A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of conception of sacrificial duties in the gita: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the sixth part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 6 - Conception of Sacrificial Duties in the Gītā

The Vedic view of the obligatoriness of certain kinds of sacrifices or substitution-meditations permeated almost all forms of Hindu thought, excepting the Vedānta philosophy as interpreted by śaṅkara. The conception of the obligatoriness of duties finds its best expression in the analysis of vidhi in the Mīmāṃsā philosophy.

Vidhi means the injunctions of the Vedas, such as,

“Thou should’st perform such and such sacrifices”;

sometimes these are conditional, such as,

“Those who wish to attain Heaven should perform such and such sacrifices”;

sometimes they are unconditional, such as,

“Thou should’st say the three prayers.”

The force of this vidhi, or injunction, is differently interpreted in the different schools of Mīmāṃsā. Kumārila, the celebrated commentator, in interpreting Jaimini’s definition of dharma, or virtue, as a desirable end {artha) or good which is enjoined by the Vedic commands (codanā-lakṣaṇortho dharmaḥ, Mīmāṃsā-sūtra, 1. 1), says that it is the performance of the Vedic injunctions, sacrifices, etc. (yāgādiḥ) that should be called our duty. The definition of virtue, then, involves the notion that only such a desired end (on account of the pain associated with it not exceeding the associated pleasure) as is enjoined by Vedic commands is called dhartna .

The sacrifices enjoined by the Vedas are called dharma, because these would in future produce pleasurable experiences. So one’s abstention from actions prohibited by Vedic commands is also called dharma, as by this means one can avoid the undesirable effects and sufferings of punishments as a result of transgressing those commands. Such sacrifices, however, are ultimately regarded as artha, or desired ends, because they produce pleasurable experiences. The imperative of Vedic commands is supposed to operate in a twofold manner, firstly, as initiating a volitional tendency in obedience to the verbal command (śābdī bhāvanā), and, secondly, in releasing the will to the actual performance of the act enjoined by the command (ōrthī bhāvanā).

The propulsion of verbal commands is not like any physical propulsion; such a propulsion only arises as a result of one’s comprehension of the fact that the performance of the acts enjoined will lead to beneficial results, and it naturally moves one to perform those acts out of self-interest[1]. So of the twofold propulsion (bhāvanā) implied in a Vedic imperative the propulsio;: to act, as communicated by the verbal command, is called śābdī bhāvanā ; and this is followed by the actual efforts of the person for the performance of the act[2]. The prescriptive of the command (vidhi) is comprehended directly from the imperative suffix (lin) of the verb, even before the meaning of the verb is realized. If this is so, it is contended that the imperative, as it is communicated by the command, is a pure con-tentless form of command. This contention is admitted by the bhaṭṭa school, which thinks that, though in the first stage we have communication of the contentless pure form of the imperative, yet at the successive stages the contentless form of duty is naturally supplemented by a more direct reference to the concrete context, as denoted by the verb with which the suffix is associated.

So the process of the propulsion of bhāvanā , though it starts at the first instance with the communication of a pure contentless form, passes, by reason of its own necessity and the incapacity of a contentless form of duty to stand by itself, gradually through more and more concrete stages to the actual comprehension of the duty implied by the concrete meaning of the associated verb[3]. So the communication of the contentless duty and its association with the concrete verbal meaning are not two different meanings, but are rather the prolongation of one process of communication, just as cooking includes all the different associated acts of putting the pan on the fire, lighting the fire, and the like[4]. These two bhāvanās , therefore, mean nothing more than the reasoning of the will and its translation into definite channels of activity, as the performance of the sacrifice, etc., and vidhi here means simply the prompting or the propulsion (vyāpāraḥ preraṇā-rūpaḥ) ; and it is such prompting that initiates in the performer the will, which is later on translated into concrete action.

