṣtādvaita
—‘differentiated non-duality’—an interpretation of Vedānta
which is as an exemplar of Indic panentheism. Eric Lott has shown that this panentheistic vision does not owe itself to Rāmānuja, rather, it has deep roots in Hindu texts (Lott 1976
). Rāmānuja posited an eternal tripartite differentiation within Brahman
or ultimate reality: Brahman
as supreme personal Being, or Īśvara
, whom he correlated with Viṣṇu/Nārāyāṇa; prakṛti
or matter; and puruṣas
or selves. Rāmānuja claimed these are eternal and real ontological categories but these categories do not compromise the essential nonduality of Brahman
since everything emanates from, and remains wholly contingent on Īśvara
for their existence. Viśiṣtādvaita
affirms that Īśvara
includes, penetrates and sustains the entire universe, so that the conscious selves (puruṣas
) and unconscious matter (prakṛti
) that constitute this world are inseparable from Īśvara
’s being and exists in Īśvara
, but, as opposed to pantheism, this panentheistic vision claims that Īśvara
’s being is still distinct from and transcendent to the universe. Rāmānuja clarified this relationship between Īśvara
through the analogy that the world consisting of puruṣas
is the body of the supreme personal Brahman
, or Īśvara
. Just as in the relationship of self and body, the body, although distinct from the self, is inseparably dependent on and controlled by the self, the world made up of puruṣas
, although distinct from Īśvara
, is inseparably dependent on and controlled by Īśvara
Śrī Vaiṣṇava soteriology, which I take to be an archetype of the bhakti
soteriological goal articulated in the Gītā
, says that to eternally glorify, worship and serve Īśvara
is the ultimate destiny of the puruṣa
on account of one’s inherent subservience to and dependence on Īśvara
. The tradition teaches that the life of a prapanna,
one who has surrendered to Īśvara
, is one of service to and worship of Īśvara
. Significantly, Śrī Vaiṣṇava theologians say that the prapanna
worship of Īśvara
, here on earth, takes primarily three forms: first, one serves Īśvara
’s divine form in his murti
) in the temple; second, one serves Īśvara
(devotees), those whom Īśvara
especially loves and whom he regards as his very self, and third, one works for the welfare of the world—loka
by supporting the dharmic
order that sustains the world (Mumme 1998
This third aspect of the prapanna’s worship of Īśvara needs some elucidation. After all, if the ultimate goal and destiny of the puruṣa is to attain a state of salvation outside of this world, then why should one work for the welfare of this world? To answer this question, let us begin by noting that the term loka-saṅgraha appears twice, at 3.20 and 3.25, in a part of the Gītā where Kṛṣṇa is seeking to motivate Arjuna to fight the battle as a form of detached (asaktaḥ) dharmic duty. The question may justly be raised: If one is detached from acquiring any type of prakṛtic gain, then why should one continue to act in the world of prakṛti? In the context of the bhakti worldview, the answer is that the bhakta’s (or prapanna’s) desire to work for the welfare of the world by supporting the eternal dharmic order is an expression of the bhakta’s devotion to Īśvara. Indeed, the Gītā, at 4.7–8, famously depicts Īśvara repeatedly descending to this prakṛtic world to maintain dharmic order. Therefore, the bhakta’s motivation for supporting dharmic order is to serve and glorify Īśvara, as opposed to those who subscribe to the world-affirming worldview described earlier, who also follow dharmic codes, but not out of a motive to serve Īśvara but because they are driven by the purpose of improving their existential situation within prakṛti. It is in this sense that the bhakti worldview is simultaneously world-affirming and world-renouncing. Bhaktas seek to be detached from pursuing guṇa-born experiences involving any kind of prakṭic object and in this sense, because they do not see the world as a means to fulfil ahaṃkāra-centred purposes, they can be said to have renounced the world. At 12.13, the text delineates the qualities of the ideal bhakta and specifically claims that the ideal bhakta is nirahaṅkāraḥ (without false ego) and nirmamaḥ (with no sense of proprietorship). However, at the same time, bhaktas read the Gītā as saying that the world exhibits the power and excellence of Īśvara and is a divine manifestation expressing Īśvara’s glory (vibhūti) (see 10.16 and 10.41). Moreover, Īśvara is invested in maintaining the dharmic order that sustains the world and it is therefore incumbent upon the bhakta to work for the welfare of the world according to dharmic codes because by doing so one worships Īśvara.
In this vein, Patricia Mumme (Mumme 1998
) has argued that service to the earth and the living beings she supports is consistent with all three forms of service to Īśvara
that the prapanna
is supposed to undertake. Since, in the panentheistic vision of Śrī Vaiṣṇava theology, the earth and the living beings she supports are also Īśvara
’s body, so service to them is also akin to serving Īśvara
’s body, no less than serving his form in the temple. Moreover, Īśvara
loves all puruṣas
in this world, for these are his body, which he regards as his self, and for whose salvation and protection Īśvara
has often descended into this world. Furthermore, Mumme argues that Śrī Vaiṣṇavas have an incentive to undertake ecological activism since service that advances the welfare of the world—loka
—is included within service to Īśvara
, which is the puruṣa
’s ultimate goal and destiny, even for puruṣas
that have attained the ultimate soteriological goal of completely surrendering (prapatti
) to Īśvara
I contend that these three reasons for engaging in ecological activism constitute a mokṣa-based virtue ethics approach to normative ethics. However, as opposed to the world-renouncer’s conception of mokṣa being equivalent to attaining extinction in Brahman, the bhakta equates the state of mokṣa to a state of being where one is constantly absorbed in worshipping and glorifying Īśvara. The Gītā specifies that the bhakta or prapanna ought to express a host of virtues because expressing those virtues are necessary to please and serve Īśvara. For example, the last eight verses of the twelfth chapter of the text, 12.13–20, catalogues a list of virtues distinguishing the bhakta who is dear (priyaḥ) to Kṛṣṇa. The list claims that the ideal bhakta is adveṣṭā (nonenvious), maitraḥ (friendly) and karuṇaḥ (compassionate) to sarva-bhūtānāṁ (all living entities). Note that the bhakta expresses these virtues in relation to the ultimate telos of becoming dear to Krishna or worshipping Kṛṣṇa. That is, the bhakta sees the ontic equality of all puruṣas, as they are all part of Īśvara’s being and are equally loved by Īśvara, and therefore, the bhakta knows that when one expresses the virtue of being compassionate to all living entities, one simultaneously pleases Kṛṣṇa. In this way, the Gītā indicates that to serve and worship Kṛṣṇa one must also express a host of other virtues or put differently, the state of serving and worshipping Kṛṣṇa constitutes a set of virtues such as being compassionate to all living entities. This is another instance of the Gītā’s multi-layered approach to ethical theory, where the foundational teleological mokṣa theory grounds and explains a more superficial foundational normative theory, in this case, virtue ethics.
In conclusion, despite the evidently other-worldly soteriological goal of the Gītā’s bhakti worldview, the ethical means to achieve this goal can include this-worldly environmental activism. The Gītā advances a panentheistic conception of the divine that sees the world of prakṛti as both real and valuable to Īśvara, so much so that Īśvara specifically descends to this world to uplift and maintain the dharmic order that sustains it. Therefore, puruṣas who identify as eternal servants of Īśvara can serve Īśvara by acting for the benefit of individuals in nature, such as animals and plants, because such activities are a legitimate subset of activities that support the dharmic order that sustains the world, and by acting to support the dharmic order one pleases Īśvara.