Another Mīmāṃsā view objects to this theory of dual bhāvanā and asserts that the suffix liṅ involves the notion of an order to work (preraṇa), as if the relation of the Vedas to us were one of master and servant, and that the Vedic vidhi as expressed in the liṅ suffix conveys the command (praiṣya-praiṣayoḥ sambandhaḥ). The vidhi goads us to work, and, being goaded by it, we turn to work. It does not physically compel us to act; but the feeling we have from it that we have been ordered to act constitutes the driving power. The knowledge of vidhi thus drives us to our Vedic duties. When a man hears the command, he feels that he has been commanded and then he sets to work. This setting to work is quite a different operation from the relation of the command and the commanded, and comes after it. The essence of a Vedic sentence is this command or niyoga. A man who has formerly tasted the benefits of certain things or the pleasures they produced naturally intends to have them again; here also there is a peculiar mental experience of eagerness, desire or intention (ākūta), which goads him on to obey the Vedic commands. This akūta is a purely subjective experience and cannot, therefore, be experienced by others, though one can always infer its existence from the very fact that, unless it were felt in the mind, no one would feel himself goaded to work[5].

Niyoga, or a prompting to work (preraṇa), is the sense of all vidhis, and this rouses in us the intention of working in accordance with the command. The actual performance of an action is a mere counterpart of the intention (ākūta), that is subjectively felt as roused by the niyoga or the driving power of the vidhi. This view differs from the view of Kumārila in this, that it does not suppose that the propulsion of the Vedic command takes effect in a twofold bhāvanā , through the whole process of the conception and the materialization of the action in accordance with the Vedic commands. The force of the command is exhausted in prompting us to action and arousing in us the inward resolution (ākūta) to obey the command. The actual performance of the action comes as a natural consequence (artha). The force of the vidhi has a field of application only when our ordinary inclinations do not naturally lead us to the performance of action. Vidhi , therefore, operates merely as a law of command which has to be obeyed for the sake of the law alone, and it is this psychological factor of inward resolution to obey the law that leads to the performance of action.

Maṇḍana, in his Vidhi-viveka, discusses the diverse views on the significance of vidhi. He interprets vidhi as a specific kind of prompting (pravartanā). He distinguishes the inner volitional intention of attaining an end and its translation into active effort leading to muscular movements of the body. Pravartanā here means the inner volitional direction of the mind towards the performance of the action, as well as actual nervous changes which are associated with it[6]. The command of the Vedas naturally brings with it a sense of duty or of “oughtness” (kartavyatā), and it is this sense of kartavyatā that impels people to action without any reference to the advantages and benefits that may be reaped by such actions. The psychological state associated with such a feeling of “oughtness” is said to be of the nature of instincts (pratibhā). It is through an instinctive stimulus to work, proceeding from the sense of “oughtness,” that the action is performed.

The Nyāya doctrine differs from the above view of vidhi as a categorically imperative order and holds that the prompting of the Vedic commands derives its force from our desire for the attainment of the benefits that we might reap if we acted in accordance with them. So the ultimate motive of the action is the attainment of pleasure or the avoidance of pain, and it is only with a view to attaining the desired ends that one is prompted to follow the Vedic commands and perform the sacrifices. In this view, therefore, the prompting, or preraṇā, has not in it that self-evident call of the pure imperative or the rousing of the volitional tendency through the influence of the imperative; the prompting felt is due only to the rise of desires for the end.

Most of the above interpretations of vidhi are of much later date than the Gītā. No systematic discussion of the nature of vidhi which can be regarded as contemporaneous with or prior to the date of the Gītā is now available. But even these latter-day explanations are useful in understanding the significance of the force of the notion of the imperative in the Gītā. It is clear from the above discussion that the notion of the imperative of vidhi cannot be called moral in our sense of the term, as has been done in a recent work on Hindu Ethics[7]. For the imperative of vidhi is limited to the injunctions of the Vedas, which are by no means coextensive with our general notion of morality. According to the Mīmāṃsā schools just described virtue (1 dharma) consists in obedience to Vedic injunctions. Whatever may be enjoined by the Vedas is to be considered as virtue, whatever is prohibited by the Vedas is evil and sin, and all other things which are neither enjoined by the Vedas nor prohibited by them are neutral, i.e. neither virtuous nor vicious[8].

The term dharma is therefore limited to actions enjoined by the Vedas, even though such actions may in some cases be associated with evil consequences leading to punishments due to the transgression of some other Vedic commands. The categorical imperative here implied is scriptural and therefore wholly external. The virtuous character of actions does not depend on their intrinsic nature, but on the external qualification of being enjoined by the Vedas. Whatever is not enjoined in the Vedas or not prohibited in them is simply neutral. It is clear, therefore, that the term dharma can be translated as “virtue” only in a technical sense, and the words “moral” and “immoral” in our sense have nothing to do with the concept of dharma or adharma.

The Gītā distinguishes between two kinds of motives for the performance of sacrifices. The first motive is that of greed and self-interest, and the second is a sense of duty. The Gītā is aware of that kind of motive for the performance which corresponds to the Nyāya interpretation of Vedic vidhis and also to the general Mīmāṃsā interpretation of vidhi as engendering a sense of duty. Thus it denounces those fools who follow the Vedic doctrines and do not believe in anything else; they are full of desires and eager to attain Heaven, they take to those actions which lead to rebirth and the enjoyment of mundane pleasures. People who are thus filled with greed and desires, and perform sacrifices for the attainment of earthly goods, move in an inferior plane and are not qualified for the higher scheme of life of devotion to God with right resolution[9].

The Vedas are said to be under the influence of mundane hankerings and desires, and it is through passions and antipathies, through desires and aversions, that people perform the Vedic sacrifices and think that there is nothing greater than these. One should therefore transcend the sphere of Vedic sacrifices performed out of motives of self-interest. But the Gītā is not against the performance of Vedic sacrifices, if inspired by a sheer regard for the duty of performing sacrifices. Anyone who looks to his own personal gain and advantages in performing the sacrifices, and is only eager to attain his pleasurable ends, is an inferior type of man; the sacrifices should therefore be performed without any personal attachment, out of regard for the sacred duty of the performance.

Prajāpati created sacrifices along with the creation of men and said,

“The sacrifices will be for your good—you should help the gods by your sacrifices, and the gods will in their turn help you to grow and prosper. He who lives for himself without offering oblations to the gods and supporting them thereby is misappropriating the share that belongs to the gods.”

This view of the Gītā is different from that of the later Mīmāṃsā, which probably had a much earlier tradition. Thus Kumārila held that the final justification of Vedic sacrifices or of dharma was that it satisfied our needs and produced happiness— it was artha. The sacrifices were, no doubt, performed out of regard for the law of Vedic commands; but that represented only the psychological side of the question. The external ground for the performance of Vedic sacrifices was that it produced happiness for the performer and satisfied his desires by securing for him the objects of desire. It was in dependence on such a view that the Nyāya sought to settle the motive of all Vedic sacrifices. The Naiyāyikas believed that the Vedic observances not only secured for us all desired objects, but that this was also the motive for which the sacrifices were performed. The Gītā was well aware of this view, which it denounces.

The Gītā admitted that the sacrifices produced the good of the world, but its whole outlook was different; for the Gītā looked upon the sacrifices as being bonds of union between gods and men. The sacrifices improved the mutual good-will, and it was by the sacrifices that the gods were helped, and they in their turn helped men, and so both men and the gods prospered. Through sacrifices there was rain, and by rain the food-grains grew' and men lived on the food-grains. So the sacrifices were looked upon as being sources not so much of individual good as of public good. He who looks to the sacrifices as leading to the satisfaction of his selfish interests is surely an inferior person. But those who do not perform the sacrifices are equally wicked.

The Vedas have sprung forth from the deathless eternal, and sacrifices spring from the Vedas, and it is thus that the deathless, all-pervading Brahman is established in the sacrifices[10]. The implied belief of the Gītā was that the prosperity of the people depended on the fertility of the soil, and that this again depended upon the falling of rains, and that the rains depended on the grace of gods, and that the gods could live prosperously only if the sacrifices were performed; the sacrifices were derived from the Vedas, the Vedas from the all-pervading Brahman, and the Brahman again forms the main content of the Vedas. Thus there was a complete cycle from Brahman to sacrifices, from sacrifices to the good of the gods and from the good of the gods to the good and prosperity of the people.

Everyone is bound to continue the process of this cycle, and he who breaks it is a sinful and selfish man, who is not worth the life he leads[11]. Thus the ideal of the Gītā is to be distinguished from the ideal of the Mīmāṃsā in this, that, while the latter aimed at individual good, the former aimed at common good, and, while the latter conceived the Vedic commands to be the motives of their action, the former valued the ideal of performing the sacrifices in obedience to the law of continuing the process of the cycle of sacrifices, by which the world of gods and of men was maintained in its proper state of prosperity. When a man works for the sacrifices, such works cannot bind him to their fruits; it is only when works are performed from motives of self-interest that they can bind people to their good and bad fruits[12].

The word dharma in the Gītā does not mean what Jaimini understood by the term, viz. a desirable end or good enjoined by the sacrifices (codanā-lokṣano Wtho dharmaḥ). The word seems to be used in the Gītā primarily in the sense of an unalterable customary order of class-duties or caste-duties and the general approved course of conduct for the people, and also in the sense of prescribed schemes of conduct. This meaning of dharma as “old customary order” is probably the oldest meaning of the word, as it is also found in the Atharva-Veda , 18.3. 1 (dharmaṃ purā-ṇam anupālayanti)[13]. Macdonell, in referring to Maitrāyaṇa, iv. 1 9, Kāthaka, xxxi. 7 and Taittirīya, in. 2. 8. 11, points out that bodily defects (bad nails and discoloured teeth) and marrying a younger daughter while her elder sister is unmarried are coupled with murder, though not treated as equal to it, and that there is no distinction in principle between real crimes and what are now regarded as fanciful bodily defects or infringements of merely conventional practices. In the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa , xiv. 4. 2. 26, also we find dharma for a Kṣattriya[14] is illustrated as being the characteristic duties of a Kṣattriya.

The central meaning of the word dharma in the Gītā is therefore the oldest Vedic meaning of the word, which is a much earlier meaning than the latter-day technical meaning of the word as it is found in Mīmāṃsā. Dharma does not in the Gītā mean sacrifices (yajña) or external advantages, as it does in Mīmāṃsā, but the order of conventional practices involving specific caste-divisions and caste-duties. Accordingly, the performance of sacrifices is dharma for those whose allotted duties are sacrifices. Adultery is in the Vedas a vice, as being transgression of dharma, and this is also referred to as such (dharme naṣṭe, 1. 39) in the Gītā. In the Gītā , 11. 7, Arjuna is said to be puzzled and confused regarding his duty as a Kṣattriya and the sinful course of injuring the lives of his relations (dharma-saṃmūḍha-cetāḥ). The confusion of dharma and adharma is also referred to in xvm. 31 and 32. In the Gītā, iv. 7 and 8, the word dharma is used in the sense of the established order of things and conventionally accepted customs and practices. In 11. 40 the way of performing one’s duties without regard to pleasures or sorrows is described as a particular and specific kind of dharma (asya dharmasya), distinguished from dharma in general.

The yajña (sacrifice) is said to be of various kinds, e.g. that in which oblations are offered to the gods is called daiva-yajña ; this is distinguished from brahma-yajña, in which one dedicates oneself to Brahman, where Brahman is the offerer, offering and the fire of oblations, and in which, by dedicating oneself to Brahman, one is lost in Brahman[15]. Then sense-control, again, is described as a kind of yajña , and it is said that in the fire of the senses the sense-objects are offered as libations and the senses themselves are offered as libations in the fire of sense-control; all the sense-functions and vital functions are also offered as libations in the fire of sense-control lighted up by reason.

Five kinds of sacrifices (yajña) are distinguished, viz.

  1. the yajña with actual materials of libation, called dravya-yajña,
  2. the yajña of asceticism or self-control, called tapo-yajña,
  3. the yajña of union or communion, called yoga-yajña,
  4. the yajña of scriptural studies, called svādhyāya-yajña,
  5. and the yajña of knowledge or wisdom, called jñāna-yajña[16].

It is easy to see that the extension of the application of the term yajña from the actual material sacrifice to other widely divergent methods of self-advancement is a natural result of the extension of the concept of sacrifice to whatever tended towards self-advancement. The term yajña had high and holy associations, and the newly discovered systems of religious endeavours and endeavours for self-advancement came to be regarded as but a new kind of yajña , just as the substitution-meditations (pratikopāsanā) were also regarded as being but new forms of yajña. Thus, while thought advanced and newer modes of self-realization began to develop, the older term of yajña came to be extended to these new types of religious discipline on account of the high veneration in which the older institution was held.

But, whatever may be the different senses in which the term yajña is used in the Gītā, the word dharma has not here the technical sense of the Mīmāṃsā. The Gītā recommends the performance of sacrifices to the Brahmins and fighting to the Kṣattriyas, and thus aims at continuity of conventional practices which it regards as dharma. But at the same time it denounces the performance of actions from desire, or passions or any kind of selfish interest. A man should regard his customary duties as his dharma and should perform them without any idea of the fulfilment of any of his own desires. When a man performs karma from a sense of disinterested duty, his karma is no longer a bondage to him. The Gītā does not, on the one hand, follow the old korma- ideal, that one should perform sacrifices in order to secure earthly and heavenly advantages, nor does it follow, on the other hand, the ideal of the Vedānta or of other systems of philosophy that require us to abandon our desires and control our passions with a view to cleansing the mind entirely of impurities, so as to transcend the sphere of duties and realize the wisdom of the oneness of the spirit. The Gītā holds that a man should attain the true wisdom, purge his mind of all its desires, but at the same time perform his customary duties and be faithful to his own dharma. There should be no impelling force other than regard and reverence for his own inner law of duty with reference to his own dharma of conventional and customary practices or the duties prescribed by the śāstra.

Footnotes and references:


adṛṣṭe tu viṣaye śreyaḥ-sādhanādhigamaḥ śabdaika-nibandhana iti tad-adhi-gamopāyaḥ śabda eva pravartakah; ata eva śabdo ’pi na svarūpa-mātreṇa pra-vartako vāyv-ādi-tulyatva-prasaṅgāt ;.. .arthapratītim upajanayataḥ śabdasya pra-vartakatvam.
p. 342.
      The Vizianagram Śanskrit Series, Benares, 1895.


Liṅ-ādeḥ śabdasya na pratīti-janana-mātre vyāparaḥ kintu puruṣa-pravṛttav api; sa cāyam liṅ-ādi-vyāpāraḥ śabda-bhāvanā-nāmadheyo vidḥir ity ucyate sa eva ca pravartakah.. .yo bhavana-kriyā-kartṛ-viṣayaḥ prayojaka-vyāpāraḥ puruṣa-stho yatra bhavana-kriyāyāḥ kartā svargādikarmatāṃ āpadyate so ’rtha-bḥāvanā-śab-dena ucyate.
p. 343.


Yady apy aṃśair asaṃspṛṣṭāṃ vidhiḥ spṛśati bhāvanām
tathāpy aśaktito nāsau tan-mātre paryavasyati
anuṣṭheye hi viṣaye vidhiḥ puṃsāṃ pravartakah
aṃśa-trayena cāpūrṇāṃ nānutiṣṭhati bhāvanām
tasmāt prakrānta-rūpo ’pi vidhis tāvat praṅkṣate
yāvad yogyatvam āpannā bhāvanā’nyānapekṣiṇī.
p. 344.


Yathā hi sthāly-adhiśrayaṇāt prabhṛtyā rñrākāṅkṣaudana-niṣpatter ekaiveyaṃ pāka-kriyā salilāvaseka-taṇḍulāvapana-darvī-vighaṭṭanāsrāvaṇādy-aneka-kṣaṇa-samudāya-svabhāvā tathā prathama-pada-jñānāt prabhṛti ānirākāñṣa-vākyārtha-paricchedād ekaiveyaṃ śābdī pramitiḥ.
, p. 345.


Ayam api bhautika-vyāpāra-hetur ātmākūta-viśeṣo na pramāṇāntara-vedyo bhavati na ca na vedyate tat-saṃvedane sati ceṣṭā yadvantaṃ dṛṣṭvā tasyāpi tādṛk-preraṇā'vagamo ’numīyate.
p. 348.


Bḥāva-dḥarma eva kaścit samīhita-sādḥanānuguṇo vyāpāra-padōrthaḥ ; tad yathā ātmano buddhy-ādi-janana-pravṛttasya manaḥ-saṃyoga evā’yaṃ bhāva-dharmaḥ tadvad atrāpi spandas tad-itaro vā bhāva-dharmaḥ pravṛtti-jananā'-nukiīlatayā vyāpāra-viśeṣaḥ pravartanā.
      Vācaspati’s Nyāya-kaṇikā on Vidhi-viveka, pp. 243, 244.


S. K. Maitra’s Hindu Ethics, written under Dr Seal’s close personal supervision and guidance.


Kumārila holds that even those sacrifices which are performed for the killing of one’s enemies are right, because they are also enjoined by the Vedas. Prabhākara, however, contends that, since these are performed only out of the natural evil propensities of men, their performance cannot be regarḍed as being due to a sense of duty associated with obedience to the injunctions of the Vedas. Kumārila thus contends that, though the Śyena sacrifice is attended with evil consequences, yet, since the performer is only concerned with his duty in connection with the Vedic commands, he is not concerned with the evil consequences; and it is on account of one’s obedience to the Vedic injunctions that it is called right, though the injury to living beings that it may involve will bring about its punishment all the same. Sāṃkhya and some Nyāya writers, however, would condemn the Śyena sacrifice on account of the injury to living beings that it involves.


Vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ samādhau na vidhīyate.
, 11. 44.

The word samādhau is explained by Śrīdhara as follows:

samādhiś cittaikāgryaṃ, para-meivarābhxmukhatvam iti yāvat;
tasmin niścayātmikā buddhis tu na vidhīyate.

Samādhi is thus used here to mean one-pointedness of mind to God. But Śaṅkara gives a very curious interpretation of the word samādhi, as meaning mind (antaḥkaraṇa or buddhi), which is hardly justifiable.

Thus he says,

samā-dhīyate 'smin puruṣopabhogāya sarvam iti samādhir antaḥkaraṇaṃ buddhiḥ.

The word vyavasāyātmikā is interpreted by commentators on 11. 41 and 11. 44 as meaning niścayātmikā (involving correct decision through proper pramāṇas or proof). I prefer, however, to take the word to mean “right resolution.”


Gītā, III. 15.


Gītā, hi . 16.


Ibid. iii . 9.


dharma, dharman are the regular words, the latter in the Ṛg-Veda and both later, for “law” or “custom.” See Macdonell’s Vedic Index, p. 390.


tad etat kṣattrasya ksattraṃ yad dharmaḥ tasmād dharmāt paraṃ nāsti.
      Dr Albrecht Weber’s edition, Leipzig, 1924.


Gītā, iv. 24 and 25.


Ibid. iv. 26-28; see also 29 and 30.